This blog will begin a three part series on the New Testament domestic/household code in Ephesians.
Ephesians 5:22–33 is an often read passage at weddings, premarital counseling sessions, and Christian marriage seminars. It is an example of a domestic or household code, often called a Haustafel or “house-table,” which comes from Martin Luther’s heading in his Shorter Catechism. The text has been used and abused in various ways. While until recently, most readers of the text in church history have assumed the text implied male headship, some contemporary scholars have argued, based on the call in Ephesians 5:21 for all Christians to submit to one another, that the text either endorses a qualified patriarchy or rejects patriarchy all together. Other scholars reject the text as authoritative because it comes from a disputed letter. In order to better understand the meaning of the text and its implications for contemporary Christians, an understanding of its cultural background is needed, which will aid study of the text. After this study, contemporary Christians should conclude that they live in a much different culture than early Christians and should not be uncritical in applying the Haustafel in Ephesians to their context. At the same time, they should respect the text and learn from the model of Christ on how to live in their relationships, especially the marriage relationship.
While, as Carolyn Osiek points out, there are dangers in social scientific readings of the New Testament, texts must be understood in their context. Charles Talbert sketches a history of modern study of the New Testament Haustafel and four positions of their presumed social context. First, Karl Weidinger argued in his 1928 volume that “the Christian sources derived their codes from Stoic tables of duties,” largely by studying second-century AD Stoic Hierocles.
Hierocles, a Stoic philosopher, bases his relationships around 10 concentric circles: (1) a person; (2) parents, brothers, wife, and children; (3) uncles, aunts, grandfathers and grandmothers, brothers’ and sisters’ children; (4) remaining relatives; (5) common people; (6) members of the same tribe; (7) citizens; (8) those who live near the city; (9) people of the same race; and (10) whole human race. So, Hierocles attempts to escape the hierarchical positions of figures like Aristotle and Philo, but as Balch notes,
Second, James Crouch in 1972 and Wolfgang Schrage in 1974 argued that while Stoic tables of duties may lie in the background of the New Testament domestic codes, the primary source for the codes came from the Hellenistic Jewish codes. An example of a Hellenistic Jewish code can be seen in the work of Philo. Philo discusses the household in the midst of his discourse concerning the Decalogue. Philo has a similar hierarchical view of relationships in the household, mentioning in particular, “seniors are placed above juniors, teachers above pupils, benefactors above beneficiaries, rulers above subjects, masters above servants.” Philo argues that the place of authority for women is in the private sphere, within the household.
Third, Talbert notes that Dieter Lührmann in 1980 and David Balch in 1981 rejected the theory of Stoic origin for the codes and “found their origins in other Greek philosophers’ works on household management.” For example, Plato, in his Laws, “discusses agreed upon rights in the matter of ruling and being ruled, alike in states and households, including parents and children, masters and slaves.” Aristotle is particularly important in this discussion. David Balch argues that while Aristotle did not have much influence in the Hellenistic world, his writings became available in the first century b.c. and greatly influenced the Roman world.
Balch notes concerning Aristotle, “the exact outline he gives the topos ‘on household management’ . . . is quite important in determining the origin of household codes.”
Aristotle includes as the parts of the household: “master and slave, husband and wife, father and children.” Dionysius of Helicarnassus and Seneca use the same three pairs in their discussions of the household. The same threefold division of the household can be seen in Colossians 3:18–4:1, Ephesians 5:21–6:9, and 1 Peter 2:18–3:7 (except 1 Peter excludes parents and children). So, the nuclear family of contemporary American society is not what Aristotle or other Greco-Roman era authors, including New Testament writers, had in mind when discussing the household, for it often includes not only slaves, but also extended family members, freedman, and business acquaintances. For this reason, Talbert argues that the New Testament codes should be seen primarily as instructions to a family business and not for modern Christian marriage.
While Socrates saw the virtues as the same for all people, Aristotle believed that virtues for each class are different, thus Aristotle valued authority and subordination. These various classes are based, for Aristotle, on the “the various parts of the soul” that people have. Aristotle says, “the slave has not got the deliberative part at all, and the female has it, but without full authority, while the child has it, but in an undeveloped form.” So, Aristotle believes that the codes of the household derive from what is inherent in nature.
Fourth, Talbert notes that in 1989, Ulrich Luz and Georg Streker argued that while the household codes in Ephesians and Colossians have parallels in ancient literature, “the actual codes as they appear in the New Testament are unique and so are likely Christian creations.” As Talbert notes, Ben Witherington makes a similar argument. While Witherington argues, “K.H. Rengstorf’s view of a strictly Christian origin is too-one sided,” he finds “nothing similar to what we find in the NT with reciprocal pairs that are addressed directly with imperatives.”
After surveying this material, Talbert makes a few conclusions. The New Testament codes are rooted in the Mediterranean culture of the time and its concerns of household management. Also, the codes, as Balch argues, were influenced by Greek philosophy, which also influenced the thought of Jews. The duties and relationships were similar in pagan, Jewish, and Christian sources, while the motivations for the duties differed. Despite the dependency upon Mediterranean sources, Christians may well have created the forms seen in the New Testament. So Talbert sees value in each of the four positions.
Osiek and Balch have a similar position, but argue against Paul’s authorship of Colossians. They argue that while the baptismal confession in Galatians 3:28 reads, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus,” the Colossians baptismal confession leaves out male and female saying, “In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!” (
The second model argues that Galatians 3:26–28 advocates spiritual equality and not social equality. The New Testament codes explain the theological motivations for Christians to live in hierarchical relationships. Numerous scholars over the centuries have held to this viewpoint. Neller mentions that Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, and various modern commentators understand Ephesians 5:22 as endorsing “the authoritative, dominating role of the husband and subjected, servile role of the wife.” Jack Cottrell holds to this viewpoint. Cottrell argues, “At the heart of the moral order of the universe is the principle of authority.” Cottrell argues that God instituted as a part of this moral order male headship in marriage and the church. While men and women are, for Cottrell, equal before God, they have different roles.
In the third model, “any Christian group lives in a certain tension with its culture, at the same time reflecting the social norms and bringing the gospel to bear in such a way as to ultimately to transform that society in line with the ‘new creation in Christ.’” This view seems the most appropriate, for it allows texts to stand in their own context and demonstrates the tension that Christians experience in all cultures.
The domestic codes in Ephesians and Colossians, according to
Thurston notes concerning the Colossian code, “The number of hapax legomena in
Thurston notes, “Form-critical analysis has noted that in many New Testament works it appears to have been the practice to introduce the themes of obedience and subordination after that of worship (see Rom 12; Col 3; Heb 13; Jas 1; 1 Pet 2). This pattern is at work in Ephesians.” For as Ephesians 5:18–20 says, “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (NRSV). Thurston also notes, “Placing the household code in the context of worship stresses the need for order.” Thurston elsewhere says, “In general, this casts a heavy theological authority over the command to submission, and in the particular case of Eph. 5:21–6:9 undercuts arguments that the passage is an interpolation.” Ira Jolivet even argues that due to the amount of liturgical language in Ephesians, the letter should be seen as a sermon that includes language of prayer and praise. Jolivet says, “The combination of worship and ethical instruction creates a theological effect by which the reader learns to connect his or her own behavior with a deeper understanding of the ‘mystery.’”
 Carolyn Osiek, What Are They Saying About the Social Setting of the New Testament?, rev. ed. (New York: Paulist Press, 1992), 4–6.
 Hierocles, “On Duties. How to Conduct Oneself toward One’s Kinsfolk (4.27.23), Abraham J. Malherbe, Moral Exhortation: A Greco-Roman Sourcebook, Library of Early Christianity Series, Vol 4 (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1989), 96–97.
 Philo. On the Decalogue. On the Special Laws, Books 1–3, trans. F.H. Colson, Loeb Classical Library 320 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1937), 2:225–227 (447, 449).
 Shortly after, Aristotle also mentions “the art of getting wealth, which is not discussed in the New Testament codes. Aristotle, Politics, trans. H. Rackham, Loeb Classical Library 264 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1932), 1. 1253b. 1–14 (13, 15).
 Carolyn Osiek and David L. Balch, Families in the New Testament World: Households and House Churches, The Family, Religion, and Culture, ed. Don S. Browning and Ian S. Evison (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 120.
 Kenneth V. Neller, “‘Submission’ in Eph. 5:21-33,” Essays on Women in Earliest Christianity: Volume I, ed. Carroll D. Osburn (Joplin, MO: College Press, 1993), 243-244.