Seneca on Treatment of Slaves (Letter 47) – a must-read

Seneca (the Younger) wrote a letter to Lucilius on masters and slaves. I find this fascinating reading (1) for better understanding how slaves were treated in general in the Roman world and (2) since Seneca encourages kindness, fairness, and friendship with slaves in a way that is not dissimilar to Paul (though without the religious focus).

In this “letter 47,” Seneca makes dozens of very good and even persuasive points, but some of his points are downright hilarious. For example, he talks about the gluttonous master who starves his slaves who serve him endlessly.

The master eats more than he can hold, and with monstrous greed loads his belly until it is stretched and at length ceases to do the work of a belly; so that he is at greater pains to discharge all the food than he was to stuff it down! (47.2)

In another part of the letter, he refers to a slave-turned-wealthy freedman whose former (cruel) master had become a would-be client. After the master had sold off the slave Callistus treating him as a “good-for-nothing” slave, Callistus eventually became free and prominent. But instead of welcoming his former master with open arms he had “cut his name from the list [of clients?] and in his turn has adjudged him unfit to enter his house. The master sold Callistus, but how much has Callistus made his master pay for it!” (47.9)

The last thing I found interesting was how Seneca dealt with others questioning whether he was trying to argue that all people should be treated the same. (After all, he recommended that masters be willing to dine with their slaves.) He does not go so far as to say all men are equal. He makes the case: “He is a slave” (he agrees with the interlocuter), but how do you know that his soul is a slave? What if it is free? (47.17). He explains that, in fact, there are lots of masters that appear to be free, but are slaves of another kind – slaves to lust, greed, ambition, fear…Or perhaps some are free, but under the power of an “old hag” or their own “serving-maid.” His sharpest quip is this: “No servitude is more disgraceful than that which is self-imposed” (47.17).

So, no, don’t just dine with any slave (or master for that matter), but with slaves who show noble character and virtue. Your slaves should respect and love you, not fear you: “only dumb animals need the whip” (47.19).

Seneca reminds us that it is not only the Christians who saw and challenged the savage inequities in the household. I think everyone who studies the NT should read this letter.

New JSNT is online – June 2012

See here.

I have been eagerly waiting for this issue to come out because I have a small piece in here on mirror-reading. I owe a huge, huge debt to one of my Doktorvatern, John M.G. Barclay, for his care in historical method and this article (as noted in the first footnote) is dedicated to him. Also, I am deeply grateful for Simon Gathercole’s editorial comments and recommendations. He also happened to be my external examiner for my thesis back in 2009. Simon holds JSNT authors to the very highest standard for quality writing and he came back to me several times after reading my paper over and over – he always had new comments!  I really admire how seriously he takes his role. So thank you, thank you, thank you! Anyway, the names of the articles are below.

Joshua D. Garroway, “The Circumcision of Christ: Romans 15.7-13″

David L. Mealand, “Hellenistic Greek and the New Testament: A Stylometric Perspective”

Denny Burk, “The Righteousness of God (Dikaiosunē Theou) and Verbal Genitives: A Grammatical Clarification”

Nijay K. Gupta, “Mirror-Reading Moral Issues in Paul’s Letters”
Jason Whitlark, “The Warning against Idolatry: An Intertextual Examination of Septuagintal Warnings in Hebrews”


Pheme Perkins’ Commentary on 1 Corinthians (Review)

In recent years we have seen a number of commentaries on 1 Corinthians – Fitmyzer in 2008, Ciampa/Rosner in 2010, and now Pheme Perkins in 2012 (Paideia; Baker). I would say, though, based on the aims of the Paideia series and the relative (short) length of the commentary, it does not make the kind of major contribution to Pauline scholarship that Fitmyzer or Ciampa/Rosner have done. Rather, the Paideia series seeks to “enable students to understand each book of the NT as a literary whole rooted in a particular ancient setting of the NT and related to its context within the NT.”

Perkins interest and expertise is primarily in setting 1 Corinthians within the ancient Greco-Roman world. The introduction bears out this interest. She does dabble in theological discussions, and I did appreciate that she gave attention to the key theological themes of 1 Corinthians including “Turning from Idols to the True God,” “Scripture as the Word of God,” “God’s Plan of Salvation,” “Jesus Tradition in Paul,” “Life in the Spirit,”Christ’s Resurrection and Ours,”A Believing Community.”

When we turn to the commentary itself, there are three main parts to Perkins’ study of each passage. First, she goes over “introductory matters.” Then you will find the “Tracing the Argument” section which goes through the various exegetical issues. Finally, you have a reflection on the “Theological Issues.” Again, given how short the commentary is, you will not find many “new” insights. One of the most useful features, though, is the frequent call-out boxes. For example, on pg 51 she notes that religious associations in the Greco-Roman world did sometimes have rules against dividing into factions: “And to no one of them is it permitted…to organize factions [schismata]” (papyrus London 7.2193 in Arzt-Grabner et al., 2006, 66).

In another call-out box she notes griffiti discovered that shows fans favoring one member of an acting troupe: “Actius star of the stage…Here’s to Actius, come back to your people soon” (see p. 55).

While one of the endorsers, Frank Matera, is right that this commentary is “learned and concise,” I am not sure I would recommend it as a textbook. The strength of her text is focus on the archaeological insights for the study of 1 Corinthians. However, I would combine something like Jerome Murphy O’Connor’s St. Paul’s Corinth, Craig Keener’s 1-2 Corinthians (New Cambridge), and Bruce Winter’s After Paul Left Corinth.

Even though I did not find Perkins’ volume as useful (maybe because I already own a swath of 1 Corinthians commentaries by Thiselton, Fee, Garland, Hays, Fitzmyer, Sampley, Blomberg, Ciampa/Rosner, Witherington), I still have interest in the Paideia series and I think it has a lot of potential. 1 and 2 Peter is coming soon from Duane Watson and Terrance Callan (August 2012) as well as James and Jude (John Painter and David deSilva) just in time for SBL (Nov 2012).

Final thought: Reading Perkins’ commentary reminded me of how segmented NT studies really is. My go-to commentaries are (1) Fee, (2) Thiselton, and (3) Hays. Perkins, though, did not “go-to” these commentaries very much (though she interacted with Fee and Thiselton occasionally). She focused more on Fitzmyer, and the research of Murphy-O’Connor and Margaret Mitchell. I was surprised by how narrow her field of interest was, in terms of secondary research. This encourages me to be broader in my own research for Colossians commentary. So far, I have not given much attention to Lohse, so perhaps I should dip into it a bit more…

Judy Redman reviews Petr Pokorny’s Commentary on the Gospel of Thomas

Returning to the series where she reviews commentaries on the Gospel of Thomas, Judy Redman has a nice overview of Petr Pokorny’s book, A Commentary on the Gospel of Thomas: From Interpretations to the Interpreted (T & T Clark, 2009). I admit that I have not interacted much with this book, and in fact only gave it attention in a very brief footnote in my recent book. I especially appreciate Judy using the three categories that I proposed as necessary for reading contemporary Thomas scholarship (Thomas‘s relationship to the NT, theological outlook, and date of composition). Take the time to read all the way through Judy’s comments. She provides lists of both positive and negative features of the book and offers a qualified recommendation for those with some specialized knowledge of the field. Thanks for this valuable service, Judy!

House Size, Family Structure, and a Flexible Code??? Fee on the Household Codes in Social Context

Gordon Fee, pushing back against views that try to universalize the Household Codes for all families of all times, makes some fascinating points about how Paul refers to house churches and what implications that might have for how we understand the Household Codes.

Is it possible, Fee wonders, that the Household Codes (Ephesians/Colossians) are written to house churches of elite families that may have  required (or expected) more strict regulations regarding authority? It could be that the house churches of Colossae were Roman villas of the wealthy. Would Paul’s advice be different if the house church met in an insula?

…it is of interest to note the differences between how Paul speaks of Philemon’s household and the church that met there and how he speaks of that of Priscilla and Aquila in Romans 16:3-5. In the former case Paul greets both Philemon and his wife Apphia; but when greeting the church he uses the singular pronoun (“and the church that meets in your home”). Priscilla and Aquila, on the other hand, were artisans (tentmakers), who would not have lived in a villa but (most likely) an insula, where the house church would have met in a large room upstairs. In their case, and in contrast to Philemon, not only is Priscilla mentioned first, but Paul sends greetings to the church that meets “at their house” (cf. 1 Cor 16:19). (p. 375).

Fee accepts that Col 3:18-4:1 is patriarchal, but these texts “do not bless that worldview theologically” (375). Paul gives advice as to how to live Christian lives in that cultural setting.

Christian theology that requires adherence from all believers in all times and places need to be made of sterner stuff–derived from clear, explicit texts whose intent is specifically to instruct regarding what Christians are to believe (375).

Thank you Dr. Fee! Well said!

Revisiting the Early Christian House Church with Dennis Smith

I have been rather intensely studying the Colossian Household Code as of late in view of my commentary research and in conjunction with the grad class I am teaching on Paul’s prison letters. Recently I stumbled across the FS for David Balch called Text, Image, and Christians in the Graeco-Roman World (PTMS; W&S, 2012). One essay, by Dennis Smith, is called “The House Church as Social Environment” and I found it fascinating. In particular, Smith argues that since the house church was the foundational social context for Christian communal worship, one is obligated to study how such a physical environment would have shaped social dynamics and worship practices. I will underscore several points he makes in the essay.

1. We need to stop using archaeological remains of elite houses as models for early Christian worship settings. It is unlikely they had such elites among their ranks, so we must work with houses representative of a “much more modest social level” (7)

2. “Whatever christian gatherings consisted of, whatever form of worship or ritual was practiced, it would have been fully adapted to and integrated into the house environment” (p. 8) For example, by necessity, it is likely that the dining room was the place of assembly, because it was a “default” room for social gatherings.

3. “The house was already established culturally as a worship/ritual space” (p. 9) – he makes the point that it would have been strange for young Christian patrons to immediately remove shrines to “household deities” from their houses during worship. Implicitly, Smith seems to be presuming a natural kind of syncretism. I am not sure this is quite so “natural” of a presumption, especially if Paul popped in once in a while or made such teaching about removing shrines/idols explicit in his preaching.

4. “We should estimate the size of [a Christian] gathering based on the probable size of the default meeting space and, if the group grew larger, then we should assume that another house church would be organized to accommodate the overflow” (p. 11). Smith thinks guesses of 40 people for a house church is way too high, especially if the group remained primarily in a dining room (the “default space”) and not the atrium. Though he doesn’t say explicitly, he seems to hint at the more probable size for a house church being 8-15.

5. “Access to the house church gathering would take place by means of the cultural process of hospitality; one had to be an invited guest or member of the household” (p. 14) One implication, if Smith is correct, is that the church meeting would not have “walk-ins.”

6. “The house setting would necessitate addressing social and gender stratification” (p. 16) – this is where the Household Codes would come in… Smith hypothesizes that questions pertaining to household members’ relationships may have even became an issue precisely because of conflict and confusion in the dining hall and meal practices during the worship meeting.