JohnSWilson3 Blog

Some thoughts on Greco-Roman households

I come now to the ending of Chapter 3 of Paul’s letter to the church in Colosse regarding wives, husbands, children, fathers, slaves, and masters. I had to take a day or so and mull this section over. So this blog will focus just on this cultural context. It would seem obvious in retrospect to gloss over these few verses but I wanted to look at the Greco-Roman culture to see how this context affects how we understand these verses. This entire letter was meant to be read to all the members of the church at Colosse and Paul wanted this letter also read to the church in Laodicea and presumably the church in Hierapolis, perhaps that met at Nympha’s house.

The church gathered together mainly in homes, meeting from house to house, and possibly around town as they met each other in daily life. Because the church met in homes the families or the households would be a major place in society where the life of Jesus, being lived out by His followers, would have the greatest affect. We know from Paul’s travels that when the head of the household received Christ Jesus as Lord the rest of the household would be tremendously affected in ways completely unimaginable in Western society today. These homes and therefore the church was a mix of wives, husbands, children, fathers, slaves, and masters.

I found most of the following information from an excellent resource by Carolyn Osiek and David L. Balch, titled “Families in the New Testament World: Households and House Churches” (1). Households in the Greco-Roman world of the first century were basically of two kinds either urban cities/towns or agrarian farms. Each household could be different culturally, dependent upon it either being Roman or a lower class citizen such as Greek, Jew, etc. In either case households often had slaves or servants to help with the work of the household. The household, like society at that time, was also dominated by the male. “Public space (in the home), agricultural tools, and political activities belong to the world of men. Private space, domestic tools, and family activities belong to the women.” Although this tended to be confined to the higher class families of “status and affluence.” In general “no ancient Mediterranean man would have thought that a woman could be his equal; only a man of similar education and social status could be. Only a man could be equal to a man, a woman to a woman.” Men and women of higher social class families during “formal dining…dined apart, though for informal family dining, the whole family ate together.” Reclining instead of sitting was reserved “to men and prostitutes, it being considered improper to female modesty and proper shame for respectable women to recline,” this lending itself to sexual immorality by the men with prostitutes at the formal dinner. It seems though, in general, Romans did not preoccupy themselves so much with “gender distinctions” as to social class and wealth.

In regarding children, especially the male children “once thrust into the male world, sons found themselves subject to stern discipline and testing from their fathers in order to prepare them for the anticipated ordeals of manhood.” While this can be true in most cultures it was even more so during this era. Children were highly prized as sons helped in preserving family property and girls in contracting good marriages to increase social status. Because of this period of time “birth rate was low, (and) families had few children” because “many of those who were born died, and others were subject to infanticide or exposure, which Greeks and Romans used as a method to control family size. These exposed babies were often raised as slaves.” (2)

The Roman world was run by slaves, but “no one race was enslaved,” in fact “some slaves had been free neighbors who fell into debt, or who were defeated in war.” In that day and age “slavery was a personal misfortune that could arouse pity in the audience, but it was not understood as a social evil.” “Many slaves were used in agriculture, but in an urban context, their professions were as diverse as those of the free workers.” In fact some slaves actually “managed powerful masters’ resources.” “In the city, they sometimes lived independently of the master. Sometimes they managed one of the shops on the street in the front of the master’s house.” Interestingly “a man could pledge his wife, children, or himself against a debt; sale into slavery would follow on nonpayment.” “A slave with a family life” was “bound to the estate and produce slave children, an increase in the owner’s property.” In fact female slaves were often bought for the purpose of bearing children and then the children were sold by their masters later “during their child-producing years.” Female slaves “were degraded especially through sexual exploitation and physical abuse.” “The harshness of their life among other reasons led many slaves to run away, sometimes in small groups.” (3)

So this church in Colosse, as well as Ephesus and all other churches from the Greek/Roman culture, finds itself with a gathering of believers (perhaps with unbelievers watching or walking into the gatherings) of wives, husbands, children, fathers, slaves, and masters and living by the grace and love of Jesus in the households in that period of time! No wonder the world saw Christians, as they lived by Jesus life, “turning the world upside down”! It is so hard for us, in the Western world, to really grasp the kind of changed life the Holy Spirit must have done in these peoples lives to love one another they way they did given the cultural context of that day and age. To follow Christ was truly to live by a different life! Only in places of great social distinctions and human injustice would we truly see the life of Jesus bring such tremendous freedom but also such persecution. He who has been forgiven more loves more.

(1) The authors hold that “the traditional preindustrial family was a center of production rather than consumption. The labor and skill of the members produced most of the items of household consumption.” Information was found primarliy in pages 41-47. Osiek, Carolyn and David L. Balch, Families in the New Testament World: Households and House Churches, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997, 42.
(2) Ibid., 65.
(3) Ibid., 74-80.


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