Historical Background on the Treatment of Women in the 1st Century (Eph. 5:22-33)

Paul’s admonition to wives and husbands in Ephesians 5:22-33 must be understood against its historical context. Paul is writing to provide a beautiful and redemptive Christian framework for marriage that stands in bold contrast to the world of the 1st century. Here are the ways that women were treated in the ancient world at the time of Paul:

In the Jewish world in the 1st century, women were little more than servants. Many Jewish men prayed each morning, “God, I thank you that I am not a Gentile, slave, or a woman.” The provision for divorce and remarriage in Deuteronomy 24 had been distorted to include virtually any offense or disfavor in the eyes of the husband. 

In Greek society the woman’s situation was even worse. Because concubines were common and a wife’s role was simply to bear legitimate children and to keep house, Greek men had little reason to divorce their wives, and their wives had no recourse against them. Because divorce was so rare, there was not even a legal procedure for it. Demosthenes wrote, “We have courtesans for the sake of pleasure, we have concubines for the sake of daily cohabitation, and we have wives for the purpose of having children legitimately and being faithful guardians for our household affairs.” Both male and female prostitution were indescribably rampant, and it is from the Greek term for prostitution and general unchastity (porneia) that we get our word pornography. Husbands typically found their sexual gratification with concubines and prostitutes, whereas wives, often with the encouragement of their husbands, found sexual gratification with their slaves, both male and female. Prostitution, homosexuality, and the many other forms of sexual promiscuity and perversion inevitably resulted in widespread sexual abuse of children — just as we see in our own day.

In Roman society things were worse still. Marriage was little more than legalized prostitution, with divorce being an easy legal formality that could be taken advantage of as often as desired. Many women did not want to have children because it ruined their bodies, and feminism became common. Desiring to do everything men did, some women went into wrestling, sword fighting, and various other pursuits traditionally considered to be uniquely masculine. Some liked to run bare-breasted while hunting wild pigs. Women began to lord it over men and increasingly took the initiative in getting a divorce.

Reflecting on these three situations shows that in all situations women were treated terribly and men used their social privilege for their own advantage. In the Roman world in particular, women were gaining some social and legal freedoms that encouraged them to shirk their family responsibilities in favor of a primitive feminism.

Paul’s admonition to wives and husbands in Ephesians 5:22-33 is actually a redemptive corrective for all three situations. Paul roots his statements theologically in the parallel of the relationship of Christ and the Church, therefore emphasizing that wives trust and follow, just as the church submits to Christ, and that husbands love sacrificially, just as Christ loved the church. A husband’s sacrificial love is a powerfully redemptive corrective for 1st century culture. And a wife’s willing submission by trusting and following her husband is a vital response to Roman converts who would want to flaunt their newfound freedom in Christ to obliterate the relational fabric that God has ordained for the family.

*Content adapted or quoted from The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Ephesians by John MacArthur.