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0010 St Paul, imprisoned, ends the Letter to the Ephesus and hands it to Tychicus. Gustave


Drawing upon both recent work by Saidiya Hartman, Marissa Fuentes, Stephanie Smallwood and others on the history of Atlantic slavery, as well as studies in book history, religious studies, and classics, this project is an attempt to document the role of enslaved workers in production of the literature of the early church.[1]


It aims to gather and assemble the epigraphic, literary, documentary, and artistic evidence for enslaved literate workers in the 1st-2nd centuries CE.  The material contained here is deliberately maximalist. This means that certain categories will be blurry and that individuals who might not have been enslaved will be included.


Identifying Enslaved Individuals

The social status of individual workers can sometimes be difficult to parse. Sometimes the social status of an individual is explicit, on other occasions it is obscured or assumed by an ancient author. The difficulty is only exacerbated when dealing with Christian sources as tradition has tended to elevate the pedigree of named members of the Jesus movement. 


Often the status of a worker is ascertained on the basis of (1) their name (2) their occupation. Each aspect of this method has problems. While some names (e.g. “Epaphroditus” meaning “charming” or "attractive") are unmistakably “slavish,” there are always exceptions, and general principles vary depending on chronological period and region.[2] So too, while some professions (e.g. copying) were considered dishonorable and associated with servile workers, there were situations where freeborn individuals would engage in these tasks.


In keeping with the principles of this project we include all individuals who might reasonably have been said to be enslaved or formerly enslaved (freed person). This includes those identified based on their name and/or profession. The rationale for each individual's identification as an enslaved or potentially enslaved person is explained in the commentary on each entry. 


Enslaved and Formerly Enslaved

The database includes people who had been manumitted (freed) as well as those who are explicitly identified as enslaved. It is sometimes difficult to identify the stage in a person’s life when they were manumitted. Moreover, those who had been manumitted often continued to live in the homes of their former enslavers and were subjected to the same forms of pressure and abuse. 


The Language of Enslavement

In the past forty years the study of slavery has come a long way. Following the work of Foreman, et al, we see the identification of a person as a “slave” as dehumanizing and essentializing. Thus, we prefer to use the terms “enslaved” and “enslavement.”[3] 


Biblical Texts and their Modification

Unless otherwise noted Greek texts of the New Testament come from Nestle-Aland, Novum Testamentum Graece (28th ed. 2012). The official text for this can be found here. English translations are drawn from the New Revised Standard Version, though the translation is often modified.


As the work of Clarice Martin has shown, translations of Biblical texts have selectively and strategically translated the language of enslavement in order to obscure and erase enslaved identity. Translating enslaved person (doulos) as “servant” obscures the brutal fact that enslavement was not a matter of choice and “minimizes the full psychological weight of the institution of slavery itself.”[4] The erasure of enslaved identity is rooted in the understanding that there is something shameful about the experience of being victimized and, thus, tacitly assumes the inferiority of enslaved people. We have chosen to preserve the language of enslavement even in situations where the language might be understood to be metaphorical. 


Christian Identity

The language of “Christian” poses some problems. First, it is not always possible to identify the religious orientation of an individual worker. Non-Christian enslaved workers often lived in the households of freeborn Christians (e.g. the enslaved workers noted in Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 5.1.14). Second, even if an enslaved worker is known to have been Christian their “conversion” may have been involuntary or coerced. Finally, for most of the first century, followers of Jesus were known simply as Jews or followers of the Way. Many of the individuals included here may simply have identified as Jewish. We do not wish to erase their identities by identifying them as Christian. 


Nevertheless, and with a view to plans to broaden the database to include enslaved non-Christians we use the keyword “Christian” as an identifier in entries for first century members of the Jesus movement.


Defining Role and Job Titles

Wherever possible the project identifies people by their role or title (e.g. “secretary” or “reader”). In instances where (1) a worker’s role is unclear or (2) the individual performs multiple literate roles they are identified simply as “literate workers.” Timothy, for example, is a co-author in some letters attributed to Paul and as a messenger in others. Enslaved workers in Roman households often served a variety of roles regardless of their formal title. This is true, for example, of an enslaved man named Diphilus who worked in the household of Crassus in Rome: he is identified both as a “writer” and a “reader” (Cicero, De Orat. 1.136).



Some of the entries include anonymous individuals whose presence and role can only be inferred from primary materials. These people are listed as "Anonymous" with the relevant primary evidence following. It is, of course, impossible to know exactly who these people were, but in light of recent work erasure of enslaved workers from ancient texts by Brendon Reay, Sarah Blake, Joseph Howley, and Candida Moss and in keeping with the maximalist goals of this project they are included here.[5]



We have included gender as a category of analysis in each entry. Alongside the traditionally recognized genders of “Male” and “Female” we have included “Unknown” and “Non-Normative.” Included under “Non-Normative” both are those individuals whose gender performance is suggestive of non-normative gender and those whose bodies had been modified by force (i.e. “Eunuchs”). In the case of those whose bodies had been forcibly modified, we do not wish to obscure either the violence of this practice, or its many medical risks. 





[1] Saidiya V. Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism 12.2 (2008): 1–14; Hartman, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), 16; Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997); Marisa J. Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016); and David Kazanjian, “Freedom’s Surprise: Two Paths Through Slavery’s Archives,” History of the Present: A Journal of Critical History 6.2 (2016): 133-145; Stephanie Smallwood, “The Politics of the Archive and History’s Accountability to the Enslaved,” History of the Present 6.2 (2016): 117-32.


[2] See, for example, Christer Bruun, “Greek or Latin? The Owner’s Choice of Names for vernae in Rome,” in Roman Slavery and Roman Material Culture, ed. Michelle George (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013), 19–42.


[3] P. Gabrielle Foreman, et al., “Writing about Slavery/Teaching About Slavery: This Might Help,” Community-sourced document, Accessed November 20, 2020.


[4] Clarice J. Martin, “Womanist Interpretations of the New Testament: The Quest for Holistic and Inclusive Translation and Interpretation,” in I Found God in Me: A Womanist Biblical Hermeneutics Reader, ed. Mitzi J. Smith (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2015), 19–41 [25].


[5] Brendon Reay, “Agriculture, Writing, and Cato’s Aristocratic Self-Fashioning,” Classical Antiquity 24.2 (2005): 331–61; Sarah Blake, “Now You See Them: Slaves and Other Objects as Elements of the Roman Master,” Helios 39.2 (2012): 193–211; Blake, “In Manus: Pliny’s Letters and the Arts of Mastery,” in Roman Literary Cultures: Domestic Politics, Revolutionary Poetics, Civic Spectacle, ed. A. Keith and J. Edmondson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016), 89–107; Joseph A. Howley, “In Rome,” in Further Reading, edited by Matthew Rubery and Leah Price (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020), 15–27; Candida R. Moss, “Between the Lines: Looking for the Contributions of Enslaved Literate Laborers in a Second-Century Text (P. Berol. 11632),” SLA 5.3 (2021): 432–52

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