Walk through the Streets of a Provincial City

Who were the slaves that Paul encountered in the course of his travels? Where and in what contexts did he encounter them? Acts of the Apostles includes one account of a slave whom Paul met in the streets of Philippi. The unnamed female slave (paidiske) was possessed by a "Pythian" spirit, who spoke through her. The slave's oracular powers were a source of income to her owners and a source of annoyance to Paul and his companions. The woman followed after them, calling out that they were "slaves of the most High God." A first-century traveler like Paul would not have been surprised to run across a fortune-teller plying her trade in the street. Fortune-telling was a common phenomenon in antiquity. Scraps of papyri record the questions that unknown persons from antiquity posed to fortune-tellers: questions about love and marriage, trade, gambling, and childbirth.9 Residents of Mediterranean cities would routinely have chanced on fortune-tellers. In The Golden Ass, for example, Lucius tells Milo of the predictions he received from an itinerant fortune-teller, and Milo replies by sharing the story of his own encounter with the same seer.10 According to Acts of the Apostles, Paul responded to the enslaved fortune-teller by performing an exorcism, which rid her of the possessing spirit and thus deprived her owners of a sure source of revenue.11

The slave practiced her lucrative trade publicly, in the streets. Evidence that female slaves and other women of humble status moved freely in urban streets and squares modifies the scholarly generalization that public spaces were "male" whereas private spaces were "female." In the Hellenistic Jewish narrative of Judith, for example, Judith's confinement to her home at the beginning and end of the story establishes her status as a respectable free woman of considerable means. It seems natural, however, for her female slave to travel through the streets, with no apparent companion, to invite the elders to a meeting in Judith's house. In an article on Jesus' conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4), Jerome Neyrey argues that the woman's presence in a public space, at noon, and engaged in conversation with a stranger, marked her as "deviant." Neyrey's assessment of the Samaritan woman as deviant because of her presence in a public place at midday can only be sustained if we label as deviant all women of lower statuses (slaves, freedwomen, poor freeborn laborers), a considerable percentage of the female population. To support his characterization of a cultural division between public/male and private/female spaces, Neyrey quotes Philo: "Market-places and council-halls and law-courts and gatherings and meetings where a large number of people are assembled, and open-air life with full scope for discussion and action—all these are suitable to men. . . . The women are best suited to the indoor life which never strays from the house, within which the middle door is taken by the maidens as their boundary, and the outer door by those who have reached full womanhood."12 Neyrey fails to note that Philo's articulation of the division between male and female worlds was expressly marked by status considerations. According to Philo, the woman who confined herself to her home except when she went to temple and then chose the hours when the market would be quiet deserved the honorable name of "freeborn lady" (Greek, eleuthera). Other literary references that associate women with interior spaces reinforce the impression that gender segregation was a phenomenon based on status and class. In the Acts of Thomas, for example, Charisius asks his wife sadly, "Why did you not have regard to your position as a free woman [emphasis added] and remain in your house, but go out and listen to vain words?"13 Indeed, Philo's commentary on the symbolic division between male and female spheres devolves into a condemnation of women who behave in unseemly ways in public spaces, specifically, women who argue and fight in the marketplace.14 Philo's censure hinges on the everyday presence of women in markets and other public places—and many of the women buying, selling, bargaining, and fighting in the marketplace would have been slaves.

As Paul traveled from city to city, then, he would have found it impossible to avoid contact with slaves. When he went to the marketplace to find other craftspeople or to purchase food for dinner he would have mingled with both male and female slaves. A wide variety of evidence attests to the ubiquitous presence of slaves in marketplaces. In the Life of Aesop, for example, the slaveholder Xanthus orders his slave Aesop to cook dinner for a gathering of his pupils. Not only does Aesop serve as cook, he also goes to the marketplace to buy the provisions for the meal. The other shoppers he encounters in the marketplace would have included male and female slaves, freedmen and freed-women, as well as freeborn folk of the lower economic strata. The merchants would have been of equally modest status. Funeral epitaphs of slaves as well as freedmen and freedwomen list such occupations as fishmonger, salt vendor, and grain merchant.15 Kathleen E. Corley has argued that the saying of Jesus comparing his generation to children in the marketplace may refer more plausibly to slaves sent by their owners to the marketplace to look for work as entertainers at a banquet.16 "They are like children [paidiois, which Corley proposes translating as "slaves"] sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another, 'We played the flute for you, and you did not dance.'"17 Paul would have encountered slaves in the homes of the men and women who offered him hospitality. Even before he entered those homes, however, he would have interacted with slaves as he made his way around urban streets throughout the Empire.

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