Learning to thrive in the new life Jesus offers us – 2 Corinthians 5:16-17

Plutarch and Paul on Husbands and Wives

This article is also available in Spanish here.

Plutarch and Paul on Husbands and WivesI recently submitted a research essay where I compared Plutarch’s Advice to the Bride and Groom with Paul’s advice to men and women in First Corinthians. Plutarch, who wasn’t a Christian (in fact at one time he was a priest in the cult of Apollo) wrote his Advice in a letter around A.D. 90-100. The letter was a wedding gift for a couple named Pollianus and Eurydice. Plutarch knew the couple well and he was obviously fond of them.

Paul wrote First Corinthians a few decades earlier, in around A.D. 55-60, to the Christians in Corinth. Paul didn’t devote an entire letter to marriage, but in several places within First Corinthians, he deals briefly with the subjects of marriage and sex.[1]

As I was reading and comparing Advice with First Corinthians it struck me how different Plutarch’s and Paul’s views were about the relationship between husbands and wives. It also struck me that many Christians sound much more like Plutarch than Paul in what they think and say about husbands and wives.

Plutarch and Patriarchy

Social stability was important to Plutarch, and he understood that harmonious marriages are a crucial element in a stable society. Society in the late Hellenistic period was patriarchal, but less so than in classical times, and “women in Plutarch’s day enjoyed more autonomy than their classical counterparts.”[2] The Roman peace had apparently “softened men and wealth had strengthened women.”[3] Nevertheless, Plutarch’s Advice assumes, and reinforces, a patriarchal and hierarchical dynamic in marriage and in the home. His advice is contained in forty-eight brief lessons. Most lessons are given to the bride alone and are designed to curb and curtail her behaviour.

In lesson 11 Plutarch uses the analogy of musical harmony and states, “When two notes are struck together, the melody belongs to the lower note. Similarly, every action performed in a good household is done in agreement of the partners, but displays the leadership and decision of the husband.”[4] Thus, Plutarch believed that harmony is attained when the wife acquiesces and allows her husband to lead.

Plutarch uses various words to describe the husband’s leadership throughout his letterFor example, the husband is the one who displays the “leadership” (hēgemoneia) and “decision-making” (proairesis) in the home (lesson 11). Some words are quite strong, for example, the husband is “to rule” (kratien and archein) his wife (lesson 33). Plutarch counsels that the husband’s leadership should be done sympathetically and affectionately, and should promote the wife’s “enjoyment and kindness”, but still the husband must be the ruler.

Paul, on the other hand, never uses any of the words Plutarch uses in reference to a husband’s leadership. In fact Paul—and every other New Testament author—never use any of the many Greek words for “leader”, “ruler” or “authority” in reference to husbands.[5]

On the topic of sex, Plutarch held a conservative view which “is typical of classical antiquity.”[6] He accepts the constraints of patriarchal society and accepts the double-standard of sexual conduct (e.g. lessons 14, 16, 40 and 44).[7] Furthermore, Plutarch’s Advice to uphold the rule of husbands and limit the freedom of wives extends to the bedroom. Plutarch states that a wife should be “sweet” (gleukos) (lesson 1) and amenable for sexual relations with her husband, but she should never initiate sex (lesson 18). According to Plutarch, a wife who tries to initiate sex with her husband is acting like a mistress, and a good wife must never behave like a mistress (lesson 10).

In 1 Corinthians 7:2-33 Paul deals with the subjects of marriage, sex, divorce and singleness. His advice is very different to Plutarch’s. Paul uses a series of parallel, matching statements in his instructions to men and women, with no hint of double-standards.

In response to Paul’s statements in 1 Corinthians 7, Philip Payne  writes:

The strikingly egalitarian understanding of the dynamics of marital relations expressed in Paul’s symmetry throughout this passage is without parallel in the literature of the ancient world. . . . Against a cultural backdrop where men were viewed as possessing their wives, Paul states in 7:2, “let each woman have her own husband.” Against a cultural backdrop where women were viewed as owing sexual duty to their husbands, Paul states in 7:3, “Let the husband fulfill his marital duty to his wife.” It is hard to imagine how revolutionary it was for Paul to write in 7:4, “the husband does not have authority over his own body, but his wife does.”[8]

Paul is not bothered with who initiates sex in marriage, but he does mention decision-making in regards to periods of sexual abstinence: he assumes that a married couple will make this decision by mutual agreement (sumphōnos (1 Cor. 7:5).  Paul also expects husbands and wives to please each other (1 Cor. 7:33-34). Unlike Plutarch, he does not teach that wives have a greater obligation to please their husbands. Paul’s instructions are for mutuality in sex and marriage. He also saw a profound expression of unity in the act of sexual intercourse. In 1 Corinthians 6:16, Paul quotes from Genesis 2:24: “The two will become one flesh.” Paul regarded any act of sex outside of marriage as immoral.

Plutarch’s Advice is often concerned with a wife’s modesty and chastity (self control). He urges that a woman should be hidden at home and not be seen in public, except with her husband (lessons 9, 30-32).[9] In Plutarch and Paul’s day—with the rise of the “new Roman woman”—the traditional concept of gender hierarchy was being challenged.[10] Plutarch, however, upheld the traditional mores and taught that a wife should be shy and modest, and have no voice of her own except to or through her husband (lessons 31-32). Plutarch believed that modesty and chastity were a woman’s highest virtue, and that a husband’s happiness was a wife’s greatest concern.

Paul did not see the virtue of keeping women hidden at home. Several women are mentioned in the New Testament as ministry colleagues of Paul and their activities were not confined to taking care of the household. Paul indicated that Christian women were free to pursue roles other than being a wife and mother. For instance, they could remain single and concentrate on “the things of the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:34). This option of singleness and celibacy meant that women could have more autonomy.[11]

Phoebe, Lydia, Euodia, Syntyche, Junia, Priscilla, and other women associated with Paul, travelled, worked, and had influential leadership roles in ministry. Apart from knowing that Priscilla was married to Aquila, Paul did not identify these women by their family relationships or their domestic situations. Instead they are described and identified by their work, their travels, and their ministry. Paul does not advise women to be shy and housebound in his letters.[12] The one instruction for women to be silent–in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35–is possibly an interpolation, but, if not, its application is limited like the other two instructions for silence in 1 Corinthians 14:28 and 30.[13] [My article Interpretations and Application of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 here.]

Paul and the New Creation

Paul was less concerned than Plutarch with maintaining the status quo. In fact Paul believed that Jesus Christ had set in motion a shift in the order of the world (cf 1 Cor. 7:31b).[13] In 2 Corinthians 5:17 Paul wrote, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (NIV). Paul believed that Christians were already part of this new creation which would be established at Jesus’ return. Equality is a feature of this new creation.

Paul advocated for equality[15] between rich and poor, between slave and free, between people of different ethnicities, and between men and women. Paul wrote to the Corinthian Christians, “For we are all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink” (1 Cor. 12:13, NIV). In his letter to the Galatians, Paul makes a similar statement but adds that there is neither “male and female for you are all one in Christ” (Gal 3:28, NIV).  While social, ethnic, and sex distinctions still existed, especially in the Greco-Roman society outside of the Church, Paul taught that they “should not be used to determine one’s standing in Christ, much less divide the Body of Christ.”[16]

In Galatians, and in his other letters, Paul’s lists of virtues are equally applicable to men and women who belong to Christ Jesus (e.g. Gal. 5:22-24).  There is not one list for men and another list for women. There are no double-standards. Both men and women are called to emulate Christ (Gal. 4:19) and display the fruit of the Spirit, and both are called to abstain from the same fleshly vices (Gal. 5:19-21).

In First Corinthians, Paul taught that the Holy Spirit distributes his gifts to each person as he determines. Paul’s lists of spiritual gifts and ministries, including leadership ministries, are gender non-specific (1 Cor. 12:4-11, 28-29; 14:26). Women prayed and prophesied aloud in the Corinthian church and, most likely, in other Pauline churches.

Paul did not regard Christian men as the leaders of their wives, instead he regarded all Christian men and women as brothers and sisters. Paul’s principle of equality may not always have been realized successfully, and there would have been “frictional losses” between the principle and practice, still equality was Paul’s goal.[17]


Plutarch and Paul had very different goals, agendas, and world views, and their instructions to husbands and wives often seem to be polarized. Plutarch sought to uphold a traditional gender hierarchy in marriage. Paul sought to bring a social dynamic of equality among Christians. Plutarch believed that fixed gender roles which subordinated women were beneficial for society. Paul disregarded hierarchies and sought to bring freedom from unjust and crippling social constraints. Plutarch’s frame of reference were the old, patriarchal values of Greco-Roman society. Paul’s frame of reference was the new creation in Christ.

Paul’s revolutionary views about men and women and marriage have been highlighted to me by comparing them with Plutarch’s. Sadly, I do not see Paul’s revolutionary message of equality being highlighted in churches today.

Is the Church’s frame of reference culture or the new creation? Is the church advocating a gender hierarchy in marriage, or promoting equality and mutuality? Do you or your church hold views that are more like Plutarch’s or Paul’s?


An English translation of Advice to the Bride and Groom, also known Conjugal Precepts,  is available online here. I did not use this translation in writing the essay (or this article.)  I used Donald Russel’s translation (See endnote 4.)

[1] First Corinthians may be a compilation of several letters that Paul wrote to the Corinthian Christians. L. L. Welborn proposes that there are three letters contained in First Corinthians. Letter A (1 Cor. 10:1-22; 6:12-20; 10:23-11:34) covers issues related to associating with immoral and idolatrous people. Letter B (1 Cor. 7-9, 12-16) was written in response to a letter from the Corinthians. Welborn refers to Letter C (1 Cor. 1:1-6:11) as “Counsel of Concord”.  L. L. Welborn, “The Corinthian Correspondence” (forthcoming).

[2]  Sarah B. Pomeroy “Commentary on Plutarch, Advice to the Bride and Groom” in Plutarch’s Advice to the Bride and Groom and A Consolation to His Wife: English Translations, Commentary, Interpretive Essays and Bibliography, Sarah B. Pomeroy (Ed.) (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999) 39.

[3] Jo Ann McNamara, “ Gendering Virtue”, Plutarch’s Advice to the Bride and Groom and A Consolation to His Wife: English Translations, Commentary, Interpretive Essays and Bibliography, Sarah B. Pomeroy (Ed.) (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999) 153.

[4] From Donald Russel’s “Translation”, Plutarch’s Advice to the Bride and Groom and A Consolation to His Wife: English Translations, Commentary, Interpretive Essays and Bibliography, Sarah B. Pomeroy (Ed.) (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999) 6.

[5] Conversely, Plutarch, and other non-biblical authors, never use the word kephalē (“head”) to describe any kind of husbandly leadership or authority before A.D. 200.  Paul described man as the kephalē of woman in 1 Corinthians 11:3, and husbands as the kephalē of wives in Ephesians 5:23.  [My article Kephalē and “Male Headship” in Paul’s Letters here.]

[6] Peter Walcot, “Plutarch on Sex”, Greece & Rome, Second Series, Vol. 45, No. 2 (Oct., 1998), Cambridge University Press on behalf of The Classical Association, 176.

[7] Sarah B. Pomeroy, “Reflections on Plutarch, Advice to the Bride and Groom: Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed”, Plutarch’s Advice to the Bride and Groom and A Consolation to His Wife: English Translations, Commentary, Interpretive Essays and Bibliography, Sarah B. Pomeroy (Ed.) (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999)  38.

[8] Philip B. Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul’s Letters (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009) 106-107.

[9] In reality, only women from the upper classes and some female domestic slaves were housebound. Poorer women worked to make a living, and some of this work was done in public places such as the market.

[10] Around the time of Paul and Plutarch, some women in the upper classes were shunning the classical ideal of the virtuous, mostly house-bound, Roman matron.  These “new” women began appearing in public and took on more influential roles in society. Some even started wearing provocative clothing and lived promiscuous, scandalous lives.

[11] Lynn H. Cohick, Women in the World of the Earliest Christians (Grand Rapids: Baker Academics, 2009) 83.

[12] In 1 Timothy 5:14 there are instructions to young widows to remarry and keep house. These instructions were designed to stop the problem of unruly women in Ephesus from spreading nonsense door to door. In Titus 2:4-5 there are very basic instructions for young women to marry and be good wives and mothers. These instructions were designed to stop the problem of irresponsible, idle women in Crete from being bad wives and mothers.  Neither of the instructions in these passages were aimed at older women, or to women who were already behaving responsibly. [My article on Is Motherhood the Highest Calling of Women? here.]

[13] From being immersed in Plutarch’s and Paul’s writings in the past weeks I am a little more persuaded that 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 may not have been written by Paul. It sounds exactly like something Plutarch would say.

[14] Wayne A. Meeks, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul, Second Edition (Yale University Press, 2003) 190.

[15] The word “equality” or “equity” (isotēsis used twice in 2 Corinthians 8:13-14 in the context of material wealth, and once in Colossians in the context of slavery (Col. 4:1). [My article on “Equality” in Paul’s Letters here.]

[16] Ben Witherington, Women in the Earliest Churches, (Cambridge University Press, 1988) 77.

[17] Peter Lampe, “The Language of Equality in Early Christian House Churches: A Constructivist Approach”, Early Christian Families in Context, David Balch and Carolyn Osiek (Ed.)(Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2003) 78.

Update 14.08.15: Thank you to Tim Harris for providing the following information via Facebook in response to endnote 13.
Livy (34.2) recreates a speech of M. Porcius Cato which has some similarity with Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. The speech contains the type of advice we would give to women engaging with another culture and is about the social propriety needed to avoid undue offence. The passage is vintage Cato/Livy:

“If each man of us, fellow citizens, had established that the right and authority of the husband should be held over the mother of his own family, we should have less difficulty over women in general; now at home our freedom is conquered by female fury, here in the forum it is bruised and trampled upon . . . What kind of behaviour is this? Running around in public, blocking streets, and speaking to other women’s husbands! Could you not have asked your husband the same thing at home?””

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Posted November 13th, 2012 . Categories/Tags: Equality and Gender Issues, Equality in Marriage, , , , ,

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8 comments on “Plutarch and Paul on Husbands and Wives

  1. […] Are contemporary views of the relationships between men and women more in line with the teachings of Paul or Plutarch? Very interesting food for thought … […]

  2. Heather says:

    Another great post ! Thank you 🙂

  3. Marg says:

    Thanks Heather. 🙂

  4. […] Plutarch and Paul on Husbands and Wives […]

  5. […] I stumbled across a really interesting blog post, “Plutarch and Paul on Husbands and Wives” by Marg Mowczko. (Credit where credit’s due: I discovered it through Rachel Held Evan’s Sunday Superlatives […]

  6. […] Plutarch, Paul, Gender and Marriage  (sounds like the start of a bad joke, but some good stuff to chew on here.) […]

  7. Grace says:

    I agree with what you’ve said. I do think, however, that you left out Ephesians 5:22 “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.” The New Testament does emphasize that men and woman are equal, one is not more than the other. However, a husband is responsible for his family. When you have a vote of two people and neither can agree there has to be a deciding person and it’s a husband’s job to be that person. It isn’t easy and should not be taken lightly. The husband is to make that deciding decision with his wife in mind “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” (Ephesians 5:25) Christ is the head of the church and a husband is the head of his family. That does not mean the husband “rules over” his wife.

  8. Marg says:

    Hi Grace, my essay compared Plutarch’s Advice with First Corinthians. I did mention a few other passages from the Pauline letters but didn’t focus on them.

    The New Testament doesn’t say that the husband alone is responsible for the family. Also, nowhere does the Bible say that the husband is the tie breaker in decision making. This is a popular modern teaching that simply has no biblical basis. (In fact, it sounds like what Plutarch says.) In 1 Corinthians 7:5 Paul says that the decision to abstain from sex for the purpose of prayer should be a mutual decision.

    In endnote 5 I mention that in Ephesians 5:23 it says that the husband is the head of the wife. It does not say that he is the head of the home. Big difference. And I mention that in 1 Corinthians 11:3 it says that the man is the head of the woman.

    As someone who reads Greek daily, I come across many Greek words for leaders and leadership. These words are never used by a New Testament author for the relationship between men and women. I also regularly come across the Greek word for head (kephale) which is almost never used in the context of leaders and leadership in Ancient Greek.

    Moreover, I believe that Paul (and Peter) wanted husbands as well as wives to be submissive. The apostles just used different words to explain this. First century Greco-Roman wives were used to the language of submission, which Paul modifies slightly for a Christian context. Men weren’t used to be told to be submissive. Submission was seen as humiliating, even shameful in Greco-Roman society, and to be avoided. So Paul and Peter tread more lightly when addressing men in this regard.

    The New Testament teaches that all Christians should be submissive – considerate, cooperative, deferential, loyal and humble – towards each other. This is Christianity 101, profoundly taught and demonstrated by Jesus himself.

    I have several articles on submission and the meaning of kephale on my website here and here. I hope you might take the time to have a look at them. They say things that are different to what I think you may have been led to believe.

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