Families in the New Testament were patriarchal, meaning the father was in charge. Parents were treated with respect and honor, especially because of the fifth commandment “Honor your father and Mother” (Exodus 20:12). The Old Testament says a rebellious son should be stoned (Deut. 21:18-21). Families also lived with extended family like grandparents, aunts and uncles, because providing for their parents was essential even as adults.
The woman’s role in the family was to have kids and to be childless was shameful. Children were viewed as gifts especially boys since they would carry on the family name. The first born son would usually receive most of the inheritance. On the other hand unwanted children, usually girls would be “exposed” or left to die. Girls that were left behind would sometimes be taken and raised as slaves. Judaism had a more favor toward girls but still preferred males.
Jewish boys were named eight days after birth and were circumcised. Genesis 17:12 says “And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you.” The names had meaning and could be related to the hope of the parents or the birth of the boy. For example Isaac means laughter because God brought laughter to Sarah through Isaac by gifting her with a child in her old age (Genesis 21:6). If the names were common the sons would be identified by the names of their fathers. Boys would be educated in the trade of their fathers and taught Torah in the synagogue. Girls were taught tasks in the home and were raised to be good future wives. (Strauss, 151)
Marriage in first-century Palestine was an integral part of the social structure. Marriages almost always took place within the same socioeconomic class, and were arranged by parents. Girls typically married between 12-16 years of age (reaching 20 unmarried was a social stigma), while men were usually between 18-20 years old (Strauss, 151). Engagements were officially contracted agreements requiring a “divorce” to terminate, and were generally about a year in length (Strauss, 151). Unfaithfulness to an engagement was a similar offense to unfaithfulness in a marriage, taken very seriously in Jewish (OT) law (Strauss, 151).
Ancient Jewish wedding dress
Weddings were perhaps the most important social events of the time, and would include the entire village (Strauss, 151). Brides would be lavishly dressed and veiled, as seen in the image above. The celebrations would take place at the home of the groom’s family, where the wedding banquet and festivities would typically last a week or more (Strauss, 151). These were boisterous events, involving plenty of feasts, dancing, and other celebrations (Strauss, 151). To run out of food or wine during this time would have been very shameful, as we see in John 2 during Jesus’ attendance at a wedding in Galilee (Strauss, 151).
Monogamy was definitely the norm in this time, although in rare cases polygamy did exist in both Jewish and Greco-Roman society (Strauss, 151). Among Greeks it was relatively common to have a mistress in addition to a wife, and to frequently visit temple prostitutes (Strauss, 151). Among some Greeks, homosexual behavior and pederasty were also were also viewed as acceptable, and both practices were fairly common (Strauss, 151). Among Jews, however, these practices were considered repulsive and contrary to OT law (Strauss, 151).
In the Greco-Roman world, divorce was relatively common and could be initiated by either a man or woman (Strauss,151). For Jews, however, the requirements were stricter. Except in extreme circumstances, it could only be initiated by the man (Strauss, 152). Divorce was actually a subject of debate among rabbis during this time.The more conservative Shammai allowed it only for unfaithfulness, whereas the more liberal Hillel took just about any reason (e.g. ruining a meal, or “finding another fairer than she”) (Strauss,152). In general, there seemed to be a very casual attitude toward divorce in first-century Judaism. Jesus reacted against this norm of “easy divorce” in his speaking about about the sanctity of marriage (Strauss, 152). In Mark 10:11-12 he says the following: “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery”.
Slave market in Ancient Rome
Slavery was an integral part of the Roman Empire, making up as much as a third of the population (Strauss, 152). Slaves were generally considered part of the family, falling under the authority of the male head of family (Strauss, 152). Jews and Christians did also keep slaves, although it was less common (Strauss, 152). Guidelines were provided in both the OT and NT for their treatment, although many passages in the NT make it clear that such practices are contrary to will of God. Slavery during this time was not related to race, but rather a variety of other factors. Many entered slavery as prisoners of war, or in some cases people would indenture themselves into slavery due to extreme poverty (Strauss, 152). OT law did mandate the freedom of these indentured slaves after six years. Slaves existed in a variety of social spheres, from workers in dangerous mines or galley ships at the low end, up to positions of authority managing wealthy households at the other.
All things considered, family structures were an integral part of both Greco-Roman and Jewish social structure during the first century. The strong familial bonds so key in family relationships would be mirrored in Christianity’s affirmation of a new community based not on blood ties but on the spiritual bonds of faith in Jesus as the Messiah.