This article is also available in Spanish here.

Plutarch and Paul on Husbands and WivesI recently submitted a research essay in which I compared Plutarch’s Advice to the Bride and Groom with Paul’s advice to men and women in First Corinthians. Plutarch, who wasn’t a Christian, in fact at one time he was a priest in the cult of Apollo, wrote his Advice in a letter around 90–100 AD. The letter was a wedding gift for a couple named Pollianus and Eurydice. Plutarch knew the couple well and was obviously fond of them.

Paul wrote First Corinthians a few decades earlier, in around 55 AD, to the Christians in Corinth. Paul didn’t devote an entire letter to marriage but, in several places within First Corinthians, he deals briefly with the subjects of marriage and sex.[1]

As I was reading and comparing Advice with First Corinthians it struck me how different Plutarch’s and Paul’s views were about the relationship between husband and wife. It also struck me that many Christians today sound much more like Plutarch, rather than Paul, in what they think and say about husbands and wives.

Plutarch and Patriarchy

Social stability was important to Plutarch, and he understood that harmonious marriages are a crucial element in a stable society. Society in the late Hellenistic period was patriarchal, but less so than in classical times, and “women in Plutarch’s day enjoyed more autonomy than their classical counterparts.”[2] The Roman peace had apparently “softened men and wealth had strengthened women.”[3] Nevertheless, Plutarch’s Advice both assumes and reinforces a patriarchal and hierarchical dynamic in marriage and in the home. His advice is contained in forty-eight brief lessons, and most lessons are given to the bride alone and are designed to curb and curtail her behaviour.

In lesson 11, Plutarch uses the analogy of musical harmony and states, “When two notes are struck together, the melody belongs to the lower note. Similarly, every action performed in a good household is done in agreement of the partners, but displays the leadership and decision of the husband.”[4] Thus, Plutarch believed that harmony is attained when the wife acquiesces and allows her husband to lead.

Plutarch uses various words to describe the husband’s leadership throughout his letterFor example, the husband is the one who displays the “leadership” (hēgemoneia) and “decision-making” (proairesis) in the home (lesson 11). And some words are quite strong. For example, the husband is “to rule” (kratienarchein) his wife (lesson 33). Plutarch counsels that the husband’s leadership should be done sympathetically and affectionately, and should promote the wife’s “enjoyment and kindness”, but the husband must be the ruler.

Paul, on the other hand, never uses any of the words Plutarch uses in sentences where he writes about the husband’s leadership. In fact Paul, and every other New Testament author, never use any of the many Greek words for “leader”, “ruler” or “authority” in reference to husbands.[5]

On the topic of sex, Plutarch held a conservative view which is typical of antiquity.[6] He accepts a double-standard of sexual conduct which allowed sexual freedoms for men, but a strict moral code for wives (e.g. lessons 14, 16, 40 and 44).[7] Furthermore, Plutarch’s Advice upholds the rule of husbands and limits the freedom of wives in their own bedrooms. He states that a wife should be “sweet” (gleukos) (lesson 1) and amenable for sexual relations with her husband, but she should never initiate sex (lesson 18). According to Plutarch, a wife who tries to initiate sex with her husband is acting like a mistress, and a good wife must never behave like a mistress (lesson 10).

In 1 Corinthians 7:2-33 Paul deals with the subjects of marriage, sex, divorce, and singleness. His advice is very different to Plutarch’s. Paul uses a series of parallel, matching statements in his instructions to men and women, with no hint of double-standards.

In response to Paul’s statements in 1 Corinthians 7, Philip Payne  writes:

The strikingly egalitarian understanding of the dynamics of marital relations expressed in Paul’s symmetry throughout this passage is without parallel in the literature of the ancient world. . . . Against a cultural backdrop where men were viewed as possessing their wives, Paul states in 7:2, “let each woman have her own husband.” Against a cultural backdrop where women were viewed as owing sexual duty to their husbands, Paul states in 7:3, “Let the husband fulfill his marital duty to his wife.” It is hard to imagine how revolutionary it was for Paul to write in 7:4, “the husband does not have authority over his own body, but his wife does.”[8]

Paul is not bothered with who initiates sex in marriage, but he does mention decision-making in regards to periods of sexual abstinence: he assumes that a married couple will make this decision by mutual agreement (symphōnos (1 Cor. 7:5). Paul also expects husbands and wives to please each other (1 Cor. 7:33-34). Unlike Plutarch, he does not teach that wives have a greater obligation to please their husbands. Paul’s instructions are for mutuality in sex and marriage. He also saw a profound expression of unity in the act of sexual intercourse. In 1 Corinthians 6:16, Paul quotes from Genesis 2:24: “The two will become one flesh.” Paul regarded any act of sex outside of marriage as immoral.

Plutarch’s Advice is often concerned with a wife’s modesty and chastity (self control). He urges that a woman should be hidden at home and not be seen in public, except with her husband (lessons 9, 30-32).[9] In Plutarch and Paul’s day, the traditional concept of gender hierarchy was being challenged.[10] Plutarch, however, upheld the traditional mores and taught that a wife should be shy and modest, and have no voice of her own except to, or through, her husband (lessons 31-32). Plutarch believed that modesty and chastity were a woman’s highest virtues, and that a husband’s happiness was a wife’s greatest concern.

Paul did not see the virtue of keeping women hidden at home. Several women are mentioned in the New Testament as ministry colleagues of Paul; their activities were not confined to taking care of the household. Paul indicated that Christian women were free to pursue roles other than being a wife and mother. For instance, they could remain single and concentrate on “the things of the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:34). This option of singleness and celibacy meant that women could have more autonomy.[11]

Phoebe, Lydia, Euodia, Syntyche, Junia, Priscilla, and other women associated with Paul, travelled, worked, and had influential leadership roles in ministry. Apart from knowing that Priscilla was married to Aquila, Paul did not identify these women by their family relationships or their domestic situations. Instead they are described and identified by their work, their travels, and their ministries. Paul does not advise women to be shy and housebound in his letters.[12] Moreover, the one instruction for women to be silent in the church, given in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, is possibly an interpolation. But, if not, its application is limited, much like the other two instructions for silence in 1 Corinthians 14:28 and 30 given to tongues-speakers and prophets.[13] [My article Interpretations and Application of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 here.]

Paul and the New Creation

Paul was less concerned than Plutarch with maintaining the status quo. In fact Paul believed that Jesus Christ had set in motion a shift in the order of the world (cf. 1 Cor. 7:31b).[13] In 2 Corinthians 5:17 Paul wrote, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (NIV). Paul believed that Christians were already part of this new creation which would be established at Jesus’ return. Equality is a feature of this new creation.

Paul advocated for equality between rich and poor,[15] between slave and free, between people with different ethnicities, and between men and women. Paul told the Corinthian Christians, “For we are all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink” (1 Cor. 12:13, NIV). In his letter to the Galatians, Paul makes a similar statement but adds that there is neither “male and female for you are all one in Christ” (Gal 3:28, NIV).  While social, ethnic, and sex distinctions still existed, especially in the Greco-Roman society outside of the Church, Paul taught that they “should not be used to determine one’s standing in Christ, much less divide the Body of Christ.”[16]

In Galatians, and in his other letters, Paul’s lists of virtues are equally applicable to men and women who belong to Christ Jesus (e.g. Gal. 5:22-24). There is not one list for men and another list for women. There are no double-standards. Both men and women are called to emulate Christ (Gal. 4:19) and display the fruit of the Spirit. And both are called to abstain from the same vices (Gal. 5:19-21).

In First Corinthians, Paul taught that the Holy Spirit distributes his gifts to each person as he determines. Paul’s lists of spiritual gifts and ministries, including leadership ministries, are gender non-specific (1 Cor. 12:4-11, 28-29; 14:26). Women prayed and prophesied aloud in the Corinthian church and, most likely, in other churches founded by Paul.

Paul did not regard Christian men as the leaders of their wives. Instead, he regarded all Christian men and women as brothers and sisters. Paul’s principle of equality may not always have been realised successfully, and there would have been “frictional losses” between the principle and practice, still equality was Paul’s goal.[17]

Conclusion

Plutarch and Paul had very different goals, agendas, and world views, and their instructions to husbands and wives often seem to be polarised. Plutarch sought to uphold a traditional gender hierarchy in marriage. Paul sought to bring a social dynamic of equality among Christians. Plutarch believed that fixed gender roles which subordinated women were beneficial for society. Paul sought to bring relief from unjust and crippling social constraints, particularly within the Christian community. Plutarch’s frame of reference was the old patriarchal values of Greco-Roman society. Paul’s frame of reference was the new creation in Christ.

Paul’s revolutionary views about men and women and marriage have been highlighted to me by comparing them with Plutarch’s. Sadly, I do not see Paul’s revolutionary message of equality being highlighted in churches today. Is the Church’s frame of reference culture or the new creation? Is the church advocating a gender hierarchy in marriage, or promoting equality and mutuality? Do you or your church hold views that are more like Plutarch’s or Paul’s?


Endnotes

An English translation of Advice to the Bride and Groom, also known Conjugal Precepts,  is available online here. I did not use this translation in writing the essay (or this article.)  I used Donald Russel’s translation (See endnote 4.)

[1] First Corinthians may be a compilation of several letters that Paul wrote to the Corinthian Christians. L. L. Welborn proposes that there are three letters contained in First Corinthians. Letter A (1 Cor. 10:1-22; 6:12-20; 10:23-11:34) covers issues related to associating with immoral and idolatrous people. Letter B (1 Cor. 7-9, 12-16) was written in response to a letter from the Corinthians. Welborn refers to Letter C (1 Cor. 1:1-6:11) as “Counsel of Concord”.  L. L. Welborn, “The Corinthian Correspondence” (forthcoming).

[2]  Sarah B. Pomeroy “Commentary on Plutarch, Advice to the Bride and Groom” in Plutarch’s Advice to the Bride and Groom and A Consolation to His Wife: English Translations, Commentary, Interpretive Essays and Bibliography, Sarah B. Pomeroy (Ed.) (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 39.

[3] Jo Ann McNamara, “ Gendering Virtue”, Plutarch’s Advice to the Bride and Groom and A Consolation to His Wife: English Translations, Commentary, Interpretive Essays and Bibliography, Sarah B. Pomeroy (Ed.) (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 153.

[4] From Donald Russel’s “Translation”, Plutarch’s Advice to the Bride and Groom and A Consolation to His Wife: English Translations, Commentary, Interpretive Essays and Bibliography, Sarah B. Pomeroy (Ed.) (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 6.

[5] Conversely, Plutarch and non-biblical authors of the first century AD never use the word kephalē (“head”) to describe any kind of leadership or authority of husbands towards their wives. Paul described man as the kephalē of woman in 1 Corinthians 11:3, and the husband as the kephalē of the wife in Ephesians 5:23.  Paul’s usage here may have nothing to do with authority. [My article Kephalē and “Male Headship” in Paul’s Letters here.]

[6] Peter Walcot, “Plutarch on Sex”, Greece & Rome, Second Series, Vol. 45, No. 2 (Oct., 1998), Cambridge University Press on behalf of The Classical Association, 176.

[7] Sarah B. Pomeroy, “Reflections on Plutarch, Advice to the Bride and Groom: Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed”, Plutarch’s Advice to the Bride and Groom and A Consolation to His Wife: English Translations, Commentary, Interpretive Essays and Bibliography, Sarah B. Pomeroy (Ed.) (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 38.

[8] Philip B. Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul’s Letters (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 106-107.

[9] In reality, only women from the upper classes, and some female domestic slaves were housebound. Poorer women worked to survive, and some of this work was done in public places such as the market.

[10] Around the time of Paul and Plutarch, some women in the upper classes were shunning the classical ideal of the virtuous, mostly house-bound, Roman matron. These “new” women began appearing in public and took on more influential roles in society. Some even started wearing provocative clothing and lived promiscuous, scandalous lives.

[11] Lynn H. Cohick, Women in the World of the Earliest Christians (Grand Rapids: Baker Academics, 2009), 83.

[12] In 1 Timothy 5:14 there are instructions to young widows to remarry and keep house. These instructions were designed to stop the problem of unruly women in Ephesus from spreading nonsense door to door. In Titus 2:4-5 there are basic instructions for young women to marry and be good wives and mothers. These instructions were designed to stop the problem of irresponsible, idle women in Crete from being bad wives and mothers. Neither of the instructions in these passages were aimed at older women, or to women who were already behaving responsibly. [My article on Is Motherhood the Highest Calling of Women? here.]

[13] From being immersed in Plutarch’s and Paul’s writings in the past weeks I am a little more persuaded that 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 may not have been written by Paul. It sounds exactly like something Plutarch would say.

[14] Wayne A. Meeks, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul, Second Edition (Yale University Press, 2003), 190.

[15] The word “equality” or “equity” (isotēsis used twice in 2 Corinthians 8:13-14 in the context of material wealth, and once in Colossians in the context of slavery (Col. 4:1). [My article on “Equality” in Paul’s Letters here.]

[16] Ben Witherington, Women in the Earliest Churches, (Cambridge University Press, 1988), 77.

[17] Peter Lampe, “The Language of Equality in Early Christian House Churches: A Constructivist Approach”, Early Christian Families in Context, David Balch and Carolyn Osiek (Ed.)(Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2003), 78.

Update 14.08.15

Thank you to Tim Harris for providing the following information via Facebook in response to endnote 13.

Livy (34.2) recreates a speech of M. Porcius Cato which has some similarity with Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. The speech contains the type of advice we would give to women engaging with another culture and is about the social propriety needed to avoid undue offence. The passage is vintage Cato/Livy:

“If each man of us, fellow citizens, had established that the right and authority of the husband should be held over the mother of his own family, we should have less difficulty over women in general; now at home our freedom is conquered by female fury, here in the forum it is bruised and trampled upon . . . What kind of behaviour is this? Running around in public, blocking streets, and speaking to other women’s husbands! Could you not have asked your husband the same thing at home?”


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