Christianity and Ancient Slavery 2

In doing the research for the essays I’ve posted up here on Christianity, the Bible, and ancient, medieval and Atlantic slavery, I’ve been reading through Peter Garnsey’s Ideas of Slavery from Aristotle to Augustine (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press 1999). Garnsey goes through the various ancient authors commenting on slavery, including St. Paul, analysing their comments and their views. He notes the way Christian theologians, like St. Augustine, provided justifications for slavery, but states in his conclusion:

‘What Jewish and Christian thinkers had in mind by ‘slavery’ is more accurately rendered ‘obedience’ or ‘service’. It had almost nothing in common with ancient domestic servitude, let alone the notorious slave gangs who worked the mines or the estates of the rich in late Republican Italy’. p. 142.

He notes that ‘slavery, by no means ubiquitous was deeply entrenched in ancient societies. The slave-owning class extended well down the social scale, and included even slaves. Slaveowners large and small were uniformly committed to the system, which they saw as a fundamental feature of their society. No one launched, nor even contemplated, a movement for abolition, not even slaves, who were more interested (especially in the Roman context) in joining their oppressors than in oppositing them as a class.’ p. 237.

He notes and quotes a number of ancient authors who criticised slavery, such as the scholiast Alkidamas, who in 370 BC stated’The deity gave liberty to all men, and nature created no one a slave’. p. 75.

Among these critics of slavery were Lactantius in his Institutiones divinae of the early fourth century, and Gregory of Nyssa in his Homilies IV on Ecclesiastes 2:7.

Lactantius in his Institutiones divinae states

 ‘The other part of justice is equity (aequitas). I do not speak of the equity of judging well, which is itself laudable in a just man. I mean rather that of equalizing self with fellow-men, which Cicero calls equability (aequabilitas). God who creates and inspires men wished them all to be fair, that is, equal. He set the same condition of living for all. He begot all unto wisdom. He promised immortality to all. No one is segregated from His heavenly benefits. Just as He divides His one light equally for all, lets His showers fall upon all, supplies food, grants the sweetest rest of sleep, so He bestow the virtue of equity upon all. With Him, no one is master, no one slave. For if He is the same Father to all, we are all free by equal right. No one is apauper with God except him who is in need of justice; no one rich, but him who is filled with the virtues; no one, finally, is distinguished except the one who has been good and innocent; no one very illustrious, unless he has done the works fo mercy with largesse; no one quite perfect, unless he has completed all the steps of virtue. Wherefore, neither the Romans nor the Greeks could possess justice, because they had men distinguished by many grades, from the poor to the rich, from the lowly to the powerful, from private citizens even to the most sublime heights of kings. For when all are not equal, there is no equity, and inequality itself excludes justice, whose whole power is in this, that it makes equal those who came to the condition of this life by an equal lot.

If those two sources of justice, then, are altered, all virtue and all truth is removed, and justice itself goes back into heaven … Someone will say: ‘Are theyre not among you some poor, some rich, some slaves, some masters? Is there not something of concern to individuals?’ Nothing … For since we measure all human things, not by the body, but by the spirit, and although the condition of the bodies may be diversified, there are not slaves among us, but we regard them and we speak of them as brothers in spirit and as fellow-slaves in religion.’ -pp. 80-1.

Gregory of Nyssa was rather more radical, and presented an argument for abolition, even if this does not seem to have been taken up or acted upon. He is on record of manumitting some of his slaves, though not all of them, while his sister, Macrina, was admired for treating hers ‘democratically’. p. 240.

Thus, although Christianity accepted slavery and some theologians justified it, it also modified it to make it more humane and two came close to arguing for abolition.

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2 Responses to “Christianity and Ancient Slavery 2”

  1. Feyd Says:

    Enjoyed reading that Beast.
    Reading back I see you had a little invasion from science blogs. When I took science at uni we were taught to base our arguments on evidence. That was 15 years ago – its seems the new kids prefer to argue with rhetoric and sophistry. 😦 I guess that saves them the effort of doing any research! It was very noticeable that even as a combined effort they seem unable to backup their positions with even a 20th of the scholarly references we see from your good self.

    At least they are good for a laff. A couple of them are genuinely witty, but most are unintentionally funny in their absurd confidence they can argue against analysts several times out of their league.

    If only they would pray to Christ with an open heart, some of them may then be blessed with real wisdom, not just a talent for superficial word play.

  2. beastrabban Says:

    Thanks for those great words, Feyd – it’s really appreciated! 🙂 As for the reaction from Science blogs, in a way it was to be expected. No one, whatever their religious views, really likes to consider that their worldview may lead to injustice and persecution. Clearly atheists are no different.

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