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  • An Unworthy Foe:Heroic Ἔθη, Trickery, and an Insult in Ephesians 6:11
  • Jeffrey R. Asher

The literary and conceptual frameworks within which scholars have interpreted Eph 6:10-20 have been quite limited. Various studies have pointed out the similarities between this text and the divine warrior motif, especially in Isaiah, and its subsequent adaptation in the Wisdom of Solomon and the authentic Pauline letters.1 In addition, many notable scholars have pointed out the striking similarities between the language and themes of Ephesians and certain writings from [End Page 729] Qumran.2 In my opinion, both of these approaches are legitimate to the extent that the similarities and parallels clearly exist and must be accounted for in any interpretation of the text. Apart from these literary sources, other commentators have attempted to explain the language of Eph 6:10-20 by speculating that the author merely drew on his own experiences and observations, which were subsequently included in the metaphors of the panoply in vv. 14-17, or that the author is adapting the language of a baptismal catechesis.3 These linguistic and contextual frameworks have clearly impacted the way in which the passage has been understood, with interpretations ranging from a reference to an eschatological battle to a practical theology reading involving individuals in their struggle with evil.

Nevertheless, in spite of many significant advances in our understanding of Eph 6:10-20, much of the language remains unexplained. For example, why does the author divide the combatants into two clearly defined groups by assigning to each group distinctive martial characteristics and practices? Why is strength the distinctive goal of the believers, and why is there a specific focus on heavy armament? Why is the enemy of the believers depicted as one who uses stratagems or tricks (6:11) and missile weapons (6:16)? In this article, I will argue that another literary and conceptual context needs to be considered, especially since previous studies have failed to explain the antithetical descriptions of the combatants in vv. 10-12 [End Page 730] and 16 and the devil as a trickster in v. 11. More specifically, I will argue that the evidence strongly suggests that this portrayal of the devil is based on an ancient Greek model of cunning in warfare. This model originated in the heroic tradition, principally Homer, and served as the antithesis of a competitive heroic virtue, strength. When combined with its opposite, it often carried negative connotations, implications that I will argue carry over into Eph 6:11. When the author labels the archenemy of believers as a trickster, he is not only issuing the literary equivalent of a "challenge-riposte," but he is also slandering the enemy of the community with a traditional insult drawn from one of the important symbols of Greek culture.4 The language thus symbolically encodes various honorific and shameful attributes to the different combatants and labels the enemy of the believers as an unworthy foe. The evidence for this position is threefold. First, Eph 6:10-20 is structured to emphasize the contrast between the two combatants and their characteristic forms of combat. Second, the believers are clearly depicted in a manner reminiscent of the primary qualities of what has been labeled by Everett Wheeler as the "Achilles ethos," which was a common paradigm of strength and openness in battle.5 Finally, the devil/evil one conducts his combat in a manner reminiscent of the so-called "Odysseus ethos," which was a common paradigm of trickery and guile in warfare.6 [End Page 731] These three elements combine to portray the enemy of the believers in Eph 6:11 in a negative light, especially as a shameful and dishonorable opponent.

I. Ephesians 6:10-20

Using a series of metaphors whose secondary subjects are drawn from the realm of ancient warfare, the author of Ephesians classifies the combatants into two groups: the believers, who are to be empowered by God and the supernatural, and cosmic forces of evil, who are labeled as the devil/evil one in vv. 11 and 16 and as the cosmic evil powers in v. 12. These two sets of combatants are metaphorically associated with distinct...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1934-3876
Print ISSN
0021-9231
Pages
pp. 729-748
Launched on MUSE
2012-02-04
Open Access
No
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