Katherine Shaner. Enslaved Leadership in Early Christianity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.
Katherine Shaner’s book is a careful and rigorous examination of the extent of enslaved leadership in antiquity as well as the prevalence of scholarly erasure of that leadership. In Shaner’s words, this book “is neither a celebration of early Christian abolitionary impulses nor a venture into the horrors of enslaved life in the Roman Empire. Rather it is a study of tensions, ambiguities, and power contestations that arise with the presence of enslaved persons in religious communities” (xi-xii). In this way, her book is unapologetic in exposing neglected sources and viewpoints. Her introduction sets out her methodology, using Brooten’s work on the gender of Junia as an analogy (xiii); feminist scholarship provides a model for reading between rhetorical lines. Shaner proves herself particularly adept at critical, suspicious reading of material and literary evidence.
Chapter One showcases Shaner’s careful use of literary and material evidence to extract information about enslaved experience. Focusing on Ephesos, where “no studies of enslaved persons in the city exist” (5), she establishes the public presence and agency of enslaved persons, demonstrating how their legal status does not impede their engagement “with larger civic and religious institutions within the city” (13). She points out how the erasure of enslaved persons is an intentional strategy imposed by slaveholders (20). This observation allows for enslaved presence and activity in public and private spaces to be made visible.
Chapter Two focuses on elite attempts to crystallize and reinforce potentially blurry lines between enslaved and free leaders in public cults. Using the Persicus inscription (a first century CE Ephesian inscription that attempts to subordinate enslaved professionals within the Artemis cult), Shaner articulates how inscriptions that attempt to limit enslaved authority figures in public cults inadvertently demonstrate how ambiguous power practices could be (33-34). By attempting to limit priesthoods to free persons, the Persicus inscription illustrates that “in practice public slaves and free persons were not always distinguishable by their roles” (36) and that “public slaves held significant financial and ritual responsibility” (38).
Shaner then turns her attention to the Pauline context in Chapter Three. Here she discusses explicitly a methodological strength of this book: her critique of the scholarly tendency to reinforce the slaveholder rhetoric of ancient sources. Scholarship that elides enslaved participation in religious practices upholds the privileged (slaveholder) perspectives that produced the texts or funded the monuments and inscriptions. Shaner’s use of resistant reading strategies works to bring out perspectives that have been intentionally silenced first by ancient works and then again by mainstream scholars’ tendency to read with elite perspectives (xxi). For instance, in previous scholarly approaches to Philemon, “Onesimos is talked about […]as if he is a tool of the community” (42), similar to the rhetoric in ancient sources about enslaved persons, whose aim is to enforce subordination. Shaner’s approach decentralizes Paul’s perspective in order to focus on the experiences of the enslaved persons within the communities corresponding with Paul. She rightly observes ambiguity in Paul’s use of slavery, simultaneously attempting to calm divisions within the community and reinforcing the enslaved/free distinctions by tying slavery to immoral bodies (45). Importantly, she also raises the likelihood that Onesimos held a position of ritual authority (59-61; Phlm 13) and points out the potential disruption to slaveholder-enslaved social hierarchy that Onesimos’ role as a holder of authority might have had.
In Chapter Four, Shaner returns to the non-Christian world and to the material context in order to showcase the role of enslaved ritual practitioners in ancient cults. Discussion focuses on the Parthian Reliefs of second century CE Ephesos; the intersection of imperial power and ritual in the relief allows Shaner to point out how depictions of enslaved ritual practitioners are used to “reinforce […] imperial social hierarchies [as] inevitable and stable” (73), something she problematized in chapter three. Here again,Shaner critiques the methods of previous scholars, pointing out how “scholars by default often assume free status, but such an assumption erases enslaved persons from historical view” (85). By showcasing how imperial rhetoric works hard to enforce divisions between enslaved and elite figures, Shaner complicates the idea that such rhetorical depictions reflect historical practice. Her work in this chapter suggests that the effort taken to bolster slaveholder authority in material and literary artefacts points to a more complex reality in which enslaved persons “significantly shaped religious practices” (85).
In the final chapter, the author revisits enslaved leadership in a slightly later context than Paul’s communities. In doing so, she finds again that enslaved members of these ekklesia “participated in the community in ways that were not in keeping with the proposed guidelines” laid out by free and/or elite authority figures (88). Authoritative structures as outlined in 1 Timothy and in Ignatius’ letters assume, argues Shaner, that bishops and deacons are themselves slaveholders whose authority is modelled on a kyriarchal pattern of power (92–97). She points out that attempts to enforce boundaries between enslaved members of the community and free authority figures is at odds with other evidence (e.g. Pliny’s Letter to Trajan, 97). Again, Shaner reveals these texts doing a lot of rhetorical work to try and enforce social/legal hierarchies in the context of religious authority, demonstrating the tension that such communities must have struggled to negotiate.
An epilogue returns to the question of method, reflecting on the role of scholarship in erasing enslaved leadership in previous studies, and the dangers of taking rhetorically charged evidence as historical. As Shaner concludes, “enslaved leaders were not anomalies who transcended their slavery for positions of authority. Their presence was deeply ambivalent and contested within their communities. This history of tension and struggle must be told” (115).
Enslaved Leadership is well balanced in its discussion and use of rhetorical analysis, and is explicit in how it uses such methodology to expose “the strategies used to persuade a reader, listener, or viewer that a particular point of view is ‘natural’” (xv). Shaner is careful not to “separate the study of women from enslaved persons” (xv), taking an implicit intersectional approach to issues of class, race, religion, and legal status. The central chapters of the book, however, focus less on ethnicity; one area for further research not included in this volume is whether enslaved leadership in Pauline and, later, Christian groups intersects at all with potential enslaved leadership in Jewish circles, and, if so, how. While the non-Jewish Roman context sheds a light on the contexts for Jesus-following groups in Asia Minor, where Shaner focuses most of her attention, these groups very likely included Jews.
Explicit engagement with specifically Jewish sources would enrich this already fruitful discussion. Jewish communities very likely included officiants who were enslaved. Catherine Hezser provides evidence from biblical sources and from Josephus for the existence and use of enslaved Temple workers (Hezser 2005; Josephus, Antiquities 20.181, 207). Philo notes that the Theraputae and Therapeutrides did not have their food served by enslaved waiters, nor was the dinner entertainment provided by enslaved performers (Philo, Contemp. 70–72). This declaration reminds us that slaves were normally part of Jewish banquet experiences, just as they were a part of sacrificial ritual. And just as in sacrificial procedure, they may have performed some or all of the ritual acts associated with worship, such as reading, pouring wine, lighting incense, etc. While Josephus (Ant.18.21) and Philo (Quod Omnis Probus Liber Sit 12 (79)) are adamant that the Essenes did not have slaves, there are instances in the Damascus Document which regulate the rights and use of enslaved community members (CD12:10-11; 11:12; Botta 2010, 1232-3). This fits with Philo’s emphasis that the Therapeutae and Therapeutrides stood out for their avoidance of enslaved cultic labor. How Jewish groups negotiated the tensions arising from the prevalence of enslaved ritual practioners, and how their texts manifest rhetorical strategies to normalize slaveholder perspectives on religious leadership, are important facets of emerging “Christian” negotiation of this reality as well. Consequently, pairing Jewish evidence with non-Jewish Roman evidence would have deepened the context provided for understanding and giving voice to enslaved leaders and workers in Pauline and/or Christian contexts.
Overall, this important book should change how scholars of antiquity examine evidence for enslaved leadership. Just as Brooten’s work, Women Leaders in the Ancient Synagogue, affected how rigorous scholars came to read evidence for women’s religious authority—and likewise challenged the field to move away from anachronistic and misogynistic assumptions about antiquity—Shaner’s book should challenge us to consider how we can avoid being complicit in reinforcing the viewpoints of slaveholders when we analyze ancient evidence for religious leadership.
Botta, Alejandro F. “Slaves, Slavery” Pages 1232-3 in The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism. Edited by John J. Collins and Daniel C Harlow. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 2010.
Brooten, Bernadette J. Women Leaders in the Ancient Synagogue: Inscriptional Evidence and Background Issues. Brown Judaic Studies, No. 36. Chico, California: Scholars Press, 1982.
Hezser, Catherine. Jewish Slavery in Antiquity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Meredith J C Warren is a Lecturer in Biblical and Religious studies and the Director of the Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of Sheffield. Her primary research interests include the use of food and the sense of taste in biblical texts, especially in the New Testament and non-canonical literature.Her most recent book is Food and Transformation in Ancient Mediterranean Literature (SBL 2019). You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @drmjcwarren