Enslaved Leadership in Early Christianity

by Katherine A. Shaner.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.

Reviewed by Erica Saunders

Katherine A. Shaner
Katherine A. Shaner

The relationship between Christianity and slavery is a complicated one. During the time of North American chattel slavery, Christians, both abolitionists and slave drivers, cited Scripture to justify their positions. Historical reconstructions of the earliest Christianities also reflect this divide; most scholars see first- and second-century communities of Christ-followers as either tending toward the rejection of slavery, turning to texts like Gal 3:28, or the accommodation of the institution with apocalyptic prolepsis, turning to texts like 1 Cor 7:26 and the household codes (Eph 5:22–6:9; Col 3:18–4:1). Enslaved Leadership in Early Christianity avoids such dichotomies. Recognizing the ubiquity of enslaved persons in the ancient Greco-Roman world, Katherine Shaner undertakes a nuanced “study of tensions, ambiguities, and power contestations that arise with the presence of enslaved persons in ancient religious communities.”

The first chapter takes readers on a tour of Roman Ephesos, mining locations such as the harbor, the agora, and living spaces for the presence of enslaved persons and considering how their design reinforces master perspectives of ideal behavior of slaves. Chapter 2 examines ancient inscriptions in the Ephesian marketplace and theater to infer possible roles of enslaved persons in public life, particularly religious practice. The third chapter addresses ideological conceptions of slavery in Pauline texts while also highlighting the “multiple and contradictory ways in which slaves functioned as both dishonored bodies and bearers of authority in early Christian groups.” The fourth chapter investigates the role of visual images in constructing and reinforcing imperial authority by analyzing the Parthian reliefs, revealing a contestation around the roles of slaves in Ephesian religious rituals. Chapter 5 connects the emerging hierarchies in Christian assemblies as described in the letters of Ignatius and 1 Timothy with imperial power structures, paying careful attention to prescriptions for enslaved persons and their masters, concluding that enslaved persons functioned as leaders in early Christian communities, a fact that provoked disagreement and debate.

The author approaches her study through the lens of feminist rhetorical criticism. Shaner employs the methodology, pioneered by Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, of analyzing persuasive logics and multiplicative power dynamics in a variety of ancient sources—textual and archaeological, Christian and imperial—and expands its view to include enslaved status. Because of this attention to intersectional statuses and the symbiotic relationship between reality and rhetoric, a more complex portrait of enslavement and enslaved persons emerges, and the hidden logics of domination and exploitation (the “master-perspective”) embedded in Christian tradition come to the fore.

One of the most careful studies of slavery and early Christianity in years, Enslaved Leadership accomplishes its stated purpose of examining the variegated roles of enslaved persons in early religious communities and the negotiations of power that followed. Among its primary strengths are depth of research and critical interaction with scholarly literature, consideration of archaeological materials in tandem with textual sources, and respect for the enslaved persons in antiquity it seeks to study.

In addition to a clear and explicit description of methodology with a survey of its ideological lineage, the author provides a review of the literature surrounding Roman slavery from the perspectives of both classicists and New Testament scholars. She converses with major figures in the field, such as Orlando Patterson, J. Albert Harrill, and Jennifer Glancy, using their conclusions when appropriate while also providing sharp critique when necessary. Shaner’s feminist rhetorical-critical hermeneutic informs her principal critique of scholarship investigating Roman slavery: that traditional historiography assumes texts describe reality rather than prescribe kyriarchal roles. Thus she reinterprets current research to extract clues of the participation of enslaved persons as leaders in ancient religious groups.

The field of New Testament studies prioritizes the written word as authoritative and singular sources of knowledge about the ancient world. Classicists take into account material witness for their historical investigation. Both fields fall short by failing to consider the rhetorical function of their objects of study. Shaner steps into this gap, analyzing the Persicus decree as found in inscriptions around Ephesos and the Parthian reliefs for their prescriptions regarding the participation of enslaved persons in public religious life. The author’s intimate knowledge of the Ephesian archaeological landscape is evident from the critical interrogation found in this monograph.

Perhaps a result of the author’s rhetorical-critical methodology, every effort is made throughout the monograph to recognize the agency and personhood of enslaved persons. In addition to the very premise of the book, which seeks to liberate enslaved persons in antiquity from oblivion, labels are used with careful intention. As Elizabeth Johnson notes in She Who Is, language functions in the real world. As such, persons whose legal status made them property of another person are referred to as “enslaved persons” rather than “slaves.”

The title of this book, Enslaved Leadership in Early Christianity, suggests a survey of the participation of enslaved persons in ancient Christian communities across geographical and temporal expanse. In some measures, the author achieves this implicit goal by considering a number of different texts and archaeological materials. However, most material objects under study—Christian, pagan, and secular—are found in Ephesos and date to about the second century CE. While first-century Pauline texts come into view in the third chapter, the Ignatian epistles and 1 Timothy are contemporaneous with archaeological materials. Thus, while the study represents a geographical diversity of early Christian communities, its focus remains heavily on Ephesos. More attention could have been devoted to enslaved leadership of Christian communities outside of Asia Minor and to those earlier than the second century. This is an ambitious project, however, and is less a fault of the book than a call for further study.

This monograph would be an excellent addition to the collection of anyone interested in Christian feminism.


Erica Saunders
Erica Saunders is a student at Wake Forest University School of Divinity. Upon graduation, she plans to pursue doctoral study of the New Testament and ordination in the Baptist tradition.