A Time Travelto the world of JesusA modern reflection of ancient Judea- via Uwe Rosenkranz


A Time Travel
to the world of Jesus

A modern reflection of ancient Judea



Orion Publishers
PO Box 3068, Halfway House, 1685
Copyright 1996
All rights reserved
First edition 1996

ISBN 0 7987 0681 3

Cover Photo: Image Bank
Cover Design and Consept: Marc Achleitner



This book is based on Bruce J Malina’s Windows on the World of Jesus. Time Travel to Ancient Judea, Westminster/John Knox Press: Louisville 1993 (from now on Windows). It is an adaptation, not a translation of the book.

Malina says in the introduction to Windows, … all language … derives its meanings from the societal system and cultural context in which the language communication originally takes place (xi). After a visit by Malina to South Africa in 1994 the idea was brought up that Windows, which was originally aimed at the American reader, could be adapted to the sociological and cultural situation in South Africa. This implied more than a mere translation. The two authors of the book were then asked to make the necessary adjustments to Windows.

Although the basic content of Windows was retained, the windows were rewritten, and reduced in number. To make the book easier for the South African readers to digest, the emphasis is on the New Testament. That is why references to the New Testament have been somewhat expanded. A section on the Profile of the first century world has also been added (chapter 1) to give readers more preliminary information. After that, in the Macro-windows, the reader is taken on a time trip to ancient Mediterranean society.

There are four windows:

•    Macro-window 1 is about groups and outsiders

•    Macro-window 2 is about the family

•    Macro-window 3 is about general values

•    Macro-window 4 is about the ancients’ concept of time.

To ease the reader’s entry into the ancient Mediterranean world, the windows relate the experiences of Jack and Joy Turner, a modern couple, who find themselves back in the first century Mediterranean world. However, they do not change into first century people. (We could imagine that they travel back to the first century in some kind of time machine.) The idea is to illustrate, with the help of the (anachronistic) windows, the culture shock that modern people would experience on a trip to the first century. In every case there is an introductory episode (a window) which deals with a certain ancient value or outlook. Under the heading Meaning of the window the Mediterranean value is then explained and brought to bear on New Testament material. The references to the New Testament are by no means exhaustive. They are merely examples to illustrate the point. Thus the reader is encouraged to understand the value or outlook and to then apply it to other parts of the New Testament.

Malina calls it the incarnational approach to the New Testament. The idea of the approach is to enable the reader to identify with the fundamental values and perspectives of the ancient Mediterranean world, because these values and perspectives lie at the root of the whole New Testament.

The material in this book is not proved scientifically, neither is it presented in academic language. Scholars are not the target group of the book. The scientific arguments for the concepts illustrated here are available elsewhere for those who want to know more. Some of the relevant literature is listed at the end of the book.

The window-approach used in this book is based on the work of a team of researchers who started almost a generation ago to provide a theoretical and practical framework to aid people in assimilating foreign cultures.

The modern world is indeed very different from the world of the first century. This book, then, is an introduction to the Mediterranean world of the first century, and also to a better understanding of the New Testament.

For more information, read the following:
T.R. Mitchell, J. Gagerman and S. Schwartz, Greek Culture Assimilator, Urbana,Ill, 1969.

The value of learning to know a culture in this way has been proved. Read M.M. Chemers, F.E. Fiedler, D. Lekhyananda and L.M. Stolurow, ‘Some effects of cultural training on leadership in heterocultural task groups’, International Journal of Psychology 1, 1966, 301–314. R.W. Brislin, K. Cushner, C. Cherrie and M. Yong, Intercultural Interactions: A practical guide, Beverley Hills, 1986.



1    A profile of the first century world

2    Macro-window 1
Insiders and outsiders

3    Macro-window 2
The family

4    Macro-window 3
Some general values

5    Macro-window 4
Time is not what it was


1    A profile of the first century world



Not individuals, but a community

The patriarchal family—the heart of the first century world

Honour and shame—primary values in the Mediterranean world

A socio-economic profile of the first century world


1    A profile of the first century world


Until recently, most South Africans would not have understood the following sentence: Big Mac’s is big value for money! Yet millions of people all over the world know that it refers to popular beef burgers produced by an international fast-food giant. Another example is the heading of a recent article in one of our papers: South African hookers score. Most local sports fans will know at once that the article is about the hookers who score so many tries on our rugby fields nowadays. An average American, though, glancing at the paper and knowing nothing about rugby, will interpret it quite differently. In America a hooker is a prostitute, and an American would think this heading means that South African prostitutes are doing good business.

These two examples teach us that meaning has more to it than we think. At the very least it means that understanding entails more than knowing the meaning of every individual word in a sentence. To understand what someone says, we must know something of his background and culture. We know much by instinct, but we do not always bother our heads about it, especially when we read the Bible. We often read it as if it were written only for us, in South Africa, today.

We easily forget that we read the Bible over the shoulders of the original addressees: they not only spoke another language, but their habits were quite different from ours. This has caused many hitches in the interpretation of the Bible. An example is the question that was once such an issue in many churches: should women wear hats to church or not? Those who voted for hats built a strong case on 1 Corinthians 11, where it is said that women should wear a head-covering. But is that what the text really means? What did Paul have in mind when he said that the Christian women in Corinth should cover their heads during worship? How do we apply this Biblical injunction to our own lives? We have to know the cultural framework in which the authors of the Bible said certain things, or we will misunderstand them. We must get to know the values, habits, traditions and institutions of the people of Biblical times. Then only will we understand how the writers of the Bible gave expression to God’s revelation in their own world, and then only will we be able to transfer the message of the Bible correctly to our world of today.


This book focuses on the New Testament. We want to unlock the cultural framework in which every book in the New Testament came into being. With one or two exceptions, all these documents were written in the first century of the Christian era, in the eastern Mediterranean world. This eastern part broadly covers the area around the Mediterranean, from Palestine to Rome. Because the area is vast, we will not discuss every group or nation in detail, or pause at every possible tradition or institution. Rather, we want to give a general impression of the Mediterranean scene. Thus we will study typical values, traits and traditions of the first century world and see how the New Testament relates to them.

Our approach in this book is like our impression when we look down on a vast landscape from an aeroplane. We are going to map a general landscape of the first century. This will not only help us to place the New Testament firmly in context, but also to handle the books of the Bible with circumspection when we try to establish their message for our times.

In the remainder of chapter 1 we will look at the most important values and traditions of the Mediterranean world around the first century of the Christian era. Here and there we will also note the differences and the similarities between the first century world and our own.

Enjoy your journey through the first century!


During a job interview, the first question put to you is about your qualifications. Nowadays your papers determine, largely, what you are. In the first century this was not so. Then people would judge your worth by asking your father’s name, from which town you came, or to what group or nation you belonged.

People in the time of the New Testament were not unattached individuals; they were mostly associated with their families, communities or home towns. In the gospels Jesus is called Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph, and Simon is called the son of Jonah; the gospels refer to the sons of Zebedee; Paul is called Paul of Tarsus. One’s tribe or group was also important. See how Paul emphasizes his Israelite descent in Philippians 3 and 2 Corinthians 11. The most important papers Judeans possessed in the first century were their family trees; that is, the list of the names of their forebears. Levites and priests had to show that they were of pure blood before they were allowed to serve in the temple. In the Bible too, genealogy is important. Apart from the many examples in the Old Testament, we find the family tree of Jesus in Matthew 1:1–17. One reason for this genealogy is to show that Jesus was really the promised Messiah, a descendant of David (cf Lk 3:23–28).

The world of the first century did not accommodate individualism. Groups, such as the family, the local community, town, city, tribe or nation determined your identity. Because roles in these groups were stereotyped, matters which are important to us, like personal rights, free choice, and the right to free association, were low on the agenda. Individuals had little say in matters which many of us today can decide about for ourselves, like whom to marry, what job to do, who our friends will be, which faith we will adhere to, and so on. The larger groups, and especially the family—the most vital institution in the first century—mostly decided about these matters.

Because the group largely determined the individual’s values and behaviour, individuals had to know the values and rules of the group—and their particular roles within it—as well as possible. For example, they had to defend the other group-members’ names even with their own lives, and had to share their belongings with needy group-members.

In the time of the New Testament people outside the group were usually viewed with suspicion. They were outsiders with whom the group did not really mix. The outsiders were stereotyped, so that the group could know exactly how to react to them. The Greeks, for example, referred to other people as barbaroi, because they made nonsensical bar-bar sounds; the Pharisees spoke slightingly of those who disobeyed the law of Moses as the people of this land. These (mostly pejorative) labels for outsiders further alienated groups.


1    A man’s world

Although there are many positive remarks about women in the Old Testament, the Jews of the first century thought that the wife was inferior to her husband and that men were by nature women’s superiors. A popular belief was that women had caused the Fall of Man; so they were regarded as craftier, more vain and more materialistic than men. Many Jews believed that women had to keep the following covered: their mouths, legs and hair. Their mouths could speak folly and embarrass their husbands, with their legs they could seduce other men, and a wife who appeared in public with loose hair was believed to challenge her husband’s authority. The Mishna, a collection of Jewish verbal traditions and laws which was compiled around the third century of the Christian era, forbids women to study the law with men. One rabbi even said that a woman was like a piece of meat with which a man could do as he pleased.

Of course, women were not only regarded as inferior to men in the Jewish world. Even in the Graeco-Roman world, where women were generally more emancipated than in the Jewish world, the husband was still the undisputed head. The Roman philosopher Seneca wrote that the man was made to rule and the woman to be silent and obey.

Thus men did not regard women as their equals. Especially the Jewish men were proud in their conviction that they were the most eminent of all God’s creatures. They, not women, were the receivers of the command to go out and multiply. They not only had to perpetuate mankind, but had to perform all religious duties, like sacrificing in the temple and visiting the synagogue.

2    The specific roles of every member of the family

2.1     The paterfamilias

Naturally, the father was the major figure in the family of the first century. Especially in the Roman world the father had power over his family throughout his life, even after his children had married and set up their own household. Children could not possess or sell land, or make a will without their father’s consent. The father’s power over his family (known as the patria potestas) meant that he had the right to decide whether he accepted them as his children or not. He could even reject a child, and such a baby was often left on one of the dumps outside the town or city. He also had the right to sell his children as slaves, or to have them put to death if they disobeyed him. This power of a father over the lives of his children was repealed only as late as the year 374 CE, by the emperor Valentian. Although the Jewish world did not have the same kind of laws touching a father and his children, even there the father was the undisputed ruler and his children owed him absolute obedience.

It was the Mediterranean father’s duty to supply his family’s food and clothing. He also had to represent his family in public (that is, where the men usually gathered, as on the city or town square), in the cultic place, and defend their good name. He also had to help educate his children. A Jewish father was expected to teach his son the laws of the Lord and to take his son with him to the public religious meetings after the son’s twelfth year.

2.2    The wife

The woman’s place was in the home, as we have noted under the previous heading. A respectable wife appeared in public as little as possible. Only when she went to pray at the temple, or to buy food and other necessities at the market, was she allowed to leave her house—but not without a veil! The well-known Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria, specified that women were not to go to the temple at the busiest time of day; it could create a bad impression, for prostitutes often appeared in public (without veils).

The woman’s tasks in the home were to prepare food, to tend the children, and to supervise the household. When her sons married, it was her duty to teach her daughter-in-law (who usually, in the Jewish world, moved in with her in-laws) the rules and traditions of the family.

2.3    Sons and daughters

Sons were more important than daughters to the Mediterranean people of the first century. A girl’s greatest asset was her sexual purity; only a girl who retained her virginity could expect to get a good man for a husband. Mothers kept their daughters out of the public eye as much as possible, so as not to expose them to temptation. While the daughter’s place was in the home, the son, as he grew up, could move about with his father in public. After his marriage the son usually remained in his home with his wife. Eventually it became his duty to tend his aging parents.


Broadly speaking, values are about conformity to a way of life. People choose to live and behave according to what they hold to be true about things like time, space, possessions, religion, other people and themselves.

If we ask what our modern society’s basic values are, most people would probably say that the major force in our day is economics and all that goes with it, like labour, production, consumption, money and possessions. This force not only motivates many people’s behaviour, but claims most of their energy and time. Over against this, economics was not the be-all and end-all for people in the first century. During that time people worked primarily to conserve their status, and not to gather possessions. Those who did try to make money were suspected of doing it at the expense of the groups to which they belonged.

The values of the first century were mainly honour and shame. Honour refers to a person’s worth as a person, and to the recognition of his worth by others. Shame, on the other hand, refers chiefly to people’s (especially women’s) mindfulness of their public reputation. Shame, therefore, was also a positive value.

In ancient times man was chiefly motivated by a desire to have his own values accepted by others. Of course, the individual’s group played the main role in the matter. The individual’s good name was maintained when the group recognized his honour. Thus it was essential for people to know, and then to conform to the standards of their group. When a person overstepped the mark (as when a child defied his parents, or when a pupil disobeyed his teacher), or when his claim to public honour was not acknowledged, he was punished, even expelled from the community. He was then branded as a fool, sinner, sot, heathen, and the like. Because such persons without honour had no positive status, they were excluded from the everyday life of the community, which boiled down to a social death sentence.

In the strongly patriarchal world of the first century, honour was closely united to gender. Men had more honour than women. When someone was born into an honourable family or tribe (for instance, the tribe Benjamin, see Phil 3:5), he was an honourable man from the very beginning. Conversely, if a man’s parents were without honour, he inherited their dishonour: Deuteronomy 23:2–4 excludes children born out of wedlock or born from forbidden alliances—even a child of the tenth generation—from the congregation of Israel.

Persons could, however, gain honour if a prominent person, such as an emperor, king or god, conferred it on him. When an emperor granted Roman citizenship to a town or city, the status of all the citizens was immediately and dramatically raised. People could also gain honour by social interaction with outsiders. If a person could successfully challenge the good name of another person of the same social status by means of debate, insult and loaded questions (cf the public debates between Jesus and the Pharisees in Mt 22), he could raise his own honour and that of his group by publicly humiliating the other person.


The first century world was agriculturally oriented. Eighty to ninety per cent of the population were farmers who eked out a living on smallholdings. Farming, like most of the other economic activities, centred around the family. The family, the basic economic unit of the ancient world, raised certain crops or manufactured articles, and then sold them at the market or exchanged them for necessities.

Most of the people in the first century could not read and were poor. Less than ten per cent of the population could read and write, while wealth was restricted to a small group of the elite in the cities, like the aristocracy, and religious and military leaders. This group, which totalled only two to five per cent of the population, was served by a larger group—officials, officers, teachers of the law and of Scripture. The city chiefly centred around the needs of the elite group, and the basic structures of modern cities, like an economic infrastructure and general services (like sewerage systems and running water) did not exist. Because of the dense population in the cities, their general conditions were appalling. It has been estimated that the city of Antioch had, in the first century, a population of 120 people per acre, while a modern city like New York only has 38 people per acre.

Bad hygienic conditions in the cities (and in the country), meagre medical services, and high crime rates led to a high death rate. Some scholars say that in the ancient world only about 40% of the population became older than 16; 25% older than 26, and 10% older than 46, while a mere 3% of the population became older than 60. The great advantage of the ancient cities was that they were usually walled around, granting relative safety to the citizens, and affording them the opportunity to sell their products there to the rich.

Although a large number of people lived in the cities, the greatest number lived in small towns or communities in the country, where agriculture was their means of making a living. Because of poor infrastructure, natural catastrophes, high taxes and war, most people had little money. In Palestine alone more than 70% of the population around the first century lived under the breadline, which was estimated at 200 denarii per year.A denarius was the wage that a day labourer earned. Because work was scarce and religious and state taxes high, most of the Jews fell below this level of income, and many lost their land and possessions and were even sold as slaves.


2    Macro-window 1
Insiders and outsiders

WINDOW 1    The great Benefactor

WINDOW 2    Group boundaries and more group boundaries

WINDOW 3    Making up

WINDOW 4    Thanks … but no thanks

WINDOW 5    Forced to volunteer

WINDOW 6    Friends of friends of friends

WINDOW 7    I do not know you, but make yourself at home

WINDOW 8    Familiarity or …?

WINDOW 9    Love that transcends the modern mind

WINDOW 10    Outsiders don’t count

WINDOW 11    A waiter does an about face

WINDOW 12    The discourteous rabbi

WINDOW 13    Sin—to place the group second

WINDOW 14    Saying you are sorry



2    Macro-window 1
Insiders and outsiders


The distinction between group and outsiders was one of the central features of Mediterranean culture.

People first and foremost saw themselves as part of a group or group-relationship. Societies were always divided into we—the members of the group—and they—those outside the group. Membership of a group determined your attitude and behaviour towards others.

Group members always had to be supported and respected. Your group and its members had the first claim to your loyalty; even at your expense. Outsiders—meaning all other people—simply did not count. You were not part of them and simply had no responsibility towards them. The self-image of ancient man was mostly shaped by his membership of a group. What people thought or felt, what they expected of themselves, or what they did, was dictated by the claims and expectations of the group.

This differs somewhat from the way the city dwellers of today think about themselves. We are individualists. I am taught to make my own decisions, I do not have to have the same profession as my father, and so on. The idea of the interests and honour of the group does not appeal to modern man.

Except for immediate family ties we often do not feel responsible for one another. The devil take the hindmost is the popular slogan.

When we read the Bible today, and want to understand the New Testament, we must always remember that the people of the Bible were essentially group people and not individualists. In the windows that follow the importance of this group perspective will become clear.

The great Benefactor

Jack and Joy Turner were touring first century Jerusalem. The market was to be their first stop, but then they got lost. In the end Jack asked a citizen the way. This person told them to go straight on till they got to Simon bar Jonathan’s tannery on the next corner. There they had to turn right and follow the road to get to the market.

Jack and Joy followed his instructions. When they reached the tannery, they decided to look inside. While they were watching a worker cutting something out of leather, the owner turned up and inspected his employee’s work. Then he moved on to the next workbench. The worker he had just left then started telling Jack and Joy—for everyone in the shop to hear—what a wonderful boss Simon was, for he has employed not only him, but also his two sons. For three months already they had been in the employ of him and his kind family.

Why did this workman voice his gratitude towards Simon so loudly?

Good relations between employer and employee

One of the primary relationships in the ancient world was that between persons in a position of power and those who depended on their favour for their own survival. The former group, which included politicians, aristocrats, landowners, and owners of small businesses, usually controlled essential provisions and had honourable positions in society. Because most of the people in the Mediterranean world were very poor, they relied on these well-doers. A great landowner could grant a needy person a piece of land to farm on, and also help to protect him and allow him to use the outlets for his products.

This relationship between benefactors and their clients influenced almost all social relations in the first century, including the one between the Roman emperor and his subjects. In his turn Zeus, Rome’s chief god, was not only the father of all their gods, but also seen as the invisible head of the whole empire. People had to prove their fealty to the emperor and the gods with offerings, proofs of esteem, and obedience to their laws and regulations.

Because the clients could not repay their benefactors for their favours, they had to uphold and extol their good name in public, as the worker in Simon’s tannery did. In this way they asserted their benefactor’s honourable position in public, and also expressed their own gratitude.

Some persons in the ancient world acted as mediators between the benefactors and their clients. When the benefactor was out of reach, as, for instance, an important public figure or a god, prophets and students of the law could contact them on behalf of their clients. The honour of such mediators was based on their influence with the persons in power and on the recognition of this influence by the clients.

Ancient people regarded the invisible world as the real one, because everything was controlled from there. That is why people were forever arguing about which gods ruled the invisible world. The New Testament has no doubt about the matter: God is in charge of everything and everyone (cf Rev 4).

In terms of first century ideas, God, according to the New Testament, is the great Benefactor who has unlimited access to and power over everything in the universe, including life, health, land, honour, and power over death and Hades (see Mt 10:28–31). This great power He fully shares with his son, Jesus Christ. According to Colossians 1:15–20, Jesus is so great that He is the image of the God who has created all things visible and invisible, and who keeps the entire creation intact.

In the New Testament God’s clients are initially all known as sinners. This includes all who do not live according to his commands (see Window 6). But Christ is the mediator between God and his clients; He redeems them from the power of sin and gives them access to God’s favour (see also Window 2, as well as Col 1:21–22; 1 Tim 2:5–6). Paul says that those who react in faith to Christ’s mediation, undergo a change of status—they become children of God (Rom 8:16). As children, they are now heirs of God and of Christ (Rom 8:17), and that is why they get a share in God’s Spirit (Rom 8:23; Eph 1:14), and in a new way of life which even death cannot destroy (Rom 8:38).

The New Testament is very clear on the matter: God is the great Benefactor who radically changes the status of his clients and who grants them a share in his favours, like his protection and custody, and new life. Naturally, according to the New Testament, the clients are under an obligation to respond in a suitable way to God’s favour. To show their gratitude for all these favours, the faithful are called upon to extol God’s name in public and to honour Him (see Mt 5:16; 1 Cor 10:31; Col 3:17).

Group boundaries and more group boundaries

Uri, a Jerusalem businessman, was a native of Modain, where Jack went to visit him. Jack was rather shocked to hear how aggressive and forthright people sometimes were towards each other when they met at the market. After one such an episode, Uri explained to him that Judah, with whom he had just had an altercation about a standing place for a donkey, belonged to another family group in the town. Uri was merely protecting his family’s interests.

When Jack visited Uri at his business a few days later, he had a big surprise. Judah also came into the shop. Uri left all the clients and took trouble to be friendly towards Judah and to help him. Jack wondered what had happened to the hostility between them—now it had changed into preferential treatment.

Jack kept his opinion to himself, but wondered how Uri and Judah could be such hypocrites!

From one group boundary to another

Jack misunderstood Uri and Judah’s behaviour. A good example will help to explain his misunderstanding. In a town like Nazareth, family A will regard family B as outsiders if family A’s interests vie with those of family B. That is what happened with Uri and Judah in Modain. But if families A and B go to Capernaum, the people of Capernaum become the outsiders and families A and B become a single group which places its common interests above those of Capernaum. That is what happened with Uri and Judah in Jerusalem. And if people from Capernaum and Nazareth—towns in Galilee—come to Judea, they will group themselves as Galileans against the Judeans, and so on. What Jack did not understand, was that group boundaries can change as situations change.

You were mainly classified as a member of a group according to where you came from (not necessarily where you were born). It was generally accepted that (a) persons from the same spot on the map would have group-feelings towards their fellow group-members, even long after they had left to stay elsewhere; and (b) by knowing someone’s place of origin, you would also be able to say how he would behave and what you could expect of him. Galilee was, for example, regarded as benighted, compared to Judea. When people hear that Jesus comes from Galilee, they immediately ask if he is fit to be a prophet (Jn 1:46; 7:41,52).

Your family was also an important means of classifying you. Because you had been born into a certain family, you would show certain characteristics. Note how Jesus is classified according to his family in John 6:42 (see also Jn 7:27). That, too, is the function of the long family trees in Luke 3:23–38 and Matthew 1:1–17. Groups collaborated on the grounds of origin, family, and shared interests.

This collaboration within the group meant, as we have seen above, that you would be loyal to your group before all else. This explains the demands in the New Testament that the faithful should love one another. After all, they are part of a group, the family of God, and therefore they should be loyal to one another. The call in James 4:11 not to become angry with one’s brother is an example: it is aimed at protecting these group boundaries.If you behave maliciously towards a group member, you harm the group as a whole. This reminds us of what Jesus says in Mark 3:24: a kingdom (group) divided against itself cannot stand. This explains why quarrels and strife are greater sins in the Bible than we as modern people perceive them to be. Quarrels and strife were not merely between individuals—they destroyed the whole group.

This strong group feeling in the first century was one important reason why Christianity spread so quickly from Jerusalem to Rome. In Acts, Paul, on his missionary journeys, usually goes to the synagogues first—to the Jewish meeting-houses—to preach there (see Acts 13:5,14–15; 14:1; 16:13; 17:1,10,17; 18:4,19,26; 19:8). The Jews are Paul’s group members (brothers—Acts 13:15,38) at the places in question. There he will be accepted immediately. Thus Jewish missionaries had home bases everywhere from where they could start preaching the Gospel.

But when the Jews realize that Paul’s preaching is destroying their traditions, or when they become jealous, they send him packing (Acts 13:50; 14:2,5). In this way they place him outside the group and he becomes an outsider to them. Thus the boundaries of the group are defined and protected. Their behaviour towards Paul changes completely and he is seen as an enemy. They even send delegations to other towns to warn them against Paul (Acts 14:19; 17:13; 21:27–28) and to protect their group. Sections like 1 John 2:18–19 or 2 John 10–11 also describe the protection of group boundaries and group identity.

Paul, however, remains convinced that he is part of the Jewish group, although they reject him (see Rom 9:3; 16:7,11,21). His desire to reconcile the group is clear when he speaks to the Jews in Rome (Acts 28:17–20). But the group rejects him because he does and says things which are inconsistent with the group-nature. As regards the group attachment, it is unimportant what Paul as an individual thinks; the group is the entity which weighs and judges.

Defining group boundaries was not always easy or simple. There could be groups within groups, as the situation changed and interests came into play. Someone would be accepted in one situation and rejected in another by the same group. This could explain the conflict between Peter and Paul in Galatians 2:11–14. In Galatians 2:12 Paul mentions James’ people and the non-Jewish believers—thus there are two Christian groups with differing opinions. The Jewish traditions, such as the question of circumcision, apparently define the two groups. Peter has to choose one of the two. Although both groups are Christian, Peter starts to behave coolly towards the non-Jewish believers. He no longer wants to eat with them, which shows that he regards them, in a certain sense, as outsiders (Gal 2:14). (He does not distance himself from them completely, which shows that he still regards them as Christians, but here we have a group within a group.) Paul thinks that Peter is playing the hypocrite. Peter, after all, usually eats with non-Jewish believers, but when another group appears with whom he identifies more strongly, he starts acting differently—as Uri did when he left his clients to serve Judah.

The saying of Jesus that those who are not against us are for us, is about where the group boundaries have to be drawn in that situation (Mk 9:40). The disciples are unsure—are the persons involved insiders or outsiders? Jesus, as the leader of the group, defines the boundaries and solves the problem. Paul handles a similar problem in the same way in Philippians 1:15–18, when he mentions people who seem to be his opponents. Although they are making life difficult for him, they are still proclaiming the name of Jesus, and that fact binds them and Paul together around that central, common interest. On those grounds Paul, as a leader, declares them to be part of the group.

The interests of outsiders did not concern individuals or a group. Group members did not interfere with other groups. The Gallio episode (Acts 18:14–17), illustrates this well. The Jews argue about something and Gallio regards it as an in-fight in the group. It is a matter which concerns only them. As a Roman he keeps out of it. (See also Jn 18:31; 19:6,12.)

Making up

Joy’s most pleasant memories were of the way in which a family would receive a newcomer. It was a merry occasion when all the friends and family were gathered together. Everything was an event—even the name-giving.

When Ravi was born, Joy noticed growing tension between Aharon and the other group members. Aharon did not agree with certain group decisions. The conversations were vehement. Then Aharon left the house—lock, stock and barrel. At first, Joy thought he had left of his own accord, but later, when she met him in town, she saw he was depressed. He asked Joy to tell Jonathan, the father of the family, that he wanted to return.

Joy did so. To her surprise Aharon was not accepted back after a mere handshake. Some of the older members of the group first held a meeting before they summoned Aharon. After long negotiations Aharon meekly joined the group again.

Why did they make such to-do about it when Aharon wanted to return? Joy wondered.

How do I become part of a group?

As we have said, an individual in ancient times was part of a group. How you became part of a group, was a momentous matter.

The group had to decide to accept you (usually the leader of the group made the decision); you had no say in the matter. As a group member you had to obey the group rules. If you did not want to do so any more, your membership was in jeopardy, as in the case of Aharon above.

Under the heading A profile of the first century world we noted that the family was the heart of that society. The image of the family (the faithful are children of God, they are brothers and sisters) is often used in the church to emphasize the social interdependence of the believers.

But when did a group or family accept you? These examples illustrate different circumstances and group types:

Member of a family by birth and adoption

Birth was, of course, the most important way of becoming a member of a family. The New Testament also uses this image to say how a believer becomes part of God’s family. In John 1:12–13 and 3:1–8, as well as in 1 John 2:29, 3:9, 4:7 (in Greek the reference is to the birth that makes a believer a child of God) it is said that the believer is born into the family of God (see also 1 Pet 1:3,23). The Holy Spirit establishes your new status as a child of God (Jn 3:1–8). As a believer you become part of the divine family with all the rights and duties of a child. In 1 John 3:1 it is said that God calls us children; this possibly refers to the custom in which the Father—as leader of the family—formally accepted the believer as his child and as a member of the family! Because it entailed the acceptance of a newcomer into the group, a fuss was usually made of the birth and the name-giving as a matter of public or group interest (Lk 1:59–62).

You could only become a member of the family by being born into it. As in our time, you could be adopted. Paul uses this familiar image to explain how people become members of God’s family (Rom 8:23—see also 8:15–16; Rom 9:4; Gal 4:5). God accepts a believer into his family group and grants him the status of kinship. Romans 8:17 implies that the adopted child has all the rights of a child who has been born into the family. He is even a co-heir when it comes to God’s inheritance.

Note that salvation, described in terms of birth or adoption, only describes the beginning of a whole new life as member of God’s family. To be accepted as a member of the family, means to live in harmony with the character of the family, which Aharon initially did not want to do.

The setting to rights of a broken relationship by reconciliation and redemption

Like Aharon, members sometimes caused divisions within the group (cf 1 Jn 2:19–20; 2 Jn 10–11). Such people were then reckoned as outsiders and even as enemies. After all, they had acted against the interests of the group. In Colossians 1:21 unbelievers are described as God’s enemies because they behave like enemies.

There was, however, ways of reconciling hostile groups. This is what Jesus came to do. Among other things, he had to reconcile God’s enemies with God. Because Jesus acted as mediator, people who were hostile towards God could again measure up to God’s high requirements of them (Col 1:22). Peace was made, on condition that they would now live according to God’s standards for the group (Col 1:23). In 2 Corinthians 5:17 Paul tells of the peace-talks between God and mankind: how Jesus brought the talks about and what the outcome was. He says that everything has been made new for mankind. The old things, including the debt incurred by sin, have passed away. Christ has made it possible for people to become part of God’s group (cf Rom 5:10).

It is important to remember that the Christian’s station before God has been given him because God views the believer as a member of his family, with all the consequences attached to it.

The idea of redemption is closely related to this concept. Prisoners of war, who were slaves, could be redeemed from their slavery. As slaves they could belong to the group who owned them (Jn 8:34; Rom 6:16). At a price the king could buy the person back into his own group. For the slave this meant freedom and new life—within the group of the king who redeemed him. In 1 Peter 1:18–19 the blood of Christ is said to be the price for the believers—indeed a high one! (see Mk 10:45; 1 Cor 6:20, which implies the same thing). In Galatians 4:5 we find the beautiful image of Jesus buying the believers back in order to have them adopted as God’s children.

Terms like reconciliation and redemption denote the acceptance of a person into a group, under certain circumstances.

Invitations to join a group

A group could, through its leader, extend invitations to people to become members of the group. Interested parties could also ask to accepted into a group, if they were prepared to fulfil the conditions set by the group. Both these ways of becoming part of a group, are found in the New Testament.

Matthew 4:19, 9:9, 11:28, 19:21 all contain invitations by Jesus to follow him. In Matthew 8:19–22 and Luke 9:57–62 there are also requests to be allowed to become part of the Jesus group. In both these cases the person had to be prepared to accept certain duties.

Members could also expect something in return from the group. In Matthew 19:27–29 (cf Lk 18:28–30; Mk 10:28–30;) Jesus promises that he will let his disciples sit on thrones and will recompense them hundredfold because they have left everything and followed him.

Friends of friends.…

The extended family not only included blood relatives, but could include friends and slaves. References to friends must therefore be regarded as group terminology. As a friend of a group member, you were reckoned as a member of the group.

A nation like Israel was regarded as an extended group. The Christians are described as the new Israel, or the people of God. They became part of this new nation through belief in Jesus. They formed a group in which things that were true of groups also became true of them. They could expect certain things of the group, but also had to live in a way that brought honour to the group.

Thanks … but no thanks

Jack and Joy were very excited. Joachim had invited them to his beach house at Eilat. They were showered with hospitality. But they also felt that they were irritating Joachim, although he did not show it.

While they were alone at the foredeck of the boat, they talked about the feeling they had. They had not once heard any of the children say thank you; it seemed as if they did not know the word. They seemed to take everything for granted. Neither did the adults say thank you, but that was understandable. Meanwhile they, Jack and Joy, were saying thank you for everything. That had to be the problem, but how was it possible, and how could gratitude give offence?

They decided to talk to Joachim. What did Joachim say?

What thank you means

The members of the same group or family are dependent on each other. Their possessions, honour, family name and so on belong to all of them together. Things are expected of each other because of the loyalty and support which exists between the members of the group. That is why it is unnecessary to say thank you constantly. Rather, you have to live your thanks by your loyalty to the group.

Group people think of themselves as a team, not as individuals, as in the case of a rugby team. A player does not say thank you when he receives the ball during a movement, because as a member of the team the ball belongs to him as much as to the whole team.

That evening Joy and Jack scour the New Testament. Indeed, except for in Romans 16:4, it is never said in so many words that believers have to thank each other, which may sound strange in today’s world.

Yet, in the New Testament it is said repeatedly that the believer has to thank God. In Acts 24:3 it is said that the king has to be thanked. Why?

Saying thank you had much to do with a person’s honour and importance. Group members did not thank each other, but the situation changed when an important person was involved. Important people had to be thanked, usually in public. Because the subordinate did not deserve anything from the important person and had to rely on his favour, he had to acknowledge the favour by means of thanks.

That is the reason why the believer has to thank God. In Colossians 1:12 the believer has to acknowledge God by giving him honour and thanks, for God has saved him, even though he has not deserved it. Paul also thanks God for the grace God has granted the believers (Rom 1:8; 1 Cor 1:4; Col 1:3; 1 Thes 1:2). Paul uses the word praise instead of thanks (Eph 1:3) in the same context, which shows how akin thanks to God and praise for Him are. In the same way homage to God and thanks to Him are connected in Romans 1:21. Gratitude therefore shows who you are (the powerless receiver of a favour) and who the Giver is (the powerful, free, benevolent Giver who deserves the praise). Gratitude is therefore not mere civility, but an act of self-denial and recognition of God. The gratitude of the leper for his cure in Luke 17:16–18 is seen by Jesus as homage to God (see also Jn 9:24). Recognition and praise for undeserved favour are the means of showing gratitude towards God.

References to gratitude for sustenance are also often found in the New Testament (cf Mt 15:36; Acts 27:35; Jn 6:11,23; 1 Cor 10:30). To thank God for food is to acknowledge Him as the Giver. Thereby you acknowledge God as the one on whom your life depends (Mt 6:11); you have no right to life, and yet He grants it to you—you are merely the dependent, grateful receiver.

Because this dependent recognition is part of gratitude, things went wrong for the Pharisee whose prayer was full of boasting and swagger (Lk 18:11–14). Because he did not acknowledge his own absolute dependence on God (cf Lk 18:12) his gratitude was a sham (Lk 18:14).

Forced to volunteer

Chayim, a friend of Joachim, had to bring something with him from Jerusalem for Joachim, but he did not. Chayim then gave a long, extensive account of how dearly he had wanted to bring it and how hard he had tried to, but that it had been impossible, for several reasons. Jack felt that this lengthy explanation was extravagant. Why did Chayim not merely say that he had not been able to get it, and have done?

Another part of the discussion was just as interesting. Chayim griped about not being to enlarge his house, because he had to help pay his nephew’s studies. It was clear that he would have preferred to enlarge his house, for it was becoming cramped because of the new baby.

Jack wondered why Chayim did not do what he wanted to do. Why did he put his family second to help his brother’s child to study? Surely his brother would understand?!

Showing gratitude by your actions

The ancient society was one of limited means. There was no overabundance. Each had just enough or, often, too little for his own needs (except, of course, a few of the rich). When you gave something to someone, you naturally expected some return. By means of gifts you could establish invisible bonds of obligation between yourself and others. Today it is quite different. We prefer people not to do something in order to expect something else in return.

A statement like Who sows sparingly will reap sparingly (2 Cor 9:6, Moffatt) has its roots in the custom of giving and expecting something in return. Paul’s quotation of Job 41:11 in Romans 11:35 is about the same thing: Who has first given to God and has to be repaid? (Moffatt). The underlying idea is that gifts are to be repaid.

This idea has enormous consequences when we think of the gifts God so freely gives us. Because it was the custom to repay gifts, the New Testament references to God’s gifts impel the believer to repay his debt to God. The word that is often translated with the word grace, refers to God’s gift of grace to and care of the believer. In obedient devotion towards God the believer has to repay God for his gifts. Because Jesus gave his life for you, you must be prepared to give your life for others (1 Jn 3:16; cf 2 Cor 9:15; Eph 2:8–9—note that one responds to God’s gift with good deeds—Eph 2:10; 1 Pet 4:10).

This allegiance and obligation begins at birth. Your parents gave you life through birth and cared for you within the family. For this gift you were bound to them for life by being responsible for and loyal to them—you had to care for and respect them, talk about them in a positive way and show respect for them in your behaviour. You had to behave like a truly respectful child and show of what good character your family was. In 1 Peter 1:22–23 Peter uses the idea of birth into God’s family as the reason why the believers should love one another. How deeply ingrained this convention really was, can also be seen in 1 John 3:9–10. Because of the responsibility that the child has towards his father and his group, he will do nothing to undermine the interests of the group. John is almost absolute about it: a child will not sin (break the will of the father and the group). His interests are so bound up with that of the group that he will have no desire to go against the group interests (see the same reasoning in Jn 8:38,39,41,42). John knows well enough that someone can make a mistake, but then the mistake has to be rectified.

In this way there was a network of obligation and loyalty in a family, in which you cared for me and I for you. Thus the sum of the Law becomes easier to understand (Mt 22:37–40; Mk 12:28–31; Lk 10:25–28). Believers are part of the family (or nation) of God. The claim on a member of the family, and his obligation to love God, is understandable in the light of what God has done for the believer. But why does the command to love my neighbour as myself stand on a par with the love for God, which is the first commandment? In Mark 12:33 the teacher of the Law says that love for the neighbour is better than holocausts and sacrifices. Sacrifices were aimed mainly at keeping your ties with God pure. Love for one’s neighbour is thereby seen as service to God. The believer who serves a fellow member of his group, proves his loyalty to God’s group and to God himself. He who wrongs his brother, wrongs God, because the brother is part of God’s group. God’s interests, as Father of the family, is interwoven with the interests of his children. (Read Paul’s assertion in 1 Cor 8 that you sin against Christ himself when you cause your brother to stumble! You are being disloyal to Jesus if you wrong the members of his group.) The believer himself is part of the group and therefore the love for your brother is equal to your love for yourself. What is done for yourself and for your brother or sister is in the interests of the group. Thus an intricate network of mutual obligation and loyalty regulated groups in ancient times. You had to live according to it. You admitted your group responsibility by fulfilling your obligations. (That is why Chayim consented to help his brother.)

Important arguments in Paul’s short letter to Philemon are based on this convention. Philemon’s slave, Onesimus, has run away, which means a possible death sentence for him. But Onesimus meets Paul and becomes a Christian, in other words, a member of the family of God to whom his owner, Philemon, also belongs (Phil 10). Philemon’s love and loyalty towards fellow-believers is well-known (Phil 5–6), so he is a good and loyal group member. Because Philemon is bound, by Christ, to the group, he is also under an obligation (Phil 8) towards Onesimus, and therefore Paul does not have to coerce him. The network of group loyalty is the fundamental reason why Philemon has to take his runaway slave, Onesimus, back into service.

The responsibility towards the group was not left to an individual to take or leave as he pleased—it was an obligation. If a group member shrugged off his duties, he showed that he no longer wanted to be a part of the group network. That is why Chayim made sure, with his long explanation, that Joachim would not think that Chayim had dodged his responsibility and thereby shown that he rated their freindship cheaply. The behaviour of one person towards another said much, like whether you wanted to be associated with that other person or not. In the New Testament each of the guests invited to the banquet had some excuse, thereby conveying something of an impaired loyalty towards their host. That is why we read in Luke 14:21 that the owner of the slave becomes angry (Mt 22:1–14 puts it even more strongly). Immediately he invites other people and so changes the boundaries of his group, because your guests at table were reckoned as your friends (cf the Pharisees who accused Jesus of eating with publicans and sinners). And perhaps 2 Corinthians 1:17–19 is about the Corinthians feeling hurt as a group because Paul preferred to change his itinerary after he had promised to visit them.

If you did not behave loyally towards your group, you started moving outside the group. The rejection of Jesus at Nazareth (Lk 4:16–17 and 22–31; Mt 13:53–58; Mk 6:1–6) can be explained in this way. Luke hints that Jesus did wonders in Capernaum, but not in Nazareth (Lk 4:23). For a small town like Nazareth a miracle-worker would bring much honour. But Jesus does wonders elsewhere and so deprives Nazareth of the honour which his miracles would bestow on them and their community. But Jesus explains that it is God’s way to let prophets work outside their group. The people of Nazareth probably see Jesus’ actions as treason towards his own group. This can be the underlying reason why they reject him (Lk 4:28–30) After all, in the Gospels it seems as if Nazareth is regarded as Jesus’ basic group. That is why he is called Jesus of Nazareth, Son of Joseph (Jn 1:45–46).

Friends of friends of friends

Joachim took Jack and Joy to visit the district of Perea. Again and again Jack offered to pay for their lodging, but Joachim would not hear of it. He would pay, he said. That made it very difficult for Joy. She was used to having tea at someone’s house only after making an appointment with them. But apparently Joachim was not so refined. One night, and late at night at that, they imposed themselves on a large family. Children who were already asleep had to be moved. Food had to be prepared, and so on. Joy was so embarrassed! To her it seemed as if Joachim was not bothered at all and, what was worse, it did not seem to bother the host either (or was he just a good actor who could disguise his frustration?)

They reached the limit on Friday, just before the Sabbath. Joachim was avidly looking for someone’s house. Jack asked him whether he knew the owner. No, replied Joachim, but a friend of mine does. Joy wondered whether they would stay for a whole weekend in a house where even Joachim did not know the people. But when they got there, Joachim took out a letter and gave it to the man. With a big smile the owner of the house, after he had carefully read the letter, let them in. He and Joachim sat chatting like old friends.

That weekend Joy would never forget. They were waited on hand and foot by total strangers!

Friendship is like a net, connecting friends to each other

If Joy had understood that a network of friends and friends of friends was common in the ancient world, she would have been less worried. Friendship meant that friends could rely on one another. That is why Joachim could arrive out of the blue on a friend’s doorstep, even though it was late, because they were his friends! Friendship was no superficial matter, but implied a true commitment. Without batting an eyelash, people would help each other for friendship’s sake and even go out of their way for each other.

Even if you and another person had a mutual friend, it would mean that you were friends. It was indeed like a net, fastened together with knots. You would therefore not hesitate to help each other. That is what happened in the household where Jack and Joy and Joachim arrived on the Friday evening.

The network of friends of friends of friends played an important role in the early Christian travel plans (more about this in the next window). The network also made it easy for believers to undertake journeys (cf Tit 3:13). Naturally, many Christians did not know each other personally and could not just walk into any home. That is why a traveller would take along a letter by someone who knew the people where he would be staying (cf Acts 18:27; 2 Cor 3:1). A letter, like the one Joachim had, would ensure that the bearer of the letter would enjoy the same hospitality as that which the writer of the letter could expect (cf Paul’s request to the congregation in Rome concerning Phoebe—Rom 16:1–2). This network of support was also an important aid when it came to missionary work. A preacher could, at no great expense, undertake long journeys (cf how Paul intercedes for Timothy, in order to help Timothy continue on his journey—1 Cor 16:10–11).

Two such letters of recommendation became part of the New Testament, namely 3 John and Philemon. In 3 John the elder is very upset because his previous letter of recommendation has been ignored by Diotrephes. Diotrephes did not receive the bearers of the letter (3 Jn 10). This the elder sees as a direct insult to himself (3 Jn 9). But he entreats Gaius—his friend!—to receive Demetrius (3 Jn 1, see also 3 Jn 11–12). Philemon, also, is called a friend (Phil 1). In the body of the letter Paul then asks Philemon to receive his runaway slave like a brother (Phil 16), because the latter became a believer in the prison (Phil 10). Paul thus uses his influence and friendship to ensure a good reception for Onesimus. Note also how Paul asks Philemon to keep his bed ready (Phil 22). After all, they are friends.

In some of Paul’s other letters there are also recommendations with which the network of believers who support each other are widened. We have already referred to Romans 16:1–2 and 1 Corinthians 16:10–11. In Philippians 2:19–30 Paul writes extensively about Timothy and Epaphroditus and asks the congregation to receive them well.

These examples show clearly how the bearer of the letter received the necessary help from the host because of the relationship between the host and someone like Paul or the elder. The bearer of the letter is, in effect, accompanied by the writer of the letter, which means that the host sees the bearer in the same light as the writer.

Matthew 10:5–15 shows an interesting variation of this network of friends. When Jesus sends out his disciples, he says that they must take the minimum baggage, because they have to depend on the care of others (Mt 10:10). When they enter a city, they must look out for someone with whom they can stay (in Greek someone who is worthy, Mt 10:11). When they find someone, they must stay there until they continue their journey. But if someone does not want to put them up, he detaches himself from the group and classifies himself as an outsider. The disciples must then clearly show that they break all bonds with such a person (or city) (Mt 10:14). From this description of Matthew it seems as if the disciples do not even have letters of recommendation. They can depend on the hospitality and good-will that is part and parcel of society at the time. The response and association that develop between the disciples and the people, because of their message, then lead to their being regarded as friends and members of the group. If people regard them as group members, the disciples can depend on the care and hospitality of the group that accepts them.

I do not know you, but make yourself at home

Jack and Joy were impressed. They had not been in Judea long, and already their friend, Joachim, was doing his best to make them feel at home.

They were even more impressed one night, after a knock on the door. At first they thought the visitors were friends of Joachim, because Joachim invited them in and gave them lodging. Their son was ill and Joachim called the doctor over, and payed him into the bargain. But during the conversation it sounded to Joy as if Joachim did not really know the people. She was right. Later she asked Joachim who they were, and he told her that he had never laid eyes on them before, but that they knew one of the families who had lived in his neighbourhood years ago.

It really seemed as if the trouble Joachim went to for strangers was to him the most natural thing in the world.

Was it?

Hospitality and boarding houses!

Hospitality played a large role in the ancient world, and did not only revolve around family and friends, for whom you had to care anyway. Hospitality meant to receive strangers also and to accept responsibility for them while they were under your roof (Mt 25:35; the Greek word for hospitality that is used in Rom 12:13, Heb 13:2 or 1 Pet 4:9, implies, among other things, hospitality towards strangers). After his stay a stranger could leave either as a friend or as an enemy (cf Acts 28:7–10 where Paul leaves the island of Publius as a friend). But while the stranger stayed with host, he was embedded into the host’s group. The host had to cater to the guest’s needs in every way, as Joachim did when the boy was ill. Sometimes the host even had to defend his guest’s life with his own. The early Christians were bidden to show this kind of hospitality. In Romans 12:13 Paul lists hospitality along with the aid that believers owe their brothers. Peter mentions hospitality in connection with love (1 Pet 4:8–9).

This is understandable. There was no system of hotels or boarding houses where people could stay (in The New Testament we read of an inn only in Lk 10:34). In Mark 14:14, Luke 2:7 and 22:11 a word is used that we can translate as room or guest room. If we keep in mind how many journeys we read of in the New Testament, the few references to inns are probably a sign that there were not so many of them. The inns were mostly of dubious character, and more care went into tending donkeys and camels, than into lodging people. An interesting apocryphal account of Paul’s night in such an inn tells of a great many bedbugs in the mattress. When the bedbugs discovered that Paul was their bedfellow, they all left. It goes without saying that Paul was not disturbed again that night!

Travellers depended on friends, or even strangers, for lodging. (In our own history, when people still went on horseback, they often, at dusk, asked for lodging at a farmhouse on their way).

But you could not simply travel, like a tramp, from one house to another. There were rules for guests as well as for hosts, and the rules were a safeguard against abuse. A Christian document of the first century, Didache, states, for example, that a stranger who calls himself a fellow-Christian and a preacher is a false prophet if he stays with you for longer than three days. In 2 John the elder says that no hospitality should be extended towards people who can harm the group. Believers should not show hospitality towards people who preach a false gospel (2 Jn 10–11). (Think, too, of Paul’s argument in favour of an apostle’s right to be cared for by the congregation as long as he stays with them.)

We cannot go into these rules any further. What is important, is that the early Christians made good use of this system of hospitality when it came to Christian missions. Christian travellers or itinerant preachers could journey from one Christian group to another in the ancient world and always be certain that a local group would welcome and house them (cf Acts 14:28; 16:15,40; 17:7; 18:1–3, 26–27; 21:16; note also the implication in Acts 15:3–4).

Elders had to show hospitality to be good elders (1 Tim 3:2; Titus 1:8; see also 1 Tim 5:10). This is, of course, the core of the problem in the Johannine congregation in 3 John. Diotrephes (who was probably some kind of elder or leader) refused to receive brothers sent by the elder. Gaius, however, does receive them, and so the elder praises him. John is very critical of Diotrephes and regards his refusal to receive the brothers as a break with the elder’s group, and therefore a break with the truth.

Familiarity or …?

Jack had to go and wait for Joachim’s son, Isaac, outside the barracks. The donkey stood ready for Isaac’s luggage, which Isaac and his friend carried from the barracks while they were chatting. When they reached the donkey, Jack was introduced. The friend was affable, almost familiar, Jack felt. He asked Jack how old he was, what he did in South Africa, and so on. When he left, he asked Isaac if he could do anything else for him. The funny thing was that Isaac saluted him afterwards.

Jack was curious. Isaac and his friend seemed to be of equal rank. But when Jack asked about it, Isaac said that his friend was his CO.

That was not how Jack remembered corporals in the army!

Authority with the face of solidarity

Group relations naturally have their expression on a personal level. One person’s actions towards another are determined by their group relations. The CO saw Jack as a friend because Jack was a friend of Isaac. That is why he easily put personal questions to Jack: group members could, and had to do so (cf Rom 12:15). That is also why he helped Isaac with his luggage. It emphasized the bond of care and courtesy between the group leader and his subordinates.

Isaac’s salute was equally important. The hierarchical structure that clearly defined the function of each member of the group, was stronger then than today, and had to be seen in the behaviour of the group members. (Note the almost rigid limits in Col 3:18–4:1, where Paul describes family structures, as well as the way the behaviour of each person is demarcated; 1 Tim 6:1–2). This is what Isaac acknowledged with his salute. A good leader in the ancient world had to be thoughtful and caring, yet he had to maintain a distance between him and his subordinates.

Church structures of the first century were strongly group-oriented and functioned along similar lines. The New Testament requirements for elders and deacons of the congregations clearly resemble standards commonly accepted in society. The descriptions in 1 Timothy 3:1–13 and Titus 1:7–9 can almost be compared with that of a superior Roman officer who had to shape the development of young recruits. Note the emphasis on authority in 1 Timothy 3:4,12, while hospitality, kindness, and a love of peace are also recommended (1 Tim 3:2–3).

Relationships and behaviour were, for ancient Mediterranean man, arranged in concentric circles. The central circle was that of the family. The family organisation was reflected in structures of authority in the town and, eventually, in the kingdom. The king was described as the father of his kingdom, and the town leader as the father of the town. We also see this in the commands to Christians concerning the state. You had to respect your superiors in the state as you respected your superiors in the family. As God set up the father as head of the family (as was generally accepted in the ancient world), he also gave rulers their position. This meant that they, too, had to be respected (see Rom 13:1,5; see also 1 Pet 2:13–14). This family pattern was the basis of the organization of the early church. That is why Christians are called brothers and sisters, as we have noted in the first chapter.

Paul often instructs his congregations like a typical father would instruct his children; he holds himself up as an example of correct behaviour, admonishes them, and reprimands them (1 Cor 4:14–21; 2 Cor 8–9; 2 Thes 3:14–15). Yet it is God who is usually described as the Father of the Christians, as in the gospel of John (Jn 20:18). He loves his children (Jn 16:27), cares for them, and protects them (Jn 10:29), but also expects them to obey his orders (Jn 15:10—the Father uses his only begotten Son—Jn 1:18; 3:16—as the intermediary). The Father in the gospel of John is thus described in terms of the ideal father of the ancient Mediterranean world. Christians therefore have to be the ideal family members, brothers and sister to one another (1 Jn 5:1).

Hence, obedience is a major concept. In the family you recognized the authority of your superiors by being obedient. Without obedience the family could not function. This was important for the Christian community, for Christian relationships were voluntary. When you became part of this voluntary community of faith, God made you the sibling of the other believers, and your obedience would help the congregation to function well (Rom 1:5; 2 Cor 7:15; 1 Pet 1:2,14,22). Obedience within the congregation meant obedience to God himself (Rom 6:16,17; 15:18; Heb 5:9). Note how Paul in Colossians 3:20 and 3:22–4:1 links the obedience that behoves children and slaves with the subordination that the believer owes the Lord (see also Eph 5:24; 6:1–4,9).

Of course, authority in the congregation was not always meekly recognized (3 Jn 9; 2 Cor 2:5–9). Someone could even decide to disobey the rules of the group, or to detach himself from the group completely (see Mt 18:15–17; 2 Tim 4:10; Heb 6:6; 2 Pet 2:20–22; 1 Jn 2:18–19; Rev 2:4). The other members could react to this in several ways. Group mechanisms were the main tool in hand to set things right. The person was part of the group and the group felt responsible for him. The idea was to keep the person in the group as long as possible. Yet group interests rated higher than those of the individual. If the individual impaired the group interests, or did not want to bear responsibility any longer, he broke away from the group. The group would then systematically withdraw their support and love from the individual until the break was final. Then the person was again regarded as an outsider. But until then the group had to try everything in their power to convince the person to accept the character and demands of the group. In 2 Thessalonians 3:14–15 it is clear how Paul encourages the group to use group pressure to sway an unruly member without scaring him off.

The most well-known example of group mechanisms is in Matthew 18:15–17. The group tries to draw the offending member back into the group by calling in more of the others after every attempt—clearly a group action. When they have failed repeatedly, the break between the group and the individual is final. In Matthew 18:18 the group action is borne out by heavenly authority, and in Matthew 18:19–20 the importance of attachment to the group is stressed. Christians are meant to be together within a group. Other assertions (from gentle counsel to radical separation) that reflect this process are found throughout the New Testament. Read Galatians 6:1; 1 Thessalonians 5:14; 2 Thessalonians 3:14–15; James 5:19–20; 1 Peter 4:8; 2 John 10–11. Of course, there had to be sound evidence from the group itself before the group could act against anyone—in other words, it had to be a group charge against the individual (2 Cor 13:1; 1 Tim 5:19).

Love that transcends the modern mind

Back in their room, after her outing, Joy angrily told Jack what had happened. She had a fancy for those large figs dipped in honey, although they were expensive. Joy told Jack that she had bought four of them, and had eaten the first piecemeal. Then she met Sipporah, Joachim’s daughter, and one of Sipporah’s friends. To her surprise Sipporah, without as much as a by your leave, took the bag containing the other figs and took out one for herself and one for her friend. Joy could only watch in amazement. Sipporah could have asked.

Joy’s mood mellowed a little when she saw that her dress, that she had torn on a branch the day before near the Gate of Damascus in Jerusalem, lay neatly mended on her bed.

Yes, Jack said, the Mediterranean people are funny that way. They take your things without batting an eye, and yet they can be so helpful that they make you quite uncomfortable.

Jack had his own story to tell. He and Joachim had gone to visit friends just south of the temple wall. Jack had felt ill, probably from something he had eaten. At the friend’s house there was a big jar of curds on the table, and dried fruit. Jack did not want to eat anything, and when the friend pushed the jar towards him he began to refuse politely. Then Joachim did the strangest thing—he immediately interrupted Jack, poured some of the curds into his cup, and smacked down a handful of dried fruit in front of him. Joachim’s nudge in Jack’s ribs told Jack to shut up and eat.

What has become of one’s free choice? Jack wondered to himself.

Love binds the group together

Joy did not understand that social and psychological fences between group members are much lower than between outsiders. Sipporah saw Joy as part of her group and therefore Joy could have no objection to her taking a fig. In a sense Joy’s figs were Sipporah’s figs. After all, group members had an unwritten code of openness, helpfulness and acceptance. No wonder Paul says that believers should be joyful with those who are joyful, and mourn with those who mourn (Rom 12:15). Because the social fences in the group are so low, their interests mingle with those of the other members. Note how Paul regards himself as absolutely involved with his congregation, to such an extent that their weakness becomes his, and when they sin, he himself feels as if he is going through fire (2 Cor 11:29). The interests of group members are interwoven.

Paul calls love the bond which binds believers in a perfect unity (Col 3:14; cf 1 Pet 4:8 for the way love binds people together). Love was no abstract idea or (simply) and emotion. It had to be converted into actions. Note how love is defined in the Bible: By this we know what love is: Jesus laid down his life for us. We should lay down our lives for our brothers (and sisters) (1 Jn 3:16); or Love is patient, love is kind, love is not jealous … (1 Cor 13:4); God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son … (Jn 3:16). Love is therefore described as a total sacrifice, even to the point of sacrificing your life—for your group members (1 Jn 3:16).

What seems to today’s people like servile kow-towing was the heart of group dynamics in ancient times. Because group members offered one another a support network, you could know that, if you served the group interests, the group members would serve you; you could give your support in the knowledge that you had a whole group to support you (Rom 12:10). Within the congregation people of diverse social classes realized that they all belonged to the same group. They had to look beyond familiar social limits to see the boundaries of the family of God. This is what Jesus wanted the teacher of the Law to learn from the parable of the good Samaritan (Lk 10:30–37). Love and kindness meant that you remained attached to the group and acted as a group member (see Jn 13:34–35; Gal 5:13; Eph 4:2; 2 Thes 1:3). Group members had to bear one another’s burdens (Gal 6:2) and help others in time of need. For Jesus, in his discussion of prayer in Matthew 11:5–8, it is obvious that a friend would help a friend in need. That is why the Bible often talks of brotherly love (Heb 13:1; Rom 12:10;1 Jn 4:20–21; 1 Pet 1:22); it is a love which is primarily focused on the group.

Why is love for God placed on a par with love for one’s neighbour (Mt 22:39)? The believers are part of God’s family or group, thus God’s interests and the group’s everyday interests are inseparable. God’s honour is directly represented by the believers (1 Pet 2:12; 4:16). To do something for one’s neighbour is to do it for God (Mt 25:34 ff; 1 Jn 4:7–8,12; 5:1). Love for the neighbour is not distinct from love for God; love for God is expressed in love for one’s neighbour (1 Jn 3:17). Conversely, those who do not love their neighbour, do not love God, because as a group their interests are inextricably interwoven (see 1 Cor 8:12). In 1 John 4:20–21 it is said in so many words.

People in ancient times often did things for other group members without being asked. Because the interests of the individual were one with those of the group, any investment in the group was an investment in oneself. That is why Joy’s dress was mended. Joy would, at any given time, return the favour. Gifts were always paid for (cf also Rom 11:35, which implies that a gift has to be repaid). In this way members relied on, and had close ties with one another.

Thus it would have been an insult to the host’s hospitality and friendship if Jack had not taken curds and dried fruit. Whether you accepted or rejected someone’s gift, you conveyed something about your recognition of people’s dependence on one another.

If we realize this, we see how great the obligation of the believer is. Paul describes God’s gift to man as indescribable and his grace as abounding (2 Cor 9:14). One who rejects the gifts, rejects God, and is deeply indebted to Him (see also Eph 2:8–9;1 Pet 4:10).

Outsiders don’t count

Jack and Joy found it difficult to move around in public in Mediterranean cities. Once they queued in Jerusalem to wait for a horse and cart that would take them on a trip through the city, and one of the locals simply came and jumped the queue in front of them. What they immediately noticed was that he gave a friend a place in front of him just after. They often had to suffer such treatment. In the narrow streets they were shoved aside several times by people who, directly afterwards, behaved courteously towards friends or family.

Why were the Mediterranean people so rude?

Who is my neighbour?

In the first century world people owed loyalty only to their group. All others were regarded as outsiders, and were mostly regarded with suspicion because their motives and values were unknown to the group. Individuals were under no obligation to show regard for them. Group members could even lie to outsiders, and refuse to aid them. They only owed truth and assistance to one another. Compare the behaviour of the Levite and the priest in the parable of the good Samaritan in Luke 10. Because the man who had been assaulted and robbed was an unknown outsider, they assumed that they owed him no kindness and passed by.

The Jewish religious leaders in and around the first century had clear categories for those who were pure and those who were not—in other words, in a religious context they decided who were in-group members and who were outsiders. Impure persons were not fit to participate in cultic activity, such as sacrificing in the temple. According to the Mishna, a Jewish document from around the third century CE and a compilation of many oral traditions and religious rules, people were classed in a hierarchy: priests, levites, priests’ children born out of wedlock, proselytes, Jews born out of extra-marital relations, and foundlings. Gentiles and persons who could not procreate were regarded as unclean.

The New Testament is well acquainted with first century views on outsiders. In Matthew 5:43 Jesus quotes a typical contemporary opinion about outsiders when he says: You have learnt how it was said: You must love your neighbour and hate your enemy (Jerusalem Bible). Yet in the New Testament this negative appraisal of outsiders is conspicuously absent. Such people were regarded, by the first Christians, as potential new members of the group to which they belonged, namely the church (see Window 6).

The early Christian conviction about people went back to Jesus himself. The synoptic gospels make it clear that he had a new opinion on, and conduct towards outsiders, which was, according to Matthew 5:43–48, based on God’s own conduct towards them. Here it is said that God causes his sun to rise on bad men as well as good, shine and his rain fall on honest and dishonest men alike (Jerusalem Bible). In other words, he shows kindness towards all people, without regard to status as group members or outsiders. For this reason Jesus in verse 48 calls on his disciples to be as perfect as God is by also loving their enemies and other outsiders.

For the first Christians outsider was primarily a religious concept without political or social undertones. Those who did not believe in Christ were regarded as outsiders. New tenets on group members among Christians (see Window 3) made little room for social, sexual, cultural and ethnic boundaries (cf Gal 3:28), and had a great influence on their idea of outsiders. People were not excluded from the early church because of their sex or their cultural background. The traditional pigeonholes into which outsiders were fitted, were not preached or used by the leaders of the early church. A new attitude and code of conduct towards them prevailed, as we will see in the next window.

A waiter does an about face

On a business trip to Capernaum Jack stayed in a luxury inn. The service was good, but apathetic, although he left a big tip after the first meal. Two evenings later, he invited one of his business associates, a childhood friend of the waiter, to dinner. The service afterwards was outstanding.

For the rest of Jack’s stay the waiter could not do enough for him.

Groups and group boundaries

In first century Palestine there were clear boundaries between group members and outsiders. Your daily behaviour was largely determined by your group affiliation. Towards fellow group members you would show the greatest esteem and courtesy. Courtesy was seldom, if ever, shown towards outsiders, as Jack experienced. Even his tip could not change this deeply rooted tendency. However, in the waiter’s eyes the other businessman changed Jack from a stranger into a friend, which of course led to better service.

In the New Testament we find clear evidence of boundaries between groups. We read of the boundaries between Jews and Samaritans (Jn 4:9), and between Jews and Greeks (Acts 18:4;Gal 2:14; Rom 1:14; Col 3:11). Names like Jesus of Nazareth, son of Joseph (Jn 1:45), Simon, son of John (Jn 21:15; Mt 16:17), James, son of Zebedee (Mt 10:3), and so on denote group affiliation. Also, the Jews were extremely set on their group identity, especially on religious and national level. After all, they were God’s people. Because Christendom has its roots in Jewry, we often read in the New Testament about the Jews’ strong adherence to their group.

Yet the New Testament sets aside the boundaries in order to admit all who believe into a new, better group, the Jesus group, making them part of the family of God. The believer has to align himself with this group, find his identity in it, and adjust his conduct accordingly (see 1 Thes 4:9–10).

This conduct of the believer towards outsiders is not neutral. God loves the world (Jn 3:16) and expects his family to do likewise. Jesus’ last command to his disciples is to go into the world and to make disciples (Mt 28:19–20). This means that the believer has to treat every outsider as a potential group member. Even if the outsider treats the believer badly, the believer still has to show love for the outsider, as God would. In Matthew 5:43–48 Jesus asks his followers to do the almost unthinkable, namely to love their enemies (that is, to treat them as possible group members). Paul urges the believers to let their love grow for all people, including outsiders (1 Thes 3:12). In the believers’ conduct outsiders have to see their Father’s nature; then they will pay reverence to God. Even if outsiders persecute or mistreat them, the believers should still show God’s love (1 Pet 2:12; 3:14ff; 4:12ff.) Even if outsiders hate and kill them (Jn 15:18–16:4) the believers should not retaliate. The believers should remain true to themselves and to what they have been taught (2 Tim 3:10–15).

This leads to a basic attitude of pacifism. The commands to be subservient to the authorities (1 Pet 2:13–15; Rom 13:1–7), even if times are hard, are also important. Believers must at all times behave in such a way that outsiders want to be admitted to the group. The believer’s idea of his group boundaries, as well as his conduct, is thus redefined in the light of the love of God.

The love of God has to be seen in the lives of his followers and must transcend the usual group boundaries. See how strongly Paul puts it in Colossians 3:11: Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and in all. In Ephesians 2:13–14 Paul says that the group limits (between Jews and Gentiles) are like a dividing wall which has been broken down.

In 2 John, however, it is shown that the believer has to adhere to that which sets him apart from unbelievers. He has to remain fully aware of his own group identity which is based in Jesus. In the Johannine congregation there were people who, as so-called fellow believers, tried to infect the group with false doctrine. John tells the members of the congregation to break all contact with such people. The command is aimed at protecting the group boundaries (see also Gal 1:8–9 for a similar injunction from Paul.)

The discourteous rabbi

While Jack and Joy were walking in a shopping mall in Jerusalem, they saw a crowd of people around a man standing on a wall and speaking with great fervour. Jack asked the bystanders what was going on. The answer came, It is Judah ben Kev. Some people say he is a rabbi or teacher who is especially well trained in ethics. He has many followers, too.

Then Jack saw a group of six men approaching. They were elegantly dressed. One of that group then asked rabbi Judah a seemingly innocent question about how he and his followers made a living, for it did not seem as if they worked for it.

Rabbi Judah retorted: How do lazy, rich people like you make a living? Jack and Joy were shocked at this sharp and uncivil reply from an ostensibly respected rabbi!

Without asking any questions, Jack and Joy returned to the shops.

Fight for honour with the weapons of debate

The Mediterranean people of the first century spent the greatest part of their lives in public. Honour was the result of the public acknowledgement of a person’s worth. An attack on someone’s honour called for a sharp reaction. Judah ben Kev saw the question by the other group as a challenge to his honour. To defend his own honour as well as that of his group, he had to react in such a way as to transfer the pressure back to the other group and thus to prove his superiority. To this end people would generally use sarcasm and sharp language. To answer a question with a question was a typical reaction to challenges. That is why the matter in hand often fell by the wayside; the emphasis was more on the ability of the two speakers to score off each other with challenges and replies in order to prove their own superiority. Such a successful defence of your honour in the social game led to a raising of your honour. It also substantiated the values of your group. In this way the group members were confirmed in their own identity and in their adherence to the group.

The conversations which Jesus had, especially with the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders, have to be seen in this light. They were typical disputes. That is why what is said is usually less important than the way in which it is said. With these disputes Jesus’ honour and the truth of his witness is at stake. When we read such a conversation, we not only learn something from Him, but also something about Him.

In his conversations with the Sadducees about the woman who, according to the custom at the time, in turn married each of seven brothers after the demise of the previous one, Jesus attacks his opponents directly (Mk 12:24–27). He tells them to their faces that they are on the wrong track (Mk 12:24,27), and that they—who run the temple and the Sanhedrin and control the schooling of the nation—neither know the Scriptures nor the power of God. This means, in essence, that they do not know God. In this way Jesus attacks their status and person, and establishes his own status at their expense. To modern ears such a personal attack sounds strange. We think it proper to stick to the issue. But at that time this harsh game of question and answer was the accepted manner in which you defended and confirmed your own group boundaries. Note how Jesus’ enemies tried to outsmart him (Lk 10:25; 12:53–54; Mt 22:15,34–35) and tried to hold their own against him (Lk 10:29)—all terms which point to a social game.

In another case Jesus turns the attack around and shows that the attacker’s behaviour is the same as his. When they say that he drives out devils by means of Beelzebub, by whose power do they do exactly the same? Jesus asks them (Mt 12:27; Lk 11:19). No matter in which direction they look for an answer, his opponents will only land themselves in more trouble (see also Mk 11:27–33). Jesus could worm his way out of such difficult questions, which heightened his honour. In the attempt to trip him up with a question on the payment of taxes the listeners can only stand astounded at Jesus’ reply (Mk 12:13–17), and when they query his authority in Mark 11:27–33 he entangles his opponents in their own question (see also Mk 12:18–27).

Counter questions were also common. The counter question contains a built-in supposition which makes only one answer possible. This supposition makes the original question seem foolish (cf Mk 2:18–19, 24–26).

The way in which people were addressed was also part of this power game. On Mark 12:26 Jesus asks the Sadducees, who were constantly reading the Scriptures, whether they had read the part about the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. His have you not read … is degrading language, for the question implies that the Sadducees do not read the Scriptures properly (see also Mt 12:3,5; 19:4; 22:31; Mk 12:10; Lk 10:25–26). The same sarcasm is found in the questions of Paul, questions in which the answer is already given. The opponents can only concede that they are wrong. (See Mk 3:4; Lk 14:3; Acts 22:25). These are the ways in which one party would try to prove itself superior to the other. It was also expected of the group members to support their speaker. If they leave him or turn against him, it would reflect badly on the name of the speaker or the leader (only in Jn 6:60–69 something to this effect is said about the followers of Jesus).

Sin—to place the group second

During a visit to the Dead Sea, Jack and Joy came across a lonely figure. This poor man looked so forsaken that Jack went over to him and offered him a piece of food. The man refused to even talk to him, let alone take the food, but after a while he cautiously approached and took it. When Jack asked him who he was, he told him that he belonged to a religious community situated on the northeast side of the Dead Sea. Immediately Jack realized he was referring to the Qumran community who had broken away from the system in Jerusalem and was now, in total seclusion, studying God’s word and obeying all kinds of strict rules and regulations.

Jack then asked why this man was roaming around outside in the blistering sun, and he replied that a few days before he had fallen asleep during a religious meeting. For his punishment he was banned from the community for thirty days. That was why he was now roaming around the Dead Sea, looking for scraps of food until the month was over.

Why was this man so severely punished?

The group always comes first

Because the group in the ancient world was more important than the individual, it was natural that the interests of the group were set above that of the individual. Any violation of group laws, like children disobeying their parents, were seen in very serious light. Someone could even be banned from the group if his transgression was serious enough, which meant that his status as group member was changed to that of outsider. Sometimes transgressors were even punished with death. On a religious level the breaking of group laws and codes was seen as a sin, because the individual had put own interests before those of the group. In the case of the person in our story, who had been banned from the Qumran community for a month, his transgression of group rules changed him, for a month, into an outsider. But after he had served his sentence, he could be received back into their community.

According to John, the believers, as children of God (1 Jn 3:1), had to obey God’s commands (1 Jn 3:4–10). They had to love him and the believers (which were now their brothers and sisters), in word and deed (1 Jn 3:11–18; 4:20–21). But if they neglected to put the interests of the family first, by hating one another or by not sharing their belongings, it was, according to John, a sin, because the basic standards of the church were then ignored (1 Jn 2:9–11; 3:17–18).

Transgression of the rules of the church is seen in the rest of the New Testament as a very serious offence. Paul, for example, calls upon the congregation in Philippi to not only think of themselves, but also of others. They had to maintain the attitude of Christ who abandoned his high heavenly position for the sake of others (Phil 2:4–11).

If a believer did transgress the rules of the church, it was the duty of the other members to speak to him about it in a brotherly fashion (Mt 18:15–16). If this did not yield any gains, such a person was banned from the church and regarded as an outsider. He was then branded as a publican and a heathen (Mt 18:17).

The seriousness with which the Christians regarded the transgression of their group laws is clear in the story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1–11. The couple is punished with death because they pretend to hand over to the congregation in Jerusalem the full sum for which their land has been sold, while really keeping a part for themselves.

Saying you are sorry

On a visit to the temple in Jerusalem Jack and Joy were struck by the content of some of the public prayers in the forecourts. Most of the people who prayed, after they had thanked God for all his favours, listed their good deeds before Him and did it loudly enough for all the bystanders to hear.

Other people, after sacrificing on the temple altar for their transgressions, confessed aloud that they had broken God’s laws and then thanked Him for his forgiveness.

Why did the worshippers mention their good deeds and their sins aloud before God?

Ask the right people’s forgiveness

Usually ancient man had very clear systems with which he classified right and wrong, especially in religious context. As we have seen, complying with group rules was seen as honourable behaviour, while disobedience was seen as shameful. The requirements for a successful lifestyle was therefore quite simple. People could maintain their status in society by simply reminding others of their good deeds. Compare, for example, the prayer of the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable of the publican and the Pharisee in Luke 18. The Pharisee informs God aloud of all his good deeds, among other things that he fasts twice a week and is no adulterer. In this way he publicly confirms that he is doing his duty towards God and other group members.

When persons transgressed the rules of their group, they had to show their remorse in public with penance and other symbolic acts. When the persons or group against whom they had transgressed pardoned them, the broken relationship, as well as the honour of the offender was restored. When religious rules and laws were broken, it was honourable, especially in the Jewish world, to publicly confess it before God. This was often done by means of symbolic acts like sacrifices, tearing clothes and scattering ash on the head, as well as by means of prayers.

But while the keeping of religious rules and remorse for breaking them was largely a public affair in the Mediterranean world, Jesus, according to Matthew, emphasized the internal nature of the matter. That is why his followers were not to pray on the street corners for the sake of public recognition. You had to help the poor in secret, and you had to fast without any outward show (Mt 6:1–18). Jesus denounced all religious practices which you undertook in order to publicly confirm or boost your honour. In Luke 18:1–9, in the parable of the Pharisee and the publican, Jesus censures the Pharisee for enumerating his good deeds before God.

Religion is, according to the New Testament, first a matter which touches the heart (the headquarters of thoughts, willand emotions), out of which a correct lifestyle has to emerge (Mt 6:18–21; 7:21–23). But although the inner aspect of remorse, as well as the secrecy of good deeds are emphasized in the New Testament, the public aspect is acknowledged. Most of the Christian communities in the first century were relatively small, with less than a hundred members, who often met daily. That is why clear rules for interpersonal behaviour were necessary. In James 5:16 the believers are urged to confess their sins against each other and to pray for one another. As members of God’s family they have to ask the pardon of the others if they have sinned against them.

But confessing one’s sins was not only an interpersonal affair with the early Christians. According to the New Testament, in their relationship with God they as a community also had to attend to the matter. John writes, (in 1 Jn 1:8–10), that the believers have to confess their sins to Christ, because He is their intercessor with the Father. Jesus is their advocate in the invisible world, and handles his clients’ case in the heavenly court, showing them to be innocent when they confess their guilt.

My people and yours, we against you!

In New Testament times people thought about themselves, their actions and others in terms of the group. Group relationships revolved around important persons like benefactors or fathers in their relationship with subordinates. Clear group boundaries separated group members from outsiders. You could become a member of a group in several ways, but you then had to be absolutely loyal to the group. Your loyalty determined your whole lifestyle and behaviour.


3    Macro-window 2
The family

WINDOW 15    Marriage: for love or for children?

WINDOW 16    Children should know their place

WINDOW 17    A chip off the old block

WINDOW 18    All places are not the same



3    Macro-window 2
The family


We have seen in chapter 1 that the family was the nucleus of the ancient world. As in other social structures in the Mediterranean world, everything and everyone within the family was judged according to their gender roles. Even articles used in and around the house were connected to gender. For instance, kitchen utensils were seen as feminine, while farming tools were seen as masculine. Goats were found mainly within the female area around the house and in the courtyard, while sheep were found on male ground in the fields. The female domain included the kitchen, the inner courtyard, as well as the inside of the house, while the male area was mainly outside the house. The duties and places of men and women were divided accordingly. The woman’s duty was to run her household, while the men were the breadwinners who could move around in public. Women had to tend and educate the children. When boys were allowed into the adult male world, the men had to educate them further and teach them how to act like men.

In this macro-window the focus is on the following aspects of the Mediterranean families:

•    The nature of marriage (window 15)

•    The place of boys and girls (window 16)

•    The common idea that children were extensions of their parents (window 17)

•    Public and private areas (window 18).

Marriage: for love or for children?

One afternoon Joy went to visit a wife of the innkeeper at the inn where they had stayed over in Jerusalem. While a few children played around them in the kitchen, the woman told her that she was preparing for her daughter’s betrothal to the son of rabbi Joseph. When Joy replied that she looked very young for someone who had a daughter who was about to be married, the woman called one of her daughters, who was playing with the others, to her. “Here is my daughter Mary. Her father has chosen the best husband on earth for her. In a year’s time she is to be wed to our honoured rabbi’s son,” the woman said proudly. Joy was stunned. The girl looked no more than twelve or thirteen years old. What astounded her even more was the woman’s remark that Mary would see her future husband for the first time, a week from now, at their betrothal.

Why was the woman so proud of her child who would marry so young and had not yet even met her future husband?

Love does matter!

In the first century marriages were generally contracted at a very early age. In the Jewish world girls would be betrothed around their twelfth or thirteenth year, and they married a few years afterwards. The marrying age for men was between sixteen and eighteen years. In the Roman world the marrying ages for men and women were not much higher. In fact, Augustus Caesar once even had to make a law which forbade girls under twelve years of age to marry.

Parents usually decided in advance whom their children would marry. Children’s own feelings and personal preferences were unimportant when it came to marriage. Rather, children had to respect their father’s authority and good judgement by marrying the person chosen by him.

Around the first century marriages were contracted mainly for the sake of children, not for love. Love had to come after the marriage. Childlessness, which was always regarded as the woman’s fault, was seen as a great problem. In the Jewish world a man was allowed to divorce his wife if after ten years she had not yet borne any children. Divorce was also allowed if wives behaved shamefully. Of course, rabbis differed on what could be termed shameful behaviour. Adultery was seen as shameful, but some of the more enlightened rabbis even said that a woman who appeared in public with loose hair, or often burned her husband’s food, could be divorced by her husband.

In contrast to the emphasis on reproduction as the main aim of marriage in the Mediterranean world, the focus in the New Testament is primarily on a harmonious relationship between husband and wife. The creation story in Genesis, in which man and wife are to become one in marriage, is often referred to in the New Testament when the nature of God’s institution of matrimony is discussed (see also Mk 10:6; Eph 5:31). A lifelong affection, and not an inquiry as to lawful reasons for divorce, was now the foundation of matrimony (see Mt 5:31–32; Mk 10:1–10).

On the one hand the New Testament agrees with the first century ideas about the role of man and wife in marriage. The wife still has to obey her husband as the head of the household (Eph 5:22–24). In 1 Peter 3:6 women are even encouraged to behave in the same way as Sarah, who addressed her husband Abraham as my lord. On the other hand men have to honour their wives as the weaker sex (1 Pet 3:7).

But the roles of men and women were also adjusted. According to the synoptic gospels, Jesus broke away from stereotyped first century notions about women by speaking to them in public, giving them religious teaching, and admitting them into the group which travelled around with Him publicly through Galilee (see also Lk 8:1–3; 10:3–42). This radical elevation of the social status of women by Jesus is reflected in Paul’s remarks in Ephesians 5 on the roles of man and wife in matrimony. Although he does not break away from first century ideas on marriage, Paul does adjust the ideas by calling upon men to serve their wives (verse 21) and to love them (verse 25). He further bases the behaviour of men and women towards each other on Christ’s death. In the light of Christ’s self-sacrifice, they have to redefine their roles in their marriage and act towards one another in a new way.

Children should know their place

On a visit to the Galilean city Tiberias, Jack one day met a group of men who were congratulating one of their friends in public. Jack asked a bystander why the man was being congratulated, and was told that the man’s oldest son had just returned with good news. A few weeks before his younger sister had run away from home with an unknown man, and he had tracked her down and killed her.

Was this horrible event a reason to celebrate?

The roles are reversed

Because sexual relations before or outside of marriage were usually regarded with disfavour, a situation like the one in our story, where a daughter had run away before her marriage with another man, brought great dishonour to the head of the family and the family itself. If the father in our story had not been so severe with the offender, his public honour would have been at stake, for then he would be regarded as someone who could not control his household. Usually it was the duty of the oldest son to restore the honour of his father and the family when one of the other children behaved in a shameful way. One of the most effective (and honourable) ways in which it could be done, was to kill the offender (see also Deut 21:18–21).

As we have seen in chapter 1, sons were higher than daughters in the patriarchally oriented Mediterranean world. Sons had to learn from their fathers how to uphold the honour of their families in public. A daughter’s place was in the home. She was regarded as a mirror of her family’s honour and values. Inner beauty, modesty and calmness of spirit (see 1 Pet 3:4) were highly rated virtues which their mothers had to instil in them.

In the New Testament much emphasis is placed on children having to obey their parents (see Eph 6:1–3; Col 3:20). Parents should discipline their children (Eph 6:4), but they do not have the right to kill them for being disobedient. The relationship between parents and children is seen as a mutual one in which the father also has certain duties, like wisely raising his children and not constantly finding fault with them (Col 3:20). That the early Christians raised their children with great tenderness, is seen in an early Roman document which says that they, unlike many people in the Roman Empire, do not abandon their babies on the rubbish dumps.

According to available information, children were seen as an integral part of the church. They took part in congregational activities like baptism, teaching, communal meals and worship (see also Acts 16:3–34; 1 Cor 1:16). In contrast to the sharp distinctions between sons and daughters in the ancient world, in New Testament children are referred to in a neutral way when they are spoken of in group context. Children are also given greater prominence. Jesus healed quite a few children, like the daughter of the Canaanite woman (Mt 15:21–28), as well as an afflicted son (Mt 17:14–18). The most well-known episode featuring children in the New Testament is the episode in which the women publicly bring their children to Christ to have them blessed by Him (Mk 10:13–16). The disciples act according to protocol when they chide the women for impertinent behaviour when they approach Jesus in public. Yet Jesus reproves his disciples and blesses the children.

When the disciples speculate on who is the most important in the kingdom of God, Jesus uses a child as a symbol of importance (Mt 18:1–5). Children are a sign that roles in the kingdom have been completely reversed. In the kingdom true greatness is no longer connected to gender roles, to social status or to age, but to service and humility.

A chip off the old block

Jack and Joy took trouble to talk to Mediterranean people. At inns where they lodged, or on visits to public places like temples and market places, they liked to chat to the bystanders to find out how they thought and felt. Often, in a long conversation, Jack and Joy noticed that the Mediterranean people liked to talk about their children; especially about their achievements.

Why did the Mediterranean people love to talk about their children’s good qualities and their feats?

Good fathers have good children

Because of the symbolic value which parents attached to children in the first century, they were in general very proud of their children. After all, the children shared the inherited status of their parents and forebears. Any child who did an honourable deed, or rose in the public eye, was therefore a great cause for joy to his parents and family.

As we have seen in chapter 1, genealogy was very important in the Jewish world, for it confirmed people’s honour ratings. Honour was especially passed on by means of birth from generation to generation. Therefore children were taught at their mother’s knee that they were the bearers and keepers of their family’s good name. Their parents regarded good behaviour in a very positive light, for it reflected their own honourable name, as well as that of the family.

Because first century people saw children as extensions of their parents, they generally believed that children acted like their parents. Good parents had good children, while bad people, like sinners and prostitutes, had bad children. That is why honourable people never mixed with the children of bad people.

The most important father-child relationship in the New Testament is the one between God and Jesus. At his baptism God speaks approvingly of Jesus when He says that Jesus is his beloved Son with whom He is well pleased (Mk 1:11). In turn Jesus, in the gospels, frequently talks about the unique relationship between Himself and his Father. He says that He is the one who reveals God because He knows Him best of all (Mt 11:27; Jn 7:28–29; 8:55). According to John, Jesus does exactly what his Father does. When God does good things, like giving people eternal life, Jesus does the same (Jn 5:20–23). Jesus is such a faithful son that He even once tells his disciples that those who have seen Him, have seen his Father (Jn 14:6–11).

According to the New Testament Jesus’ unstinting obedience to his Father is not only the embodiment of honourable behaviour, but is also the one on which the believers are to model their own conduct (see also Phil 2:5–11). Believers are now also children of God who have the duty to uphold their heavenly Father’s good name in public.

The Mediterranean notion that children are the extension of their parents lies at the root of New Testament assertions that believers have to honour God, their heavenly Father, with their good deeds (cf Mt 5:16; Jn 15:8). Obedience and loyalty to his commands are now the only form of honourable behaviour (Jn 17:17). Believers who act according to God’s will are often praised in the New Testament (see also Rom 4; Heb 11). According to Matthew 10:31–32 faithful followers of Jesus even receive the assurance that He will honour them in a special way by mentioning their names aloud in heaven before God. Honourable conduct by children of God is thus worthy of mention, in the invisible world as well as among other believers.

All places are not the same

On their way home Jack and Joy were both very quiet. They were thinking hard about events earlier that evening. They had been very excited at going to the Dayans for dinner. All went well until they sat down at the table. Sarah Dayan had prepared a big dinner. Her servant had already gone home by the time the food was brought to the table. Joy gave Jack a nudge and he leaped to go and help Sarah carry the heavy dishes from the kitchen. Jack noticed that Sarah was very annoyed with him about something. After that the mood at table was subdued, and Jack felt that Sarah was ignoring him. He was a bit peeved about this; he had really wanted to help—why was Sarah so rude to him then?

Fortunately the evening recovered somewhat when Ravi arrived. He is Dayan’s oldest son. It was plain that Sarah was excited and she immediately rose to serve him with motherly affability. Jack could see that they had an extremely good relationship. To tell the truth, it appeared as if Ravi’s mother spoiled him a little.

A place is not merely a place

The roles of the various parties in society in ancient times were more clearly circumscribed than in our time. Men, women, children and slaves all had their specific place and station in society (read Col 3:18–4:1; as well as Philemon).

The various groups were not only distinguished from one another, but different places or areas were reserved for each. Thus the kitchen area belonged to the women. They had to run the household and therefore a specific area was reserved for them. The larger houses even had a women’s court where no men were allowed. In the house the woman could therefore move around freely and she did not have to wear a veil indoors, only when she went out. (Of course there were also smaller houses with only one room, which was perhaps divided into two levels. In such cases the area boundaries could not be so strict.)

Certain tasks went along with these areas which were so specifically reserved for certain groups. The woman was responsible for running the household and for tending her family and therefore the kitchen was assigned to her (cf the interesting comment in Lk 8:3). According to Proverbs 31:10–30 the virtuous wife had to keep everything ready and even see to it that the fields produced all that had to be eaten! We can assume that some female groups today would say that the virtuous wife in Proverbs was nothing more than her husband’s slave. She had to work hard in the fields and in the kitchen while her husband sat in the sun at the city gate with the other men!

In general the woman was free to act and move around as she chose while she was at home (or in the private area of the family). There she completed her tasks. Note how Peter’s mother-in-law gets up immediately after she has been healed and then serves the men (Lk 4:38–39). To us it seems as if the men—especially her own son-in-law—act unfeelingly by allowing her to serve them. But Peter’s conduct becomes understandable when we realize that the divisions of roles and functions was much clearer then. It was the woman’s job to serve and that is why Peter’s mother-in-law did so. Martha (in Lk 10:38–42) has much to gripe about when Mary sits at Jesus’ feet while Martha has to serve them. Martha is actually asking Jesus to speak to Mary because she is behaving like a man and not like a woman.

The house was the woman’s domain. When she went out, she stepped into the public area which was mainly the domain of the man. Then she had to cover her face with a veil in order not to tempt men from other families and thereby shaming her own family.

The man’s task, on the other hand, lay outside the house in public life. He had to represent his family in public and he had to earn money to buy food and other things. He represented his family’s honour outside the house. Especially the oldest sons were important, for they had to become the family representatives in their turn. When we keep in mind that a woman could not really represent her family’s honour outside the home, but that it had to be done by a male member of the family, we can understand why boys were so important and were normally pampered to such an extent by their mothers (read Lk 2:48,51; 7:13,15). In Luke 11:27 a woman calls out that the woman who bore Jesus in her body was fortunate. The woman who said so was happy because Jesus’ behaviour redounded to his mother’s honour! That is why Sarah was so friendly towards Ravi.

Children could not go where they pleased. They belonged to the less important groups in society and were therefore not allowed everywhere. That is why the disciples try to send the children away when the children want to come to Jesus (Mt 19:13 par).

But there were not only places for men, women and children. There were also holy and unholy places. The temple, for example, was the most holy place. That is why Paul (Acts 21:28) was arrested in the temple—he had sullied the holy place by, according to the accusation, bringing Trophimus of Ephesus into the temple. Graves normally had to be avoided, because contact with dead bones, regarded as unclean, (cf in this regard Jesus’ sharp denouncement of the Pharisees in Mt 23:27) was best avoided. See also Romans 3:13. In some cases the graves were well-tended (Mt 23:29; Acts 2:29).

These facts open up interesting possibilities when we get to the difficult passages about women in 1 Corinthians.

Let us consider the example of the head covering which Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 11:2–16. Paul says that the woman has to wear a head covering during worship as a sign of respect for and acknowledgement of her husband’s authority over her. If she did not do so, she could just as well shave her hair. The question is why there were women who did not want to wear head coverings during worship. It may be that they were libertines who rebelled against men’s authority because of certain circumstances. Yet the riddle can be solved by thinking in terms of public and private places. In her own home it was not necessary for the woman to wear a head covering. (Head coverings must in any case not be confused with today’s hats. Many women in ancient times wore decorations on their heads and these corresponded to today’s hats. But the head coverings of which Paul speaks were worn over the hats of that time.) When the woman moved outside her house in a public area, she had to wear a head covering. But Paul says in 1 Corinthians 16:19 that the congregations gathered in houses (see also Rom 16:5; Acts 20:8). The house was the woman’s domain. There she was allowed to take off her veil.

The congregation gathered in the houses—perhaps as many as three families in a house (it is unlikely that they totalled more than 20 people). But the private area of the house would, because of the assembly of believers, become a public area in which the people prayed. After all, strangers could walk in at any time, according to 1 Corinthians 14:23. In public areas women had to wear veils. Women who did not wear veils in public, were usually regarded as prostitutes. Prostitutes were also often punished by having their heads shaved. (For a woman of that time it was a great disgrace and afterwards she was, of course, not so attractive to men.)

What happened in the congregation? A woman was used to not wearing a veil at home. But her home changed into a public place when the congregation gathered there. What would someone who came in from outside think when he saw women at a public meeting without veils? In that case the women might as well have shaven their heads. That is why Paul asks them to wear a veil during worship, even if they were in their own homes.

Contemporary customs could also provide us with an interesting explanation for Paul’s refusal to let women speak in the congregations (1 Cor 14:34–36), in spite of the fact that he says in 1 Corinthians 11:5 that some women prophesy during the gatherings. Apparently the women in Corinth actively took part in the conversations of the assembly. But when Paul speaks about order in the congregation, he asks that women should not be allowed to speak.

Let us assume again that the congregation did not gather in a synagogue or in a public place, but in the privacy of a home. At home the wife was free to talk and to discuss matters with her husband, as Paul himself implies in 1 Corinthians 14:35. In a public place it was the man’s duty to converse and take the lead. As a man had to stay out of the kitchen, the woman had to stay out of the public discussions. By saying too much, she would violate the social boundaries which were determined by the society of the day. That would disturb the order. The women probably felt they could take part in discussions in their own homes. After all, it was their place. But Paul asks them not to talk, among other things for the sake of order, during the gatherings of the congregation (even if the congregation gathered in their homes) and in that way to respect the public nature of the gathering.

The family

The family was not only the nucleus of the ancient world, but also served as a basis for the New Testament church. In the various New Testament writings matrimony, the role of children, prevalent notions about public and private places, and the position of the children as extensions of their parents are used and given new meaning to explain the relationship between God and his church, as well as the mutual friendships between Christians.


4    Macro-window 3
Some general values

WINDOW 19    People donot
make mistakes

WINDOW 20    The boss is always right!

WINDOW 21    Man also has a heart

WINDOW 22    What you do show who you are

WINDOW 23    People cannot do without me



4    Macro-window 3
Some general values


The ancient world had very clear boundaries for everything and everyone. From childhood people were taught their roles and how to behave properly. These roles were very stereotyped and changed little from generation to generation. For instance, subordinates were always expected to remain respectful towards their superiors. When disciples or pupils rejected their teachers’ authority, or disobeyed their employers, it was regarded as dishonourable behaviour.

Mediterranean society was organized mainly around the big cities. These pre-industrial cities were the administrative and political centres and mostly had some or other central temple as an expression of the religion of the potentates in that country or area. Smallholders came to sell their products in the cities and many people worked there for artisans and small businessmen in their shops.

In the first century world the purpose of labour was not to get ahead in life or to better your social station. Labour was the means of keeping your family alive and to maintain your inherited status. Ambition could easily be regarded as dishonourable conduct. Others could easily think that you wanted to gather essential provisions like food or land (which, according to the ancient notion of limited means, was always available in small amounts) at their expense.

The primary values of the Mediterranean world were honour and shame and these played a large role in the way people worked. It was important for workers not to make mistakes or, when they did, they had to make sure that they were not caught out, for it could mar their good name. It was also not so important to finish work within a certain time. It was much more important that what you had already finished would be approved of by others. Because your acts were seen as an extension of your personality, criticizing someone’s work also meant criticizing him. In this macro-window the focus will be on the following general values and attitudes within the Mediterranean world of the first century:

•    People do not make mistakes (window 19)

•    Respect for seniority (window 20)

•    The inside of your body is a home for other powers (window 21)

•    External deeds as a reflection of your personality (window 22)

•    People are irreplaceable (window 23).

We do not make mistakes

One morning, while Jack and Joy were visiting Antioch, they persuaded one of the locals to take them through the city with his horse and cart. While they sat looking at all the people and buildings, someone came riding towards them in the narrow street. This man was so involved in the conversation he was having with the people on his own cart that he did not even see Jack and Joy approaching. In spite of all their warnings he crashed into them. Fortunately nobody was hurt, but the two drivers immediately fell to arguing about whose fault it was. Jack and Joy knew the other driver was the guilty party, but he refused to accept the blame. In the end he stuck to his remark that fate had caused this accident and everyone had to accept his explanation.

Why was this person who had caused the accident not prepared to accept responsibility for his mistake?

Make the right choice!

In the first century world rewards were given for people’s achievements. Therefore, individuals had to avoid mistakes, or make certain that their mistakes would go unnoticed. To make a mistake in public could not only taint your own name, but also that of your group. The result was that people did not easily admit to being wrong, especially not in front of outsiders, as we have seen in our story.

To admit your faults and weaknesses in public was usually seen as a confession of ineptitude. That is why Mediterranean people preferred to name fate as the cause of the problem. Fate, or even God’s providence, or the goddess of fate, Tugé, were held responsible for the most important events (positive as well as negative) in the existence of individuals, groups or nations. Yet, while the gods were the cause of the major events in the Mediterranean world, it did not mean that people had no personal responsibility. As we have seen, people were severely disciplined within their groups if they violated the rules of the group.

Mediterranean people were often not eager to take the initiative in public situations; they were afraid of making mistakes and tarnishing their good name. The general attitude was a passive one. Important decisions were usually left to the group. Pilate’s behaviour during Jesus’ trial is a first rate example. He is not prepared to decide on Jesus’ guilt or innocence, but simply leaves the verdict to the crowd (see Mk 15:6–16).

According to the New Testament the most important, and the most difficult decision which people had to make was to join the early church. Your individual choice had serious consequences, as you probably had to turn your back on the family religion, which was regarded as a great shame. That is why Jesus remarks in Matthew 10:35–37 that he is going to bring division between a man and his father, and between a daughter and her mother and mother-in-law.

In the book of Acts it is clear that the early Christian missionaries usually brought the Gospel to the heads of households first, probably to ease the weight of the decision for the other members of the family (see Acts 16:31–34). If the head of a family then joined a Christian group, the rest of the family would respect his choice (and follow him!).

New Testament authors continually remind the Christian communities that there is now a difference between the rules and standards which they have to obey, and those of outsiders, who usually belonged to the sinful world (see 1 Jn 2:15–17). Great pressure is put on them to make the right choices in this context. For instance, Paul writes to the Corinthians: today is the day of salvation (2 Cor 6:2), and pleads with them to accept Christ’s salvation (2 Cor 5:20). In the book of Hebrews the readers are also summoned to immediately make the right choices when it came to faith (see also Heb 3–4).

Together with the pressure from the New Testament writers in their communities to make the right decisions, there was also greater freedom to talk about their own faults and weaknesses. Especially Paul, in this context, spoke frankly about his own weaknesses, like personal setbacks, failures and problems (see 2 Cor 6 and 2 Cor 11–13). He now redefines his own suffering as honourable behaviour, for God has seen fit to paradoxically show his great power within human weakness (2 Cor 12:8–10). Paul finds the best example of this in the events on the cross where God actually saved people when Jesus was crucified as a frail human being (2 Cor 13:4). Believers are therefore called upon to have compassion with others because of their weaknesses and to assist one another (see Rom 12:9–21).

The boss is always right!

Jack loved to go to the city square to listen to the philosophers’ debates. One morning in Rome he was amazed at the behaviour of a group of young scholars. First they argued loudly about the exact meaning of the term Logos. (Logos is the Greek term which is translated with Word in Jn 1). They then reached a more or less unanimous verdict. After this, an older person joined them. From their deferential conduct towards the older man, Jack deduced that he was their teacher. Then one of the young men asked how the teacher understood the word Logos, and got an answer which was the direct opposite of what his students had just agreed upon. Yet, instead of differing from him, the young philosophers immediately concurred with their teacher and complimented him on his great insight.

Why did not one of them dare to differ from the teacher?

Know your place

In the first century world it was regarded as dishonourable to oppose your betters in public. A man would remain silent rather than bring shame on his head by dissenting from someone of higher station and then shaming him by proving him wrong. In the Mediterranean world it was only fitting for people of equal rank to openly differ from one another or to challenge each other’s authority. Two pupils or two teachers of the law with equal status could differ from one another, but not subordinates from their betters.

Children were taught great respect for older people. The Jewish religion even commanded children to show respect for the aged, out of respect for the Lord (see Lev 19:32). Mediterranean people thought that children were too young to be as wise as their parents or other respected adults. In Proverbs 1–9 it is emphasized that children have to listen to their father’s instruction in order to become wise. The children were also expected to tend their aging parents and, eventually, to bury them. This last act was not only one of the most important duties of a Jewish son, but also the last homage he paid his father.

The New Testament authors were well acquainted with the hierarchical structures of the Mediterranean world. According to them God had the highest position in the invisible world. Thus believers owed Him absolute obedience. As the only begotten Son of God, and as the head of the church, Jesus was of course worshipped and revered as God (Col 1:18; Heb 1:1–14).

In the early church there were also hierarchical positions. The apostles were in the most important positions because they had been eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life and work (Acts 1:20–26); then came dignitaries like the prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers (Eph 4:11), as well as overseers or elders (1 Tim 3:1–7) and deacons (1 Tim 3:8–13). Group members were, in their turn, obliged to show the necessary esteem for all persons in positions of authority in the church, and to obey their instructions (1 Thes 1:6–10;1 Tim 5:17). They also had to treat older people in the group with respect. Timothy is called upon to admonish an older man as if he were his own father, and to treat an older woman like his mother (1 Tim 5:1–2). He is also told to teach the younger group members to provide for their own parents and grandparents, because God wanted this (1 Tim 5:3–4).

Apart from the Christians’ obligations towards the members of their group, they also had to conduct themselves correctly towards outsiders in positions of authority. They had to pay their taxes faithfully (Mk 12:13–17), and pray for all who ruled and had power (2 Tim 2:2), and they had to obey those who had been granted authority over them (Rom 13:1–7).

Man also has a heart

On their journey through Galilee, Jack and Joy came upon a crowd gathering around a single man. He was screaming hysterically and foaming at the mouth. Someone else was standing in front of him and shouting the names of strange gods while making all kinds of gestures with his hands. When Jack asked a bystander what was going on, the bystander explained that an exorcist was freeing the lunatic from demons. He was doing this by mentioning the names of as many gods as he knew and at the same time keeping the demons away from himself with of all kinds of rituals.

Why did the exorcist perform such strange rituals?

Under new management

People in the ancient world not only believed in many gods, but also in the existence of evil powers who could harm one. The Jews saw Satan, also known as Azazel and Belial, as the head of the evil forces who could at any time possess them. Because the inside of their bodies was regarded as a home, they had to be wary, for evil spirits could easily enter them through the apertures of the body. Adultery and contact with defiled persons were especially risky, because it could lead to demonic possession. One also had to avoid places where demons liked to stay, like deserts and water, and animals like wolves, snakes or dogs.

Because of the dangers of demonic possession, there were many exorcists in the ancient world. They used all kinds of methods to free people, like giving them homeopathic medicines. It was believed that evil forces were scared off when people ate small pieces of the elements in which demons lived, like earth, water or plants. A popular amulet was the so-called Evil Eye, and people knew a gesture of a fist with the little finger and forefinger extended (the so-called safe sign). The Evil Eye was an amulet in the shape of an eye which people wore around their necks to show in the direction of anyone who they suspected of witchcraft or demonic possession. The gesture with the extended little finger and forefinger was also to fend off evil. Exorcists sometimes mentioned the names of every conceivable god to intimidate the evil spirits and to drive them out (cf the conduct of the sons of Sceva in Acts 19:13–16).

The New Testament shares the first century idea of the existence of the Evil One, as well as the idea that one’s body is a place in which forces can make a home. Jesus tells a story in Luke 11:24–26 of an evil spirit who leaves someone and then, after a many travels, comes back to find the house still empty. He then goes to fetch seven other spirits to come and live with him there.

Jesus himself drove out many evil spirits. At the same time He also taught people that his kingdom was stronger than Satan’s. In Luke 11:21–22 He says that He has come to take over the strong man’s house by robbing him of all his weapons.

The early church believed that Jesus had triumphed over all kinds of evil forces, whatever shape they took, by dying on the cross (see Col 2:15). Revelation 12 says that the devil and his forces were thrown out of the invisible control room of the world—heaven—when he ascended to heaven. The early Christians not only believed that they shared in Jesus’ triumph over Satan (2 Cor 2:14–17); they also believed that the insides of their bodies were not accessible to evil forces any more. This space was now completely filled with God’s Spirit (2 Cor 6:14–7:1). In fact, Paul reminds the Corinthians several times that their bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit and are now under his control (1 Cor 3:16; 6:18–20).

Because the first Christians believed that evil forces could no longer possess them, they did not carry out exorcisms on one another. Yet they did believe that evil spirits could possess unbelieving outsiders. That is why Acts tells of how Paul drove out demons from outsiders (see Acts 16:18; 19:12).

What you do show who you are

At the inn in Athens where they were staying Jack and Joy told the innkeeper that their next destination was Crete. He did not look ecstatic. “You must keep your wits about you with those Cretans, they are the biggest liars in the world,” he said. When Susan asked why he said so, he replied that the Cretans told everyone they meet that the tomb of Zeus is on the island. “Of course this isn’t so”, he added hastily. When Jack and Joy were walking away, Jack told Joy that even the apostle Paul in Titus 1:12 quotes the philosopher Epimenides who, as long ago as the sixth century before Christ, had said that the Cretans are always slothful, beastly, and unfit for anything good.

Why did people in ancient times judge others so quickly by their deeds?

The right people do the right things

In the first century your general behaviour, how you did your work, what you said and what you did in public, were seen as an extension of your personality. Your conduct immediately showed what type of a person you were. Mediterranean people were therefore engrossed with their public behaviour, as we have seen. When they worked, it was not important to complete a job within a set time. It was much more important that any completed job would be approved by all. A good employer would therefore not be concerned about all that was not yet finished; he would rather know that what had already been done had been done well.

When a person’s work or behaviour was negatively judged, it was seen as a judgement of the person. When the innkeeper, or Paul or Epimenides, in our story above, criticized the conduct of the people of Crete, they judged the people themselves.

Criticism had a certain impact on the group to which the criticized person belonged, as well as to his employer. A bad worker would convey a negative image of his employer to the outside world, while a good worker strengthened his employer’s good name. The same went for the public behaviour of group members. Compare the critical question put to Jesus in Mark 2:18—why his disciples do not fast while the Pharisees and the disciples of John do practise fasting. See also the criticism levelled against Jesus by the Pharisees because his disciples pluck ears of wheat on the Sabbath (Mk 2:23–28). This type of criticism not only questions the integrity of the disciples, but also that of the lifestyle of Jesus, their master.

Just as in the broader Mediterranean world, the New Testament did not separate people’s deeds from their persons, Jesus said that a person’s deeds are a window into his interior existence. It is like the fruit on a tree. A good tree, that is, one whose inner life is focused on God, bears good fruit, whereas a bad tree, that is, someone whose heart is not set on God, bears bad fruit (Mt 7:1–20). Here Jesus used an ancient belief that your eye sheds light. He says that if your eye lets darkness into your heart, all within you becomes dark (Mt 6:22–23). That is why he says that you must set your heart—your emotions, will and thoughts—on God, to make your deeds a true reflection of what is happening in your heart (Mt 6:19–21).

Often in the New Testament the believer’s conduct is used as a measure of his internal life (1 Jn 2:9). Especially in the letter by James good deeds as an illustration of your faith is emphasized. Thus believers behave correctly when they help people in need (Jas 2:14–26), and control their own tongues (Jas 3:1–12). Group members whose conduct go against the rules and standards of the early church, are accused of being liars and eventually banned from their ranks (1 Jn 2:11; 3:7–10).

Yet the New Testament warns against a wrong judgment of others. When a person’s heart is full of darkness, he always judges people wrongly. Jesus says that you first have to remove the log from your own eye before you start taking out splinters from other people’s eyes. James also warns against the selfish judgment of another person because of their outward appearance, dress, or social station (Jas 2:1–10).

People cannot do without me

Jack and Joy had so fallen in love with Jerusalem that they decided to pay it a second visit. At the toll gate outside the city they had to stand in a long queue, just like the first time, to pay tax on the wares they took into the city. After an hour or so in the hot sun they eventually reached the gate. Jack saw that the same man who had manned the point the previous time, was doing it once again. Irritated after the long wait, Jack asked the official whether his colleagues were on holiday, as the queue was moving so slowly. “I am the only one who collects the taxes for my employer, Levi ben Jakov,” he answered.

“But why don’t you get help? Then people will not have to wait so long outside,” Jack asked.

But the official quickly replied, “Never. If I do that, I get the sack.”

Why did the official not want anyone to help him lighten his workload?

I am irreplaceable

In general the Mediterranean people regarded themselves as irreplaceable, or at least they tried their utmost to become irreplaceable. If the official at the gate had asked for extra aid, it would have been tantamount to a confession that he could be replaced. Our modern idea is that no man is irreplaceable; the ancients believed exactly the opposite and tried to live accordingly.

Leaders in the Mediterranean society made certain that they would remain irreplaceable. Land barons and political potentates provided for the poor with all kinds of donations and in that way saw to it that their name be well publicized. Religious figures also rendered themselves irreplaceable by asserting that they possessed special knowledge and were the receivers of direct divine revelations, as well as uttering all kinds of prophecies. The ability of the well-known prophetesses of the god Apollo at Delphi to tell the future made them a big attraction in the ancient world. The first century Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, who had been a Jewish general in the war against Rome before joining the Romans later on, made himself irreplaceable by prophesying that the head of the Roman army, Vespasian, would shortly become the new emperor. When his prophecy came true, the Roman general treated him with great esteem and allowed him to write the histories which were famous even in his day.

Of course persons of a high social station did not endanger their positions when they employed the services of persons of a lower station. Because people in lower positions could never challenge or threaten the honour of others in higher positions, the latter could employ them without any trouble, or ask them to perform certain tasks.

When someone in the ancient world was given a job or task in public, he did not easily refuse, even if he had no notion of how to tackle it. Because a man’s behaviour was an extension of his person, as we have seen in the previous window, any indication by him that he could not perform a given task reflected negatively on the rest of his conduct as father and husband. A good example is the behaviour of Jesus’ disciples in Mark 9:14–29. When someone asks them to drive out the demon from his son, they agree to do it, rather than admitting that they are not able to. Unfortunately they are not successful, so that Jesus has to preserve their honour by doing it Himself.

People in the Mediterranean world were expected to conduct themselves according to their social stations. A doctor had to be able to heal his patients, an exorcist had to be able to free people from demonic possession, and so on. If a doctor realized that he would not be able to heal someone, he would totally ignore any request to visit the sick person, rather than put his honour at stake. In the light of this idea we have to understand the conduct of the people during Jesus’ crucifixion. Because Jesus openly stated that he was the Messiah, they expect Him to behave like the Messiah. That is why the teachers of the law and the crowd mocked Him—he could not free Himself from the cross (Mt 27:39–44). His powerlessness on the cross means great dishonour for Him. That is why his enemies insisted on his being crucified.

People were regarded as irreplaceable in the early church.To illustrate this point, Paul uses the image of the body in 1Corinthians 12. Every member of the group is like a body member. The diversity of the body members, and the function peculiar to each, Paul sees as a good illustration for the diversity of people and gifts in the church, as well as the different tasks that have to be performed (1 Cor 12:12–26). Just as the body cannot function effectively without one of his members, in the same way the church can only, according to Paul, function well if each member does his duty.

Within this organic image of the church every member is irreplaceable. When one member does not do his duty, a gap is left. Paul asserts the opposite of our modern idea that people and means are easily replaceable. The ancient notion of limited means implied that only limited amounts of each item, like land, food, honour, and even life, was available and could not be replaced; so Paul asserts that people who neglect their duty in the church leave an irreplaceable gap and in that way hampers the church’s work.

In the early church the apostles were especially seen as irreplaceable because of their first hand knowledge of Jesus’ words or deeds and because of the fact that Jesus appeared to them after his resurrection (1 Cor 15:3–7). Their preaching (Acts 2:14–24) and miracles (Acts 5:12–16), as well as their role as leaders when arguments had to be settled (Acts 15), further underlined their honourable positions as pillars (Gal 2:9) of the Christian society. Paul struggled to prove his apostolic authority to his congregations, for some did not recognise him as an apostle (see 1 Cor 4 and 9). Therefore he also offered his services as manager and accomplice to God, among other things. He saw himself as someone to whom all the sacred mysteries have been entrusted (1 Cor 4:1; 2 Cor 6:1). He emphasized his power by claiming that Jesus also appeared to him (1 Cor 15:8–11), and that God himself has entrusted the gospel to him (Gal. 1:15–16)

Some general values

Job security in the first century mainly depended on your ability not to make mistakes. Because of the danger of too much personal initiative, individuals did not like making important decisions. They left that to senior persons or to the rest of the group. When people were asked to perform a certain task, they did not easily refuse, because that would leave a negative impression on others.

In the early Christian communities the New Testament authors used these ideas to put great pressure on group members to make correct decisions and placing the interests of their group first. The believers were taught, among other things, to respect others in the church and to show by their deeds that their bodies were now under the internal control of God’s Spirit. The need for every member’s contribution was also underlined.


5    Macro-window 4
Time is not what it was

WINDOW 24    What happened to my watch?

WINDOW 25    Time to learn something about time

WINDOW 26    Problems! What now?



5    Macro-window 4
Time is not what it was


The approach by a culture or social group to time is more important than we are inclined to think.

In the ancient Mediterranean world people preferred to live in the present. Eight out of every ten people were very poor and lived from day to day. In any case, they worked almost the whole day to earn enough to buy food (in Mt 20:1–16 mention is made of a 12-hour working day in which manual work was done.) For the people the present included much more than it does for us. To us the present is the seconds on the watch, ticking away. Ancient Mediterranean man saw the present as something which flowed into and was part of the past and the future. If something was, for some reason, at the point of happening, it was already experienced as part of the present. The past is also clearly rooted in the experiences of the present.

Neither was time measured with timepieces, but with relation to important people. The time of important people was always the right time.

When we remember that there are a great many references to time in the New Testament and that the New Testament mentions many things that are to happen or had happened, it is important to know how the Mediterranean people approached time. Misunderstandings in reading the Bible can easily develop, because modern man’s approach differs much from the approach of ancient Mediterranean man.

What happened to my watch?

Joy and Hannah, Joachim’s wife, went to Sepphoris for the day. The town was much larger than the village of Nazareth. Hannah was constantly talking about what the city had been through in the past. Hannah also knew exactly in which important person’s time a statue was erected or a building raised. Joy felt a little ashamed, for she did not know her history half as well as Hannah. She could more or less date certain buildings, but who the prime minister was at the time she did not know at all, for what did that have to do with buildings?

Even though it seemed as if Hannah had all the time in the world—it was already half past three when they went to have lunch—she suddenly began hurrying just before sunset. Joy still wanted to visit a pleasant little shop that sold the prettiest table mats, but Hannah dragged her away. They had to go home immediately. After a mad rush in the car they had just stepped into the house, when the sun went down.

It had been a lovely day, although Joy did wish she could buy Hannah a watch to help her organize her time better.

A calendar, not on paper, but in nature

Joy was right. Hannah did not possess a watch and that indeed meant that she—and all the people in the Mediterranean area—did not view time as we do. Because we have watches, we are much more aware of time and we are also much more specific about it.

The circumstances of the time make it easier to understand how and why time was once seen so differently from now.

Ancient man did not own a watch. Neither was it necessary in everyday situations to measure time exactly. Save for a few sundials here and there (certainly not on every person’s arm or even on every corner), people depended on nature to help them with the rhythm of their programmes. External matters like sunsets (Mt 14:15), or sunrises (Mt 28:1), the position of the moon and the sun, were the ways in which people read time (see Mt 24:32). Time was also read internally, as when one became hungry or sleepy. This meant that time was not very exact, and this had an influence on how people thought about it. We find very few indications of time in the New Testament—even in Paul’s or Luke the historian’s writings. This underlines the other mentality of the ancient Mediterranean man; time was not such an exact subject.

Uniformity in people’s attitude towards time did not exist. The days were divided up differently by different groups. For the Romans a new day started at midnight, while for a Jew it started at sunset. This makes interpretation difficult in the time of the New Testament. If the sixth hour is mentioned, according to what time schedule should it be judged? (See Jn 4:6 in which it could be six at night or twelve noon.)

Yet we must not think that there were no time schedules. Especially the Romans learned a lot about measuring time. For military purposes the day was carefully divided into parts. We also read of the time units of three hours in which a day was allotted for the sake of watchmen (Lk 12:38; Acts 3:1; Mt 20:1–9; 27:45). In the story of the labourers who were hired at different times of the day, we even read of an eleventh hour (Matt 20:6). The new translation speaks of five o’ clock (17:00). Here the Jewish time scale—the Jews counted their hours from sunrise, has been adapted to our modern one. Therefore our nine o’clock is their third hour, our twelve o’clock is their sixth hour). The eleventh hour shows that the Jews could make fine distinctions in time if it became necessary. Yet Matthew 20:6 is the only place in the New Testament where the eleventh hour is spoken of so exactly. In the parable this subtle reference to time has, naturally, an important function, and that is why it is special in the context. Of days they kept more accurate record, as in Acts (see 21:27; 24:1; 25:1). The sun helped them to do this.

Joy had no call to feel ashamed at Hannah’s knowledge of historical names. For Hannah it was important to remember everything. Events were her calendar, because in Jesus’ time there was no uniform almanac. When you wanted to say when a thing had happened, you mentioned the names of important people as an aid to say more or less when it had taken place. In our time older people still talk about the great depression or the big flu. Luke 1:5 starts with the words: In the time of Herod, King of Judea … (See Lk 2:1–2; 3:1). Neither does Luke keep an accurate calendar when he describes the life of Jesus. He talks about Once … (Lk 5:1); One day … (Lk 5:12); On one of those days … (5:17); One Sabbath … (6:1) and so on. Matthew also talks about early in the morning or late in the afternoon (Mt 27:1 and 57—he does not say exactly how late). These references are not vague because the Evangelists wanted it that way, but reflects the habit common to the ancients of not keeping time very accurately. When a thing happened was not so important. Rather, it was important that it had happened. This fact tells us much about how the Gospel was written, and how we should read it.

When Joy thought hard about the rush homeward she realized: this is Friday afternoon. The sabbath starts at sunset! With that another important facet of the Mediterranean people’s approach to time was brought to the fore. Their lives were mainly regulated and controlled by holy times. Especially the Sabbath and feast days were important. Then they conducted themselves in a special way. We could say that the day took control of their lives. It became a master controlling man. That was why Jesus criticized the Jewish view of the Sabbath and said that the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath (Mk 2:27–28). Feasts and other holy times were indeed important for the lives of the people; this we can see when John in his Gospel uses feasts to give us our bearings (Jn 2:13,23; 5:1; 7:2; 10:22; 11:55; 12:1; 13:1 in most of the cases he also uses the symbolism of the feast to underline his message).

Time to learn something about time

After all the hospitality they had enjoyed, Jack and Joy decided to hold a reception. They decided on a barbecue. Invitations were sent out for just after sundown.

It was a frustrating experience. Jack saw to it that the meat was ready just after sundown and at the same time Joy took her stuffed potatoes out of the oven, but the guests arrived in fits and starts. As late as ten o’ clock the last one made an appearance. By then Jack’s meat was tough and Joy’s potatoes were cold and hard. They felt about as bad as the food tasted.

Could people not make an appointment and stick to it? It seemed to them as if the first century Mediterranean people felt differently about time than we do today.

Important persons are time

As we have said, in the Mediterranean world of the first century people’s approach to time was quite different from ours. They thought about time in a less exact way than we do with our accurate watches. An hour or two either way did not matter much then. After sundown could mean anything between sunset and bedtime. That may have been the reason why it was the custom in ancient times to invite people and then, if you were ready, to send a messenger to go and call them (see Lk 14:16). Appointments was seen in quite a different light from what we are used to. If Joy and Jack had only but known!

Station and position was also important in the society of the time. That was probably the reason why time was connected to the importance of a person. The inferior could not hurry the VIP nor bind him to a time. The distance between people was too great for that. Even the father of the house could not be hurried in this way, for the authority to make decisions lay with him. The subordinates had to wait until the important person decided to do something. It was his right and privilege to keep people waiting. When he decided that the time was now, then now meant in time. Thus there was a much vaguer concept of time in the society of the first century.

The time mode in the ancient Mediterranean world can therefore be described as event time, in the sense that time for something was ripe at the moment that it happened or when the important person made it happen.

That is why we do not read of specific appointments in the New Testament, but we do read of intentions which are a little more circumscribed than usual (see Jas 4:13–17). Paul lets the Romans know that he will go to visit them, but does not mention a day or a time (Rom 15:24; note the vagueness in 2 Jn 12; 3 Jn 13; before winter—2 Tim 4:21; Tit 3:12; Jesus does not tell his disciples exactly when the Spirit is coming; they just have to go and wait in Jerusalem—Acts 1:4–5).

Closely connected to this is the fact that the Lord does not tell us when He will come again. He only says that we have to be patient and watchful (see Mt 24:43–44, 25:13; Jas 5:8), in other words, we do have to show that we take God’s intention to come, or his promise, seriously by being ready for the event. This is event time, in other words, it will happen when the time is right.

Why the Son says that He does not know the time of the second coming is naturally a very difficult question to answer (Mt 24:36). The ancient view of time, however, presents us with a possible and intriguing solution. The VIP decides when what will happen. Jesus is not showing ignorance, He is showing how important the Father is. If Jesus or the angels could bind the Father to a time, He had to be greater than the Father indeed!

We cannot tell God when to come. He will decide for Himself; it is the right of an important person to do that with an appointment. When the disciples ask Jesus about the reconstruction of the kingdom of Israel, Jesus answers that it is not for them to know when that will happen, for God has to determine the time for it. The same reply is given to the martyrs under the altar in Revelation 6:10–11. God does not allow himself to be bound to a time (contrary to what many people would like), but binds the time to Himself. He decides what happens when. This may be the background for the assertion that one day is like a thousand and vice versa (2 Pet 3:8), because God is greater and higher than time in the sense that He does not allow Himself to be bound to it. In the next verse (2 Pet 3:9) it is indeed said that God does not postpone his promise (and break it in the process), but in his mercy He decides that the time is not yet ripe. Thus we live within God’s appointment time. We can only see to it that we are ready (Rev 22:20; Mk 13:33–37). The vagueness about the second coming exactly confirms the general attitudes to time in the Mediterranean world of the first century.

Something that can possibly be seen in this context is the “exegesis” by the writer of Hebrews (Heb 3:7) of Psalm 95:7. He quotes the psalm which mentions today as the time when God warns his people to obey Him. As long as there is a today, the believers have to exhort each other to remain faithful to Him (Heb 3:13). This today, however, is not just one day, but a period of time—for as long as God determines that it is today or the right time. (Note 2 Cor 6:1–2.) God is not the subordinate of time (see 2 Pet 3:8), and decides how long today will be.

The same authority over time and history is reflected in Revelation. After the heavenly glory which God promises has been described, Revelation 21:6 states, It has already happened. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. God is above time; time is his subordinate. Thus he can, as in Revelation 21:6, reach ahead in time in divine prophetic fulfilment.

The control God or an important person has over time, in other words, that the important person is the time and not the other way around, is also seen in the handling of time in the Gospel according to John. There the hour is often mentioned, and usually refers to the death of Jesus. Jesus knows whether his hour has come or not (Jn 2:4; 7:6; 13:1; 17:1), which in the ancient Mediterranean concept of time shows that Jesus and his Father are in control.

This certainly did not mean that ancient man could do as he pleased and that there were no limits to time. Appointments were then more vague than those we make today, but there were limits. Note the trouble Paul was in when he changed his mind about visiting the Corinthians in 2 Corinthians 1:15–17. His line of defence was that God, who is greater than man, determined his time schedule and that the Corinthians should not draw the wrong conclusions about his loyalty to them as a group (see Lk 14:21). And the host did become angry when his guests stayed away from the feast, although he had not fixed a time. Yet it is assumed that there were limits within which the invited guests had to be ready for the host’s message that everything was set for the feast. This could also be the context of 2 Peter 3:9, where Peter is careful not to make it sound as if God has put off his promise to come again, which would mean that God will not fulfil his intention.

The story about the tardy bridegroom and the ten virgins is also a good illustration of this idea of time (Mt 25:1–13). The bridegroom did not tell his bride exactly when he would come. Yet she knew the limits—somewhere in the night. It was also typical of a bridegroom to take his time. It was his right as the central social person at the wedding. He would then always be in time, for when he came it was in time. The story also shows that when the bridegroom comes, all who come after are late.

Problems! What now?

Jack was amazed. Joachim differed from one of his friends, Moishe, about how a matter had to be understood. They fell into a serious argument, but it was more about what had been the custom with their parents and forebears, rather than an attempt to find a solution. When Moses and Abraham were also drawn into the argument, Jack felt that this was a bit much. After all, these were two adults who could think for themselves; they were living their own lives then and not in the past. He felt he had to help to get the conversation back on track. He chose his words carefully and showed them the consequences of their conduct, especially for the future. Jack felt afterwards that he had really summed up the problem and had presented them with a good solution with an eye to the future.

Yet their reaction amazed him. The other two looked at Jack in surprise, without saying a word, for a moment or two. Then, as if they had not heard him at all, they fell to arguing again.

Well then let them argue until they reach Adam under the tree! Jack thought, but it did not help him to shake off the feeling that he had made a very stupid remark in their eyes.

Present, then past, then future!

We have already seen that time was viewed as event time. The time for something to happen was when it happened. That was why the people were people of the present. For them that day, the present, was the most important time. What was happening then was reality. When we think about it, we see that modern man has a quite different approach. We live for the future. We plan in detail; if we attain something, we look ahead to the next step; we live for our holiday in three weeks’ time, and so on. Matthew 6:34 reflects something of the mind of ancient man: Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Live in and for today! When tomorrow becomes today, you can worry about how you will tackle the problems at hand. In any case, you already have today’s worries. Do not tackle tomorrow’s problems as well. Take each day as it comes. (This was wise counsel in a society where eight out of every ten people lived under the breadline and could not be sure that they would have wages enough to buy food.) However, in Matthew 6:25–34 Jesus says we are in God’s care. He is the one who decides about our future and our present, as is written in James 4:13–17. With this attitude, Jesus says, you have to pray for your daily bread (Mt 6:11).

Mediterranean man was therefore someone who strongly bound himself to the present. That was most important. Then the past followed. The past, however, directly influenced the present. Only after that the future became relevant, when the emphasis would be placed even more on the past. Yet this did not mean that the present was not the most important point in time for ancient Mediterranean man.

What happened when the problems in the present became so great that you did not know how to proceed? The answer was simple: search the past. The light from the past clarified the present. The past was the testing ground for the present. There the forebears of the people now living had struggled with life. Human nature, after all, remained the same and God extends across time. We could say that ancient man stood with his face to the past and his back to the future. This meant that he constantly had to measure his identity, all that happened to him, his conduct, and right and wrong, by what had happened in the past. That determined his present and bore him into the future. It was like a ship filling its sails with the winds of the past.

No wonder that Joachim and Moishe were so interested in the past. There lay their tradition of right and wrong. They had to steer their lives according to what they saw there. Moses was the important giver of the law, under which the Jews included the traditions (Jn 1:17; 7:22–23) and Abraham was the patriarch. If something could be taken back to Moses or Abraham, the problem was solved, for they were the forebears of Joachim and Moishe alike. Jack understood nothing of all this and that was why the two looked at him so strangely. Paul, however, understood it well. In Galatians 3–4 he uses Abraham as an important part of his argument. If Abraham could be saved by faith, without the law (which only came afterwards, in Moses’ time) then surely the same would be possible for us (Gal 3:6–7; see Rom 4).

Closely related to this was genealogy. Because the past was so important, someone’s past, his genealogy, said much about him. That is why genealogy (family trees) was so important. In Matthew 1:1–17 the family tree of Jesus is taken back to father Abraham, and in Luke 3:23–28 back to Adam, the son of God. By looking at your past you knew who you were in the present and how you had to act then. With his family tree the Jesus’ descent was gloriously and firmly written in the past. In the Gospel of John, the ignorant Jews refer to Jesus’ humble origins in Nazareth (Jn 1:46), in Galilee (7:52), and as being only the son of Joseph and Mary (Jn 1:45; 6:42; Lk 3:23; Mt 13:55–56 par). The Jews’ surprise stemmed from the fact that Jesus was breaking away from his past by what He said and did.

Often tenets or laws are referred to as old, as when John in his first letter writes of the old law the believers have been taught (1 Jn 2:7; cf also Mt 5:21,33). Moses had given laws from of old (Acts 15:21) and that is why they could not be queried. (The old serpent, Satan, was, of course, also there from of old—Rev 12:9; 20:2. This did not mean that he was good, but that the past had clearly shown what kind of being he really is.) Jack did not realize that the past was so important in the ancient world. (Today when someone says that there is an old book on a subject, we usually understand it in a negative way. Things are simply developing too fast for us to hold on to old knowledge.)

The important role which the fulfilment of parts of the Old Testament play in the New Testament, was also linked to people’s ideas about present and past. The quotations from the past have to clarify what happens in the present. Because the past and present are on a continuum, the past throws light on the present. If something happens now, the past is the framework within which the present can and must be explained. The present is therefore important in the light of the past (Acts 3:17–20; 1 Pet 1:10–12). Note how often it is said in Matthew 1 and 2 that the word was fulfilled (Mt 1:23; 2:5,15,18,23). This is what is meant in 2 Timothy 3:16 when Paul says that Scripture is God-breathed so that we can direct our lives according to it. (See also Jn 5:39.)

The idea that God has always been there, is still there, and will be in the future, is the warranty for the bond between present and past. In Revelation 1:4,8; 4:8 it is said (note the order) that He is the one who is, who was, and who is to come. In Revelation 11:17 and 16:5 the reference to the future is left out, because the future is determined by the present and the past. Herein also lies the essence of Christian hope. Christian hope is not something which lies primarily in the future. The effects of hope do lie in the future, but its roots and certainty are in the past. If the Christian asks why he has hope for the future, he has to look at the past. The programme for the future has been written into the past. In this programme, as Revelation presents it, Jesus has already attained victory; He has already clinched our participation in the New Jerusalem. We as modern people bind hope only to the future, but then hope becomes uncertain, without foundation, just as someone might say: “I hope it rains tomorrow”, yet he has no certainty about the matter. Christian hope is never uncertain, for it is firmly anchored in the events of the past. Paul tells the Colossians that their hope is safe in heaven with God. Therefore, as certainly as God is there and keeps his promises, so with much certainty they can hope for eternal life (see also Col 3:3–4; Eph 1:18; 1 Pet 1:3–4; Heb 6:18).

Hebrews 11:1–12:3 is probably one of the loveliest images in the New Testament. Among other things it expresses this certainty of hope because hope is firmly anchored in the past. The believer is shown the whole crowd of believers in the past who have already run the course. The most important person in this crowd is Jesus Himself. By taking strength from the example of heroes of the faith in the past, the believer can continue his struggle in the present. In this way the past interprets the believer’s present and makes his struggle in faith more bearable.

The shoe can also be put on the other foot. In Jude and 2 Peter 2 people are reminded of how God punished wicked people and wicked angels in the past. The past shows what God does to the godless. The people who are now behaving so wickedly should note what happened to the godless in the past!

That is why the New Testament has a verb tense which we can call the coming present or the realized future. Something which has yet to happen is spoken of as if it has already happened. After all, what is to happen in the future has already been written into the present and the past—for Christians, especially in the life of Jesus. In Revelation 21:6 it is written about the New Jerusalem and all that goes with it, It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega (see Rev 16:17). Ancient Mediterranean man was very aware of the future, but it was a future clarified by the events of the present and the past.

Here we also find the basic premise of apocalyptic (the expectation of the future) as it is found in Revelation. When Jews (and Christians) began to suffer, they judged their situation in the light of the past. The past taught them that God does not fail his people. That is why problems in the present were seen as temporary. Some time or other God would come (in the future), bringing glory and salvation (see Phil 1:6). The history of the people of God (and especially the cross of Jesus for the Christians) proved that God would not forget his people. Because the past has spoken, the believers could expect something in the future. It is not strange that there are more allusions to the Old Testament in Revelation than there are verses in the letter—indeed, the events in the present and the future lie rooted in the past. (Note how Paul uses the events of the past to encourage the believers who are facing the present and the future in Rom 8:31–39.)

A lovely story is recorded in Luke 24:13–35 and it reflects the attitude of Mediterranean man in this connection. Two of Jesus’ apostles are on their way to Emmaus after Jesus has been crucified. They are earnestly discussing the things that have happened in Jerusalem. In Luke 24:21 they say they once hoped that Jesus would save Israel. Now He has failed them! But although they have apparently been wrong to put all their hope on Jesus, yet God will save Israel, even though He will not do it through Jesus. The rumour about the resurrection also upset them, and did not convince them of anything. And why? They have not linked these things with what is written in Scripture. The past has not spoken to them yet. Then Jesus starts with Moses and the prophets (it reminds us of Joachim and Moishe), and shows them all that is relevant to his life. After that, they too can talk about seeing the Lord. In the light of the past (the Scriptures), the strange events surrounding the crucifixion in Jerusalem start making sense to them. The quotations from the Old Testament and the fulfilments were of the greatest importance to ancient Mediterranean man. The Old Testament is indeed the pillars on which the New Testament is built.

On the road of the present through the past to the future

Ancient Mediterranean man focused mainly on the present. He had to survive from day to day. The past was a mirror held up to the present. If problems came, they were solved in the light of the past. That is why the Scriptures, prophecies, and genealogy were so important. Although people were aware of the future, it was not so important.

For modern man the future, and good planning, are very important. He wants to know exactly what is going to happen. Ancient Mediterranean man was not so tied to time. Appointments were much less exact and punctuality in the modern sense did not exist. Time was measured by the conduct of important people. It did not pay to be hasty or impatient. Planning was not greatly valued. The future was experienced in the present. Tomorrow would be tackled when it arrived. If you wanted to build a tower, you would make sure you had enough materials in the present. Our faith and hope are based on the fact that Jesus paid for all our sins, and therefore we can now live in the certainty of having eternal life.


For more information

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Malina, B.J. 1993 The New Testament world: Insights from cultural anthropology. 2nd edition, Louisville: Westminster- John Knox.

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Malina, B.J. & Neyrey, J.H. 1991 “Honor and shame in Luke—Acts: Pivotal values of the Mediterranian world” in: The Social World of Luke—Acts: Models for interpretation. Neyrey, J.H. (ed), 25–65. Peabody: Hendrickson.

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Moxnes, H. 1988 “Honor, shame, and the outside world in Paul’s letter to the Romans”, in The social world of formative Christianity and Judaism, Neusner, J. (ed), 207–218. Philadelphia: Fortress.

Neyrey, J.H. 1988 “Unclean, common, polluted, and taboo: A short reading guide”, Forum 4/4, 72–82.

Oakman, D.E. 1992 “Was Jesus a peasant? Implications for reading the Samaritan story (Luke 10:30–35)” BTB 22, 117–125.

Pilch, J.J. 1991 Hear the Word, Vol 2: Introducing the Cultural Contexts of the New Testament. Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press.

Pilch, J.J. 1992 “Lying and deceit in the Letters to the seven churches: Perspectives from cultural anthropology” BTB 22, 126–135.

Rohrbaugh, R.L. 1991 “The pre-industrial city in Luke-Acts: Urban social relations”, in: The Social World of Luke-Acts: Models for interpretation. Neyrey, J.H. (ed), 125–151, Peabody: Hendrickson.

Triandis, H.C. & Vassilou, V. 1972 “A comparative analysis of subjective culture”, in Comparative studies in behavioural science: A Wiley Series. Triandis, H.C. et. al. (eds), 299–301. New York: Wiley-Interscience.

Published: December 5, 2014, 11:57 | Comments Off on A Time Travelto the world of JesusA modern reflection of ancient Judea- via Uwe Rosenkranz
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