Science in Christian Perspective


The Jewish Family
Department of Sociology and Anthropology 
Wheaton College Wheatan, Illinois 60187

From: JASA 26 (June 1974): 64-69


As North Americans we filter the Bible through the lens of our own culture. So do Latin Americans, Nigerians, and all peoples of the world. This is not "wrong;" it just is not the necessary first step. We must first attempt to view the Biblical message in its original historical and sociocultural context if that same message is to be communicated to us in a very different sociocultural system.

This need to reconstruct the original setting is especially apparent in the four gospels with their many references to the first century Palestinian Jewish family. Conversely, an analysis of the gospels themselves is very fruitful in yielding an understanding of the Jewish family system.

Selection of Spouse

One of the first couples mentioned in the gospels, of course, is Joseph and Mary. In Matthew's account of Jesus' birth we read,

and to Jacob was born Joseph the husband of Mary, by wham was barn Jesus, who is called Christ. (Mt. 1:16).
How old was Mary when she gave birth to Jesus?

Based on the customs of Palestine, she was about fourteen years old. A Jewish girl could be married upon reaching physical maturity which, as defined by the law, was when she was at least twelve and a half years old. As for sons, many Jews held that the best age for a man to marry was eighteen.1

Of course, a young man did not always choose his own wife. In ancient Hebrew society the arranged marriage form of mate choice had strongly predominated. In the first century family the arranged marriage was still prevalent, but free mate choice, with parental approval, was also practiced. Obviously this differs from the contemporary North American pattern of free mate choice without necessary parental approval.

The power of the Jewish parents either to choose or approve their child's future spouse functioned to allow them to prevent intermarriage and thus maintain their religious and ethnic cohesion. This endogamous process also was an attempt to safeguard the patriarchal system. Of course, mixed marriages still took place, but they were an exception to the customary practice. For instance, Timothy's mother was a Jew and his father was a Greek.2

The Betrothal

After the choice of the future bride, the next phase was the betrothal. This period varied in length, but usually did not exceed twelve months. The most common method of becoming betrothed was for the bridegroom, in the presence of witnesses and with varying formality, to say some solemn words and give the bride a piece or pledge of money. The money was then received by the bride's father, although part of the mojar or bride price was maintained by the bride.3 It may be debated whether this was a purchase or a compensation.4 Yet neither concept is complete for the mo/ar's main function was to seal the family line, make the children legitimate, and give the woman inherent worth as a woman. Without this indication of "worth," the bride was "worthless."5

The background of the following passage from Luke likely relates to the mojar mechanism.

Or what woman, if she has ten silver coins and loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin (Lk. 15:8-9)

Because a divorced wife had the right to keep all of her wearing apparel, most of her personal portion of mojar was in the form of coins worn on the forehead. The woman in the parable who had ten coins and lost one was understandably upset because the coin had a value beyond the monetary. To suggest a contemporary functional equivalent imagine a North American wife who had just lost her engagement and wedding rings. In this way, Jesus' illustration can have the same impact upon us as it did upon the original hearers.

A festive meal or celebration may have accompanied the betrothal, especially in Judea. After the betrothal, the couple was treated just as if they were married, except that they could not have sexual intercourse.6 It was during this interval that Mary became pregnant.

We must first attempt to view the Biblical message in its original historical and sociocultural context if that same message is to be communicated to us in a very different sociocultural system.

Now the birth of Jesus was as follows. When His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. (Mt. 1:18)

Mary was not engaged to Joseph; she was betrothed. The Jewish betrothal was much more significant than the North American engagement. The two are form equivalents, but not functional equivalents. The betrothal could not be broken without a divorce. Also, in the legal areas of inheritance and adultery, the same laws applied to the betrothed couple as applied to the couple who had also gone through the less important wedding. Thus, in a very real sense, "marriage" followed the betrothal and preceded the wedding. This contrasts with much of North America where "marriage" follows the wedding and the engagement is simply a tentative promise or an announcement of plans to wed.

Referring again to Joseph and Mary, the gospels give us some idea of what their betrothal may have been like. Mary's childbirth or purification offering given at the Temple is described by Luke as, 

a sacrifice according to what was said in the Law of the Lord, 'A pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.' (Lk. 2:24)

This was the sacrifice given by parents who could not afford a lamb.7 Being poor, their bethrothal was probably simple and the mohar small.

The Wedding

When the time of the wedding arrived, everyone would come to take part in the celebration. In this regard we read in John,

And on the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee; and the mother of Jesus was there; and Jesus also was invited, and his disciples, to the wedding. (Jn. 2:1-2)

Relatives, friends, and friends of relatives and friends were welcome. Thus, Jesus and His friends were in attendance. The North American may also give an "open" invitation to a wedding or reception. Yet the range of this openness is usually limited to those directly interested in the couple and anyone else asked to come along by a friend is usually considered, and made to feel, unwanted.

In addition to the groom, bride, and guests, others participating in the wedding are also referred to in the gospels.

The attendants of the bridegroom cannot mourn, as long as the bridegroom is with them . . . (Mt. 9:15) He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom's voice. (Jo. 3:29) The kingdom of heaven will be comparable to the ten virgins, who took their lamps . . . (Mt. 25:1)

The attendants of the bridegroom or, literally, "sons of the bridal chamber" led the bride from her father's house to the home of the bridegroom. This transfer took the form of a procession which was directed by the friend of the bridegroom who was the highest status member of the attendants of the bridegroom group. This act seems to have symbolized the transfer of the woman from her father's house to her husband's.8 During the wedding feast itself, the bride usually sat under a canopy surrounded by virgins, traditionally ten in number. Part of their role was to carry lighted lamps. Of course, the North American equivalents of wedding reception, bridemaids, best man, and groomsmen are obvious.
The exact day the wedding feast was served is not certain. However, the various references to lamps, as well as the reference in Revelation to the wedding feast being a "supper," all seem to suggest that it took place in the evening.9 At some point during the evening the couple either withdrew or were led by the attendants of the bridegroom to the bridal chamber. The marriage was then physically consummated. Following this act, the couple returned and continued to take part in the festival. Reflecting their tendency to be event oriented rather than highly "clock" conscious, the celebration continued on for a week or more with new guests arriving each day.

One such wedding feast is described for us in John's gospel:

And when the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to Him, 'They have no wine! . . Now there were six stone waterpots set there for the Jewish custom Of Purification, containing twenty or thirty gallons each. Jesus said to them, 'Fill the waterpots with water.' And they filled them up to the brim. And He said to them, 'Draw some not now, and take it to the headwaiter.' And they took it to him. (Jo. 2:3, 6-8)

This account of Christ's first miracle is in complete harmony with the customary wedding feast. Everyone ate and drank a great deal and supplies sometimes would run out. To perform His miracle, Christ used the stone waterpots which contained the water for the customary ritual purification washing that took place before the feast. John, who may have been an eyewitness, even gives us the size and number of the stone waterpots. "The combined capacity of (them) was about 150 gallons. Reckoning a half pint to a glass, these vessels would contain about 2,400 servings of wine-enough to supply a large number of people for several days."10 However, John makes no reference to the friends of the bridegroom in his account. Why? Caua is located in Galilee where it was not the custom to have these special male attendants as it was in the more elaborate Judean weddings. In Galilee, all the guests attending the festivals were commonly called "the children of the bridegroom."

The Family Unit

The end result of the bride choice, betrothal, and wedding was that another family unit was brought into existence. This unit, consisting of husband, wife, and children, seems to have been fairly independent. In the gospels there are references to Joseph and Mary, Zaeharias and Elizabeth, Zebedee and Salome. These were all nuclear families which differed from the large extended families of the ancient Hebrews that also included relatives, slaves, foreigners, servants, and concubines. It appears that as Palestine developed from a nomadic pastoral culture to a more agricultural and urbanized culture the family was required to change and adjust.12 That is, as the communities became less folk and more urban in terms of a folk-urban continuum, the extended family was put into a state of disequihbrium and it automatically sought a new state of balance. This new equilibrium was the nuclear family with less emphasis on the extended clan and tribal ties.
The synagogue was also involved in this re-equilibrating process. During the Exile the synagogue had taken the place of the Temple. In addition, it also gradually tended to become a functional equivalent for the ancient Hebrew extended family. That is, "the nuclear families now moved into the synagogue rather than into an extended family."13 One of the social mechanisms supporting this new balance was the new group of religious officials, the rabbis. Without directly challenging the patriarchal extended family structure, the rabbi replaced the patriarch.14

Another structural unit that tended to function as an equivalent group for the extended family was the protest or messiah group. These groups formed around a leader and followed him in somewhat of a master/ apprentice relationship.
Of course, all of these adjustments did not mean that the family was completely changed. It still remained true to its ancient Hebrew base. It was still fathercentered and characterized by a high degree of group cohesiveness. Illustrations of this corporate solidarity can be seen in the following passages.

And when Jesus had come to Peter's home, lie saw his mother-in-law lying sick in bed with a fever. (Mt. 8:14)
But since he did not have the means to repay, his lord commanded him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all that he had, and repayment to be made. (Mt. 18:25)

The first illustration suggests that Peter's mother-in-law may have lived with him and his wife. The second example, a parable, points out that in a financial crisis the entire family unit could be sold in order to pay a father's debt.

Men and the Family

As the family formed the core of the culture, the father ideally formed the center of the family. The father was responsible for the family and all its possessions. He also took special responsibility for the later socialization of his sons. The male children, especially the first born, were very important for they were the vital links in the Jewish patrilineal form of descent. Through them the preservation of the family name was assured.16 This unique status and role of the male child is confirmed by Luke.

And when eight days were completed before His circumcision, His name was then called Jesus, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb. And when the days for theft purification according to the law of Moses were completed, they brought Him up to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord. (Lk. 2:21-22)

Here we see that Jesus, like other Jewish male infants, went through the customary rite of passage consisting of being named and circumcised on the eighth day after birth. This ceremony at the first great crisis point of life made explicit the child's status as a member of the Jewish community. No corresponding ritual was required for the female infant.
Luke also mentions a "purification" in the above excerpt. It is interesting to note that the purification period for a woman who had given birth to a male child was seven days as compared to fourteen days for a female.17 This Jewish dichotomy of male versus female is also reflected in the Talmud which states, "Luckless is he whose children are daughters."18
Of course, even though sons were highly valued, they did not always prove themselves worthy. Matthew records one of Jesus' observations.

For God said, 'Honor your father and mother,' and 'He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him be put to death.' But you say, 'Whoever shall say to his father or mother, 'Anything of mine you might have been helped by has been given to God,' he is not to honor his father or his mother.' And thus you invalidated the word of God . . . (Mt. 15:4-6)

This passage illustrates that there was, as usual, a gap between the real and ideal patterns of behavior. As Christ noted, some would avoid any duty to assist their parents by saying they had made an offering to God and couldn't afford to help them. This seems to have been a common device used by the Pharisces. An excerpt from the Mishnah confirms the accuracy of Jesus' accusation: "He that curseth his father or his mother is not guilty, unless he curses them with express mention of Jehovah.'19

Growing up a Jew, Jesus was also socialized within the traditional male patterns of behavior.

Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, and brother of James, and Joses, and Judas, and Simon? Are not His sisters here with us? (Mk. 6:3)

It seems that Joseph, like most Jewish fathers, gave his Son a course in vocational education by teaching Him his own trade. Thus, Jesus worked as a stone mason or carpenter during his early years.20 An expression of the rabbis, "Whosoever doesn't teach his son a trade makes him a thief," exemplifies the Jewish attitude.21

The above passage from Mark also suggests that his gospel was written in or generated from a maledominated social system. How is this apparent? The author gives the names of Jesus' brothers but his sisters are not mentioned by name. This same pattern is also followed in Matthew's parallel passage. In fact, a similar pattern is followed by the authors of all four gospels in their accounts of the feeding of the four thousand and the feeding of the five thousand. That is, they all record only the approximate number of men in attendance, even though women and children were also present.

Women and the Family

The status and role of a woman was complementary to that of her husband in terms of a balanced family unit. For instance, if a wife was to find a true social meaning for her life, she had to give her husband a child, preferably male.

And after these days, Elizabeth his wife became pregnant; and she kept herself in seclusion for five months, saying, 'This is the way the Lord has dealt with me in the days when he looked with favor upon me, to take away my disgrace among men.' (Lk. 1:24-25)

Failing to have children was culturally defined as a great misfortune; to become pregnant was a result of God's blessing.

The following piece of recorded behavior further relates to the status and role of women.

The Samaritan woman, therefore said to Him, 'How is it that You, being a Jew (negative voice tone) asked me for a drink since I am a Samaritan woman (positive tone)? (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.)
And at this point His disciples came, and they marveled that He had been speaking with a woman; yet no one said, 'What do You seek?' or 'Why do You speak with her?' (In. 4:9, 27)

When Jesus asked the woman for a drink, she may be interpreted as giving Him a rather sharp reply. The woman was a Samaritan and Samaritans, like all peoples of the world, were ethnocentric. She probably didn't feel inferior to Jesus at all. She didn't want to lower herself to interact with a Jew any more than a typical Jew wanted to interact with a Samaritan.22 Later, when the apostles returned, they were astonished to see Jesus talking with the woman. Why? Not because of her nationality or character, but because He had acted in excess of their normal one and in public, he had held a conversation with a woman!

The division of labor by sex is also evident in the gospels.

And Jesus sent two of his disciples and said to them, 'Go into the city, and a man will meet you carrying a pitcher of water . . . .' (Mk. 14:13)

Christ, as He gave directions for the preparation of the Last Supper, indirectly alluded to the fact that it was the woman who was responsible for bringing the water from the well to the house. It being uncommon for a man to carry a water jar, this alone would make him recognizable. Jesus also alludes to men's and women's work in His discussion of the coming of the Son of Man.

Then there shall be two men in the field; one will be taken, and one will be left. Two women will he grinding at the mill; one will be taken, and one will be left. (Mt. 24:40-41)

It was characteristic of Palestinian culture for women's work to be centered in the home while men tended to work away from the house. Ironically, this allowed the wife to exercise a great deal of power in her own sphere, the home.
It should also be noted that many Hebrew laws did view men and women as equal and prescribed the same rewards and punishment. For example, the woman as well as the man was put to death in the case of adultery where both were already betrothed or wed to another. Both men and women were also to obey the fond taboos and to receive respect from their children.23
The Termination of a Marriage
The law applied to both men and women. Yet the law's primary function was to protect the family. When a man acted in excess of norm, the law was usually less severe because his behavior had less effect upon the family. For instance, a man's adultery was defined as a major crime only if he seduced a married or betrothed woman, because then he injured the family of another.24 The opposite was true of a woman. She was the one who biologically gave birth to the family and was responsible for the family's honor, Thus, "the interest of the family called for the severest punishment of adultery in a womao."25 Such a woman is referred to in John's gospel.

And the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in the adultery, and having set her in the midst, they said to Him, "Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery, in the very act. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do You say?" (Jo. 8:3-5)

The phrase, "in the very act," implies that the man must have been discovered with the woman. However, it is interesting to note that only the woman was condemned before Jesus. From this account it also appears that adulterous women could still be stoned during the time of Christ. Of course, some men, like Joseph, simply wanted their (perceived) adulterous wife divorced.

In addition to adultery, another reason for divorce was sterility. Referring to this particular threat to the family, Mace suggests:26

... The Hebrew conception of marriage required either multiple marriage or divorce as an expedient for the man who, desiring an heir, had found his wife barren. In point of fact both were resorted to; but in all probability the emphasis in the earlier period was upon polygamy; in the later period upon divorce.

In other words, as polygyny and the extended family became less functional, divorce increased in use as an adjustment mechanism. This was necessary if the Jews were to perpetuate their focus on first-born male dominance and preserve their family name. However, in addition to this functional nature, divorce was also dysfunctional to the extent that the system was abused. Even though there were restrictions, a husband could generally divorce his wife if he simply felt like it. Josephus illustrated the Jewish male point of view when he wrote :27

He who desires to be divorced from the wife who is living with him for whatsoever cause-and with mortals many such may arise-must certify in writing that he will have no further intercourse with her; for thus will the woman obtain the right to consort with another...

In addition to Josephus' statement, similar descriptions made by both the Pharisees and Jesus are recorded in the gospels.28 All three are referring to the law recorded in Deuteronomy which allowed a man to divorce his wife "because he had found some indecency in her."29 After giving her the certificate the husband simply sent her away and their marriage was ended. The woman lost her property rights, but was free to marry again. 

The rabbis, referred to earlier, did attempt to function as control mechanisms by adding or changing some restrictions. Their interpretations of Scripture tended to limit the power of husbands and increase the rights of wives." For instance, when Christ referred to the customary method of separation, He also noted a change in the power of women.

And He said to them, 'Whoever divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her; and if she herself divorces her husband and marries another man, she is commiting adultery.' (Mk. 10:11-12)

Wives were also divorcing their husbands during the time of Christ. Although the Mishnah did not take this power out of the hands of the husbands, the rabbis did gradually allow a woman to also sue for divorce.31

The Continuation of the Family

So far we have followed the family cycle from choosing a wife to divorcing her. Under the obligation of the levirate or "husband's brother," the cycle was continued in a unique manner after the death of the husband. As described in Deuteronomy, the widow was to be taken as a wife by the brother of her dead husband in order to make sure that the deceased would have a male child to continue his name. It is certain that some form of the levirate was still practiced during the time of Christ. The Saddtseees, a group of Jews who did not believe in the resurrection, made a direct allusion to the custom.

There were seven brothers; and the first one took a wife, and died, leaving no offspring. And the second one took her, and died, leaving behind no offspring; and the third likewise; and so all seven left no offspring. (Mk. 12:20-22)

This excerpt from Mark, as well as its parallel passages, indicates that the Sadducees were referring to a duty that could still be enforced.
Josephus also discusses the levirate and notes its main functions.32

... for this will at once be profitable to the public welfare, houses not dying out and property remaining with the relatives, and it will moreover bring the woman an alleviation of their misfortunes to live with the nearest kinsman of their former husbands.

The levirate, like polygyny and divorce, was another piece of machinery designed to maintain and perpetuate the vitally important family unit.


The Jewish family was one part of the total Palestinian sociocultural system. Yet, we need to increase our understanding of the whole sociocultural setting of the Bible. Only when we have first asked the question, "What did the message originally mean to them within the totality of their sociocultural setting?" are we then really able to ask, "What impact is it now to have upon us who are part of a very different sociocultural system?" The Christian message is not that we are to become Jewish Palestinians, but rather that we are to be Christ-like North Americans.


1Heori Daniel-Rops. Daily Life in Palestine at the Time of Christ. Weidenfeld and Nieolson, London, 1962, 118.
2See Acts 16:1.
30. J. Baab. "Divorce." The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible. Abingdon Press, New York, 1962, Vol. I, 859. See
also Alfred Edersheim. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Longmau's, Green, and Company, New York, Vol. I, 354.
4Historically, Genesis 31:14, 15 seems to indicate a purchase but it obviously also had additional functions.
5Marvin K. Mayers. "Sociocultural Setting of the Bible." Unpublished manuscript, Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois. Compare also Robert Briffault. The Mothers. The Macmillan Company, New York, 1931, 242-243. Briffault notes that even in early Christian Europe the main factor determining the legitimacy of a marriage was the "proper payment of the bride price."
6Edersheim., 354.
7See Leviticus 12:8.
8Briffault., 240.
9David R. Mace. Hebrew Marriage. Philosophical Library, New York, 1953, 181. Compare also Revelation 19:9 and Luke 12:35-36.
10Merrill C. Tenney. John: The Gospel of Belief. Wm. B, Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, 1948, 83.
11Edersheim., Vol. 1, 355. See also Matthew 9:15.
12Compare 0. J. Baab). "Family." The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible. Abingdon Press, New York, 1962, Vol. III, 240.
l4ibid. Note also Gerald B. Leslie. The Family in Social Context. Oxford University Press, New York, 1967, 163-164.
15Cnmpare Matthew 11:2,3,12; Acts 5:36,37; and M. Borrows, More Light on the Dead Sea Scrolls, Viking, N.Y., 1958.
16Although it was still of primary importance for a Jew to marry and assure the preservation of his family name, evidence seems to suggest a slightly increased tendency toward celibacy. For instance, the Manual of Discipline of the Qumran Dead Sea community indicates that within the sect were same members who did not marry. Compare also Matthew 19:12.
15See Leviticus 12:1-5.
18Panos U. Bardis. "Main Features of the Ancient Hebrew Family." Social Science. June, 1963, 178.
19Alfred Edersheim. Sketches of Jewish Social Life in the Days
of Christ. James Clarke and Co., Ltd., London, 1961, 101.
20The Greek word for "carpenter" may also mean "masterbuilder" or "mason." In addition, Palestinian homes were made of stone, not wood and Jesus also uses several figures of speech taken from masonry but almost none from carpentry. See Merrill C. Tenney. New Testament Survey. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, 1961, 100-101.
21Ibid,, 100.
22G. H. Waterman. Hermeneutics lecture delivered at the Whcaton College Graduate School, Wheaton, Ill. 1971.
230. J. Baab. "Woman." The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible. Abingdon Press, New York, 1962, Vol. IV, 866.
24Daniel-Rops., 133.
26Mace., 251.
27Flavius Josephus. Jewish Antiquities. Loebs Classical Library, Harvard University Press, Massachusetts, IV, VII, 23, p. 597.
28Nate also Matthew 5:31 and 19:3, 7.
29The interpretation of the phrase "some indecency" (Dent. 24:1-5) to mean any insignificant reason by the Hillel school may also reflect the influence of Rome where, ever since the Punic wars, divorce had become increasingly common. Seneca stated, "Women no longer measure time in terms of the administrations of Roman consuls, but in terms of the number of their husbands." Tertullian was even more concise, "The fruit of marriage is divorce."
30Leslie., 163-164.
31This may again reflect Roman influence. Roman law limitedly permitted a wife to divorce her husband. Compare Edward Westermarck. The History of Human Marriage. The Allerton Book Company New York, 1922, Vol. III, 307-308 and Mace., 258.
32Josephus., IV, VIII, 23, p. 599.