I’ve been enjoying various novels, but today I read something that excited me enough to blog again. You may not believe this but it is Pliny’s Letter to the Emperor Trajan, which I first read back in Uni. in the 60s. (So have I already lost most readers of my Facebook page?)
The editor/author whose internet copy, in English and Latin, I was reading, is K.C.Hanson, a name husband Bud recognized from his reading in early Christian communities and worship, -which has been his big discovery, interest and ministry since reading Alan Streett’s Subversive Meals.
When I first read Pliny’s letter to the Emperor, dated around 100 C.E., my interest was caught by its reference to Christians, one of the very early references in non-Christian sources, but my main interest was in the relationship between the Governor of a Roman Province and the Emperor. I admired the basic humanity and common sense approach- namely to punish Christians who would not recant, but not to seek them out and to ignore any anonymous accusations. I regretted the torturing of slaves to get information, but this was Rome, and slavery and brutality were part of the culture.
What went right over my head, what hit me over the head when I read the letter today was the section about the slaves who were tortured.
Not the section about the meetings and worship of those Christians, or Christ-niks, as Hanson translates the term Christiani, which was at that date still derogatory. That is interesting and relevant to the modern Church. Bud, (and I, as I have to admit,) has been fascinated to read this section, the description of the assembling of Christians around 100 C.E., to sing to Christ as to a god, and to meet at dinner time for a common meal, as other associations did:
“They also declared that the totality of their guilt or error amounted to no more than this: they had met regularly before dawn on a certain day to chant verses antiphonally amongst themselves in honor of Christ as if to a god, and also to bind themselves with an oath, not in a criminal conspiracy, but to abstain from fraud, banditry, and adulteration, to commit no breach of trust, and not to renege on a deposit. After completing this foolishness, it was their custom to disperse and reassemble later to take food of an common and innocuous type.”
No. My attention was captured by the slaves who were tortured. Here are Pliny’s words:
“Quo magis necessarium credidi ex duabus ancillis, quae ministrae dicebantur, quid esset veri et per tormenta quaerere” or, in Hanson’s translation: “This made me decide it was all the more necessary to extract the truth from two female slaves—whom they call “ministers”—by means of torture.”
Poor women. This is the reality of slavery, then and recently- and now. I have just read The Book of Negroes, so the life of a woman who does not even own her own body or life is very much in my mind. Then as now for those utterly helpless slaves, pain, sexual violation, torture and death were always possible. Slaves lived in permanent insecurity and fear, and knew how valueless their lives were to the people in power over them.
Except among the Christniks. As Paul said “there is no longer slave nor free, male nor female, all are one in Christ.” How affirming of individual worth the Christniks were. This was a community where each person’s precious God-given life could be recognized. Not only the value of the Christian’s life is affirmed here, but further, these two slave women, ancillae, were also, within the community, ministrae, ministers, This is a period when the later rigid demarcation of leadership roles- deacon, priest, bishop, or elder, minister, (depending whether you look back from a Catholic or Protestant assumption) has not yet been regulated. This term, ministrae, which would be ministri if the slaves had been men, is sometimes translated as “deaconesses” which is a jargon word not in normal vocabulary, with a fuzzy connection, again depending on your background, to deacons, (or deacons for women? or deacons’ wives? and what is a deacon anyway?) or to full time but not ordained women in service of the church.
Clearly though, these two ancillae, slave women, were respected and in leadership in the Christian community, though their status as slaves in Roman society was somewhere above a mule.
Disposable assets? Or God-created, part of the Christ in the world, equal to men and equal to freeborn.
It is still a uniquely important question.