Enslaved Leadership in Early Christianity

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Katherine A. Shaner
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , April
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Enslaved Leadership in Early Christianity is a most welcome contribution to a recent effort to see anew the ancient world by focusing on its enslaved inhabitants. Bringing together material and textual evidence related to Roman Ephesos, Katherine Shaner works hard to help readers recognize enslaved people where the historical record has, at least to our eyes until now, left very few traces. Her argument is that when we understand public displays of power (whether material or textual) as attempts to persuade rather than as descriptions of relationships, then we are confronted with a much more complex picture of the status of enslaved people. 

Shaner’s approach is informed by feminist analysis, employing two basic feminist perspectives: (1) the evidence—both textual and archaeological—is persuasive in nature and is often aimed at asserting order or authority; and (2) the existence of these attempts to persuade suggests that order was needed, at least according to those producing the inscriptions, letters, reliefs, and so on. Thus, instead of viewing the evidence as a description of ancient life, Shaner sees it as a construction of it. She is attentive to the larger contexts that might have prompted displays of power, especially the ways that enslaved people might have participated and influenced the situation. 

At times Shaner’s argument requires a leap of faith—the reader finds herself wishing for more solid evidence for slave participation. For example, there is a graffito in the Terrace Houses in Ephesos that potentially expresses resistance to the sexual use of slave bodies (21). Because the writer of the graffito is unknown, the most that Shaner can say is that it is possible that he or she was an enslaved person and if so, then this image presents an important contrast to public displays of elite power that subordinate enslaved people. But the point rests on conjecture. 

And yet the mission of this monograph is to find ways to make the enslaved presence visible in ancient life, working against both ancient rhetoric and the rhetoric of scholars, both of which have rendered enslaved persons invisible. It is our job to do something different to see them.

Critical to this enterprise is an additional feminist theoretical tool, the concept of kyriarchy. A term coined by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, kyriarchy refers to the multipronged power claimed by the kyrios—lord, master, head of household—in the ancient world. It accounts for the variety of hierarchies in society, such as those determined by gender, status, wealth, and others. Kyriarchy insists that power is multiplicative, not binary, and that multiple axes of power can intersect in one person’s life. Thus it opens up the possibility that an enslaved person is not only defined by this one subordinating status, but also manages other positions with differing degrees of influence and power.

This theoretical perspective allows Shaner to push her analysis beyond just highlighting the presence of enslaved people in the ancient record. With a kyriarchical analysis she illustrates how power is not simple in the social hierarchies of the Roman empire. Shaner critiques scholars who assume a binary model—elites have power and slaves do not—because these unwittingly buy into the construction of power at work in the rhetoric itself. By looking closely at the evidence for enslaved people, who, in one example, were simultaneously ritual experts critical to the proper execution of important rites and who were owned and dominated by others, we can see that their status was complex, context-specific, and contested (64-71). 

This approach yields similarly intriguing results when applied to Christian materials. In 1 Timothy, we see that slavery itself is not the issue, nor is the slave/free power structure more generally, but rather the maintenance of proper power relations between enslaved believers and their believing masters (specifically addressed in 1 Tim 6:2, where the author encourages extra devotion to masters). The assumption behind this advice is that there are enslaved people in the community, some with their masters and some without, and the degree of subordination to their masters is different for each. Shaner’s careful attention to the author’s rhetoric here helps us see the complex status of enslaved people in Christian communities (and also raises the tantalizing possibility that there were enslaved believers in the community without their masters). When slaves and masters both participated in the community of believers, their relationship needed regulation. One wonders why.

Shaner insists that we take seriously the presence of enslaved persons in almost every facet of ancient life. Her analysis repopulates our imaginations with their contributions, their influence, their movements, and their expertise—all of which existed alongside their subordination and the use of their bodies by others. Enslaved Leadership in Early Christianity contributes to a richer, messier, fuller depiction of the inhabitants of the Roman world.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Caroline Johnson Hodge is Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the College of the Holy Cross.

Date of Review: 
July 9, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Katherine A. Shaner is Assistant Professor of New Testament at Wake Forest University School of Divinity. She teaches courses across the New Testament and early Christian history that explore the theological, social, political, and ethical implications of biblical interpretation for contemporary communities.


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