As we saw the other day, Ephesians 2.11-22 contains a wonderful message of unity and the breaking down of barriers between peoples: in Christ the old dividing lines between insiders and outsiders have been torn down, and we are all built up together into one community. But, he gets to that message, Paul has some pretty harsh things to say about his Gentile readers’ pre-Christian state. Today I’d like to look at these verses more closely and see if, perhaps, Paul is doing something more than just perpetuating the old divisions he’s about to tear down.
Just as we saw in the last section, where Paul described life outside of Christ in pretty stark terms, focusing on their domination by sin and evil forces, here too in 2.11-13 Paul begins with a very negative assessment of their former state, focused now on their alienation from God and God’s people. They were: 1. Uncircumcised, and ridiculed for it by those who were circumcised; 2. Estranged from the Jewish body politic (politeia, ‘state’, ‘citizenship’); 3. Alienated from the covenants; 4. Hopeless; and 5. Godless. This is a pretty accurate picture of how the first-century Jewish community looked at the Gentiles around them. And, if we follow this line of reasoning, we might easily conclude that this is the state of non-Christians today and thereby perpetuate this sort of religious contempt for others.
But is this actually what Paul is trying to do? I am convinced that Paul is doing something more interesting than this. I think that in trafficking in the language of religious contempt, he is actually seeking to undermine it.
First, there is the question of circumcision. While the enmity is described here from the Jewish perspective, it went both ways. What was for the Jewish community the physical marker (for males) of belonging to the people of God, was for Greeks a barbaric and senseless form of body mutilation. As such it was a perfect symbol for the estrangement of the two communities. But Paul does something really interesting here: He refers to circumcision as something done “in the flesh” and “by human hands.” While at first glance this language is pretty innocuous, it is on closer inspection theologically loaded. Last week, we saw how ‘flesh’ was used in the Scriptures to describe the frailty, dependency, and superficiality of embodied life. Here, Paul ascribes circumcision — the quintessential marker of Jewish identity — to this superficial and contingent realm. Then, in an even more shocking turn, he refers to it as kheiropoietos, ‘made by hand’, which is how the Scriptures mocked idol-worship (Leviticus 26.1; Isaiah 2.18; etc.). So what Paul is doing here is effectively turning the very language the Jewish community used to deride Gentiles against them. As Klyne Snodgrass pus it: “[I]n Paul’s mind Jews were no better off, for the circumcision in which they boasted was a mere human circumcision. They too were “in the flesh.” They lived in the same realm as the Gentiles, even with their circumcision.”*
We see the flip side of this with the fifth descriptor of Gentile life, ‘godless’ or ‘atheist’. Gentiles often accused Judaism (and later, Christianity) of atheism, because it rejected the gods. In a world where one nation’s gods were often and easily compared, equated, and even combined, Judaism refused to play along, insisting instead that foreign gods were no gods at all. Here, that charge is turned back against the Gentiles: despite their many gods, they are the ones who were really godless, since they are alienated from the true God.
In both of these examples, Paul seems to be perpetuating religious and ethnic divisions, but is actually subverting those divisions by turning their rhetoric back on those who would use it.
The second and third descriptors Paul uses are similarly loaded, despite seeming neutral on the surface. Before being ‘in Christ’, the Gentile readers were “estranged from the body politic of Israel and aliens to the the covenants of the Promise.” This is unquestionably ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ language, but there’s more to these expressions than meets the eye. The word “estranged” (apallotrioo) is very uncommon, but is used twice in the Greek translation of Ezekiel; but there, it refers to not to Gentiles, but to Israelites who exclude themselves from the people of God by idolatry (Ezekiel 14.5-7). In a similar way, the ‘near’/’far’ language used in 2.14 echoes Isaiah’s words, “Peace, peace, to those far and near” (Isaiah 57.19) — also words addressed to insiders who have found themselves cut off from the blessings of the covenant, in this case those in Exile. So, while addressing the Gentiles’ status as ‘outsiders’, Paul is actually using ‘insider’ language. Once again, while apparently perpetuating divisions, Paul is undermining the rhetoric of division and placing both ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ on the same level. It is not ethnicity that matters, but faithfulness — a common Pauline theme that we see even here, if subtly.
The Gentiles, Paul says, were also “aliens from the covenants of Promise.” The plural, covenants, here speaks not just to the Law, but to the broader salvation history that started with Abraham (Genesis 12.1-4; 15.8-18; 17.1-14), continued with Moses (Exodus 24.18), found new expression in David (2 Samuel 7.12-17, cf. Psalms 89 and 132), and pointed into the future ‘new covenant’ in the Prophets (e.g., Jeremiah 31.31-34 and 32.38-40, and Ezekiel 36.23-36). In the Hellenistic and early Roman periods, these covenants of promise were interpreted increasingly in a messianic way; that is, their hope was understood to be about a future figure — sometimes conceived of as a king, at others as a prophet, at others as a priest, or as some combination of all three — who would come to set things aright for God’s people and punish their enemies. The first-century BCE work known as the Psalms of Solomon, for example, insisted that the Messiah’s coming would involve the final destruction of the Gentiles. So in a sense, the Gentiles were understood to be ‘alien’ from these promises in two ways: they weren’t their covenants or promises, and at least to many, the fulfillment of those promises would lead to their destruction. But Paul seems to be using this language with an ironic twist. For, Abraham’s covenant was about, yes, the creation of a new nation, but one that would bless that nations of the world, not destroy them. And the Prophets’ vision of the future covenant included Gentiles streaming to the Temple to worship God (e.g., Isaiah 2.2-4 and 56.6-7; Jeremiah 3.17). This more inclusive understanding of the covenants of promise may have been downplayed in Paul’s day, but it did exist. Jewish salvation history was not the Gentiles’ story, certainly, but were they excluded from its vision? That remained to be seen.
Finally, the fourth term, ‘hopeless’, is a charge to which Paul has already referred in the letter (1.18), and was in line with the pervasive fatalism and superstition of first-century religious life. Any hope they might have was not to be found in a benevolent universe, and far less in benevolent gods — only in charms and spells. These are, as far as Paul as concerned, tantamount to godlessness. There is no power in them, therefore the Gentiles have no hope. Of course, inasmuch as archaeological evidence suggests Jews were just as interested in magical texts and charms as their Gentile neighbours, once again, it seems the two communities are actually in the same boat.
In these verses, Paul had a difficult task: he was trying to remind his readers of the seriousness of their former religious state in a larger context of doing away with division on religious, cultural, and ethnic grounds. In reading this section more closely, I am convinced he did this by subverting the language of exclusion, turning it against those who would wield it and applying ‘insider’ language to ‘outsiders’. This fits his larger theological point — more explicit in works like Romans and Galatians, addressed to mixed Jewish-Gentile communities — that both communities’ religious experiences were lacking outside of Christ. Even those who had been ‘insiders’, privileged with God’s covenant blessings and at the centre of God’s salvation history, were on the ‘outside’ when it came to the presence of God and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit until the coming of Jesus destroyed those old barriers too.
To echo the point made at the end of the main post for this section, this means that
All whom we meet are potentially people who will be in Christ and therefore one with us. The grace that has accepted us into Christ is extended to them by us. All people regardless of race or status—however defined—are to be valued, enabled, and treated justly. (Snodgrass)
Authentic Christianity can never be used to demean or alienate others. This sadly bears repeating since, all too often, people speaking in the name of Christ will use their faith as a weapon against others. But this is not the way of Jesus or the God Jesus reveals. Our God is Love, our Lord is the Suffering Servant, and the Spirit we’ve been given is one that unites within diversity and diversifies within unity. And our human vocation, as always, involves recognizing and honoring the image of God in everyone; our Christian vocation does not change that, it reveals and empowers that.
* See the bibliography for the series for details.