Was Roman Slavery Kinder and Gentler than American Slavery?

I’m writing a historical novel that tells the backstory of Paul’s little New Testament letter to Philemon. The letter is written to a Christian slaveholder in Colossae (Philemon), and it asks the slaveholder to forgive and welcome back his runaway slave, Onesimus, who has been attending to Paul while he is in prison.

The letter is rarely taught these days, probably owing in part to the difficult questions it raises about slavery. For example, what is a Christian doing owning slaves? And why would Paul blithely encourage Onesimus to return to his bondage rather than keep running? The letter also has the dubious reputation of being used by antebellum American slaveholders and their sympathizers to justify the practice of slavery in the American South. After all, it can seem that by sending Onesimus back to Philemon, Paul implicitly accepts (endorses?) the institution of slavery. These are just a few of the issues I plan to tackle in the novel.

In researching interpretations of Philemon and the institution of slavery in the First-century Roman Empire, I have noticed that part of the contemporary Christian defense of Paul’s actions in Philemon often includes the claim that First-century Roman slavery was generally kinder and gentler than antebellum American slavery. Continue reading

Loving the Enemy that is Yourself

Last week I listened to a Pray as You Go podcast focused on Matthew 5:43-45:

43 You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. (NRSV)

This passage is, of course, a familiar “difficult saying” of Jesus. However, the podcast reflected on it in a way I had never heard before: suppose the enemy you are to love is yourself. What then? Continue reading

The Ministry of Death

I listen regularly to the Pray as You Go podcast. Last week, one of the passages featured was the passage below from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthian church:

Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

Now if the ministry of death, chiseled in letters on stone tablets, came in glory so that the people of Israel could not gaze at Moses’ face because of the glory of his face, a glory now set aside, how much more will the ministry of the Spirit come in glory? For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, much more does the ministry of justification abound in glory!

2 Corinthians 3:4-9 (NRSV)

In this passage Paul contrasts two covenants—first, the giving of the law through Moses; and second, what he calls “a new covenant…of spirit,” which “gives life.” Paul goes on to refer to the first covenant as “the ministry of death,” and “the ministry of condemnation.”

His meaning here seems to be Continue reading