Reading the Household Codes Critically

Col 3:18-4:1 calls on women, children, and slaves to submit to men, fathers, and masters. It seemingly justifies oppressive structures in families and in slaveholder and class societies. Yet a number of black scholars, like Clarice J. Martin, introduced critical hermeneutics to fight against abusive readings and to unearth from beneath the text a biblical mandate for freedom and justice.

How are the Household Codes a Patriarchal Text?

Traditional scholarship observes that household codes, like the one in Col 3:18-4:1, participate in an ideology known as ancient economy. In the ancient economy, economic systems were largely determined by social relationships (see Aristotle, Xenophon, et al.). Household codes promoted mutual relationships in respective social pairings: women/men, children/fathers, slaves/masters. Yet, as feminist scholars observe, beyond all mutuality the codes promoted the patriarchy.

The form of the New Testament household codes, that is, as interdependent advice to the ruler and the ruled, are not exceptional. A popular law code prescribes, “It is fitting that slaves do what is right out of fear, while those who are free persons do good out of respect” (Pseudo-Zaleucus 228.13–14 [Thesleff]). A similar list rules, “Every man should love his wife who lawfully belongs to him and produce children with her.… A wife must be prudent and may not desire an illicit relationship with another man, because those who forsake their own house and establish enmity encounter the wrath of the gods” (Pseudo-Charondas 60.30–35 [Thesleff]). A private cult association in Philadelphia published a similar household code as an inscription (GRA 141).

Like these ancient household codes, the individual exhortations in Col 3:18-4:1 promote mutual respect and are justified in a brief rational: “as it is fitting in the Lord” (Col 3:18). In other words, there is (almost) nothing new or specifically Jewish or Christian in Col 3:18-4:1. Why is this code introduced in the letter?

How can one read the Household Codes against the grain?
The household code of Col 3:18-4:1 is found in the middle of a letter that reveals the mystery of Christ (Col 2:2) with mystical language. It is there to protect the community from any suspicion that they might question slaveholders’ virtues in the name of Christ.

However, one can read the code against the grain, so to speak. First, notice that slaves are promised an inherence (Col 3:24). Second, the exhortation to masters in Col 4:1 reads in a literary translation: “Masters, treat your slaves with justice and equality [isotē s].” The Greek word isotēs is a key notion among contemporary critics of ancient slavery. Because mother earth has born and reared them, all human beings share equality (isotēs; see Philo, Det. 79). Third, all are called “fellow servants” (Col 1:17; Col 4:7, Col 4:12). Any differentiations between Jews and gentiles, foreigners and indigenous, and slaves and free persons are abolished (Col 3:11). Thus, the code applies to nobody, or more exactly, the extended exhortation to slaves (Col 3:22-25) applies to the whole community.

History proves that such a juxtaposing of Christ as the only Master and the congregation as a body of fellow servants was not without risk. Such metaphors could be used to sanctify oppression. Early readers perceived the inherent criticism. Eph 5:21-6:9, the earliest commentary on Colossian’s code, not only added theological rationales (Eph 5:23-24, Eph 5:26-33; Eph 6:2-3) to avoid this criticism but also “corrected” the code by deleting the critical catchwords “inheritance” and “isotēs” and “coslaves.” Without these incongruous catchwords, however, the household code in Eph 5:21-6:9 loses its egalitarian nuances and promotes pure patriarchy.

Contributors

  • Standhartinger-Angela

    Professor for New Testament Studies, University of Marburg

    Angela Standhartinger is Professor for New Testament Studies at the University of Marburg, Germany. She is author of many books and articles, including “Letter from Prison as Hidden Transcript: What It Tells Us about the People at Philippi,” in The People beside Paul: The Philippian Assembly and History from Below, ed. Joseph A. Marchal (Atlanta: SBL Press, 2015), 107–40; “Apocalyptic Thought in Philippians,” in The Jewish Apocalyptic Tradition and the Shaping of New Testament Thought, ed. Benjamin E. Reynolds and Loren T. Stuckenbruck (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2017), 233–45; and Der Philipperbrief, HNT (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2021).