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Spring 1995 · Vol. 24 No. 1 · pp. 14–23 

Domestic Domains in the Gospel of Mark

Response by Faith Wiebe 24/1 (1995): 24–27.

Katrina Poetker

A decidedly disruptive voice speaks throughout the Markan narrative in regard to family and household. From the Gospel’s very beginning, Jesus is located outside normal kin relations. Natural family and “normal” social household structure are disrupted in unusual ways in the narrative movement of the gospel. The Markan Jesus reconstructs a fictive family—the disciples and those with him—within which normal social household structures and power relations are reconfigured.

“Who are my mother and my brothers?”

This study presents a literary reading of the Gospel of Mark with a focus on these themes of family and household. It is a reading through lenses crafted with anthropological sensitivities. Its distinctive angles are comprised of this interplay of literary and anthropological elements. The first element is a literary reading in the sense that I take the Gospel of Mark as a unified composition in which character and plot play significant roles. How does this narrative construct a symbolic world in which these tensions around family play a role? I look for the dynamics of family and household in the narrative movement of the Gospel. I look at the whole Gospel. Some passages speak more directly to the theme at hand, but it is in the movement that we see the whole picture. The second element is comprised of anthropological insights into cultural interpretation, kinship analysis, the study of households, and historical investigation. Reading biblical texts through anthropological lenses {15} is not an attempt to “’explain away” spiritual phenomena. Rather, such a reading recognizes the human medium through which we experience and understand the spiritual.

It is helpful to articulate a working definition of “family” and “household.” Both of these terms are used in various ways. In this study, I use family to denote kin, those who are related by blood or marriage. Household, in contrast, refers to patterns of residence and relationships of cooperation providing the day-to-day necessities of living. Household can be larger than family, including servants, slaves, clients, and other people attached to it. On the other hand, family can also be larger than household, including extended family members who do not share a residence, even ancestors no longer alive. These two angles of vision are reflected in two fields of study in anthropology; the analysis of households and kinship study. Both areas provide interesting insights for this investigation.


Disruption of Natural Family and Normal Households

Jesus’ Natural Family. How does the Markan Jesus relate to his family? Mark begins his gospel without any reference to Jesus’ natural family or lineage. Instead, the first line of the gospel reveals Jesus as the son of God (1:1). At the beginning, neither Jesus nor John are situated within a family. In contrast to Luke, Mark does not report John the Baptist’s familial relationship to Jesus (1:4-8). John is presented only in his role as the one who prepares the way for Jesus. Jesus’ filial status is re-introduced at his baptism. The voice from heaven says, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (1:9-11). In this gospel, Jesus’ first familial relationship is with God as his father.

Those members of Jesus’ natural family who do appear in the gospel are his mothers, brothers, and sisters. Early in the story, they hear of Jesus’ popularity and set out to “take hold of him” (3:20-35). They want to assert their authority to control his behavior. In a fascinating literary move, the gospel paints an image of these “close kin” pushing on the fringes of the crowd around Jesus, who, in the center, is forcefully debating with the scribes the source of his authority and its relation to houses and kingdoms. When the crowd informs Jesus of the presence and request of his kin, his response is stunning. He ignores their claims and instead asks of those around him, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” He answers his own question by pointing to those nearer the center and saying, “You are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does the will of God (Jesus’ father) is my mother, my brother, and my sister.” His natural family members are {16} left outside, their mission a failure. In her Levi-Straussian structuralist analysis of the gospel, Elizabeth Struthers Malbon (320) also notes this contrast between those who are inside and outside. She states that “the expected criterion for being an insider, being family, is cast out, and a new criterion is brought in. Personal expectations are turned inside out. . . Being inside is a matter of discipleship.” Mark thus opposes the crowd around Jesus which includes but is not limited to his disciples, against his family who come seeking to control him and the scribes who accuse him of being in league with demons. Jesus’ family is redefined as those who do the will of God, modeled by those seated around him.

A little later, Jesus returns to his hometown (6:1-6). People here respond to him with incredulity. “Who does he think he is?” “We know his mother, his brothers, and his sisters.” They know his roots, his origins, and therefore his limitations. Here Jesus is unable to do his acts of healing. He is without honor among his own people. From this point on, his natural family disappears from the story. They emerged outside the boundaries of those gathered around Jesus. Their claim on Jesus has been rejected. Jesus, in turn, is rejected in his home place.

The end of Mark also raises questions concerning Jesus’ family. The women who watch from afar at the cross include Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses (15:40-41). Is she Jesus’ mother? If so, why does Mark not refer to her as such? John Fenton (434-35) presents a convincing case for her being Jesus’ mother. There are three references to this woman. The first calls her Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, the second reference is to Mary the mother of Joses (15:47), and the third, Mary the mother of James (16:1). Fenton (435) sees this as referring back to the list of Jesus’ brothers in 6:3, and asserts that Mark did not refer to her as the mother of Jesus because of Jesus’ earlier redefinition of his true family as those who do the will of God. Even his mother fails to obey the final command of the gospel. She and the other women flee from the tomb, saying nothing to anyone because they are afraid.

It is notable that Jesus’ father is never mentioned in the gospel. In 3:20-35 only his mother, brothers, and possibly his sisters are present. In chapter 6 the list of his family members has no reference to a father. This seems particularly significant since the virgin birth is not mentioned in Mark. Where is Joseph, Jesus’ natural father? Does the absence of Jesus’ father hold significance for understanding Mark’s construal of family?

The composition of Jesus’ natural family then is his mother, his four brothers who are named, and his sisters. His natural father is not mentioned. The reader is told in the introduction, baptism, transfiguration, and death, that Jesus’ real father is God. The Markan gospel presents Jesus rejecting his own blood family’s claim on him, and redefining his family {17} as those who do the will of God. This is reciprocated by his relatives’ rejection of him.

Movement from Natural to Fictive Family. This disruption of natural family and normal households is matched by the disciples leaving their families to join the new disciple-family of Jesus. Early in the narrative, even before his natural family appear on the scene, Jesus calls other characters into some kind of marked relationship with himself (1:16-18). He calls them to leave their natural families and their occupations to “follow him.” These people, characterized as “those with him” and his “disciples,” become a second family for Jesus, a phenomenon anthropology calls a fictive kin community. They function as family in multiple ways: in their activities, in their roles in the development of the plot, and in articulated speech on their own and Jesus’ part.

Jesus’ redefinition of who belongs to his family in 3:31-35 cements their move in 1:16-18. This is explicitly stated later. Peter declares that they have left everything to follow Jesus. He replies, “I tell you the truth, no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life” (10:28-31). The Markan Jesus explicitly articulates the transition from one’s natural family to the discipleship family. Note that the father is present within the home that is left, but is again absent in that discipleship family which those who have left their natural families will experience in this age.

Family Conflict. In the middle of Jesus’ farewell speech, Jesus foretells a relationship between family conflict, betrayal, and persecution. “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child. Children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. All people will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved” (13:12,13). The pericope in chapter 10:28-31 also speaks of persecution within families. These two passages imply that following Jesus results not only in natural family loss, but also in betrayal and persecution within families. In the case of Jesus, the failure of the women at the very end of the gospel mirrors the desertion of his disciple family at the hour of his betrayal, trial and death. Jesus is deserted by his disciple family and his mother.

In conclusion, natural family is disrupted in the Markan narrative, seen in Jesus’ break in relations with his natural family, in the parallel movement of the disciples leaving their families and households to follow Jesus, joining the disciple-family, and in the association of family conflict and betrayal on account of the gospel. {18}

Reconstruction of Jesus’ Fictive Family: The Disciples, Those With Him

Even Jesus’ second family is portrayed ambiguously in the gospel. One might expect an idealized family, but instead we find one in which there is failure to understand, conflict between siblings, and betrayal. The picture is not completely bleak, however. Through a window of “future narrative time” in the thirteenth chapter, the reader glimpses the disciples suffering persecution for their faithfulness to Jesus.

Inside this fictive family we find surprising dynamics of authority and power. Jesus consistently subverts the disciples’ expectations, both for his own victory as the Christ, and for their victory with him. He inverts their expectations about how authority should function in their familiar relations. On a number of occasions the disciples enunciate requests for power, or declare their own authority over against that of others. Jesus in turn uses these situations to articulate an inverted system of authority and power. Jesus reconfigures the disciples’ relationships among themselves in ways that seem to run counter to their expectations. Whereas the discussion of his natural family and the families that his disciples have left uses parent and child language, Jesus’ description of relations within the discipleship family includes imagery of household service (9:35; 10:43,44).

When Jesus states that “those who do the will of God are my brother, sister and mother” (3:35), it is unclear what this “will of God” signifies. John Donahue (86) points to the scene in Gethsemane as that which demonstrates the significance of this phrase: “doing the will of God and becoming a member of Jesus’ family is in its most radical sense being willing like Jesus to accept even suffering and rejection as being willed by God.” This understanding is confirmed by a glance at the three teachings following the passion predictions.

Following the first passion prediction and Jesus’ rebuke to Peter for failing to recognize the way of the cross as that of the Messiah, Jesus calls those who would be his followers to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow him (8:34-38). Following the second prediction, Jesus specifically addresses the disciples’ concern about who would have the greatest honor or power among them (Mark 9:33-37). Jesus says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Again, in 10:35-44 after the final prediction, Jesus addresses James's and John’s request to sit at his right and left hand in his glory. He does this by pointing towards the cup and baptism which face him, namely his passion and death, and then explicitly compares how authority and power should work differently among them than among Gentiles, whose rulers lord it over them. “It is not {19} so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” The Son of Man is the example. He came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

The absence of Jesus’ father, the negative images of his natural and disciple families, and the overturning of usual power and authority structures might lead one to expect a Jesus who stood against authority in general. However, a glance at the use of exousia (authority) in Mark contradicts such a conclusion. In the instructions about how to be a leader by serving, Jesus refers to himself as a model (10:43). This Jesus has authority in his teaching, in exorcising (1:22,27), and in forgiving sins (2:10). In 3:15 and 6:7 he gives the twelve apostles authority to drive out demons. When the religious leaders question Jesus’ authority (chs. 11-12), he refuses to tell them the source of his authority directly, aligning himself with John, whose power the reader knows comes from God. In the parable of 13:33-37, the lord of the house leaves each of his servants with authority for their work in his absence. They are to remain faithful because they do not know when he will return, a clear referral to Jesus’ impending departure and return. But there are also limits to Jesus’ authority and knowledge in the gospel. He does not have authority to choose who will sit on his right and his left (10:40). He does not know the hour of his coming (13:32).

A Complex Configuration of Power. This exegetical argument has traced the disruption and the reconstruction of family and household in the Markan narrative. The configuration of power in the new family is complex. Ways of living as this family are supposed to be modeled on Jesus’ self-giving love, service and death. Roles within the disciple-household are significantly different from those normally expected. The father is absent. Children, servants and slaves are held up as models. Women are included as followers and members of the household. Normal power roles are inverted. Members of this fictive disciple family of Jesus are given authority, but it is to be employed in faithful service.

The underlying cause for this disruption and reconstruction of family in the Markan narrative is “the gospel.” The gospel in turn is inextricably linked with the person of Jesus, his proclamation of the Kingdom of God, and his call to follow. In Mark, the gospel represents a competing set of claims for loyalty and authority over and against the ties of natural family and household. If one’s father is God, and one’s loyalty is to the gospel, the kingdom and to Jesus, one can no longer share the kind of absolute loyalty that belonged to the paterfamilias, the Roman term for father of the family.

Both natural and fictive family suffer at the Markan Jesus’ hands and {20} in the hands of the narrator. A tension between true insight and faithfulness, and natural understanding as it is evidenced in both his natural and fictive family contexts, builds and develops throughout the story. It remains unresolved at the end. Instead of resolving the tension, the narrative pulls the reader into its midst, into a narrative world full of competing claims and pulls.

Two distinct tensions around family appear in the story. The first is that of the pull of loyalty between natural kin and religious community. The second is tension within the religious community itself, between order, structure, leadership, and servant-like, self-giving service. This is what we see through a literary reading of the Gospel with this theme in mind. Now we move to the question of what this might have meant in its cultural context.


Significant limitations for creating a portrait of families and households in the first-century world are imposed by the nature of sources available for such an investigation. We do not have direct access to informants of the culture, and cannot employ participant-observation tools of ethnographic study. Neither do we have direct access to descriptions of family life from all the regions of the Roman Empire, various classes of people, different religious groups, and from different positional angles of varying members of such families and households. Most of the literature from this period was written by elite males. All of the sources we employ in such an investigation are ideological in some respect and require interpretation.

A second problem in this investigation is the fact that most of the secondary research on family in that world focuses on the elite families of Rome. 1 Some studies also treat the lower class and slave families of Rome. 2 Anthropological study of households indicates that class is a major variable in household dynamics. 3 The question then, is what inferences can be drawn from these studies for understanding how other families and households functioned or were understood in diverse parts of the Empire, and in classes and groups other than the elite.

This is particularly true for Palestine. Can one assume that Hellenistic patterns of family and household were similar to those in Palestine? Scholars have successfully challenged the traditional view that Palestinian Judaism was culturally isolated from the dominant Greco-Roman cultural forces. Shaye Cohen (1987:35-37) argues that the distinction drawn {21} between Hellenistic Judaism of the Diaspora and Palestinian Judaism is false. A recent collection of papers on the Jewish family in antiquity confirms this suspicion (Cohen, 1993). These papers explore various aspects of family using a variety of sources.

The striking conclusion that emerges . . . is that the Jewish family in antiquity seems not to have been distinctive by the power of its Jewishness; rather, its structure, ideals, and dynamics seem to have been virtually identical with those of its ambient culture (Cohen, 1993:2).

In general, a fairly consistent understanding of family and household, articulated as early as Plato and Aristotle, seems to have been shared in the first century. 4 The household is understood to be an important element of the larger society. Order is essential, and is understood in terms of the differentiation and maintenance of roles and status. The household (oikos) is organized around the male head who participates in the city (polis). The roles and status of different members of the household emerge from natural differences which are often articulated in terms of dual contrasts. This is illustrated in the following pairs:


John Elliott (174-75) describes the power of the paterfamilias in the family and the obligations of household loyalty imposed upon all members of the household. This traditional authority structure of the family was extended to the head of state, who was named pater patriae (Elliott, 181). The family was “the government in miniature,” the primary socialization and regulative agent of social life.

Jewish sources from the same period present a similar picture. The Mishnah also sees the household as the building block of society and the principal unit of production. It is formed by a clear hierarchy from the householder on top to the slave at the bottom (Neusner, 69). One noticeable similarity between Greco-Roman and Mishnaic conceptions of family and household is the concern for order.

There are, however, a number of literary voices from the ancient world that challenge various aspects of this picture. 5 The first-century Roman Empire experienced increased stability and peace in cities throughout the Empire (Meeks). This was a period of increased mobility, diversity and complexity of urban populations, and interaction of different cultures and religions. All of this change must have affected the ways families and households were structured, maintained, and understood. There is evidence that traditional roles of women and other elements of household arrangements were increasingly questioned. This then was a period in which one could expect household dynamics to be a significant issue. {22}

This description paints a picture of family structure in the Mediterranean world of the first century in broad strokes. Its hierarchical structure and the authority of the father were deeply upheld, and related in turn to that of the Emperor and the gods, or God. This is a stark contrast with the Markan dynamics around family and household.

What then are the most significant elements from the exegetical study of family and household in Mark as they are contextualized in the first century? The gospel relativizes the natural family in relation to the disciple-family. At times the gospel is a destabilizing force on the family. The second tension is found within the religious community itself, between order, structure, leadership, and servant-like, self-giving love. The absence of the father in the disciple-family is of special significance for the flattening of social hierarchies. This becomes particularly significant when read in the context of the first-century family structures and understandings.


The process involved in moving from an understanding of how such a reading of Mark would have been understood in the first century to how we can appropriate it prescriptively for us today in North America is made even more complex than normally because of the genre we are reading. Narrative meaning is less directly prescriptive.

My study does not suggest that Mark’s primary purpose was to address the situation of Christian families of the Roman Empire. Nor should its application be made directly to Christian families of the twentieth century. In moving from original meaning to contemporary appropriation, certain parameters must be delineated. The more central purpose for Mark was to call people to discipleship and community life through a telling of the story of Jesus of Nazareth. Within this larger purpose we can see some implications for families and households as they were understood and functioned in that period. We should not, however, lift the dynamics found in the gospel around family and household issues out of their historical, narrative, and theological context.

One way of moving towards meaning for us is to look for analogous situations in our context. The dynamics of power and role relations which Jesus outlined for the disciples as his fictive family can perhaps be applied to those situations today that display similar hierarchical organization to that of the household in the ancient world. It is this system of relating that is called into question. Perhaps this reading of Mark can help us ask different questions about the tension between ministry and family duties {23}, church polity and life, and our families than those commonly posed. In developing a biblical theology of family, one should place Mark’s disruptive voice into the conversation. I contend that the voice of Mark provides a timely counterweight to ways in which family has been construed as the central context for individual people, particularly women, and the core institution of our society.

This paper has presented a literary reading of Mark in terms of family and household dynamics. The dynamics found in Mark were then located in the cultural context of families and households in the first-century Mediterranean world. This process sharpened and strengthened the force of Mark’s message, particularly in regard to power relations.


  1. Cf. Maurizio Bettini, Anthropology and Roman Culture: Kinship, Time, Images of the Soul (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1991); Beryl Rawson, The Family in Ancient Rome: New Perspectives (New York: Ithaca, 1986).
  2. Keith Bradley, Discovering the Roman Family. Studies in Roman Social History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991). Chapters 3-5 present data and discussion on slave families and residents of the rented apartments in the Insulae in Rome.
  3. Cf. Henrietta Moore, Feminism and Anthropology (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988).
  4. Xenophon’s Oeconomicus, a discourse on estate or household management, portrays many of these elements.
  5. Musonius Rufus’ Fragments III & IV challenge the inferiority of woman’s reasoning abilities and argues for the importance of philosophical training for women. But the goal of such education is still training for excellence in their traditional roles.


  • Bettini, Mauricio. Anthropology and Roman Culture: Kinship, Time, Images of the Soul. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1991.
  • Bradley, Keith R. Discovering the Roman Family. Studies in Roman Social History (New York: Oxford University Press), 1991.
  • Cohen, Shaye J. D. From the Maccabees to the Mishnah (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press), 1987.
  • ———. Ed. The Jewish Family in Antiquity (Atlanta: Scholars Press), 1993.
  • Donahue, John R. The Theology and Setting of Discipleship in the Gospel of Mark (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press), 1983.
  • Elliott, John H. A Home for the Homeless; A Social-Scientific Criticism of 1 Peter, Its Situation and Strategy paperback edition (Philadelphia: Fortress Press), 1990.
  • Fenton, John. “The Mother of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel and its Revisions,” Theology 86 (1983): 433-437. {24}
  • Malbon, Elizabeth Struthers. Narrative Space and Mythic Meaning in Mark (New York: Harper & Row), 1986.
  • Meeks, Wayne. The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul (New Haven: Yale University Press), 1983.
  • Moore, Henrietta L. Feminism and Anthropology (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press), 1988.
  • Neusner, Jacob. The Mishnah. Introduction and Reader (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International), 1992.
  • Rawson, Beryl. The Family in Ancient Rome: New Perspectives (New York: Ithaca), 1986.
Katrina M. Poetker is a Ph.D. Candidate in New Testament Studies at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia.

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