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.