Drinking, Teaching, and Singing: Ephesians 5:18–19 and the Challenges of Moral Instruction at Greco-Roman Banquets

The progression of ideas in Ephesians 5:18-19 has puzzled commentators. The author moves from more general paraenetic instruction regarding living wisely (in vv. 15-17) to a specific warning against drunkenness (v. 18a). The warning against becoming drunk is contrasted with an exhortation to be filled with the spirit (v. 18b). Spirit-filled people are then characterized as persons who “speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (v. 19a). Most commentators imagine a worship context for verse 19. But why raise the issue of drunkenness? There is a rich tradition of Jewish texts (both biblical and extra-biblical) dealing with warnings against drunkenness. These explanations can account for the warning against drunkenness but not easily for its relationship to speaking and singing. Some commentators have tried to connect the admonition against becoming drunk to the presence of Dionysian practices which had a reputation of involving drunkenness. This connection has more to do with the relationship of Dionysus to wine than to anything distinctive in the Ephesian letter that might relate it to this particular cult; and wine was not limited to the cult of Dionysus. There was another context that could connect the presence of wine with moral instruction—and with the use of music: the Mediterranean banquet. The banquet provided an opportunity for drinking and entertainment. Moral philosophers used these occasions as opportunities to instruct and to explore questions regarding character formation. The presence of wine, however, often resulted in a lack of self-control; control that philosophers tried to cultivate in their students. Plutarch (in his essays on Table-Talk) argued that the presence of music (and singing in particular) at the banquet, when used with care, could help participants maintain self-mastery and support philosophical instruction. In this paper, I argue that we can understand the progression of ideas in Ephesians 5:18-19 as arising out of a context in which discussions of Christian morality took place in banquet settings. The author of Ephesians takes a position similar to that of Plutarch. He encourages the use of well-chosen music to help the conversation partners avoid drunkenness and remain in control of themselves as is appropriate for children of God.