There is an obvious need for a clear understanding of slavery as we approach the book of Philemon. In this post I want to summarize a few points from John Byron on slavery. The article is dealing with Paul’s metaphor of a slave, but some of the information provides an excellent entry point into the difficulties of dealing with slavery in the first century. Be sure to scan through the comments below, John Byron has interacted with this post in the past. He recently published A Week in the Life of a Slave (IVP Academic, 2019). This short book uses a novel to present the life of a slave in first century Rome. It is in the same series as Gary Burge’s A Week in the Life of a Roman Centurion or James L. Papandrea, A Week in the Life of Rome.
John Byron surveys recent attempts to deal with Paul’s slavery metaphors in New Testament studies. The bulk of the article deals with a shift from the work of Bartchy in 1973 which made extensive use of Greco-Roman and Jewish legal texts to more recent sociological studies by Patterson and others. Bartchy’s view was that slavery in the first century was “decidedly benign,” while Patterson argues that slavery was equivalent to a “death experience.” Bartchy’s views have been far more influential on New Testament commentaries than Patterson’s studies, perhaps skewing the point of Paul’s metaphor of slavery. Byron’s article is a challenge to the commonly taught idea of selling one’s self into slavery to pay debts and the possibility of a better life as a slave.
This debate highlights the problem of sources. Bartchy, for example, uses legal texts to show that there was a softening of attitudes toward slaves in the first century which made the slave into something more like “employee” rather than property. There are a number of problems with using legal, as Byron points out in his conclusion. The main source for Roman Law is dated to A.D. 533, well after the first century. In addition, there is a great difference between a law and actual social attitudes. Bartchy may cite laws protecting slaves, but there is no real evidence that society accepted those laws or that authorities always enforced them.
Even in America, we know that simply having a law does not guarantee everyone obeys the law, nor does the law tell us anything about society’s attitude toward the law. Traffic laws would be a good example here. Someone studying American law could say the maximum speed on the highway is no more than 70 M.P.H., but we know this is not the case at all. In some cases, authorities may choose not to enforce a strict speed limit. The same may have been true for slavery, therefore Roman law becomes less secure for reconstructing actual practice towards slaves in the first century. Consistency in application of laws is not a forgone conclusion in the case of slavery in the world of the first century.
There are other literary sources for slavery dating to the first century which may provide some data. Philosophers are often cited as indicating a shift in society’s attitude toward slavery. As Byron notes, there is no evidence these writings reflect public sentiment. In fact, one might argue there are very few times in history where the writings of a philosopher accurately reflected the views of society as a whole! It is possible to miss the point of a philosopher by not taking a saying in context of their system of thought. For example, the oft-cited view of Seneca that masters ought to not mistreat their slaves is not an example of a softening of attitudes toward slaves but rather an example of the Stoic ethic of self-control.
References to slaves also appear in Roman satirists and in novels. These references are also problematic since they do not really say anything about the status of a slave in the society. To take sayings of Marital, for example, as indicative of the general thinking of the populace is akin to taking Jerry Seinfeld as an example of how all Americans think. Novels which portray slaves as virtuous, socially mobile, etc. are poor evidence since the slave character is usually a prince who has wrongfully been enslaved and overcomes this setback and is restored to his proper status in the end. If a novel tried to accurately describe the life of a real slave, it would not be a very interesting novel at all! Novelists and satirists do not offer a sociological opinion of the status of the slave in the first century, therefore it would be dangerous to rely too heavily on this literature in research on first century slaves.
There is much to be learned from the sociological approaches to slavery as described by Byron. These studies seem to turn the accepted view of slavery one normally encounters in a commentary on Philemon around in a completely opposite direction. The law codes are a “legal fiction” and slavery was far from a pleasant experience. If one was forced into slavery it was as if one has died. This was no mere economic decision (selling yourself into seven years of slavery to pay off a debt, for example.) The slave, at the social level, was no longer a person but rather he has become property and is no longer his own. This “dying to self” and giving up personal ownership to a master is an appealing element when looking at Paul’s use of the metaphor, but it may be more influenced by American / western values of individuality and freedom rather than that of the Greco-Roman world. Was “freedom” more important than slavery? Perhaps not, sometimes it my have been better to be a slave to a powerful person than a freedman.
How does this “background” effect the way we look at Philemon and his slave, Onesimus?
Bibliography: John Byron, “Paul And The Background Of Slavery: The Status Quaestionis In New Testament Scholarship,” CBR 3.1 (2004) 116-139.