Constructing Early Christian Families: Family as Social Reality and Metaphor

By Halvor Moxnes | Go to book overview

5

THE RELATIVISATION OF FAMILY TIES IN THE JEWISH AND GRAECO-ROMAN TRADITIONS

Stephen C. Barton

INTRODUCTION

The Gospel traditions provide clear evidence that Jesus’ call to discipleship explicitly sanctioned the relativisation of kinship and household ties:

He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.

(Matt 10:37-38; par. Luke 14:26-27)

The aim of this chapter is to show that this kind of demand was not unprecedented in the traditions and practices of either Judaism or of the Graeco-Roman world as a whole. On the contrary, there is a wide range of evidence, not yet sufficiently explored, which indicates that subordinating mundane ties of all kinds was a rhetorical theme and a mode of action deeply rooted in the traditions of Jewish monotheism. Nor was it without analogy in Graeco-Roman traditions to do with the cost of conversion to the life of the philosopher. Without such roots and analogies, it is doubtful that the Gospel material relativising family ties could have been meaningful or persuasive to its hearers and readers.

In the space available, I can only be selective: I have given a more detailed account elsewhere (Barton 1994). An awareness of the various forms of ‘hostility’ to family in the ancient sources will render more intelligible what we find in the Gospels and provide a comparative historical setting within which to interpret the nuances of the Gospel material more adequately. My own view is that the ‘anti-family’ material in the Gospels is primarily a rhetorically powerful metaphorical way of calling for the displacement of every obstacle to true discipleship of Jesus in the light of the imminent coming of the kingdom of God.

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