Friday, July 06, 2007

Slaves in the New Testament: Literary, Social, and Moral Dimensions

Slaves in the New Testament: Literary, Social, and Moral Dimensions

F. Scott Spencer
SLAVES IN THE NEW TESTAMENT: LITERARY, SOCIAL, AND MORAL DIMENSIONS. By J. Albert Harrill. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2006. Pp. xiv + 322. Cloth, $45.00.

This fresh examination of slaves in the New Testament and early Christian writings is distinguished by careful comparative analysis of Greco-Roman discourses about family, society, and politics. Mining a stunning array of ancient literature--including rhetorical and agricultural handbooks, philosophical and judicial treatises, physiognomic and medical texts, and comedic and satirical dramas--Harrill uncovers a variety of stock literary representations of slaves that were widely used to "think with" about morality and core values. In one way or another, these slave stereotypes supported the dominant Roman ideology of auctoritas (mastery, authority), which denoted the "actual power" (versus ascribed status) a householder possessed to command obedience and devotion from his subordinates and respect and admiration from his peers.

In the introduction, Harrill challenges standard assessments of Onesimus in Paul's letter to Philemon as a runaway slave (serous fugitivus). The correspondence shows no interest in the slave's personal plans or aspirations. Rather, along the lines of a "journeyman apprentice" contract, Paul petitions master Philemon to accept Onesimus as an apprentice in gospel ministry. The goal is not manumission, but redeployment of service.

Chapters 1-2 deal with psychological and physical images of the Roman slave as backdrops for Paul's discourse. In Romans 7:7-25, Paul employs the rhetorical device of "speech-in character" (prostpopoiia), whereby he assumes a persona ("I") to illustrate his argument. According to Harrill, the "I" in this text represents a typical Gentile convert in the Roman church caught in an inner, slavish tug-of-war between the old master of Sin and the new master of Christ. This conflicted "slave self" retains in Roman ideology the agency to determine which master it will serve. Paul thus implores the Gentile Christians to resist the auctoritas of Sin over them. In 2 Corinthians 10:10, the slurs of Paul's opponents against his "weak body" and "contemptible speech" evoke the emasculated image of the cowering, sycophantic slave seeking to gain advantage through fawning gestures and flattering comments. Such rhetoric fits the Sophistic notion that physical appearance reveals essential character. Paul's rivals thus brand him as an unmanly, slavish opportunist unfit to exercise authority in the church. In return, Paul fires back with Socratic-Cynic logic that places ultimate value not in outward appearances (physiognomy) but in humble (tapeinos), rational pursuit of truth (philosophy). As a weak, suffering servant of Christ, Paul has been graced with "divine power to ... take every thought captive to obey Christ" (10:4-5).

Chapter 3 correlates two characters in Luke-Acts with stock figures in Roman comedic theater. The slave-girl Rhoda in Acts 12:12-17 plays the slapstick part of the bungling "running slave" (serous currens), bursting with good news--which no one takes seriously--about Peter's arrival, while she absentmindedly leaves the apostle knocking at the gate. The conniving steward in Jesus' parable (Luke 16:1-13) enacts the dual role of "parasite" (parasitus) and "clever slave" (servus callidus), shrewdly manipulating his wealthy master's accounts for his own benefit and ultimately exposing his master as a rich fool. Both stories are entertaining literary fictions, in Harrill's view, designed to provide comic relief and dramatic contrast to the more sober, "realistic" incidents that follow (Acts 12:17; Luke 16:14-31).

Chapters 4-6 consider deutero-Pauline and other post-apostolic writings in light of additional Roman slave types. First, the household codes governing master-slave relations in Ephesians and Colossians, far from advocating a liberating cultural revolution, reinforce the conventional advice of Roman farm handbooks. As the chief slave bailiff (vilicus) commanded subordinate slaves on the absentee householder's (pater familias) estate with both authority and accountability, so Christian masters must fairly and faithfully manage their slaves in the household of God the Father. Second, the black market slave-trader or men-stealer (andrapodistes)--an unscrupulous figure associated with greed, fraud, and immorality outside the legitimate Roman slave economy--functioned as an apt deviant label for heretical teachers in 1 Timothy 1:10; for the label to work, however, this text assumes and accepts lawful slave commerce. Third, the stock images of the "faithful slave," loyal to his master at all costs, and the "domestic enemy," who betrays his master for personal gain, inform early Christian apologetic and martyrological responses to Roman opposition. For example, in the Martyrdom of Polycarp, one of Polycarp's domestic servants, under torture, exposes the bishop to the authorities; on the other hand, in the Letter of the Churches of Vienne and Lyons, Blandina stands out as a noble slave martyr for Christ.

In the final chapter and epilogue, Harrill turns to the modern era, tracking the battle for the Bible on both sides of the critical proslavery/abolitionist divide in nineteenth-century America. He demonstrates the difficulty, if not futility, in appealing to the Bible, especially its literalistic "plain sense," to settle complex moral debates. With respect to slavery, as far as he goes Harrill brilliantly elucidates the New Testament's basic complicity in the dominant ancient literary and rhetorical ethos of its day--and thus its limited ethical value for today. But he has seriously downplayed the religious and theological foundations of the text. Theology regularly trades on current metaphors, tropes, and symbols "to think with" about God, but with keen awareness of their ultimate inadequacy to capture divine truth. Images and personae of slaves and slave masters applied to God, Christ, and the apostle Paul do not so much undermine or subvert the system from which they derive (here Harrill makes his case) as overwhelm or burst it. "Plainly" identifying God's Son and humanity's Savior as both Lord/Master and slave/servant of all (cf. Mark 10:42-45; Phil 2:5-8), for example, provides enormously challenging and disorienting imagery with which to contemplate the mysteries of God and God's people in any age.

F. Scott Spencer

Baptist Theological Seminary

3400 Brook Road

Richmond, VA 23227-4538

COPYRIGHT 2006 Biblical Theology Bulletin, Inc
COPYRIGHT 2006 Gale Group
Biblical Theology Bulletin > Winter, 2006 >


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