Ephesians 5:21-33 And The Lack Of Marital Unity In The Roman Empire -- By: Jack J. Gibson

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 168:670 (Apr 2011)
Article: Ephesians 5:21-33 And The Lack Of Marital Unity In The Roman Empire
Author: Jack J. Gibson


Ephesians 5:21-33 And The Lack Of Marital Unity In The Roman Empire

Jack J. Gibson

Jack J. Gibson is Adjunct Professor of Bible, Lancaster Bible College, Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Contemporary discussions on the relationship between husbands and wives in Ephesians 5:21-33 often relate Paul’s statements and instructions to modern marriage without adequately considering the nature of the marriages of Paul’s original readers.1 Commentators often seem to assume that there were no differences between types of marriages among Paul’s readers. Discussing the submission of the wife in 1 Peter 3:1, Elliott asserts that Paul “reflects conventional norms and expectations regulating marital relations and uxorial [wifely] conduct in the Greco-Roman and Israelite world.”2 Lincoln observes that “the early Christian codes . . . turn out in practice to be in line with the variety within the consistent patriarchal pattern throughout Greco-Roman society, where subordination of wives to husbands … was the overarching norm.”3

However, this is not entirely accurate. Marriage regulations among Romans, Greeks, and Jews differed significantly. While submission of wives to husbands was commonplace among Greeks and Jews, it was extremely rare for Roman wives to be in submission to their husbands. And while divorce was bilateral according to Roman and Hellenistic law, Jewish law allowed only the husband to initiate a divorce. Thus a metropolitan center such as Ephesus would have included people in a diversity of forms of marriage in close proximity with one another. Members of each culture would have been cognizant of these differences. The merits of each system would doubtless have been debated in the forum, home, and bathhouse. This would have included Christians from all three cultures—Roman, Greek, and Jewish.

In addition divorce was easily obtained in Hellenistic and Roman marriages. First-century Jewish marriage contracts reflect a movement toward making divorce easier as well. In light of these conditions a question arose regarding marriage: Among Christians should the Roman, Hellenistic, or Jewish marital system be adopted? Or should a combination be chosen? Or something new altogether? Before discussing Paul’s instructions on how marriages should function, it would be appropriate to look at options current in the first century and how each culture—Roman, Greek, and Jewish—attempted to strength...

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