Sefer Shpiel - "When the Church Was a Family" (Chapter Three and Four) Paul and the Family Business

January 10, 2020

In the Third Chapter of When The Church Was A Family, Joseph Hellerman looks at how Yeshua imbedded Mediterranean familial assumptions in the group he formed, and how these assumptions are reflected in his teachings. The major thrust here is the difference between belonging to a group in the first century and belonging to a group now. In the first century, groupness required exclusivity, and a kind of hierarchical perspective on other groups toward which one might be related. Hellerman explores various gospel teachings that demonstrated that allegiance to Yeshua is in tension with allegiance to one’s family of origin, and that he requires of us to choose him and his group even over against our family of origin. He also demonstrates how exegetes and preachers often try to blunt the edge of this teaching by domesticating the teaching. But Hellerman will have none of that. Indeed, the way is hard to leads to life and few there be who find it.

In this chapter he also explores how the Jesus of the gospels shows us what God is like. While we tend to try to prove the deity of Messiah from the gospels, what we miss is how the Messiah shows us the personality of God.  We need to move from a concern for orthodoxy to a concern for an orthopraxy modeled after Jesus himself. And particularly we need to move toward a Jesus-shaped orthopraxy on issues of the church as a surrogate family, with this surrogate family taking precedence over our natural families in areas of major life decisions.

The NT underscores how this new family is characterized by financial reciprocity, mutually accountable sibling relationships, and relational repair and restoration when sin disrupts. Hellerman does admit that rather than a hard rejection of one family as over against another, what we must bear in mind is a relative degree of loyalty. Which family and its concerns trumps the other?

He demonstrates that Jesus had three kinds of teachings regarding familial relationship: pro-family teachings, anti-family teachings (which highlight the necessity of choice), and faith-family teachings (where balance is valued and sought). In the end, the teaching of the gospels is that loyalty to Yeshua requires of us loyalty to his group.

Toward the end of the chapter he says this. “What we have here is transparently clear in light of ancient Mediterranean cultural sensibilities. Jesus wanted His followers to interact with one another like members of a strong-group, surrogate family characterized by collectivist solidarity and commitment on every front. Such was Jesus’ vision for authentic Christian community” (75).

Note that for the first 300 years of Yeshua-believing communities, strong group churches meeting in homes was the invariable norm.

Chapter Four, “The Churches of Paul,” considers how Yeshua’s vision for the church, as grounded in the Mediterranean family, was reflected and adapted by the Apostle Paul. He does this by examining some of Paul’s counseling of his churches, demonstrating how that counsel is based on the prior assumptions of Jesus’ community model. Throughout the chapter, he comments on the prevalence and placement of kinship language, helpfully demonstrating that the Apostle introduces such terms in his case-building in order to highlight the familial bases of believer identity, relationship, and decision-making. Hellerman  emphasizes that these churches were expected to demonstrate affective solidarity, family unity, material solidarity, and family loyalty. He challenges the reader to consider that for Paul, one’s relationship and responsibility to one’s brothers and sisters in Messiah overruled other relationships, including that with one’s family of origin.

These were hard words to hear in the first century. They are hard words to hear in the twenty-first century as well. The issue we need to consider is "What shall we do with this." Toward that end, these blogs continue, to be supplemented with further research and experience.

Stay tuned.

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One comment on “Sefer Shpiel - "When the Church Was a Family" (Chapter Three and Four) Paul and the Family Business”

  1. It seems to me that Professor Hellerman has structured a proverbial house upon the sands of ignorance. He does not understand who was the Israeli master rabbi haRav Yeshua ben-Yosef, and whom he was addressing, nor who was Rav Shaul the emissary to the gentile disciples. Thus he mistakes the meanings of many things they are each recorded as teaching, and to whom each teaching was directed. His lens seems to be Hellenistic and thus universalistic. As such, he may have some insight into the culture which Rav Shaul was addressing for his gentile charges. But he lacks the balance which Jewish perspective could add, as well as the diversity represented by the distinctiveness of the Jewish and gentile segments of the bilateral ecclesia. But given the fundamental lack of Jewish foundation all of Hellerman's subsequent development is skewed, unbalanced, and unreliable. Hence it should not be surprising that his prescription for behavior among the ecclesia errs similarly to errors that developed among the Roman-occupied gentile ecclesia of the second and third centuries CE. He errs in his conception of what relationships may overrule others. He errs in his demands upon the members of the ecclesia. His "hard words" were not appropriate for the first century, nor for the second or the third, nor for the twenty-first. He has a valid point that the modern ecclesia in the USA is unbalanced vis-a-vis individuality and community. But his prescription does not restore balance; it imposes collective tyranny.

    Shabbat Shalom.

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