Wandering the savage garden…

Paul and Slavery

Yikes, it’s been a while since I’ve posted anything at all! My apologies; I’ve been a little busy.

Sunday, our class was talking about Philippians 2:19-30, where Paul talks about sending Timothy and Epaphroditus, both with some glowing words in their favor.

The lesson was actually pretty good, centering on a topic Paul discusses often: slavery to Christ (rather than slavery to sin.)

The thing that stood out to me was Philippians 2:22.

But you know Timothy’s proven worth, how as a son with a father he has served with me in the gospel. (ESV)

The NASV has another example of a common rendering:

But you know of his proven worth, that he served with me in the furtherance of the gospel like a child serving his father. (NASV)

Paul often described his condition as bondservitude or slavery, edouleusen (transliterated from the Greek), base doulos. Some verses translate it as bondservant, or servant, but usually he seems to use doulos. (See 1Cor 7:21-22, for example.)

The statement of Timothy serving as a son would with a father, in light of slavery, is an interesting one. Perhaps not entirely relevant, of course (you can use multiple meanings and still come away with the impression that Paul thinks of Timothy as a son) but the implication of the inheritance (or assumption, in Christianity’s case) of his condition of slavery is intriguing.

Biblical slavery and bondservitude were different, of course, and also one’s status as a Hebrew factored in. The Law protected all servants, but some more than others. In a (very) truncated list of examples:

  • Hebrew bondservants were offered freedom after a period of six years, but only if male. (Lev 25:39-43)
  • Forced enslavement of Israelites was forbidden. (Deu 24:7)
  • Foreign slaves had fewer rights, but were still protected; slavery was an inherited condition for foreigners. (Lev 25:44-46)

That said, the Law was still an ancient near east code: slavery still had the potential for brutality, and the term “slavery” was still accurate: the slave was property (although with some protections, a humane addition to the normal treatment of slavery in the near east.) A slave (עַבֵד, abed) was not of the same worth as a bondservant (שָׂכיר, sakar).

So: Slavery was a condition that was entered into voluntarily for the Hebrew, potentially nonvoluntarily for the Gentile.

If Paul was referring to slavery in the Hebrew context, then he entered into it to pay off a debt (which was a neat point made by the teacher, actually). Timothy’s assumption of that debt would have been a greater credit to him than I previously thought.

On the other hand, the Roman context was a good bit more cruel; the Romans would have condemned the son to the state of the father, until formal release (manumission) was made.

In this context, Paul would have been inverting the traditional view of the slave, as he did often in his other writings. “See! Timothy, as a slave’s son, is also a slave, yet we serve in joy,” might be a way of reading his statement.

Of course, the third possibility is quite possible (and likely): Paul might have simply been saying “He’s been like a son to me,” including the communication of the work of the father as was common in the times. This is the common assertion, I think, and is well worth considering as having primacy… yet the possible implications work well too.

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