The freedperson in Roman Corinth and the ekklesia – Student dissertation (part 6)

In this final excerpt from Newman Graduand, Isabella Wray’s, dissertation on Paul’s use of the term apeleutheros, ‘freedperson’, in 1 Corinthians 7 she explores the wider context and implications of Paul’s advice. In the earlier excerpts (parts 1, 2, 3 and 4), the socio-political function of manumission and the place of the freedperson within Roman society were examined. In part 5 Isabella began to unpack why Paul might have used this term and the significance it held for him and the recipients of this letter. This section fleshes this out further asking whether Paul’s instruction subverts the Roman social structures and what its implication might be for the church in Corinth.

Isabella Wray

Once again we would like to thank Isabella for her generosity in letting us post these excerpts here. Isabella will be graduating in a couple of weeks time and this is therefore one of  her final weeks as a graduand! She is currently enrolled in postgraduate studies at the University of Birmingham, taking a MA degree in Religion, Politics and Society. We wish her continued success in all her work and look forward to more fruits of her research!

Finally, we hope that you have enjoyed these posts and that you have learnt a little more about Paul, Corinth and the church that he founded there.

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


Isabella Wray

2.7 The wider context

The sudden shift from Paul’s advice on sexual immorality and marriage at the beginning of the chapter to issues on circumcision and slavery and freedom is one of interest for the case of a liberation reading. One of the ways to misunderstand Paul’s digression here is connected to the chapter appearing to centre on Paul’s advice to prioritise spiritual issues over physical or social issues. For example, Horsley (1998, p.97) regards this message to the Corinthians under the understanding that Paul is promoting an “eschatological freedom”. Another way Horsley (1998, p.97) connects this section of the letter to the spiritual imminence supposedly underpinning much of Paul’s writings, is that Paul is displaying a parallel sequence. The baptismal rite of Galatians 3:28 addresses three social distinctions: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female”, and as Horsley (1998, p.97) argues, this is mirrored in chapter seven. Yet in the same text, 1 Corinthians (1998, pp.100-103) Horsley identifies that in chapter seven “Paul was attempting to overcome” the social hierarchical relationships that had infiltrated the ekklesia which reflected the wider Roman symbolic order. And Paul’s deliberate choice of terminology points to Christ who is engaged with the social, economic and political issues and not merely to the alleviation of the Corinthians social oppression through spirituality.

Furthermore, immediately prior to Paul’s instructions on slavery and freed persons, Paul interrupts his discussion on marriage with advice for the circumcised. This is not coincidental or a digression. Horsley (1998) states Paul’s advice to the Corinthians to not “seek circumcision” (1 Cor 7:18) would have little impact on the mostly Gentile ekklesia. However, we know that there were at least some Jews within the movement such as Crispus, Priscilla and Aquilla. As Horsley (1998, p.101) argues that Paul’s advice on circumcision was “perhaps shocking to some of Paul’s Jewish compatriots”. Likewise, Wright (2005, p.76) reveals that the Jewish “agitators” were requesting Paul’s ekklesia be circumcised to prevent “suspicious local officials wondering why they didn’t join in with the imperial festivities and cult”. Paul’s advice here is actually not to seek to conform to the Roman uncircumcised society, nor the Jewish circumcised leaders. Arguably, Gentile converts into Paul’s movement who remained uncircumcised could expose the movement as something other than a Jewish sect. Wright (2005, p.76) discusses how the early Christian followers survived under the guise that it was a Jewish sect “which meant that Christianity could spread in Southern Greece” without oppression from Rome.

Therefore, Paul’s request for the ekklesia to keep their existing condition was itself a statement of non-conforming for the sake of social status. If adopted by his followers, Paul’s advice here could lead them to be seen as provoking the State. Moreover, Paul’s followers could be viewed as rebels, who actively opposed the Empire. This is supported further within the issue of marriage on which Paul makes clear his stance in the case with the step-son to whom he admonishes his followers to not “eat with such as person” (5:11). Here Paul is requesting his followers to reject the step-son who married his step-mother for either wealth or social standing. The matter was ignored by the congregation for some time, which signals that this was a common practice among Roman society (Dunn, 1995, p.53) and that the couple held social standing and power. Dunn (1995, p.53) reveals that some of the ekklesia may have been bound to the step-son as a client. Rice (2013, p.23) argues: “The man having his father’s wife is advancing his economic status through his wealthy step-mother” and was a common route to advance one’s social status. Additionally, in Chapter seven, Paul is using inclusive language when discussing marriage, addressing men and women in the same manner. This in itself was “utterly unusual”, not just for Paul, but for all male writers of this era (Horsley, 1998, p.95). Paul’s view on marriage expressed within this first letter seems to subvert the Roman household codes, particularly if it is used to enhance one’s status. This suggests that Paul does not require his followers to accept without confrontation, their wider social conditions. In its context, Paul is not advocating acceptance of social status, and in fact is using subversive language that appears to oppose Roman hierarchical structures that oppress.

2.8 The freed persons and slaves at the Lord’s Supper

In admonishing his readers to refuse to eat with certain members of the ekklesia it appears as though Paul is creating a new division outside of the social divisions played out in the polis (Horrell, 2004, p.151). However, the Lord’s Supper acted as a counter symbolic event itself by partaking in the Eucharist and played out very differently to the Pagan ritual meals. For example, Pagan ritual meals were organised to flaunt the status of the high stratum members by emphasising the lesser status of the poorer members. Street (2013, p.3) identifies how Roman ritual meals were banquets which symbolically acted as “a primary means for social formation” to be reinforced and reflected onto the participants. Freemen who attended the Roman banquet would be seated at a couch in which they could leisurely enjoy their meal (Street, 2013, pp.3-4). Slaves however, would be invited to eat later at a wooden bench, after much of the more luxurious food would have been eaten by the freemen. Slaves and women alike, were completely excluded from the communal fellowship enjoyed among the freemen of Corinth. Like the wider Corinthian society, the pagan supper ritual symbolised “an arena of power negotiation” (Hodge, 2010, p.9) and a ritual that was not to be replicated within Paul’s ekklesia.

For Paul, the Lord’s supper was to be a space of equality, and an arena of revolutionary subversion. This arena would be a dedicated space in which believers would esteem the lower strata members of the ekklesia above themselves. This reversal of the Roman symbolic order was played out during the Lord’s supper through which Paul promotes the interests of the lower strata over the higher strata (1 Cor 11:17-34). Wherein the wealthy freemen would enjoy their meal before everyone else in the pagan ritual, Paul subverts this cultural code and tells them to “wait for one another” (1:33) as a mark of mutual honour. Paul is creating an ekklesia within which the “symbolic order contrasts strongly with the dominant social order” (Horrell, 1996, p.282). The freed persons within the ekklesia were expected by Paul to become self-giving and self-depreciating. When this self-depreciation of the higher stratum is adopted, then unity with the lower strata could be established and if activated and lived out would exist in opposition of the Roman culture. Paul situates his ekklesia as a direct challenge to the widespread Imperial symbolic reinforcement (Horsley, 2004, p.10) by calling them to remember and understand themselves as subjected victims of Rome.

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