BMCR 2018.12.28

The Slave Metaphor and Gendered Enslavement in Early Christian Discourse: Double Trouble Embodied. Routledge studies in the early Christian world

, The Slave Metaphor and Gendered Enslavement in Early Christian Discourse: Double Trouble Embodied. Routledge studies in the early Christian world. London; New York: Routledge, 2018. xiii, 167. ISBN 9780815374657. $140.00.

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

There has been much scholarly disagreement over the socio-economic standing of the early Christians. All the same, scholars have long been agreed that whether poor or rich, of low or middling social status, the new religion counted enslaved individuals, beside their free counterparts—including slave owners—among its adherents. If that was so, how did these diverse groups—or, rather, their various members—understand the metaphorical usage of slavery in much of early Christian discourse? In particular, what did it mean for those with real-life experiences of slavery that the new religion framed relationships in the faith according to terms and concepts that stem from, and in turn inform the reality of, slave exploitation? These are the central questions that Marianne Bjelland Kartzow asks in her study of The Slave Metaphor and Gendered Enslavement in Early Christian Discourse: Double Trouble Embodied, expounding (in one methodological and five thematic chapters) her view of a diverse reception of the slavery metaphor among the early Christians.

In Chapter 1, Kartzow discusses such theoretical tools as Conceptual Metaphor Theory, Blending Theory, and Alternate Conceptual Mapping to draw attention to the conceptual hurdles (and opportunities) involved in studying metaphor. But she also manifests her commitment to ‘intersectionality’ in this chapter—i.e. the recognition that different people would have conceptualised one and the same metaphor differently, based on their experiences and, importantly here, their relationship to (real-life) slavery. Whether one was enslaved or slave-owning, female or male, destitute or wealthy would yield quite different personal experiences with the institution. As a corollary, Kartzow rejects the notion of a single reading of any one passage; instead, she seeks ‘not to find the origin, but rather to analyse the alternatives’ (p. 37, original emphasis), thus to ‘search for possible stories that can contribute to discovering how the slavery metaphor could have been conceptualized’ (p. 34). Drawing moreover on the concept of the metanarrative, i.e., the idea that there exist schemas that function as Über -narratives, framing and simultaneously explaining whole sets of (smaller) stories, Kartzow also seeks to uncover what she calls ‘a master idea’ (p. 34) in several early Christian stories. Consequently, Kartzow contends that such metanarratives (as, for instance, Israel’s communal enslavement, or Joseph’s personal experience of enslavement) ‘may be relevant when early Christians conceptualized the slavery metaphor’ (p. 36). What, then, ‘does it say about the slavery metaphor in early Christian discourse when men and women can be slaves of God and slaves in reality, when Jesus can be a slave master, metaphorical and real, and Jesus also can be slave himself ?’ (p. 7, original emphases).

Chapter 2 provides one answer. The discussion focuses on three different stories that feature slavery metaphors in contexts that involved women. Analysing the story of Mary, the mother of Jesus, Kartzow challenges its standard one-dimensional reading—i.e. one that champions the perspective of the free adult male (of probably middling status) among the early Christians. In Luke, the angel Gabriel tells Mary that—despite being a virgin—she will conceive, having found special favour with god; Mary replies as follows: ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word’ (p. 48). Kartzow questions the widespread hesitation to translate δοῦλος with ‘slave’, rather than ‘servant’ (and the same could be said for the translation of κύριος as ‘master’, rather than ‘Lord’). Importantly, Mary’s case enables Kartzow to foreground the reproductive experience of enslaved females. Read from that perspective, Mary’s situation appears in a different light—namely as that of the powerless female who is made to reproduce by order of her master; the meaning of the slavery metaphor in play here changes in consequence: ‘(w)hen used on a young girl such as Mary […] being a woman in reproductive age who is asked to give birth to her master’s son, the metaphor is “made real”’ (p. 54). On this basis, Kartzow is able to contrast sharply the configuration of Paul as ‘the slave of god’ with that of Mary: ‘when gender intersects with slavery, it constructs a contrast between ideal male metaphorical slaves and the un-ideal female real slave’ (p. 58).

Similar discussions of the fortune-telling enslaved woman whom Paul meets in Philippi (Acts 16: 16–19) and the enslaved female Egyptian Hagar (Gal. 4: 21–31) throw into greater relief the diversity of the narrated characters, as well as of the audience (pp. 54–62). Moreover, Kartzow identifies the fortune-telling woman as a rhetorical vehicle, underlining the powerless woman’s usefulness to others; she is made to announce Paul’s special relationship with God: ‘(i)n order to get a specific metaphorical effect, Luke needed a female owned body to proclaim who Paul was and that he and his men knew the way of salvation. A female slave was needed to proclaim and strengthen the position of the male slaves of God’ (p. 58). Those familiar with Roman law will be reminded of the Roman jurists’ inclination to ‘use slaves’ in their discussions, i.e. to ‘think with’ slavery and the enslaved body, especially in the explication of complex situations.1 This practice, here explored on NT texts, subjects the (fictional) slave figure to a double form of exploitation, thereby reinforcing their domination and, in the context of Roman law as here, property status.2

In Chapter 3, Kartzow asks what kind of slavery is left behind (and for whom) in two quite different ‘no longer slave’-formulations: John 15:15 and Gal 4:7. In John, Jesus’s disciples are no longer slaves, who do not know what the master is doing, but friends, because Jesus has shared his knowledge with them. In Galatians, Paul informs his addressees similarly, but casts them as children, or rather as sons and heirs. But as Kartzow notes, ‘(t)o move from slavery to friendship was impossible for most people because of gender and class barriers’ (p. 79). Similarly, the role of the son was, obviously, not open to women. Consequently, ‘the “no longer slave” statements would work better for freeborn men than for women, slaves, or strangers’ (p. 85). Kartzow could have made more of her acute discussion of the differences between the various categories involved here. For instance, she explains the shift from slavery to friendship as one rooted in knowledge: the enslaved are (cast) as ignorant, and therefore without involvement and control; the shift to friendship constituted a shift in access to knowledge. As she rightly notes, ‘the social reality often was the other way round […] In fact, it was the slaves who knew everything’ (p. 76). It seems to me obvious that if the ‘no longer slave’-formulation in (e.g.) John draws its meaning from knowledge regimes, it ‘may mean something else to a slave, who was an owned body with access to secrets and gossip’ (p. 78). But what? Put the other way round, if an enslaved individual already had access to knowledge (e.g. in the household) because of their servile role, could they at all understand or experience the proposed ‘no longer slave’-shift, which – to them – did precisely not constitute a structural shift in access to knowledge? It would have been helpful to hear Kartzow’s views on this.

Chapters 4, 5 and 6 discuss several early Christian texts outside the NT. Kartzow here sets out to explore whether the slavery metaphor was ‘an effective hierarchical power mechanism’ (p. 97), i.e. a means to justify and reinforce the coercion of enslaved persons: her answer is (in part) positive. Kartzow gets close, but does not quite spell out that her discussion leads to the recognition that early Christianity promoted (all) women’s sexual submission through its appropriation of the slavery metaphor. Inversely, discussing The Shepherd of Hermas (pp. 105-124), Kartzow explores the male-gendered dimensions of one freed from slavery, arguing that ‘(m)oving from slave to free means moving from being an un-man to becoming a man’ (p. 117). Furthermore, Hermas ‘must be no longer a slave in order to be a true slave of the Lord’ (p. 119): the shift experienced by Hermas functions consequently ‘to downplay real slavery’ (p. 121). But what happens when metaphorical slavery actually overlaps with worldly slavery—as in The Acts of Thomas, when Jesus sells the unwilling apostle into slavery to force him to travel to India for the mission—i.e. to be trafficked? Here, the worldly slavery functions to enable Thomas to become ‘the slave of god’: real-life slavery emerges as a necessity for—and an entitlement of—the growing religion. As with Mary, ‘the metaphor is made real […] The consequence of metaphorical slavery is real slavery’ (p. 141). But Kartzow also goes the other way, suggesting in her discussion of leadership figures such as Hermas that the slavery metaphor could also ‘work as a tool to overcome the trauma of slavery’ through offering ‘conceptual upward mobility’—i.e. honourable roles (or at least soothing visions of one’s role) in the faith community (pp. 152–3).3 Engagement with the theoretical issues surrounding what Orlando Patterson has termed ‘the ultimate slave’ would have been useful here.4

Kartzow’s study rightly foregrounds the quintessential tension between the use and meaning(s) of the slavery metaphor and the involvement of enslaved individuals in the faith community. But I did not think that I got an answer as to what these individuals may actually have made of the slavery metaphor, or how it affected them. The discussion would have benefitted from greater engagement with the studied texts; several complex and hotly debated passages are treated as if their (immediate) meaning was unambiguous (e.g. 1 Cor. 7.21). There is also a lack of due engagement with the modern literature—as for instance in the discussion of self-sale into slavery: Kartzow asks ‘(h)ow common was such self-slavery?’ (p. 99)—a notoriously difficult question to answer given the nature of the evidence; but there is nevertheless much more to be said on the topic than the reference to a single scholar of early Christianity suggests.5 And ‘which’ slavery are we talking about anyhow, and in what (potentially overlapping and ever changing) contexts—Greek, Roman, Jewish, Near Eastern, Egyptian, or perhaps Christian (!), or some universal slavery? (The globalising nod to ‘the Greco-Roman slavery system’ or ‘the slavery system of the ancient world’ undermines the championed ‘intersectionality’: pp. 148 and 153.) Legal status categories are regularly confused with categories of social class (esp. in Chapter 6), while the theoretical jargon distracts from the analysis: do we need to speak of ‘intersectionality’ to say that different people understand one and the same phrase differently because of their diverse biographical make-ups and life experiences? There is also much repetition, and much that is put in the form of questions (repeatedly, again). I found the prose to be lacking more generally in sharpness. And the publisher’s choice of referencing system adds further repetition: each chapter sports its own bibliography (listing works also given in other chapters), following moreover a set of endnotes (giving anyhow the full bibliographic information upon first mention). These criticisms apart, Kartzow’s study breaks a lance for taking seriously the differences in perspectives among the audiences of early Christian texts, demonstrating the potential and urgency for more work along this line.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: Thinking with Saleable Bodies: An Intersectional Approach to the Slavery Metaphor
Chapter 2: Embodying the Slavery Metaphor: Female Characters and Slavery Language
Chapter 3: Metaphor and Masculinity: The “no longer slave” Formulations (John 15:15 and Gal 4:7)
Chapter 4: The Paradox of Slavery: All Believers Are Slaves of the Lord, but Some Are More Slaves Than Others
Chapter 5: From Slave of a Female Owner to Slave of God: Negotiating Gender, Sexuality and Status in the Shepherd of Hermas
Chapter 6: Jesus, the Slave Trader: Metaphor made real in The Acts of Thomas


1. A classic example is the juridical discussion of manifest and non-manifest theft, especially when the distinction is difficult to grasp: Digest 47.2.7 pr (Ulpian, Sabinus, book 41); cf. 47.2.2.

2. See the wry remark by W. W. Buckland, The Roman Law of Slavery (Cambridge, 1908), 10: ‘(t)he Digest contains a vast number of texts which speaks of the slave, but would be equally significant if they spoke of any other subject of property’.

3. The discussion of Hermas’ ‘slavish passion’ in (worldly) freedom (p. 111), i.e. of sexual dimensions, as that of Thomas’ asceticism (who is additionally free from ‘the service of the belly’, p. 136), would have benefitted from discussion of Stoic thought.

4. O. Patterson, Slavery and Social Death. A Comparative Study (Cambridge, MA and London, 1982), 299–333.

5. On the Roman side, see the various contributions by Morris Silver: e.g. Klio 98.1 (2016), 184-202; Mnemosyne 67 (2014), 577–87; Res Antiquae 10 (2013), 389-410; Ancient History Bulletin 25 (2011), 73–132.