Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Doesn’t Always Mean What We Think It Means (6)

We have been talking about brothers and brotherhood. Brothers share DNA, parents, history, culture and sometimes values. Ideally at least, brothers feel a sense of high obligation to one another and always have each other’s backs.

Other than in rare cases of Solomonic excess, one only has a few literal siblings. All others are only “brothers” in a figurative sense. On the basis of the Old Testament, I have compared brotherhood to the layers of an onion, in which the highest level of responsibility lies toward those at the center of our lives and radiates out through the “layers” of immediate family, then extended family, tribe and nation.

Abstractions and Realities

Discussing all these various types of brotherhood, as we did yesterday, may lead us to conclude that the Hebrew 'ach (“brother”) has no fixed meaning, or that it just means “a relative” in the most diluted sense. That is not at all the case. In each Old Testament context, the writer is using the word to refer to a specific “onion layer”, and careful readers will want to make the distinctions the Bible itself makes. Using “brother” to describe anyone and everyone, as some do, makes for great rhetoric if you are looking to manipulate people by faking a closeness that doesn’t exist, but the term has several levels of real and inviolable meaning that do not change regardless of anyone’s personal agenda. Invoking brotherhood is nothing less than a claim to a specific duty of mutual care, one that may be higher or lower depending on the immediacy of relationship. If everyone in the world is my brother in exactly the same sense, then all have an equal claim on me (one which no abundance of personal resources will enable me to meet), and all my relationships are on the surface. If everybody is my brother, then nobody is my brother in any way that really matters.

To seek the good of all our “brothers”, literal and figurative, is a creditable goal, and yet we are finite creatures; stewards of limited resources in time, wealth and attention. The level of abstraction in our fraternal relationships increases as we proceed to the outer layers of the brotherhood “onion”. Most of us do not know all that much about the members of our extended families, let alone our “tribes”. Moreover, to the extent that true nations still exist at all (as distinct from multi-ethnic empires, of which there are plenty), the “brothers” in our nations are little more than a vaguely formed idea, occasionally concretized briefly for us by CNN when some distant disaster strikes. In short, all else being equal, to prioritize such an abstraction over the needy brother we almost tripped over on the street in front of us is both a failure of charity and a bad case of farsightedness.

At least, this is the situation before us so far, having looked only at the concept of brotherhood as laid before us in the Old Testament. That is about to change, and not insignificantly.

9. “Brother” [adelphos]

In Greek, the word “brother” is adelphos. Like 'ach, when we first come to it in the gospels where it occurs many times, it is used literally of genetic brothers like Peter and Andrew, of immediate and extended family, and of fellow Jews more generally.

I should probably stop to point out that a Jewish “brother” was not merely a member of an ethnic fraternity, but an ethno-religious fraternity. To call a fellow Jew your brother invoked a common national hope grounded in a common God and a common Law. This was true even if one’s religiosity was only feigned for public consumption; in Judea and Galilee in the first century, there was no other standard to which one might appeal. Thus, when we read of the Lord Jesus referring to a “brother” in the Sermon on the Mount, he is assuming a whole raft of shared moral standards derived from the Law of Moses. An unbeliever or “sinner” was not considered a “brother” in that sense. Nor was there any notion within first century Judaism that brotherhood extended beyond their chosen nation. That sort of fellowship was strictly forbidden. Gentiles might become proselytes of Judaism, but that did not make them fellow Jews. Gentiles who intermarried fared slightly better, but scripture repeatedly singles out people like Ornan the Jebusite, Obed-Edom the Gittite, Uriah the Hittite and even Timothy, whose “father was a Greek”. Among Jews, Gentile or part-Gentile status did not go unnoticed.

Brotherhood of Disciples

Still, when Jesus spoke of his true disciples, he used the word “brothers” in a new, special, and quite exclusive sense, one which was quite absent from the Old Testament. For example, when he says to Mary, “Go to my brothers,” there is zero chance Mary took it to mean either, “Go to my fellow Jews generally” or “Go to my immediate family”. Mary understood exactly who Jesus meant. “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” he had once asked. “Here are my mother and my brothers!” he had continued, stretching out his hand toward his disciples.

These were men and women who, as Peter put it, had “left everything and followed you”. Jesus did not dispute it, and he honored their sacrifices for him even when they failed him regularly. He also included within this holy fraternity everyone who has ever left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for his name’s sake regardless of their ethic background.

Christian Brotherhood

The brotherhood into which the believer enters when he chooses to become a follower of Christ comprises the most important relationships Christians have, God himself apart. Christian brotherhood, though certainly of the non-literal sort, eclipses even genetic bonds to our most immediate family members, as the Lord himself taught repeatedly. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword,” he told his disciples. “A person’s enemies will be those of his own household.” This is because Christian fraternity is spiritual rather than natural, and infused with life eternal rather than subject to the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

The “sword” divides families whose members do not all know Christ. It is not that we seek enmity with our loved ones. As emissaries of Christ, we should never be deliberately combative or difficult. If anything, we love our unsaved relatives far more after we have come to know Christ, and even more as time goes by. The problem is that we are living and they are dead. Light has no fellowship with darkness, and the new Christian quickly discovers his faith has made the lost souls of his loved ones his primary concern, while their interests remain fixed on the things of this life. Over time, it becomes evident how very different he and they are, for all his best efforts to love them and build bridges with them. Whatever brotherhood existed in times past with family members has been overshadowed by the new relationships he is building with believers, who value the same things he values, live their lives by similar standards, and seek the same spiritual goals. Mere genetics, however wonderful and God-given, cannot compete with Christian brotherhood. At least, that’s how it should be.

The Use of “Brothers” by the Apostles

Once the church comes into existence, Christian brotherhood becomes the primary expression of fraternity in the New Testament. However, there are still a few cases where ethno-religious Jewish brotherhood is mentioned. Peter’s “men and brethren” of Acts 1:16 and Acts 2:29 are syntactically identical, but context demands we refer them to different layers of the brotherhood onion. When Peter calls the Pentecostal crowd in Jerusalem “brothers”, it is his Jewish brothers he is addressing. But he now has with him a set of brothers of much greater spiritual significance (the group he addresses in 1:16), and that group would shortly have a vast number of Gentiles added to it, something most Jews could never have envisioned and which appalled their “brethren” committed to Judaism. It is only in this spiritual sense that men and women separated from one another by thousands of miles, wildly incompatible cultural values and thousands of years of divergent genetic adaptation can speak meaningfully of brotherhood: when we belong to Christ.

But once again, layers of brotherhood would come into competition and choices about loyalty and priorities would regrettably be made, as continues to be the case today.

I mentioned last time out that “brothers” is frequently — though not always — intended to include women, while “sisters” never includes men, which is why we find the word in scripture much less often. There is no comparable “sisterhood onion” to be observed among the extended familial uses of the term in our Bibles, though one can certainly use the phrase “sister in Christ” to mean something exclusive and precious. By the time we come to Acts 12, and then all through the epistles, the word translated “brothers” most often means “fellow Christian men and women”, an inconceivable and abrupt change to an exceedingly common expression.

Brothers and “Brothers”

However, this is not always the intended meaning. Paul still frequently calls Jews his “brothers”, not just when they are non-Christian but even when they are virulently anti-Christian.

Even in Romans 9, “my brothers” means “my kinsmen according to the flesh”, an expression which now requires clarification for Paul’s Gentile readers, who are used to hearing the term used to describe their common fellowship in Christ. In Acts Paul addresses hostile Jews as “brothers” repeatedly. We can only view this as a form of emotional appeal to an Old Testament fellowship in Moses and the Law which unbelieving Jews had failed to properly understand and move on from. It is a sense in which a Gentile writer could never legitimately use the word, and non-Christian Jews could never hear it used by a Gentile without taking great offense. Only a few verses later, Paul reverts to his normal figurative usage of “brothers” in the spiritual sense to describe fellow believers regardless of ethnicity or culture.

This is what it means throughout most of the rest of our New Testaments.

Distinctions That Matter

Well, then, what can we learn from all these fine distinctions between types of brotherhood we find in the word of God?
  1. Jesus had literal brothers. Possible meanings are not likely meanings. Notwithstanding the teaching of some institutional churches, it is immensely improbable that the word “brothers” in the phrase “Jesus’ mother and brothers” refers to extended family members. When Jesus was rejected at Nazareth, the people of his hometown spoke of his “mother” (identifying Mary) and “sisters” (not to mention that they named his “brothers” individually: James, Joseph, Simon and Judas). If the mother was a member of the Lord’s immediate family, then surely “brothers” and “sisters” do not refer to extended family members.
  2. Brotherhood in the Bible is always specific. There are various layers of meaning to the term, but all mean something specific. Out of over 700 examples, there is not a single case I can find in which a writer is speaking more generally. There are areas of overlap — for example, the larger “brotherhoods” include the smaller ones, and a brother Jew could become a brother in Christ — but each time the word “brother” is used in scripture, there is a specific level of brotherhood in view.
  3. Recognizing our responsibilities requires correctly identifying which sort of “brother” the Bible is referring to. For example, no matter how many expositors insist the phrase “one of the least of these my brothers” in Matthew is intended to refer to unbelievers, it is impossible they are correct. The Lord simply did not use the word “brothers” that way. Not ever. He was either speaking of his brother Jews or of his disciples more generally. If one wants to give a cup of cold water to “one of the least of these” and earn the reward of which the Lord speaks, it is necessary to at least get that part right.
  4. The “brotherhood of man” is not a biblically-legitimate concept. Even if it were, every other sort of fraternal responsibility trumps it. Appeals to it ought to be recognized by Christians as propaganda exercises of one sort or another.
  5. When there are hard choices to be made, our greatest obligation before God is toward those with whom we have the closest fraternal relationship. All else being equal, this means Christians generally above our “brothers” in the world, Christians locally above Christians generally, and Christians in our own families above all. There is at least one sense in which charity really does begin at home.

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