I have at last received my copy of Daniel Vaucher’s book Sklaverei in Norm und Praxis: die früchristlichen Kirchenordnungen (Hildesheim: Olms, 2017). My thanks to Dr Vaucher for his kind note, and for sending me a second copy after the Post Office managed to lose the first. I am sorry that it has taken so long for a review to appear.
The object of the work is to understand Christian understandings of slavery through a proper examination of Christian sources, which has not been undertaken with sufficient rigour, particularly not by recent studies. Although there is a focus on church orders, the author has an extensive knowledge of other early Christian literature; thus the opening, which refers to the Vita Polycarpi and to the Acta Andreae, plunges us directly into the world of unreflective Christians in antiquity.
After setting out the purpose of the work in the first chapter, in the second chapter Vaucher describes and contextualizes the church orders, setting their development in the world of a developing, urbanizing, diverse Christianity. On the basis of function the church orders are seen as prescriptive Christian texts, setting out an ideal which may be in tension with the reality. Hence the title of the work sees Christian discourse regarding slavery setting norms which are not actually achieved. Beyond this, however, the following chapters manifest the extent of unanswered questions regarding early Christianity and slavery. The study is not, however, restricted to the church orders, but to other prescriptive material, or material which might be read as prescriptive. Thus the third chapter focusses on Paul. Vaucher demonstrates the variety of unanswered questions regarding slavery in the Pauline corpus, in particular in the interpretation of Philemon. His overall suggestion is that Paul has an ideal which is eschatological in goal, but which is also not manifested. Such a failure is manifested in the Corinthian Gemeindemahl and in the treatment of slavery. This is rather better than “love-patriarchalism” as an understanding of Paul’s approach, since it takes account of the eschatological nature of the real Christian communities, and sees the disappearance of slavery as part of the yet-unrealized Kingdom.
This leads to the deutero-Pauline literature in the fourth chapter, as in this literature we see something similar to the church orders, as well as the first treatment of the church orders’ directions concerning slavery. Vaucher suggests that the Pauline tension is unresolved, and that there are two streams in early Christianity, broadly “libertarian” or ascetic, a stream later represented by monasticism, and a more bürgerlich stream represented by the church orders as in previous generations by the Haustafel. It is in the course of this chapter that there is one of the many interesting discussions of detail, here in particular over the question of the purchase of slaves by congregations in order that they may obtain their freedom. Vaucher points to the very different versions of the same material in Didascalia 2.62.4 and its parallel in Constitutiones apostolorum, where the latter text indicates the possibility that slaves might be purchased. This is read in the light of the earlier prohibition on the purchase of slaves’ freedom from common funds in the Ignatian Ad Pol., indicating that the practice of post-Constantinian Christianity was different, by virtue of living in a different ecclesial contest.
The theme of lack of resolution continues as the fifth chapter examines the tension which exists between the rhetoric (and ritual) of baptism and the reality of slavery. Here Vaucher raises, and in my opinion answers correctly, a particular issue regarding the demand in Traditio apostolica for a “master’s reference” for a slave-catechumen. The same chapter also considers slave office-holders, though this might better have been discussed separately, as Vaucher returns in a subsequent chapter to the matter of the catechumenate, pointing out in the sixth chapter the extent to which the “forbidden professions” of Traditio apostolica might tend to exclude slaves. The author might reasonably respond to this criticism that the chapter continues the theme of the book overall, which is the tension between the institution of slavery and the practice of slavery; indeed, although the matter of slaves as office-holders has been discussed to some extent already in this blog, the discussion in the book goes far beyond this, suggesting that exclusion was a later phenomenon, but suggesting that certain offices, particularly in the earliest period, might principally have been held by the slaves and freedmen of the episkopos-patron. The brief discussion of the role and origin of the reader is particularly enlightening here.
As already noted, the sixth chapter concerns potential exclusion of slaves from the catechumenate on the basis of forbidden professions. Again, this is an unnoticed area which Vaucher has done well to observe. The chapter may be read alongside the useful appendix setting out the “forbidden professions” as found in the various sources.
The seventh chapter turns to the treatment of slaves. Again the tension within the Christian message and the practice of slavery emerges. As is the case in many of the chapters, a host of sub-questions emerges. In particular the observations regarding the extent to which both the pseudo-Ignatians and the Consitutiones apostolorum expand their Vorlagen considerably in encouraging the proper treatment of slaves, and introduce extensive material which is not in the documents which they are reworking, cause Vaucher to suggest that the authors are facing a real issue in their Antiochene context, and that the poor treatment of slaves is still an issue three hundred years into the life of the Christian movement. The same chapter observes the similarities and differences between the catalogues of those from whom gifts are to be refused in the Didascalia, the Constitutiones apostolorum and in the pseudo-Athanasian material such as the Fides patrum, in particular with regard to the treatment of slaves. The literary puzzle is perhaps insoluble, but its observation is worthwhile, and the extent to which it forms a tradition is noteworthy.
A final chapter compounds the puzzle of unanswered questions by posing the question of slavery and sex, in a society in which slaves were the sexual property of their owners. Could a slave employed for a master’s sexual satisfaction become a Christian or would this pollute the body to an extent that such a person is of necessity excluded? Again one feels that this topic might better have been discussed in the context of catechumenate, but the questions are well-posed nonetheless.
The conclusion repeats the extent of the problematic, and emphasizes the extent to which the institution of slavery goes unquestioned in the Christian sources, even whilst standing in tension to the Christian Gospel.
There are also appendices and excursus. Reference has already been made to the appendix laying out the various versions of the “forbidden professions”; this is preceded by an extensive appendix setting out the various church orders in their interrelated confusion. The interest of this to the readers of the blog is obvious.
The main argument is valuable, but the value of the work goes beyond the overall argument, firstly in the manner in which it provides a worked example of the importance of the church orders as historical documents and at the same time their limitations and secondly, as already indicated, in the individual discussions of disputed and unclear points.
As an example of such, I may take that of concubinage in Traditio apostolica. Vaucher notes the particular arrangements for concubines in Traditio apostolica 16, and the recognition here of the social (and legal) reality of slave-concubines. However, he notes the oddness that there is no mention of the controversy with Kallistos, who had allowed the de facto marriage of free women and enslaved men, something criticized roundly in the Refutatio. It emerges from Vaucher’s discussion that Kallistos’ intention was that Christian women were to have Christian spouses, and thus that there might be difficulty for them to find Christian husbands of their own social status. Thus although Vaucher, who rightly recognizes the “aristokratische Besinning” of Hippolytus, determines in the end that the situation is unclear (249), his discussion actually points us in the direction of some solution here, in that the chapter concerns catechumens, rather than established Christians. As such the situation would not arise, as these male slaves would already be Christians, rather than being catechumens. I would have to revise my opinion of the text of TA 16.14b (derived from the Greek epitome) and now see this as a gloss. In this respect we may also note the important text Constitutiones apostolorum 8.34.13, to which Vaucher directs our attention.
The wealth of such detailed discussions is what makes the work so valuable. Thankfully it is equipped with a Stellenregister to ease the reader who wishes to explore the individual aspects of the texts, as well as an excellent bibliography, which testifies to the depth of the research. It is also printed in a remarkably clear typeface. However, given the value of the contents and the fact that they have taken a subvention for publishing, one might have hoped that Olms would have produced a sturdier product. But the publishers are our masters.
Beyond giving the book a wholehearted commendation and its author warm congratulations, I may perhaps be allowed a personal note of thanks. In a West Indian context we cannot forget the legacy of slavery and the evils which accompanied it, and struggle with the manner in which the Christian churches, particularly the Anglican churches, were complicit in its continuation. Vaucher’s work at least reminds us that this was not a perversion introduced in the seventeenth century but that such confused thinking was a legacy of the earliest period of Christian development.