In the Form of a Slave

I love taking “deep dives” into history – going beyond survey material and making my way through pages and pages of boring detail. I can’t do it every day, nor even often. But it helps fill in detail that is often glossed over in broad treatments. My most recent foray has been into a book entitled Slaves in Greece and Rome (by Jean Andreau and Raymond Descat, 2006). It’s easy to draw conclusions about ancient slavery from the movies or television, or, simply from their place in the rhetoric of slave-employing arguments. It’s much more interesting if you get very close to it.

Slaves were everywhere. There were personal slaves, household slaves, mine worker slaves, even municipal slaves (doing work on streets, water works, record-keeping, accounting, and various other tasks). Slaves could own slaves (think about that one). You could be born into slavery, sentenced into slavery, captured into slavery, and so forth.

Slaves were not seen as equals (surprise). In the Roman (pagan) world, a person was seen to have a genius.

Every Roman, male and female, has a genius, a spirit (which from a certain period on is called Juno for women). This genius is the deified personification of the individual personality, of all of the person’s qualities and faults. (chapter 5)

Slaves did not have a genius. This is the equivalent of the perversion in modernity that would claim that African slaves did not have souls. The authors of the work I was reading wondered about slaves who received manumission (became free). Did they acquire a genius? It never seemed to have been covered in the ancient literature that we possess. For what it’s worth, I’ve long thought that class distinctions have vestiges of this idea, something of a culture superstition that refuses to die. We have souls, but we’re not too sure about them. Are they (whoever they are) truly human. Occasional treatments of the endemic poor are haunted, I believe, by the suggestion that something is missing. If we educated them, then, perhaps, they’ll get souls – real souls.

Being a slave had some peculiar downsides:

While the master had the power to punish the slave, submit him to torture, and have him killed, there were nevertheless forms to be respected. It was not justifiable for the master to kill a slave surreptitiously and make him disappear in secret. That surely happened, but it was not normal practice. If the master wanted to have one of his slaves executed, he had to make his family and some of his friends partners in the punishment, and the execution had to be carried out in public, particularly in front of the other slaves, as an example. (ibid.)

Slaves could give testimony in a legal case – but information from a slave had to be derived through torture in order to be considered reliable. Even then, it was recognized that they could still lie under torture – go figure.

Apparently, crucifixion was a common form of execution for slaves. And that fact brings me to me thoughts on the day.

St. Paul describes the “mind that was in Christ Jesus” in His crucifixion in the famous passage beginning at Philippians 2:5. He says that Christ,

“…made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men….became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross…”

This is taken from the New King James Version – a generally faithful translation. Nonetheless, efforts to paraphrase (to expand words) often loses the original punch of the text. Christ does not “make himself of no reputation” (that makes him sound like an English gentleman posing as a street vendor). He literally “emptied himself.” Also, “taking the form of a bondservant” removes the sting. “Bondservant” sounds like an economic arrangement. Rather, he “took the form of a slave” (doulos). It is the common word for slave – just the kind of “non-person” who is frequently the subject of crucifixion.

It is relevant to the preaching of the gospel and our own comprehension of Christ’s death on the Cross that our reading of the Scripture be unencumbered by the smoothening tones of a paraphrase. Christ emptied Himself and took the form of a slave. He became what, in the culture of the time, was the lowest of the low: the human being too low to be measured for a soul. It was already a form of crucifixion that was extended to a vast swath of people across the empire. I suspect their numbers have only increased as time has gone forward.

St. Paul lived in the same culture. It is of note that he consistently describes himself as the “slave of Christ,” again, softened repeatedly into “servant of Christ.” The translators have taken the sting and rendered it with a phrase that would drip easily from the tongue of the most smarmy politician. Paul called himself a slave. St. Paul not only called himself a slave, but he boldly wrote that “there is neither slave nor free…in Christ Jesus.” St. Paul is not a first-century justice warrior. He is not telling Rome what it should do when it came to human rights. He is telling us (and putting his life where his own words were) what the justice of the Kingdom of God already is (even as it is being revealed in the Church). St. Paul, the proud citizen of Rome, empties himself to become the slave of Christ. That is the justice of God. Christ became a slave that we might become kings.

There is the wonderful side-story, buried between the lines of St. Paul’s letters. It is that of Onesimus. Onesimus was apparently a runaway slave whom he met in Rome. His master, Philemon (yes, that Philemon), was sent a letter by St. Paul (from prison), carried by none other than the runaway slave. St. Paul wrote:

…though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus—I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.(Philemon 1:8–16)

Tradition holds that Onesimus was later made a bishop. Some scholars suggest that it was he who first collected the letters of St. Paul that now compose such a large part of the New Testament (which helps explain the presence of this personal letter to Philemon in the collection).

The distance between slave and bishop, within the culture of the time, points to how thoroughly the gospel of Christ changed its adherents. We do not see an “evolution” or “gradual change in consciousnes.” Rather, the full implications of the gospel are there from its inception.

For our sake, Christ took the form of a slave, emptying Himself. Only in His service do we discover perfect freedom. Glory to God.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.






35 responses to “In the Form of a Slave”

  1. Jeremiah Courter Avatar
    Jeremiah Courter

    Always love your work, Fr. Freeman. This article, in particular, is fascinating.

    And to your points of “smoothening” the blow of translations for words such as “bondservant” and “servant”, are you aware of the CSB translation? It specifically addressed that issue and always translates the word as “slave” in the scriptures.

    God bless you and your work!

  2. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’m not entirely happy with some of the CSB notions. “Brothers and sisters” instead of “brothers.” If the text says, “Adelphoi,” then I do not add an additional word “sisters” simply to fit modern tastes. Again – paraphrastic decisions. It’s minor – but – it is what it is. Generally, I read the NT in Greek so that I have nothing to complain about.

    The Bible consists of ancient texts. Those texts should, generally, read like ancient texts. They’re not contemporary letters, etc.

  3. Gerasimos Kambites Avatar

    Many thanks for your article on Slavery. What struck home was the poor translations where Doulos is identified as other. I think if you have not already done so an article on the confusion these mistranslations create would be most helpful.
    Thank You
    Christ is risen

  4. Janine Avatar

    Father, this is a fantastic post! Thank you. So much stunning food for thought. Part of me wants to say that it’s no wonder Christianity took hold.
    When I was in college, I had an 18th literature class in which we read the novel “Pamela.” In short it was a story of a servant girl who fends off her master’s advances (the heir) to be eventually rewarded with marriage for her defense of her virtue. Now this was the late 70s. You can imagine the ridicule from the grad students in the class. But I found it really noteworthy that when the final chapter of this serialized novel was published, churchbells were rung throughout England. Moreover when it was published in Italy, for example, the girl’s birth had to be changed to that of poor nobility. As that time was the beginning of any concept of upward mobility (Industrial Revolution) it seemed clear to me that this was the excitement of the church bells. Moreover her refusal to her master came in the form of repeated insistance that she had a soul that it was her right to protect.

    Lost on my late 20th century fellow students (who saw it only as a sexual morality story) but nevertheless I still think important and meaningful in this context. At least my prof liked thought my paper was interesting

  5. Janine Avatar

    Sorry for typos, 18th century lit class

  6. Janine Avatar

    PS When I read the stories of early martyrs, esp young women like Perpetua , or soldier martyrs, it reminds of of the same concept. They had a soul it was their right to protect, that belonged to God and not the powerful

  7. anna Avatar

    Thank you Fr. Freeman.
    What you said is healing to my soul.

  8. Jeremiah Courter Avatar
    Jeremiah Courter

    Fr. Freeman, thank you for your response to my comment! And forgive me if there was a way to respond directly to your comment, but I could only see the option of adding another comment.

    I am curious about your thoughts about what I have to say about the “Adelphoi” issue. The CSB distinctly claims to make decisions not based on modern sentimentalies. The strength of the argument to translate “Adelphoi” for “brothers and sisters” as opposed to simply “brothers” is if it MEANS “brothers and sisters.”.

    I used to be staunchly against translating Adelphoi as brothers and sisters until it was pointed out that if the author meant to address both, then it is a more accurate translation. I found that hard to argue against. For we all know when Paul says “brothers, imitate Christ”, he meant that command for brothers and sisters….not only brothers, making the rendition to include both as more “accurate.”

    I am curious as to how you would respond.

    Thank you for your time!

  9. Eric Avatar

    Thanks Fr Stephen
    Tom Holland’s book, Dominion is as you may be aware fairly ‘hot property’ in some circles and opens with this point about Jesus dying a slave death, which he says was the utterly unworldly message the church proclaimed.

    thank you for the note about Onesimus. It is interesting trying to read it as in our culture ‘Bishop’ so often goes with ‘person of public repute’, not least as I’m sure you’re aware in my Anglican tradition. I sense some humbling being brought upon us in this respect. Considering Bishop as Slave, not Servant which as you point out makes it far more palatable and thus useful 🙂 to the powers that be, is very shocking to modern ears as well. We need once more to become humus, for the seed can only grow in the soil and there is nothing more composting than mediation upon ‘Slave’, and that the same mind might be among us . . .

    Thank you again

  10. Simon Avatar

    I am not a fan of what the CSB did with Psalm 23. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.

  11. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The traditional English renders it, “brethren,” which, like “adelphoi,” can have a collective meaning “everyone,” or, even, “brothers and sisters.” It is, however, simply modern sensitivities that force “brothers and sisters” as a translation. 50 years previous, it would have not been the case.

    I’m not opposed to “brothers and sisters” as a way to render adelphoi – but it gives the misleading impression that St. Paul said something he did not say – putting words into his mouth – as it were.

    I have watched decade after decade of language wars – I think our culture is going about things the wrong way.

    It is of note, to me, that in Orthodox usage (in the OCA where I serve), the Epistle readings on Sundays are introduced, “Brethren…” and then the passage from the Epistle. It is, I believe, a correct and traditional usage. The notion that “brethren” is somehow exclusive of women is incorrect and does an injustice to our language.

  12. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    My small aside in the article viz. modern class sensibilities, were certainly a very strong aspect of my Anglican experience – especially in the U.S. That many of the ideas that are today described as “Leftist,” are also quite elitist does not escape me. When I was first introduced to the OCA, the congregation and its priest were decidedly “blue collar.” I was surprised in myself that I felt some revulsion (especially considering that I came from strictly blue collar roots). I’ve had to “unlearn” some of the shame-driven prejudices that I acquired in my Anglican years. The truth is that money and class hide a lot of sins. Class is the great unspoken bigotry in America. We’re not supposed to have classes – it is a very, very twisted lie.

  13. Chuck Morris Avatar

    Christos anesti!!! For me this is one of the most interesting articles I’ve ever read (or essays.) So much grist for the mill… I just wish I could read the New testament in Greek. Being able to speak Greek must take us to the very lap of God. The essay makes me wonder if there was some ancient vast conspiracy to take all of that grit and English out of the Gospel, with the tepid use of some concepts and their translations. I’ve just read the chronicle of Philomena (sp?), a sadly neglected epistle. As always thank you Father Freeman for all of your majestic renderings of our beautiful faith. May our great Lord and savior
    Guide and protect you by his life giving cross. As several have said,. No matter how elegant and thoughtful the essays that father Freeman creates, the responses are often just as lucid and edifying. God bless you all and thank you for taking time to express these things, they are literally life-saving glory to God indeed

  14. charles morris Avatar

    English? Was not the word I expressed, o well

  15. Eric Avatar

    Class – yes
    Coming from an English ‘lower middle class background’ and thus knowing one’s place, to New Zealand where as in the US ‘class doesn’t exist, what you describe struck me very powerfully

  16. Ook Avatar

    In Judaic Law (and Hammurabi’s laws), during a jubilee, bondservants were set free, and slaves were returned to their previous owners. This context would have been understood back then,. Perhaps rendering “bondservant” instead of “slave” in English is more serious than just removing the sting, as the difference also points to where you end up in the end: as part of the Kingdom, or “free”. Or am I overthinking this?

  17. Steve Taylor Avatar
    Steve Taylor

    Excellent as always. Thank you.

  18. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    While it is true that there was a different approach to slavery in Judaic Law (and in some Middle Eastern kingdoms), it was not the case in Roman and Hellenistic law – the context of St. Paul’s writing. I do not think that there was (or is) any justification for rendering doulos as “bondservant.” The history of English translations is far more bound up in theological/political concerns than most people realize. Of course, today, it is also bound up in financial concerns. It is, after all, the best-seller year after year. Various publishing houses own the rights to various translations – and therefore need their own translation and some sort of justification for its existence in order to drive the important profits it provides. This is not universally the case – but it is a factor of some importance.

    Generally speaking, I would not use a translation newer than mid-20th-century on the whole. Though, my publisher uses the New King James (because that is the translation of the Orthodox Study Bible) in order to avoid problems of copywrite and royalties,etc.

  19. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    I appreciate your personal candor in your comment to Eric, Father Stephen.

    Individuals of all classes can become smug about the stereotypical faults that they carry from their social station and elevate a vice to a false virtue. Having in my own life moved among multiple “groups,” as you have, the temptation to slip into class-based feelings of superiority is one I have often experienced, as well as succumbed to.

    You are also right, I believe, that class is as much as race part of the greater American story of an existential struggle between an ideal and its instantiation.

  20. Byron Avatar

    I was surprised in myself that I felt some revulsion

    I have moved among other “groups” and had this same experience. At times, it seemed overwhelming, which saddens me greatly. It is difficult to be so powerfully impacted by ones’ own faults and prejudices. It reminds me that I am not at all humble and have so little love in my heart! May God be merciful!

  21. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    A great difficulty with class issues in America is that they are often unspoken, unidentified, and called by other names. It was ok, back in the day, for an ESPN commentator to refer to Tennessee fans as “trailer trash.” The power of the Ivy League schools – particularly Yale and Harvard – is incredible (and undeserved). Of course, the larger part of class in America is determined by money and such. There is a great deal of darkness around us (and within us).

  22. Janine Avatar

    Again, not wishing to delve into political discussion, but it is simply remarkable how so much of what is touted as progress and aiming at equality in theory results in absolute hardship impacting the poor most of all, and making their circumstances worse. I am coming to think of it as a clear “tell” about elitism in origin.

    (Pardon me, I’m trying to use neutral language here)

    And, in terms of economics, we might know what popular food chains elicit in terms of comments on quality, nutrition, etc. But few people realize how standardization in franchisses such as McDonald’s impacts class. McDonald’s is one of the only places I have ever seen a poor person complain about low standards of service, because standardization means they know what they should be able to expect. It is instructive how intimidating class differences are.

  23. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    A couple of years back I read through the book, The Enchantment of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity. The author teaches at Villanova (I think). Long, thick read, but an amazing analysis of the history of modernity and its actual effects on culture and the people within it. Sometimes it can feel a bit “Marxist” – but anyone who criticizes capitalism will sound that way. The fact is that, as a culture, we have allowed profit and wealth to drive everything – regardless of consequences. That being the case – we ask the wrong questions. We do not ask about what makes for a good life, or how it can be fostered. We ask about money, and then defend it by arguing that if people have enough money they can make their own choices about what is good. This, of course, ignores the fact that those with the most money own the playing field and tilt it to their own liking.

    It is a complex matter – without easy solutions. But it would help if we asked some of the right questions now and again. I am not holding my breath.

  24. George Avatar

    Thank you Father Stephen.

    But the captain of the guard left of the poor of the land to be vinedressers and husbandmen.
    2 Kings 25 : 12
    This verse seems telling and comforting at the same time.

  25. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    “But it would help if we asked some of the right questions now and again. ”

    Often I think the joke about the drunk who looks for his keys under the lamp post because the light is better there applies. We would rather solve a problem that doesn’t exist than do the hard, never-ending work of managing problems that can’t be solved.

  26. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The right questions: How can I be consistently obedient to our Incarnate Lord in the little things that matter the most at the core of my being?

  27. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    …Or, how to properly recognize, engage and triumph in genuine suffering?

  28. juliania Avatar

    Thank you, Father Stephen; this is lovely. In my college years, I always felt that Plato was closer to Christianity than Aristotle because in the ‘Meno’ he has Socrates use a slave boy to prove that through careful questioning the boy could be led out of an erroneous supposition about geometrical forms into recognizing the correct one. Whereas, Aristotle thought that slaves were born slaves.
    This enormously important divine concept gives new meaning to that phrase – he became as we are in order that we might become as he is. And also to his own mother’s forbearance at Cana. He tests her, and she is fine with it.

  29. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    As to “Marxism”, “Capitalism” and other political economies is that they are idols. They each require sacrifices, often blood sacrifice, to be placated. As such, they center on the acquisition and retention of power.
    The original political parties in the U.S. were the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists. The rhetoric of the indigenous parties has changed very little, IMO. The names have been changed to protect the guilty.

  30. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I went back and read the June 6, 2017 article linked above and many of the comments. In reading, I was reminded of the passing of my late wife, Pamela in 2005. The circumstances of her death made some think it was suicide. Reasonably. Fortunately, she had adamantly denied that in the rural hospital where she was first treated. She had lapsed into her final coma on the helicopter ride. Still she was deeply troubled at the time of her death in deep physical and spiritual pain.
    We were quite blessed because as she lay dying our priest and two of our Chanters were with us singing the Prayers for the Dying. At some point, I became aware of someone else there with his hands on either side of her head obviously in deep, intense prayer (an intensity I cannot adequately describe). I am certain he was an angel. My wife’s best friend was with us and saw the young man too. She has the same opinion. She converted. She and her daughters are still faithful Orthodox.
    Pascha came about 3 weeks later. I went to the celebration with a heavy heart. But just as we began singing the Paschal Hymn, I looked up into the Altar and saw two beings of light riding up through our dome. Joy infused my heart as it never had before or since. It became clear to me that my wife was one of the two.
    It is easy when talking of what and who we are to think in categories that are laced with a good bit of self-reliance almost as if we are alone in our struggles.
    My late wife was deep in struggle when she died, seeming to have forgotten our Lord. We lived more than an hours drive from our parish and she was in constant pain. We did not attend often.

    I learned that no matter what our struggles, we are not alone, ever. Especially in the moments when we most think we are. When we struggle in our hearts to find mercy and Truth.
    I have no doubt my late wife’s Guardian Angel led her into repentance and mercy through the darkness she had accumulated on her soul. His intense focus was indicative of hard work.
    His mercy is beyond anything I can comprehend but I have been blessed to have been a witness to it and so I speak of what I have seen.

    Christ is Risen and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!

  31. J Sanders Avatar
    J Sanders

    I like how Tom Holland, the author of “Dominion”, has said in an interview that Christianity’s rise planted the seeds for the eventual destruction of slavery. He compared it’s views to a depth charge being dropped into the sea to eventually destroy the submarine of paganisms evil use of slaves.

  32. Dino Avatar

    That more than deeply profound and speaks to me very loud and clear.

  33. Janine Avatar

    Michael thank you for that. I’m sorry for the difficulties you and your wife went through, but what a beautiful testimony.

  34. Luke Nieuwsmsa Avatar
    Luke Nieuwsmsa

    Michael, Thank you for sharing that! Very moving – made me choke up a bit. If there is anything that the modern world of consumer capitalism and materialism and Protestant secularism makes us (or at least me) forget besides God Himself, it’s the constant presence and help of the angels – including those who have been by us since our baptisms.
    Christ is Risen!

  35. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Luke, indeed He is Risen and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!

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