Bondage, Freedom and Economics/Debt:
Group 3 Presentation - April 16, 1999
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I and II: A Summary of Scott Bartchy's mallon chreisai: First Century Slavery and the Interpretation of 1 Corinthians 7:21 (SBL Diss. Series 11, Missoula, Mont., 1973.)
I. Slavery in the First Century under Roman and Greek Law
In Roman law the status of a slave was very clear: a slave was thing, chattel, a mortal object. The slave was subject to another who had full legal power over him/her, similar to the children. Slaves had no rights of their own and no real family - all a slave's children belonged to the master.
Despite this, Bartchy found that that in social, cultural and economic terms, a sharp distinction did not exist between slave and free. Rather, a continuum status existed where a free person might be worse off than the slave. A slave could own private property if the pater familias allowed it.
Freedmen (former slaves) often had obligations arising from their manumission which made it hard for them to provide for themselves. Slaves in the homes of the wealthy routinely received goods and education as part of the household that poor citizens did not have. There was no color or economic stratification of slaves in the society. All of these factors contributed to the continuum of status Bartchy observes.
Greek law, which was also in practice at this time, was not as clear as Roman law. Under Greek law slaves lived apart from their owners, ran businesses as independent proprietors, and gave their owner a share. Freedom was broken into four elements. The granting of the first alone was all that was necessary to establish freedman status. The four elements were:
1. The freedman is his own legal representative.
2. The freedman is not subject to seizure of property. He is governed by laws of due process.
3. He may earn his living as he chooses.
4. He may go where he wants to go and live where he wants to live.
Freedmen routinely had conditions set on some of these freedoms as part of their manumission. More than 25% of the Delphi manumissions set limits on at least two of the freedoms.
II. Economics of Slavery and Manumission
It was often advantageous to an owner to manumit a slave for various reasons. Bartchy lists the following:
1. Having a practice of manumitting your slaves after a certain number of years as a reward for good work increased productivity of your slaves.
2. By manumitting your slaves and restricting the slaves' other freedoms, you could eliminate your financial obligation to care for the slave while keeping most of the financial benefits of his/her work.
3. The "fees" owners charged slaves for manumission were higher than the sale price of the slave.
4. Slaves were often manumitted for legal reasons. Slaves could be compelled to testify against their owners; freedmen could not. Political angles also came into play. Owners were considered patrons of freedmen. Freedmen paid their patrons' homage, such as performing services for their benefit.
III. Applicability to Philemon
There are two places where these findings have applicability to Philemon. First, in verse 18, Paul speaks of charging to his account anything Onesimus owes, "opheilei". Slaves could be owned by multiple owners, similar to the ownership of fields. In addition, it was common to sell part of a slave's time to someone else who might have use for him/her. Or one could also sell a slave for what would be considered the remainder of their obligation. This leads to the question: "How much was Onesimus' remaining with Paul worth?" If Paul had kept him too long, Paul would have owed the money. If Onesimus had precipitated the time away, he would have owed the money. Therefore, either scenario could be the basis for Paul's offering to pay; he could have believed that he rightly owed money, or that Onesimus owed it. (Of course, his offering to pay could be based on something entirely different that was owed, too!)
Secondly, the interpretation of the parenetic section in verses 10-23 has been debated. What does Paul want Philemon to do? Is he asking that Onesimus be freed? Though we were somewhat divided, our class discussion generally led us to the opinion that Paul is NOT asking Philemon to free Onesimus, but rather exhorting him to treat Onesimus as a fellow Christian. This would require Philemon to act in a sacrifical fashion for Onesimus' benefit just as Christ had sacrificed himself for us. This requirement would in fact be more stringent than a request to free Onesimus. Thus we saw Paul's request as an exhortation to discipleship, for Christians to treat one another equally regardless of their social status.
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