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The household tables in Paul's letters and in 1 Peter pair up sets of people:

  • Wives submit to your husbands : Husbands love your wives
  • Children obey your fathers : Fathers don't exasperate your children
  • Slaves obey your masters : Masters provide what is fair to your slaves

The instructions in half of the tables - the parts all addressing the pater familias - seem like they must have been counter-cultural in their day, at least in a Roman context. Were they so? And were they counter-cultural in a Jewish context as well? What about the other half of the tables? Would those have been counter-cultural as well? Or do they conform to certain Greco-Roman or Jewish patterns?

How much of the household tables was novel teaching? And how much reinforced the ethos of the day?

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Household codes were common in Greco-Roman culture, going back to at least Artistotle in his book Politics. In these Greco-Roman household codes, the father has an effectively absolute rule over his household (which includes his wife, children, and slaves), and in comparison to the household codes from the New Testament, they are definitely much harsher in their condescension of women and slaves.

However, 1 Peter is specifically addressed to the 'chosen exiles of the diaspora', i.e. Jews scattered throughout the Roman Empire. Paul's household codes are found in epistles addressed to churches in Gentile cities of Asia Minor, but those cities had sizable Jewish pocket communities. (For comparison, see the Revelation, especially chapters 2-3, which presupposes churches in those cities were partly Jewish, and had interaction with the local synagogues.)

Given that the authors of the biblical epistles were Jewish, writing to churches consisting, at least in part, of Jews, it makes more sense to look in Jewish culture for parallels to their household codes.

We first have a couple of obvious parallels to the Torah: the commandment of obeying one's parents (Exodus 20.12), and the regulations on slavery, which prohibited overt abuse from masters (Exodus 21).

Philo, a contemporary of Jesus, wrote:

He also gives many other injunctions, such as these, that wives shall serve their husbands, not indeed in any particular so as to be insulted by them, but in the spirit of reasonable obedience in all things; that parents shall govern their children for their preservation and benefit... (Apology for the Jews 7.3, Yonge translation)

Josephus, a late contemporary of Paul, wrote:

... for, says the Scripture, "A woman is inferior to her husband in all things." Let her, therefore, be obedient to him; not so that he should abuse her, but that she may acknowledge her duty to her husband; for God hath given the authority to the husband. ... (Against Apion 2.25, Whiston translation)

(Note: No known biblical text says 'A woman is inferior to her husband in all things'.)

The comparisons with Paul's and Peter's household codes are obvious, so it seems they were writing from an established Jewish perspective. There is discussion among scholars, however, that the household codes in the epistles were shaped as responses to the expectations of Greco-Roman culture. So counter-cultural? Probably to the Roman world, not so much to Jews.


Jeffers. The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era.

MacDonald. The Pauline Churches.

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