David L. BALCH and Carolyn OSIEK, Editors, Early Christian Families in Context. An Interdisciplinary Dialogue. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 2003. xix + 412 pp. $28.00 pb. ISBN 0-8028-3986-X.
Reviewed by Anthony J. BLASI, Tennessee State University, Nashville, Tennessee 37209

This volume contains papers presented at a November 30-December 3, 2000, conference funded by the Lilly Foundation and held at the Brite Divinity School, Texas Christian University. The intention of the conference was to stimulate cross-disciplinary discussion of the physical and social context of early Christian families. Organizing that kind of undertaking is not easy, but editors Balch and Osiek succeeded, in the sense of attracting solid scholars from different disciplines so that the volume is interdisciplinary in the sense of building on disciplines. Moreover, the contributors engage one another's works in their own contributions. The particular disciplines represented are skewed away from the social sciences, rather surprising given the focus on family; I count five professors of classics and history, two of archaeology, six New Testament scholars, two religious studies specialists, one ethicist, and one genuinely multidisciplinary contributor.

In Part I Archaeology of Domus and Insulae, Andrew Wallace-Hadrill presents Roman archaeological evidence that suggests that Christian families in early Rome are better thought of as living in organized neighborhood units rather than nuclear or even extended families. The ruins link households to blocks of rental units. Monika Trümper describes the residential structures of Hellenistic Delos as complexes of rear residential areas separated from front service areas by open courtyards, with the more lavish decor appearing in the upper floors. This suggested a juxtaposition of rich and poor. Distinct male and female areas are not evident. Eric M. Meyers points out that dwellings in Roman Galilee mixed male and female, with no separation of private from public spaces, and mixed Jewish and Hellenistic (miqvehs juxtaposed to mosaics having Greek themes).

Part II takes up domestic values. In an analysis of Galatians 3.28, Peter Lampe observes that Christians at one and the same time formed units that crossed status lines and lived in a Roman/Hellenistic world that took status differences very seriously. In a study of Galatians 3.1, David Balch notes that the Greek term proegraphe, used to refer to Jesus Christ, means both "to depict in words" and "to picture with a painting." The reference to Jesus as word is familiar, but Balch suggests that such phraseology would be read aloud to people accustomed to seeing pictorial representations of suffering and sacrifice. Rather than Iphigenia, Laocoon, or a dying Galatian embodying suffering and sacrifice, which was quite common in the Roman Empire, Galatians has Jesus as the picture. Christian crucifixion scenes do not emerge until the fifth century.

Part III is about women. Suzanne Dixon suggests that the view of Roman men seeking sexual satisfaction outside marriage rather than within it is a literary exaggeration. Ross S. Kraemer argues that Jewish families did not differ from other families of the era, and that Christian households did not remain Jewish over time anyway. She makes an extended analysis of the family situations of Babatha and Berenice, the former known to us from a cache of legal documents and the latter from writings about the Herodian families. The two cases suggest that women were married early to older men, that widowhood was common, that first marriages were arranged by family elders, that pregnancy was frequent, that there was a high mortality rate, that divorce was common and only officially initiated by husbands, that families were patrilinear in emphasis and usually patrilocal, that there was an ideal culture of patriarchy, and that although contrary to Roman law polygyny existed. Would that there were information about more women in the ancient world! Margaret Y. MacDonald, looking for evidence outside the highly stylized presentation in the Acts of the Apostles, finds that women were responsible in part for the expansion of Christianity. They were missionaries, ministers to other women, and socializers of children. They sometimes formed communities and networks of widows. Richard Saller examines the fate of female slaves, who were rarely apprenticed into the skilled trades that were needed in the cities. What urban female slaves there were, were attendants. Among the rural slaves women often worked in support of the field slaves. Their prices were equal to those of male slaves only during the early child-bearing ages.

Part IV focuses on slavery. Dale Martin presents evidence from funerary inscriptions for free, slave, and mixed families. Public slaves, having some status from performing public functions, often had free wives. Roman soldiers were not allowed to marry; so they often bought female slaves. Young slaves were sometimes reared as children in the otherwise free family. Some people in antiquity obviously formed identities in both slave-master relationships and family relationships. J. Albert Harrill notes that domestic slaves were thought of as both loyal assistants and potential betrayers. Carolyn Osiek observes that slaves had sexual identities but not gender roles as men or women. Thus women were often freed in order to marry their masters. Porneia, of interest to those concerned with sexual morality, was an ambiguous category that included for sure only prostitution and intercourse with someone else's spouse or slave.

Part V is devoted to the topic, children. Beryl Rawson notes that Latin inscriptions, especially in Rome during its era of prosperity, commemorated children more often than did eastern Greek inscriptions. The Romans were evidently attached to their children. Christian inscriptions paralleled others in Rome in the percentage dedicated to children in the first and second centuries. But from the third through the sixth centuries, Roman non-Christian percentages of inscriptions commemorating children declined, while those of Christians stayed high. Christians seems to have retained the Roman practice from the more prosperous era. Christian Laes describes the practice of having delicia children, or pet children. It varied from obtaining a companion for a son or daughter, to what was considered the minor vice of using children for sexual pleasure. The practice disappeared after the Christian nuclear family came to predominate.

Part VI draws implications for theological education. Amy-Jill Levine argues that a grounding in the historical contexts of scriptures prevents both a fundamentalist parroting of ancient ideology at the service of no-longer respected interests, and a free-floating interpretation lacking any grounding in text or tradition. Timothy F. Sedgwick, an ethicist, notes that the fact of social constructs changing across the ages requires ethicists and educators to work by analogy (i.e., functional equivalency). Margaret Mitchell notes that the students and readers of scholars concerned with early Christian families consist of believers. Historical sensitivity, she argues, is necessary for them to engage in competent biblical interpretation. She draws out implications of the several conference papers for a reading of the troublesome (for most moderns) Pastoral Epistles.

I highly recommend these papers both as inspiration for further study and antidotes to some of the facile claims some people make about early Christianity and its context. They make interesting reading. My personal favorites are the Balch paper on art works in the physical environment in which Galatians would have been read, the Kraemer paper on Babatha and Berenice, and the Laes paper on delicia children, but this is in part because I have read some of the other contributors' research elsewhere. Most readers will have a list of papers from this volume that stand out in their minds.

One caveat—there are occasional references to an alleged "honor/shame" culture, and even to a general Mediterranean culture. This is where participation by a social scientist would have helped. As a geographic area having different languages, religions, architectures, and occupations, the Mediterranean basin obviously did not and still does not have a singular culture. Determining whether an "honor/shame" dimension dominated more of life in the several ancient Mediterranean contexts than in other social contexts requires evidence from those other contexts and well as from Christian literature, and some uniform method of measurement. There is simply no convincing evidence of ancient Rome, Ephesus, or Jerusalem being more concerned with "honor/shame" than a Richmond meeting of the First Families of Virginia. It is high time scholars of early Christian phenomena cease using such misleading phraseology.


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