After writing three posts on this subject already, I would have to be crazy to write another one...right? The answer is a hardy "YES!" The reason for this post are the thoughtful comments that Chris Spinks made to my last post, which you can read here. He rightly notes the following: "I think the whole discussion of metaphors would be much stronger if we looked at the role of husbands and wives in the first century." I am in complete agreement with Chris on this. He continued by pointing out that the injunctions to wives would not have been that shocking to the reader of Ephesians, but that those to the husbands most certainly would have. The latter statement seems self evident, but somewhere in the dark recesses of my mind I have a vague recollection of a professor somewhere saying that Paul's words to women were quite freeing too.
So in light of Chris's comments and my poor memory, I turned to the ever-trustworthy Dictionary of Paul and His Letters. I perused several of the articles, including "Marriage and Divorce, Adultery and Incest," "Households and Household Codes," and "Ephesians, Letter to the." However, the most beneficial article had to be "Man and Woman," which was written by Craig S. Keener (583-592). I found it to be especially helpful with regard to Chris' injunction for me to exam the first-century roles of husbands and wives.
In subsection 3, "Paul* and Wives' Submission," Keener begins by pointing out that "Women nowhere [in the first century] enjoyed the social freedom recognized as their right today" (587). He then cites several examples of patriarchal language in Sirach, the Mishnah, Josephus, Philo, and Plutarch. Keener offers a helpful summary: "The wife's quiet submission was viewed as one of her greatest virtues throughout Greco-Roman antiquity (e.g., Sir 26.14-16, 30.19; Greek marriage contracts)" (587).
He then continues by stating that men in Greek society usually married in their thirties to girls "just entering puberty" (587). The result of this age differential was that husbands did not often few their wives as intellectually stimulating. However, "the situation was not this dismal throughout the Empire of Paul's day, and tomb inscriptions testify to an abundance of genuine love between husbands and wives" (587). However, the social setting of ancient males was not an easy thing to overcome: "the very structures of ancient society militated against husbands perceiving their wives as potential equals" (587).
These "structures of ancient society" are often expressed in what have come to be called household codes, of which Ephesians 5-6 is an example (German: Haustafeln). These codes have been in circulation from at least the time of Aristotle and serve to instruct "their male readers how to govern wives and other members of the household properly" (587). During the first two centuries the Romans found reasons to look down upon Eastern religions such as that of the Judeans and the cult of Isis. The Romans apparently thought that these groups were misleading women converts, which brought about "severe reprisals from the government (Tacitus Ann. 2.85; Josephus Ant. 18.3.4 §§ 64-80)" (587). This pressure resulted in these Eastern groups writing their own household codes in order "to prove that they were not subversive to tradition Roman family values after all" (587).
Turning his discussion now to Ephesians 5.22-33, Keener elucidates upon the fullest expression of the Pauline Haustafeln. Like many others of his day, Paul included a household code that adhered to the three-tier structure of Roman subservients: wives, children, and slaves. Paul also continued the social norm by calling on these groups to submit to the male householder. However, "Paul significantly adapts the list" (588). He calls for the head of the household to also submit "and the distinction between his view and the more usual ancient injunction that the householder govern should have been clear to ancient readers" (588). Keener offers four examples of how Paul's household code was different than the common one extant in Roman culture.
First, as is often pointed out, this Hastafeln starts out in an odd way -- with a call for mutual submission (5.21). This idea, "if pressed literally, goes beyond virtually all other extant writers from antiquity" (588).
Second, "the duties are listed as reciprocal duties" (588). According to Keener, most household codes only include instruction to the paterfamilias about how to govern his subservients; Paul included instructions to wives, children, and slaves. In fact, the householder is not told how to govern at all, but is instead told only to love his wife, etc. "This is hardly the language of the common household code...The wife, children, and slaves are to regulate the own submission voluntarily" (588).
Third, Paul does not list the duties that come with submission. This could have allowed an ancient reader "to read a wife's submission as meaning all that it could mean in that culture--which...involves considerably more subordination that any modern Christian interpreters would apply to women today" (588). Interestingly, Paul does provide some insight into what he means by "submit" -- in 5.33 the wife is told to "respect" her husband, thus weakenening wifely submission considerably. In fact, "Paul's view of women's subordination even in this social situation could not be much weaker than it is" (588).
Fourth, Keener notes that the "as to the Lord" qualification provided by Paul is decisive. This sort of submission was certainly not the kind that was widely practiced in the ancient world; however, "Paul does call on wives and slaves in his culture to submit in some sense" (588). This does not mean, therefore, that Paul approved of the patriarchal structures of his day -- quite the opposite. Paul's household code was nothing like that of the prevailing culture.
Keener concludes with the following claim: "Indeed, given Paul's weak definition of the wife's submission as "respect" (Eph 5.33; see above), it appears that Paul advocated her submission in only a limited manner even for his own social situation" (588).
Thus, it not only appears that the statements in Ephesians 5 to the husband were revolutionary, but that all of Ephesians 5:21-33 would have been shocking to ancient ears. Moreover, I think that it is important to note that Keener did not choose to translate hupatassō as anything other than "submit." He did, however, conclude that the definition of submission was highly qualified by the context provided by Ephesians 5-6, particularly the choice of the word "respect" in 5.33.
I wish now that I had done this sort of investigation prior to my previous posts on submission. Perhaps I have been guilty of not doing "the careful work of faithful exegesis," to quote myself. Either way, I do feel that much of what I found in Keener supports my ideas about Ephesians 5: specifically the preservation of the word "submit" and the reciprocal relationship that is in view there.
* - The authorship of Ephesians is highly debated. However, Keener consistently refers to Ephesians' author as Paul and for simplicity's sake I will do likewise in my summary of his thoughts.
Click here to read other post that I have written on this issue.