Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

Women on the Edge: New Perspectives on Women in the Petrine Haustafel

Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

Women on the Edge: New Perspectives on Women in the Petrine Haustafel

Article excerpt

In October 1998 an article appeared in the Los Angeles Times detailing the difficulty that some mainstream churches have when dealing with domestic abuse. In the article, Nancy Nason-Clark of the University of New Brunswick noted that although domestic violence occurs no more often in religious families than in nonreligious families, "religious families may be more vulnerable in confronting the problem because of biblical beliefs about the honor of suffering and sacrifice, the premium placed on family unity, the dominant role of men in many religious traditions and the creed of transformation and forgiveness that could let perpetrators off the hook too easily."1 In one story, a woman told her pastor that her husband woke her up at two in the morning and started beating her with a metal tricycle. She was advised to "go back, be a kinder wife; then you will win him to Christ because that's what the Bible says."2 That pastor clearly was referring to 1 Pet 3:1-2, where the author explains to Christian wives that their unbelieving husbands "may be won over without a word by their wives' conduct when they see the purity and reverence of your lives."3 But although the advice in 1 Peter seemed to fit the situation perfectly, the pastor's use of that text was a misappropriation of NT ideas because the network of discourses that prompted the original advice is no longer in place.4 In addition, the women addressed in the Petrine Haustafel deserve closer analysis; because the exhortations have received so much attention, the women themselves have rarely been discussed. As women negotiating problematic familial and social boundaries, they offer a valuable example of an ancient hermeneutic of resistance.

Although most of the letter focuses on the causes, meaning, and proper response to suffering, the authors summary of how to behave while suffering is centered in the Haustafel, or household code, found in 1 Pet 2:18-3:11. It is within that pericope that the exhortations to Christian women are located. Certainly it is a significant piece of Christian parenesis, but the Petrine Haustafel has quite often been lost in studies of the Christian Haustafeln as a group, as such codes appear in Col 3:18-4:1 and Eph 5:21-6:9 and in extracanonical Christian writings such as Polycarp's Philippians. Previous studies of the Haustafeln have focused on the origin of their form, and the earliest modern interpretation was that the NT codes were a derivation of Stoic duty lists, which the Christians had lightly Christianized.9 Others have since argued for the Christian, rabbinic, or Hellenistic Jewish origins of the Haustafel form. All of these previous studies conclude that the meaning of the content of the Haustafeln is based on the origin of the form, and nearly all conclude that the NT writers used the codes to encourage stability within Christian households.10

This consensus is important because recent feminist interpretations of 1 Peter have used Balch s thesis too simplistically to argue that the exhortations to women and slaves in the Petrine Haustafel were purposefully included to encourage them to behave in ways that were acceptable to Greco-Roman patriarchs (particularly silent submission), in order to prevent household conflict and resulting local persecution. For feminist critics, Batch's theory supports their own opinion that all of the household codes (in Colossians, Ephesians, 1 Timothy, Titus, and 1 Peter) represent the pervasive conservative backlash among the first-century male Christian leadership.14 While Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza recognized that the strategy Balch hypothesized would have been ineffective in actually rescuing the reputations of disruptive Christians or calming divided Greco-Roman households, she agreed that the encouragement of assimilation was indeed the point of the Petrine Haustafel and that the "patriarchal pattern of submission" sought to "lessen the tension between the Christian community and the pagan patriarchal household. …

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