Slavery Metaphors in Early Judaism and Pauline Christianity, by John Byron

By Albert, J. | Shofar, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Slavery Metaphors in Early Judaism and Pauline Christianity, by John Byron


Albert, J., Shofar


Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament, 2nd Series, No. 162. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003. 304 pp. Euro49.

This volume, a "slightly revised" (p. v) doctoral thesis in theology (University of Durham), is an attempt to establish "the Jewish background," as opposed to "the Greco-Roman background," of slavery metaphors in the New Testament. The main question concerns the precise meaning of the phrase "slave of Christ" in Paul's letters. As Byron puts the problem, "The contrast between the Jewish and Greco-Roman backgrounds can easily lead toward two opposite conclusions" about the Pauline metaphor (p. 3). The purpose of the exegesis is to show that Paul's self-designation "does not need to be interpreted exclusively against the background of secular institutional slavery in order to discover a Jewish self-understanding" (p. 17), a theological goal. Readers unfamiliar with New Testament studies should be aware that Byron's book is a reply to Dale B. Martin, Slavery as Salvation: The Metaphor of Slavery in Pauline Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), which argues that Paul's self-designation functions as a form of status-by-association, analogous to that for slaves in Greco-Roman society who were agents of the aristocratic elite, one important example of which are the slaves and freedmen of the Roman emperor ("slaves of Caesar") who held posts in imperial administration.

The book is divided into two parts. Part One surveys in piecemeal fashion the "slave of God" motif in Early Judaism, identified with the Hebrew Bible and ancient Israelite religion. The analysis rarely rises above a straightforward word study, a concordance-style inventory of various terms in a corpus of literature. The word study finds slave of God to occur in royal and religious contexts as "a form of polite language" with little relationship to the actual institution of slavery (p. 29), except to evoke the Exodus or the Joseph cycle. Byron argues that the slave of God metaphor points to an overarching pattern of "humiliation-obedience-exaltation," uniformly present in Early Judaism. Even Josephus and Philo exhibit this pattern, "the Jewish notion" of slavery to God (pp. 76-142); their metaphors of slavery must refer to the biblical Joseph as the paradigmatic enslaved figure. Yet Byron himself admits that "the notion of slavery to God is not present in any of the material examined" (p. 138), a weakness of his thesis. Part Two turns to the main issue of the book, the "slave of Christ" self-designation in Paul's letters. Philippians contains "nothing" that "indicates implicitly or explicitly that Paul has institutional imagery in mind when he identifies himself, Timothy and Christ as slaves" (p. …

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