Christianity Through Roman Eyes: What Does a Pagan Roman Letter from 111 A.D. Tell Us About Early Christians?

Alexamenos Graffiti

The earliest known mention of Christians by a Roman appears in a letter by Pliny, a Roman governor of Asia Minor – what is now part of modern Turkey.  The letter is actually the second earliest writing about Christianity by a non-Christian, the first being from about 90-95 AD by Josephus, a Jewish writer.

Pliny’s letter was written in 111 AD, which puts it immediately after the New Testament era. At this point in history, the last “books” of the New Testament were written and the last of the Apostles would’ve died off not long before this.

Pliny is writing to Emperor Trajan for advice about dealing with this strange new group of people called Christians. The letter gives us some interesting insights into the earliest Christians.

THE SITUATION 

Pliny writes in the letter:

“For the moment, this is the line I have taken with all persons brought before me on the charge of being Christians. I have asked them in person if they are Christians, and if they admit it, I repeat the question a second and a third time, with a warning of the punishment awaiting them. If they persist, I order them to be led away for execution; for whatever the nature of their admission, I am convinced that their stubbornness and unshakable obstinacy ought not to go unpunished.

“Now that I have begun to deal with this problem, as so often happens, the charges are becoming more widespread and increasing in variety. An anonymous pamphlet has been circulated which contains the names of a number of accused persons. Among these I felt that I should dismiss any who denied that they were or ever had been Christians when they had repeated after me a formula of invocation to the gods and had made offerings of wine and incense to your statue (which I had ordered to be brought into court for this purpose along with the images of the gods), and furthermore had reviled the name of Christ—none of which things, I understand, any genuine Christian can be induced to do.

“Others, whose names were given to me by an informer, first admitted the charge and then denied it; they said that they had ceased to be Christians two or more years previously, and some of them even twenty years ago. They all did reverence to your statue and the images of the gods in the same way as the others, and reviled the name of Christ.”

So, people are being accused of being Christians and Pliny is having them brought before him.  Obviously, something about these Christians is causing the pagan Romans concern, even to the point of having pamphlets published naming names of supposed Christians.

Those accused of being Christians were ordered by Pliny to worship and pray to pagan idols of Roman gods (likely Jupiter, Juno, Minerva, etc.) and a statue of the Emperor Trajan and to curse the name of Christ, things no “genuine Christian” would do. Some of these accused Christians obey Pliny and other do not. Those that refused, Pliny states plainly, were led off to execution.

EARLY CHRISTIAN PRACTICES DESCRIBED

Pliny receives (and, thus, so do we) some interesting insights into early Christianity from the questioning of those who claimed they had once been Christians but no longer.

Pliny continues:

“They also declared that the sum total of their guilt or error amounted to no more than this: they had met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternately among themselves in honor of Christ as if to a god,”

This is interesting because many skeptics try to claim that the idea that Jesus Christ is God developed long after – even centuries after – Christianity originated. In other words, they claim the first Christians didn’t believe Jesus was God, but as time passed and legends grew, Jesus Christ became God. Yet, here we have a non-Christian witness telling us Christians worshipped Jesus as God at the very beginning of the second century. And, clearly, this was a practice that had to be going on before the letter was written, which places this practice of worshipping Jesus as God even earlier.

Pliny continues:

“and also to bind themselves by oath, not for any criminal purpose, but to abstain from theft, robbery and adultery, to commit no breach of trust and not to deny a deposit when called on to restore it. After this ceremony it had been their custom to disperse and reassemble later to take food of an ordinary, harmless kind;”

Several things are interesting to note here.

First, when Christians would gather, they worshipped Christ and made oaths to follow biblical morality (which included being honest with money [“to not deny a deposit when called on to restore it”]). Then, they would gather again at a later time for a shared meal. We read in the Book of Acts that sharing meals was a regular part of living as the local church for the first Christians (Acts 2:46).

It’s a bit humorous in hindsight that Pliny describes the food of the Christians as “ordinary” and “harmless.” There were rumors back then that this strange new cult of Christians were cannibals. That may sound crazy to many of us today, but when you take into account the Christian ordinance of communion (The Lord’s Supper), where Christians symbolically eat the “flesh” (bread) and drink the “blood” (wine) of Christ, one can understand how such a rumor could begin. Communion is a ritual implemented by Christ himself to be done to remember his self-sacrifice upon the cross for the forgiveness of sins (Matt 26:26-28; 1 Cor 11:23-26). Such a rumor starting among those unfamiliar with Christian practices and beliefs makes perfect sense.

“but they had in fact given up this practice since my edict, issued on your instructions, which banned all political societies.”

These Christians had met for shared meals, but they ceased meeting like this because Pliny outlawed similar meetings for political reasons. The Roman authority didn’t want any competition, so “political societies” were outlawed. Though the Christians were not getting together for political reasons, their gatherings for meals shared enough characteristics with these political clubs for them to be in violation of the law, so the Christians ceased to meet in this way.

The point we should note: with the exception of worshipping the Roman gods and emperor, the Christians were law-abiding.

“This made me decide that it was all the more necessary to extract the truth by torture from two slave-women, whom they call deaconesses.”

Here, we see that both slaves and women held the position of deacon in the early church.

WHEN DOWN IS UP AND UP IS DOWN

Pliny ends this section of his letter by concluding:

“I found nothing but a degenerate sort of cult carried to extravagant lengths.”

To close, we must note the irony. After laying out that the Christians are an honest, moral, harmless, law-abiding people, this Roman, who doesn’t hesitate to execute or torture them, describes them as a “degenerate sort of cult carried to extravagant lengths”!

Keep in mind, “cult” for most of history is a neutral term without the largely negative connotation that it holds today. “Cult” simply means a religious group devoted to a certain deity or person. Thus, Christians are quite literally members of the cult of Jesus Christ.

But it should also be noted that “cult” may not be the best translation here. The Greek word used is actually superstitio, which can be translated “superstition.” All three Roman writers who mention Christianity in the beginning of the second century (Pliny, Tacitus, Suetonius) describe the group as superstitio. Superstitio “referred to beliefs and practices that were foreign and strange to the Romans” [1] and was a term with a negative connotation.

Where we may think pagans would be open to other forms of religious faith, the Romans considered themselves extremely pious according to their religion and looked at foreign faiths with suspicion. Yet, as long as those foreign faiths also honored the Roman gods, they were tolerated. In the eyes of the Romans, the exclusivity of the Christians’ beliefs put their very society and culture at risk by offending their gods.

Despite this, early Christianity grew and spread in this environment, ultimately changing the culture around it.

So, in a way, the Romans were right to fear the Christians as a threat to their way of life.

 

Read Part 1: Christianity Through Roman Eyes: The Absurdity of the Cross – What Does a Piece of Ancient Graffiti Tell Us About Christianity?

Read Part 2: Christianity Through Roman Eyes: The Absurdity of the Cross – Would Ancient Jews or Romans Invent a Crucified God?

[1] The Christians As the Romans Saw Them by Robert Louis Wilken – Second Edition, Yale university Press, 2003 P.49-50

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Christianity Through Roman Eyes: The Absurdity of the Cross – Would Ancient Jews or Romans Invent a Crucified God?

Alexamenos Graffiti

As we explore what the ancient Romans thought of Christians, it’s worth taking a little more time to speak of the absurdity to Roman sensibilities that Christians would worship a crucified person.

Crucifixion – It Ain’t Pretty

One doesn’t have to contemplate crucifixion long to grasp the ultimate horror of it. Simply imagine being laid out naked on a rough wooden beam and spikes being driven through your wrists or forearms and feet or ankles. Some ropes may be used to prevent your flesh from ripping to prevent you from falling from the cross once it has been stood upright. As gravity pulls your bodyweight down on the stakes that have been driven through your flesh and bones, then begins the long wait for your slow death to play out – in public for all to see, in the heat of the sun and chill of the night.

A small, slanted piece of wood for your feet to sit on helps support a bit of your weight. Some studies say the weight of your body and the position of your outstretched arms may have made it hard to breath, and thus, the crucified would have to push up on the spikes piercing their feet and pull up on the spikes through their arms to raise their bodies enough to a position to take in good, deep breaths of air.

Torture usually preceded crucifixion. With the Romans, this often came in the form of being beaten by a leather whip with bits of metal and bones weaved into it to rip the flesh, exposing muscle and bone. Once hung on the cross, the cause of death could be many things: shock from loss of blood, exhaustion, suffocation, exposure, or any combination.

What Did Ancient People Think of Crucifixion?

Martin Hengel in his book Crucifixion: In the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross looks at ancient historical sources and brings to light several things about this cruelest form of execution.

Crucifixion, wide-spread in antiquity, was seen as the ultimate deterrent. A risk that may lead one to be put up on that cross was a risk not worth taking. The cruel and public (not to mention inexpensive) nature of crucifixion was an appealing tool in keeping order. After being tortured, the Romans made the victim carry his own cross to the crucifixion location. After death, the executed was left on the cross as food for wild animals and birds of prey. To ancient people, the victim going unburied would have grim religious significance. It was all a brutal, public spectacle.

In the Roman Empire, the elite inflicted crucifixion primarily on the lower classes (especially slaves), violent criminals, and rebellious upstarts. Such criminals held no rights in the Roman world, and any challenge to the Roman authority would not be tolerated.

What Hengel displays convincingly is that crucifixion was the ultimate humiliation and offense to the Romans. It was a slave’s death. It had such a stigma, the word “crucifixion” itself was not used in polite company. Even writings mentioning this horrible practice avoided using the word. Among the lower classes “crux” was considered one of the most derogatory, offensive things you could say to a person. Having a family member hung on a cross was disgraceful. In no uncertain terms, crucifixion was scandalous to the ancient Romans (and Jews) and a source of dread.

Why is this significant to Christians today?

First, if the first Christians of the first century had decided to invent a story so they could start a new religion (for whatever motivation), creating a story about a crucified God-man who rose from the dead would not be the way to do it. In fact, it would be a good way to make sure your new religion died a quick death. The idea of following the teachings of a crucified man would have been scandalous and offensive to the extreme. If a Jewish or Roman family would have been ashamed and humiliated knowing one of their own family members had been punished by crucifixion, why would anyone want to adamantly declare that they worship a crucified person?  The idea of worshiping a crucified God-man would sound more absurd to ancient Jewish and Roman ears than to modern, secular ears.

Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 1:

18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God… 

21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

Our second concluding point is this: when we get a clearer understanding of the terror and dehumanizing nature of crucifixion, we understand more fully the length Christ went to because of his love for us. Hengel writes, “Death on the cross was the penalty for slaves, as everyone knew; as such it symbolized extreme humiliation, shame and torture.”

“Christ Jesus,who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,] but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:6-11)

Read Part 1: Christianity Through Roman Eyes: The Absurdity of the Cross – What Does a Piece of Ancient Graffiti Tell Us About Christianity?

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Slavery & the Bible (Part 8) Why Didn’t Jesus Free the Slaves?

Read Part 1: Cherry Picking, Worldview & Consistency

Read Part 2: Not All Types of Slavery are Equal

Read Part 3: American Slavery & Bearing God’s Image

Read Part 4: Slavery Ain’t Always Slavery: The New Testament & Roman Slavery

Read Part 5: Roman Slavery & the Lack of Christian Revolt

Read Part 6: The New Testament Response & Problem Verses

Read Part 7: Another Type of Slavery & Freedom in the New Testament

TWO LAST BIG QUESTIONS

So, we’ve spent the last few articles exploring the New Testament response to slavery. Before we move on to the Old Testament, there are two last, big closing questions we need to answer:

#1 – Why didn’t Jesus or the writers of the New Testament simply tell Christian slave-owners to free their slaves?

#2 – Did it work? — Meaning, did the New Testament response to slavery effectively fight against slavery?

 

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RESPONSE TO BIG CLOSING QUESTION #1

Why didn’t Jesus or the writers of the New Testament tell Christian slave-owners to free their slaves?

Slavery was so prominent in the Roman Empire we can be fairly certain that many of the first people to become Christians were slave-owners. So, why didn’t Jesus ever say or his first followers ever write in the New Testament something like, “Hey, if you’re a slave-owner who is now following Christ, free your slaves”?

First Timothy 6:1-2 reads, “Let all who are under a yoke as bondservants [slaves, servants, “doulos”] regard their own masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be reviled. Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful on the ground that they are brothers; rather they must serve all the better since those who benefit by their good service are believers and beloved.

We’ve already discussed 1 Timothy 6:1-2 and also how doulos has a wide range of meanings, so we can’t be certain Paul is addressing true slavery here and not something like a worker under contract or an indentured servant. But, for the sake of this exercise, let’s assume doulos means slave here — as in true owning-another-person-as-property slavery. If this is the case, then here in 1 Timothy 6, Paul confirms that there were Christian slave-owners.

So, why didn’t Jesus or the Apostles who wrote the New Testament simply tell Christian slave-owners to free their slaves?

The short answer: They didn’t have to.

Think of it this way: In Ephesians 5:28-29, Paul clearly tells Christian husbands to love their wives. In fact, he says they should love their wives like Christ loves the church. Don’t forget, Christ died to create his church. Now, if Paul says this, does he also have to say, “Oh yeah, don’t beat your wives either”? In the same way, the Bible tells us we’re all made in God’s image and we have inherent eternal worth to God. In fact, God became a man and then died for us all – man, woman, Jew, gentile, slave, freeman – so we could spend eternity with him. Considering this, do the Bible’s writers really have to specifically tell us, “Oh yeah, don’t own someone else like a piece of property”?

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The longer Answer:

Both the New and Old Testaments are saturated with teachings that run counter to the mindset that would condone slavery (as we saw in earlier articles). If one is truly following Christ, they will reach the logical conclusion that the literal ownership of another image-bearer of God is against God’s design.

To hammer this home, there is actually one more section of the New Testament we haven’t looked at yet that has something else to teach us about slavery. It’s another letter by Paul, which we call the Book of Philemon.

Philemon is actually a very short letter written by the Apostle Paul to a Christian named Philemon. Based on the context of the letter, it appears that the letter was delivered from Paul to Philemon by Philemon’s runaway slave, Onesimus. After running away, Onesimus had become a Christian, and one way or another, ended up meeting Paul. As we discussed before, the life of a runaway slave was bleak; the Roman Empire stretched far and wide, and runaway slaves were dealt with harshly.

Instead of telling Onesimus to continue to run, Paul sends him back to Philemon. Interestingly, in his letter, Paul points out that he’s one of Jesus’ apostles so he could easily use his place of authority to command Philemon, a Christian, to “do what is required” – to do the right thing – but he goes on to say “for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you” to welcome back Onesimus not as a fugitive runaway slave and “no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother.” Paul is saying: I’m not going to force you to do what is right because I know you’ll freely do the right thing, which is to treat Onesimus as your brother.

Now, someone may still gripe and say, Paul still didn’t tell him to free Onesimus! But let me ask the obvious question: If Paul tells Philemon to love Onesimus like a brother, does he really have to say that he should free him? I don’t think so.

Why didn’t the writers of the New Testament explicitly tell Christian slave-owners to free their slaves?

They didn’t have to.

Benjamin Reaoch writes in Women, Slaves, and the Gender Debate, “[Paul] does not attack the institution of slavery. But something even deeper and more radical is happening here. In Christ, slaves and masters become brothers.”

NEXTThe Christian Response to Slavery: Did it Work? What history tells us.

Read Part 1: Cherry Picking, Worldview & Consistency

Read Part 2: Not All Types of Slavery are Equal

Read Part 3: American Slavery & Bearing God’s Image

Read Part 4: Slavery Ain’t Always Slavery: The New Testament & Roman Slavery

Read Part 5: Roman Slavery & the Lack of Christian Revolt

Read Part 6: The New Testament Response & Problem Verses

Read Part 7: Another Type of Slavery & Freedom in the New Testament

Check out Who Jesus Ain’t and other books by GFTM here.

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Slavery & the Bible (Part 7) Another Type of Slavery & Freedom in the New Testament

Slavery & the Bible GFTM series…

Read Part 1: Cherry Picking, Worldview & Consistency

Read Part 2: Not All Types of Slavery are Equal

Read Part 3: American Slavery & Bearing God’s Image

Read Part 4: Slavery Ain’t Always Slavery: The New Testament & Roman Slavery

Read Part 5: Roman Slavery & the Lack of Christian Revolt

Read Part 6: The New Testament Response & Problem Verses

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ANOTHER TYPE OF SLAVERY & FREEDOM IN THE NEW TESTAMENT

So, to quickly review our last two articles: Why didn’t the New Testament writers tell Christian slaves to revolt? Because rebellion against the Roman Empire meant one likely outcome: death. So, what could Christian slaves do? Well, they could conduct themselves as Christians, even when slaves, by living out these biblical principles:

  • The Christian Work Ethic: Honor Christ in All You Do
  • Be a Light to the World… Glorify God… Humble Your Enemies
  • Love Your Enemies
  • Personal Sacrifice for the Good of Others

Benjamin Reaoch in his book Women, Slaves, and the Gender Debate points out, “The mere fact that slaves are addressed directly [in the New Testament] is significant. In this way Paul and Peter implicitly recognize the personhood of slaves and grant them the dignity of moral responsibility… The instructions to these individuals would have challenged the cultural norms of the day, and if heeded, would radically transform the master-slave relationship… we find that slavery is an assumed reality, and one that is being transformed by the power of the gospel.”

Or think of it this way: Christian slaves were already saved from eternal separation from God; they would spend eternity with Christ. Their non-Christian slave-masters could not say the same thing. Thus, in the New Testament worldview, that means the Christian slave is free and the non-Christian slave-owner is enslaved. In the light of the revelation of Jesus Christ, their statuses are inverted and there is a clear dichotomy: You’re either a slave to sin or freed by Christ.

So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32)

“Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. (John 8:34-36)

Only in Jesus Christ — the Son — is true freedom found.

But we also find the slave-to-sin vs. free-through-Christ dichotomy put another way in the New Testament: slave-to-sin vs. slave-to-Christ. No one can have two masters (Matt. 6:24); everyone worships something, and you’re either ruled by sin or ruled by Christ. It’s either one or the other. Paul even calls himself a slave (“doulos“/servant/bondservant) of Christ (Rom. 1:1), and he writes elsewhere:

For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant [“doulos”/slave] is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant [“doulos”/slave] of Christ. (1 Corinthians 7:22)

So, in Christ, the believing slave is made free (from the condemnation of sin) and the believing freeman is made a “slave” (through willing obedience to Christ). Here we see a deep truth in paradox: Christians are ruled by Christ as their master, but in doing so they experience true freedom. Everyone is ruled by something, and to be ruled by anything else other than our Creator leads to destruction. You can be a slave to a cruel master (sin) or you can humble yourself before a kind master (Christ), who rules with love and mercy. But, have no doubt about it, you will be ruled by something. Christians obey our master not because of fear of hell, as many who don’t understand true biblical Christianity accuse Christians of from time to time, but because we love God because he first loved us (1 John 4:19).

So, the literal Christian slaves of the Roman Empire were already free in the most important way possible: They were free to live in the reality of God’s eternal kingdom. And once a slave is free in this way, he’s free to willingly put himself second, to love his enemies, and to witness to the truth and freedom of Christ to those around him — even to his human slave-master.

After all, Christians’ ultimate example to follow is their Lord and Savior, the second person of the Trinitarian Godhead, who made himself a slave to all for the sake of all the world:

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant [“doulos,” slave], being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:3-8)

Now, what is more likely to lead the unbelieving slave-masters to salvation — Christian slaves following the Christian principles listed above or Christian slaves openly hating their masters? Christ wins people to him by changing their hearts. Christianity isn’t an outside to inside movement, but an inside to outside movement. Christ didn’t conquer with a sword, but by humbling himself by dying for the world. In the eyes of the Roman world, the slave should be pitied, but to the Christian slave, it’s the unsaved slave-owner that should be pitied — even loved — praying that these sinful people will find God’s mercy and enter into Christ’s eternal kingdom.

Once again, Paul lays out the comparison for us:

“… you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification. 

For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:16-23)

When Jesus chose a metaphor to describe the spreading of his kingdom, he didn’t use the metaphor of a conquering army, but of a mustard seed:

“The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches”(Matthew 13:31-32).

Jesus conquers with love and changes society not by the swiftness of the sword, which is always short-lived, but by changing hearts, the only sure way to change something as deeply ingrained and evil in a culture as slavery was in Rome.

NEXT: The two BIG questions: Why didn’t Jesus tell Christian slave-owners to free their slaves?  and The Christian Response to Slavery: Did it Work?

Read Part 1: Cherry Picking, Worldview & Consistency

Read Part 2: Not All Types of Slavery are Equal

Read Part 3: American Slavery & Bearing God’s Image

Read Part 4: Slavery Ain’t Always Slavery: The New Testament & Roman Slavery

Read Part 5: Roman Slavery & the Lack of Christian Revolt

Read Part 6: The New Testament Response & Problem Verses

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Slavery & The Bible (Part 5) Roman Slavery & the Lack of Christian Revolt

 

Read Part 1: Slavery & the Bible (Part 1) Cherry Picking, Worldview & Consistency

Read Part 2: Slavery & the Bible (Part 2) Not All Types of Slavery are Equal

Read Part 3: Slavery & the Bible (Part 3) American Slavery & Bearing God’s Image

Read Part 4: Slavery & The Bible (Part 4) Slavery Ain’t Always Slavery: The New Testament & Roman Slavery

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INTRO

In this series, as we moved from American slavery to Roman slavery, we saw that the word often translated “slavery” in the New Testament from the ancient Greek word (doulos) actually covers a wide range of types of servanthood. Thus, every time doulos is used in the New Testament, we can’t be 100% certain it’s speaking of true slavery.

But for the sake of argument, let’s assume the worst: that all the times doulos is used in the New Testament, Paul and the other writers of the New Testament are addressing true slavery, true slave masters, and true slaves.

So, why didn’t the Apostles start a revolt — whether through armed revolution or civil disobedience? And why didn’t they tell Christian slave-owners to free their slaves? We’ll be exploring these questions next in this series, and we’ll also look at the New Testament’s slavery “problem verses.”

Why No Christian Revolt?

So, why didn’t the Apostles tell Christian slaves to revolt?

The Quick Answer:

The quick answer is best addressed with another question: Where would rebellion get Roman slaves?

The answer: Dead.

The Long Answer:

Slavery was all-pervasive throughout the Roman Empire and the ancient world. An estimated 85-90% of the inhabitants of Rome and the Italian peninsula were slaves or of slave origin in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD[1]. By the time of Christ, slaves made up well over half of the Roman population.[2] The economy, culture, and the very structure of Roman society were built upon it.

Ancient Rome isn’t 21st Century America with a rich tradition of free speech and human rights (and, yes, I’m going to say it: thanks to the Christian worldview). Captured runaway Roman slaves would have a much harsher, miserable life than the one they lived prior to running away because they would now be criminals as well as slaves. Those sentenced to slavery due to crimes often did the worst sort of labor. Often the very nature of their forced labor was a death sentence, such as working in the gloom of dangerous, lung-destroying mines. Also, it was common for runaway slaves to have the first three letters of the Latin word for “fugitive” branded into their foreheads.

Furthermore, one way Romans prevented slaves from getting ideas about any sort of violent rebellion was simply this: If the slave master ended up murdered, all of his slaves would follow him to the grave. Yes, you read that right: if one person is murdered and that person was a slave-owner, all of his slaves would be put to death. There is historical evidence of one such case of 400 slaves being executed because their master had been murdered even though there was absolutely no evidence that the 400 slaves had anything to do with his death.

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With such a large population as slaves, the Roman elite needed fear and brutality to keep the idea of rebellion far from their minds. As any Christian knows, those seen as a threat to Roman power – such as insurgents and those claiming to be rival kings (such as a Jewish messiah) – were crucified – a slow, torturous death on full display for all to see, just in case anyone had any of their own ideas about challenging Roman authority.

One of the best-known slave uprisings in ancient Rome lasted 3 years from 73-71 BC, the one partly led by Spartacus, a Thracian gladiator-slave. Spartacus with about 70 other slaves escaped from a gladiator training school and raised an army as large as 120,000 slaves at the rebellion’s pinnacle. The slave armies were able to give the Roman armies a run for their money for a short time before being defeated in 71 BC. Spartacus likely died in the battle, but the 6,000 captured slaves who survived didn’t live much longer after that as they were all crucified. Yes, the Roman legions crucified them – all 6,000 of them – lining the Appian Way from Rome to Capua.

If the Apostles Paul or Peter would’ve written that slaves should rebel (in a self-condemning letter in their own hand as irrefutable evidence, no less) both men would’ve been executed on a Roman cross like their Lord and Savior (before they actually were executed for being Christians, anyhow, as they were).

Perhaps some people mistakenly think of the power of the medieval European church and mistakenly project this image of influence back on Jesus’ original disciples. Let’s be clear, the Apostles had no political power or influence. They were a small, strange group of Jews, who – all with the exception of one – met grisly early deaths for proclaiming belief in a God-man who died on a Roman cross and rose from the dead.

Telling Christian slaves to rebel, I’m afraid, wouldn’t have done much good for anyone.

4 T

What About Non-violent Protest & Civil Disobedience?

Certainly, non-violent protest and civil disobedience is a much more Christian way of fighting slavery than violent rebellion. But, again, we’re discussing the ancient Roman Empire, not the modern United States of the 2,000s or even the British Empire in the 1800s and early 1900s.

The reason the movements led by brave men like Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi were successful is because they were doing non-violent protests and civil disobedience against a ruling class which, as unjust as they seem to us today, still had a morality that valued human life (and, yes, I’ll say it again: thanks to the influence of Christianity). The reason the movements of MLK and Gandhi (both inspired by Jesus, mind you) worked is because they actually used the sense of morality of their oppressors against them. Through non-violent resistance, they put the society’s hypocrisy on full display for the world to see, and, more importantly, for the society itself to see – as if holding up a mirror so the society could see itself as it truly was for the first time.

mahatma-gandhi

But here’s the thing about non-violent protest/civil disobedience: it doesn’t work against Hitler or Stalin or Pol Pot or Darth Vader or Saddam Hussein or Kim Jong Un or ISIS. All it would produce against such leaders would be certain death (and likely not a quick or pretty one).

I’m not saying ancient Rome was the exact equivalent of these evil reigns of power, but it wasn’t the modern United States either – by far. Protests by slaves would still be seen as a threat to the rule of the Roman Empire, and if punishment were not death, the punishment would be swift and brutal, especially for a slave. Roman society had a strict social hierarchy, and those with power were fervent in keeping everyone in their place.

MLK

Once again, we’re not talking about a country with a long tradition of free speech. This is the Roman Empire. The significance of civil disobedience – like, say, a work slow-down – would be lost on the Romans and would likely end up with at least a severe flogging.

All we have to do is look at the two earliest known records by Romans about Christians to see this. The earliest was written in about 111 AD by Pliny, a Roman senator:

 

“I have asked them if they are Christians, and if they admit it, I repeat the question a second and third time, with a warning of the punishment awaiting them. If they persist, I order them to be led away for execution; for, whatever the nature of their admission, I am convinced that their stubbornness and unshakable obstinacy ought not go unpunished… They also declared that the sum total of their guilt or error amounted to no more than this: they had met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternately amongst themselves in honor of Christ as if to a god, and also to bind themselves by oath, not for any criminal purpose, but to abstain from theft, robbery, and adultery… This made me decide it was all the more necessary to extract the truth by torture from two slave-women, whom they called deaconesses. I found nothing but a degenerate sort of cult carried to extravagant lengths.”

 

Notice, Pliny plainly states that the “guilt or error” of these Christians was not criminal, yet he still matter-of-factly states that they were tortured and led off to execution. (Also notice the early Christian church allowed women slaves to hold positions of prominence!) Human rights is not a Roman or pagan value. It’s a Christian value – all people, men and women, are made in God’s image (Genesis 1:27).

The second earliest known record written by a Roman about Christians is by Cornelius Tacitus, a Roman proconsul and historian, written in 115 AD:

 

“Therefore, to stop the rumor [that the burning of Rome in 64 AD had taken place by his order], Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus [Christ], from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty: then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.”

 

If you were a Roman Christian or Roman slave (or both) would you feel up for some civil disobedience after hearing of this? Probably not.

Non-violent protest and civil disobedience are great options for modern Americans because the United States is built upon principles that give citizens those options. Free speech is a part of the very DNA of the United States. Human life is valued. During the Roman Empire, free speech was the privilege of few, and even if your actions were non-violent, it didn’t mean violence wouldn’t be used against you – especially if you were a slave.

So, we’re back to where we started: What would rebellion – whether violent or otherwise – get Christian slaves? Nowhere good.

So, what could they do? What other options did they have?

NEXT: The New Testament Approach to Slavery & the “Problem Verses”

Read Part 1: Slavery & the Bible (Part 1) Cherry Picking, Worldview & Consistency

Read Part 2: Slavery & the Bible (Part 2) Not All Types of Slavery are Equal

Read Part 3: Slavery & the Bible (Part 3) American Slavery & Bearing God’s Image

Read Part 4: Slavery & The Bible (Part 4) Slavery Ain’t Always Slavery: The New Testament & Roman Slavery

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Works Cited

[1] Women, Slaves, and the Gender Debate by Benjamin Reaoch.

[2] Seven Truths That Changed the World by Kenneth Richard Samples.