Tuesday, February 25, 2014

More Pastoral Reflections on the Life of a Slave and Paul's Letter to Philemon

One of the more difficult texts in the New Testament has been what Paul says (or rather, does not say) concerning slaves in the Greco-Roman era. Past interpreters of the Bible, for example, are puzzled by Paul's lack of explicit injunctions against slavery in his Letter to Philemon. Why does Paul not exhort Philemon to emancipate the slave Onesimus who has recently converted to Christianity? Why leave room or ambiguity in his letter, so that centuries later, white Southerners during the Civil War era can misinterpret what Paul says to Philemon and claim: 
  • The Bible's defense of slavery is very plain. St. Paul was inspired, and knew the will of the Lord Jesus Christ, and was only intent on obeying it. And who are we, that in our modern wisdom presume to set aside the Word of God... and invent for our selves a higher law than those holy Scriptures?... Paul sent back a fugitive slave [Onesimus], after the slave's hopeful conversion, to his Christian master [Philemon] again, and assigns as his reason for doing that master's right to the services of his slave -- John Hopkins (1864), an Episcopal pastor (excerpt taken from Swartley, Slavery, Sabbath, War and Women, 1983)
There are many reasons why Hopkins above makes a horrific misreading of Paul. But let me start by saying that Paul, in my opinion, is quite explicit when he states: 
  • 15 For perhaps on account of this he [Onesimus] was separated (from you - Philemon) for the hour, in order that you might receive him as a receipt paid in full eternally -- 16 no longer as a slave, but above a slave, a beloved brother, very (beloved) to me, but how much more (beloved) to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. (Philemon 1:15-16; Eng. trans. my own)
When Paul says to Philemon to receive Onesimus back not as a slave but as a "beloved brother (ἀδελφὸν ἀγαπητόν)... in the flesh and in the Lord (ἐν σαρκὶ καὶ ἐν κυρίῳ)," what does he mean by ἐν σαρκὶ (v. 16)? I know what "a brother in the Lord" is (i.e., a fellow Christian believer), but what is a "brother in the flesh"? I think ἐν σαρκὶ καὶ ἐν κυρίῳ points to the heart of Paul's message: to let Onesimus' new found status as a Christian brother be reflected in his social status in the real world. If Onesimus is a "brother in the Lord," then make him a "brother in the flesh" as well: free him. A "brother in the flesh" is a freed Christian whose emancipation in the Greco-Roman world is a natural theological outworking of his identity as a member of God's family. Otherwise, Paul need not have included the phrase ἐν σαρκί. 
    So why does not Paul simply say: "Emancipate Onesimus! Free him!"? To quote Lloyd Lewis: "his [Paul's] ambiguity [over emancipation] may not be so much a matter of his indecision as his unwillingness to canonize the social roles found in his environment" (Stony the Road We Trod, 246). If Paul simply said, "emancipate Onesimus," Onesimus' newfound status as a freed slave would only be one step above the bottom rung of Greco-Roman society. The freed slave is not at the same social level as that of a free person, as the diagram below indicates. 

© 2014 Max Lee 
Above is a diagram of the Patronage Pyramid (a good introduction to how the patronage-client system works in the ancient world can be found in Richard Saller, Personal Patronage under the Early Empire, 1982; David deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship and Purity, 2000; or the more recent and technical treatment by John Nicols, Civic Patronage in the Roman Empire, 2014). 
    Notice that freed slaves are just above (unfreed) slaves but socially still below everyone else. Free persons were a higher and separate class but even among free people there was a very wide spectrum of privilege and position: some were manual laborers, others merchants, still others were magistrates, and even fewer were nobility who occupied the upper echelons of the Roman Empire .
    Did Paul simply want to make Onesimus a freed person, canonizing Onesimus' social role for his time and ours, or did Paul have something much grander in mind? 

   A freed person would still require help from his former master to make a jumpstart in life. The freed person, just emancipated, would require a patron who could sponsor, write letters of recommendation, and provide the initial resources or raw materials to open a new business. The freed person would become entangled in a web of financial and personal obligation under the patronage-client system and never be truly free. At the festivals and banquets, when people sat by social class, the freed person could never recline and eat at the same table of his former master.  
   In contrast, only in the church were slaves treated as fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. The church was called to think creatively about how our new identity as members of God's family can be reflected in our social relationships in the wider world. Making Onesimus a freed slave would be too easy. Philemon was challenged by Paul to do more. Yes, emancipate Onesimus (make him a brother in the flesh), but more importantly treat your former slave as a brother in the Lord, beloved, for whom Christ died (1 Cor 6:20). Slave and free persons would share the same table and break the same bread at the Lord's Supper. Their communion would be nothing short of a revolution in a world where the privileged stayed on top of the pyramid at the expense of the masses. 
   The church was called to flip the patronage pyramid over on its heels and turn the world upside down with the Gospel. The good news is that in Christ a former Diaspora Jew (Paul), a wealthy patron (Philemon) and a freed slave (Onesimus) can be called brothers and share a common identity as members of God's family, paradoxically serving one another as "a slave of all" (πάντων δοῦλος; Mark 10:42; cf. 1 Cor 9:19).

Postscript 06/13/14: Exegetical Exercise: 1) Read the above post. 2) Go to the bible dictionaries/encyclopedias in the reference section of the university library and learn more about slaves/slavery in the Greco-Roman world (in Greek doulos/δοῦλος). 4) Interpret 1 Cor 7:20-23 drawing insight from your background study. In other words: how does understanding the status and function of slaves in the Greco-Roman world help you to understand Paul's message/exhortations in 1 Cor 7:20-23? 4) Be sure to consult at least one academic commentary on your biblical text from the reference section.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Pastoral Reflections on the Days in the Life of a Slave

There are two types of insights born from a trip like the travel course to Greece. One insight comes in the immediate moment when a person experiences an archaeological site for the first time (e.g., my post on being at Mars Hill, or the amphitheater at Epidaurus). The other type comes from catching a running theme that cuts across several sites, like the constant reminder of the slave industry in the Greco-Roman world. As I think about the Corinth canal, the Diolkos, the Polygon wall, and the votive relief at the Athens museum (below), there are several points of intertextuality between these narratives and the New Testament. 
   For one thing, it seems unfathomable how Paul can use such a painful and horrific aspect of Greco-Roman life positively to describe the incarnation of Christ in Philippians 2.6-7a: ὃς ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ ὑπάρχων οὐχ ἁρπαγμὸν ἡγήσατο τὸ εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ, 7  ἀλλὰ ἑαυτὸν ἐκένωσεν μορφὴν δούλου λαβών. 

My interpretative translation of this verse that describes the descent of Christ is as follows:
   "who, although he was in the [pre-existent] form of God, did not consider equality with God as something [ἁρπαγμός ּּ= plunder from a royal treasury] to be held onto violently, but emptied himself [of power and privilege] by taking on the form of slave (δοῦλος)." 

   Whatever was emptied (ἐκένωσεν) at the incarnation (i.e., power/privilege but not Christ's divine nature), there was no other way to describe the depth of the descent other than to say Christ took on the form of a slave. The slave who was at the bottom rung of Greco-Roman society, who was typically the alien and outsider (i.e., the non-Roman, even a prisoner of war, like many of the Jewish slaves used to cut Nero's canal), and who had no real power to change one's destiny -- it was in this form, the slave, that Christ epiphanied as He entered into human history. There are several theological implications to be drawn from Christ's identification with the slave, but let me comment on just one.

   Most importantly, Christ inverts secular notions of power and freedom upside-down. Most kings show their power by conquest and plunder (ἁρπαγμός). Christ demonstrated the character and divine nature of God by giving up power (ἐκένωσεν) and identifying himself with the lowest form of human existence: the slave.

   Not only does Christ take on the form of a slave and so identify with the whole of humanity, even with its lowest and marginalized members, but He calls all Christians to intentionally live as "a slave of all" (πάντων δοῦλος; Mark 10:42; cf. 1 Cor 9:19) by giving up our rights and paradoxically using our freedom to serve our neighbor. 

   At the end of the day, the incarnation is a mystery. None of us will ever know this side of heaven exactly what it cost the Son of God to take on flesh and bone. But Paul in Phil 2 thought that at least knowing the struggle, suffering, pain and humiliation of a slave's life was one way to partially understand the descent of Christ and the depth of His love for us. So much is said with just three poignant words: μορφὴν δούλου λαβών ("he took on a slave's form"). 
Photo taken by Max Lee at the Athens Museum © 2014
This photo of a votive relief (ca. 2nd century AD; Athens museum) features a young man (center) along with a slave (right corner). 

Notice that the young man in the center is heroized (shown by his features as nude, feeding a snake, next to a horse). To the very right is what looks like a child holding a helmet. But this is not a child but the slave of the young man. Slaves in reliefs are typically portrayed in diminutive size (like children) to signify their insignificant or minor status in the Greco-Roman world. No one would want to identify with a slave. But our God does!

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Final Day in the Life of a Slave

When you drive up to Delphi, you cannot help but pause and just marvel at the beauty of Greece. The site of ancient Delphi is located in a mountainous range, part of the southwest spur or lateral ridge of Mt. Parnassus. The photo below gives you a glimpse of an awe-inspiring view from the vantage point of the archaeological remains of the Temple of Apollo. 

The site of the Apollo Temple in the Mountain Range of Delphi

Though famous for many reasons, including the myth that Delphi is the ὀμφαλός ("navel") of Gaia ("Mother Earth") and therefore the center of the world, ancient Delphi was ultimately known as a place where oracles were received. Every spring, pilgrims would take the long trek up the Via Sacra ("Sacred Way"; see the map below) to Delphi in order to receive an oracle from the Pythia, i.e., the priestesses or sibyls through whom Apollo spoke. Prophecy at Delphi goes as far back as the 6th century BC, but continued through the first century AD and beyond, including a famous oracle recorded by Seutonius concerning the death of Emperor Nero (Nero 40.3). 

In the above map, not only can you see the path or "sacred way" walked by the pilgrim, but I have also highlighted where the Polygon wall is located along the foundation of the Temple of Apollo (blue and green arrows). If you look at the carefully cut stone (in the photo below), you can easily see why it was called the Polygon wall. However what makes the wall unique is not just its precisely cut and fitted stones, but the inscriptions that are written upon them.

The Polygon Wall (blue arrow on the map) along the foundation of the Temple (remains of the temple seen above with top three colonades)

There are about 800+ inscriptions along the face of the Polygon wall, some of them include the civic laws which governed the city. The date of the inscription is about the 3rd century BC.
Inscription of Delphic Civic Laws on the Polygon Wall

But most of the inscriptions deal with the manumission of slaves. It is estimated that the names of more than 1200 slaves are inscribed along the walls.
On this part of the wall (left along the steps of the Via Sacra; see the green arrow on the map), one slave's name is highlighted (next two photos)

One of the Stones with the Names of Freed Slaves (I highlighted one name in yellow here and below)

Close-up of the Name of the Freed Slave ΦΙΛΟΠΑΤΡΙΣ 
(in Latin, the name would be: Philopatrus)

When I asked John Kremidas (Prof. of NT at the Greek Bible Institute in Athens) why the names were inscribed in stone, he said that if a slave's freed status was ever questioned, that slave could go to the Polygon Wall and point to his/her name and say: "See! I have been freed!" 
    One can only imagine the thousands of untold stories behind the names of the manumitted slaves. For every freed slave there were a hundred others who died a miserable death by being worked to the bone on civic projects like Nero's failed attempt to cut a canal across the Isthmus, or by back-breaking labor dragging vessels and cargo along the Diolkos. Even if a slave managed to find oneself doing domestic work in a Greco-Roman household, there was no guarantee that he or she would ever be freed. The manumission of any slave was completely up to the whim and mercy of the owner. 
    So it was a truly moving sight to witness name after name after name of men and women who were emancipated by Delphic law from the hard life of slave. So many more never made it to the wall. 
    But to be freed in the Greco-Roman world is not the same as being free. A freed slave could never receive the same social status as a free person. Often the freed individual would still depend the patronage of one's former master in order to start a new business and a new life. But more on this in the next post concerning exegetical connections and pastoral reflections on slavery texts in the New Testament.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Another Day in the Life of a Slave

Continuing from the previous entry ("A Day in the Life of a Slave"), here I'm going to make some comments on the Diolkos (or Plan B), when the attempt(s) to cut a canal across the Isthmus (or Plan A) ended in failure. The Diolkos (Δίολκος) was a paved road with tracks that connected the Gulf of Corinth with the Saronic Gulf. By use of a system of pulleys, ropes, and carts, slaves were made to pull up boats from one gulf and drag the boat across 4 miles to the other gulf. 
Dotted line shows the path of the Diolkos road

Here is a photo of the remains of the Diolkos along with an artist's reconstruction of what the system of transport must have looked like as a team of slaves carried vessels from one side of the Isthmus to the other.

Road sign pointing to the site of the Diolkos
Remains of the Diolkos 
Close-up View of the Road Tracks

Artist's reconstruction of how slaves carried the boats on paved tracks

The use of the Diolkos as an alternative way to circumvent the treacherous sea journey around the Peloponnese (especially Cape Morea) had a long-standing history. As early as the 5th century BC, the historian Thucydides reports: "they [= the Greeks of Laconia] themselves being first there prepared engines in the isthmus for the drawing up of galleys, with intention to carry the navy from Corinth to the other sea that lies towards Athens, and to set upon them both by sea and land" (History of the Peloponnesian War 3.5). In the 1st century AD, especially after the failure of Nero to cut the Corinth canal, the Diolkos was used prolifically to transport vessels and their cargo, whether for merchant or military use.
   But again, the success of the Diolkos came at the expense of back-breaking, muscle-straining, merciless toil from a slave labor force who were treated no better than oxen. It was another reminder that every successful empire comes at the expense of a slave population who was exploited. The thousands of anonymous slaves who lived and died on the Diolkos are tragically an untold story lost among the accolades of historians which praised Greek engineering. But such was another day in the life of slave. Next post: "The Final Day in the Life of a Slave"

   Side note: the artist's reconstruction is a photo taken from a local gas station located near the canal. According to John Kremidas (Prof. of NT at the Greek Bible Institute in Athens), it's the only one of its kind. John has tried to contact the original artist and order a poster for himself but can't find it anywhere in Greece. So many thanks to him for grabbing me when we made a pit stop and showing me the poster at the gas station so I can take this photo. 

Sunday, February 9, 2014

A Day in the Life of a Slave

I just finished writing an essay which was overdue to the editors for another surprise Festschrift, and this was my last tangential publishing obligation. Now my slate is clear to work on my own monograph. Most likely, as I work full-steam on the monograph, I'll blog about my research here. But I do want to continue cataloguing some of the insights that were born from my time in Greece before I loose the vividness of the experience. So I might be moving back and forth between the topics.
    There were several moments in the Greece trip where participants were reminded of how hard the life of slave (δοῦλος) was. While there is a notable range for slaves in the Greco-Roman world concerning the kind of work and living conditions which they experienced (that is, their work could include everything from menial house-keeping chores to hard manual labor; and their living arrangements ranged from the slum conditions of the insulae to the domestic setting of their master's luxurious villa), for the most part, the Roman Empire was a slave economy driven by prisoners of war. Typically these prisoners were exported from their native lands to different parts of the empire for bone-crunching manual labor in the mines or for the construction of imperial building projects. If they were lucky, they could find themselves in domestic service work (e.g., cooking, cleaning, gardening, tutoring, message delivery, etc.) of wealthy patrons, but often enough, they weren't. Typically their day began at 3am in the morning and did not end until well into the night. 
    The back story about the Corinth canal across the Isthmus which connects the Gulf of Corinth with the Saronic Gulf in the Aegean Sea (see the map below) is a good reminder of how brutal labor conditions could be for slaves. But first a look at a modern feat of engineering genius: 

The approximate dimensions of the Corinth Canal is: 4 miles long cutting across the Isthmus; 300 feet deep from sea level to the bridge; its width (= the length of the bridge) 80 feet. Here's a perspective of the Canal from the bridge with myself as a reference point: 

Below is also a sea-level view of the bridge. When boats cross, the bridge submerges under the water until the boat passes and then the bridge resurfaces on top, often with some fish caught on top of the bridge wriggling around frantically for the water: 

This canal cuts across the Isthmus for about 4 miles: 

The canal was built over a period of 11 years from 1882-1893 under the auspices of King George I of Greece. 
    Now the brutal back story: there were several ancient attempts to build this canal before it was finally done in 1893, all of which ended in failure. The most famous attempt is arguably the one by Emperor Nero employing 6,000 slaves (AD 67). Seutonius narrates the opening ceremony when Nero took a spade and made the first dig into the earth which started the project. "In Achaia, he [= Nero] attempted to make a cut through the Isthmus; and, having made a speech encouraging his praetorians to set about the work, on a signal given by sound of trumpet, he first broke ground with a spade, and carried off a basket full of earth upon his shoulders." (Seutonius, Lives of Caesar, Nero, 19.2; Eng. trans. from the Perseus Project).
   The goal was to dig a navigational canal that would allow boats to cross from the Gulf of Corinth to the Saronic Gulf while circumventing the treacherous waters of the Morea (modern Cape Matapan) around which many ships had sank. Seutonius further reports that the slaves could only dig for about 4 stadia (= 2300-2500 feet) before they stopped (in comparison, Strabo says the width of the entire Isthmus is 40 stadia; Geography 8.2). The project was becoming too costly. In other words, too many slaves were dying trying to dig out the canal as they were worked to the bone and eventually the canal became their own sad grave. The project stopped, and it was not finished until the modern era. 
   To be a slave was a tragic tale. But there is more... "A(nother) day in a life of a slave" continues in the next post.