Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

Ephesians 5:22 codex vaticanus no verb

Ephesians 5:18-24 in Codex Vaticanus (middle column).
Codex Vaticanus dates to around 300-325.
There is no “submit” word in verse 22 of this document.

« Part 1: The Grammar of Ephesians 5:21-22: Participles

Ephesians 5:21-22 and the verses following are frequently brought up in discussions about the relationship between wives and husbands. The fact that there is no verb for “submit” in verse 22 in a few early Greek manuscripts, as well as in a couple of recent critical editions, is thought by some to be significant. Is this the case?

Here again is an English translation of Ephesians 5:18-24.

18 And don’t get drunk with wine, which leads to reckless living, but be filled with/by the Spirit: 19 speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making music with your heart to the Lord, 20 giving thanks always for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another in the fear of Christ. 22 Wives, to your own husbands as to the Lord, 23 because the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, he himself is the Savior of the body. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives to their husbands in everything.

The Implicit Verbal Sense in Ephesians 5:22 & 24

In two of the earliest surviving Greek manuscripts of Ephesians, Papyrus 46 and Codex Vaticanus (also known as B), there is no verb or participle in Ephesians 5:22.[1] Instead, this verse borrows the verbal idea from the previous verse. So, whatever the sense of the “submit” participle is in verse 21, this same sense carries over into verse 22.[2]

It is not unusual in ancient Greek for the sense of a verb or verbal idea to be implicit in a following verse, or verses, without being restated.[3] Verbal ideas can even skip several verses before being tacitly implied again. In fact, the more sophisticated the Greek, the less verbs may be repeated.

Even though verse 22 borrows the verbal idea of the participle from verse 21, Paul’s meaning is not unclear. He is speaking about submission. Interestingly, a verb for “submit” is plainly stated in the first half of Ephesians 5:24, “as the church ‘submits itself’ (hypotassetai) to Christ,” and is not restated in the second phrase in the Greek, but implied: “so also the wives to their husbands …”

(In verse 23, the verb estin (“is”) is stated once, then implied twice more. However, it is common in Greek for the verb “to be,” or “is,” to be implicit and not stated at all.)

Elided (“Missing”) Verbs in Paul’s Letters

There is nothing remarkable about elided (left out) verbs in Paul’s letters. New Testament Greek scholar Mike Aubrey has counted 222 occurrences of elided verbs with a subject-complement construction in Paul’s letters which are similar to that in Ephesians 5.22.[4]

David Bentley Hart has written about elided verbs in the introduction to his translation of the New Testament and notes Paul’s fondness for them.

It was common practice in koinē Greek … to elide verbs in predicative constructions, as well as some other syntactic ligatures; if done well this can produce an elegant terseness, if poorly a confused heap of grammatical wreckage. Paul’s fondness for elision is so pronounced that any translator is bound to supply a large quantity of words only adumbrated in the original Greek (all those italicized words in the King James), and this practice often does as much to determine the meaning of verses as to elucidate it.[5]

Making a verb or verbal idea do double duty, without restating it a second or even a third time, was part of Paul’s style, but does it affect meaning in any way?

How do the elided verbs in Ephesians 5:22-24 affect interpretation?

Why did Paul indirectly, rather than directly, tell wives to submit to their own husbands, twice? Perhaps he is speaking diplomatically. In the congregations who first heard his letter, there may well have been some wives who belonged to the elite classes, for example, wives and married daughters of Asiarchs (cf. Acts 19:31). So Paul, speaks circumspectly and tempers his words knowing that they may be heard by women who greatly outranked him in the highly stratified Roman world. His words to wives are much milder than similar advice given by non-Christian contemporaries of Paul such as Plutarch.[6]

Mike Aubrey comments that “Paul avoided directly using hypotassō for the wives, but why?” Mike has a different answer than mine.

The logical reason for this is simply that the wife was not Paul’s focus. Rather, Paul desires to direct his energy to the husband. Such an explanation is validated by the fact that he uses only forty words addressing the wives, while using one hundred and sixteen words for the husbands.[7]

The apostle takes care to explain to husbands that they are to selflessly love and nurture their wives and be united with them. These ideas needed unpacking and Paul labours his point. For example, he uses the word “love” six times in his words to husbands! (Note that he never tells husbands to lead or have authority over their wives.)

Paul didn’t need to labour the point in his instructions to wives because wifely submission was the usual, expected behaviour of respectable Greco-Roman wives. Furthermore, while addressing husbands, Paul digresses to say a few words about Jesus and the church; Ephesians 5:25b-27 is about Jesus, not husbands. This all adds up to one hundred and sixteen words.

Paul’s words to wives were relatively unremarkable, apart from the Christian reframing of submission. His words to husbands would have been astounding to some in his audience. I believe this is why Paul spends more time and more ink addressing husbands.[8] Still, I’m not sure if his focus on husbands in verses 25ff explains the elided verbs in verses 22-24.

Was the elided verb intentional or a mistake?

Ephesians 5:22-24 makes good sense in the Greek even with the various verbs left out. However, it is possible there was a finite verb in Paul’s original letter that was accidentally omitted early on by a weary or careless scribe. A verb is included in verse 22 in some ancient and medieval copies of Paul’s letter.[9]

The note on Ephesians 5:22 in the NET Bible suggests that the elided verb was original but that scribes added hypotassesthōsan, the third person imperative of hypotassō, in some early manuscripts such as Codex Sinaiticus.[10] Then later, especially in the Byzantine cursives, hypotassesthe, the second person imperative, was used instead. There are also textual variants concerning the position of the verb in verse 22.

This note in the NET Bible poses a scenario that I think is entirely plausible.

The text virtually begs for one of these two verb forms, but the often cryptic style of Paul’s letters argues for the shorter reading. The chronology of development seems to have been no verb—third person imperative—second person imperative. It is not insignificant that early lectionaries began a new day’s reading with v. 22; these may have caused copyists to add the verb at this juncture.

Normalising Submission

Paul normalised and Christianised submission by mentioning it in Ephesians 5:21 as a behaviour for all Spirit-filled believers (cf. 1 Peter 5:5 NKJV). I would have loved to see the reaction of the original audiences when the letter readers read the apostle’s instructions for mutual submission aloud, and then immediately went on to read his carefully worded instruction for wifely submission.

In both Colossians 3 and Ephesians 5, the instructions to wives follow on from Paul’s general teaching about mutuality and generosity in ministering and relating to one another. Some scholars believe the theme of mutuality, especially mutual submission, continues to run through Paul’s household code in Ephesians 5-6. For example, John Stott asserts, “What is beyond question is that the three paragraphs which follow [verse 21, to wives/ husbands, children/ parents, slaves/ slave masters,] are given as examples of Christian submission, and that the emphasis throughout is on submission.”[11]

Submission isn’t just for wives any more than sacrificial love is just for husbands (Eph. 5:1-2, 21). These behaviours, along with humility and meekness, are Christian behaviours.

Conclusion

The fact remains that if there was no verb in the original text of Ephesians 5:22-24, which is likely, Paul didn’t directly tell wives to submit to their husbands even though the meaning is unmistakably implied. Paul knew that first-century wives usually had less power in their marriages than husbands, but he also knew they had power over their consciences, their motives, and their devotion to the Lord Jesus. Paul spoke to them as though they had agency, but more than that, he spoke to them in a way that acknowledged their dignity.[12] I suggest Paul spoke circumspectly and diplomatically in Ephesians 5:22-24 in order to be respectful to the wives.


Footnotes

[1] Clement of Alexandria (d. 215) similarly doesn’t have a verb or participle in his quotation of the phrases addressed to wives in Ephesians 5:22 and 24: “αἱ γυναῖκες τοῖς ἰδίοις ἀνδράσιν ὡς τῷ κυρίῳ …”  and “αἱ γυναῖκες τοῖς ἰδίοις ἀνδράσιν ἐν παντί.” Stromata 4.8, PG 8 Column 1276 B

[2] The grammatical gender of hypotassomenoi is masculine. If the participle had been restated in verse 22, it would have been feminine to fit with the gender of the subject, “the wives.” The meaning remains the same, however.

[3] As one example, in 1 Timothy 3:2 there is the verb “it is necessary” (dei) and the infinitive “to be” (einai) in the context of the character qualities of supervisors or overseers in the church. These verbal ideas skip verses and carry over into 1 Timothy 3:8 and 11 in the context of the character qualities of male and female deacons; the verbs are not rewritten. There is no finite verb in 3:8 or 3:11. More examples in the postscript here.
Furthermore, there are similarities in grammar and vocabulary between 1 Peter 5:5 and Ephesians 5:21-22 which I’ve written about here.

[4] Mike Aubrey, ὑποτάσσω in Ephesians 5.21, Koine-Greek.

[5] David Bentley Hart, The New Testament: A Translation (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2017), xvii.

[6] I compare Paul’s and Plutarch’s advice to husbands and wives here.

[7] Mike Aubrey, ὑποτάσσω in Ephesians 5.21, Koine-Greek.

[8] Paul’s words to slaves are considerably longer than his words to masters in Ephesians 6, again because his directives needed more explaining. Similarly, his words to slaves in Colossians 3:22-25 are longer than to slave masters. In Colossians 3:18-19, however, Paul is equally terse when addressing wives and husbands: “Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and don’t be bitter toward them.”

[9] Some suggest that an early copyist of Ephesians 5:22 committed the scribal error. In this hypothesis, it is assumed a copyist saw the second hypotassō word and assumed s/he has already written it [in verse 21] and so omitted it in verse 22.

[10] I think it’s unlikely Paul used a third person verb in Ephesians 5:22. He addresses husbands, children, fathers, slaves and slavemasters directly using second person plural verbs. It doesn’t make sense that he would have used a third person plural verb for wives.

[11] John R.W. Stott, The Message of the Ephesians (The Bible Speaks Today; Leicester: InterVarsity, 1979, 1989), 215.

[12] I suggest that Peter elides a “submit” verb and speaks circumspectly to husbands in 1 Peter 3:7 in order to be respectful and not threaten their dignity. See here.

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« Part 1: The Grammar of Ephesians 5:21-22: Participles
» Part 3: The Grammar of Ephesians 5:21-22: 1 sentence or 2?

Related Articles

Articles on mutual submission here.
The Household Codes are about Power, not Gender
Submission and Respect from Husbands in 1 Peter 3:7-8
Paul’s Main Point in Ephesians 5:22-33
Likewise Women … Likewise Husbands

7 thoughts on “2. The Grammar of Ephesians 5:21-22: A Missing Verb?

  1. You hit the nail on the head when you said, “It is all about Jesus.” Our poor Lord has all but been lost in the shuffle about wifely submission. I think Paul is working hard to put the unity of believers, both with Jesus and each other in the central theme here, and we lose sight of the mission. The idea of submitting to each other would have gob smacked the Greeks with their “caste” system. The reciprocity would need to be explained. There is also a mutual submission between Jesus and the church that is referred to when Paul addresses the husband. Christ gave Himself for the church, the church gives herself to Christ.

    Yep, it’s all About Jesus.

    1. Yes, everything is framed by devotion to Jesus and/or with him as our example. Submission is in the fear of the Lord (Eph. 5:21) and as the church submits to Christ (Eph. 5:24). And giving yourself up or yielding, which doesn’t sound too dissimilar from submitting, should also be done with Christ as our example (Eph. 5:25a; cf. Eph. 5:1-2).

  2. Thanks for your thoughts, I agree.

    Here is my translation of Eph 5:21-22: … submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ; wives, to your husbands as to the Lord.

    The point is that v.22 does not stand alone as a complete thought in the Greek text and therefore should not stand alone in English, as is done in some translations. Also, the rest of the pericope (to v. 6:9) is Paul exemplifying the mutual submission principle in v.21 by giving six 1st century applications of that principle.

    1. Hi Don,

      I wouldn’t have a full stop at the end of verse 22. Verse 23, which begins with ὅτι (“because”), doesn’t make any sense without verse 22. Verses 22 and 23 belong together.

      Verse 23 has a finite verb which helps to make 22-23 a sentence, though finite verbs can be implied. If we make one complete sentence from verses 21-22, without 23, there is only a participle and no verb.

      Also, I’m reluctant to separate the participle in verse 21 from the previous participles and the verb “be filled [with/by the Spirit].”

      No Bible verse, even verses that are complete sentences, should stand alone. We must always be aware of what has gone before and after.

  3. The key to understanding this passage as the inversion of the Roman family pyramid is Eph. 6:10. Of course and in every culture, slaves were expected to obey their masters. Why would Paul need to teach them that? But Paul now tells the masters that they are to treat their slaves in the same way. Outside of the redemptive work of Christ that command is nonsense. Applying the same principle to the other two relationships, Ephesians 5 becomes the relational outworking of redemption for men and women, for parents and children, and even for masters and slaves. In each case one party was culturally powerful, the other the weaker vessel. In another place, Paul would write that the weaker vessels were indispensable. The world is turned upside down.

    1. Agreed. I love Paul’s words to the (male and female) slave masters:
      “And masters, do the same things to them [the same things that Paul had just told to the slaves], giving up threatening behaviour, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality [favoritism] with him.”

  4. Submission and love are the flip side of the same coin… Love you guys… At your service, Russ Newell.

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