Tag Archives: slavery

Daniel Vaucher on Peter of Alexandria

Though too modest to mention it himself, Daniel Vaucher has a new publication: “Glaubensbekenntnis oder Sklavengehorsam?—Petrus von Alexandrien zu einem christlichen Dilemma” Vigiliae Christianae 72 (2018), 533-560.

Abstract: The so-called Canonical letter (or περὶ Μετανοίας, “On Repentance”) of St. Peter of Alexandria, sheds light on a variety of means that Christians chose to avoid the sacrifice test under the Diocletian persecution. Canons 5-7 deal explicitly with slave- owners using their slaves as surrogates. St. Peter condemns these practices heavily, while at the same time he condemns servile obedience. In this, Peter is almost alone in early Christianity, when almost all Christians preached blind obedience. The article examines these canons, and contextualizes them with other Christian perceptions of ancient slavery. At the same time, the letter is important for the understanding of the Great persecution, its mechanisms, and the personal situation of St. Peter. Hence, the letter is discussed in regards to its transmission, and its context.


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Sklaverei in Norm und Praxis: review

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.


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“Sklaverei in Norm und Praxis. Die frühchristlichen Kirchenordnungen”

I am pleased to say that my book is finally out and available: “Sklaverei in Norm und Praxis. Die frühchristlichen Kirchenordnungen”, in Georg Olms Verlag, Hildesheim 2017: http://www.olms.de/search/Detail.aspx?pr=2009399

It is primarily a socio-historical investigation of slavery in Early Christianity, and secondarily a reflection on the interpretation of Ancient Church Orders. As an appendix, it contains an almost 30-page-overview of the transmission of the church orders with bibliography, which is, I confess, based on the fundamental work by our host Alistair Stewart.

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Laurence’s name

In response to my recent posting Richard Fellows asks whether Laurentius might be a “leadership name.”

It is possible, but may equally be a (Christian) slave name. Indeed, it dawns on me, slave-naming may be the (contra-cultural) basis for leadership names. According to Varro, slaves sold at the market at Ephesus might be renamed by a trader or buyer after the seller, or the region in which they were purchased, or the city where they were bought (Varro Ling. 8.9.21). Slaves might also undergo a change of name during the period of servitude, when transferred to a new owner: P. Turner 22, a contract for a slave sale from Side in Pamphylia, identifies the “merchandise”, a ten-year-old Galatian, as “the slave girl Abaskantis, or by whatever other name she may be known.”

Thus slave-naming practice provides a cultural context for Fellows’ suggestion of “leadership names” in the Pauline churches.

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On the martyrdom of Laurence

For some time I have been quietly putting together a note on the martyrdom of Laurence in third century Rome. In essence my intent was to defend the fundamental historical core of the legend that has been received against the somewhat reductionist approach of Franchi and Delehaye.

Today I find that somebody had got there first, namely Dom Bernard Green in a conference paper from 2008 entitled “The martyrdom of St Laurence reconsidered” to be found here.

Although this is not exactly the paper I was writing, it is close enough. We agree on the substantive and central points that Laurence, as deacon, had charge of the church’s goods (and charity) and that he died under torture. I do not have the same degree of confidence in the Liber pontificalis as Green, and might point out that the use of hot plates is an attested method of torture, but these are detailed matters. There is no point my producing a paper almost identical in substance and so rest content with this posting.

The one substantive point I would add to Green’s paper, which gives it pertinence to the blog, is that Laurence’s death under torture indicates that he might have been a slave, and not a free citizen as Delehaye seems to assume. This links to the discussion below with Daniel Vaucher about slaves as office-holders. It seems that still, in the third century, it is possible to find an office-holder of servile status in Rome.


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Patristische Arbeitsgemeinschaft

I’m honored to be invited to speak at the upcoming Patristische Arbeitsgemeinschaft in the Netherlands, January 2nd-5th. I will be able to present some insights into my recent dissertation on Slavery in Early Christianity.

In particular, I will speak about the attendance of slaves at Christian congregations and meals (be it agape, Eucharist or funeral meals). Considering that there are barely any sources that mention slaves, we should ask whether they were really part of the Christian cult life.

What do we make of the anonymous Vita Polycarpi §26, that mentions slaves assisting the προσφορά of Polycarp when he was εὐχαριστῶν? If there are other sources directly mentioning slaves or giving hints, please don’t hesitate to comment and indicate them.

Please note, too, that Dr. Stewart will be speaking as well, on “Group Therapy and the Construction of Text and Community in the Church Order Tradition”.


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Vaucher on Draper on children and slaves in the Didache

Daniel Vaucher submits the following reaction to J.A.Draper, “Children and Slaves in the Community of the Didache and the Two Ways Tradition” in J. A. Draper and C. N. Jefford (eds.), The Didache: A Missing Piece of the Puzzle in Early Christianity (Atlanta: SBL, 2015), 85-121.

Jonathan Draper contextualizes the Haustafel in Did 4.9-11 with its exhortation to slaves to obey their masters, with the inherent contradiction, that the TWT actually asks for community of goods (Did. 4.5-8). I agree with his warning, (p. 91), “that the generalized reciprocity and egalitarian economic system developed within this early Christian community should not be romanticized”, because community of goods and slavery is an “internal contradiction”. He goes on to state (p. 96 f.) that the rules would have severe consequences if applied rigorously in a Christian Jewish community. “The first and foremost consequence of renouncing ownership of one’s property would be the disinheritance of one’s children and the manumission of any slaves one owned.”

Shortly analyzing the admonition to slaveowners that they mustn’t command their slaves in bitterness, he concludes (p. 102 f.) that “this is an uneasy compromise to be sure, but it is directed in my opinion towards keeping the ideal of general reciprocity in place.”

But I’m sceptic whether the author of the Didache really envisaged a community of goods (or egalitarian community). In my opinion, what is said about the “hohe Widerspruchstoleranz” of the CA might also account for the Didache, because it is a collection of different traditions: the admonition to slaves has a long history (pagan, Jewish and Christian) and it’s certainly not something the author came up with himself. I don’t think we can ever compare the two notions of “sharing all you have with your brothers” and “slaves, obey!” Draper is right in my opinion in pointing at the difficulty that the two chapters pose, but I don’t agree with his solution.

In my opinion, neither Didache nor any other Christian source I know really asks for community of goods, but they use the well-known topos to ask for more consequent almsgiving and charity. Compare 1 Tim, Clement quis dives and Cyprian de opere eleem.

Luke’s depiction of the community in Jerusalem as sharing everything they have is certainly idealized the same way. Community of goods (and having no slaves!) was projected onto the Golden Age, a long lost time with equality and justice. Luke’s story of the Jerusalem community actually relates to this Golden Age of Christianity, but at a time, when it’s already gone. Property and slave-owning has become normal even for the Christian communities.

Maybe there was a community of goods in an Essene circle. Interestingly, Philo’s description of the Essenes, and to some extent Josephus’ also, again relates the community (and having no slaves) to equality and justice, and therefore, idealizes it in the context of the Golden Age.

I can’t tell whether the TWT originates from the Essenes, as I’m no expert. But in my opinion it’s for sure that the Qumran documents have more severe rules to give in all property upon the entry into the community, whereas the Didache does not. Why not? If the author wanted to realize a community of goods, or at least “general reciprocity”, he could have asked for it much more forcefully. But the following admonition to slaves points more in the direction, that he accepts the patriarchal structures of his community. He – as many other Christian writers – simply uses the ideal of a community of goods to encourage charity.

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