The household tables in Colossians 3:18-4:1, in Ephesians 5:21-6:9, and in 1 Peter 2:18-3:7 all have a distinct rhetorical form bearing resemblance to one another. The general form seems to be:

A[1], act as X[1] towards B[1]
B[1], act as Y[1] towards A[1]
A[2], act as X[2] towards B[2]
B[2], act as Y[2] towards A[2]

For instance the passage in Colossians reads:

Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.
Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them.
Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.
Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged.

It would be highly unusual for two writers (Peter and Paul) to invent the same rhetorical form out of whole cloth, so they share a common source? If so what is the origin of their structure? Do they come out of a Jewish background? A Greco-Roman one? Are there similar codes in other extant literature from (or before) that time?

  • Simply out of curiosity, why do you refer to these passages as "household tables" instead of, say, "household relationships"? Commented Jul 13, 2013 at 23:59
  • @rhetorician I think the name goes back to Luther who used the term haustafel.
    – Soldarnal
    Commented Jul 14, 2013 at 2:55

3 Answers 3


The particular pairings of the three mentioned texts find parallels in Aristotle where he writes, "Now we should begin by examining everything in its fewest possible elements; and the first and fewest possible parts of a family are master and slave, husband and wife, father and children." (Politics I.3)

However, these pairings lack any of the ethical dimension that we find in the New Testament haustafels. In Philo's Hypothetica (7.14) we find similar pairings again: "the husband appears to be a master, endowed with sufficient authority to explain these laws to his wife, a father to teach them to his children, and a master to his servants." Earlier he does state certain instructions:

Wives must be in servitude to their husbands, a servitude not imposed by violent ill-treatment but promoting obedience in all things. Parents must have power over their children.. .. The same holds for any other persons over whom he [a man] has authority. .. (Hypothetica 7.3, 5)

While we don't have the same neat rhetorical packaging that we find in, say, Colossians 3:18-4:1, many of the ingredients are there. Others have found parallels in other writings as well, particularly in the codes of the Stoics:

Where did such materials come from? Are there parallels in earlier and contemporary writings? Yes, there are. First, extensive parallels may be drawn out of Stoic sources: Seneca (ca. 4 B.C. - A.D. 65), Epictetus (ca. A.D. 50-130), Diogenes Laertius (early third century), and others. Second, there are parallels in the writings of Hellenistic (but not Palestinian) Jews: Pseudo-Phocylides (after ca. A.D. 150), Philo (ca. 20 B.C.-ca. A.D. 50), and Josephus (ca. A.D. 37-100). Finally, there are parallels in other early Christian writings, including Paul’s.

Hinson, E. Glenn "The Christian Household in Colossians 3:18 -4:1." Review and Expositor Volume 70. (1973)., 70(4), 496.

Based on the admittedly small amount evidence presented above then, one might conclude that these codes having begun in a Greco-Roman context, were adapted to a Jewish context, and then later adapted again by Christians. This is the conclusion of James E. Crouch, in his influential work The Origin and Intention of the Colossian Haustafel (1972).

Peter T. O'Brien (PNTC), however, notes that recent studies have focused on Greco-Roman household management as background. He maintains, however, that while there are important points of contact, there are also important differences, and states, "There is little agreement, then, on the source of the New Testament household codes" and that "there is no single model on which the Christian codes are directly dependent."

  • Thanks for your research, which bore some good fruit! I've revised my answer below in light of the revision of your original question and your answer to it. The new section in my answer begins with the paragraph "Paul may have received . . .." Commented Jul 20, 2013 at 20:33

As stated, it would be highly unusual for two writers (Peter and Paul) to invent the same rhetorical form out of whole cloth, but there is a simpler explanation for the use of the same rhetorical form in Colossians 3:18-4:1, Ephesians 5:21-6:9, and 1 Peter 2:18-3:7.

Thomas Calnan Sorenson (Liberating the Bible: A Pastor’s Guided Tour for Seeking Christians, e-book) says that there is a majority scholarly consensus that Ephesians and Colossians are not by Paul himself. John Barclay (Colossians and Philemon, page 22) says that Colossians is routinely bracketed out as deutero-Pauline, going on to say that if there is a literary relationship between the two letters it is that Colossians was used by Ephesians. James P. Hering (The Colossian and Ephesian Haustafeln in Theological Context, page 107) says a general consensus has emerged within New Testament scholarship that views Ephesians as dependent on the somewhat earlier Colossians vorlage. So, although Colossians and Ephesians are routinely regarded as deutero-Pauline, there is a literary relationship that means the authors did not independently arrive at the use of the same household table structures.

Paul A. Holloway (Coping with Prejudice: 1 Peter in Social-psychological Perspective, pages 8,15) says there is a general consensus among scholars that First Peter was almost certainly not written by the apostle Peter. Raymond E. Brown says, in An Introduction to the New Testament, page 453, this epistle is in many theological stances close to Pauline thought. He says that some critics would put that writing in the Pauline rather than the Petrine school. Many scholars are convinced that 1 Peter is dependent on the Pauline epistles because it shares many of the same motifs espoused in Ephesians, Colossians and the Pastoral Epistles. Thus we have a substantial consensus that 1 Peter was influenced by Ephesians and Colossians.

Having identified these literary dependencies among the epistles concerned, it is no longer necessary to be surprised that Paul and Peter might have arrived at the same literary structures in their respective epistles, nor to look for a more ancient, common source in the Jewish or pagan worlds, even if perhaps the author of Colossians may have been influenced by Greek precedents.


If the term "household tables" goes back to Luther, as the OP has suggested, who in his commentary on family member duties used the term haustafel, then a modern definition could be the one included in Wikipedia's entry for the same German word:

"The proper domestic or household order in the Christian home. It implies the highly practical nature of the instructions: an individual's 'haustefel duties' are not related to abstract beliefs they are expected to hold to, but rather to specific actions they are expected to perform"

These actions, I suggest, are to be characterized by love, mutual submission, obedience, and honor. In short, "household tables" address family relationships: husband, wife, children, bondslaves and masters; and church-family relationships: elders, deacons, young and older men, young and older women, and Christian bondslaves and their believing masters.

Carolyn Osiek and David L Balch, the editors of the book Families in the NT World: Households and House Churches (in the Family, Religion and Culture Series; Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1997) suggest the following:

"On the whole, neither Christian nor Jewish families stood out against the wider Greco-Roman background. The cultural influence of the Greco-Roman environment was so strong that Christian and Jewish families looked quite similar to Greco-Roman families. Not until several centuries into the Christian era do distinctively Christian families begin to appear. Part of the reason is that in the early Christian centuries, Christians were quite the minority in the population; Ramsay MacMullen [prof of history and classics, Yale] estimates that perhaps 5 percent of the population was Christian, slightly more in the urban areas, but slightly less in the rural" (see http://web.campbell.edu/faculty/vandergriffk/foundations_new_testament.html).

Osiek and Balch may be correct in that it was "not until several centuries into the Christian era [until] distinctively Christian families [began] to appear." By the same token, however, the unbelieving Greco-Roman world in which Christ promised to build His church did take notice of the qualitative difference between the behavior of Christians and Christian families and their secular equivalent, and for this reason many Christians subsequently became martyrs for the faith.

The hortatory content of the "household tables" in the writings of the apostles Paul and Peter was therefore unique, with the Christian subculture in the apostles' day being countercultural in many ways, morally and ethically. Furthermore, the hortatory "oughts" of scripture were not given to the church as a pattern for ushering in heaven on earth; rather, they were given to instruct believers on how they were to "conduct [themselves] in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth" (1 Ti 3:15, my emphasis).

As individual believers and believing families manifested the love of Christ both within the church and in the world, they functioned as beacons of light amidst the darkness. Peter said,

"But you are A CHOSEN RACE, A royal PRIESTHOOD, A HOLY NATION, A PEOPLE FOR God's OWN POSSESSION, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. . . . Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation" (1 Pe 2:9,12; emphasis--all caps--is in the NASB).

Just as Israel of old was to be

"a light to the nations . . . so that . . . [God's] salvation [might] reach to the end of the earth."(conflation of Is 42:6 and 49:6),

so also the church today, which Jesus described as "the light of the world" and "a city set on a hill," provides an example to the world around her, so that it might see our good works and glorify [our] Father in heaven (Mt 5:14-16).

I challenge anyone to identify any extant code in either the time of ancient Israel (or before) or the time of Jesus that organized and laid out "household tables" in a form that resembled even remotely those of the authors of the Old and New Testaments, including the apostles Paul and Peter. Why? Because the Bible, unlike manmade laws and regulations, was divinely inspired. No manmade code can surpass in simplicity and profundity the pattern laid out in God's word for His people.

Paul may have received as part of his education, particularly under his mentor Gemaliel, some instruction in rhetoric, but I would have to research that further. If he did have instruction in rhetoric (both the oral and written applications of its principles), his "household tables" could simply be the product of his being taught the importance of organization in the process of speech preparation and letter writing. The Roman rhetoricians, such as Cicero, called the process of organization dispositio.

Today, we take for granted the importance of organizing a speech around two or more key ideas that support a thesis, or central idea. In Paul's day, then, his thesis in this quasi-genre of haustafel was that the various roles that Christians assume in their day-to-day lives are to be informed by key Christian values of love, mutual submission, obedience, and honor, and his methodical way of going about his main points (i.e., I. Wives to Husbands; II. Husbands to Wives; III. Children to Parents; IV. Fathers to Children; V. Slaves to Masters; VI. Masters to Slaves). This pattern of organization Paul may have shared with Peter (and not vice versa, I surmise).

The family of God in general and the Christian family unit in particular, then and now, serve as exemplars to the unbelieving world. Sadly, today in America the Christian family is beginning to behave like the culture at large, with divorce, adultery, and fornication, for example, being relatively common occurrences in local churches. What a travesty for local assemblies of God's people, whom God meant to be examples of marital fidelity and sexual purity.

If only the command for husbands to "love [their] wives as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her" were the extent of "household tables" in the NT scriptures, that alone would be sufficient for giving the Bible its status of sui generis.

The concept of loving one's wife as Christ loved the church was totally foreign and countercultural in its day. Again, God's standard of behavior within the family unit consisted not so much of the nitty gritty and minutiae of justice writ small, as in the Code of Hammurabi (18th century BCE), but of justice and love writ large from the mind of a just and loving God who holds His people to a divine standard.

As Doster and White observed at DartmouthApologia.org:

"In the first century Greco-Roman world, women were considered naturally inferior to men. They were viewed as a commodity exchanged by marriage and held to a strict moral standard from which their husbands were excused. They were deprived of any form of independence and forbidden to exercise authority or influence of any kind. As the great Roman orator Cicero wrote, 'Our ancestors, in their wisdom, considered that all women, because of their innate weakness, should be under the control of guardians.' Today, in a progressive society that values the rights and equality of women, Christianity is often characterized as the extension of this misogynistic worldview. Yet the history of the early Church tells a dramatically different story. The Christian teaching that in Christ 'there is neither Greek nor Jew, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female' (Ga 3:28), shocked and offended the ancient world. [Within Christian circles] women were valued equally with men. In marriage they were partners, not property, and both husband and wife were expected to adhere to the same set of moral standards. They were allowed to participate in the Church as individuals, and to hold positions of authority and influence in accordance with their spiritual gifting. Contrary to modern day perception, it was the Christian teaching embodied in the early church community that provided the catalyst and foundation for a revolution in the rights and dignity of women."

In conclusion, "Christian teaching" as cited by Doster and White requires that Christians worldwide "live out their faith" within a culture whose values are often diametrically opposed and even hostile to biblical values.

  • I appreciate the work you put into your answer; but unfortunately it doesn't really address what I'm asking. I'm interested in the common structure that the house tables share and whether there are parallels in the contemporary literature or whether the structure is something that was new.
    – Soldarnal
    Commented Jul 15, 2013 at 3:40
  • 2
    -1. So much here doesn't address the question. I appreciate you sharing your hermeneutic, though.
    – Frank Luke
    Commented Jul 15, 2013 at 14:40
  • 1
    If what you mean by "doesn't address the question" is I did not fill my answer with both non-biblical and unbiblical content, as well as content that is divorced from the grand arc of scripture (the analogy of scripture), you may be right. That the scriptures emerge in part from a cultural milieu is uncontestable. That their inspiration is divine and hence transcends and often surpasses and conflicts with the cultural paradigms within which it emerged is what makes them unique. If you have proof the NT household tables were borrowed from "secular" sources, I sincerely invite you to prove it. Commented Jul 15, 2013 at 16:25
  • @Sodarnal: My "invitation" to Frank Luke is really an open invitation to all, including yourself. If over the next few weeks or months you'd like to invest the time in seeing whether the apostles "borrowed" their concept of household tables from secular sources, that'd be great. If you come back with substantial proof that they did, I'll be more than happy to publish here an apology for my being so egregiously off-base and "reactionary" in my answer. I have a strong feeling, however, that you'll find the NT to be countercultural in regard to family relationships. Commented Jul 16, 2013 at 14:54
  • I don't necessarily disagree with what you've written. It just doesn't address my question. However, I have created a new question where I think much of your content here would be more appropriate.
    – Soldarnal
    Commented Jul 17, 2013 at 20:21

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