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Taught as a Child: The Family-Forging Effect of Instruction in Early Christianity and its Historical Influences

Zane McGee

Emory University


The kinship-like relationships between the earliest followers of Jesus of Nazareth are well-attested by the New Testament (NT) literature, perhaps most evident in the use of ἀδελφός as a form of mutual address. The origins and functions of such terms, however, are less than clear. While earlier religious traditions no doubt influenced such language, with the Apostle Paul these relationships take on new rhetorical effect as he employs kinship language in direct correlation to his role as teacher.

            Education is a relationship-forging endeavor for Paul, appropriately illuminated by kinship terminology. Those taught by him may have “10,000 pedagogues” (μυρίους παιδαγωγούς), but they have only one true “father” who begets them by his instruction to the gospel (1 Cor. 4:14-15; sim. 1 Thess. 2:12). More surprising than fatherly imagery is when Paul takes on the nurturing role of mother, declaring himself to be in labor (ὠδίνω) at having to retread elementary principles (Gal 4:19). He is also a nursing mother who cares tenderly for her children (1 Thess. 2:7: τροφὸς θάλπῃ τὰ ἑαυτῆς τέκνα) and gives instruction qua milk to those unable to receive solid food (1 Cor. 3:2)—analogies of particular interest in light of milk-kinship practices found elsewhere. Those who become children of God under Paul’s guidance also become his own children, as with Onesimus, “my child, whom I begot” (Philem. 10; sim. 1 Cor. 4:14, 17; 2 Cor. 12:14; Gal. 4:19; Phil. 2:22). Paul’s role as parental nurturer is filled out in later legends which attest that at his beheading nourishing milk flowed forth from his wound (Acts of Paul 11.5; see Penniman 2017, 79–85).

            This linkage between kinship and instruction is not novel; rather, it picks up on elements that are naturally found in the ancient education of children where training was tied closely to the household and its members. Ancient authors recognized that a range of household relationships impacted the intellectual, social, and moral development of a child, including the selection of a wet-nurse (Ps.-Plut. Lib. ed. 3e ; Quint. inst. 1.1.4) and interactions with slave playmates (Ps.-Plut. Lib. ed. 3f). Parents offered the earliest “instruction” to their children and continued to exert influence even as some children went on to receive more advanced instruction (e.g., Cornelia; Cic. Brut. 104). Education, family, and the ancient household were intrinsically linked. As the child transferred from parental instruction to formal education, the bonds that existed between father-as-teacher could be transferred to teacher-as-father (Kaster 1988, 67ff). This is most evidenced in late antiquity, as seen with Libanius’s reference to a child having multiple fathers—one who begot him and one who convinced him to love rhetoric (Ep. F1071). Elsewhere, he can claim to have co-reared a child jointly with his biological father (Ep. F59: ἀμφότεροι γὰρ ἐθρέψαμεν; see Cribiore 2007, 138ff).

            While early Christianity found universal kinship under the shared parentage of God, I argue that Paul employs such language to new rhetorical ends—establishing kinship relationships with his “converts” and then appealing to familial loyalty to persuade his readers to follow his own instruction. Such appeals gain traction because of the close ties that already exist between education and the household. Moreover, Paul’s repeated return to this trope further suggests its effectiveness, as does this same imagery being taken up by subsequent generations to establish “lineage” with Paul and conscript his authority. For these readers education did more than inform, it constructed family-like bonds.

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Childhood and Fictive Kinship in the Roman Empire

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