The use of fictive family in the New Testament relates to five themes: identity, unity, mission, inheritance, and affection. If fully embraced by the community, these themes would have grounded the community identity in God and unified them in mission as they demonstrated new creation values toward each other, anticipating the consummation of the new creation at Christ’s return. Earthly status, so paramount in the Greco-Roman world, would have receded into in background. Believers would all be siblings of each other in one household with God as the paterfamilias. Therefore, within the New Testament Church, we should see the abrupt end of patriarchy and slavery because these are no longer of consequence to the Christian life. Right? Wrong.
Several books of the New Testament contain what have been described as Christian household codes based on the Greco-Roman household codes (most notably Ephesians 5:18-6:9, Colossians 3:1-4:6, and 1 Peter 2:11-3:22.) What did the Greco-Roman household codes say? How do the Christian versions differ? I wrote a post about the Greco-Roman versions earlier in this series and I will repeat a portion of it here:
The ancient Greeks saw the household as the primary institution through which order was kept in society. To promote effective household management Greek sages would offer their advice to the paterfamilias on household management. These discourses came to be known as the “household codes” or “household tables” (and sometimes the German haustafel.) Aristotle’s household instructions (fourth century B.C.E.) in Book I of Politics are among the most commonly referenced of the household codes. Included in the codes are usually instructions about how the paterfamilias should manage his wife, his children, and his slaves. There is often wisdom given about how to manage wealth. Most codes articulate the importance of the paterfamilias dutifully fulfilling his role for the good of society. Some sages advocated an authoritarian approach and others a more benevolent demeanor but whatever their take was on style, they were unified in their conviction that the paterfamilias was obligated to rule his household for the good of society. As noted on an earlier post, the Stoic philosopher Arius Didymus drew up a summary of Aristotle’s household ethics for Augustus Caesar in the years just prior to Christ. He argued that “a man has the rule of this household by nature, for the deliberative faculty in a woman is inferior, in children it does not yet exist, and in the case of slaves, it was completely absent.” Arius Didymus spoke for considerable numbers of influential men in the Greco-Roman Empire of the first century C.E.
Scholars that study this era note that the household codes also found their way into the teaching of the Jewish Rabbis in the centuries prior to Christ. While Arius Didymous may have seen women as innately inferior to men, some rabbis began to find biblical warrant for this assessment. They viewed Eve as the prototype woman who was easily deceived or she was a seductress luring men to their doom. Concerning the noted second century B.C.E Jewish teacher Yeshua Ben Sira, John Collins writes:
Ben Sira has often been accused of misogyny in recent years, and the charge is difficult to refute. His more egregious statements include his reading of Genesis 2-3 (Sir. 25:24: “From woman sin had its beginning, and because of her we all die”) and the conclusion of his discourse on daughters (42:14: “Better the wickedness of a man than the goodness of a woman,” author’s translation). His gross generalization about the headstrong daughter in 26:12 – “she will sit in front of every tent peg and open her quiver to every arrow” – verges on pornography. In the earlier wisdom literature we find occasional negative remarks about women, but they are mild in comparison. Moreover, Ben Sira sometimes modifies traditional sayings to give them a negative application to women. Ben Sira is also decidedly more negative in his attitude toward women than are the wisdom texts from Qumran. The most extensive sectarian wisdom text, 4QSapiential Work A, shares Sirach’s emphasis on the authority of the husband over the wife but refrains from derogatory comments on women in general. The Qumran sage was mainly concerned that a man entering marriage “take care lest you be distracted from the mystery that is to come.”
It has been suggested that the negative representations of the female, and specifically the “misogynist expansions of the Eden story” that associate Eve with sin, death, and suffering, resulted from “the superimposition of Greco-Roman thought and cultural forms on the biblical world.” There is no precedent in Hebrew tradition for the view that woman is the source of all evil, but there is a clear Greek precedent in the story of Pandora’s box (Hesiod, Works and Days 42-105). A tradition of Greek philosophy beginning with Aristotle insisted on the subordination of women in the codes of household behavior. … (Marriage, Divorce, and Family in Second Temple Judaism in Families in Ancient Israel, 143-144)
Collins goes on to observe that this turn toward negative views of women cannot exclusively be attributed to Greek influences and notes that there were Greek works that were more affirming of women. Furthermore, there were differences among the leading rabbis. Nevertheless, other scholars I have read, including people like Kenneth Bailey, see a significant devaluation of women and an intrusion of Greek thought into rabbinic teaching during the Second Temple era.
So on one hand we have fictive family suggesting that such temporal arrangements are no longer consequential and yet we have multiple instances of New Testament writers seemingly instructing folks to live according to these temporal arrangements. What are we to make of this? Three responses have been typical.
Some conservative scholars find a transcendent order taught in these household codes. They see prescribed “roles” for each of the household members, especially husband and wife. While we can get some theological insight from the use of fictive family metaphors about various theological realities these should not be confused with the “plain teaching” about “roles” in these household codes. Most notably, husbands are in authority and rule over their wives, and wives submit and obey their husbands (Granted, most teach that the authority is of a servant leadership variety but it is most definitely a hierarchical status arrangement. Husbands are to be in authority over their wives and wives are to be in submission to husbands.) These folks frequently are called complementarians because they believe these divinely prescribed hierarchical “roles” complement each other in God’s order of the universe.
Then there are scholars who embrace higher criticism. They believe the letters that contain these household codes are pseudo-graphical letters written in the late first century as the Church was “wandering” from Jesus’ and Paul’s earlier and more radical teaching about family relationships. In fact, the presence of the codes in these letters appears to be taken as the clearest evidence that these books came later. They could not have been authored by Paul or Peter earlier in the life of the Church. In short, they see these as cultural accommodations to Greco-Roman life. Some folks in this group call themselves egalitarians but they arrive at their views by weighing different teachings against each other and choosing those which they believe are more authentic to Jesus.
Then there are those folks who call themselves egalitarian who do not share the conclusion higher critics do about the discord between the various letters. Rather they believe that when we carefully examine relevant passages in context without bringing our preconceived ideas about what was behind these texts, what we actually find is that the New Testament writers were teaching egalitarianism. Thus, the complementarians wrongly perceive a divinely prescribed patriarchy where there is none, while critical scholars needlessly pit various portions of the Bible against each other.
My conclusion is that none of these is entirely right. We need to back up. We need to lay down our agenda of determining power relationships between husbands and wives, or men and women. Then we need to load the idea of fictive family into our minds (among other metaphors), reflect on the missional objectives and contexts of the people to whom these letters were written, ask ourselves what agenda the authors had in mind, and then let their agenda teach us.