New Testament Primer: Jewish Family Life in Christ's Day

This article is an excerpt from Volume 1 of Bruce R. McConkie's Mortal Messiah. See the other articles in our "New Testament Primer" series.

In his infinite wisdom, having compassion and solicitude for the welfare of his Son, the Father sent the Lord Jesus into a Jewish home, into a Jewish family circle. In such an environment the Infant Messiah would receive tender and loving care and be exposed to the best teaching and training available in any mortal family unit. Even God's own Son—as he stretched and turned in his swaddling clothes; as he waited to be weaned; as he learned to walk and talk and feed himself; as he learned to read and write and memorize; as he partook of the varied experiences that are the common lot of all who undergo a mortal probation—even he would be influenced by his environment and would be preserved from the defilements of paganism because the home in which he dwelt was Jewish.

The law of family worship, the system revealed by the Great Jehovah to enable his people to gain exaltation through the continuation of the family unit in eternity, was known, in part at least, to the Jews of Jesus' day and in the true sense of the word to no other Old World people. Jewish families, therefore, had a religious foundation and a spiritual status totally unknown among the Gentiles. As a result, those families among them which were pious and devout—whose members looked for the Consolation of Israel and who sought to live by the high standards found in the law and in the prophets—such families lived lives of decency and morality. Husbands and wives were faithful to each other, scriptural study and daily prayer were part of the rituals of life, and the family members lived honest, sober, and upright lives. Such was the environment prevailing in the family circle in which God placed his Son.

In contrast, family life among the Gentiles was defiled, corrupt, devoid of decency, and of such a low order as scarcely to be worthy of the name. "Strange as it may sound," Edersheim says, "it is strictly true that, beyond the boundaries of Israel, it would be scarcely possible to speak with any propriety of family life, or even of the family, as we understand these terms. . . . Few of those who have learned to admire classical antiquity have a full conception of any one phase in its social life—whether of the position of woman, the relation of the sexes, slavery, the education of children, their relation to their parents, or the state of public morality. Fewer still have combined all these features into one picture, and that not merely as exhibited by the lower orders, or even among the higher classes, but as fully owned and approved by those whose names have descended in the admiration of ages as the thinkers, the sages, the poets, the historians, and the statesmen of antiquity. Assuredly, St. Paul's description of the ancient world in the first and second chapters of his Epistle to the Romans must have appeared to those who lived in the midst of it as Divine even in its tenderness, delicacy, and charity; the full picture under bright sunlight would have been scarcely susceptible of exhibition. For such a world there was only one alternative—either the judgment of Sodom, or the mercy of the Gospel and the healing of the Cross."

It is evident—self-evident!—that any nation or people having any reasonable degree of understanding relative to the true status and position of the family in the eternal scheme of things would be unique, separate, distinct, peculiar, a people set apart. And so it was with the Jews of Jesus' day. There was no race and no kindred like them among all the peoples of the earth. They were Jews of Abrahamic ancestry, and all others were Gentiles, lesser breeds without the law.

True, their knowledge was incomplete, and the full glory of perfect familial relationships had been lost among them. But they had been born in the family of Israel; the traditions of their fathers still lingered in their homes; and they did have the holy scriptures, wherein the Abrahamic covenant and the chosen status of Israel were extolled. They were, indeed, a unique people, a peculiar people, a people set apart from all others. Their family- centered way of life, their religious traditions, their social customs all combined to separate them, to make them a people without peer. As Edersheim says: "It may be safely asserted, that the grand distinction, which divided all mankind into Jews and Gentiles, was not only religious, but also social. [Albeit, let us here insert, the social grew out of the religious.] However near the cities of the heathen to those of Israel, however frequent and close the intercourse between the two parties, no one could have entered a Jewish town or village without feeling, so to speak, in quite another world. The aspects of the streets, the building and arrangement of the houses, the municipal and religious rule, the manners and customs of the people, their habits and ways—above all, the family life, stood in marked contrast to what would be seen elsewhere. On every side there was evidence that religion here was not merely a creed, nor a set of observances, but that it pervaded every relationship, and dominated every phase of life."(Sketches, p. 86.)

As we view Jewish families and Gentile families, is it any wonder that the Son of God came among the Jews? Though they would take his life in due course, because of priestcraft and iniquity, yet divine providence required an environment and a social and religious climate that would enable him to grow to maturity, unstained, preserved physically and spiritually, so that he could do his appointed work before he laid down his life as our Savior and Redeemer.

In Jesus' day the Jews had their temple, their synagogues, and their homes, and around them their whole life revolved. Three times each year faithful men appeared before the Lord in his sanctuary—and would not Jesus, who kept his Father's law, have been among them?—there, by sacrifice, to recommit themselves to Jehovah and to receive anew a remission of their sins.

Many people frequented the sacred courts to teach and be taught and to partake of the spirit of worship that centered in the Holy of Holies.

Every Sabbath and on certain feast days, the faithful—and would not Jesus have been among them?—came to the synagogue to pray, to hear the word of the Lord taught, and to receive the exhortations so important even to the most spiritual of men. But the home was something else—day in and day out, week after week, month added to month, and one year following another; the home was the place where true worship was taught and practiced. Every Jewish home was itself a house of worship, a house of prayer, and—shall we not say it—a house of God.

And Jesus our Lord was nursed and suckled in a Jewish home; he played within its walls as a child; he was guided by a Jewish mother and a Jewish foster father as he learned the customs and discipline and way of life of the race of which he was a part. In the real and practical sense it was his first and chief house of worship. It is true that he went up to the temple when twelve years of age and undoubtedly three times each year from then until the time his active ministry began. It is true that he worshipped as a youth and in his maturing years in Jewish synagogues; we know that during his ministry he used them as teaching centers, as the sites for miracles, and as the reverent and sacred houses of worship that they in fact were.

But we cannot see our Lord in proper perspective unless we see him in the home of Joseph and Mary; unless we know what he was taught within those private walls; unless we are aware of the practices and rituals that were there impressed upon his receptive and truth-seeking mind. Jesus was the Son of God and dwelt among men with native endowments without equal, but he was also a product, as we all are, of his environment; and his Father chose to place him in the care and custody, during his formative years, of Jewish Joseph and Jewish Mary and their Jewish home with all its Jewish teachings, practices, and ways of worship.

Joseph and Mary lived in modest circumstances. They offered in sacrifice, when Jesus was presented in the temple, "a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons," rather than the more expensive lamb. (Luke 2:21-24.) What happened to the gifts of "gold, and frankincense, and myrrh" that came to the "young child" we do not know. Perhaps they sustained the family during their exile in Egypt; perhaps they were divided among relatives and others of modest means. Their home in Nazareth would have been small, without running water and other amenities common in even the poorer homes today. Such furniture as they possessed would have been well made; their clothing would have been of homespun Galilean wool; and as to their food, the principal fare would have been the meat and vegetables and fruits grown and raised so abundantly in the hills of Galilee. Perhaps they had occasional foods and articles of adornment that were imported.

We can scarcely question that as other sons and daughters came, they lived in close and intimate quarters, with limited amounts of this world's goods, the children sharing food and exchanging clothes as their needs required. Certainly the whole family lived in lesser circumstances of opulence than generally prevails in homes located in the developed nations today. There were wealthy people in Nazareth and other Palestinian communities whose houses were mansions by any standards, but we have no reason to suppose that the home of Joseph and Mary was in any way pretentious. The Father of the Son placed his Eternal Offspring in modest circumstances: the Prince who was to be King was neither born nor reared in a palace. How fitting it was, rather, that the One who was to ascend above all others should be cradled in a manger and reared in a carpenter's home.

But it is the spirit and teachings, the love and harmony, not the wood and mortar and chairs, that make a true home. And in those things that are important, the home provided by the just and faithful husband of Mary excelled. Perhaps there neither was nor has been one like it in all Israel. Family life being what it is, and having the impact that it does upon the children who are reared in the family circle, surely the Father of us all, who also was the Father of One only in mortality, would have chosen that family circle which was preeminent above all others as the environment for his Only Begotten Son.

When we describe Jewish family life in the day of Jesus, our choice of words strays into the field of the superlatives. The plain fact is that there were not then and have not been since—except among the meridian saints and among the Latter-day Saints, both of which peoples enjoyed a home life hallowed by eternal marriage and all that grows out of it—there were not then and have not been since families like the ancient Jewish families. Such were not found among the Gentiles of Jesus' day and are not found among the Christians of modern Christendom, nor among the modern Jews. Those ancient members of Jacob's house still had the priesthood of Almighty God; they still centered their whole social structure in the revealed word that had come from Moses and the prophets; they had in fact preserved their unique and peculiar status among men by preserving the family teachings and customs, all of which raised family life to a state of excellence seldom excelled even by their righteous forebears. True, Rabbinism, which sought to override the spirit of the law with traditionalism and the worship of the letter, often made void some of the highest family principles. But the Lord's system of familial relationships had been revealed and was known to the people, and among the truly pious and devout the true principles were in active operation.

Men married at sixteen or seventeen years of age, almost never later than twenty; and women at a somewhat younger age, often when not older than fourteen. These ages to all, Joseph and Mary included. Children were esteemed to be a heritage from the Lord and were devoutly desired. Birth control was unknown among the Jews, and parents rejoiced in large families and numerous progeny. From the days of Moses, if a man died having no child, his brother was obligated to marry "the wife of the dead," and raise up seed unto his deceased brother, "that his name be not put out of Israel." (Deut. 25:5- 10.) There were special provisions for avoiding this responsibility so that the widow could marry another, which was the very thing that made possible the marriage of Ruth and Boaz, through whose lineage our Lord was born. (Ruth 4.)

Mothers taught their children almost from the moment of birth; at least the tutorial processes began by the time infant lips began to lisp their first words and phrases. The Psalms and prayers were used as lullabies. At the age of two years children were weaned, with the occasion being celebrated by a feast. When the children reached about three years of age fathers began to assume their Mosaically imposed obligation to teach them, not nursery rhymes, but verses of scripture, benedictions, and wise sayings. Formal schooling began at five or six, with the Bible as the text. This scriptural study began with Leviticus, extended out to the whole of the Pentateuch, went thence to the Prophets, and finally to the Hagiographa, that portion of the Bible not in the law and the prophets. The children learned to read and write and to memorize the chants of the Levites, those Psalms which were part of festive celebrations, and the historical recitations that were part of family devotions. At sixteen or seventeen boys were sent to academies taught by the Rabbis. It is no wonder that Jewish Paul was able to say to Jewish Timothy: "From a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation." (2 Tim. 3:15.) fn Such was the heritage of all Jewish children of the day.

But the educational system imposed upon Jewish children was more, far more, than formal schooling arrangements. It was part and portion of their way of life. They learned from what was done as well as from what was said. All male children were circumcised at eight days. A spirit of religion and devotion pervaded every home. Private prayers were offered both morning and evening. Before every meal they washed and prayed, and after every repast they gave thanks. There were frequent special family feasts. Every Sabbath was a holy and sanctified day on which they rested from their labors, worshipped at the synagogue, kept a Sabbath light burning in the home, adorned their homes, ate their best food, and bestowed upon each child the blessing of Israel.

Devout fathers wore phylacteries during prayer (the Pharisees wore them all day long), and these contained parchments whereon were written these four passages from the scriptures: Exodus 13:1-10, Exodus 13:11-16, Deuteronomy 6:4- 9, and Deuteronomy 11:13-21. On the doorpost of the home of every devout Jew hung the Mezuzah, which contained a parchment whereon was written, in twenty- two lines, Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and 11:13-21, as both of these passages command. The Shema, composed of Deuteronomy 6:4-9, Deuteronomy 11:13-21, and Numbers 15:37-41, was repeated twice each day by every male. Family prayers were the order of the day in all homes.

Israel's deliverance from Egyptian bondage was recited, formally and in a question-and-answer dialogue, as each family ate the paschal lamb during the Feast of the Passover. The morning and evening sacrifices and all of the special drama and ritual and ceremony that was part of all the great feasts had the effect of dramatically rehearsing the basic doctrines revealed by Jehovah to his people. On every Sabbath and twice during the week Moses and the prophets were read in the synagogues.

Every pious home had either portions or all of the Old Testament; it is difficult to believe that in the home where our Lord was reared there would have been anything less than the whole of that body of revealed writ which was then available to anyone. There were even little parchment rolls for children that contained such scripture as the Shema, the Hallel, the history of the creation and of the flood, and the first eight chapters of Leviticus.

Jewish homes, Jewish family life, the rearing of Jewish children, indeed, the whole Jewish way of life was founded upon Jewish theology. Jehovah's command to children—so basic that it was decree number five in the Decalogue itself—was: "Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee." (Ex. 20:12.) Jehovah's command to parents—so basic that the Jews carried it in their phylacteries, hung it in their Mezuzahs, recited it twice daily in their Shema—was: 'Bring up thy children in light and in truth.' And that which was to be taught was theological; it was the holy scriptures; it was the mind and will and voice of the Lord to his people. And this is what separated the Jews from all other people.

"In the days of Christ," Edersheim says, "the pious Jew had no other knowledge, neither sought nor cared for any other—in fact, denounced it—than that of the law of God. At the outset, let it be remembered that, in heathenism, theology, or rather mythology, had no influence whatever on thinking or life—was literally submerged under their waves. To the pious Jew, on the contrary, the knowledge of God was everything; and to prepare for or impart that knowledge was the sum total, the sole object of his education. This was the life of his soul—the better, and only true life, to which all else as well as the life of the body were merely subservient, as means towards an end. His religion consisted of two things: knowledge of God, which by a series of inferences, one from the other, ultimately resolved itself into theology, as they understood it; and service, which again consisted of the proper observance of all that was prescribed by God, and of works of charity towards men—the latter, indeed, going beyond the bound of what was strictly due (the Chovoth) into special merit or 'righteousness' (Zedakah). But as service presupposed knowledge, theology was again at the foundation of all, and also the crown of all, which conferred the greatest merit. This is expressed or implied in almost innumerable passages of Jewish writings. Let one suffice, not only because it sounds more rationalistic, but because it is to this day repeated each morning in his prayers by every Jew: 'These are the things of which a man eats the fruit in this world, but their possession continueth for the next world: to honour father and mother, pious works, peacemaking between man and man, and the study of the law, which is equivalent to them all.' " (Sketches, pp. 124-25.)

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