Paul, the Greco-Roman Empire, and Ephesians 5:22-33

Was Paul a son of his times? The Greco-Roman empire generally held husbands to be the authority of the household, including over his wife. Might Paul be reflecting such a widespread attitude in Eph 5:22-33? The text certainly lends itself towards such an understanding. The phrase, “wives submit to your husbands,” the reference to the husband as the “head,” and the demand for the wife to respect her husband all sound like Paul is reflecting the general Greco-Roman cultural value that husbands are in authority over their wives. However, in comparison, Paul’s commands to both the wives and the husbands were counter-cultural to an extent. To what are we comparing Eph 5:22-33? We are comparing the Ephesian household rules to other ancient household codes. We observe that Paul’s commands to the wives reflect the broader cultural value of the empire, but they also do what the other codes do not, they actually address the wives as responsible moral agents. Furthermore, Paul’s commands to the husband is different, for he does not command the husbands to rule their wives, but rather, to love them. Yes, Paul was a son of his times, and yet, when his commands are read against the backdrop of the other ancient household codes, his patriarchalism is softened and the equality between the husband and wife is strengthened. What we see is a complex matrix of hierarchy and equality. It remains, however, to see or explain why Paul would differ in this way from other ancient household codes. Why does Paul address wives as responsible moral agents? Why does Paul not instruct the husbands to rule their wives, but rather, to love them instead? If they are equals, why did Paul command wives to submit to their husbands? Now is not the time for answering these questions. But what have we gleaned from the current conversation? Paul cannot be understood by reading his words alone. We must understand him in light of his culture. It is part of the hermeneutical task. Any interpretation that fails to take into account the culture Paul lived and wrote within is only partially correct at best.


2 thoughts on “Paul, the Greco-Roman Empire, and Ephesians 5:22-33

  1. Pingback: Ephesians 5:22-33, Complementarian or Egalitarian? « The Letter to the Ephesians

  2. Pingback: Ephesians 5:22-33 and Genesis 2:23-24 « The Letter to the Ephesians

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