Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Ephesians: a Book Report

The following is from a work-in-progress called "The Bible: a Book Report" in which I read each book of the Bible, summarize it in my own words, and occasionally give some commentary.  For this report, I will also include some photographs from archeological ruins in Ephesus, which in the first century was a Greek city, but part of the Roman empire.  Today, the ruins of Ephesus are near the town of Selcuk, Turkey.  The Roman empire no longer exists.  

This map shows where Ephesus was in relation to modern-day Turkey.

Traditionally, the letter to the Ephesians was believed to have been written by Paul.  It was considered one of the “captivity letters” which Paul wrote from one of his many imprisonments.  Today, most scholars question Paul’s authorship, based on literary and thematic grounds.  Some scholars, like Luke Timothy Johnson, believe the letter does reflect Paul’s concerns (even if he did not directly write it).  Some believe that Ephesians, rather than being written exclusively to the church in Ephesus, was meant to be a kind of circular letter, read to numerous (mainly gentile) churches in Asia Minor.

The Temple of Artemis, one of The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, was located at Ephesus.

The main themes of the letter are: the mystery of God’s will revealed in Christ, the unity that this message creates between formerly divided Jews and gentiles, and the new social order/community life that is the result of this newfound unity.  As with other of Paul’s epistles, the main theme is unity among a community.  This is ironic, however, because the Christian church rarely, if ever, has been characterized by unity.  Nonetheless, for the author of Ephesians, unity is the ultimate goal and result of Christian communities.

For this report, I would like to focus on three metaphors the author uses to characterize the ideal Christian community:

1.) Adopted kids.  The author says that, through Christ, formerly excluded gentiles have become adopted into God’s family.  What was once only a family of Jews now includes everyone.

2.) A holy temple.  The Jewish temple in Jerusalem made clear divisions between Jews and gentiles.  Paul says that, through Christ, the dividing wall of the temple has been broken down and gentiles are allowed inside.  The author of Ephesians says that this new new inclusive community is a new temple.  This statement probably took on added force and urgency after the Romans destroyed the actual temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E.

3.) A body.  This new, united community of Jews and gentiles makes up “the body of Christ.”  Each person (or body part) has a unique and important function.

Here is an old Roman theater in Ephesus (which is in modern-day Turkey)

While the overall message and tone of Ephesians is one of unity and love, there are three problematic issues worthy of discussion:

1.) The author’s view of women.  In chapter 5, the author writes: “Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.  For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior.  Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.”  Despite the generally egalitarian nature of the Christian community, there is still gender inequality, which leads me to the next problem…

2.) The author’s view of slavery.  One would hope that Paul (or whoever wrote the letter) would, as an ambassador of Christ, be opposed to slavery and condemn it.  But this is not what the letter does.  Rather, here’s what it says: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; not while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart.”  The author of Ephesians accepts slavery as a fact of life which can (astonishingly) exist within the Christian community.

3.) The anti-semitism which Ephesians (and other Pauline letters) would inspire.  In Paul’s day, Judaism was a much more dominant religion than Christianity.  Within a few centuries, however, this situation would flip—Christianity would become the dominant religion, and Judaism the (often persecuted) minority.  What the writer of Ephesians could not have foreseen is that later Christians would use these writings to argue that Jews who did not accept Christ were somehow deficient.  This is especially ironic because, for the writer of Ephesians, Jews hold primary status as rightful children of God, and gentiles are the adopted kids.  Over the centuries, however, the adopted kids would relentlessly bully the rightful kids.  This is not necessarily a fault of Paul’s, but of historic (mis)interpretation of the New Testament.  

Christians today must be very careful not to make the same mistakes of their forbears—turning the loving community of Christ into a persecuting force.  Historically, Christians have used Ephesians and other New Testament writings to suppress the rights of women, to justify slavery, and to promote antisemitism.  In contrast to these things, it seems to me that Christians ought to be, according to Ephesians, “rooted and grounded in love.”

Here is a "Terrace House" from the Roman period of Ephesus, showing how the wealthy lived.

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