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Politics of Scripture

Family is a Fluid Construct

Jesus and his disciples can be seen to both affirm and expand the construction of first-century family, even as they are not limited by it. Such a reading of Mark complicates any single definition of “biblical family” in favor of recognizing the fluid and constructed nature of family systems across time.

29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30 Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31 He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them. 32 That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33 And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34 And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. 35 In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36 And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37 When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” 38 He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” 39 And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

Mark 1:29–39 (NRSV)

Family is a fluid construct. It describes an association of individuals who share ancestry, residency, or any number of other affiliations. Within the Jewish tradition, of which Jesus and his disciples were a part, family is central to one’s way of relating in the world. However, a point that is often lost in contemporary interpretation is that what is meant by family remains variable. 

The New Testament contains no single word to express the contemporary construct of “family,” utilizing, rather, various references to siblingship, descendancy, and households. Mark’s account of a healing that takes place within Simon’s household in this week’s gospel text accordingly provides a representative lens into both the value and diversity of relationship that constitutes a first-century Jewish family. Appreciating the breadth and depth of such first-century relationships in parallel to twenty-first century constructions of family makes space for fruitful dialogue on the politics of family.

The twenty-first century has seen a proliferation of diverse family types. Various modes of cohabitation and collaborative parenting have expanded, if not exploded, the previous EuroAmerican reductionist definition of family as a nuclear unit with two married heterosexual parents and 2.5 children. Such diversity was strikingly on display in the United States this January, as both President Biden and Vice President Harris were sworn into office accompanied by their large, blended families, including nieces and Aunties alongside children, step-children, and grandchildren.

In the first-century Mediterranean world, family took different forms and commanded different power dynamics from such twenty-first-century arrangements; however, the diversity was just as rich. One example of this can be seen by paying close attention to the family structure taken for granted in Mark 1:29–39. In short order, this text describes the healing and exorcism of many in Capernaum. The first to be healed is Simon’s mother-in-law, who is residing with both Simon and his brother Andrew at their home.

Already, we see two distinct patrilineal families blending under one roof. While both Andrew and the mother-in-law are related to Simon, they are of no blood relation to one another. Moreover, despite the commandment to care for one’s parents, during this period, many widows lived independently after their husband’s death. For those widows who did enter into the homes of their children, it was also more common for a son than a daughter to take their widowed mother into their home, although we cannot know whether Simon’s wife had any brothers to offer their home. In this way, Simon’s mother-in-law’s presence in his home, while not breaking conventions, may have stretched them.

To recognize these conventions more clearly, it helps to consider the actual layout of their home. First-century Mediterranean housing varied greatly depending upon many factors including location, population, and function. Nevertheless, the excavated home in Capernaum that archaeologists have associated with Simon and his family appears to have been a relatively common one. This home is part of a two-home arrangement, situated around shared courtyards, which was relatively typical in this period.

Combining such archaeological discoveries with reconstructions of first-century family life in the same period, it seems likely that each of the structures in this two-home dwelling may have housed as many as 6 to 8 people, for a total of 12 to 16 residents between them. Mark’s gospel account identifies at least three of these residents: Andrew, Simon, and Simon’s mother-in-law. In addition to these three, it is safe to assume that Simon’s wife, the ill woman’s daughter, also lives here. Nor is it much more of a leap to imagine Simon’s children, as well as Andrew’s wife and children, in the home (a daughter of Simon Peter, at least, is referenced in apocryphal accounts).

This is where the two-home structure comes in. It is likely that Simon and Andrew initially lived together with their wives in a single home, belonging to their father. Consistent omission from the gospel accounts seems to suggest that the pair’s parents have already passed away. As their families grew, however, to include Simon’s elderly mother-in-law, children, and possibly others in the household, a likely response would have been to expand into a second, adjoining structure.

Alternately, it is possible that the second structure belonged to another family entirely and that Simon and Andrew, with the rest of their family, resided together in a single half of this two-home structure. Either way, with their father apparently out of the picture, the choice for the brothers to remain together is not a given. It is likely that this close association was motivated by another affiliation, beyond their blood relation: their shared occupation.

Mark describes both Simon and Andrew as fishermen. Fishing in first-century Galilee was a trade occupation, often governed by trade associations and passed on across generations. In this way, their association through occupation creates another sort of familial bond between Simon and Andrew; one that it appears they share also with James and John.

In this one home we can see at least three different family arrangements begin to emerge. These associations overlap between blood, marriage, and occupational relationships. And, of course, they imply at least a degree of shared living space, although physical space is neither the sole nor determinative factor in these associations. It seems most likely that James and John physically reside somewhere else, and some commentators have suggested the possibility that Simon’s mother-in-law was merely visiting when she fell ill.

Such diversity and, indeed, fluidity in family arrangement is significant for the way we view family both in the first-century Jesus movement and today. Attention to the porous and shifting nature of family constructs in the first-century provides a helpful corrective to strands of Christianity that attempt to impose their definition of family, primarily a white middle-class heterosexual EuroAmerican model, based upon skewed “biblical” values on the one hand and to readings of Jesus’ itinerant ministry as anti-household on the other hand.

To begin with, the very existence of such diversity in the biblical narrative squelches any calls for “traditional” family as a distinctly Christian family value by deconstructing various notions of what such a traditional family ought to entail. The concern for Simon’s mother-in-law by various different parties in Mark’s narrative suggests a compassion and concern that stretches beyond what might be defined as conventional limits. The pronoun “they” in verse 30 is equally ambiguous in the Greek, but most logically refers to at least all of the main actors previously named (Peter, Andrew, James, and John) as well as their wives, children, and any others who were attending to Peter’s mother-in-law in her illness.

These men, women, and children share a common concern for a woman to whom they are variously related. Nevertheless, their common associations speak to an interdependency deeper than that of the broader community that gathers around Simon’s door. Members of the early Jewish community were called to care for one another in general and their families in particular. The compassion embodied by these various characters in Simon’s household exemplifies a lived understanding of family that transcends blood and marital ties in fluid relationality.

Moreover, Jesus’ healing of the ill woman, as an affirmative response to this compassion, provides a counter narrative to statements elsewhere that discipleship involves the abandonment of home and family (cf. Lk 14:25–27; Matt 10:37–39). Although in the following verses the disciples do leave their home in Capernaum in order to join Jesus in his preaching ministry, Mark is notably silent on any command to “hate” or abandon such homes. On the contrary, here in Mark, Jesus shows a continued care and concern for his disciples’ family even as his ministry stretches beyond this one household.

In this way, Jesus and his disciples can be seen to both affirm and expand the construction of first-century family, even as they are not limited by it. Such a reading of Mark complicates any single definition of “biblical family” in favor of recognizing the fluid and constructed nature of family systems across time. Today’s world is increasingly divided around “correct” definitions of family and familial associations, from colonial legacies continuing to legislate who “counts” as family and how family can be embodied across the globe, to social and political policies that continue to benefit married, heterosexual households with children above all other models of family. Much of this division is, lamentably, undergirded in Christian rhetoric of “family values.” Nevertheless, family is not—and cannot be—a static thing, neither in the Bible nor today.

Central to this entire episode related to Simon’s family is not a question of who is in or who is out, but rather an expansive enactment of compassion and concern across relationships. To the extent that “family values” are embedded in Mark’s text, they point towards inclusion and flexibility rather than exclusion and rigidity. By first-century standards, Simon’s family is both conventional and unconventional in its makeup. What stands out, however, is a community representative of overlapping relationships and affinities, a community that bands together to care for not only one particular individual, but ultimately for the entire neighborhood crowding into their doorway.

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