Who should be called father? Paul of Tarsus between the Jesus tradition and patria potestas
S. Scott Bartchy
Who should be called “father”? What an odd question. Doesn’t everyone in every culture grow up calling the male who begot them their linguistic equivalent of “father”? In the world of Jesus and Paul, everyone knew the answer to that question. For them, the term father included reference not only to their male blood progenitors, and perhaps to their fathers’ fathers, but also to the emperor at Rome, the pater patriae, the “father of the fatherland.” This title, as Nicholas Purcell observes, “was eloquently suggestive of the protecting but coercive authority of the paterfamilias” (1121).
In Roman culture this nearly absolute, coercive authority was called patria potestas, which in its range included the father’s power of life and death over his children, beginning in infancy when a father chose to acknowledge and rear a child of “to expose” it, that is, throw the child away. The second-century Roman jurist Gaius noted that “there are virtually no other peoples who have such power over their children as we have” (INSTITUTES 1,55). From ancient Republican times, Roman fathers had been permitted by law to sell their sons into slavery–as many as three times. Yet during the Empire, paternal monopoly on the control of property probably influenced the behavior of sons and daughters more than their father’s legal right to execute them.
As Richard Saller has stressed, writers such as Cicero, Seneca, and Plutarch urged fathers to use encouragement and reasoning rather than blows or ill treatment as the means of leading their children to honorable lives (1994). Paternal moderation, even toward serious filial misbehavior, was praised as a virtue. And family affection and genuine respect could motivate the obedience of children, as Judith Hallett (1984) has especially documented for Roman daughters. However the children were motivated, their father was to be obeyed absolutely; and the deeply felt appropriateness of this demand was rooted in Roman male ideology, according to which children, slaves, and women all lacked full powers of judgment.
Thus grown daughters and sons were usually bound by their father’s authority until he died. Until then they could own no property, and any of their earnings or gifts they received belonged by law to their father. His consent was necessary for the marriage of both sons and daughters, and he could coerce a divorce. In the sine manu form of marriage that prevailed from the late Republic on into the Empire, the wife remained under the authority of her father. Ovid (FASTI 6.219ff) called attention to the importance Roman fathers placed on obtaining husbands for their daughters. Yet once such fathers were successful in this regard, legislation by Augustus guaranteed that these fathers retained considerably more authority over their married daughters than their husbands could have. This fact will be particularly relevant later when I invite you to reconsider Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7. Who should be called father? What a silly question.
Filial Piety and the Authority of Fathers
Patriarchy as a psycho-social system is frequently but inadequately defined solely as male domination of females, men dominating women. Yet patriarchal social codes are enforced beyond the household by the actions of men who seek to acquire more honor by dominating as many other men as possible. In a wide variety of cultures, men are brought up to gain honor for themselves precisely by dominating as many others as they can, both men and women. And the lessons in such domination began and still begin in the home. Sons raised to be absolutely obedient to their fathers grew up anticipating that they, in turn, would become patriarchs who would appropriately demand such obedience from everyone in their own families. Thus a boy was raised to be aggressive, to demonstrate self-mastery, and to look forward not only to being served by his wife, children, and slaves, but also to expect deference from those males he had successfully challenged in the public realm.
Boys who were trained to be obedient sons became loyal political subjects who were indeed subject to the ruling powers. For such sons, calling the Roman Emperor “father” fit well with their common sense of how the world worked. Thus any in-depth understanding of patriarchy in the Roman Empire or any society must include, if not begin with, an analysis of male socialization and the power arrangements valued among men. Across all social classes, traditional male socialization programmed males to pursue a never-ending quest for greater honor and influence, including fathers arranging their children’s marriages so that the honor of their families would be enhanced.
Unfortunately, most descriptions of ancient patriarchy are incomplete because they routinely disregard this systemic quest for honor by competition among men and the resulting domination of males by other males. Yet by ignoring this central feature of ancient patriarchy, scholars have predisposed themselves to miss one of the most interesting counter-cultural challenges on which Paul agreed with Jesus.
In all the cultures around the ancient Mediterranean Sea, including the one in which Jesus grew up, a father’s honor depended on the unquestioning and faithful filial piety of all his sons and daughters. Thus in the Book of Proverbs, a father exhorts his son: “Let your heart hold fast my words; keep my commandments, and live” (4:4 NRSV). And Israelite tradition included some draconian warnings for sons whose behavior shamed their fathers:
If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not
obey his father and mother, who does not heed them when
they discipline him, then his father and his mother shall take
hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at
the gate of that place. They shall say to the elders of his
town, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will
not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” Then all the
men of the town shall stone him to death. So you shall purge
the evil from your midst; and all Israel will hear, and be
afraid [Deut 21:18-21 NRSV].
In the rhetoric of this passage, this son is not called “stubborn and rebellious” because he was necessarily a literal glutton and a drunkard but because his demonstrated lack of filial piety shamed his parents similarly to a son known to be one. In Israel’s wisdom tradition, children were taught that “a wise child loves the discipline of his father” (Prov 13:1 NRSV), and “those who respect their father will have long life … they will serve their parents as their masters (Sir 3:6 NRSV). Reciprocally, parents were taught that “when the father dies he will not seem to be dead, for he has left behind him one like himself,” namely, his obedient son (Sir 30:4).
Many reports about the activities and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, himself accused of being a “glutton and drunkard” (Matt 11:19; Luke 7:34), point to his setting aside of primary filial duties within the blood-descent kin group and to his challenging others to join him in that rejection. By his actions and instruction, Jesus of Nazareth brought shame upon his own blood kin group. For example, according to Mark 3:21 (NRSV), Jesus’ blood family “went out to restrain him” when they heard the buzz created by Jesus’ public activity: “People were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind’.” Measured by the social code of Deuteronomy, Jesus appeared to be a “stubborn and rebellious son,” who was sharply diminishing–rather than dutifully increasing–the honor of his own blood kin. Furthermore, he compounded his outrageous, anti-familial decisions by urging others to imitate his behavior.
In striking contrast to the positive emphasis on family loyalty and obedience that has persisted in most if not all cultures throughout millennia, Jesus of Nazareth, in the name of Israel’s God, called for an absolute break with such filial piety and initiated potential conflict between a son and his father. Jesus’ sharp challenge to the authority of earthly fathers was an essential first step toward implementing his redefinition of three related concepts: power, honor, and family.
According to the historical Jesus, the aspect of God’s power that human beings should imitate must result in empowerment of others, which stands in striking contrast to the understanding of power on which every patriarchal system is based, namely, domination. In astonishing contradiction to the values they had been taught since childhood, men should seek to acquire honor by giving others honor rather than seeking endlessly to take it away from others. The family has been restructured as a human group living as brothers and sisters without an earthly father, bound together by their common commitment to doing the will of God as revealed by Jesus.
Jesus’ Challenge to the Authority of Fathers
Since this aspect of Jesus’ vision of God’s Ruling has been minimized or played down recently by some scholars and misunderstood by many readers of the Gospels, consider briefly what are arguably the most offensive, the most misinterpreted, the most subtle, and the most startling anti-patriarchal passages in the gospel traditions.
“I have come to set a man against his father”
To twenty-first century ears, perhaps the most offensive, anti-family Jesus tradition is the statement: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26 NRSV). Even the less strident version in Matthew 10:37 sounds disturbingly opposed to traditional family values: “Whoever loves father of mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” Indeed, according to Matthew, Jesus introduced this challenge with the assertion: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household” (10:34-36 NRSV).
This tradition is given further, perhaps independent, attestation by the Coptic Gospel of Thomas, in which the saying appears in two passages in a[most identical words: “Whoever does not hate father and mother cannot be my disciple” (55:1; 101:1 SV). The first passage continues: “Whoever does not hate brothers and sisters, and carry the cross as I do, will not be worthy of me” (55:2 SV). It is difficult to conceive of a stronger challenge to blood-family ties.
Thus, quite frequently interpreters begin by assuring us that the Greek term misein, translated “hate,” doesn’t really mean what it seems to mean to us. To be sure, the point of the saying is not the cultivation of a negative emotion among those who would follow Jesus but rather the challenge to make a hard choice. In the words of Joel Green: “In this context, ‘hate’ is not primarily an affective quality but a disavowal of primary allegiance to one’s kin,” a courageous “distancing themselves from the high cultural value placed on their family network” (565)–in other words: a rejection of filial piety.
The Greatest Offense to Filial Piety?
Perhaps the most misinterpreted sentence on Jesus’ lips in this connection is his response to one of his would-be followers, who had answered Jesus’ challenge to join Jesus’ group with the plea that he first be permitted to go home and bury his father. According to both Matthew (8:22) and Luke (9:60), Jesus replied with one of the most breath-taking rejections of traditional family values coming to us from antiquity: “Let the dead bury their own dead”! In Martin Hengel’s judgment “there is hardly one logion of Jesus which more sharply runs counter to law, piety, and custom” (14).
When I first heard this passage discussed as a teenager, I was told that the urgency of Jesus’ call to discipleship was so great, that potential followers could not even take off a few hours to attend their own father’s funeral. Many interpreters continue to understand the passage in this way, and some of them are encouraged in their view by Jesus’ reply, according to Luke, to the next “wanna be” who stated: “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home” (9:61 NRSV). In Luke, Jesus shot back: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the rule of God” (9:62 NRSV). I suggest to you that while Luke does link these two scenes, they are not redundant. Rather, Jesus’ replies assume two distinct scenarios: the first implies the postponement of following Jesus until conventional filial obligations were met; the second seems similar to the kind of leave-taking the prophet Elijah granted his follower-to-be Elisha (1 Kgs 19:19-21). Moreover, the “plow” saying is more difficult to trace back to the historical Jesus than is the “bury their own dead” statement, which easily satisfies the major criteria for such historical tracing.
In any case, in the first scene the point, as I see it, is not that the potential follower’s father has just died and that Jesus is so strict that he forbids his leaving for the weekend to attend to burial matters. Neither am I persuaded by Byron McCane’s argument (31-43) that this saying refers not to the initial burial but rather to the re-burial of the person’s bones in an ossuary, a scenario embraced and elaborated upon by Kathleen Corley (73-75). No, in view of the solemn obligation in filial piety for the son to be sure that his father receive a dignified burial, it is much more likely that this would-be disciple of Jesus was saying: “I need to go home and serve and support my father until he dies, and I have buried him. Then I’ll return to follow you.” Only years after reaching this conclusion did I discover that Kenneth Bailey, one of the first scholars to stress the importance of Mediterranean cultural values for understanding the Gospels, also had observed (26-27) that the potential disciple’s request to bury his father expressed the son’s duty to obey his father until his father’s death and fitting interment.
The young man had probably been taught that the Fifth Commandment–“honor your father and mother”–obligated him at the minimum to support his father materially in his old age and to give him an honorable burial. Thus Torah-piety as well as filial piety would have been at stake here. In any case, according to both Luke and Matthew–in material they have in common from the “Q” sayings source–Jesus seemed to be aware that this young man would never be able to escape the family obligations that would be heaped upon him if he returned to his father’s house. His father was a patriarch; the young man had been socialized to become a patriarch himself. And after his father’s death and proper burial, all those around the young man would expect him to act like a patriarch–or risk being dishonored and bringing shame upon his family. As noted above, Sirach teaches: “When the father dies he will not seem to be dead, for he has left behind him one like himself,” his obedient son.
No Traditional Fathers Needed When
God’s Will is Done
Perhaps the most subtle and easily overlooked elimination of earthly fathers from the ideal society in which God alone is ruling is found in the Gospel according to Mark 10:28-31 (NRSV):
Peter began to say to [Jesus], “Look, we have left everything
and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no
one who has left house of brothers or sisters or mother or
father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of
the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in
this age–houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children,
and fields with persecutions–and in the age to come
Notice carefully that fathers are not included in the second half of this parallel-constructed saying. But might this be simply an oversight?
Gerhard Lohfink comments, “The question would have to be left unanswered if other texts did not show that the absence of any reference to fathers is anything but coincidence or forgetfulness. Fathers are deliberately not mentioned … they are too symbolic of patriarchal domination” (45). In contrast, Kathleen Corley asserts that neither Mark nor Jesus intended to imply here what she calls an “anti-patriarchal ethic” (47). Yet when the saying is viewed in the context of the expectations of filial piety I am convinced that Lohfink, Joanna Dewey (478-79), Richard Horsley (232-44), and other scholars are correct and thus that Corley is not persuasive on this point. Part of the good news is that there are no fathers but God in Jesus’ vision. And Mark emphasizes that these “fatherless” families are gifts of God which are given now, already in the present time, not some indefinite future.
Once again the context is one of anti-domination; the following sentence in Mark reads: “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first” (10:31 NRSV). The status and authority of fathers are implicitly rejected, and the expectations to control and be served that characterized the patriarchal social system are explicitly subverted. Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza makes the compelling comment that Jesus’ paradoxical exhortation to “receive the rule of God like a child (slave)” earlier in Mark (10:15) “is not an invitation to childlike innocence and naivete but a challenge to relinquish all claims of power and domination over others” (148).
Now Only God Is “Father”
Perhaps Jesus’ most startling challenge to patriarchal authority is found in the material unique to the Gospel according to Matthew 23:9 (NRSV): “Call no man father on earth, for you have one Father–the one in heaven.” The context for this saying is provided by Matthew, who may have especially prized it because of its reference to God as Father, a favorite theme in his Gospel; he uses the designation 44 times. But there is little question that the core of the saying came from the historical Jesus. As Lohfink observes, “Here we not only find the spirit of Jesus but hear the historical Jesus himself speaking” (47). Schussler Fiorenza suggests that the original form of the saying may have read: “Call no one father, for you have one father (and you are all siblings)” (150). By it Jesus declared that his followers both should not and need not address anyone but the God of Israel as “father.” Jerome Neyrey comments that there is a stream of material in Matthew which “replaces the sense of loyalty and faithfulness owed parents with that owed God-Father.” However unjust this appeared to outsiders, “Matthew portrays Jesus pursuing a different kind of justice, placing the interests of his heavenly Father over those of earthly parents” (114). Furthermore, according to Jesus, the God of Israel was a kind and caring father, with gracious characteristics traditionally associated with motherhood, whom they could trust without reservation.
After challenging all who would listen to reject the authority and protection of their blood fathers, Jesus invited his followers to join him in a sense of intimacy with God as their only true “father.” Although Kathleen Corley vigorously seeks to cast doubt on the historical Jesus’ use of the Palestinian Aramaic term abba in this saying (76-77), I remain persuaded that it is highly likely that Jesus did address the God of Israel as his abba, thereby employing the common way children were taught to address their fathers with respect and honor, not just as children but throughout their lives. But now only God is to be addressed as abba, stripping the legitimation from existing patriarchal institutions and implicitly undermining all relationships of domination. No one, male or female, among Jesus’ followers could then claim the authority of a father in the Jesus movement because such authority now belonged to God alone.
Note very carefully, then, that by reserving the title “father” for God alone Jesus did not at all intend for God to be conceived as a dominating patriarch. Rather, as Jesus’ words and actions in the name of his Father sought to make clear over and over again, God’s fatherly care was quite motherly, when measured by Mediterranean cultural stereotypes. According to the Gospel of John, when Philip urged Jesus to “show us the Father,” Jesus replied: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (14:9 NRSV). What Philip and his companions had just seen was Jesus with a towel and a basin of water, washing each of their feet. This image of God as Servant-Father will be important to keep in mind during my discussion of Paul’s rare references to himself as a father and his readers as his offspring.
Paul’s Challenge to Filial Piety and the Authority of Fathers
Anyone alarmed by Jesus’ exhortation to “call no man father on earth” would have found scant comfort in the writings and actions of his messenger Paul of Tarsus, who sought in a variety of ways to put into effect Jesus’ strategy of undermining the authority of the patriarchal family. For both Jesus and Paul, rejecting both the obligations of blood ties and the venerable traditions that reinforced those relationships was the first step toward their creating a new kind of family: faith-related brothers and sisters–without a traditional father. Who then should be called “father”?
Paul wrote in direct continuity with the historical Jesus’ focus on God as father, frequently referring to God as “our father” and “the father.” For example, the greeting “Peace from God our Father” appears in almost all Paul’s letters. In 1 Corinthians 8:6, God is identified as “the Father”: “For us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist” (NRSV). And Paul’s use of the phrase, “Abba! Father” in Galatians 4:6 and Romans 8:15 provides another striking connection to the Jesus tradition, since the Aramaic term was almost certainly a characteristic prayer form of Jesus himself.
To be sure, no pithy statement like “Call no man father” appears in Paul’s writings. Yet there is much evidence that he could take for granted that his early readers and hearers had indeed rejected filial piety and no longer thought of themselves as living under the authority of their fathers–or of their husbands, or of their owners. Had they alienated themselves from the authority of their blood-kin group in response to Paul’s message? Or were they already inclined to respond to Paul’s message because of being previously alienated from their blood kin for other reasons? However it happened, Paul assumed that they could and should make important decisions without consideration of family traditions, filial piety, and the constraints of patriarchal authority. And by acting on this assumption, Paul followed Jesus’ innovative and controversial strategy of rejecting the obligations of filial piety.
1 Corinthians 7
For example, Paul’s line of argument in 1 Corinthians assumes that adult children without their parents, wives without their husbands, and slaves without their owners have become members of the house-churches in Corinth. Throughout the entire letter, in fact, Paul addresses all the “holy ones” in Corinth as if they no longer had any obligations of filial piety. Chapter seven begins with a striking subversion of traditional patriarchal authority in marriage.
Here Paul urges followers of Christ who are married to understand that the husband belongs to the wife in exactly the same way as the wife belongs to the husband, with the consequence that decisions regarding their sexual life together are to be made by mutual agreement rather than by patriarchal flat. In his words:
The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and
likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have
authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise
[homoios–“in the very same way”] the husband does not
have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not
deprive one another except perhaps by agreement [ek symphonou–“with
one voice together”] for a set time, to
devote yourselves to prayer, and then come together again,
so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control
(1 Cor 7:3-5 NRSV).
I have heard from modern readers who wish that Paul had gone even further and completely avoided the use of “authority over” language. In this case, such a wish is tantamount to asking a male raised in Mediterranean culture not only to jump out of his skin but to leap over his shadow while he’s at it. Keeping in mind Paul’s own context, what is truly striking is that he showed no respect for one of the primary codes of first-century life, taken for granted by both men and women: a woman’s body belonged to her husband, period.
More directly to the point regarding respect for a father’s authority, all the advice Paul gave regarding marriage assumes that his readers would respond with decisions made without respect to their blood family’s interests or wishes. This is truly astonishing in light of the cultural values of the ancient Mediterranean world, where in the words of K. C. Hanson (69) marriage was “a social contract negotiated between families, with economic, religious, and (occasionally) political implications that went far beyond the interests of sexuality, relationship, and reproduction.” Marriage was rarely arranged by individuals apart from their fathers’ interests and authority.
In the world of both Jesus and Paul, when a woman married, her status changed from being embedded in her blood-family’s honor and living under the authority, legal responsibility, and care of her father, to being similarly embedded in her husband’s honor even if not also in his authority. Yet throughout 1 Corinthians 7, Paul writes to the unmarried, male and female, as if each of them would make decisions independently about refraining from marriage or entering into it. For example, not the authority of their respective fathers but being “aflame with passion” should be one of the deciding factors (7:9). Note carefully that Paul gives this advice to both women and men, assuming here and throughout this chapter their equality in moral responsibility and decision-making. Instead of directing his words primarily or exclusively to the men, twelve times Paul strikingly alternates between the men and the women, his “brothers and sisters” (7:15); and as Gordon Fee correctly concludes, “in every case there is complete mutuality between the two sexes” (270). Furthermore, in every case Paul addresses both the men and the women as moral agents who are free to act apart from the authority of their fathers or concerns of their blood families.
When Paul then addresses the case of a woman in Corinth who had left her husband, he neither chides her for having rejected the authority of her husband nor advises her to return to the authority of her father (7:11), both of whom were surely shamed by her actions. Not even Paul’s awareness of a command from Jesus opposing divorce leads him to suggest in her case that family piety was more important than her freedom in Christ. The only condition he mentions is that she should be reconciled to her husband, if she should choose again to live a married life. With such advice, Paul risked provoking the resentment and retaliation of non-Christian husbands and fathers.
That Paul gained a longstanding reputation for provoking such resentment is vividly documented by the late second-century narrative entitled THE ACTS OF PAUL AND THECLA. According to this story, written in Asia Minor, young Thecla’s outraged betrothed, Thamyris, persuaded the authorities to imprison Paul because Thecla broke her engagement with him after she became fascinated by Paul’s teaching. Thecla’s horrified mother (no father is present) then implored the governor to burn her daughter at the stake, for by following Paul she had brought immense shame on her family and set a scandalous example for other women who had heard him.
Roman men, in particular, were hostile to non-Roman religious groups by which their wives and daughters were drawn away from the family religion, bringing shame upon their blood kin. Thus the late first-century moralist Plutarch (45-125 CE) gave this advice to married couples (MORALIA 140D):
A wife ought not to make friends of her own, but to enjoy
her husband’s friends in common with him. The gods are
the first and most important friends. Wherefore it is becoming
for a wife to worship and to know only the gods that her
husband believes in, and to shut the front door tight upon
all queer rituals and outlandish superstitions.
In this strongly male-oriented context, in which a wife was expected to worship only the gods her husband honored, Paul’s advice for women who had become “sisters in Christ” without their husbands must have shocked and often angered these as yet pagan husbands. Furthermore in 1 Corinthians 7:12-16, Paul not only confirms these married “sisters” in their own, independent religious status but also turns traditional cultural values upside down by asserting the power of these women to determine the spiritual ambiance of their marriages. He writes:
And if any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and
he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For
the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and
the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband….
But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so; in such
a case the brother or sister is not bound. It is to peace that
God has called you [7:13-15 NRSV].
All aspects of this advice are based on a truly astonishing rejection of the expectations every male brought to his wedding; it directly challenged the religious dominance every husband assumed would be his throughout his marriage. David Daube, a distinguished Jewish scholar of Roman and biblical law, refers to Paul’s counsel here as “a momentous novum,” and suggests that Paul revealed his clear awareness of his own radicality when he painstakingly stated everything he had to say twice, once for the man, and once for the woman (2,240).
Paul’s logic in this case seems to have been as follows. When the wife in question became a “sister” and a “new creation in Christ” (see 2 Cor 5:17), all social obligations, including her marriage, were formally dissolved. But then, as the spiritually dominant partner, she formally recreated the marriage by intercourse with her pagan husband, as Daube persuasively argues from the rabbinic parallels in MISHNAH KIDDUSHIN [“Betrothals”] 1.1 and KETUBOTH [“Marriage Deeds”] 4.4. Not even such sexual intimacy could defile the believing wife, for the power of holiness in her was now greater than the power of potential defilement from her pagan spouse. Indeed, it is the unbelieving husband who was now in danger of being “contaminated” by his spouse.
Scholars have wrestled long with the phrase “the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife” (see Fee 299-303). Among their proposals, the most convincing to me is Daube’s argument that the phrase refers to the re-consecration of the marriage by the believing wife’s decision to continue sleeping with her pagan spouse. As Daube points out, “in Judaism, it is invariably the woman who is consecrated to spouse by the man. Paul [however] deems it immaterial whether the convert is a man or a woman” (240). Furthermore, Daube observes that “this is in line with, in the spirit of, the reformed view of marriage proclaimed by Jesus” (240), thereby supporting my contention regarding the strong connections between the Jesus traditions and Paul’s writings.
At the end of chapter 7 Paul then advises widows that they are free to marry anyone they wish as long as they choose a partner who is “in the Lord” (v 31). Paul makes no reference to the widow’s obligation under the law of guardianship, tutela mulierum, to consult blood kin, to consider their interests, or to obey their family’s wishes regarding remarriage. More than a few women may well have felt encouraged by Paul’s counsel to ignore the continuing authority and interests of their fathers, or of their other kin if their fathers had already died. Consistent with Paul’s advice throughout chapter 7, filial piety and patriarchal authority are once again simply ignored as relevant cultural values for those who were following Jesus.
Questioning our Assumptions
I was sharply reminded about how easy it continues to be to bootleg our assumptions about how our own world works into our exegesis of the Bible by one of my undergraduate students, who took what I had been teaching him about 1 Corinthians 7 and applied it to the controversial passage in 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1. Until my student pointed it out to me, it simply had not occurred to me that when warning the Corinthians against being “mismatched with unbelievers” (6:14), Paul clearly assumed that they could and would respond without reference to the obligations of filial piety. Here, as in 1 Corinthians, Paul continued to address each follower of Christ, without respect to sex or social status, as an individual moral agent, as a decision-maker no longer embedded in the honor of their blood families, no longer restrained by the social codes rooted in traditional family values.
Also largely overlooked is the fact that Paul’s encouragement of sexual celibacy for both men and women in 1 Corinthians 7 seriously challenged the authority of parents, in particular of fathers, to arrange their children’s marriages. Giving such counsel to marriageable women would have been regarded as scandalous, especially by their fathers whose reputations were at stake when planning a “good marriage” for their daughters. Was not a major value of a daughter her potential for bringing honor to her father and the entire family by joyfully entering the marriage her father arranged? Yet Paul took no notice of a father’s interest, rights, or honor when he wrote to those daughters who had become followers of Christ in Corinth. In Paul’s eyes, they had become empowered to marry or not, as they chose. And he urged women as well as men to join him in his own celibate state, if they were so “gifted” (see v 7), for the purpose of joining with him in undistracted service in Christ (see vv 32-35).
But Was Paul Himself Called “Father”?
In a recent article, the South African scholar Stephan J. Joubert argues that Paul saw himself as the paterfamilias of the Christian household group in Corinth. Joubert asserts that “even when Paul did not make explicit use of familial concepts, he acted out typical role expectations associated with that of a paterfamilias and at the same time also conferred the role of ‘children’ upon the Corinthians” (218). Joubert concludes that “Paul’s interaction with the Corinthians was to a large extent focused on their recognition and acceptance of his patriarchal authority” (222). In what follows here, I examine the same data reviewed by Joubert, reframe it, and propose a distinctly alternative interpretation.
Observe first of all that in the context of the patriarchal culture in which Paul was raised and then worked as an adult, it is surely remarkable that he avoided using the term father for any of the leaders in house-churches he founded. Never did he refer to members of his communities, even mature ones, as “mothers” or “fathers” of the faithful. In almost every case, Paul echoed the historical Jesus in reserving the term father for Israel’s God alone. And in tune with the Jesus tradition, God’s authority takes clear precedence over any biological father.
On the other hand, Paul did refer to himself once as “father” of the Corinthians (1 Cor 4:14-15) and as the one who “begot” Onesimus, Philemon’s slave (Phlm 10). These two passages are the only instances in which he directly so designates himself, and in both cases he clearly intends to focus attention on a spiritual “begetting” and on a nurturing relationship. Note carefully that in both cases he addresses his words particularly to males whose socialization inclined them to ignore counsel from anyone who sought to limit their striving for honor or restrain their exercising control over others. In I Corinthians 4:8-21, Paul ironically refers to those spiritually arrogant Corinthians as “kings,” as “wise in Christ,” as “strong”–obvious evidence of the continuing influence of patriarchal values in their lives.
Paul’s personal example provided a striking contrast. He wrote: “When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we speak kindly. We have become like the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things, to this very day” (1 Cor 4:12-13 NRSV). In 1 Corinthians 4:15-16 he implored these “kings”: “In Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. I appeal to you, then, be imitators of me” (NRSV). The behavior to which he directly referred for emulation focused on his non-authoritarian, non-retaliatory response to these many experiences of humiliation and dishonor in his life as a “servant of Christ and steward of God’s mysteries” (4:1). This is neither the attitude nor the behavior of a person inclined to perpetuate patriarchal privileges and values!
“With a Stick?”
So what are we to make of his words in 4:21: “What would you prefer? Am I to come to you with a stick or with love in a spirit of gentleness?” (NRSV). First we should keep the immediate context in mind, remembering that he was still seeking somehow to persuade the “spiritual kings” in Corinth to repent of their arrogance. And this sentence reveals Paul’s ongoing dilemma as he sought to resocialize his converts, especially the males among them. To speak without the domineering tone that they had been brought up to respect invited disdain for Paul’s person and dismissal of his radical message of God’s reversal of patriarchal values. His attempts to appeal to them “by the meekness and gentleness of Christ” (2 Cor 10:1 NRSV) had often fallen on deaf ears, as his line of argument in 2 Corinthians 10-13 amply verifies. Those competitors for influence among the Corinthians, whom Paul designated “super-apostles,” “false apostles and deceitful workers,” operated with long familiar social codes. They boasted of their personal accomplishments (10:12-11:18), sought to take advantage of their hearers by creating dependency relationships, and demanded to be given honor.
In direct and astonishing contrast, Paul had previously urged his readers to become “imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1 NRSV), that is, in “not seeking my own advantage but that of many, so that they may be saved” (10:33 NRSV). Paul sought to persuade the Corinthians who were “wise, powerful, and of noble birth” (as he refers to them in 1 Cor 1:26 NRSV) to surrender their traditional, status-linked privileges in favor of functioning as God’s community in which “the members may have the same care for one another,” with particular attention to “giving the greater honor to the inferior member” (1 Cor 12:24-25 NRSV). In Paul’s new understanding of reality, the God of Israel measures the strength of the “strong” by their capacities and willingness to empower the “weak.”
Paul sought to be strong in just this paradoxical way. As he wrote: “Whenever I am weak [in terms of conventional patriarchal expectations], then I am strong [in terms of serving others “for the sake of Christ”] (2 Cor 12:10 NRSV). But how was he to gain the attention again of those who either were reverting to long familiar ways of treating others, probably under pressure from their friends and neighbors, or who were making indiscernible progress in the process of their conversions to Christ and his ways? For example, had not some of them sought to gain advantage over others within the group by bringing lawsuits against them (1 Cor 6:1-7) ? Their behavior in general provoked him to use exaggerated rhetoric and to express himself in ways that he regarded as “foolish.”
Thus when he asked them, “Am I to come to you with a stick or with love in a spirit of gentleness?” I conclude that he never had any intention to try to use a “stick” on them. Rather, he ironically sought simply to stress in reverse the alternative values he had consistently lived by when he was with them. Would they really have preferred him to act in “the old fashioned way”? Undoubtedly, some would have felt more comfortable if he had done so, for in the absence of Paul’s example of using his power for the sake of others, they could have concluded that they were “off the hook” regarding their own personal transformation.
Consider, then, Paul’s Letter to Philemon in which Paul did not let this slave-owner “off the hook.” First note that Paul referred to himself as the one who “begot” Onesimus, not at all to suggest his authority over Onesimus, but to emphasize to Philemon as Onesimus’ owner the deep bond that had resulted from Paul’s spiritual “begetting” of Onesimus as his “offspring” [teknon] in Christ. In Paul’s rhetorical jousting with Philemon, Paul apparently sought to argue like this: On the one hand Onesimus was Philemon’s slave, but on the other he had recently become Paul’s surrogate “son.” Yet more important, Onesimus had also become Paul’s surrogate “brother” in Christ. Therefore Philemon should also recognize Onesimus as his brother–indeed, as “a beloved brother” (v 16).
Paul appeals to Philemon to receive Onesimus back into the household as he would welcome Paul himself. Then Paul sets the framework for the future by his use of sibling language to describe and define the relationship he envisioned among Onesimus, Philemon, and himself. They were all now “brothers,” and Paul’s brilliant rhetoric seeks to clarify for Philemon’s imitation a persuasive example of the renunciation of patriarchal authority. Thus in contrast to Joubert’s claim that Paul used sibling language to mask his actual patriarchal role, I argue that Paul sincerely addressed Philemon as one brother speaking to another, in the hope that he could persuade him to start regarding Onesimus as a brother, too. At the same time Paul backed up this rhetoric with his own example of surrendering patronal control over both Onesimus and Philemon.
The same spirit pervades the passage in 1 Thessalonians 2:11-12: “As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his offspring [tekna], urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.” Note that “offspring” is a better translation of the Greek term teknon than is “child,” because the latter English word implies dependency and immaturity while “offspring” only states relationship. Here the emphasis is on “urging, encouraging, pleading,” not on “demanding, commanding, and dominating,” actions and attitudes more readily associated with the fathers in Paul’s world.
Here I register my strong disagreement with Elizabeth Castelli’s reading (10) of 1 Corinthians 4. For all Castelli’s literary sophistication, her interpretation misses entirely Paul’s undermining of precisely those justifications for privilege and domination that characterized the patriarchal system. As David M. Bossman observes: “Paul’s role of father is one of instruction, encouragement, and reinforcement rather than one that is authoritative, powerful, of punitive as one might assume from true patriarchy” (165). Even so, Paul’s preferred manner of addressing the Thessalonians, already in 1:4, is as his “brothers and sisters,” not as his offspring. He notes their emulation of his service among them in 1:6, and he describes his demeanor among them as “gentle … like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children” (2:7 NRSV). Paul’s converts may well have regarded his behavior towards them as that of a maternal uncle, an avunculus, who had no recognized authority but who was admired when he offered nurture and teaching to his nephews and nieces (for the concept see Malina 1978: 2:99).
So, did Paul’s teaching and behavior incline his readers to call him “father”? In his letters he never exhorted his brothers and sisters in Christ to do so. Certainly the metaphor of “begetting” easily fits the experience of Paul as he sowed the “seed” of the gospel. And it is this experience that generated Paul’s use of “father” language, rather than any intent to replicate patriarchal patterns of dominance in relation to his house-churches. He did indeed claim that his “begetting” of his spiritual offspring should obligate them to listen to his challenge of their arrogant attitude and dominating behavior and not to be misled by other teachers. He wrote: “Though you might have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers. Indeed, in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel” (1 Cor 4:15 NRSV). But he quickly reverted to calling the Corinthians his “brothers and sisters,” by far his favorite metaphor for his relationship to them and for their relationships among themselves, 39 times in I Corinthians alone! The probability is very high that they referred to him as “Brother Paul,” reserving the term father for the “one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist” (8:6 NRSV).
Paul’s Personal Example
In support of this claim, note carefully the radically anti-patriarchal, personal model for the surrender of privileges that Paul himself had demonstrated to the Corinthians. The Australian Greco-Roman historian Edwin Judge has called attention to Paul’s “pursuit of radical self-humiliation” which Judge finds running through all Paul’s work “in theology and ethics alike, and on into his practical relations with both followers and rivals”(1972: 36). Judge comments that Paul’s attitude was “in violent reaction to much that was central to the classical way of life” (36). In short, Paul’s behavior demonstrated that his understanding of the gospel had undermined in his own life the patriarchal assumptions that were “central to the classical way of life” with which he had grown up. Judge focuses attention on Paul’s constant use of status terms and his voluntary assumption of a lower social status than that to which his education and background gave him a justifiable claim, and then concludes that “the conflicts between St. Paul and his converts in Corinth were affected by the growing sense of his cultural non-conformity” (1982: 18). As already observe& twice in his letter to the Corinthians he urged them to “be imitators of me,” and in each case he was challenging behavior that he regarded as spiritually arrogant (4:8-21) and divisive (11:1).
Paul’s credibility with his readers could be high because the sharply counter-cultural perception of power taught and demonstrated by Jesus had created a profound upheaval in Paul’s own sense of honorable behavior. As one who had been liberated by the Spirit of Jesus from the need to dominate and control others, Paul became motivated to use his power, training, and gifts to empower, to build up, to reconcile, to befriend the socially inferior, to encourage the weak–in short, to serve and to love as he had become convinced that Israel’s God loves.
Three Barriers to Understanding
Why, then, has it been so easy to misread Paul’s words as if he intentionally of inadvertently reinforced the prevailing patriarchal system of his world? Three suggestions have occurred to me: (1) fantasies regarding the extent of Paul’s influence and authority in the first century; (2) inadequate analysis of the forms of influence and justifications of authority in Paul’s world–resulting in misunderstanding of Paul’s roles and leadership goals; and (3) confusion regarding the relation of patriarchal and egalitarian social systems.
Fantasies about Paul’s Authority
First, my sense is that many misinterpretations are based on the assumption that Paul already enjoyed during his lifetime a high degree of institutional authority. To the contrary, his letters gained widespread authority only many decades after his death. As his own letters clearly reveal, his mission and his message were sharply challenged by other teachers and “apostles”; and by no means was his ongoing influence secure within the diversity of the early Christian movement, even among the house-churches that he himself had planted. The central role that his letters continue to play among contemporary Lutherans and Evangelicals in particular was largely shaped by their influence during the Protestant Reformation. In the first century, however, there simply was no central teaching authority for Christians, neither that of Paul, nor Peter, nor anyone else. And in those areas where Paul was breaking ground for the gospel, his claims about a divine reversal of major cultural values must have been regarded both as life-giving and as the greatest foolishness. As he wrote, the gospel is “foolishness to the Gentiles, but … God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Cor 1:22-25 NRSV). Only if we constantly keep in mind the precariousness of Paul’s influence over his new Mediterranean converts, will we be able to evaluate his occasional, if later unsuccessful, attempts to co-opt and subvert “father” language.
Roles and Goals of Leadership
Second, in light of all I have presented here, I argue that we need to construct a culturally sensitive reframing of our perception of Paul’s role and goal as a leader. Here Bruce Malina helpfully distinguishes between the roles of managers and leaders in social networks (1986: 109). For example, managers include kings, priests, fathers, lords, bank presidents, and all others whose rights and authority are rooted in law, tradition, and ascribed social position. In contrast, leaders are those who have achieved their influence by what they have actually done for their followers. In Malina’s words: “Normally the following is due to some generalized reciprocity initiative” such as generosity or freely offering vital information, “that serves as a starter mechanism building up a following in generalized reciprocity” (109). None of Paul’s roles–such as scribe (among the Judeans), itinerant philosopher (among the Gentiles), and prophet/apostle (among his house-based groups)–fit well in the managerial category. Rather his power and influence in all these roles were based on the trust he had generated as a person who knew what he was talking and writing about and whose personal behavior modeled his message.
That is, Paul did not seek to exploit the managerial role of a father. To be sure, Paul used strong words of rebuke and blame when writing to those he experienced as arrogant, as “‘recalcitrant students’ difficult to cure and in need of a dose of stringent medicine,” as Clarence E. Glad quite helpfully concludes in his fine book (311). Glad fruitfully compares the pedagogy and psychagogy (“leadership of souls”) of Paul and the Epicurean Philodemus. He contends that “Paul’s use of blame lodges him squarely within the tradition that valued therapeutic harshness” (310). Further, Glad observes that Paul presents himself in the roles of a “frank friend and a loving but stern father who attempts by means of more stringent forms of persuasion to change the self-deceptive and arrogant wise in Corinth” (325). In my judgment, to serve his argument Glad greatly exaggerates the apparent patriarchal aspects of Paul’s rhetoric. But, as I see it, the power of his case would not at all be diminished if he gave weight instead to the kinds of admonishing rhetoric appropriate to sibling relationships.
On the other hand Glad seems right on target with his major contention in his long chapter on “Paul’s Psychagogic Adaptability” (236-332) that Paul’s gentleness of harshness was specifically calculated to influence the distinctive views and behaviors of his hearers: gentleness for the insecure students and rough, even sarcastic, rhetoric for those he regarded as arrogant. In both cases Paul spoke frankly as a considerate friend and brother.
Egalitarianism Is Not the Opposite of Patriarchy
Third, scholars and their readers have largely ignored the fact that patriarchal systems in general and the ancient Mediterranean system in particular socialized men not only to dominate women but also to gain the upper hand over as many other men as possible. Along with social analysts and journalists, they have also mistakenly assumed that the terms egalitarianism and patriarchy describe opposite ends of the same social-political spectrum. Inadvertently, they have blurred the distinctions between two ancient social institutions: politics and kinship. These two missteps lead inevitably away from comprehension of Paul’s implicit and explicit critique of the patriarchy of his day (see Bartchy 68-78).
In the Greco-Roman world, kinship and politics provided the key metaphors for a wide variety of human relationships. On the one hand, the term patriarchy belongs to the semantic field of kinship, the realm of the family. On the other hand, the term egalitarian belongs to the semantic field of politics and refers to such things as equal access to the vote, to positions of public leadership, and to ownership of property. Thus the opposite of patriarchal dominance is not egalitarian anarchy (or cooperation), as interpreters have commonly inferred, but something else–something for which we may not yet have a better term than non-patriarchy.
Likewise, the opposite of egalitarianism is not patriarchy as such but monarchy, oligarchy, or despotism. To be sure, part of our confusion in this area has been abetted by those Roman Emperors who sought to disguise their monarchy by selling it as a higher and public form of patriarchy. After five hundred years of the Roman Republic and the Romans’ pride in not having to obey a king, by no means could the emperor be thought to be a king or a dictator. Julius Caesar had come to a nasty end because he was so perceived. So his successful successor Octavius (Caesar Augustus) brilliantly headed off the charges that led to the assassination of his predecessor by emphatically asserting that he was not a king. Rather, in 2 BCE, the Roman community conferred on Caesar Augustus the less politically charged title pater patriae, the father of the fatherland! Who could object to such a beneficent-sounding epithet? Yet the followers of Jesus who were taught to “call no man father on earth” inevitably clashed with such a blatant political co-opting of kinship rhetoric (Elliott 1981: 140, 231). And by the fourth century, thousands of Christians had paid with their lives for their refusal to honor the emperor as their “father.”
So any confusion about the metaphors taken from kinship and politics is understandable, but certainly regrettable for having obscured the primary thrust of Paul’s challenges to the patriarchal system of his world. Paul’s vision of a society of siblings in which only God is called “father” would not have led him or his followers to think of egalitarian political relations. Rather, he exhorted his readers and hearers to join him in undermining patriarchal ideology and those it privileged and to practice “general reciprocity,” that is, generous mutual support and sharing without keeping score (see, for example, 1 Cor 13). Paul envisioned the followers of Jesus respecting and giving honor to each other in the ways that characterized the relations among siblings at their best.
Here it is essential to keep in mind that blood-related siblings exhibited significant differences in their capacities, strengths, and relative influence in their relationships with each other. Likewise, Paul acknowledged differences in the capacities and relative strengths among the members of his house-churches. Some of them were “weak” and some were “strong” (Rom 15:1). Some had “knowledge,” others did not (1 Cor 8:1-7). Some were well-born and others “had nothing” (1 Cor 11:22). While each had received a “spiritual gift” (charisma) for building up the community and contributing to the “common good” (1 Cor 12:7), there was a great variety among these gifts. And some of these gifts, such as prophecy and teaching, were more important to the health of these house-churches than other spiritual gifts, such as “speaking in tongues” (1 Cor 14:145).
In response to this diversity, Paul’s apparent goal was not the creation of an egalitarian community in the political sense, but a well-functioning family in the kinship sense. In this family, each surrogate member used his or her strengths, whatever they were, to enrich the quality of life for the family rather than for themselves as individuals. Thus I contend that Paul was anti-patriarchal while not being egalitarian. His vision is that of a society of siblings, of surrogate brothers and sisters, not related by blood, but now bound together by something even deeper: the personally chosen, intentionally embraced, and shared commitment to the will of God the Compassionate.
Appealing to the example of Jesus, Paul especially urged the “strong” to pay special attention to the “weak,” gently empowering those who were weaker to become strong themselves. Such behavior would create a dynamic “horizontal” network of exchanges of spiritual power and material goods rather than support a fixed hierarchy of any kind. In Paul’s view, God measures the true strength of the strong by their willingness to use their strength not first for themselves but for the sake of those who were weaker among them. By thus undermining the values that reinforced patriarchal domination (patria potestas), Paul opened the way for persons of all ages and all blood-family positions to relate to each other as brothers and sisters.
By no means are these profound challenges to any patriarchal arrangement of society the last word on the ancient family in either the Jesus-tradition or Paul’s letters. Rather, they present the first word, apparently intended to dismantle conventional patrilineal blood ties in preparation for the creation of an alternative, surrogate family structure in which no person would function as a patriarch. No person, including blood-kin fathers, would be expected to dominate–or have permission to dominate–the others in the family. Indeed, in Paul’s new understanding of reality, the God of Israel measures the strength of the “strong” by their capacities and willingness to empower the “weak.”
A persistent and widely influential Western scholarly tradition highlights the differences rather than the similarities among the various theological views we find in early Christian documents, often beginning by stressing the undeniable differences between Jesus and Paul. This approach, however informative it has been, has largely overlooked and obscured the significant agreements between Paul and Jesus that I have demonstrated in this paper. In particular Paul agreed with Jesus on how people are to regard each other, how they are to respond to each other, and how they are to treat each other.
The historical-Jesus traditions and the writings of Paul both share and emphasize the same radical reversals of core traditional cultural values, including these:
* the rejection of patriarchal authority and domination and of the traditional obligations of filial piety;
* the invitation to become members of a surrogate family not based on blood ties yet expressive of the inter-personal values of sibling kinship;
* the redefinition of the basis for attaining honor: serving rather than competing; and
* the demonstration of authentic power that now was characterized by empowerment rather than by control of others.
Paul continued the historical Jesus’ vision of the surrogate kinship of “brothers and sisters” according to which kinship based on blood-ties was rejected in favor of relationships rooted in the personally chosen, intentionally embraced and shared commitment to the will of God the Compassionate. Paul’s basic model for his communities was a family of such “brothers and sisters”–his favorite designation for his readers–without an earthly father. For Paul, almost without exception, only God was to be the father of each community. The author of 1 Peter strongly agreed. As John H. Elliott has emphasized: “The authors [sic] of 1 Peter assert that God alone is the father of the Christian household and that, while the emperor deserves respect, as do all persons, God alone is the object of their awe and reverence (2:17)” (1993: 85).
What then did Paul have to say to the fathers who became members of his house-based groups? In light of my argument I suggest that he would have expressed the first century Greek equivalent of “Get over yourself, my brother! For in our group we are all brothers and sisters. If your son or daughter is in the group, meet your new brother and sister ‘in the Lord.’ For among us, only God is called ‘Father’.”
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S. Scott Bartchy, Ph.D. (Harvard University), serves as Professor of Christian Origins & History of Religion at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Director of the Center for the Study of Religion at UCLA (firstname.lastname@example.org). He is the author of FIRST CENTURY SLAVERY AND 1 COR1NTHIANS 7:21 (Scholars Press, 1973; reprint by Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2003) and numerous articles on slavery and gender issues in the early Christian movement, including Undermining Ancient Patriarchy in BTB 29:68-78, which along with the present article anticipates his forthcoming book entitled CALL NO MAN FATHER (Hendrickson).
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