Tuesday, August 28, 2018


Katherine Ann Shaner, Enslaved Leadership in Early Christianity. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. Pp. xxviii, 207. ISBN 9780190275068. £64.00.

Reviewed by Ulrike Roth, The University of Edinburgh (u.roth@ed.ac.uk)

Version at BMCR home site

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Sometime in the second century CE, a man who called himself Xanthos of Lycia, (the slave) of Gaius Orbius—Ξάνθος Λύκιος Γαίου Ὀρβίου—founded a cult to the god Men in Attica.1 Xanthos made numerous arrangements—known to us from the surviving epigraphy—to protect his religious authority. Comparison of Xanthos' cult regulations with other inscriptionally attested ones suggests that he envisaged both free and enslaved cult participants.2 Or, rather, that the participants' legal statuses did not matter. Xanthos has also been compared to a man who has been instrumental in the establishment of one of the most successful religious foundations ever—i.e., Paul of Tarsus, and Christianity.3 Paul too, it merits remembering, contended in a still badly-understood passage that there is (inter alia) no slave or free in the Christian community (Gal. 3.28). It is with the religious involvement of the enslaved in the world in which both Xanthos and Paul lived that the book under review is concerned. In particular, the book seeks to understand the 'tensions, ambiguities, and power contestations that arise with the presence of enslaved persons in ancient religious communities' (p. xii). The ultimate focus is on the enslaved in the early Christ-groups, while approaching their study from the broader context of the ritual activity of the enslaved in the period and geography in which early Christianity formed—of which Xanthos is a conspicuous (albeit not cited) example.

Enslaved Leadership in Early Christianity is the fruit of doctoral research undertaken by Katherine A. Shaner at Harvard Divinity School. The author places her work consciously into a feminist framework, explicitly acknowledging that existing power dynamics tend to silence enslaved individuals. Consequently, Shaner is concerned not to reproduce the perspectives of those who exercised the powers of ownership over other human beings that dominate our evidence. Drawing on the concept of 'kyriarchy' to 'signal the multifaceted power dynamics present in social structures' (p. xiv, with p. 125, note 16), Shaner seeks to prioritise the cracks in the evidence to tell a different story—on five distinct topics, each given c. 20 pages of text (with images).

To begin with, Shaner turns to the streets of Ephesus to 'explore examples of how archaeological remains in Ephesos mark, discuss, and regulate enslaved persons who participate in civic and religious practices around the city' (p. 3): if we can see the free in our evidence, Shaner contends, we can also see the enslaved. Three exploratory case studies follow. First, the benefactors' list from the fishing customs house—i.e. a discussion of some of the inscribed (!) names (leading to an optimistic identification of enslaved individuals on onomastic grounds). Second, the Tetragonos Agora, the central marketplace, connected to the harbour through the Arcadian Street (intermittently spelled 'Arkadian' and 'Akadian')—'to consider the multiple subject-positions that enslaved persons may have inhabited' (p. 9): these 'positions' include the acts of being sold, of buying and selling (including of other human beings) by traders of servile status, and of euergetism by those formerly enslaved—illustrated on Mithridates and Mazaeus, who had been enslaved to Livia and Augustus, and who commissioned the southern Market Gate. Also mentioned is a decree by Paullus Fabius Persicus, regulating the finances of the Artemis cult that involved individuals enslaved by the city—δοῦλοι δημόσιοι. Shaner concludes that '(w)hen understood in the context of the central marketplace that included slave markets where enslaved persons, freed persons, and free-born persons all purchased slaves, we begin to recognise that enslavement (present or former) does not exclude enslaved persons from participating in the commercial life of the city' (p. 13). The Terrace Houses provide the context for the third exploration, which culminates in a visualisation of enslaved waiters in the so-called Marble Hall—emphasising that these could move around behind the diners to 'attend to masters' needs without needing to be seen doing so, unless the master wishes them to be visible' (p. 20).

Chapter 2 concentrates on the abovementioned decree by Paullus Fabius Persicus. Shaner explores locational and contextual dimensions, concluding that 'the fact that Persicus must insist that specific tasks revert to public slaves tells us that in practice public slaves and free persons were not always distinguishable by their roles' (p. 36). Moreover, Shaner asserts that the employed rhetoric 'stands in tension with the actual roles that they [δοῦλοι δημόσιοι] enacted' (p. 37). What Shaner means is, simply, that the decree prohibits the δοῦλοι δημόσιοι from dedicating purchased infants to Artemis so that the cult should pay for the upbringing of the children; the decree states clearly that they must 'rear their own slaves'. A brief survey of the financial and ritual responsibilities that δοῦλοι δημόσιοι may hold concludes the chapter. Overall, Shaner here aims to rebut scholarship that maintains that the roles taken up by enslaved individuals were of little (or no) cultic importance and religious meaning.

Chapter 3 moves to the New Testament, including Paul's letter to Philemon. Shaner rightly emphasises that scholarship has minimised the cultic involvement of the enslaved in the early Christ-groups, stripping these individuals off the religious authority that they once enjoyed—resulting in a picture of servile engagement 'in Christ' that is barren at best. (But note that the discussion has missed recent relevant work.4) The complex evidence is however not subjected to rigorous (textual) analysis. Instead, six 'stories' are told about scholarly approaches to the study of 'Paul and slavery', focussing on historical, political, philosophical and religious aspects, and the potentially (politically and socially) subversive or (socially and legally) exclusive perspectives adopted by Paul. Shaner responds to these 'Paul-centred' approaches by seeking other textual voices—championing inter alia the (unsupported) idea that Philemon was enslaved or freed by Paul. Moreover, in her quest for fresh interpretations, Shaner commends Allen Dwight Callahan's understanding of a familial relationship between Onesimus and Philemon as a 'significant exception' to the standard approaches (p. 149, note 2); but the debate on the two men's (potential blood) relationship is already found in the pro-slavery and abolitionist discourses of the 19th century.5 More generally, and like many others, Shaner conceives of Philemon in terms of Roman slavery (and Roman society more broadly)—irrespective of the fact that we assume Philemon to have lived in a free Greek city, and that it is improbable that the Hellenised Jew Paul would have dealt with a non-Roman native of Western Asia Minor according to Roman rules and practices: this Rome-centric approach sidelines the complexities of life in the Roman Empire.

The fourth chapter returns to archaeology and epigraphy to show that 'the work of enslaved ritual specialists sustains sacrificial practices in the city [of Ephesus]', exploring also (postulated) differences between 'rhetorics of sacrifice in inscriptional evidence […] and in imperial depictions' (p. 64). Discussing the so-called Sacred Law (IEph 10), Shaner emphasises the role of (possibly) enslaved cult personnel in maintaining ritual knowledge and overseeing the cult, including the (free) priests. (Inscribed tria nomina are hastily taken to prove Roman citizenship; while individuals recorded with one name are understood as enslaved.) According to Shaner, the knowledge held by the (possibly) enslaved 'poses a possible challenge to [the free priests'] authority' (p. 71). This 'tension' is then taken as the basis for studying architectural changes on the Triodos, which likely contained a monumental altar used in Artemis-processions. Taking a strong view of Rome's imperial authority, Shaner contends that 'the Roman Empire regulates even the most well-established cultic activities in the city' (p. 73)—a view that she elaborates on the Parthian Reliefs (of no secure location). The lengthy description concludes that 'the viewer cannot tell whether the crowd surrounding the imperial family includes enslaved persons, freedpersons, Roman citizens, or prominent ritual specialists' (p. 83). Shaner sees this status ambiguity as a means to direct attention to the elite figures (only): but why, one may ask, are the other figures present at all? The ritual servants are precisely not excluded from the image of imperial power. More generally, I was not persuaded that 'the [ritual] role of enslaved persons was contested (my emphasis)' in the presented evidence.

The final chapter focuses on second century CE Christian texts—1 Timothy, and Ignatius' Letter to Polycarp—to 'draw a fuller picture of the contestation around enslaved leadership' (p. 88-9). Shaner argues that the letters' instructions 'construct singular subjectivities' in the community so that '(m)ultiple roles are not supposed' (p. 93). Shaner is right to insist that 1 Timothy attempts 'to persuade readers that leadership roles should reflect kyriarchal structures' (p. 95): modern scholars have often been reluctant to acknowledge the letter's authoritative commands for the maintenance of (then) traditional ordering, slavery fully included. One could add that the emphasis on the bishops' and deacons' qualities mirrors those of (enslaved) estate managers in contemporary Roman agricultural writing—which was, unambiguously, based on slavery.6 The letter's instructions—like those of Ignatius—discriminate also against women, explored by Shaner subsequently, stressing the inherent link between the early Christian domination of women and adherence to slavery. I found this Shaner's strongest chapter, not least because it allocated a decent amount of space to the discussion of the selected evidence.

The importance of Shaner's topic can hardly be overestimated and Shaner's reluctance to accept entrenched views and interpretations regarding enslaved individuals in early Christianity is well placed, as is her keenness to avoid the language of slavery (albeit not consistently: see esp. Ch. 5, and references to public slaves (sic) throughout). Much of her discussion is exploratory, featuring heavy meta-language, in place of detailed analysis of the evidence, thus weakening her argument and conclusions; elsewhere, the conclusions are self-evident (as some of the above examples show). Besides, given that the discussion foregrounds the embeddedness of dishonoured individuals 'in the social and political machinations of honor' (p. 106), I would have wanted to see sustained theoretical engagement with Orlando Patterson's views on the quintessential lack of honour in slavery (only cited in passing: pp. xxi and 111) and with his views on power: how should we conceive of enslaved individuals who wield religious authority—in seeming contradiction to their servile status? Put differently, do enslaved Christians with cult responsibilities actually hold power—or does the fact that the source of their power is their (heavenly) kyrios confirm (rather than challenge) their servility—as Patterson's theory would suggest?7 If so, the religious engagement of Onesimus was perhaps quintessentially different to that of Xanthos after all: the latter seemingly exercised his religious powers off his own bat. Probing the evidence for the ritual involvement of the enslaved at Rome, John North ended up asking '(w)hat ought to be inferred from all this?'8 The answer is still to be given.


1.   IG II2.1365; IG II2.1366; IG II2.4856 (now lost).
2.   A late Hellenistic parallel is SIG3.985, recording the institution of a household cult by a certain Dionysios of Philadelphia, repeatedly stating that cult membership is open to both free and slave, ἐλευθέροις καὶ οἰκέταις (as well as to both men and women: ἀνδράσι καὶ γυναιξὶν).
3.   J. C. Hanges, Paul, Founder of Churches. A Study in Light of the Evidence for the Role of "Founder-Figures" in the Hellenistic-Roman Period (Tübingen, 2012), 304-16.
4.   Esp. U. Roth, 'Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus: a Christian design for mastery', Zeitschrift für die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 105.1 (2014), 102-30; and more recently (but too late for Shaner to consult), 'Paul and slavery: economic perspectives', in T. R. Blanton and R. Pickett (edd.), Paul and Economics. A Handbook (Minneapolis, 2017), 155-82.
5.   A. D. Callahan, Embassy of Onesimos: The Letter of Paul to Philemon (Valley Forge/PA, 1997); cf. e.g. Adam Clarke's Commentary on the Bible (New York, 1831): Phlm 16.
6.   See Columella, De Re Rustica 1.8.1-14.
7.   O. Patterson, Slavery and Social Death. A Comparative Study (Cambridge/MA and London, 1982), 299-333.
8.   J. A. North, 'The ritual activity of Roman slaves', in S. Hodkinson and D. Geary (edd.), Slaves and Religions in Graeco-Roman Antiquity and Modern Brazil (Cambridge, 2012), 67-93, at 85.

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