The Head of the Body The First Christian Slaveholders

Paul's encounter with the slave possessed by an oracular spirit led to conflict with her owners rather than to an opportunity to evangelize her household, although Acts of the Apostles does include four accounts of household conversions. In each case, Peter or Paul gained entry through contact with the head of the household. A dream of Cornelius led him to send two slaves and a soldier to find Peter (10:7). Peter decided to baptize the household when the holy spirit descended on the assembled members, including, presumably, those enslaved (10:44-48). When Paul encountered Lydia, the Lord opened her heart, which led not only to her own baptism but also to the baptism of her entire household (16:14-15). A jailer's experience of God's power in opening the doors of the prison precipitated his invitation to Paul and Silas to preach to his household and then to the household's baptism (16:27-34). Brief mention of the conversion of the synagogue official Crispus notes that his entire household followed his lead (18:8).

The historical accuracy of these summaries is difficult to assess. Luke's theological emphasis is on the power of the spirit at work building the church. Luke supposed that his readers would find nothing amiss when a slaveholder determined the religious practices of the household. Indeed, even contemporary scholars evince little concern about the legitimacy of conversion and baptism of slaves in such circumstances.42 Scholars debate whether the household baptisms represented in Acts of the Apostles involved children, but they do not debate whether household baptisms included slaves. They assume and assert that this was the case. Moreover, they do not seem troubled by this assumption. For example, as James Dunn reviews the household conversions in Acts, he equivocates on the inclusion of children in household baptisms but not of adult slaves. Dunn writes of Lydia's situation, "Household here need not include children since the term was commonly used to include household slaves and retainers." Of the conversion of the jailer's household, Dunn writes, "It is equally unclear whether household slaves and other adults alone [emphasis added] are in view or also children." Finally, regarding the conversion of Crispus's household, Dunn notes, it is "not clear whether a family is in view or simply the household slaves and retainers."43 Like Dunn and other commentators on Acts, ancient readers would have understood these households to include slaves. Unlike these commentators, however, I think that household baptisms masterminded by slaveholders raise uncomfortable questions about the social dynamics within the Pauline churches, as well as questions about the reception of the gospel by those who participated in the ritual of baptism.

Paul's initial contact in Philippi, according to Acts of the Apostles, was a dealer in purple goods named Lydia. She was a godfearer, that is, a Gentile who worshiped the God of Israel but had not converted to Judaism. Her openness to Paul's message, we have noted, led not only to her own baptism but also to the baptism of her household (Acts 16:13-15). Paul and his companions accepted her invitation to stay with her, so her house was large enough to accommodate visitors. Whether she was a wealthy woman or a relatively small business agent is not clear, further muddied by the difficulty of identifying social strata of ancient society in terms familiar to modern readers. She could have been a freedwoman who first entered the garment trade when she was a slave.44 Perhaps some of those who lived in her house were slave apprentices. Perhaps she owned her workers, or perhaps they were freedmen and freedwomen.

Ivoni Richter Reimer has advanced the hypothesis that Lydia's house was a "contrast society" in a Roman colony. As a female head of household, Lydia was not a pater familias. The citizen pater familias (Latin, "father of the family," or more generally "head of household") possessed, at least according to law, near total powers over members of the household, especially his offspring (including adult offspring) and slaves. Despite an earlier mention in Acts of the Apostles of a female Christian slaveholder, Mary (12:12-14), Reimer minimizes the likelihood that Lydia was a slaveholder, seeing her instead as an "independent woman. . . . who provides shelter for other people in her house." Even conceding that Lydia's home could have included slaves, Reimer claims that Lydia's home was an egalitarian retreat: "Because, for example, there is no longer a pater familias, there is no more patriarchal subordination, and all can be equal sisters and brothers."45

A later papyrus from Karanis offers a glimpse into a household headed by a female garment worker, which hardly conforms to Reimer's hypothesis that a female-headed household would constitute a contrast society. An apprenticeship contract for a female slave to learn the trade of weaving identified Aurelia Libouke as a weaver who had the right to act without a guardian because she had raised three children. Aurelia Libouke agreed to teach the slave the craft of weaving and promised that the slave would attain proficiency suitable for a girl her age. Unlike most apprenticeship contracts, which specified regular holidays throughout the apprenticeship period, this contract stipulated that the slave would be available for labor with no days off for leisure or even illness.46 The mere presence of a woman such as Lydia as head of household did not, therefore, transform a household from a hierarchical to an egalitarian structure.47 Richard Saller notes, "Though the head of the household was stereotyped as male by use of pater familias, in reality Roman women owned property and must often, in the absence of husbands, have wielded power over households with dependents. This gendered language causes historians to lose sight of female heads of households, even when they know better."48 The baptism of her household was Lydia's initiative. Luke does not suggest that the motivations or reactions of other household members concerned either Lydia or Paul. Acts of the Apostles does not present the Christian message as a challenge to slaveholding authority. Through the representations of household baptisms in Acts of the Apostles, Luke reinscribes the power of the head of the household over the lives of those in the house, including resident adult slaves. Chris Frilingos has argued that, in his letter to Philemon, Paul employed the vocabulary of family in such a way as to establish himself as the affectionate and commanding pater familias with authority over both slave and slaveholder. In this picture of Christian origins, the new Christian community unsettled existing hierarchical modes of relating among members of Christian households, even between slaveholders and slaves.49 In contrast, by suggesting that the spirit responded to the invitations of slaveholders, household by patriarchal household, Acts of the Apostles treats enslaved members of households as dependent bodies subject to the intellectual and spiritual authority of slaveholders.50

An authorial propensity to identify with the viewpoint of slaveholders rather than slaves may also influence two summaries of the exodus event in Acts of the Apostles that, curiously, lack any reference to the enslavement of the Israelite people. When Paul preaches at the synagogue in Antioch, he encapsulates the events surrounding the liberation of the Israelites without even a cryptic allusion to the coercive nature of their continuing sojourn in Egypt: "The God of this people Israel chose our ancestors and made the people great during their stay in the land of Egypt, and with uplifted arm he led them out of it" (13:17). In Stephen's speech before the council, he represents the kings of Egypt as evil not because they enslaved the Israelites who had been their guests but because they promoted infanticide: A king who had not known Joseph came to power, declares Stephen, and he "dealt craftily with our race and forced our ancestors to abandon their infants so that they would die" (7:19). Although in the nineteenth century African-American abolitionists would celebrate the exodus story as a narrative of God's historical intervention against slavery, these first-century synopses of the exodus expunge any memory of the enslavement of the Israelites.

Paul identifies the Christian community as the body of Christ. Descriptions of household conversions in Acts of the Apostles suggest that slaveholders played a dispropor tionate role in the baptisms of their households and therefore a role in the Christian body that derived not from a gift of the spirit but from their secular status. In 1 Corinthians Paul refers to a message he received from "Chloe's people," members of Chloe's household, probably her slaves.51 Since Paul expected his readers to be familiar with Chloe, he had no reason to specify whether she was herself a Christian. She may well have been. If she was a believer, Paul's reference to "Chloe's people" hints that Christian slaveholders had a higher profile within the church than enslaved members of their households who were also baptized, an impression entirely consistent with Luke's depiction of the movement of the spirit in Acts of the Apostles. According to Acts, Peter and Paul gained access to households not through humble members of the household-children or slaves—but through their heads. Slaveholders chose baptism not only for themselves but also for others who belonged to them, including, presumably, enslaved adult members of the household. What was the position of these enslaved bodies within the Christian body? Given the circumstances of a household baptism, could slaves' experiences as members of the Christian community obliterate the disadvantages of their slave status, even within the cult?52

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