Saturday, 29 August 2020

The strongest condemnation of slavery in the ancient world


Have you noticed that some people think it took nearly 2,000 years after the Bible was written before people realised that slavery was wrong? That’s incorrect of course, but what was the strongest condemnation of slavery in antiquity? Here is the answer: Gregory of Nyssa, a Christian who was writing in the 4th century wrote this powerful attack on slavery.

So I’m simply reproducing below what Gregory wrote, translated by the Revd Andrew Maguire, and reproduced here with his kind permission.


Gregory comments on Ecclesiastes 2:7:


Ecclesiastes 2:7
I got me slaves and slave-girls,
and homebred slaves were born for me,
and much property in cattle and sheep became mine.

And this is what Gregory wrote:


‘The theme of confession is still the focus of our text. The writer of Ecclesiastes sets out in careful order virtually everything in his own experience through which the futility of our activities in this life is known. But at this point he touches on what appears to be a more serious piece of evidence from his deeds through which he can be accused of the affliction of arrogant pride. What is there in what he has laid before us so far which leads to such a level of conceit? He has told us about a valuable house, an abundance of vines, elegant gardens and water features, nicely constructed swimming pools, extensive beautiful parkland. Yet, none of this can compare to his presumption that, as a human being he believes he can lord it over people who in essence are just like him. Because then he goes on to say: “I got me slaves and slave-girls, and homebred slaves were born for me”.

Do you detect the excessive arrogance?
An utterance like this shows that he is exalting himself against God. We know from the words of the prophets that absolutely everything is subject to the supreme authority in the universe (Psalm 119/118.91). But this man counts as his own what truly belongs to God and gives to the likes of himself the kind of power which makes him think that he can be the master of men and women. When he sees himself as so different from those who are subject to him one can only conclude that pride has led him to go beyond what is appropriate for his nature.

“I got me slaves and slave-girls.” You are condemning to slavery human beings whose nature is free and characterised by free will. You are making laws that rival the law of God, overturning the law appropriate for humankind. Human beings were created specifically to have dominion over the earth; it was determined by their creator that they should exercise authority. Yet you place them under the yoke of slavery, as though you are opposing and fighting against the divine decree.

Have you forgotten the limits of your authority? Your rule is limited to control of irrational creatures. In scripture we read: “let them rule over birds and fish and four-footed creatures”. (Gen 1.26) How then do you go beyond what is subject to you and exalt yourself against a nature which is free, counting people like you among four-footed or footless creatures. “You subjected everything to humankind” declares the scripture through prophecy and it goes on to list what is under human control: domestic animals, cattle and sheep. (Psalm 8/7.8) Surely human beings have not been born to you from domestic animals? Surely cattle have not given birth to human offspring? Irrational creatures alone are subject to humankind. “He makes grass grow for animals and green plants for people’s slaves”. (Psalm 104/103.14) . But you have torn apart the nature of slavery and lordship and made the same thing at one and the same time enslaved to itself and lord of itself.

“I got me slaves and slave-girls.” Tell me what sort of price you paid. What did you find in creation with a value corresponding to the nature of your purchase? What price did you put on rationality? For how many obols did you value the image of God? For how many coins did you sell this nature formed by God? God said: “Let us make human beings in our own image and likeness” (Gen 1.26). When we are talking about one who is in the image of God, who has dominion over the whole earth and who has been granted by God authority over everything on the earth, tell me, who is the seller and who the buyer? Only God has this kind of power, or, one might almost say, not even God. For scripture says that the gifts of God are irrevocable (Romans 11.29). God would not make a slave of humankind. It was God who, through his own will, called us back to freedom when we were slaves of sin. If God does not enslave a free person, then who would consider their own authority higher than God’s?

How can people be sold who have dominion over the earth and everything on the earth? It is essential that the assets of people being sold are sold with them. How can we value the contents of the whole earth (Genesis 1.26)? If these are beyond any valuation then tell me, what is the value of the one who is over them? If you said “the world in its entirety”, even then you would not have found anything approximating to the value (Matthew 16.26; Mark 8.36). Someone knowing the true value of human nature said that not even the whole world is worth enough to be given in exchange for the human soul. So when a human being is for sale, it is nothing other than the lord of the earth being brought to the auction room. This means that creation as we know it is at the same time being put up for public sale. That is earth, sea and islands and all that is in them. How then is the purchaser going to settle the payment? What will the vendor accept considering the greatness of the property involved in the transaction?

Did the little notebook, the written agreement and the calculation in obols trick you into thinking that you could be master of the image of God? What utter folly! If the contract was lost, if the writing was eaten by moths, if a drop of water fell on it and washed it away, where is there any proof that you have a slave? Where is there anything that supports you in being a master? You have somebody who is named as your subordinate, but beyond the mere name I see nothing. What did such power add to your real nature? It did not give you extra years or any genuine superiority. Your lineage is still human, your life is similar, the sufferings of the soul and the body prevail upon you both in the same way, with you as master and another in subjugation you are still both affected by agony and delight, gladness and distress, sorrow and joy, anger and fear, disease and death. Surely there is no distinction in such things between slave and master? Do they not draw in the same air when they breathe? Do they not see the sun in a similar way? Do they not both sustain their life by taking in nourishment? Is not the make-up of their bodily organs the same? Do they not both return to the same dust after death? Do they not both face one and the same judgment? Is not the prospect of heaven and hell the same for them both?

So when you are equivalent in every way, tell me in what particular way you have more so that you think you can become master of another human being even though you are a human being yourself.
“I got me”, you say, “slaves and slave-girls,” as though they were a herd of goats or swine. After saying “I got me slaves and slave-girls,” he added the good cheer that comes through flocks and herds. For he says “And much property in cattle and sheep became mine”, as though animals and slaves were subject to his authority to an equal degree.’


Gregory of Nyssa - In Ecclesiasten Homiliae - The start of Homily IV [emphasis added]


This translation is reproduced by permission of the Revd Andrew Maguire, and is sourced from the Early Church Texts website -

Sunday, 26 July 2020

The year 1613: the unity of believers of every colour, nation, language, sex & condition

I thought I'd share with readers this amazing short passage published in the year 1613 in a long book in London.

Rev Samuel Purchas wrote this amazing vision of the unity of all peoples in the worship of God.

His incomprehensible unite, which the Angells with covered faces in their Holy, holy, holy hymnes resound and Laude in Trinitie, hath pleased in this varietie to diversifie his workes, all serving one humane nature, infinitely multiplyed in persons, exceedingly varied in accidents, that wee also might serve that one-most God; the tawney Moore, black Negro, duskie Libyan, Ash-coloured Indian, olive-coloured American, should with the whiter Europaean become one sheepe-fold, under one great shepheard, till this mortalitie being swallowed up of life, wee may all be one, as he and the father are one; and (all this varietie swallowed up into an ineffable unitie) only the language of Canaan be heard, only the Fathers name written in their foreheads, the Lambs song in their mouths, the victorious Palmes in their hands, and their long robes being made white in the bloud of the Lambe, whom they follow whithersoever he goeth, heaven and earth with their everlasting Halleluiahs, without any more distinction of colour, Nation, language, sexe, condition, all may bee One in him that is ONE, and only blessed for ever.

Samuel Purchas, Purchas His Pilgrimage (London, 1613), 655-56.

We could write a thousand books about what we do or don't like about this passage, but it is amazing in any case. In some ways so modern, and in other ways from so very long ago.

Sunday, 12 July 2020

Biblical argument against slavery

This is a crazy title for a blog post. The subject of the Bible's attitudes on any number of things is massive, not least on slavery. I originally called it “God’s complaint against slavery” knowing full well that the variety of subject matter in the Hebrew Scriptures and canonical Christian Scriptures makes this an almost impossible brief to cover. So, I’m just highlighting a few things in the Scriptures that often escape people’s notice.
Articles like this usually have titles like “Does the Bible condone slavery?” Some people search for that because they want to know if there is a biblical case against slavery, and what it is. This post will hopefully help the reader to understand a bit more about it.

God’s attitudes to slavery in the Hebrew Scriptures
Read between the lines to get a sense of the biblical God’s attitude to slavery.
1.       If it’s not too obvious to say, there was no slavery in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 1-2), and there is no hint that this was ever meant to happen.[1] It is given to humanity to be in the image of God and have authority over creation, not to be under subjugation or a yoke like animals (Gen 1:27). It is given to Adam to subdue the land, not to subdue people (Gen 1:28). Adam and Eve are given the possibility of self-determination, not given it to deprive others of the same (Gen 2:16-17). Their descendants are to multiply “to fill the earth,” not to provide slaves (Gen 1:28). It is Adam’s job to till the ground in the garden, not a slave’s job (Gen 2:5; 15). Food being naturally abundant there, the ancient “business case” for slavery is not remotely valid even in ancient terms (Gen 1:29-30). Paradise is a slavery-free zone. Slavery would upset God’s hierarchy for creation which prefers his image-bearers at the top, not at the top and bottom. This is the ideal world that Jesus appealed to when he was asked a question about divorce. Not until Genesis 9 are slaves mentioned. Indeed, there is no hint in the Garden of Eden that even the Law of Moses (Torah) would ever be necessary…
2.       … until Adam and Eve sin, upon which all kinds of dire outcomes unfold. After this, Adam is told “By the sweat of your brow, you will eat your food” (Genesis 3:19). By the time of Genesis 9, this had more or less degenerated into, as it were, “By the sweat of your slave’s brow, you will eat your food.” (Noah’s dreadful curse on some of his family in Genesis 9:24-29 is the Bible’s first mention of slavery – though there is no suggestion that this curse had God’s sanction. This is a wildly misused verse, misused in a way resulting in great harm in church history, and wildly re-interpreted in different eras.[2])
3.       A slave’s point of view peeps through in the book of Job. Job wishes he were dead and in the grave, where “the weary are at rest. Captives also enjoy their ease; they no longer hear the slave-driver’s shout. The small and the great are there, and the slave is freed from his master” (Job 316-19). Nothing radical about that so far as ancient thought goes. Everyone would have agreed that it is not desirable to be in slavery, and it was a sad fact that for some slaves it was only at death that they would be freed. But the hint of a slave’s perspective is rare in the writings of antiquity, and its appearance suggests that slaveholders could not bank on God being on their side. (Jewish tradition has noted Job for its anxiety about treatment of slaves.)
4.       The foundational story of Israel is that God rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and led them to “the Promised Land” (Exod 2:23-25). This sense of being a once enslaved people is hardwired into their story, written again and again to remind them that as a freed people their slavery laws had to be less inhumane (Deut 15:15 and other examples). But slavery still existed.
·         And slavery was still an evil. The stories say that it can come upon a people as a dreadful punishment for sin (it's not a blessing obviously). In this way, the institution of slavery condemns itself. As a national people, they were said to be in slavery in Egypt as a consequence of their own sin (Ezek 20:8), which might well shock us, and it should. Slavery is not morally neutral. It is degrading, and in the Old Testament it sometimes comes upon a people as a terrible consequence of sin. (The rabbis had interesting discussions about this.) When the Israelites were later exiled as a nation to Babylon, this was again seen as a consequence of sin (2 Chron. 36:15-20; Lamentations 1), and this sense of the wrongness of being enslaved lasted after their return from exile (Neh 9:36-37). But the prophets don’t leave it there. Nations who devastate Israel are held responsible for the harm they cause, and where they sell Jews including boys and girls into slavery, they face God’s judgement (Joel 3:3-6). In these Old Testament passages, you have in effect a statement that slavery is a social evil that condemns itself. If something is so awful that it comes as a consequence of sin, it does not turn around and become good when you do it to someone else. The American abolitionists were keen to point out that the Old Testament command to "love your neighbour as yourself" confronts slavers with the question of why they are inflicting on someone else what they would not want done to themselves. And the abolitionists could call on Paul in Gal 5:13-14 which says the Christian way "to love your neighbour as yourself" is to be only "slaves to each other," removing slave-masters from the equation. (More on Paul below.)

·       Where the Israelites were allowed to buy slaves from surrounding nations, this has to be seen in a similar light. Israel’s God is still one who hears the cries of slaves for release from their oppression, and multiple Mosaic laws tighten restrictions on what Israelites might think they can get away with in treatment of foreign slaves.[3] The lower treatment of non-Jewish slaves should not pass us by without reflection, and on this a couple of things should be said. The Law of Moses was not read by the rabbis merely in a literal sense, but as part of Israel's story and always needing skilled interpretation, and this is one area where rabbis saw to soften things, but that would be a whole other post. 

·         When Stephen tells of Israel’s slavery in Acts 7:6, 19, 34, we see how hardwired this story is into Israel’s life. Stephen includes God saying this to Abraham: "Your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and ill-treated for four hundred years." This was in Egypt, where Pharaoh “dealt treacherously with our people and oppressed our forefathers.” And God says to Moses, “I have indeed seen the oppression of my people in Egypt. I have heard their groaning and have come down to set them free.” The message of this is that here is a God who pays attention to the unjust suffering of slaves, and prefers them over their oppressors.
5.       The business of slavery seems to have been unstoppable in the Bronze Age. The Law of Moses tried to get to grips with it by licencing it only under tight regulations.
·         Perhaps the most radical of these laws is the one that would have abolished slavery (or left it as voluntary only) if everyone had stuck to it unhindered: “If a slave has taken refuge with you, do not hand them over to their master. Let them live among you wherever they like and in whatever town they choose. Do not oppress them” (Deut 23:15-16). That is, a runaway slave was guaranteed freedom from slavery upon reaching refuge. If every slave took up this rule unhindered, that would be the end of slavery, without having to pass a law to abolish it.
o This is startling in the context of the ancient world. In contrast, in the Roman Empire, being a runaway slave was treated as criminal, and bounty hunters made a living by hunting down runaway slaves; also, assisting a runaway slave was a serious criminal offence. But in the Law of Moses, running away to freedom was a slave’s right. This is the nearest thing to a statement in favour of abolition of slavery.
·         Make no mistake, we are not asked to approve of people being owned like property (although you could scarcely be called 'owned' in the case of Israelite slaves in ancient Israel when they could demand freedom after six years or run away to asylum for guaranteed freedom earlier); nor asked to approve of people being bought like property (non-Jews in Torah). Not asked to approve because there is a difference between trying to regulate something and condoning it. This is no Garden of Eden. This is historically contingent, and not in a good way. We should be careful about thinking about Torah’s more humane aspects as if that is a trajectory towards abolition. It was more progressive than the laws of other nations at the time, for that does not really entail abolition. It only fits into the story towards abolition as part of a bigger story – that it sits inbetween the Garden of Eden and Jesus’ return, the two eras of paradise. Morally, it’s a big step down from Eden to Torah, and a big step back up to Jesus’ return. The abolition of the slave trade also sits inbetween Eden and Jesus’ return, and as many people will testify, it was nowhere near the end of prejudice or injustice, but a big step forward.
6.       A few more indications in the Law of Moses of the underlying sense that, down to its roots, slavery is evil include the following.
·         Kidnapping Hebrew people and selling them into slavery was a crime that carried the death penalty (Deut 24:7). In Amos 1:6, God vows vengeance on slave-traders who took people captive. Taking prisoners of war into slavery is also not the stuff of paradise, obviously! All examples of the institution of slavery – except voluntary slavery – must have started out in those ways if you could trace it back far enough. So the tree of slavery was being chipped away down at its base by condemning kidnapping. (On Israelites owning foreign slaves, see above, and there is an interesting discussion on it here.) 
·         Voluntary Hebrew slaves (a route out of destitution, not a punishment) were not to be treated as slaves (Lev 25:39). But we find that God still found this deeply distasteful since Israelites should not be on the verge of destitution in the first place  (Amos 2:6). This brings back to mind a higher standard and that the Law merely licenses undesirable things to tighten regulations around them.
·         And, unlike ancient slavery norms, no-one was allowed to sell a voluntary Hebrew slave to another owner like property, or take any as captives to enslave them (2 Chronicles 28:8-15). They serve their six years and then are released and not sold. To make this stick legally, the Law says that when God rescued the Israelites from Egypt, God made them his own slaves, and is not going to sell. This Law makes people unsellable (Lev 25: 39-43).[4] The strange idea of being God’s slaves actually works as a legal protection against being sold into slavery. And that means protection from notorious slave-owner Egypt. Israel had a new owner who was not an oppressor and not a slave-seller: God.
·         But in any case, the idea of making a brother into a voluntary slave was virtually put out of sight by Deut 15:7f, which makes it a law that a “brother” be lent whatever he needs instead. Interesting to say that later (in centuries after Jesus), Jewish rabbis’ case-law came up with re-interpretations of this that might not be so simple![5]
·         If a slaveholder causes grievous bodily harm to a slave through violence, the slave goes free, and the slaveholder loses his entire “investment” (Exod 21:26-27).
·         For Hebrew slaves, their service was time-limited (to six or seven years maximum) with guaranteed release in the seventh year without them paying anything (Exod 21:2).
·         And they were not to be sent away empty-handed, but with a golden handshake: “And when you release them, do not send them away empty-handed. Supply them liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your winepress. Give to them as the LORD your God has blessed you. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you. That is why I give you this command today.” (Deut 15:13-15). Isaiah stresses that the ex-slave should enjoy a clean break with no strings attached (“set the oppressed free and break every yoke,” Isa 58:6).[6] This is more generous than Greco-Roman slavery (of the early church era) which only gave slaves freedom with strings attached to protect the slave-owner’s “investment.” It is also more freedom than given by Exod 21:2ff, where a freed slave had to be a client of the former owner.[7] The prophets keep seeing something higher than the Law of Moses,
7.       As for all of the above, this still does not make slavery alright. The Law of Moses is no substitute for the Garden of Eden. The slew of slave laws in the Torah do show that even if it couldn’t be stopped, more humane regulations could be introduced. Bear in mind we are picturing the Bronze Age, and these were times when slavery was unstoppable. The Torah has an element of realpolitik, in trying to stop things only were they were stoppable, and regulating things that couldn't be stopped. Besides which, the fact of laws being more humane still does not make slavery moral in itself. It isn’t. Remember: no slavery in paradise.
8.       Jeremiah 34 reports that God was furious that freed slaves were re-enslaved. God then plans to allow a national judgement for this re-enslaving – the judgement being national defeat at the hands of Israel’s enemies in war, and exile abroad in Babylon. A few passages in Jeremiah show a similar heart for the marginalised in Israel, for example 7:5-7, 22:1-5, 22:13.[8] And although the Law of Moses treated male and female slaves unevenly, Jeremiah says male and female slaves should have been treated equally.[9] The prophets keep seeing a higher law than the Law of Moses.
9.       An interesting story in Nehemiah after the return from exile in Babylon sheds light on the problem of slavery in Babylon and back again in Israel where debt-slavery was seen as an embarrassment and a scandal (Neh 5:1-12). There is a real sense that the presence of slavery among Israelites was a moral crisis in the community.

But the regulations in the Law of Moses were not fully complied with, and couldn’t be fully complied with while the land was under Roman occupation (in Jesus' day). (The Pharisees came up with ways of spiritualising much of Torah instead.) In the time of Jesus, the inhabitants of Galilee and Judea, etc., were following the patterns of Greco-Roman slavery. And for many slaves, life under those Roman laws could be horrific. A minority of slaves in the big cities did alright out of it. But for a great many slaves, such as those slaving in the mines in the Roman Empire, life was utter hell. (By the way, slavery had nothing to do with ethnicity. Anyone could become a Roman Citizen, but the Romans could enslave anyone who wasn’t a Roman citizen in this or that circumstance.)

God’s attitudes to slavery in the Christian Scriptures
10.   The first thing to understand is that Jesus and the apostles were in a very different era from when the Law of Moses was written. Whereas the Law of Moses was Israelites’ own “law of the land,” there was no such possibility of making all their own laws in Jesus’ day, because Israel had been colonised by the Roman Empire, their land was under enemy occupation, and they lived under Roman rule. There was no calling all the shots. There was no hope of publishing a manifesto for the end of Hebrew slavery, or anyone else’s slavery. Anything of the kind would look like a slave revolt in the making. The Romans would probably, given the chance, round up anyone involved, get the names of their associates, round them up too, and likely crucify all of them. The balance of probabilities is that circulating tracts calling for the freedom of slaves would have been a highly unsafe thing to do. The prospect of slave revolts terrified the Romans, just as the Romans used terror to control slaves.[10] Scholars often note this reign of terror over slaves, and yet wonder why there is no documentary evidence of voices advocating abolition of slavery, as if it isn’t obvious that any such call could be construed as a slave revolt in the making and in need of ruthless suppression. It would give the Romans a chance to clamp down on dangerous talk. The Romans were known for crucifying thousands when they suppressed slave revolts. Expecting Jesus to put himself and his audiences at risk of a pogrom of the Jews by publishing a manifesto of abolition would be a mistake on our part, but one easily made by us in the relatively privileged twenty-first century. We are left reading between the lines. It can be compared with the silence of the Essenes and the silence of the Therapeutae. I’ll come to that.
11.   Early Christians believed in bringing back the Jubilee rules, which would have meant ditching Greco-Roman slavery laws and going back to the Mosaic slavery laws guaranteeing release for slaves (Luke 4:16-21). This was obviously eschatological. But to anyone other than Jews, the coded signals in that would probably have “gone over their heads.” Since Jesus was not talking about overthrowing Roman rule, his plans had to be something that God would make happen, starting with Jesus then, and completing on Judgment Day.
12.   When Jesus was asked a question about interpreting Moses’ law on divorce, Jesus in answering didn’t appeal to Moses’ Law but to the higher ideal of the Garden of Eden. Like a lawyer appealing to a higher court. Jesus commenting on the Law of Moses suggests that it was not the law that God wanted, not how the world was meant to be “in the beginning,” and that people should aspire to higher standards, as it was “in the beginning” (Matt 19:8, see also Mark 10:2-9).[11] Jesus implies that Moses would have abolished divorce but could not, so he reluctantly licenced it and regulated it. That is Jesus’ explanation for what is found in the Torah. Since slavery, like divorce, had no place in the Garden of Eden, it leaves the institution of slavery on slippery foundations. The Law of Moses is no Garden of Eden. This rule can go for anything which would have had no moral place in Eden “in the beginning.” (Not that most of the Christian churches have taken much notice of this for most of their history. There were good notable exceptions -e.g. the Mennonites - which I will come to in another post about church history.) The point is that Jesus, faced with a question about the Law of Moses, appealed to a higher standard, the Garden of Eden. He was anticipating the world to come, a return of paradise, and he was arguing to bring that ideal forward into the moment, by trying to push back against divorce. If he had been asked a question such as to ”If a slave has had seven masters, whose slave will he be in the next world?” we can imagine Jesus replying something like, “You do not understand because you do not know the Scriptures. They were not masters and slaves in the beginning, and at the resurrection you will be no-one’s master.”
13.   Jesus was accused of having the lowest of the low for dinner pals, probably including prostitutes who were almost certainly slaves (Mark 2:15-17). You have to assume he listened to their point of view on life. His parables often reveal horrific treatment of slaves, possibly reflecting their experiences. (Whereas some people try to claim that slavery in the Roman world wasn’t so bad, Jesus’ parables lift the lid on that.)
14.   Jesus promises that there will be changes in the age to come: “at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne… many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first” (Matt 19:28-30 / Mark 10:31). I could cite a number of similar passages. We see something similar in Paul’s thought; that a time is coming when the world will be put to rights. It’s a promise that would have sounded appealing to slaves, albeit it’s about fixing things in the world to come, not in the immediate present. Except that...
15.   Except that one could quietly do things differently in one’s own community. John 13:12–17 has the ground-breaking story of Jesus at meal-time choosing to do a slave’s job, bending down to wash the disciples’ filthy feet. And then telling them that he was modelling the way they were to be to each other. If they were to do that kind of thing, they wouldn’t “need” slaves. It would be their own job from now on. This is quite coded language and actions by Jesus in John’s Gospel, as if it wasn’t safe to publish the message in an uncoded way. But it really suggests that Jesus was setting up for his followers to be a non-slavery community, and that John’s Gospel was originally received in the church in that spirit. (This fits with Mark 10:44 which says that anyone who wants to be first among his disciples must be as a slave. This more or less forbids the disciples from being slave-masters.) I think the gospel writers would be aghast at the thought that people in the future would read such things and yet think owning slaves instead was what they were being cued up to do.  
16.   Indeed, what could be done by those who disliked slavery was to form their own community. In Jesus’ day, this was done by two Jewish groups, the Essenes and the Therapeutae (according to the ancient Jewish writers Philo and Josephus). Like Jesus and Paul (see below about Paul), the Essenes were anticipating the world of paradise to come, and wanted to live the ideal now. They could not safely publish a manifesto against slavery, but they could quietly run their own community without slavery. And so they did. And what’s more, we find in the early church a description of a Christian community that sounds like it may have done something very similar, sharing everything in common. This is the Christian community described in Acts 4:32-35. It doesn’t mention whether it kept slaves, but the description of it is so like an Essene community, that it is possible that they kept no slaves amongst themselves. I’m only saying possible, because it is impossible to evidence that.
17.   Most of the material about slavery in the Christian Scriptures is in the letters under Paul’s name. He deeply hoped that worldly structures would be ended soon, and that has to go for slavery.[12] As it was “in the beginning,” so he hoped the world would be a paradise again. Paul did not set himself up as authority to over-rule this or that part of the Law of Moses (Torah). Paul’s concern with Torah is that its time was over. It was absolutely basic for him that the end was nigh. He argued that the end had already begun. Christ’s death and resurrection were the beginning of the end, and Paul hoped that Christ’s return would complete the job of ending the world as we know it, and soon. (That's why Paul was so frustrated with people who hung onto Torah instead of realising that with Christ the new era had begun - the road that would end in paradise.) So don’t expect a radical agenda for re-ordering the world’s institutions with him. Instead, he gives us a radical vision for church community, where he sets out to confuse the categories of slave and master to destruction. We get radical and utopian wording like these two verses from him in Galatians:
·         “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28) – in other words, in the ideal world to come, there will be no slaves under human masters, and this is already the case spiritually with freedom “in Christ.” Notice Paul doesn't say that "slave and master" are all one in Christ. He says "slave" and "free." It would send out a problematic message to say that "slave and master" are all one in Christ. As we will see in the next point, it's the existence of masters that Paul sees as the moral problem.
·         “do not use your freedom for self-indulgence… through love become slaves to one anotherlove your neighbour as yourself” (Gal 5:13-14). Here, Paul interprets “loving your neighbour as yourself” as all being one another’s “slaves” in mutual kindness. So, in describing his ideal picture of a Christian community, Paul eliminates "masters" from the equation, spiritually to begin with. This is quite a slap in the face to slave-masters. Only by taking the role of fellow slaves do they have a part in this. 
o This is really significant. It means that the way Paul looked at the world, he knew there was a moral problem with the institution of slavery itself. It’s “masters” that Paul removes from the spiritual equation, meaning that the fundamental moral problem with the institution is people being “masters” over other people. And with that insight, he seeks to work out how to apply it. 
o Thus, if you are loving your neighbour how you love yourself, then you can't be your neighbour’s slave-master, because you wouldn't like it the other way round. Being the master is disqualified as a form of loving your neighbour in Paul's argument. 
o This is resistance to the institution of slavery and its fundamental imbalance. 
o It also upsets people’s ideas of what their freedom is for. (Remember Jesus teaching his disciples about washing each other’s feet as if to make a society without slave-masters. Otherwise, Jesus says, they have no part in him.) 
o This simple instruction erases the worldly distinctions of slave and master in the Christian community; the slaves and the free must act as “slaves” to one another, because this is Paul's interpretation of what it means to love your neighbour as yourself. He wants his community to live like a master-free zone. 

I could give many more examples of how Paul turns the status of slaves and free people upside down. Of course, Paul could only promise spiritual freedom; but he couldn’t promise to free other people’s slaves in this life. Paul like Jesus turned everyone’s hopes to the age to come, when all would be put to rights.

·         Paul called himself a slave of God (2 Cor 4:5 and other places). Why would anyone glorify being a slave like that? Well, it was a title given to some of the greatest leaders in Israel’s history (such as Jacob and David). It also meant that Paul belonged to God, and God wasn’t selling. So Paul couldn’t be bought. And he couldn’t be sold. It was a statement. It also tells us that speaking of servitude did not automatically indicate that it was coerced and we cannot tell unless we look at the context.

·         Paul advised slaves to make use of opportunities to become freedmen. Implicit in this is that Paul expects the co-operation of anyone in the church who had been owning slaves and become Christians, so that nothing obstructs his advice to slaves to become free (1 Cor 7:21). 
·         Paul clearly regards the master-slave hierarchy as something to be challenged. Otherwise these passages would not be there at all. As Paul was appealing to the world to come, it is pointless trying to fit him into a box that belongs to his own time.
Ephesians, which some critics doubt Paul wrote, has something truly radical for the ancient world, but people hardly notice because it doesn’t seem remarkable in our age. It tells slaveholders “do not threaten them” (Eph 6:9). No threats; therefore entailing no carrying out of any potential threats. This disempowers slaveholders in regard to a fundamental aspect of ancient slavery – it cancels their right to take out their aggression on slaves’ bodies. It makes unequivocal an early church teaching not to threaten and not to do the sorts of things that you might threaten to do. It cancels their ancient right to coerce slaves. This injunction amounts to nothing less than an outright ban on the physical abuse of slaves. This doesn't make slavery okay, of course - it is just a part of something Paul's churches were doing to destabilise the institution of slavery. Many slaveholders will have doubted that their slaves would do as asked if they couldn’t threaten them. This was revolutionary, it really was. 
18.   1 Peter is wonderful for the way that it voices what slaves must often have thought: that their masters often abused them when they had done nothing wrong. The letter says to slaves that they are like Christ when he was wrongly abused, and Peter promises slaves that they are healed by Christ’s wounds. This is rare beauty in the ancient world. (1 Peter 2:18-24)
19.   Revelation 18:13 condemns Rome for its slave trade that treated the “bodies and souls of men” as “cargo.” This is powerful. What makes it a condemnation is that it brackets together body and soul. Souls belong to God alone, and no-one has the right to sell them. So, taken together, this is saying that no-one has the right to sell slaves’ bodies either. It is a condemnation of buying and selling people, again pointing towards the End Times and the paradise to come.
20.   And the book of Revelation ends by renewing the vision of the Garden of Eden. Once again, a vision of a place of abundance, a paradise without slavery. “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev 21:4).
21.   Where did the trajectory come from which shows exceptional sympathy for slaves in John 14, Paul, 1 Peter and Revelation? Hebrews 10:5-10 gives another hint. Because like Matthew 19:8, it shows that the Law was not really what God wanted. Verse 8 tells us that Christ said to the Father, ‘“Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them” (although the law required them to be made).’ So, why would the Law have required what God did not desire? Two answers: 
  •      1) Hebrews says Christ’s death met the need for sacrifice, and now the law would be a new covenant “in their hearts” (10:16). 
  •      2) But to explain why Moses' Law contains what God did not desire, we need to think about the paradise Eden – a place where God’s perfect law is in people’s hearts instead. The written Law of Moses is shown to be a temporary compromise that God is pleased to do away with. So where did the trajectory come from to look at the Law this way? Hebrews indicates that this attitude to the Law came from Christ (10:5). (And we can see an echo of that in Mark 12:32-34.) So, we seriously have to consider that the early church saw revolutionary attitudes to slaves as stemming back to the example and words of Christ.

There is something in the story of a crucified saviour, who taught his disciples to wash each others’ feet - and taught that the last would be first - that altogether changes hearts, and changed the world so much that the default belief today is that people should not be owned, bought and sold. Like Paul, many Christians today live expectant of the world to come. A world without slavery. That is why it is right that people work for the end of slavery now. Just as there was no slavery in the Garden of Eden, there will be no slavery in the world to come. And in Jesus, that new creation has begun, and the world to come can be modelled now. It is in this big story that God's complaint against slavery is framed.

If one were in ancient Rome, you could not necessarily tell by sight who was a slave and who was not. It was not a split on racial lines. In slave America, a white man had no fear that he could become a slave. In ancient Roman, he did. Anyone could be enslaved by the Romans. Even a freeborn Roman Citizen if convicted of a criminal offence might end up enslaved. So, if not on racial lines, how would you know who was a slave. Sometimes it was obvious, sometimes not. Some wealthy households liked to show off by having well-groomed slaves. One might see someone in quite an advanced role in society, helping Cicero with a literary composition for example or doing the accounts for a major household, and not know by sight if this was a slave or not. If a Roman saw someone wearing a tunic without a toga, he might only suspect this was a slave, but merely by enquiring could find out for sure. If a Roman heard a foreign (e.g. Germanic) accent, one might suspect this was a slave, but again could only be sure by enquiring. Some were more obvious, such as if you saw a craftsman at work and his leg was chained to the floor. A desperately poor Roman Citizen might sell his/her own children into slavery for the money. The boundaries between slave and free were scarily precarious, from the point of view of free people. A free Roman general could be captured in war and sold to "barbarians" in Germany. A free family could be taken by pirates at sea and sold on the slave market. If one saw a slave being whipped, you knew who was the slave and who was not. If you saw someone doing the filthiest undesirable jobs, you would confidently assume this was a slave and likely treat them like one. And even though a huge proportion of the Roman population was slaves, there was a lifelong stigma associated with having been a slave, even if one were later freed and became a Roman Citizen, even if one rose up in society.
If one lived in ancient Israel before the time of the Romans, things would be different again. It still was not racial but a matter of ancestry, and it mattered to people to know their ancestry. If you could convince people that you were a descendant of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – or a convert to Israelite religious customs - then the Law of Moses would apply to you differently from anyone else. As in Rome, you might not be able to tell from sight who was a slave and who was not (if you’d never seen them before) – an Israelite’s skin and features might not look different to surrounding peoples - but customs such as diet and clothing would show differences between Jews and non-Jews. And the Law of Moses in the area of slavery applied differently to these groups. If the Law of Moses was being applied, Israelites could not buy and sell fellow Israelites. An Israelite could sell themselves into slavery to a fellow Israelite to get out of poverty but could not be sold on to someone else, and could demand release after six years. The Israelites did not perceive this as a “race” issue but as a matter of membership of God’s people, and anyone could join, even if not from the family tree of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
This brings me to perhaps the worst slavery in human history. If one were a white person in north America from the 17th to the 19th century, and one saw a black-skinned person, in most circumstances the white person’s default assumption was that this was a slave, and the property of a white person, just on the basis of skin-colour. This was markedly different from Greco-Roman slavery which was in turn different from ancient Israel’s slavery. It is really quite important to say that not all these historical systems are equivalent. American negro-slavery was chattel slavery, meaning the slaves were categorised like livestock, and their own children belonged to the slave-owner, their births adding to the master's property wealth. (Greco-Roman slavery had similar elements, but the American experience was qualitatively worse not least for its ethnically-based system.) Not all things that may be called slavery are chattel slavery, and conflating different systems serves dubious agendas. The problematic likening (by some authors) of Irish people's indentured servitude (in America) to the chattel slavery experienced by Africans and their children is a case in point. It is wrong historically and morally to count these as the same, and dubious agendas are to be countered. For the same reasons, it is quite important not to count the experience of the Israelites under the law of Moses as chattel slavery or equivalent to the American experience. It wasn't, and if we do not keep these things in mind, we can lose sight of what is worse about chattel slavery and especially the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
During the terrible centuries of slavery in America, African-American slaves took for themselves a message of freedom from their Bibles, and made the story very much their own story of hope. Just as they read of a God who had listened to the cries of the oppressed Israelites enslaved in Egypt, they saw a God who could rescue them from slavery too. It speaks volumes that slaveholders tried to make sure that such passages were missing in African-American slaves’ copies of the Bible.
For much of church history, the biblical ideas in my 21 points have not been acted upon by powerful churches, especially those that practised and defended slavery in north America. (There were exceptions such as the Mennonites who spoke out against it from the 17th century, and those who joined the anti-slavery movement.) But slave-owners would cherry-pick Bible passages to try to authorise slavery and all kinds of abuses (which ought to question their Christian credentials altogether). That would be a whole other post, and this one is long enough. One part of the battles in America on the way to abolishing slavery were two sides using Bible verses against each other.[12] One crumb of comfort from that is this: if it were not for Christianity’s long-term influence, it would probably have been all sides agreeing to keep slavery in America, because in most places in most of human history, that is what people would have expected.

To repeat, despite the worst misuses of the Bible, there is something in the story of a crucified saviour, who taught his disciples to wash each others’ feet - and taught that the last would be first - that altogether changes hearts, and changed the world so much that the default belief today is that people should not be owned, bought and sold. Like Paul, Christians live expectant of the world to come. A world without slavery. That is why it is right that people work for the end of slavery now. Just as there was no slavery in the Garden of Eden, there will be no slavery in the world to come. And in Jesus, that new creation has begun. It is in this big story that God's complaint against slavery is framed. I thought it was worth repeating that bit!

[1] Some of these anti-slavery points on Genesis are found in 4th century Gregory of Nyssa’s Commentary on Ecclesiastes. See Sharon Weisser, "“Philo’s Therapeutae and Essenes: a Precedent for the Exceptional Condemnation of Slavery in Gregory of Nyssa?” in K. Berthelot and M. Morgenstein (eds.), The Quest for a Common Humanity: Human Dignity and Otherness in the Religious Traditions of the Mediterranean. Leiden: Brill, 2011. 289–310.
[2] History is strewn with different interpretations of ethnicity and geography related to Noah’s descendants, and none of this has been consistent over the millenia. See Benjamin Braude, “The Sons of Noah and the Construction of Ethnic and Geographical Identities in the Medieval and Early Modern Periods” in The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 54, No. 1, (Constructing Race), 1997, 103-142.
[3] We are in a realm of troubled thinking framed by eschatology. God’s morality would not have allowed divorce “in the beginning,” that is, in the Garden of Eden ideal state. It was prescribed in the Mosaic Law, Jesus indicates, only because Moses couldn’t stop people doing it, and therefore the Mosaic Law functions to tighten regulations on it. Jesus here seems to understand that the Mosaic Law prescribed things which in God’s eyes were not morally good. What surprises his hearers is not that Jesus used this method of exegesis but rather the tough conclusions he drew. It may be comparable to contemporary debates on drug use. Among those who agree that recreational use of class A drugs is a bad thing, there are those who say effectively, “The only right thing is to completely outlaw it”; and those who would say, “We would agree, and we don’t condone it, but completely outlawing it won’t stop people doing it, so what we should do is licence it but regulate it tightly.” That’s a debate of realpolitik on this contemporary issue. Jesus here seems to do exegesis on an analogous principle. Moses would have completely outlawed divorce ideally, but he couldn’t stop people doing it, so he licensed it within regulations. Jesus’ justification for his answer is eschatological; he seems to be anticipating a time when things will return to how things should have been “in the beginning”; and on that basis, Jesus speaks out against divorce to a degree that his disciples think is too hard to live with, and Jesus then re-licenses divorce but even more tightly regulated, allowing it only in cases of infidelity. There is an ancient cultural dialogue going on here that is very interesting, in which the Garden of Eden, not the Mosaic Law, was held up as God’s best for society. So, a method existed to see beyond the Law to an eschatological paradigm, a sort of “as it was in the beginning, so shall it be in the end.” In this way of reading Hebrew Scripture, Jesus indicates that if there is a potential clash between how things originally were in the Garden of Eden and how things are in Torah, paradise trumps Torah, just as plan A is better than plan B. This way of reading allows Jesus to overrule what Torah says on divorce.
[4] Andrew Brown, “Jeremiah 34:8-22: Fresh Life from Ancient Roots”. 2015. (Pages unnumbered.) Accessed 10 July 2020.
[5] Meir Sternberg, Hebrews between Cultures: Group Portraits and National Literature. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1998. 435-36.
[6] Meir Sternberg, Hebrews between Cultures: Group Portraits and National Literature. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1998. 447.
[7] Niels Peter Lemche, Biblical Studies and the Failure of History: Changing Perspectives 3. Abingdon: Routledge, 2014. 29.
[8] M.D. Terblanche, “The Author of Jeremiah 34:8-22 (LXX 41:8-22): Spokesperson for the Judean Debt Slaves?” In Acta Theologica vol. 39, Suppl 27:67-78, Bloemfontein  2019.
[9] Meir Sternberg, Hebrews between Cultures: Group Portraits and National Literature. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1998. 448.
[10] Daniel Oudshoorn, Pauline Eschatology: The Apocalyptic Rupture of Eternal Imperialism: Paul and the Uprising of the Dead. Cascade Books, 2020. 64-65.
[11] An anti-slavery argument citing Matt 19:8 was deployed by American abolitionist Albert Barnes. (Albert Barnes, An Inquiry into the Scriptural Views of Slavery. Philadelphia, Perkins & Purves, 1846. 114-15.) It was used against slavery in Ellicott's 1905 commentary in dealing with Matt 19:8. (A Bible Commentary for English Readers by Various Writers, ed. Charles John Ellicott. London: Cassell and Company, 1905.) It is also relied on against slavery more recently in a commentary on Exodus 21:2-10. (Tim Stafford, God's Justice Bible: The Flourishing of Creation and the Destruction of Evil. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016.) Paul Copan briefly uses Matt 19:8 against slavery in his essay “Are Old Testament Laws Evil?” at Accessed 12 July 2020. Copan applies Matt 19:8 to other questions of God’s commands in the Old Testament. (Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011. 60, 64, 189.) Copan uses the same point about Matt 19:8 in a wider ranging way in a book review he wrote, at
[12] Karin Neutel, A Cosmopolitan Ideal: Paul's Declaration 'Neither Jew Nor Greek, Neither Slave Nor Free, Nor Male and Female' in the Context of First-Century Thought. London: T&T Clark, 2015. 74.This is a really vital book for understanding Paul’s thoughts on slavery.
[13] See Willard M. Swartley, Slavery, Sabbath, War & Women: Case Issues in Biblical Interpretation. Scottdale: Herald Press, 1983. 31-64.

Thursday, 21 May 2020

Jennifer Glancy and slavery in the Pauline churches - a curious case

Scholar Jennifer A. Glancy paints a dark shadow over Paul, or at least the Pauline corpus of letters, in her book Slavery in Early Christianity.[i]

Her thesis in this book is, broadly, that in classical antiquity physical abuse and the threat of it was a slave’s lot, to be expected by the slave, and duly doled out by slave owners far and wide; and that Christianity took this to the next level by embedding such behaviour in a religious code. But there are problems in her presentation of her research, not least in her treatment of the Pauline epistles. It is on this I will focus here - a review of her book as a whole is beyond the scope of this post.

But we first need to put this in the context of some blind spots in her assessment of slavery within the Roman Empire in the first century - in this book at least. Glancy’s book omits to mention that the Therapeutae allowed no slavery in their community, nor that the same was true of the Essenes, nor that Philo highly praised the Essenes for this.[ii] This set of omissions gets her book off on the wrong foot, since she asserts on page 7 that:

“Acquaintance with a wide assortment of ancient writings is necessary for piecing together a picture of slavery in the Roman Empire. In every case, however, we must be wary of construing partial, biased sources as though they provide neutral overviews of what it meant to be a slave or to live in a society in which slavery was unquestioned. Still, a rich sense of the sources pertaining to slavery will help us to see what is either distinctive or typical about slavery in Christian circles” (emphasis added).

Clearly it was questioned in at least two first century groups with Jewish heritage, testified to by Josephus and Philo, and which was especially praised by Philo. These are invisible in her wide assortment of ancient writings. Her thesis is challenged by evidence she does not consider.

Other omissions affect her portrait of Paul and his churches. If we were to pick out something distinctive in Christian circles, we might start with the injunction in Ephesians to slaveholders: do not threaten slaves. This injunction would probably have stunned many slave-owners, who wouldn't be able to imagine how their slaves would do as asked if they couldn't threaten them. But Glancy does not acknowledge the existence of this injunction in her book, whereas you would think it is precisely the sort of thing she might want in view. So, here are some details about it and some other ways in which Glancy treats the Jewish Christian Paul, and Christian circles, with less objectivity in this book.

·         Describing the household code in Ephesians in just a single paragraph (pg 144-45), she cites the instruction to slaves from Eph 6:5-6, but not the instruction to masters in verse 9. She wants to emphasise the servile submission “with fear and trembling” of slaves’ “bodies and souls to their masters.” But she omits 6:9 which would be inconvenient to her thesis if she acknowledged it here. It's the instruction to slaveholders, “do not threaten them.” No threats; therefore entailing no carrying out of any potential threats. This disempowers slaveholders in regard to a fundamental aspect of ancient slavery – it cancels their right to take out their aggression on slaves’ bodies. Slaves should be free from threats from their owners: they obviously felt that this was a message that Christian slave households needed to be told; but it makes unequivocal an early teaching not to threaten and not to do the sorts of things that you might threaten to do. This injunction amounts to nothing less than an outright ban on the physical abuse of slaves. One wonders how she can write an entire book on slavery in early Christianity, quote this very chapter, and miss this distinctive instruction. Glancy, it gradually appears. seems to want us to think of Christian slaveholders as unreasoning brutes who went without any clear guidance from the church to change their minds about threatening and harming slaves, possibly unable to recognise their common humanity, like compassion-less zombies.

o   Curiously, Glancy says “the morality of the Christian haustafeln [household codes] promotes the interests of slaveholders, not of slaves” (pg 143). This is a false dichotomy. If she acknowledged how Ephesians disempowers slaveholders, by cancelling their right to threaten slaves, she may have noticed some benefit to slaves in it, and that it might to slaveholders appear on first sight to offer themselves no benefit at all.

·        By way of digression, it is curious that in Glancy’s all too brief coverage of patristics, her survey of the extant literature in this book has a glaring omission of Gregory of Nyssa and his strong anti-slavery views, whereas she cites Gregory’s contemporary Augustine. It just so happens that she can use Augustine to support her thesis, whereas Gregory would somewhat challenge it.[iii] See Sharon Weiser for more on this.[iv] The pattern of Glancy’s omissions here is troubling.[v]

·        Back to Paul: just as Glancy omits “do not threaten them” when discussing Ephesians, she omits the important phrase “brothers in the Lord” when discussing Philemon. It starts to look like erasure of evidence. She discusses "no longer a slave" in Philemon 16 but not the said phrase found in the same verse. It seems to be a challenge for Glancy’s antagonism towards the Pauline corpus.  Paul requests his slave-owning Christian friend Philemon to receive back his Christian slave Onesimus “no longer as a slave, but… as a brother in the Lord.” Paul writes to Philemon "what you ought to do.” Paul clobbers Philemon with the force of a theological basis – do it “as brothers in the Lord” - for an injunction to take Onesimus as a slave no longer. Glancy strains hard to dismiss "no longer as a slave" as merely a negotiation of the relationships between the three men. However, at a minimum, Paul is invoking the available route to this slave's freedom - the Roman practice of manumission of slaves - and taking it to a higher level by giving it religious force. (This risks lending religious legitimacy to the undesirable institution of the slave economy, but strengthens the bridge to a measure of freedom, which was the realistic objective.) Consideration that this may be a positive message she asserts to be “a futile exercise.” Is this rhetorically to tell people who disagree with her to quieten down? There is good reason to pursue the exercise, especially given the evidence that she does not acknowledge.

o   Firstly, as she sometimes does with evidence that puts these epistles in a positive light, she atomises the evidence: “He was not giving advice… to be followed by other slaveholders with runaway slaves.” However, other slaveholders in Pauline churches hearing the letter would surely prick up their ears (as would their slaves), except that Glancy seems to want us to think of Christian slaveholders as unreasoning brutes. Hence, she isolates this epistle and dismisses it as a matter of “personal relations” (pg 140). reflecting a situation “in which he [Paul] was personally embroiled” (pg 92). She puts it all down to “Paul’s highly personal relations with the two men” (pg 140). Only on the fifth occasion on which she visits the text does she finally admit into view that Paul uses the significant word “brother.” But Glancy even there omits key words, leaving out of view that it is a theological injunction to treat Onesimus “as a brother in the Lord.” This makes it rather more than “personal relations” – it is a specifically Christian theologically-weighted statement. Without acknowledging the evidence, she dismisses the letter as too “ambiguous.”

·         On 1 Thess 4:4, Glancy makes too much of a phrase that is actually notoriously ambiguous. She claims “Paul advises as an antidote to porneia the acquisition and control of a vessel, skeuos” (emphasis added). As there is only one verb, to say “acquisition and control” is dubious. Choose one or the other but not both. Scholars tend to interpret it as either “acquire a wife” or ”control one’s body.” Elsewhere, both meanings are reviewed excellently with the conclusion that skeuos means keeping one’s “member” (his genitalia) under control as argued by Smith.[vi] Paul could be quite coarse at times. Glancy’s 2002 book doesn’t mention this 2001 article but rather Elgvin’s 1997 summary of previous literature on the question. Glancy suggests a third meaning that fits her thesis: “What Paul actually wrote is that each (male) Thessalonian Christian should know how to “obtain his own vessel” and she asserts from this ambiguous phrase that Paul is saying a man should get a slave girl to penetrate in the absence of a wife (pg 60-62). This is tendentious at best. Honestly, “obtain a vessel” could just as easily mean buy a pot to masturbate into. I’m not pushing that interpretation, but it’s as plausible as her interpolation of slaves into it. Glancy is pushing energetically for us to accept from a couple of highly ambiguous words that Paul is advocating the use of slaves for sex as an antidote for sexual immorality (pg 60-63), and also that Paul would not conceive of this being morally questionable. She bases this idea on the fact that sex with one’s own slaves was not thought morally questionable in non-Christian Greco-Roman society, which is a pretty thin basis for her re-imagining of Paul. I’m pretty sure that Paul told his readers not to be conformed to the world, but that’s not the only grounds on which her suggestion is unlikely to gain wide acceptance. It’s curious that she exploits a thoroughly ambiguous phrase with zeal, yet dismisses the clearer language of Philemon as too ambiguous for interpretation. One does not want to accuse a scholar of confirmation bias, but it is difficult to explain the patterns here of selection of evidence, interpretation, and so on. 

o   So, back to Philemon: Glancy treats Paul sending the slave back as reaffirming slavery and contrary to Torah asylum laws (although Paul in prison would hardly be in a position to effect asylum!). Her book curiously lacks discussion that the friendly slave Onesimus might have had any say in this decision, one way or another. Yet Onesimus would surely have known that if he didn’t go back, then he could well be abandoning his friend Paul (already in prison) to the malice of reward-seeking troublemakers and the risk of capital punishment for assisting a runaway slave. Paul had no chance to escape. What kind of friend was Onesimus going to choose to be? – a choice Glancy doesn’t consider.[vii]

A few more observations about her problematic treatment of the Pauline epistles.

·         Her key comment on Col 3:5 seems almost contradictory: “slaves might have a difficult choice between the obedience enjoined in the household code and preservation of their sexual purity, upon which the letter also insists (3:5)… nowhere in the New Testament epistles does Paul or any other letter writer state explicitly that the sexual use of slaves constitutes sexual immorality…” (pg 144).

o   That is actually contained in a single paragraph in her book, and I guess the operative word is explicitly. But Glancy seems to be saying that a slave hearing the words of Col 3:5 would receive the message that slaveholder-slave sex would constitute sexual immorality risking disfellowship, but her slave-owner hearing 3:5 at the same time as her would not. How are they to know, and not to know, at the same time, that 3:5 disallows him using her for sex? And no doubt, if they were both calling themselves Christians, and his use of her body would disqualify her from church membership (as Glancy claims), such a Christian woman might ask him to consider the words of 3:5 for his own spiritual benefit and hers. But Glancy seemingly wants us to think of Christian slave-owners in Paul’s churches as unreasoning brutes, inferior in reasoning to slaves hearing the same words.

o   In any case, what she says above (pg 144) seems inconsistent with what she says in discussing Pauline churches on pg 49, which implies that there was explicit understanding of boundaries:

§  “because slaves were their masters’ sexual property, their obligations to their masters would at times have included actions defined as polluting or aberrant in the Christian body. Slaves whose owners were not members of the church would have been especially vulnerable, since their owners would not have been subject to the community’s censure.” (emphasis added) (pg 49)

o   On that take then, Christian slaveholders that were members would be subject to community censure - yes, expected to know not to use their slaves for sex. I’m really not sure if Glancy changed her mind in the middle of writing the book.

o   Again, Glancy seems to imply that a believing slaveholder would have to know that sex with slaves is not morally neutral, on pg 66: “It is hard to see how, on Paul’s view, any sexual relations involving a believer could be morally neutral. All sexual relations would affect the Lord and indeed the entire Christian body (6:19-20).”

o   Again, “by limiting the legitimate range of sexual expression to marriage, Paul implicitly suggests that slaves who oblige their masters sexually are engaged in porneia” (pg 67). And “he [Paul] encourages the Corinthian Christians to confine their sexual practices to marriage” (pg 70 ).

o   But again confusing, on pg 69 she makes these two statements that are difficult to reconcile: “this reading of 1 Corinthians 7:21 does not include any claim about how Paul would respond to slaves or freedpersons who were still being used sexually by their owners or former owners – whether he would believe that such activity excluded the slave or freedperson from the Christian body or whether he would perceive coerced sexual activity as morally neutral.” But then: “Paul rejects the idea that sexual couplings can be a matter of moral indifference.” It is difficult to see the direction of argument here.

·        If one is to exegete Pauline material sensitively, an awareness of early Christian theology is a must. Glancy however seems unaware of the belief in a general resurrection of the righteous and the unrighteousness to judgment. This may explain her barbed aside in her reading of 1 Cor 6:12-20: “Paul reminds the Corinthians that the body is made for the Lord and will ultimately share in the Lord’s resurrection. His lack of interest in the prostitute suggests that unlike the believer, her body “is not destined for resurrection.”.” I don’t know quite whether to put her interpretation down to reading the text through the prism of feminist critical theory, or an unawareness of Christian theology, or both. For the avoidance of doubt, early Christians would have expected everyone, prostitutes included, to be resurrected and face the final judgment.

·        Awareness (of lack of it) of Paul’s meta-narrative matters. She is not very sensitive to the use of the theme of the Israelites’ slavery in Egypt in his letters. Not noticing that exodus lies in the background of Paul’s thought, she says: “the implications of the slavery metaphor in Romans 6, with its stress on servile submissiveness, are disturbing” (pg 98).  

o   She doesn’t seem to recognise the implications of the theme of the exodus here.[viii] Thus, she says that Paul is re-inscribing the relations of slavery in his metaphor of changing from being slaves to sin to being slaves of righteousness (pg 98).

§  Re-inscribing, a word borrowed from literary theory, would mean that Paul is re-establishing the norms of the slave system in a new context. What he is actually doing is taking the reader on a journey to a new exalted status.

o   Glancy does not acknowlede how it fits into Paul’s larger scheme. The Israelites’ journey was from slavery in Egypt, through the Exodus, to freedom, into the promised land, to inheritance with the status of heirs of God. Paul’s metaphor in Romans represents part of this journey. He is not re-inscribing nefarious values of the slave system, he is setting out the journey to inheritance. In this, to be slaves of God is a high calling, language used in the Old Testament of kings and prophets. So, Paul’s argument proceeds, mapped on Israel’s journey to Romans 8: “then we are heirs - heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory” (Rom 8:17). This is where being slaves to righteousness leads. It’s not meant to be a dead end.

o   In discussing “no longer a slave… but an heir” in Gal 4:7 – which is surely invoking exodus and promised land themes, Glancy says, “Paul’s metaphors make sense only in the context of some peculiar dimensions of first-century slavery.” Roman law may be a referent of Paul’s metaphor, but so is the exodus. (And something is seriously awry in her follow-up about Paul’s contrast of slave and heir, which to her “emphasises… the slave’s lack of a phallus.” She is determined to read the text this way: “Paul thus subordinates biological to symbolic dimensions of fatherhood, the flesh to the phallus” (pg 35-36).)

o   It’s almost as if she doesn’t want the Exodus narrative to be there. When she does mention it (pg 48) it’s to disparage the speeches in Acts 7 (Stephen’s) and Acts 13 (Paul). She claims: “these first century synopses of the exodus expunge any memory of the enslavement of the Israelites.” On the contrary, in the speech at Acts 7:6, 34, it re-enacts the story of the enslavement in Egypt. It reports God saying this to Abraham: "Your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and ill-treated for four hundred years"; and God saying this to Moses: “I have indeed seen the oppression of my people in Egypt. I have heard their groaning and have come down to set them free.” I don't understand how this can be said to "expunge any memory of the enslavement." When I see Glancy being careless with texts that I know something about, it prompts doubts about her treatment of the texts in which I have no expertise. In fact, scholars look at how the long speech in Acts 7 may be inspired by the long prayer in Nehemiah, both telling the story of Israel; but one of the differences is that, compared to Nehemiah 9, Acts 7 actually increases the amount of references to Israel's enslavement and oppression, re-establishing its importance in Israel's story.

So although there are many important insights in this book, Glancy’s treatment seems to lack sufficient objectivity or attention to New Testament texts. Reading her book, references have to be checked carefully, and the historian’s inevitable bias treated with caution. One does not expect complete objectivity of a historian, a virtual impossibility. But Glancy’s commendable desire to raise the anti-slavery flag seems to get in the way of even-handed presentation of historical data sometimes.

So, by way of balance, let’s consider again Paul and his pro-freedom friends, who were most unlike those who despised slaves.

Their epistles inscribe into Christianity a new normativity: that slaves are not to be threatened; that as “brothers in the Lord” they should no longer be treated as slaves; and that they are the Lord’s “freedmen” which makes it incongruous that they are not freedmen in practice. This deprives slaveholders of fundamental levers of slavery: the right to coercion; the superiority of slaveholders; and the normativity of the gap between being slaves and being freedmen.

If only it were consistently put into practice (something disappointingly absent from much of church history), this makes slavery unsustainable in the Christian community. It does so without making any implausible demands to end the institution in antiquity, plausibly undermining it within community, their sphere of control. They were clearly not trying to merely preserve the status quo. A list will do:

    Note the radical wording of Gal 5:13-14: “do not use your freedom for self-indulgence… through love become slaves to one another… love your neighbour as yourself." This simple instruction erases the customary distinction of slave and free in the Christian community; the slaves and free must act as slaves to one another, because this is what it means to love your neighbour as yourself. 

·         Paul chose to see with the eyes of a slave rather than the eyes of a slaveholder, undoing the stigma attached to slaves, and novelly making them people of honour: “For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God's truth” (Rom 15:8). And: “Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible” (1 Cor 9:19). And: "You learned the gospel from Epaphras, our dear fellow slave--a faithful minister of Christ on our behalf" (Col 1:7 NET Bible).

·         Paul radically called for Christian slaves to be treated as if they had already been released from slavery: “he who was a slave when he was called by the Lord is the Lord's freedman” (1 Cor 7:22) – making anything less than being a freedman in practice incongruous

·         Paul’s call to Philemon to treat Onesimus as “a slave no longer” is for theological reasons “as a brother in the Lord”

·         And so the ideal: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28), and

·         “Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (Col 3:11)

·         A step further than freedom in Christ, Paul says to slaves to become free in the flesh too, if they can (1 Cor 7:21) = nothing too radical about that, but good to see mentioned

·         And note also Paul's injunction to free people to "not become slaves of men" (1 Cor 7:23)

·         Note the attack on men-stealers (slave-traders): “law is made not for the righteous but for … men-stealers” (1 Tim 1:9-10)

·         Slaveholders were to drop the standard practice of threatening slaves and carrying out threats: “do not threaten them” (Eph 6:9)

·         “Masters, grant to your slaves justice and fairness, knowing that you too have a Master in heaven” (Col 3.22), rendering slaveholders as “slaves” themselves, stripping earthly slave-ownership of its show-off essence

·        Paul also undermines the fundamental ownership assumption that Christian slaveholders were the ultimate owners of Christian slaves. Addressing slaves: “It is the Lord Christ you are serving” (Col 3.24). Addressing slaveholders, Jesus “is both their Master and yours“ (Eph 6:9). He has reduced slaveholders merely to slaves who own slaves. The point is not to re-inscribe the norms of slavery, but to undermine its value in church relationships.

Paul trims the expectations of Christian slaveholders in ways that would make them very uneasy if they had any designs on maintaining their old status quo. It destabilises the basis of slavery, and makes the instructions to slaveholders and slaves seem temporary and contingent on the present age, with no basis in the world to come.

[i] Jennifer A. Glancy, Slavery in Early Christianity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002
[ii] She only briefly acknowledges the ancient reports of the Essenes’ rejection of slavery in her book, Slavery as Moral Problem: In the Early Church and Today, (Fortress Press, 2001, 9.
[iii] Gregory of Nyssa, Fourth Homily on Ecclesiastes 1.1-106.
[iv] Sharon Weisser, “Philo’s Therapeutae and Essenes: a precedent for the Exceptional Condemnation of Slavery in Gregory of Nyssa?” in K. Berthelot and M. Morgenstein (eds.), The Quest for a Common Humanity: Human Dignity and Otherness in the Religious Traditions of the Mediterranean. Leiden: Brill, 2011, 289-310.
[v] Glancy does attends to Gregory in a later work: Slavery as Moral Problem: In the Early Church and Today. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011, 97.
[vi] Jay E. Smith, “1 Thessalonians 4:4: Breaking the Impasse.” In Bulletin for Biblical Research 11.1 (2001), 65-105. For a rebuttal of Glancy's novel idea here, see Karin B. Neutel, A Cosmopolitan Ideal: Paul's Declaration 'Neither Jew Nor Greek, Neither Slave Nor Free, Nor Male and Female' in the Context of First-Century Thought. T&T Clark, 2015, n.7, 147. The pre-publication copy available online covers this more extensively on pages 145-49.
[vii] See Bellen on this in New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity, Vol 6., Llewelyn and Kearsley. Ancient History Documentary Research Centre, Macquarie University, 1992, 54.
[viii] See for example N.T. Wright, “The New Inheritance According to Paul” in Bible Review, 14.3, June 1998.