Socioeconomical Background

Course: Introduction to the New Testament: Gospel and Acts

Lecture: Socioeconomical Background


I. Opening Remarks

Chapter 3 of the textbook, entitled: Socioeconomic Background: Everyday Life in New Testament Times, surveys a vast array of information and topics and customs including geography, population, transportation and communication, homes, meals, daily schedules, clothes styles, social classes, family, work etc. But, in the classroom version of this course, we want to present questions on areas of student interest because the number of topics in the textbook is almost endless. In starting off, I suggest that students look at two passages from the Gospels, reading them with the view of the first century cultural standing, if possible. This requires some visualization apart from our own cultural awareness and more than a simple understanding of the background surrounding the two passages. In Luke 11:5-8, one of the less well known parables of Jesus says, 'And he said unto them, Which of you shall have a friend, and shall go unto him at midnight, and say to him, Friend, lend me three loaves; for a friend of mine is come to me from a journey, and I have nothing to set before him; and he from within shall answer and say, trouble me not: the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot rise and give you anything? I say unto you, though he will not rise and give him because he is his friend, yet because of his importunity he will arise and give him as many as the person needs.' This word, 'importunity' refers to a boldness or perseverance. In Hebrew, the word is, 'Khuzba' referring to audacity, and so because of this importunity, he will get up and give the man as much as he needs. And following this parable, it goes on to say, ‘ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. For every one that asks receives; and he that seeks will find; and to him that knocks, it shall be opened.’ Thus Jesus is applying this parable to the believer, asking or presenting God with his request as well. But what type of picture or visualization do we get from this? What’s the dynamic involved here? If I heard a knock on my door in the middle of the night, I might not immediately jump up and expect to find a friend arriving from a journey unannounced. I might think that a neighbor may have some kind of emergency or that someone wondering the street randomly chose my house because of a perceived dire need or a person wanted to do mischief or a practical joker. I wouldn't imagine the picture presented in this parable.

From Chapter 3 of the textbook, there are a number of things: One such picture presented in the associated slide is that of a simple Galilean house, partially restored. It’s a split level home with steps for the second level. It is very small. The house is made out of stone and some wooden bracing. (Note: these kinds of houses are still built today in places like Yemen with as many as three to four floors. Further north of the country where the rain fall is less, mud packed houses are built to the same standards.) The house pictured in the slide in a smaller version with perhaps three rooms. Often they would have kept their goats, sheep or cattle on the ground floor. Sleeping quarters would have been in one room on the second or top floor. Doors were made of thick planks with a barred plank to lock it or perhaps a bolt of some kind. Windows are usually located on the second floor because of security. More often than not, a wall would have surrounded the property for further protection, depending on whether the house was in the city or countryside. At ground level, the floors would have been rough dirt whereas in the living quarters and bedroom, the floors would have been small logs smoothed over with packed mud and perhaps a material of some sorts such as a mat or even a woven rug.

II. Matthew 8:1-17

Let’s look at the second passage in Mathew 8:1-17. And when he came down from the mountain, great multitudes followed him. And behold, there came to him a leper and worshipped him, saying, Lord, if you will, you can make me clean. And Jesus stretched forth his hand, and touched him, saying, I will; be thou made clean. And straightway his leprosy was cleansed. Then Jesus said to him, tell no one about this; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a testimony unto them. And when he entered Capernaum, there came to him a centurion, beseeching him, and saying, Lord, my servant lays in the house sick of the palsy, grievously tormented. And Jesus said to him, I will come and heal him. But the centurion answered and said, Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof; but only say the word, and my servant shall be healed. For I also am a man under authority, having under myself soldiers: and I say to this one, go, and he goes; and to another, come, and he comes; and to my servant, do this, and he does it. And when Jesus heard it, he marvelled, and said to them that followed, Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel. And I say unto you, that many shall come from the east and the west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven: but the sons of the kingdom shall be cast forth into the outer darkness: there shall be the weeping and the gnashing of teeth. And Jesus said to the centurion, Go; as thou hast believed, so be it done unto thee. And the servant was healed in that hour. And when Jesus had come into Peter’s house, he saw his wife’s mother lying sick of a fever. And Jesus touched her hand, and the fever left her; and she arose, and ministered unto him. And when evening had come, they brought him many that were possessed with demons: and he cast out the spirits with a word, and healed all that were sick: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken through Isaiah the prophet, saying: He took our infirmities, and bare our diseases.

This passage contains many illustrations of ancient Mediterranean sociology and social dynamics. Students may want to stop the sound file for some reflection before proceeding….

III. Three Examples

With respect to the leper, there would have been severe ostracism of this individual, certainly for the sake of his disease not spreading. There would also have been social stigmatizing of him and perhaps in the eyes of some, a theological assumption that he was being punished for some kind of sin. The tentativeness of his approach is thus very understandable. He cannot presume that Jesus, a pure upstanding Jewish rabbi would consider him, nor have any reason to want to look in his direction. In contrast, Jesus was completely willing to heal the man and going out of his way to touch him. Any other person of Jesus’ world would not risk incurring such uncleanliness, but Jesus passes on his own gave cleanness, his wholeness, his healing to the man. It was Jesus’ healing power that was contagious or catching and not the man’s leprosy.

What about the centurion? Obviously, he was a representative of the hated armies of the Roman occupying forces, the oppressive imperial troops. Whether the centurion was ethnically Roman or not, he was certainly a gentile. Thus, he too would have been viewed as a second class resident, dramatically so in Israel. But notice the man’s remarkable faith; and in speaking he recognizes the sociology of the militaries’ unchanged world for the past two thousand years. Commanding officers must give orders and expect them to be followed without question. But Jesus marvelled at the faith of such a gentile transferring such confidence to Jesus, not only crossing over ethnic boundaries and coming to the trust a Jewish rabbi, but also trusting him for the supernatural miracle working ability that the centurion heard of by word of mouth from others. And the centurion went beyond anything he could have heard from others to the extent which the Gospels had recorded of the miracles of Jesus. This centurion didn’t even believe that Jesus had to be in the proximity of his servant in order to provide healing. Little wonder then that Jesus praised the man as highly as he does. But what a shocking thing to say in a primarily Jewish context, ‘that he had not seen anyone in all of Israel with such great faith.’

So many (gentiles) will come from around the world and join with the Jewish patriarchs in the eschatological banquet at the end times. At the same time, some of those who are counting on their own Jewish ethnicity will not be allowed to enter, but will be thrown into darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth; a reference that is seen regularly in the New Testament in regards to Hell. This is not a secret sensitive language or language designed to win friends and influence people, but one which could have turned a sympathetic crowd into an angry mob.

And then there is the third and shortest story, often ignored, of a fever ridden woman, who turns out to be Peters’ mother-in-law. It was a straight forward simple healing but the conventions of the day dictating that the mother of the family and setting if she was well enough to do so, to serve her guests. The expected hospitality included a meal; so we are probably meant to visualize this in our minds. But you will notice that the PowerPoint shows three examples: the leper, the centurion and Simon’s mother-in-law. Of course the obvious focus point of the three examples is the healing, but of what kind? The Scripture quotation of Matthew closes this passage as this was to fulfil what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah 53:4.

And speaking of the suffering servant, he took up our infirmities and carried our diseases. A text in the context of Isaiah goes on to speak about forgiveness of sin that is made available by the death of the suffering servant, Jesus and the atonement providing by his crucifixion. But in the context of Mathew, there is nothing about sins being forgiven in regards to these healing miracles. There are occasions elsewhere in Gospels but not here. So in Matthew’s context, the answer is three examples of physical healing while Isaiah demonstrates spiritual healing. Is Matthew misapplying the text of Isaiah or did Isaiah originally have both types of healing in mind? Some listeners will be familiar with the debate that, at times, divides the charismatic and non-charismatic world of Christianity. Charismatics will point to this collection of 17 verses and stress that there is physical healing in the atonement. Therefore, believers who are sick should realize that God wants them to be well and that he has made provision for them to be physically whole not merely spiritually forgiven. Therefore, they should pray and when appropriate be anointed with oil or visit one who is believed to have the gift of healing, a so called faith healer. They claim that physical healing is in the atonement.

On the other hand, when such attempts fail to provide physical healing, this leads non charismatics to go back to Isaiah’s original context and stress that the only guaranteed benefit of Christ’s crucifixion is the forgiveness of sin for those who follow him. Is it possible that both sides have missed what Matthew is saying here because they have not immersed themselves in the first century social role? In western society, we no longer think much, if at all, about the concept of ritual purity; unlike the ancient world where Israel and other cultures and their religions had their different laws of clean and unclean well established. This would have been a pervasive concept no matter how much these three individuals were physically suffering.

The greatest affliction over the long term for a person, who had a long term sickness, was considered physical unclean by society. They would be excluded from any assembly or gathering of people. Lepers were meant to declare themselves unclean as they approached anyone in public. A gentile or one who worked for the oppressive Romans would also have been outcasts, as no respectable Jewish person would have anything to do with them. And the fever of Simon’s mother-in-law, since we don’t know how serious it was, could have been no more than annoying, forcing her to stay in bed for a while. However, it would have still have meant a period of impurity, after which the appropriate sacrifices made for forgiveness of potential related sins. Then there would be the washing and ritual bath and declaration of cleanliness by the priest; just what Jesus commanded the Leper to do in verses 1-4 would have made the affliction a much bigger deal than we would typical think in our own world. Without the modern medicines and doctors that we have today, it would make these afflictions long and difficult to bare.

Although it is the least commonly suggested answer as to the earlier question, we should perhaps consider three examples of ritual: uncleanliness followed by cleanliness or ritual healing which Jesus provides, a marvellous gift for his world and a marvellous gift for parts of the modern world, such as for the untouchable cast in India, for example. Such stigma still exists in many parts of the world. Perhaps the closest western equivalent is the stigma associated with HIV patients today among Christian conservatives. Are we prepared to abolish such sigma, without condoning the sins that may have been involved, precisely because we are loyal followers of the Christ?