Slaves in the New Testament: Literary, Social, and Moral Dimensions

Slaves in the New Testament: Literary, Social, and Moral Dimensions

Slaves in the New Testament: Literary, Social, and Moral Dimensions

Slaves in the New Testament: Literary, Social, and Moral Dimensions

Synopsis

In this exciting new analysis of slaves and slavery in the New Testament, Harrill breaks new ground with his extensive use of Greco-Roman evidence, discussion of hermeneutics, and treatment of the use of the New Testament in antebellum U. S. slavery debates. He examines in detail Philemon, 1 Corinthians, Romans, Luke-Acts, and the household codes.

Excerpt

Slaves in the Ancient Literary Imagination

How did the early Christians think about slaves? In this book, I argue that they did so through the literary artifice of conventional figures and stereotypes familiar from ancient literature, handbooks, and the theater. Such stock characters included the domestic enemy, the comic, the trickster, the elite, and the faithful slave. Although modern scholars often consider such New Testament figures as the maid Rhoda (Acts 12:13–16) evidence for the “liberating” participation of slaves in early Christian communities, a careful study of the evidence shows them to be literary characters drawn from the ideologies that supported Roman slavery.

I advance this thesis primarily through close readings of particular passages in their ancient context, in order to trace the development of literary themes or social types. I work strictly as a historian; that is, I do not advocate a “faith” solution to or a theological position on the question of slavery and the Bible; such questions are best left to Christians, theologians, and ethicists to answer. But I do deny that appeals to “what the Bible says” can serve as a foundation for Christian moral arguments, because such appeals do not explicitly acknowledge the agency and contingency of the interpreter. Rather, any critical interpretation of the New Testament must start by situating the early Christian writings firmly in the literary, social, and cultural world of the early Roman Empire. Indeed, this book argues that the Roman context is particularly helpful in bringing clarity to difficult texts and in moving scholarship beyond tired, old clichés about the Bible and slavery that repeat unex-

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