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The Oxford Study Bible Study Bible supplemented with commentary from scholars of various religions.

Kinship and Households

Kinship provides the basic structures of a society. In classical Greece and early Rome, the tribes, clans, families, and households were carefully organized and regulated—at least for the more prestigious segments of society. In the more mobile society of the Roman Principate, family ties, particularly of immigrants, were looser but still important. Both Greece and Rome were patrilineal societies; that is, inheritance and the lines of connection that counted most were strictly by the male line. In the Hellenistic age and in the period of the Roman empire, restrictions on inheritance by women were reduced, and in other ways as well kinship from the female side became more significant.

The early Christian groups were formed by conversion rather than by membership in existing units. Indeed, in any society the convert frequently finds that ties to family and friends are disrupted by the attachment to the new cult. This experience was familiar to proselytes to Judaism, and early Christian literature frequently acknowledges the sense of dislocation and hostility that the convert might encounter, for example in the saying of Jesus, “there is no one who has given up home, brothers or sisters, mother, father or children, or land, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive in this age a hundred times as much … and persecutions besides” (Mk. 10.29–30 ). The Christian communities used the language of kinship extensively to describe the new relationships within the movement: all who were baptized were “God's children” and thus called one another “brother” or “sister.”

Nevertheless, existing kinship was not always simply disregarded for the sake of the new “family.” Although there are several passages in the Gospels that suggest Jesus' own family opposed or misunderstood his mission, after his death James “the Lord's brother” quickly became the central leader of the Jerusalem circle of Jesus' followers (e.g., Gal. 1.19 ). Further, we are told several times in the Acts of the Apostles about conversions of entire households (e.g., Acts 16.25–34 ).

The household was the fundamental unit of the Greek or Roman city. It was a larger and more complex entity than the modern family, constituted by lines of protection and dependence rather than kinship alone. A household of even moderate means might include not only relatives but also slaves, freedpersons, hired workers, and perhaps tenants and partners in trade or craft. The “household assembly,” to which greetings are sent several times in the letters of Paul and his followers, was the basic cell of the Christian movement. In this respect the Christian movement followed a pattern that was common in the adaptation of religious groups and other kinds of association introduced into a city.

The household provided the place needed for the Christian meetings and a natural point of connection with other parts of urban society, for the Christian group could grow along the network of relationships to which the household belonged: kinship, friendship, and patronage. The household base limited the practical size of a meeting to a dozen or so at most, however, so expansion entailed the multiplication of separate household meetings in each city. One result would be that factions could easily emerge. There were also internal tensions, noted above, between the ethos of the household and novel paradigms of Christian belief and between the positional modes of power and charismatic leaders. Nevertheless, the household continued to be a fundamental organizing center of Christianity and the model for larger patterns of organization in its emerging institutions.

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