In Ephesians 2:14-22 Paul describes God’s great project for a new people, which required the cross, the resurrection and the ascension. Jesus Messiah’s sacrificial actions served to re-create the family of God, incorporating Jew and non-Jew equally, based upon his redemptive sacrifice. For various reasons Paul chooses to use Jerusalem Temple language and motifs in this section of Ephesians to illustrate the magnitude of this divine action. God engineers a total redesign of his “temple.” Paul refers to God’s action in Christ “destroying the barrier, the dividing wall (phragmou) of hostility.” In this expression Paul involves two words that refer to walls or barriers of some sort and then further defines them as expressions of hostility somehow related to the Mosaic Law. Paul affirms in this way how God has acted to make a new, unified humanity in the Messiah (Eph. 2:14).
However, before we consider Paul’s usage of phragmos in Ephesians 2:14, let’s consider the use of this noun more generally. phragmos is related to the verb phrassein which means to fence in, hedge around, and thus to defend or block or stop. The resultant noun formation defines something that fences in or hedges around and thus separates or blocks access. The exact nature of the barrier will depend upon the context. It was used to describe features of human anatomy such as the diaphragm and teeth. Philo (De Somniis II 262) describes lips as “the strongest possible fence and barrier (phragmos) for confining sound.” In the case of astronomy it defines a constellation (cf. Job 38:31 phragmon ōriōnos (“barrier of Orion”).
Sometimes it describes various constructions used in defense of a city. Philo, for example, describes the use of trees cut down to create a palisade for protection of an encampment or for a “fence (phragmon) in a city in place of a wall” (De Agricultura 11). According to 3 Reigns 11:27 Jeroboam built the citadel in Jerusalem and “closed up the fence (phragmon) of the city of David his father.” When Esdras (Ezra) and the exiles return to Jerusalem, he prays and thanks God that he has given them vitality to “raise up the house of our God and to repair its ruins and to give us a fence (phragmon) in Iouda and in Ierousalem” (2 Esdras 9:9). Exactly what Esdras means by using this word in this context is not exactly clear, but it seems to refer to some fortifications. In Psalm 79(80):13 the poet describes Israel as God’s vineyard, but now destroyed. He pleads with God to bring Israel back. He asks God: “why did you bring down its fence (phragmon) and all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?” In this context the word described a fence that protects a vineyard, but the poet may also intend it to signify fortifications that protect a city. In Psalm 88(89):41 the writer laments that Yahweh “broke down all his [David’s] defenses(phragmous).” Proverbs 24:31 compares a foolish person to a vineyard whose “stone fences (phragmon tōn lithōn) will be broken down.” The diversity of applications is quite astounding, but they all build upon the fundamental idea of a barrier which protects or excludes.
Plutarch (1st-2nd century AD) used this term to describe the fence around an orchard or field (Pericles 9.2.6 “removing the fences (tous phragmous) of the orchards”; Cimon 10.1.4. “he removed the fences (phragmous)of the fields”). Philo rehearses the experience of Balaam as he was riding his donkey to meet with Balak. The animal perceives the spiritual being blocking the path and retreats, dashing the legs of Balaam on the walls and fences (phragmoi) that hemmed in the pathway (De Vita Mosis I.271).
The Greek translation of the “Song of the Vineyard” in Isaiah 5 used this noun twice to describe a barrier which the owner erected to protect the vineyard. In the first instance (v.2) the translator rendered the Hebrew expression “I dug it” or “I surrounded it” with the verbal phrase “I put a hedge (phragmon) around it.” In the second instance the vineyard owner determines to “remove its hedge (phragmon)” (v.5) and in this case the Hebrew term means “hedge.” So presumably both occurrences in Isaiah 5 refer to a hedge that the vineyard owner constructed around this vineyard in order to protect it. Kloppenberg (The Tenants in the Vineyard 159-61) defines this term as “a wooden palisade or a low wall.” However, whether this phragmos was constructed of wood, stones, or thornbush is difficult to discern. If the Hebrew term in Isaiah 5:5 does refer to a hedge, then presumably this should give some direction for the translation of phragmos in vv. 1 and 5 of Greek Isaiah. This usage is reflected in Jesus’ parable of the Wicked Tenant Farmers (Matthew 21:33 and Mark 12:1). Jesus says in the parable that the vineyard owner “put a fence (phragmon) around it.” Both Gospels employ the same Greek verb and noun used by the Greek translator of Isaiah. Presumably then the meaning of phragmos in this parable should take its flavour from the usage in Isaiah 5 and be rendered as “hedge.”
In the Synoptic Gospels this word also occurs in the parable of the Great Banquet (Luke 14:15-24). After the initial invitation to the banquet is rejected by many, the master sends his servant into the “into the streets and alleys” of the town to invite the poor, crippled, blind and lame. But even when this is accomplished, there is still room and so the master sends the servant further afield, into the country areas around the town, “into the roads and hedgerows? (phragmous)” in order to find people to fill up the banquet. phragmos often defined the hedges planted or stone walls constructed to secure vineyards.
The usage of this term in Gospels fits well within its meaning as found in non-biblical Greek.
There is considerable debate, however, as to what exactly phragmou means in Ephesians 2:14 and how it is related to the terms preceding (mesotoichon), “shared wall(?)” and following (echthra), “the hostility.” Hoehner is correct, I think, in his commentary on Ephesians to note that this noun phragmos was not used in Jewish literature to refer to the partition wall in the temple precincts that defined the boundary beyond which non-Jews could not go on pain of death. The inscription placed in this temple wall (a copy of which is in the Archeological Museum in Istanbul) described it as a truphaktos (lattice partition, railing) and a peribolos (enclosed precinct). Josephus applies a by-form druphaktos (in place of truphaktos) to describe this “second stone balustrade” in the temple precinct (Jewish Wars V.193; VI, 124; Jewish Antiquities XV, 417), on which the inscription was mounted. Josephus refers to the inner court created by this balustrade as the peribolos (Jewish Antiquities XV, 418). In one context Philo refers to the walls surrounding the entire temple precinct as the peribolos (De Specialibus Legibus 71), but he does not use this other term truphaktos to describe the inner balustrade. He used the noun phragmos, but not with reference to this inner Temple wall. Neither Philo nor Josephus used the noun mesotoichon, connected with phragmos in Eph. 2:14. In fact this word mesotoichon seems to be very rare and Ephesians 2:14 is its earliest recorded usage. Liddell and Scott suggest that the term, both as noun and adjective, has the sense of a “party wall,” i.e. a wall shared by two parties who jointly are responsible for it. Markus Barth (Ephesians I, 263) says that “it means a partition inside a house.” The combined phrase refers to a “wall that prevents certain persons from entering a house or city.”
Now Paul is certainly able to be creative and use new terminology to refer to the barriers which distinguished Jews from non-Jews. These “barriers” from the Jewish perspective are summarized and expressed in the Jewish Law, which Jews believed had its source in Yahweh. However to refer to the Law as “the middle wall which is a separating factor” seems too specific. We have to remember that hostility also emerged from among Gentiles towards Jews and was responsible for some terrible pogroms in Alexandria around this same period (cf. Philo’s embassy to Claudius on behalf of the Jews of Alexandria and Josephus’ report of anti-Semitic statements by non-Jewish writers in Contra Apionem). However, there is a third element recently introduced into this mixture and that is the Jesus community. We discern from the New Testament and other first century documents about the hostility it experienced from Jewish and non-Jewish quarters. I would suggest that this “shared wall of separation” reflects the mutual hostility that was emerging between Jews and non-Jews, as well as the emerging Christian communities, in the early part of the first century AD. From the Jewish perspective the principles defining their separation from non-Jews are expressed in the Mosaic Law.
I take this genitive construction (phragmou) in Ephesians 2:14 as an adjectival genitive defining some aspect or function of the related noun mesotoichon. This evidence suggests that Paul may be referring to the barriers of various kinds that created divisions among diverse people groups in his day, i.e. “party walls” that became barriers and reflected mutual hostility and suspicion. It was Jesus’ intent that through his death on the cross these hostile relations would be destroyed and a new, united humanity emerge, subject to the Messiah and dedicated to God’s service. The temple building metaphors that follow describe this new community and how it expresses God’s will and wisdom. However, it all hinges on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Messiah. Whether in using this terminology Paul explicitly had in the back of his mind the wall that prevented Gentiles from entering the most sacred precincts of the Jerusalem Temple seems unwarranted from the terms he chose. However, the strong negative description of the non-Jewish person’s situation in vv. 11-13 coupled with the explicit temple imagery in vv.19-22 might lead those who knew the arrangements on the Temple mount to make some connection, rightly or wrongly.
i. If the death and resurrection of Jesus was intended by God to abolish hostility among humans, why is there is so much hostility within and among faith communities?
ii. What barriers have we erected that create needless and harmful divisions within the body of Christ, thus hindering God’s design for the completion of his new temple, i.e. his family?