Studies in 1, 2 Timothy, Titus—Lesson 16 (1 Timothy 6:1-2)
by Reta Halteman Finger
Our last lesson sought to accurately situate 1 Timothy 6:1-2 in its literary and historical context. When we read selected biblical texts like this passage as eternally relevant, they can cause great damage. For centuries, slaveholders in the American South used this text to justify chattel slavery, as if God intended some people to serve as the personal property of their supposed superiors.
This lesson will address the plight of enslaved persons in ancient Rome and then include African American reactions to 1 Timothy 6:1-2. And as I write in August, 2019, I realize it is 400 years ago to the very month that the first Africans arrived in America in chains. The New York Times Magazine has just published “The 1619 Project,” a one-hundred-page magazine commemorating this tragic anniversary. Its collection of articles, photos, and literary works strive to tell the truth about America’s shameful history and the troubling effects of slavery on American culture ever since (more on this at the end of the lesson).
Slavery pervaded the empires of the ancient world. With limited technology and a hierarchical patronage system, somebody had to do the hard labor and low-status work. An estimated ten to thirty percent of the Roman Empire’s population was enslaved. These enslaved people were acquired in four ways: as war captives, through breeding (children of enslaved mothers were also enslaved), because of unpayable debt, and through abandonment (unwanted infants, usually girls, thrown out with the garbage and rescued by others to be enslaved) (Finger and McClain, p. 78).
Until the 1980s, most scholars of this period tended to represent Greek or Roman slavery as rather benign, since they interpreted these cultures as advanced and humane. However, most classical writings come from elite males at the top of the hierarchy. Few enslaved people were literate enough to preserve their side of the story (p. 78).
But in 1982, sociologist Orlando Patterson published Slavery as Social Death, which viewed slavery “from below.” Patterson defined it as the “permanent, violent domination of dishonored persons torn from their birth families” (p. 13). Building on these insights, New Testament scholars began to reread the available evidence to draw a more accurate picture of ancient slavery. The following facts give us a better sense of ancient Roman bondage:
- Enslaved individuals could not marry, and their bodies were considered sexually available to their masters.
- They could not own property, make legal transactions, or inherit any wealth.
- They could be purchased, sold, traded, or even stolen.
- They were legally subject to physical punishment, such as whippings.
- They could be manumitted by their owners (Huizenga, pp. 76-77).
Jennifer A. Glancy’s Slavery in Early Christianity stresses the perception of enslaved people as bodies to be used, devoid of personal dignity or honor, and raped at will by their owners. This happened most frequently to females and young boys. Enslaved persons as bodies could also stand in for their owners. If a master got behind in his payments on a debt, a slave could stand in to receive the punishment, such as imprisonment, until the master paid (pp. 9, 11-13). Contrary to assumptions, more enslaved people were likely female than male, for two reasons. First, although males could often be freed by the age of thirty, females were kept for breeding purposes until they reached menopause, unless they died first. Second, more girls than boys were abandoned as babies (p. 17).
Slavery and the New Testament
If such cruelty prevailed in the world of the New Testament, why didn’t Paul and other writers protest slavery? Although all letters attributed to Paul assume that individual enslaved people are equally welcome into the Jesus Movement, they do not attack slavery as a system. Patterson’s essay, “Paul, Slavery, and Freedom,” explains why. “Paul neither defended nor condemned the system of slavery,” he writes, “for the simple reason that in the first-century Roman imperial world in which he lived, the abolition of slavery was intellectually inconceivable, and socially, politically, and economically impossible” (p. 266). Our modern idea that the gospel calls us to political action to work for large-scale changes in society did not emerge until the late 1700s in Western Europe and America (p. 267).
Thomas Long drives home the point. The author of 1 Timothy “could no more envision a society this side of heaven in which there was no slavery than those of us raised in the 1950s and 1960s could imagine the digital world we now inhabit” (p. 166). The irony of all this, however, is that our author can imagine another world—a world where “everything created by God is good, and nothing [and no one] is to be rejected (1 Tim 4:4). Long succinctly concludes that the author’s “theological imagination bears witness to a world much larger than his limited, time-bound social imagination” (p. 167).
Hearing from people of color
True to our Native Land, a New Testament commentary written by African Americans, includes an essay by Clarice Martin on the Pastoral Epistles. She agrees with other scholars that “the author [of 1 Timothy] reflects the interests and perspectives of those in the more economically privileged, higher status, propertied class.” Although 1 Timothy 6:1-2 was used by pro-slavery apologists in America, “African Americans never accepted a literalist biblical interpretation that legitimized their status as subhuman chattel. They always countered the dialectics of negation with multiple forms of resistance” (pp. 427-428).
Another contributor, Mitzi J. Smith, wrote an opening essay on “Slavery in the Early Church” (pp. 11-19). She affirms that “African Americans have historically considered as offensive and unconscionable Pauline and deuteropauline texts mandating slaves to be content and servile in their legal status. African Americans have reinterpreted, trumped, and rejected such oppressive texts and the oppressive hermeneutical maneuvers that have relied on such texts. . . . When white slavemasters claimed sole authority over the Bible and its interpretation, our ancestors creatively seized and reappropriated some of the very tools the master used against them” (p. 19).
Rev. Elijah R. Zehyoue’s essay (in Huizenga’s commentary) suggests different ways of approaching texts like 1 Timothy 6:1-2. “I do not agree with this text at all,” he says, “but I am guided by the paradox he [the writer] presents, and I am inspired to deal with my own ethical paradox. I am called by this text to think about the slave, or the low-wage powerless worker in my own time, and how I often compromise his and her humanity by reinforcing the customs of my day” (p. 84). In another essay in Huizenga’s commentary, Eloy Escamilla laments for the many brown and black farmworkers who today labor in similar inhuman situations (pp. 85-87).
Inequality brings poverty
Zehyoue’s “low-wage powerless worker” and Escamilla’s essay on farm workers call to mind those who have replaced legal slavery in our culture. For example, the cover story of the September 2, 2019, issue of TIME magazine discusses tipped workers as members of “The Left Behind Economy.” Through numerous charts and statistics, the authors demonstrate that “for millions of American workers, living on tips has become unlivable.” The poverty rate among tipped workers is over twice as high as for non-tipped workers. The federal “tipped” minimum wage is $2.13 per hour, unchanged since 1991. Tips often do not raise workers’ wages to the $7.25 per hour federal minimum wage, itself unchanged since 2009.
As always, women are more affected than men. Among tipped restaurant workers, women make 76 percent of what men make. And black and brown workers of both sexes continue to be economic victims. Is it a coincidence that most of the states that do not guarantee $7.25 per hour for tipped jobs are the former slave states? Our capitalist culture finds new ways to oppress people even after chattel slavery has legally ended.
The 1619 Project rewrites history
No recent publication makes this clearer than “The 1619 Project” mentioned above. The overarching message in this New York Times Magazine is that American history actually began in 1619, when the first Africans were brought to this continent to be sold as property. White people have profited from slavery for 246 years until the Civil War ended in 1865, and white people have profited by continuing racism ever since.
Of the many observations in “The 1619 Project,” I will mention three:
- The truth about American slavery is not adequately taught in our public schools, so most Americans know little of its relentless brutality.
- Slavery gave America a fear of black people and a taste for violent punishment. Both still define our criminal justice system. One of three black men will end up in prison, compared with one of 17 white men.
- The freed people of the South first petitioned the government for basic medical care 150 years ago. Today the United States remains the only high-income country in the world where such care is not guaranteed to every citizen. In the US, racial disparities in health care have proved almost as foundational as democracy itself. (For example, I have a United States map showing which states have expanded Medicaid in response to the Affordable Care Act. Not one formerly-slave state from North Carolina to Texas has done so.)
The irony that Thomas Long attributed to the author of 1 Timothy can be replicated by comparing the racism and inequality of our American society with our Declaration of Independence—that “all men [sic] are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights. . . . ” Can’t a democracy do better than an ancient empire? Can’t American Christian churches match their social practices with their theological imagination?
Questions for discussion or reflection
- Reread Elijah Zehyoue’s interpretation of 1 Tim 6:1 (above). Can you identify with his “ethical paradox”? In what ways?
- What are you or your church doing about racial and/or socioeconomic inequality?
Escamilla, Eloy. “Campesinos and the Scriptures.” In Huizenga, 1-2 Timothy, Titus, pp. 85-87.
Finger, Reta Halteman and George D. McClain. Creating a Scene in Corinth: A Simulation. Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2013.
Glancy, Jennifer A. Slavery in Early Christianity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Huizenga, Annette Bourland. 1-2 Timothy, Titus. Wisdom Commentary. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2016.
Interlandi, Jeneen. “A Broken Health Care System.” In “The 1619 Project.” New York Times Magazine. August 14, 2019.
Long, Thomas. 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus. Belief: A Theological Commentary. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 2016.
Martin, Clarice J. “1-2 Timothy, Titus.” In True to Our Native Land: An African-American New Testament Commentary. Brian K. Blount, gen. ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007, pp. 409-36.
Patterson, Orlando. Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982.
_______. “Paul, Slavery, and Freedom: Personal and Socio-Historical Reflections.” Semeia, 83-84 (1998): 266.
Semuels, Alana and Malcolm Burnley. “The Left Behind Economy: Living on Tips.” TIME. Vol. 194, Nos. 8-9: Sept 2-9, 2019.
Smith, Mitzi J. “Slavery in the Early Church.” In True to Our Native Land: An African-American New Testament Commentary. Brian K. Blount, gen. ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007, pp. 11-22.
“The 1619 Project.” New York Times Magazine. Introduction by Nikole Hannah-Jones. August 14, 2019.
Zehyoue, Elijah R. “African-American Slavery and Scriptures.” In Huizenga, 1-2 Timothy, Titus, pp. 83-84.