Idolatry and Excess: The Moral Code of Ephesians 4-5 in its Historical Context

There are few parts of our Scriptures that offer a richer picture of Christian life than Ephesians 4-5. But that rich picture, which is nothing other than to grow into the fullness of Christ’s very own life, makes us more and more aware of the contrast between this new way of life and the default way of life in the world. And so, this part of Ephesians also includes one of the longest and most exacting sections of moral teaching in the New Testament. If we aren’t careful, we can easily allow this to cause us to slip into a legalistic or moralistic kind of religion, despite the fact that this would run counter to the kind of faith to which Christ calls us.

One thing I have found to be very helpful in understanding the purpose and perspectives of the morality codes in the New Testament — particularly in Paul’s letters — is to view them within the bigger context of contemporary moral teaching. And so today’s post is going to do just this.

What is perhaps most surprising to many Christians who learn about this material is just how normal and non-revolutionary a lot of what Paul had to say in his moral instructions was in its context. His ideas about moral conduct, both in terms of what he talks about and what he understands about how it all works, are very much in keeping with both Jewish and pagan or secular philosophical ideas.

Ephesians 4-5 and Jewish Moral Instruction

There was a long history of Jewish moral instruction, both in the Scriptures (think of the books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, for example), and outside of them. Many of the Pseudepigrapha of the Second Temple Period (which we can think of as a kind of biblical ‘fan fiction’) contained stretches of ethical teachings, and the Dead Sea Scrolls from the Qumran community contain extensive lists of behaviours that are to be sought and avoided.

As one would expect from Paul, the former Pharisee, formally trained in the Jewish Law and its interpretation and application, the morality code we see in Ephesians 4-5 is similar to contemporary Jewish accounts. The Jewish Middle Platonist philosopher Philo, for example, used the same three terms describing anger that Paul uses in 4.31 in his Treatise on Drunkenness.* And Paul’s expansion of the term porneia (5.3) to include a far wider range of sexual activities than the typical Greek meaning of the buying and selling of sex, is typical of Hellenistic Jewish usage. Similarly, the close association in Ephesians between sexual immorality, greed, and idolatry (5.3-5) is a common motif in Hellenistic Jewish texts. For example, the Testament of Judah says, “Guard yourselves therefore, my children, against sexual promiscuity and love of money;” and the Dead Sea Scrolls have sexual immorality and wealth as two of the three demonic traps in which the faithful can be ensnared. Philo and the Testament of Judah both also directly link these with idolatry. The idea behind this that the excessive attachment to things of this world necessarily marginalizes God from God’s rightful place at the centre of life. This is also consistent with Jesus’ teaching equating the love of money with the god Mammon (Matthew 6.24). Idolatry is likely also in view when Paul suggests (surprisingly to us) thanksgiving as an alternative to sinful behaviour (Ephesians 5.4); the solution to idolatry is the restoration of a proper relationship to things and their Creator, a relationship that leads one to thanksgiving.

Paul and Stoic Moral Instruction

Albeit understood in a different way, similar concerns can be found in contemporary moral philosophy, particularly within Stoicism, which became the dominant school of thought in the early Roman Empire. Stoic ethics were a form of virtue ethics, a morality governed by the acquisition and living out of certain traits and avoidance of others. Thus, such lists as we see in Ephesians 4-5, and elsewhere in Paul’s writing, are common in Stoic writings. Additionally, the Stoic writer Arius Didymus combined the same three terms as Paul does in a discussion of anger (Epitome of Stoic Ethics 10b), just as Philo did. Stoic ethics also commonly used the ideas of what is “fitting” (prepei) or “shameful” (aischros), terms Paul uses in 5.3-14. So again we see Paul participating in a shared, broad cultural vocabulary around moral teaching.

Stoic virtue ethics were grounded, not in a concern for idolatry like their Jewish counterpart, but in a lack of trust in our ability to see the world clearly, a state of affairs which, in their mind, leads to a loss of control and therefore to excess. They questioned the things people commonly chase after — pleasure, reputation, glory, riches — insisting that these are not good unless they are used well and for their proper function. The great fear for Stoics was of losing control over oneself and being carried away to excess by one’s desires for these things (called, ‘the passions’). (For more on Stoic and other Hellenistic philosophical thought, see Peter Adamson’s wonderful and accessible introduction, Philosophy in the Hellenistic & Roman Worlds.)

If you’ve been paying attention to Ephesians so far, this should ring some bells. As we saw in 2.1-3, Paul lists “the appetites of the flesh” as one of the main causes of sin. And, the description of ‘Gentile’ life in 4.17-19 reads almost like a Stoic handbook on how vice works: The nous, the faculty of discernment and understanding, is ‘ineffective’ and the intellect ‘darkened’; they are unable to do their jobs, leaving us desensitized to the world and unable to see it clearly. This causes us to misunderstand what our body is telling us (epithymia, ‘appetite’), confusing want and need, leading to a lack of restraint (aselgeia) and ‘unclean’ actions motivated by excess (pleonexia).

While the problem is defined in the common language of popular moral philosophy, it must be noted that Paul’s solution is decidedly Christian: Rather than being all about the effortful cultivation of virtue, Paul insists that in Christ, the nous is renewed by the Holy Spirit, allowing us to live the new life that restores in us the likeness of God (4.23-24).

While there is nothing to suggest that Paul was himself a Stoic, it seems pretty clear that he thought of sin and the mechanisms that lay behind it in terms that were very similar to the popular form of Stoicism that was shaping the way people in the Empire thought about virtue and vice. The shared terminology around anger used by Paul the ex-Pharisee Christian Apostle, Philo the Jewish Platonist philosopher, and Arius Didymus the pagan Stoic philosopher, likely speaks to such a shared common vocabulary and perspective, rather than Paul belonging to one particular school of thought.

Historically speaking, by the second century, Christianity gained a lot of converts among those formally trained in Stoicism, and this school’s language around virtue and ‘the passions’ became the default for Christianity by the fourth century at the latest. This saying from the Desert Fathers says it all: “Everything that goes to excess comes from the demons” (Abba Poemen 129). Stoic virtue ethics grounded in a quest for control of the passions had carried the day.

I hope this post has been helpful in demonstrating Paul’s comfort with the common language of moral exhortation and philosophy of his time. That doesn’t make him unoriginal, or mean that Paul is limited to these ‘borrowed’ ideas. It simply means he was a man of his time and that the explanations his contemporaries came up with about morality made sense to him in his first-century Jewish Christian mind. I’ve taken the time to outline all this here because this idea of vice, or in Paul’s language ‘sin’, and virtue also features prominently in 5.3-14, the section we will turn to in the next post.


* Please see the series Bibliography for more information and sources.

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