The shield protected the bearer from both hand-carried and missile weapons. In the Pauline analogy, the shield is used to “extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one” (v. 16). Horse archers constituted the main combat units in the Parthian Empire – Rome’s primary eastern foe in this period. The Parthians’ fearsome reputation, having defeated the Roman legions in numerous battles, made Paul’s analogy of the flaming darts, or arrows, of Satan appropriate.ESV Archeology Study Bible, p. 1756
Though Christians and Westerners are generally aware of the northern barbarian threat to the Roman Empire, most learn almost nothing about Rome’s bitter rival empire to the East, the Parthians. WordPress, the platform I’m using, provides me a useful illustration here as it doesn’t even have Parthian in its dictionary and keeps flagging it as a misspelling. It’s as if we are conscious of the peoples east of the Euphrates up until the book of Malachi. Then, all of the sudden, the light of historical consciousness turns off and the focus shifts to the West.
Yet here was an empire not only able to go toe-to-toe with Rome, but even able to defeat many Roman armies throughout the centuries. The Parthians had risen to power following the collapse of Alexander the Great’s empire. At first glance they seem to be an interesting blend of Greco-Persian cosmopolitanism and the horse culture of the great steppes. They were certainly much more tolerant of early Christianity than the Romans were – an important point not to be dismissed. The great persecutions of Christians under Zoroastrian rulers would not come about until the Parthian empire gave way to the Sassanians and Rome had been Christianized.
Though we may be ignorant of them, inhabitants of the Roman empire would have been very aware of this other superpower. I found it interesting that this street knowledge of the political enemy may provide background for the familiar Armor of God passage in Ephesians chapter 6, particularly the part about “flaming darts” (6:14). As the passage quoted above states, the Parthian horse archers were the main fighting force of the Parthians. Apparently they were so skilled that they were able to ride their horses without stirrups and fire their arrows accurately at the enemy legions – even turning their torsos to shoot backwards while their horses sped in the opposite direction. This particular tactic came to be known as the “Parthian Shot.” This may have come down into modern English as “parting shot” since authors like Arthur Conan Doyle used “Parthian Shot” in their writing to describe a last comment or jab given during an exit.
Returning to Paul and Ephesians 6, the image the original readers may have had in mind was that of a Roman soldier’s shield deflecting the flaming arrows of Parthian horse archers – archers who were shooting at them while simultaneously riding with terrifying skill. Sounds like quite the dangerous situation, especially for a foot soldier. As such it was an effective analogy, not just communicating the danger posed by Satan’s attacks, but also the tremendous power provided by this shield of faith.
Image by Wikimedia Commons