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Enslavement in Early Christianity

Posted On June 28, 2022 | 15:17 pm | by kathys | Permalink
Chance Bonar studies the context and implications of enslavement to God in early Christian texts

Chance Bonar, PhD candidate in the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University, is a Tyler fellow in Byzantine Studies. His research report, “Enslaved to God: Slavery and the Virtuous Life in the Shepherd of Hermas,” discussed the overt language of enslavement in the second-century text and its implications for later and contemporary Christianity.

Q&A with Chance Bonar

What is the Shepherd of Hermas and some of its unique features?

The Shepherd of Hermas is an early Christian text written sometime in the late first to early second century CE, and it is reportedly a collection of visions, commandments, and parables given to someone named Hermas, who has traditionally been characterized as a freed or formerly enslaved person living somewhere around Rome. The story goes that he runs into his former enslaver at the Tiber River while she’s bathing naked; he starts to have feelings for her; and she appears later on to rebuke him for it, saying God doesn’t like that he looked at her like that. Hermas goes on to encounter two figures called the Church and the Shepherd, who are divine interlocutors who give him these visions and commandments that he’s supposed to disseminate to other believers.

This is where my project comes in: the other believers are often referred to in the text as God’s enslaved people. I’m looking at how this text deals with the language and logics of enslavement that appear throughout the series of prominent visions. Twice, there is a depiction of a tower under construction, and different people are characterized as stones who will be used to construct the tower that is a pretty explicit explanation of how different believers will or will not fit into God’s plan. Some of the stones fit right away; others need to be cut down or reshaped or recolored to fit the uniformity of the tower; some never make the cut and are thrown away.

How is enslavement characterized in the text?

The language of enslavement used in Shepherd is part of the larger Roman imperial culture of enslavement. It pulls on themes common among elite Roman writers like Cato, Columella, Pliny the Younger, and Cicero, who talk about their enslaved people and how they—the elite enslaving class—visualize what enslaved people should be like. The Shepherd talks about the usefulness and utility of enslaved people and uses language of commodification and exchange to talk about how Hermas and God’s other enslaved people can be passed between enslaving figures. Loyalty is also an important word in the text, which biblical and early Christian scholars translated as faith.

Part of my work is pushing back against the Christianization of certain terms that were prominent in Greek and Roman discourses of enslavement that can be hidden by translation. Language of enslavement continued into medieval and modern Christianity, often hidden in language of servitude, in part perhaps because of how forced labor changes in the medieval period. But there’s definitely a continuation of the language to today where the original term underlying phrases like “Jesus is Lord” is “enslaver.” Language as simple as about serving God is built upon the same logics of enslavement and borrows from biblical and early Christian language but often in such a different context that it’s not always recognizable.

Why is it important to reexamine the text in this way?

I think it’s important to see how deeply entrenched language and logics of enslavement are in early Christian literature and thought. Early Christians not only were not bothered by the fact that their texts often describe the relationship between themselves and believers and their deity though language of enslavement; in fact, it was heavily praised. Being a good slave of God was deemed acceptable and something worth distributing to and teaching to other Christians.

The Shepherd became prominent in the fourth and fifth centuries as a text for catechism or elementary instruction, so it’s an important text to understand as the Roman Empire was Christianized. It was used to shape new converts and what Christian identity and thought is, so there’s a lot at stake in understanding how early Christians were being told that God is their enslaver and that they were in this enslaved-enslaver relationship with their deity.

It's been great to be around a group in Byzantine Studies that is so temporally diverse and to learn how to shape my project in a way that makes sense to them. It’s been helpful too to be among scholars who helped me think more clearly about the reception of the text and the longer history of the relationship between Christianity and slavery, to think about how it played out across the Mediterranean in the medieval period and how someone in the twenty-first century thinks about slavery in antiquity, especially in the wake of transatlantic slavery.

May Wang is postgraduate writing and reporting fellow. Photo by Emily Orr, humanities fellow.