Living in the First Century World #4

The home in the first century was a highly valued institution both in the Roman and Jewish context. The home was an anchor for both cultures—with certain cultural expectations shaping it. To understand the world in which Jesus lived and in which the gospel flourished, it helps to understand the first century home.

It is a Man’s World

Homes/families in the first century were started and led by men. This is first evident in the marriage rituals. Arranged marriages were the norm in both Roman and Jewish cultures—and the arrangement would fall to the father of the groom. It was his job to find a wife for his son that would benefit him as much financially as any other motivating factor (for upstanding Roman families—social class was also extremely important). Involved in this was a “bride price”—a price equal to the value of the bride which the groom’s father would pay to the father of the bride. Next the families would agree on a “dowry,” which was the gift paid by the father of the bride to the groom (notice that the bride herself was not involved in any of these transactions). It was typically made up of the bride’s inheritance and mostly contained “movables” or items such as clothing, furniture, kitchen utensils—things she could use within the household. While the dowry was a “fee” of sorts paid by the bride’s father for the transferring of her well-being to her husband it also did exist to protect the bride in case of death or divorce since the dowry was to remain with her in these cases—she would not be completely destitute if that happened. In Jewish culture if she was widowed, her next option was to marry her brother-in-law if he was eligible or to a son’s household if they were old enough and established. In Roman culture, she could return to her father’s household since he still had legal rights over her. In all marriage situations (including the ability to divorce) woman almost always had limited options and those were controlled by the men in her life. If a woman found herself without those men—either by death, divorce, or not being able to have children—then she would be in one of the most vulnerable positions possible in first century life. This is the main reason why the New Testament emphasizes that the church see after widows—1 Timothy 5:3-16; James 1:27.

To further illustrate how much of a man’s world the first century was consider the head of a Roman household—the paterfamilias. This was the male head of the family. Basically, he had complete power over all of his household—his wife, children, slaves, and any other person who were a part of his home—and more influence over extended family (than parents today) regardless of where lived. Only he could own property under Roman law and his power was unbroken until death. It was his responsibility to preserve family honor and with that came limited freedoms for family members.

Of course, being a male-dominated culture, women’s value was highly connected to their ability to have children and baby boys were much more desirable than baby girls. A first century letter from a man to his pregnant wife illustrates this. He wrote: “If you are delivered of a child before I come home, if it is a boy, keep it; if a girl, discard it” (usually by the practice of exposure).  Within this kind of culture, just imagine the impact of women hearing a statement like, “There is neither…male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

The Family

Speaking of kids, the number of children born into families would be dictated by their context. In most cases a Jewish household would try to have as many kids as was economically advantageous. More kids did mean more mouths to feed, but it also meant more who could work to support the household. Very poor families might attempt to have fewer children, but overall most families looked at children as helping to build their households and helping to build the next generation of the family line. Obviously, this was important as often, multiple generations lived within the same house.

In the Roman context—two or three children seemed to be the norm—again enough to carry on the family linage and keep the honor of the family intact.

Concern and care were given to formally educate the children and teach them a trade (boys anyway) as much as possible within the Jewish context (which would have been centered on learning Torah) and for certain within an upstanding Roman household (including formal education for girls—although not as much as the boys).

Children in all first century households were expected to honor and obey their parents. It was considered their duty and expected. Consider the New Testament texts that are also known as “household codes,” that outline proper relationships within Christian families (Ephesians 5:21-6:9; Colossians 3:18-4:1; 1 Timothy 6:1-2; Titus 2:9-10). These bear similarities to patterns in the Roman household. The husband and father clearly held the authority. Wives were to have a submissive role. Children were taught to obey and respect their parents. Even any slaves present in the home were to exhibit obedience and compliance. Adult children were also expected to care for their elderly parents—all of which would have been expected within upstanding Roman families.

But there are also striking differences. There is a greater level of mutual accountability and responsibility in Christian households. In no situation would a Roman (or for that matter a Jewish) husband consider submitting to his wife as Christian husbands were instructed to do (Ephesians 5:21). In a Christian marriage, the husband is told to model the sacrificial love of Christ toward his wife—to love her as Christ loves the church. The Christian father—while expected to have control over his children—is also limited by warnings to not provoke and discourage them. New Testament teaching also brings a deeper level to the obligations between slave and master (redefined in spiritual terms). So, while Christians’ homes outwardly did not seem to differ much from others, there were differences. And these differences—like as in so many other aspects of first century life—were dramatic enough to eventually redefine home and family to the point of helping to change them altogether—especially for girls, women and slaves.  A little leaven does indeed leaven the entire batch.

*Resources used in this lesson include Life in Year One; What the World was Like in First-Century Palestine by Scott Kobb; Who Is This Man; The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus by John Ortberg; and The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era; Exploring the Background of Early Christianity by James S. Jeffers.