A Window into the Past: Women, Greco-Roman Society, and the Pastorals (part VI : Ephesians 5:15-33)

Ephesus in Brief

“‘Ephesian and Roman were no longer mutually exclusive categories,’ is significant for this study.  There was no substantial distinction between a major city of Asia Minor, Roman Corinth and Rome itself; such was the ready embracing of Romanization” (Ando qtd in Winter 97).  Ephesus was the “…urban hub and provincial capital of Asia”, which is now the western part of modern Turkey (Belleville 735).  Ephesus was the home to the “…temple of Artemis, the Anatolian goddess of fertility, acclaimed as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.  In fact, the city was named the temple warden of Artemis (Acts 19:35)” (Belleville 735).  The temple cult was an important aspect to the religious and economic properties of Ephesus, so much so that there was a two-hour-long chant praising Artemis of the Ephesians (Acts 19:28-36), and the belief that “…the city possessed Artemis’s image, supposedly fallen from Jupiter (acts 19:35)” (Belleville 735).  Towner writes, “Ephesus was famed for its cult and temple dedicated to the worship of Artemis, around which a good deal of the city’s commercial interests revolved.  It also had a large Jewish colony.  Ephesus presented the gospel with a formidable challenge in that it was a center of pagan worship” (Towner 21).

Belleville comments on the appeal of the Artemis cult on women,

Artemis, it was believed, was the child of Zeus and Leto, and the sister of Apollo.  Because of the severity of her mother’s labor, Artemis never married.  Instead she turned to a male consort for company.  This made Artemis and all her female adherents superior to men.  Artemis was also seen as the mother goddess, the author  of life, the nourishers of all creatures and the power of fertility in nature.  Maidens turned to her as the protector of their virginity, barren women sought her aid, and the women in labor turned to her for help (735).

In regards to the church in Ephesus, there was a multitude of false-teaching affecting the growing church.  Belleveille explains, “…[there were at] least five components to the false teaching.  Esoteric knowledge….Asceticism….Dualis[ism]….Jewish [influence by the Circumcision group]….[and] positing of mediators through which contact between a material creation and a spiritual God was accomplished.  Christ was held up as one of them…” (Belleville 735).

Eph. 5:15-33

vv.22-25. The women of Ephesus would not have been shocked to hear the command from Paul to submit to their husbands.  How could it have been shocking? It was commonly understood that women would submit to me. However,  as Liefeld points out, the shocking news “…was that such submission now (1) was to be done for the sake of the lord (v.22) and (2) was balanced by the love of the husband even to the point of self-sacrifice (v.25)” (142).  In other words, taking our queue from Ephesians 5:21 (“submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ”) submission is now mutual. The mutuality of submission would have been the shocking news, and not that wives should submit to their husbands. Paul’s language subverts the role of Patria Potesta in a subtle yet revolutionary way.

Leifeld comments,

It is striking that there is no command here for the husband to rule his wife.  His only instruction is to love and care for her.  The husband should not claim authority over his wife the way a Roman man used to.  In that system, which underwent changes during the period of the early empire, a woman used to be under the manus (‘hand’) of the father and at marriage came under the control of her husband (Liefeld 142).

Taking into account what has been written thus far about the Greco-Roman society and the role of the father, Paul’s language in this periscope provides three extremely counter-cultural statements.  The first statement is the concept of mutual submission (just referenced briefly above).  Following the flow of thought from the Greek text, the passive verb translated here as “submit” is from v.21; therefore the context is mutual submission and not only the submission of wives to husbands.

The second statement is enveloped in the phrase, “…as to the Lord.”  Paul is supplying the proper realm of submission for the wives; wives are not simply and blindly submitting to the authority of the Patria Potestas  they are submitting to the Lord, the one who has authority over the earth (Eph. 2)—the true King and Emperor of the world, the true Divine Son.   Paul’s use of the societal house-code, which required submission of wives to husbands, women to men, is not advocating the societal standards, but is placing this infant church in a realm that is to be submitted to the true authority that is in Christ Jesus.

The third statement is the command for husbands to love their wives (v.25).  As my friend Brian McVey commented, in a lecture on the use of Eros and Agape within Greek literature, and the understanding of these two terms, the command that Paul gives to the husbands would be to love their wives in way that was pouring out from them rather than loving something because of a need or lack within themselves (eros).  Marcus Barth contends that the use of agape in v.25 is the wedding together of Eros and Agape (which, as McVey pointed out, could be the understanding of hesed); that husbands were to love their wives in such a way would have been counter-cultural in the Greco-Roman society (621).  “For the first time in Ephesians the term ‘love’ (agapaō) includes the erotic relationship and sexual union by which a man and a woman become ‘one flesh” (M. Barth 621).

Also, it’s worth pointing out again (because I’ve said it before in this post here) the following about our passage:

Considering that in Ephesians 5. In v. 21 the verb translated as “submitting” is the verb that is pulled into the subsequent verse (v.22) when Paul turns his attention to wives: submit to your husbands. Then, after only three short thoughts, he turns to the husbands and addresses them in a rather lengthy discourse starting with an exhortation to lay down their lives for their wives. This is less of a change of subject and more of a addressing a different audience. Paul uses different language to say something similar to the husbands as he did to the wives.

But, the question remains, why change the language?

My thought about the “why” is this: Paul speaks to the women in terminology they would’ve existentially understood–the language they would’ve been familiar with but also because of the woman’s ability (and in the case of Paul’s age) one of her primary functions in bringing forth life into the world: a woman, having gone through the experience of pregnancy, labor, delivery, and caring for a helpless child, would have been well acquainted with the event of submission as a laying down of their life, of loving something/someone form the inside out that can give nothing back in return (agape). I’m not saying that Paul had this later aspect on the forefront of his mind, but it’s intriguing to me that he speaks nearly in shorthand to the wives. Thus, what he says to the women, is not radical: it’s nearly status quo; they would’ve nodded ” oh yes, we understand.” But what’s radical is what follows with his discussion to the men. The feeling in the transition from talking to the wives to the husbands is as if he paused and said to the husbands: all y’all best sit down for this; i’m about to blow your minds. And thus enters into a longer explanation of how the husbands are to love (agape) their wives and live out the “submitting one to another” aspect of 5.21. Both the act and the concept would have been so radical to the husbands, that Paul essentially has to spell it out for them and even then Paul loses his own mind and gets caught up–nearly raptured–in the mysteries he can’t even explain well enough. So, in short, my thoughts have been that Paul had to explain in detail (agape worked out in submission to another (the wife)) to the husbands because it was radical and foreign, and he could speak plainly and briefly to the women, because they would’ve understood (per the reasons mentioned above).

In regards to the use of “head” in this periscope, Liefeld writes,

The meaning of head in this context is…crucial….The Greek language did not assign as strong a leadership/authority meaning to kephalē as the Hebrew apparently did to ros and the Latin to caput.  Because of the strong connotation of caput, it was easy for the Latin Church fathers to interpret head in this passage strongly. The most common word for ‘head’ in Hebrew was rō’š.  When pre-Christian Jewish scholars translated the Old Testament into Greek (the Septuagint or LXX), they sometimes avoided the normal Greek word kephalē when the Hebrew rō’š meant rule or authority (as in the word leader) and used instead a stronger synonym such as archon.  If kephalē had the unambiguous, univocal meaning of rule or authority, this would not have been necessary” (Liefeld 144).

Therefore, it is best to not understand the use of kephalē in this periscope as “rule or authority”; but, referring back to 1 Cor. 11:3-16 (posted here), as “preeminent, foremost, and synecdoche for a representative whole” (Thisleton 821).

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