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Tuesday, August 11, 2015

How Early Christians Understood (or Misunderstood) Slavery

One of the many reasons that I enjoy the study of Medieval history so much is because it is such a misunderstood and misrepresented era. There are so many misconceptions surrounding the Medieval period, caused primarily by Hollywood, Renaissance Festivals, etc. Uncovering the sometimes obscure facts about the Medieval era helps to shed those misconceptions and brings greater understanding.

One of those misconceptions has to do with the practice of slavery and how early Christians understood (or perhaps misunderstood) the practice. Contrary to popular belief, early Christianity did not repeal the practice or reduce the numbers of slaves involved. Rather, early Christians, in many ways, found convenient justifications that allowed the practice to continue and even flourish for many years.

To be certain, slavery did, over time, dwindle away in Medieval Europe thanks in large part to the Christian faith (though one could easily argue that peasantry, along with different forms of forced labor wasn't much better).  But as the final remnants of the Roman Empire decayed away, being replaced with Christian institutions to fill the void and establish new social and political constructs, the slavery question required an overhaul in how it would be reconciled to this new world faith. Naturally, an appeal to Christian authority (meaning Jesus' apostles) would satisfy such a void. The Didache (a first century collection of teaching attributed to the Twelve Apostles) states the following on slavery:
Do not, when embittered, give orders to your slave, male or female, for the hope in the same God; otherwise, they might lose fear of God, who is the Master of both of you. Surely is not coming to call with an eye to rank and station in life, no. But you, slaves, be submissive to your masters as to God's image in reverence and fear.
The message here is clear. Slaves, though technically eligible for salvation, are still an accepted component of society. Slave masters are to do their Christian duty by treating their slaves with relative respect, just as God treats them (his children who are still subjugated to him) with that same respect.

The Bible is full of examples of how early Christians were to interact and deal with their slaves. Paul alone provides us with ample source material on the subject. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul directs slaves to submit to their masters willfully. It is important to note that the word "servant" or "maid" in the King James Translation actually means "slave.":
Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ.
From 1 Timothy 6: 1-3 we read:
Let as many servants as are under the yoke count their own masters worthy of all honor, that the name of God and his doctrine be not blasphemed. And they that have believing masters, let them not despise them, because they are brethren, but rather do them service, because they are faithful and beloved, partakers of the benefit. These things teach and exhort, If any man teach otherwise, and consent not to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which is according to godliness.
For Paul, and many other Christians, slavery is simply a normal part of life. The job of the Christian is to play their part as best they can as Christians.  From 1 Corinthians 12:13:
For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit.
And Galatians 3:28:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, that is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.
And Colossians 3:11:
Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision or uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free, but Christ is all and in all.
Slavery was part and parcel to daily life in the world of early Christians, and their leadership seemed content to embrace it as they would embrace any other aspect of their lives. In fact, Paul appears to support slave holding to a fault.  In his letter to Philemon, Paul mentions the fact that he has returned a runaway slave (Onesimus), whom he met while together in prison, to his master, presumably Philemon. Though he could have given the runaway Onesimus sanctuary, Paul returned him to his owner (though he hints to Philemon that he would like to see Onesimus freed).  Had Paul seen slavery as a Christian abomination, this would have been the best time of all to take a stand.  He didn't because Paul, like his fellow Christians of the day, saw no sin in the keeping of slaves.

As the Apostles died away, the idea of slavery continued to be sanctioned by the subsequent generations of Christian leaders. Polycarp (a disciple of the Apostle John), for example, urged slaveholders to avoid emancipating their slaves, since (in his mind) slaves would naturally fall away from God:
Let them submit themselves the more, for the glory of God, that they may obtain from God a better liberty. Let them not wish to be set free as the public expense, that they be not found slaves to their own desires.
It is important that we understand the type of slavery that existed in this period. Contrary to the slavery of the New World (almost exclusively Black African slavery), the slavery of late antiquity/the early Medieval world was usually the result of debts, crimes committed or neighboring societies conquering and subjugating the losers. People who found themselves swimming in debts, for example, often found forgiveness for said debts by selling themselves, or more common, their family members into slavery.  In Matthew 18:25 we read:
But forasmuch as he had not to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made.
Slaves were even owned by High Priests and potentially even by apostles themselves.  From Mark 14:66:
And as Peter was beneath in the palace, there cometh one of the maids of the high priest.
Over time (particularly after the "fall" of the Roman Empire), slavery became a less advantageous enterprise that was phased out. The institution of peasantry and other forms of impoverished living were more advantageous to Medieval society than slavery.

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