Liberating the liberated – Student dissertation (part 5)

Having explored the socio-political status of former slaves (the apeleutheroi or ‘freedpersons’) and the function of manumission within the Roman world (parts 1, 2, 3 and 4), Isabella Wray begins to address Paul’s use of apeleutheros within the context of the Corinthian community. One of the things that intrigued Isabella is that, although Paul frequently refers to slavery, liberation and being free, he only uses the term apeleutheros once (1 Corinthians 7: 22) – fans of University Challenge will know that a singular instance of a word in a text or corpus is sometimes referred to as a ‘hapax legomenon’.

Isabella Wray

Isabella is a graduand of Newman University  (graduating in October 2017) and we are very grateful for her generosity in allowing us to post excerpts from her BA dissertation.

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


Isabella Wray

2.6 Paul’s liberation of the apeleutheros: ‘Remain as you are’?

Paul’s overarching message in chapter seven [of 1 Corinthians], in which he repeats the term remain (meno) five times, is to seemingly “remain” in social positions. Exegetes have interpreted this repetition to be associated with Paul’s expectation of the parousia. For example, Leander Keck (in Neil Elliot, 1995, p.32) asserts:

Paul’s ethic appears to be so thoroughly influenced by his expectation of the imminent parousia that it produces a ‘conservative’ stance, for he actually urges his readers not to change their roles in society.

However, Paul’s use of language reveals his intentions for his ekkelsia are not so clear as to assume he is expecting the imminent coming of Christ and is therefore disinterested with the corporeal environment of the Corinthians. In fact, Paul’s use of language is political and economic and displays a familiarity of Roman laws (Nasrallah, 2014, pp.54-73). For example, the term that Paul uses for freedman/freed person is apeleutheros, a term that literally translates as an ’emancipated slave’. The position and use of this term by Paul may not be coincidental because he appears to be directly addressing the manumission process by using Roman legal terms (see part 3). In stating, “For whoever was called in the Lord as a slave is a freed person [apeleutheros] belonging to the Lord”, Paul is introducing Christ into the legal manumission procedure. Paul could have used the term ‘free’ (eleutheros) as he had to describe the newfound condition of the redeemed slaves, yet he uses a hapax to describe a person who has undergone legal manumission (Elliot, 1995, p.50). The reception of this statement could be associated with an image of Christ entering the corporeal agora to emancipate the slaves and redeem them from a subjected life under oppressive “human masters”. Paul displays his knowledge of Roman social structures in this use of Roman legal terms such as apeleutheros and Paul would know that to encourage changes to social status would entail severe punishments by the State.

Another example of political and economic terminology, is Paul’s use of the term ‘time’, often translated as ‘price’, but its use with a verb highlights the subject of value and cost (Nasrallah, 2014, p.72). Modern readers could interpret this statement – “you were bought with a price” to be referring to the inclusion of Gentiles into salvation in Christ. However, the word time can be interpreted as ‘honour’, ‘value’, ‘respect’ or ‘nobility’ and therefore signifies something more than just market value. Time was a common term applied to the cost of a slave and a person’s time depended upon gender, age, ethnicity and abilities (Nasrallah, 2014, p.72). Paul is using common Roman economic terms to subvert the Empire’s political system and to introduce Christ into the centre of the Roman polis, where Christ purchases not only slaves, but also the apeleutheros from their social captivity and human oppression.

Paul was aware that many slaves enjoyed more economic privileges (Martin, 1999) than freed persons whose freedom often entailed debts to their former human masters. Thus, perhaps, he does not suggest that the ekklesia should remain in their social occupation. To support this, the rendering of the term klesis (calling or situation) as a social role has recently been bought into question since the subsequent letters (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) detailing slave life have been revealed as pseudo-Pauline letters (Wright, 2013b). For example, in the first letter to Timothy (6:1) the author states: “Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honour, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be blasphemed”. Moreover, in Titus (2:9), the author speaks of slaves with a notable change in tone: “Tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect; they are not to talk back”. Elliot (1995, p.37) argues that Paul’s apparent objection of advocating a change of social status stems from “exegetical misjudgements” based on the slave rhetoric throughout both the genuine and the pseudo letters. In addition, this ‘misjudgement’ was advanced by Luther who translated the term klesis to ‘occupation’ rather than ‘calling’ (Elliot, 1995, p.37). This rendering of the term is misleading and rather, appears to reinforce the Roman symbolic order; that is, to accept the social position that is allocated and importantly, to accept it without dissension. Additionally, in the previous verses, Paul advises that the uncircumcised must not “seek circumcision” (7:18), but to “remain in the klesis” and ends his advice there. This use of the term here points to a physical marker and not to delineate a social position. However, in regards to the klesis of the slave Paul further recommends: “if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself the opportunity” (v21). Paul is advising that if it is possible, or appropriate, then his followers can alter their klesis. Rather then, klesis should be rendered to translate as ‘calling’ and not ‘occupation’ or ‘station in life’ This is something very different to the standardised position on Paul’s advice, Paul is in fact encouraging slaves take advantage of the Roman legal system. A better reading is:

Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. Even if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself the opportunity. For whoever was called in the Lord as a slave is a freed person (apeleutheros) belonging to the Lord, just as whoever was free when called is a slave of Christ. You were bought (agorazo) with a price (time); do not become slaves of human masters. In whatever condition you were called, brothers and sisters, there remain with God.

Paul is utilising the language of the economic and political transactions of humans to promote liberation of both the freed and slave Corinthians from life as a subjected commodity. Paul clarifies that a life as a doulos (slave) to Christ is more liberating than a life as a apeleutheros (freed person) to the Empire, or “human master”. The position of these verses within the letter, although previously aided the misunderstanding of Paul’s message, could in fact support Paul’s case for a message of liberation directed at the freed person as well as the slave.

Coming next: Placing this teaching within the wider context

2 thoughts on “Liberating the liberated – Student dissertation (part 5)

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