Monday, March 3, 2014

Paul & Slavery (Part I)

I wrote an essay for personal gain on the topic. In the larger essay I wrote (56 pages on Paul and women), I included several appendices addressing various related topics. Slavery was one of them. I do not pretend to solve any problem, nor do I assume that my research is complete. In fact, I know it isn't. But, I enjoyed my research and hope someone could profit from it. Thanks for reading.


This may be the longest appendix, simply because it carries the most individual verses.[1] What must be admitted up front is that the topic of slavery is a truly difficult issue within the New Testament, and within the wider socio-cultural context. For instance, Rome was built upon the slave culture.[2] They viewed it as normal behavior. S. Scott Bartchy points out that “no ancient government ever sought to abolish slavery.”[3] Markus Barth and Helmut Blanke list several ways a person could wind up in slavery:[4]

1)    War/Piracy.
a.     The spoils of war; while in some sense more humane than killing the defeated, one wonders to what extent the selling of the defeated contributes positively to their dignity.
2)    Slave Markets.
a.     It is reported that there were daily rates of over a thousand people in many cities, including Athens and Corinth. The purchase of a slave was an investment, as the owner would inherit the debt incurred from the slave’s previous life.
3)    Self-Sale.
a.     A free man could sell himself into slavery on the basis of paying off any debts. His own, or those he loved.
4)    Court Sentences.
a.     The penalty of a court that results in slave labor. Sometimes men were condemned to the gladiatorial arena.
5)    Exposure of Children.
a.     An unwanted child – most probably girls – could be sold for whatever reason deemed fit. Their likely destination was brothels. Only if they could prove that their parents were free could they be released.
6)    House Birth.
a.     The breeding of slaves within one household. Usually begotten by masters and slave women.

The early mentalities towards slavery were largely negative, though with some exceptions. Aristotle viewed a slave as a “living tool” (Pol. 1252a-55b) and that “the use made of slaves and tamed animals is not that different” (Pol. 1254b). Plato wrote that while some slaves were more virtuous than family, the soul of the slave is “utterly corrupt” (Od. 17.322-23). Often slavery was viewed in philosophical and existential terms, as we see in Philo’s essay Every Good Man is Free. What mattered to some most of all was mental freedom.[5] Simply, slaves were utterly at the whim of their masters, and women were significantly oppressed.[6] Wayne Meeks suggests that “…freedwomen were usually manumitted at an earlier age than freedman and quite often for purposes of marriage. In fact, 29 percent married their own patrons—one of the most common means for female slaves to gain freedom and improved status.”[7] Slaves could also be educated, often more educated than their owners. This increased their value as servants.[8]
A person’s experience in slavery depended almost entirely upon the customs of the owner’s family, the business and the particular class of society to which the owner belonged, and the character of the owner himself.[9] Several early authors confirm that a specific slave owner threw slaves to his carnivorous fish.[10] Some slaves could even be crucified,[11] though the more common punishment was beating.[12] Crucifixion even appeared in some comedies, the phrase “go to the cross!” being used to exclaim, “go to hell!”[13] On the other hand, slave owners such as Pliny the Younger repeatedly sent sick slaves to high-caliber physicians.[14]
Clement of Rome’s Epistle to the Corinthians sheds some important light on the issue of Christians and slavery. Chapter 55.2 states “We know many among ourselves who have given themselves up to bonds, in order that they might ransom others. Many, too, have surrendered themselves to slavery, that with the price which they received for themselves, they might provide food for others.” Hermas (Mandates 8:10) states, “Next hear the things which follow: to minister to widows, to look after orphans and the destitute,[15] to redeem from distress the servants (“doulous” slave/servant) of God, to be hospitable…to resist none, to be gentle, to be poorer than all men…to practice justice, to preserve brotherhood…not to oppress poor debtors, and whatever is like to these things.” Apostolic Constitutions 5.1.3 recommends the practice of selling one’s self into slavery for others, as Hermas (Similitudes 1:8) encourages people to “purchase afflicted souls” instead of land.”
While not universal or widely documented, these noble practices do offer some help in determining some of the early practices of some Christian communities. However, by and large, the early Christians didn’t appear to be known for their opposition to the social institution of slavery.

[1] It ought not be assumed that I find slavery more important than the Trinity. It simply has the most expansive selection of data.
[2] S. Scott Bartchy, “Slaves and Slavery in the Roman World,” The World of the New Testament, 169-178, 169.
[3] S. Scott Bartchy, MALLON CHRESAI: First Century Slavery & 1 Corinthians 7:21, 63. Bartchy’s groundbreaking dissertation is the backbone of this paper.
[4] Markus Barth and Helmut Blanke, The Letter to Philemon, 5-8.
[5] Epictetus is a fine example.
[6] Barth and Blanke point out that very little primary and secondary data exists detailing the suffering of girls and women during this time. In some sense, this is preferable to reading sexual abuse of the lowest possible denominator. 
[7] Wayne A. Meeks, The First Urban Christians 2nd Edition, 23.
[8] S. Scott Bartchy, “Slaves and Slavery in the Roman World,” The World of the New Testament, 173. This indicates a possible reason for why Onesimus was running away, and his possible status in the home of Philemon.
[9] S. Scott Bartchy, MALLON CHRESAI: First Century Slavery & 1 Corinthians 7:21, 68.
[10] Seneca, De ira, III, 40; Dio Cassius, LIV, 23 as well.
[11] In the revolt of Spartacus (roughly 71BCE), over 6,000 slaves were crucified in the defeat of Spartacus.
[12] “You school a Phrygian by the whip” was a proverb of the time.
[13] Barth and Blanke, The Letter to Philemon, 86.
[14] Pliny, Ep. 5, 19. To set a modern example, if a car blows a tire, you fix it in order to keep the car going. If the car continues to die and break, you rid yourself of it.
[15] James 1:27 parallel.

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