Bought with a price: Paul and manumission – Student dissertation (part 3)

In parts one and two of Isabella Wray‘s dissertation (BA) exploring Paul’s use of the term ‘feedman’ (ἀπελεύθερος – apeleutheros) in 1 Corinthians 7:22, Isabella has drawn our attention to the importance of status within Roman society. She makes the point that how one was even treated in the law courts was dependent upon one’s status and rightly noted that this would have informed Paul’s instruction against their use for disputes among assembly members (1 Corinthians 6:1-6).

Furthermore, the relatively recent re-establishment of Corinth created a rather unique environment which resulted in some of the legal obstructions to influential civic/political posts being lifted – even to those who were once slaves. The lure of upward mobility in Corinth was a very tangible and visible possibility; even someone who was a slave could rise up the social ladder, command respect of their peers, and acquire great wealth and power. At the best of times, the promise of freedom for slaves must have been very attractive, but in Corinth there was an added incentive. Was this, partly, behind Paul’s aside concerning whether the members of the Corinthian church who were slaves should remain enslaved or attain the status of an apeleutheros?

In this section Isabella examines the legal process by which a slave could become free (manumission).

Paul’s Liberating Theology in 1 Corinthians 7:21-24: The Freedperson’s Journey to Liberation


Isabella Wray

Marble relief depicting manumission of two slaves, 1st cent. BCE. (Musée de Mariemont). Image:

2.2 Manumission

Slaveholding was a crucial foundation for the elite to amass and exert their power (Horsley, 2004, p.13) and the frequent public manumission of slaves projected a message of the possibility of freedom to slaves. Additionally, as the Empire grew, so did the need for willing and enthusiastic workers to fill important job roles (Millis, 2014, p.55). Unlike the earlier Greek period of Corinth, as a Roman colony the manumission of slaves meant that they were awarded Roman citizenship (status civitatis). The transition from slave to freed person meant gaining legal benefits such as full ownership of property, being free to marry and for men to become the head of a household (paterfamilias) (Nasrallah, 2014, p.54-73). The wealthy freed person acted as a public symbol exemplifying the possibility of social mobility (Nasrallah, 2014, pp.54-73). This served the interest of the Emperor by limiting the possibility of rebellion and filling important jobs roles. It also served the interests of all members of society by retaining peace by offering hope. Essentially manumission had an anti-revolt function which prevented the use of violence by the State and offered real hope to the subjected (Horrell, 1996, pp.165-166). Thus, the Roman symbolic order was accepted and reinforced by both the upper and lower strata of society and the exploitation of people was accepted and defended.

There were several avenues through which a slave could achieve manumission, the most common was the manumission vindicta (Mouristen, 2011, p.11). The slave master would appear in front of the magistrate along with a Roman citizen and they would perform a public “mock trial” (Nasrallah, 2014, p.57) similar to a satire. The Roman citizen would contest the slave was enslaved wrongly and should be freed. If the slave master agreed, then the Roman citizen would tap the slave with a vindicta (a rod or stick) and the magistrate would declare the slave as libertas (free). This theatrical process displayed that the slave was, by birth, wrongly enslaved and was legally restored to his rightful state as a freed person. Another form of manumission was the sacral manumission whereby a slave was sold to, or bought by, a god. The Delphic manumission inscriptions dated between 200 BCE and 74 CE found outside the temple of the Greek god Apollo details a sacral manumission. The inscriptions depict a slave gaining his freedom through the god Apollo and “money was provided by the slave” (McLean, 2002, p.294) – as was the usual process for sacral manumissions. Immediately following the transaction, the newly freed slave would become the possession of the god.

2.3 Challenging the Consensus

German theologian Adolf Deissmann, working at the turn of the 20th century, first connected Paul’s use of language in 1 Corinthians with the sacral manumission process in the Mediterranean (Strachan and Deissmann, 2004). From this a consensus formed which tells us that Paul’s readers of the letter would make the connection between the sacral manumission process and Paul’s rhetoric in 1 Corinthians, “You were bought with a price”. One example that Deissmann (2004, p.319) gives is in the Greek inscription from 200-199 BCE in which he highlights the terms ‘bought,’ ‘freed’ and ‘price’. Deissmann (2004, p.319) insists that these terms were used by Paul to project a similar image to his ekklesia. The inscription uses the term epriato, yet, when Paul states “you were bought with a price”, the term he uses for bought is agorazo which literally translates as ‘a transaction made in the marketplace’. Although there is evidence at Delphi of sacral manumissions occurring around the time of Paul’s ministry, the same cannot be said for Corinth where there is no such evidence (McLean, 2002, p.294). Therefore, to claim that Paul made a direct reference to the sacral manumission practice which was more common 250 years before his mission and was associated with Delphi 200 kilometres away from Corinth seems speculative.

[The texts for these Delphic inscriptions in English and with links to Greek can be found here ]

There is no evidence at Corinth to show how common sacral manumissions were and how recognisable to Paul’s readers at Corinth the pagan sacral element of Paul’s rhetoric would be. However, there is evidence that manumissio vindicta were widespread in the first century and that at least some of Paul’s ekklesia as freed persons would have experienced this process. Thus, a closer examination of the text in this context is important because it shifts the focus from Paul’s stance on slavery, to the reception of his writings by his ekklesia. The letter would call the listeners to “recall the price of freedom” (Nasrallah, 2014, p.56) and the social inequalities they faced as slaves.  This would help those who had achieved a higher status in Corinth to empathise with the slaves within the group and to be in unity and agreement (1 Cor 1:10). The assembly would also be called to remember that they were, and continue to be, commodities of Rome with Paul’s use of the term agorazo (bought) in 1 Corinthians 7:23.

Until recently, interpretations of the first epistle to the Corinthians had promoted the understanding that Paul was uninvolved in the politics or economy of the Roman Empire and that his interests resided merely in the spiritual realm. An example of this is derived from Paul’s supposed request for his ekklesia to ‘remain’ as they are. However, this reading has obscured Paul’s politically charged and anti-empire mission alluded to in his use of language in the Corinthian correspondence (Horsley, 1998, p.97). Wright (2013b, pp.439-450) identifies the importance of rereading the epistles through the political lens, particularly the letter to the Romans and the first epistle to the Corinthians. Because, as Wright (2013b, p.189) asserts, “Paul’s proclamation clearly carried a political message at its heart” and this message was “deeply subversive at several levels” (Wright, 2013b, p.329). Within the Corinthian correspondence, Paul makes clear his opposition to the State: “when he [Christ] hands over the Kingdom of God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power” (1 Cor 15:24). It would seem out of place that Paul would switch his liberating tone in the earlier chapter and it is plausible that Paul is reminding his hearers that they were bought with a price in the agora. By stating “you were bought with a price”, Paul was bringing his readers to question the slave trade and manumission process at Corinth. The manumission process was a symbolic representation of escaping the harshest terror [crucifixion], usually reserved for slaves and rebels of the State, performed regularly and publicly by Roman officials. Equally, he was recalling his listeners to the violence and dominance exercised constantly by the Roman officials in the use of public crucifixions (Hengel, 1977). This stirring up of the ekklesia by Paul is also seen in his opening section within the letter in which he refers to Christ as crucified several times (1:23). Here, Paul is calling his ekklesia to be reminded that their Lord was punished with a slave’s death by Rome: “None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” (2:8). Paul repeatedly calls his ekklesia to keep in mind the violence and harshness of the Empire.

2.4 Recalling the true cost of freedom

During the first century, the cost of freedom increased by 50% and many slaves opted to take partial freedom and remained indebted to their previous masters (Mouritsen, 2011, p.11). Some freed persons supplied their previous masters with one of their own children as a slave (Bartchy, 2003, p.45) so they could be fully manumitted. The paramone inscriptions describe a female slave on achieving her freedom entering a contract with her previous master in partial slavery, yet free to continue with a degree of freedom (some rights such as being able to marry for example) (Ferguson and Harrill, 1999, p.284). Some freed persons who did not pay their debts to their previous masters or fulfil their ongoing obligations (Barchy, 2003, p.46) were re-enslaved. Additionally, under Roman law, freed persons at any time could be charged with ingratus (ungratefulness) toward their former masters and suffer harsh and public punishments such as crucifixion. Bartchy (2003, p.49) states how, just prior to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, Emperor Claudius “reportedly ordered re-enslavement” as a method of punishment for law breaking by freed persons. The legal and social ties between the freed person to their previous slave status were highly complex and considerable (Bartchy, 2003, p.57).

Paul’s slave trade rhetoric would have held significance to the Corinthian ekklesia, particularly those who were freed persons, slaves or slave holders. In Corinth, slaves “straddle[d] the line between human and thing” (Nasrallah, 2014, p.58), but evidence tells us that freed persons also straddled this line. For example, the Roman system stigmatized maculis sevitutis (freed status) as freed persons still had laws inflicted on them to prevent them from marrying people from outside their class. The freed person was viewed as cowardly because of their readiness to extend their wealth (Nasrallah, 2014, p.58), and tainted by their previous slave status. This explains why freed persons, such as Babbius, displayed his status and wealth in the centre of the polis as a statement of achievement. Arguably tainted, Babbius would feel the need to defend his own social status and honour to maintain his worth amongst the visitors to Corinth. The flaunting of freed status was not just limited to Babbius as other wealthy freed persons at Corinth often did the same…

In part 4 we will meet one such person who was also could have been a member of the Corinthian church

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