Christianity and slavery: why does it matter?
As I made clear early on in this series, I contend that the institution of slavery in the Greco-Roman world was more terrible than we can imagine. In addition, we can’t deny the evidence that early Christians were generally ambivalent about it, or at worst, condoned it. Moreover, rich Christians continued to own slaves after they converted. We can, in fact, corroborate these assertions not only from ancient writings, but from certain artifacts that still survive.
Investigation of current Christian attitudes toward ancient slavery reveals a surprising number of people who prefer to remain in a state of denial. Recall from part one Thomas Madden’s unsubstantiated assertion that “Christianity . . . considered slavery — the institution of slavery — to be inherently wrong.” Not only can we find no clear written evidence from the New Testament or patristic literature to confirm his claim, but we have solid written and archaeological evidence that disproves it.
The crime of running away
Jennifer Glancy begins her book, Slavery in Christianity, with the following few sentences that, for Christians (and ex-Christians like myself) are as sobering as an ice-cold shower:
Sometime in the fourth or fifth century, a Christian man ordered a bronze collar to encircle the neck of one of his slaves. The inscription on the collar reads: “I am the slave of the archdeacon Felix. Hold me so that I do not flee.” Although the collar purports to speak in the first person for a nameless slave, the voice we hear is not that of the slave but that of the slaveholder. Felix, enraged by a slave’s previous attempts to escape, ordered the collar both to humiliate and to restrain another human being, whom the law classified as his property. The chance survival of this artifact of the early church recalls the overwhelming element of compulsion that operated within the system of slavery, with its use of brute paraphernalia for corporal control. (p. 9, emphasis mine)
The words “chance survival” might lead the reader to think such collars — which gave license to the finder to detain the slave by any brutal means necessary, and which were lovingly adorned with crosses and chi-rhos — were rare. But they weren’t. True to form, some scholars have decided to interpret the existence of such collars as a good thing. They posit that it means Christian slaveholders stopped the practice of facial tattooing. In other words, “Baby steps.”
However, in the (ridiculously overpriced) book, Slavery in the Late Roman World, AD 275-425, Kyle Harper notes:
If these collars are to be explained by a Christian queasiness towards the use of facial tattoos, they are powerful testaments to the enduring risks of flight and the strict preventive measures against it.
The survival of so many artifacts of slavery from the fourth century is astonishing, and it has been noted that the vast majority of collars appear to have come from Rome and its environs, from Christian slave-owners, and from imperial officials and bureaucrats. The concentration of slave collars in these milieu [sic] may reflect a vogue among the imperial elite, but this will not explain the survival of slave collars from Africa or Sardinia. We know, moreover, of one high imperial official, a Christian, who still used tattoos against his runaway slave in the fourth century: Ausonius. His scribe, Pergamus, tried to flee. But, Ausonius taunted, he ran as slowly as he wrote. (p. 258, emphasis mine)
That’s some choice early Christian humor. Harper continues:
Ausonius tattooed his forehead and wrote two epigrams about it, the second of which shows the master either relented or had remorse — the slaves’s face, he said, bore the punishment for the crime committed by his legs. (p. 258)
Harper neglects to explain precisely how this epigram indicates remorse. Here it is in full (from the Internet Archive)
Pergamus, when thou wast punished ’twas not just thy brow should bear the penalty which thy slow hands earned. Nay, do thou, their master, control thy errant limbs: it is unfair to torment those not really guilty. Either mark that right-hand which will not make a mark, or shackle those errant feet with an iron weight. (Ausonius I, p. 179)
We should note for the record that Ausonius does not say he tattooed Pergamus, but rather branded him with letters (probably “FVG” for fugitivus), which was the common practice at the time. We can only guess that the scribe had the privilege of writing down Ausonius’ words. They must have shared a good laugh. Of course, we might argue Pergamus was “lucky,” since his Christian boss didn’t cut off one of his feet, or send him to work in the fields or the mines.
As an aside, Ausonius’ remark about branding the right hand reminds me of the story of Jonathan Walker, a man who attempted to secure the freedom of seven men. For his crime against property, a Florida judge added branding to his sentence. Forever after, Walker bore the mark “SS” for “Slave Stealer.” I wonder if today’s grade school children in Florida learn anything about Jonathan Walker in their history classes.
Runaway slaves are a problem in all slavocracies. We might wonder why if, as modern apologists like to tell us, Greco-Roman slavery “wasn’t so bad” and that slaves were “better off” than free laborers, then why did they keep trying to escape? It’s an especially vexing question in the Greco-Roman world, when the odds were so much against them. Didn’t they realize how “good” they had it?
In The Assassination of Julius Caesar, Michael Parenti writes:
Those who think Roman slavery was such a benign institution have not explained why fugitive slaves were a constant problem. Owners did not lightly countenance the loss of valuable property. They regularly used chains, metal collars, and other restraining devices. Slaves who fled were hunted down and returned to irate masters who were keen to inflict a severe retribution. Slaveholders consulted oracles and astrologers to divine the whereabouts of runaways; they posted bills offering rewards; they appealed to state authorities and engaged professional slave catchers (fugitivarii). Cicero enlisted two successive provincial governors in the search for a slave who had purloined some of his valuable books and fled abroad. (p. 37)
I bring up these unpleasant images because today we have little concept of what slavery was like. When the evangelist Matthew recounted parables that featured slaves and when Paul called himself a slave of Christ, early Christians had firsthand experience to draw upon. The first readers of the gospels and epistles knew what it meant to be a slave; while today’s Christians might not even read the actual word, slave, in their Bibles. Worse yet, even in the writings of Biblical scholars, slavery and slaves often recede into the background
Regular readers of Vridar have no doubt read countless references to Pliny the Younger’s letter to Trajan in apologist and crypto-apologist writings. They frequently trundle it out as proof of Jesus’ existence, when it is no more than a proof that Christians existed in the early second century CE. Gary Habermas writes:
Pliny dealt personally with the Christians who were turned over to him. He interrogated them, inquiring if they were believers. If they answered in the affirmative he asked them two more times, under the threat of death. If they continued firm in their belief, he ordered them to be executed. Sometimes the punishment included torture to obtain the desired information, as in the case of two female slaves who were deaconesses in the church. (p. 198, emphasis mine)
Habermas is incorrect in characterizing Pliny’s torture of the women as a “punishment.” He should have written, “Standard practice included torture to obtain the desired information. . .”
Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition. (emphasis mine)
We can’t tell whether Habermas knows that slaves when questioned were always tortured and doesn’t want to bring it up, or that he’s merely ignorant. Surely anyone with a PhD. in history ought to know better. The ancient Greeks and Romans did not believe testimony from a slave unless it was properly extracted by means of torture.
So, what sort of torture would Pliny have used? If you’re a Christian, you might be curious; after all, these women were sisters from bygone era. Pliny doesn’t say, but he had various methods at his disposal: beating, whipping, flaying, hot metal prods, flesh-ripping metal hooks, etc. In any case, the question is not whether slaves were tortured when questioned, but how.
I can understand modern Christians’ lack of curiosity in the ancient literature concerning methods of torture. It’s an unpleasant subject they’d rather not discuss — unless, of course, they’re talking about Jesus’ Passion, or perhaps early Christian martyrdoms.
However, we might expect that Pliny’s description of the women as slaves and deaconesses would raise a few eyebrows. Were the women owned by fellow Christians, or did their pagan slave masters tolerate their dabbling in this new cult? The latter is difficult to imagine, especially if government agents were scouring the countryside, looking for Christians. I think it more likely that these anonymous deaconesses were owned by fellow Christians. It would certainly make sense, especially if Pliny was trying to find out information about the practices of their familia.
At least Habermas mentioned the women. If we had read only Darrell Bock’s Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Sources and Methods, we would never know they had existed. In Dr. Bock‘s retelling, they disappear. On the other hand, he’s more than happy to tell us:
The citation notes that Christians gathered twice on what we know as Sunday, first to worship Christ and then to partake in the agape meal, the Lord’s Supper. (p. 51)
Bock does not explain the method by which he takes Pliny’s statement about Christians meeting “on a fixed day before dawn,” then meeting later again to eat “ordinary and innocent food,” and derives the secure fact that Pliny is talking about worshiping Christ “on what we know as Sunday,” and following up with “the Lord’s Supper.” That must be some mighty powerful methodology Darrell’s using.
Toys for the rich
Christian readers may find discomfort with the idea of Christians owning Christians. Notwithstanding, if the deaconesses’ masters were adherents to the new faith, they may have been less likely to use the women as sexual playthings. For the slaveholder, the body of the slave was his (or her) legal property. Jennifer Glancy tells us that ancient writers commonly referred to slaves as somata — bodies. That is, bodies as owned things.
Although slaves could be referred to as bodies, the bodies of slaves were not themselves neatly bounded nor defined entities. The bodies of slaves were vulnerable to abuse and penetration. (Slavery in Early Christianity, p. 12, emphasis mine)
Not only did slaves have no power over where they went or what they did, but they also had no control over what their masters could do to them.
Sexual access to slave bodies was a pervasive dimension of ancient systems of slavery. Both female and male slaves were available for their owners’ pleasure. (p. 21)
Glancy is rare among biblical scholars, who for the most part would rather not discuss this issue. But biblical scholars aren’t alone. Parenti writes:
Sexual exploitation of Rome’s servi by their masters, though pandemic, is ignored by virtually all present-day historians. Among ancient writers it was openly acknowledged that slaves should make their bodies available on demand. Horace parades his preference for household slaves, both male and female: “I like my sex easy and ready at hand.” (p. 39)
Male slaves were as vulnerable as female slaves, even among the Roman elite, who outwardly professed great revulsion for homosexuality, but privately enjoyed it as much as their Greek counterparts. We are reminded that today’s most outspoken homophobes often turn out to be unhappy, closeted gays. Referring to Parenti again:
A century before Caesar, Polybius reported that any soldier in the Roman army “who in full manhood committed homosexual offenses” risked being ﬂogged to death. The lex Scantinia, a law of uncertain date, penalized homosexual acts committed with persons of free birth. To sodomize a fellow citizen was to rob him of his Roman manhood. Same-sex exploitation of slaves however carried no penalty. Since a male slave was not thought to possess a manhood, he could not be deprived of it. (p. 136, emphasis mine)
People who apologize for ancient slavery and make excuses for early Christians who did nothing to stop it overlook the fact that slavery legitimized rape. And not just rape of adults. Parenti, one of the few historians who will actually call it rape, writes:
Of course, the boy in question had no say in the matter. The owner unilaterally set the boundaries and chose the mode of gratiﬁcation, using the child as he pleased. Slavers regularly catered to pedophilic tastes, selling young boys and girls for sexual purposes. Depilatories were used to remove the hair on a boy’s body, keeping him as young-looking as possible. Boys were made to ingest various potions thought to delay the onset of puberty. Even worse, slave dealers frequently resorted to castration, despite successive laws forbidding it.
Such instances of child barter, rape, and sexual mutilation go unmentioned by those latter-day scholars who, like the slaveholders themselves, seem to have a keener sense of slavery’s hidden beneﬁts than of its manifest evils. (p. 40-41, emphasis mine)
Our tortured deaconesses may have been married. However, neither they (nor their husbands) had any control over their offspring — which could be sold as chattel or thrown on the trash heap — or their milk — which would nourish the children of their rich masters as well as their own. Using slaves as wet nurses was common practice, despite warnings from some philosophers and physicians who believed slave women would pass on undesirable traits to high-born children. Glancy quotes Favorinus, who believed in some hodgepodge of Stoicism and Cynicism, that “consigning care of a baby to a wet nurse was little different from abortion.”
Still, the practice was widespread, and often necessary, given the number of women who died during childbirth. Sentimental literature about wet nurses could almost make one forget that we’re still dealing with a property arrangement that was subject to economic realities. Glancy writes:
A slave beloved by household members for nurturing them in their youth could be sold to another household because of financial need or at the time of estate settlement. Even more commonly, a family that sentimentally retained the old nurse would think little of selling the nurse’s own children away from her. (p. 20, emphasis mine)
The slaveholder could sell any child born to his slaves. The head of the household legally had the final word on the disposition of any infants in the familia, including exposure. What was the usual fate of abandoned, exposed children? Justin Martyr tells us in the First Apology, XXVII (“The Guilt of Exposing Children”):
But as for us, we have been taught that to expose newly-born children is the part of wicked men; and this we have been taught lest we should do any one an injury, and lest we should sin against God, first, because we see that almost all so exposed (not only the girls, but also the males) are brought up to prostitution . . . And any one who uses such persons, besides the godless and infamous and impure intercourse, may possibly be having intercourse with his own child, or relative, or brother. (emphasis mine)
Both Justin and Clement of Alexandria warned about abandoned children and the risk of unintended incest. Returning to our slave deaconesses, if they were fortunate and their masters were Christians, the likelihood of their daughters or sons being thrown on the dunghill and ending up in brothels decreased. And perhaps their children would be permitted to stay and become the next generation of slaves, and not sold off, never to be seen again. We cannot say for certain.
Peculiar attitudes toward a peculiar institution
We could say much more about the plight of slaves in the ancient Greco-Roman world. Suffice it to say that they had no legal standing; their masters held their fates in their hands. Household slaves had a nominally better existence than those who worked in the fields and mines. While they were subject to beatings, rape, judicial torture, and possible mutilation, they were at the very least not generally worked to death.
Christians who restrict their web surfing to apologetic sites could remain ignorant and oblivious to everything we discussed in this post, living in a kind of alternate universe. In a Stand to Reason Blog post from 2012 — “Does the Bible Condone Slavery?” — Melinda Penner writes:
Further, in the Greco-Roman world, slaves had rights. They were not property. Slaves could appeal to the magistrate if their rights were violated. There were laws governing how they were to be treated.
The only partial truth in the above paragraph is the fact that during the Principate, we begin to see laws curbing the absolute rights of masters, e.g., to kill or castrate their slaves. (Actual enforcement is another matter.) For all practical purposes, a Roman slave had no rights and had the legal status of property. In Slavery in the Roman World, Sandra Joshel writes:
Legally, the slave was a res, a thing, property, an object. Roman law acknowledges slaves as people and distinguishes human property from other kinds of property, although at times the distinction is difficult to see. The slave, like a piece of land, an animal, or an inanimate object, could be sold, lent, mortgaged, given away, or bequeathed in a will. As property, slaves lacked all that defined freeborn Roman citizens: legitimate kinship relations acknowledged in law and by society, physical integrity, the ability to set law in motion on their own behalf, and the ownership of property. (p. 38, emphasis mine)
Even if a slave should have the good fortune to obtain manumission, the law placed strict limits on his or her rights. Joshel explains that the principle of obsequium effectively kept freed people under obligation to their former masters. Manumission, seen as a gift, brought with it a new relationship between the former slave and ex-owner; specifically, the master became the freedman’s patron, demanding gratitude, respect, deference, and compliance.
In effect, freed slaves gained the physical integrity that slaves lacked in relation to others, but apparently they could never fully claim it in relation to the ex-owner who once claimed their bodies. Instances where a patron used harsh words or even administered a “light beating,” grounds for legal action by a freeborn Roman citizen, were not severe enough to merit the action for injury by a former slave. According to the jurist Ulpian, “the praetor should not endure the slave of yesterday, who today is free, to complain that his master has spoken abusively to him, or struck him lightly, or criticized him.” (Digest 184.108.40.206). Ulpian justifies ex-slaves’ limited redress against the abuses of patrons by emphasizing freed slaves’ servile past as property of the persons whom they now claim have dishonored them. (p. 44-45, emphasis mine)
Finally, I draw your attention once again to Michael Marlowe’s “Make Good Use of Your Servitude” (2003):
The life of a slave was not easy, but we get an exaggerated idea of the hardships of slavery from watching movies or reading historical material that is written on a popular level. Here the purpose is usually to dramatize the plight of slaves or to make some point about the evils of slavery in general, but the historical reality was less dramatic. In most cases the life of a slave was not much different from the life of any lower-class worker.
Yes, other than the loss of all legal status and freedom of movement, along with pervasive corporal punishment, sexual abuse, sprinkled in with the occasional torture, branding, binding with chains, the threat of being sent to work in the mines, and other “inconveniences,” being a slave was pretty much just like being a lower-class worker. Let’s add in one more minor nuisance: sometimes a slave could stand in as a surrogate body for his master’s errors. Glancy writes:
Prison conditions could be severe. Writing in 7 C.E. to Athenodoros, a wealthy but feckless citizen, a woman named Tryphas, in a position to address him bluntly, insinuated that because Athenodoros had neglected to pay some fines, two of his slaves had been imprisoned and were in danger of death. Tryphas referred to the slaves imprisoned in Athenodoros’s stead as bodies, ta sōmata. (p. 11, emphasis mine)
We find references to slaves and slavery throughout the New Testament. Jesus talks about slaves in his parables. Paul calls himself a slave for Christ. For us to understand fully these references, we need to know what slavery was really like in the Greco-Roman world of the first century CE. Unfortunately, modern Christian guilt and denial leads some scholars and laymen either to pretend that the first Christians opposed the institution of slavery or to insist that slavery wasn’t all that bad.
This denial distorts our view of the past and clouds our understanding of early Christianity. Even worse, it causes us to lose sight of real people who lived in the past. When we minimize and explain away slavery or talk about the practice as an abstract concept, we demonstrate our lack of empathy for its millions of victims.
In future posts, we’ll look more closely at the slave references in the New Testament and their implications for the new faith.
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