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Whose contributions to the production of the Bible have been historically overlooked? In this episode of The Bible for Normal People, Pete and Jared have a fascinating conversation with Candida Moss about enslavement in the Roman Empire, challenging our perception of biblical authorship and shedding light on the roles of enslaved people as scribes and translators of ancient texts. Join them as they explore the following questions:

  • What did enslavement look like within the Roman Empire?
  • Under what kinds of circumstances were people enslaved in antiquity?
  • How many people are estimated to have been enslaved in Rome?
  • What was writing like in the ancient world? How did it work and what tools did they possess/not possess?
  • How were enslaved people conscripted into their roles?
  • How does this idea of enslaved people writing ancient texts relate to the Gospel of Mark? Who is Mark?
  • What is the evidence that Paul wrote his correspondence with the help of scribes and translators?
  • How does this knowledge affect our reading of the text?
  • How should we understand the phrase “slaves of God” in light of this knowledge about enslavement within the Roman Empire?
  • Do scholars consider Paul enslaved the way he considered himself enslaved?
  • How would Christians have interacted with enslaved people at the time?
  • With the context of enslavement in mind, how should we interpret Philemon?


Pithy, shareable, sometimes-less-than-280-character statements from the episode you can share.

  • When you hear the word enslavement, you have something very particular in your mind, especially if you’re American. And enslavement in the ancient world is very different. — @candidamoss @theb4np
  • The Romans are called one of the great “slave societies”. Like a lot of their economic system, their labor was performed by enslaved people. They were able to acquire these people through a variety of means, the most dominant [being] war. — @candidamoss @theb4np
  • It’s important to remember how much fear there would have been for anyone who found themselves in these situations, separated from family, far away from home, unable to speak the language, and vulnerable to all kinds of hideous violence. — @candidamoss @theb4np
  • In the city of Rome, one in five people would have been enslaved. So there are a lot of enslaved people and they’re doing an awful lot of work for other human beings. — @candidamoss @theb4np
  • When you think about [Paul’s] career, the frequent imprisonments and the fact that prisons were very dark and he would not have been able to write in them, he would have had to dictate it to other people. And there’s nothing shameful about that. — @candidamoss @theb4np
  • If you think that you can have a Bible that is divinely inspired, that is communicated through a human being like Paul, there’s no reason we can’t widen that group to incorporate other people. — @candidamoss @theb4np
  • To [enslaved] people in the past hearing these texts for the first time, this language would have been far more consequential than it is to those of us reading it today who are freeborn. — @candidamoss @theb4np
  • It’s not Paul’s fault if people have taken his texts and used them to oppress, marginalize, and harm others, but it’s certainly our fault as modern readers if we don’t notice that. — @candidamoss @theb4np
  • It is disappointing to many people, including myself, that Paul nowhere condemns slavery. That’s a problem. — @candidamoss @theb4np
  • Once I started doing this, I started noticing characters in the New Testament passages and asking myself: Who is that person? — @candidamoss @theb4np
  • What is the New Testament? Whose New Testament is it? And with whom are we reading when we read these texts? — @candidamoss @theb4np

Mentioned in This Episode

Read the transcript

Pete: You’re listening to the Bible for Normal People, the only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns. 

Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.

[Intro music plays]

Pete: On today’s episode, we’re talking about Enslaved People and the Making of the Bible with Candida Moss.

Jared: Candida is the Cadbury Professor of Theology at the University of Birmingham in the UK. She’s a columnist for the Daily Beast, has written for a lot of outlets like the Atlantic, LA Times, Washington Post, and is a frequent commentator on CBS and CNN, and in the midst of doing all that, she was also able to write a book called God’s Ghostwriters: Enslaved Christians and the Making of the Bible which is what we’re talking about today. And it’s out tomorrow, March 26. So go grab your copy wherever you buy your books. 

Pete: All right, let’s get to the episode. 

[Music plays over teaser clip of Candida speaking]

Candida: “To people in the past, this language would have been far more consequential than it is to those of us reading it today who are freeborn. So it made me think a lot more about the kind of power that these texts exert about their potential to do harm. And it’s not Paul’s fault if people have taken his texts and used them to oppress, marginalize, and harm others. But it’s certainly our fault as modern readers if we don’t notice that.”

[Ad break]

Jared: Well, welcome Candida to the podcast. It’s great to have you. 

Candida: Thanks so much for having me. 

Jared: Absolutely. Well, we want to get to some specifics, but before we do that, we want to maybe try to get some background. So can you take some time to lay out what, what enslaved would have meant in the world of the New Testament?

Candida: Yeah, this is a really great question because I think so many people, when you hear the word enslavement, you have something very particular in your mind, especially if you’re American. And enslavement in the ancient world is very different. So when you think about how people ended up enslaved, the Romans are one of the great, they’re called slave societies. Like a lot of their economic system, their labor was performed by enslaved people. And they were able to acquire these people through a variety of means. And the most dominant was war. 

So if you think of the time period when the Jesus movement and Christianity is taking off, Rome is sort of at the peak of her powers. She is capturing huge numbers of people in foreign countries and enslaving them, putting them to use in a variety of exploitative and violent ways. But what’s really important to know is that ancient enslavement is not race based in the way that Atlantic slavery was. It wasn’t as if the Romans thought that there was a particular group of people that were somehow, they were the ones who were going to be enslaved.

Theoretically, anyone could end up enslaved. If they got into debt, then they might have to enslave themselves for a period of time to pay that off. If they were kidnapped or captured by pirates, which is very rare, as you might imagine, if a family had a child that they couldn’t afford to raise, they might expose it somewhere that they knew that slave traders would come and pick them up and traffic those children.

But the most common way in which people were enslaved was through war. And that meant that at certain periods, there’d be these huge influxes of people from France, the Celts, from Dacia, and from Jerusalem and Judea in the first century. And those people would be captured and enslaved. And while it was certainly not as brutal as slavery in the South was, or in the Caribbean or Brazil, this was still a horrifying predicament for people, people who are enslaved.

They were vulnerable. They were liable to be beaten. They could be killed for almost no reason, and they had no say over their lives. So there is a sort of common misconception that ancient enslavement was somehow kind of better. And I think this is because we really like the Romans. I think we all know that men think about the Roman Empire a lot, but while it’s, I’m not sure it’s really a competition between different enslaving societies to see who could be worse. It’s important to remember how much fear there would have been for anyone who found themselves in these situations, separated from family, far away from home, unable to speak the language, and vulnerable to all kinds of hideous violence. 

Pete: And you know, to state the obvious, I think it’s obvious, I mean, there’s considerable evidence for this, right? For enslavement in the Roman Empire.

Candida: Yeah, this is not some kind of fringe thing. The classicist Walter Scheidel estimates that if you think of the Roman Empire as lasting sort of a thousand years from, let’s say, 500 BCE to 500 CE, that a hundred million people were trafficked through the Roman Empire. In the city of Rome, we’re talking about one in five people would have been enslaved. So there are a lot of enslaved people and they’re doing an awful lot of work for other human beings. 

Pete: Well, speaking of work, let’s get into that a little bit. Again to set it up a little bit, let’s talk about what writing was like in the ancient world. 

Candida: Once again, this is, this is one of those things where you have an image in your mind, and I’m a Bible scholar, and I’ve been at this for a while, and I, too, had an image in my mind, even as a professor, that was wrong. And so what I pictured is, we know they don’t have computers. We know that, right? But what I pictured in my mind was Paul or an evangelist sat at a desk writing, you know, with a quill. You know, it’s ye olde world. [Pete chuckles] They have around them a whole bunch of other texts that they might be looking at and referencing, and they are writing their work on a piece of paper. 

And I got this from artwork. That’s where I got it from. And the fact of the matter is, this is just not how people wrote in antiquity. And so let’s just start at the beginning. They don’t have desks. So they sat sort of hunched over their left knee if they were right handed and they rested the papyrus on their knee and they kind of supported it that way. And they wrote hunched over their knee. Which already sounds pretty uncomfortable to me as someone who is no longer 20. 

And by and large, if you think about what we have today that they don’t have, is they don’t have light, artificial light, and they don’t have glasses. So about 40 percent of people can now no longer actually read or write for themselves, especially once you get to a certain age, and then you’ll have age related vision loss. I wear reading glasses. That was a real lightbulb moment for me in this project. And if you have age related vision loss, you know how hard it is to read when it’s darker. So all of the kind of nighttime reading, which is really important for Christianity because they meet at night and then they read Scripture, has to be done by people who are younger and have these competencies.

And so what that means in the Roman Empire is that most people use enslaved workers or formerly enslaved workers to read and write. They do this either because they never learned to read or write, because only about 10 percent of the population had that kind of education. They did this because it’s actually very uncomfortable to write for long periods of time.

So I don’t know if you ever took exams in school where you had to write for long periods of time, but after a while your hand hurts and you have to kind of like, shake it out. And so, a lot of people who could afford it just didn’t like writing, and they did it because they weren’t physically capable of reading or writing, for whatever reason they weren’t able to do it, even if they had learned to do it.

And so they turned to trained scribes and readers to do their reading and writing for them. And that means that when we’re talking about something being written, we should envision two people involved in that work. And if the person who’s writing something is using sources, like they are copying parts of another gospel, or they want to refer to the Hebrew Bible, then it would be much easier if they had someone who could read out parts of that text to them.

And so this is a really collaborative affair. And when someone’s writing at length, the person who’s writing the thing down, who’s taking dictation, they use shorthand. But unlike modern shorthand, it was very idiosyncratic in the ancient world. It was very personal. Like each scribe would sort of adapt the system and only really enslaved people learned this system.

The whole point is so that you don’t have to do the work. So why would you shorthand? And that means that people who are taking things down in shorthand in this very condensed form and then expanding it, they’re the only ones who can read what they wrote down. And so they’re now suddenly fundamental to this writing process.

Pete: I just had a vision in my head of Paul, you know, writing something or a gospel, whatever, citing the Hebrew Bible and not just turning the page backwards a little bit. You know, like we have with our books. Right? So they, and that’s a great question and, and a great point you’re making, I think, um, and a hopeful point that should make us think a little bit differently, but how is, how are these people producing these texts and is it really a solo effort in front of an internet or something, but it’s clearly not. It’s something very different. 

Jared: Well, and I think it’s important. I just appreciate this context because you’re right. I have the same mental images of thinking about reading and writing that it’s like, yeah, sure. It’s in the old times. So that means it’s a quill instead of a pen. But what you’re talking about is a fundamentally different process. It’s a lot more physical, as you’re describing it. It took a lot more work, um, and it was a lot more of a strain, both to read and to write. 

But can you say a little bit more about how, before we get into the Bible itself, can you talk a little more about how enslaved peoples would have been conscripted into these roles? This is something that, you know, whenever you’re a child—and I guess I’m trying to think of like, how did they decide who was going to be the enslaved people who ends up reading and writing for other people or the elite and who does other work? 

Candida: Yeah. And this is another great question because I think what you’re getting at is when we think about more recent examples of slavery in the American South, for example, they prevented enslaved people from learning to read or write, but they had technologies that ancient Romans didn’t have. Namely, they had glasses. And they had printing presses, so they didn’t have some of these problems. 

But in antiquity, you would educate an enslaved worker precisely because you didn’t want to do this. And in terms of how they pick them, there’s really two ways. One is you want to have a child, you wanna educate them young, because the Romans know and, and this is true—that the senses of a child are keener than those of an adult. You can actually find that written down in an ancient handbook on writing. So they can have children read and write for longer periods of time. It’s a bit horrifying when you’re talking about enslaved children. And they pick young children too, because they think that they can shape them to be exactly what they want them to be. So they can, if they educate them in the right way, that they can turn them into the perfect kind of enslaved worker but often those children are being educated alongside freeborn wealthy kids. So they might be the enslaved child who’s carrying the books for the freeborn child, they might be the sort of enslaved person who accompanies the child to school. 

There are special dedicated educational institutions for enslaved children. For example, there are some just for the emperor’s household to educate them in particular. But then there is another source, and this can be really useful, which is when they would conquer a particular region, they would take the people who were literate from there and they would utilize their literate skills and particularly their translational skills, because it is really hard, even if you learned both Greek and Latin in school as an ancient person, if you don’t use the Latin or you don’t use the Greek, it’s still sort of hard to do that translational work.

Today we call that skill decay. And I think anyone who learned Spanish in high school, as I did, and hasn’t used it since, knows how acute skill decay is. So they, they picked children, which means either enslaved people who had been born in their household to other enslaved people, or they pick very young children who might have been exposed as infants and then purchased.

[Ad break]

Jared: Okay, if we can, let’s, let’s turn our attention to the Bible. And in particular, I thought your discussion of the Gospel of Mark was fascinating. So can we go to the Bible through that lens? And tell us about how the idea of enslaved people doing a lot of the reading and writing in the ancient world overlaps with the Gospel of Mark.

Candida: Yeah, absolutely. So the Gospel of Mark is my favorite. Mark is really interesting, because it’s our first gospel. Pretty much everyone agrees it’s written around 70, just after the fall of Jerusalem, the destruction of the temple. And the big question is who’s Mark? [Pete and Jared hum in agreement] Because he’s not an apostle, there’s no one named Mark in the story.

Our earliest source for this is an early Christian writer called Papias, who was a bishop in modern day Turkey. And he says that Mark was the, the Greek word is dierminéas, which means interpreter or translator for Peter, the apostle. And that he wrote down everything that Peter had told him as well as he could remember.

And when you look at who does interpretation work, who does translation work in the Roman world, what you quickly realize is that it’s almost always enslaved people. And Papias is describing Mark as doing this kind of very servile work of acting as Peter’s interpreter. And you can imagine why Peter would need someone to go around with him. Peter would have known some Greek, but he’s navigating new cultural norms. He’s not as fluent in Greek as he probably needs to be. So having Mark there to help him, you could see that this is a plausible story. And so what Papias is saying is that Mark is Peter’s secretary. And his interpreter.

And that characterization is intriguing to me because he’s essentially telling us that Mark is enslaved or formerly enslaved, but that’s not how Mark is remembered in Christian tradition. And then when you take that knowledge and you look at the Gospel of Mark, you sort of read it totally differently. When you think of it as a text that’s a collaboration between someone who’s in this very liminal position in society and someone who has traditions about Jesus that they want to impart. And so for me, that was a real kind of scales falling from the eyes moment to reread this text that I had read in great hundreds of times and think, how would I read this differently?

And whether or not you really think that this text is a collaboration between the historical apostle Peter and Mark, an enslaved or formerly enslaved person, this is probably how all of these texts were written. And the scenario it’s describing is really plausible. 

Pete: So, Mark, I mean, I want to make sure I understand. One implication of this might be, it’s a little bit tangential, but it’s still interesting—are you saying there might be some historical veracity to saying that a person, Mark, wrote the first gospel? The oldest gospel?

Candida: You know, here’s what I would say. I would say that the reason it’s called Mark is because there’s a tradition that’s very early, we can’t get earlier than it, it’s probably beginning of the second century that associates Peter with someone called Mark. And we see hints of that elsewhere. That’s in the Petrine Epistles too. And there’s this tradition out there about Peter and Mark, and that tradition is attached to this gospel. And that tradition, the idea of Mark as the interpreter, can explain why this gospel is called Mark, given that he’s otherwise completely unknown to us. And the reason it’s called Mark is because at this juncture in history, people are starting to write gospels.

And if you’re interested in Christianity and you want to find out more, you want to read the gospel, which theoretically is one thing, you know, the message, but do you know if you have the right text? You don’t. Like, is this flawed? Who wrote this? And what calling it the Gospel of Mark does is it ties this version of the story to an apostle, an important, an important apostle. And it says, you know, you’re getting the real story because this is the secretary of Peter writing it down. And he is a trustworthy secretary. And this is what secretaries do. 

Pete: Yeah. Can we talk about Paul a little bit? 

Candida: Yeah! 

Pete: [Sarcastically] It’s an easy topic, Paul, no problem with Paul. So you say that Paul almost certainly co-authored all of his correspondence with anonymous scribes as well as with his named companions. So talk to us about that. Like what is some evidence for that and how do we put those pieces together and connect those dots? 

Candida: This is one of those funny things, because this wasn’t hidden at all. You know, Paul tells us, this is, this is why he’s better than other people using secretaries in this way. Paul tells us that he is writing some of his epistles with Timothy, some with Sosthenes, some with Silvanus. There’s a guy called Tertius who’s mentioned in Romans, in Romans 16:22, who says, “I, Tertius, wrote this letter.” And then in Galatians, there’s this place, um, you know, you’re almost at the end of the letter and Paul talks about, in 6:11, he talks about, see what large letters I’m writing. As if to signal, I’m writing this section here, the rest of it was written by someone else.

And we don’t know who that anonymous person was, but clearly he’s using a secretary as he has elsewhere. And when you think about his career, the frequent imprisonments and the fact that prisons were very dark and he would not have been able to write in them. He would have had to have dictated it to other people. And there’s nothing shameful about that, sometimes people really go out of their way to explain why Paul would use a secretary. This is just how people wrote. And so there’s nothing unusual about it. There’s nothing strange about him using a secretary.

Pete: So the involvement of enslaved people in writing Paul’s letters is again, I think that’s just one of these new things for people to hear and to at least ponder about because I don’t know, it might have implications for how we think about a lot of stuff.

Jared: Well yeah, that’s, I think that’s my, that’s my next question is: as we think about Mark, or we think about again, Paul, I think it’s, it’s all over the place in terms of co-authoring and having these scribes who are, who are writing these letters down, how did you kind of—researching for this project, how does that change your views of enslavement in the New Testament? How did it change how you started to read your Bible and think about how—I’m thinking of the metaphor of we’re, you know, “slaves of God” and I think there’s a lot of baggage again, like you said, here in America, we have an inherited tradition if you want to call it that of slavery and understanding what all that means that sort of gets put into that.

But also, as a kid, when I read that phrase of “slaves of God”, I probably didn’t really connect the dots of really what does that mean. And so how has this work changed how you think about our Bible and how it came to be and what are the implications of that? 

Candida: Yeah. And I think that’s really the big question. What does it change? And I want to say at the outset, I know that there are people, and that some of them may be listening, who are concerned when they hear this, they think, “Well, I don’t know. This is troubling, you know, like another layer of human person, sometimes anonymous. Are these people even Christian? What does this do to my Bible as the inspired Word of God?”, if that’s what a person believes? 

And I just want to say at the outset, from a theological perspective, this isn’t the problem, right? If you think that you can have a Bible that is, that is divinely inspired, that is communicated through a human being like Paul, there’s no reason we can’t widen that group to incorporate other people. So if that’s a resistance people are feeling, then I would definitely say I don’t think that’s a problem. But what it does do is change how you read these texts. And so with the slavery metaphor in particular, you know, I used to just read that as, very devoted.

Jared: Right. Exactly. Yep. 

Candida: Just like, like a Britney Spears song, you know? And just means very devoted. But that’s not what it means. And those aren’t the connotations of enslavement. And you really, once you start thinking about this as, no, let’s look at this as real enslavement and bear in mind that there are people in the ancient world who were enslaved to deities. They were enslaved at temple shrines for particular deities all over Turkey, for example. 

Pete: By working in the temples? Is that how it worked? 

Candida: By working in temples. And, but they were enslaved technically to the deity. And I think what people say is, “yeah, but you can’t really be enslaved to a deity,” which is actually a sort of a very atheistic position, because what you’re starting from is, I don’t think the deity exists, they can’t come get you, you’re fine. But probably, if you’re, if you’re sweeping the floors of a temple, if you’re repairing the roof, it probably feels the same, and there’s still someone who’s in charge who has the ability to beat you. So the idea of being enslaved to a deity, it has like, real teeth in antiquity, it’s not automatically a metaphor. 

But more importantly, when you think about that language of slavery, when I think about the long history, what I realize is the idea of general enslavement to God, that we are slaves of God, we are also children of God. The enslavement to God became this kind of abstract metaphor, but then all of the passages in the New Testament that were about telling enslaved people to be obedient to their enslavers, those passages, historically, those got read literally. It was this real sleight of hand that took place. And so, enslavers decided that they weren’t really enslaved to God, but the people who were enslaved to them, these texts applied to them.

And so, that kind of inequitable interpretation of the New Testament immediately jumped out to me. That we’ve been very selective in how we think about this. But as I started rereading Pauline epistles and the Gospels with this in mind, I’ve written a lot about martyrdom and it suddenly made sense to me that early Christians saw dying for Jesus as this really important thing because in wider society, the way that an enslaved person can demonstrate their fidelity, which is the same language of faithfulness, their fidelity to their enslaver was by risking their life and dying for them. And so there were all of these stories of these wonderful enslaved people who put themselves in harm’s way and died for their enslavers, and weren’t they faithful?

And so I could understand suddenly why this sort of took up this huge space in Christian consciousness. I could understand why Paul talks about the dilemma of serving more than one “master” because in antiquity, people were jointly owned by a variety of people and they had divided allegiances all the time. So once you start thinking about it, it really helps draw out nuances and elements of the New Testament that I just, I hadn’t seen before. I just hadn’t noticed because I wasn’t taking this seriously. 

But I think most important of all, I realized that to people in the past hearing these texts for the first time, just like today, there are some people, enslaved people in antiquity, this language would have been far more consequential than it is to those of us reading it today who are freeborn. So it made me think a lot more about the kind of power that these texts exert, about their potential to do harm. And it’s not Paul’s fault if people have taken his texts and used them to oppress, marginalize, and harm others, but it’s certainly our fault as modern readers if we don’t notice that.

Pete: Yeah. And understanding that context of enslavement should move us in that direction to read these texts differently. You know, I, what I’m hearing here is, is, you know, the synapses are firing a bit, but the depth to which enslavement is quite prominent with respect to Paul, you know, saying things like, you know, I bond servant of Jesus or slave of, of Jesus Christ, but just the production of the letter of Romans itself.

So I find that fascinating the depth to which the enslavement is not just a metaphor. Are you saying it’s not a metaphor for Paul when he taught in Romans 1, that he sees himself as enslaved in a way that others in his day might have seen themselves as enslaved to deities? 

Candida: Yeah, I think Paul means it as not a metaphor. I think he does mean it literally. I think we have to be careful here. The womanist scholar Angela Parker has written about Paul and says, you know, despite this, Paul didn’t actually experience the bodily harms and pressures of being enslaved. And so we have to be aware of that. One caveat I would add to that, though, is that once Paul has been arrested and beaten, and if he’s been shackled in particular, other people are going to see him that way. If you see someone who has shackle marks on their ankles, you assume that they were enslaved at some point. So, I think there are things that happen to him that make that more of a reality. 

But I also think we have to be, we have to be cautious about whether or not, just because Paul thinks that, whether or not he was really experiencing the same kinds of pressures as actually enslaved people were experiencing. And I think we have to say he wasn’t, right. 

Pete: He’s a Roman citizen, right? So, I mean, it’s a different ball of wax. 

Candida: Yes, you know, according to Acts, he’s a Roman citizen. 

Pete: According to Acts, right, yeah.

[Ad break]

Jared: Can you speak more to the, and this is me trying to kind of go back to seminary days of context historically. How would, you know, Christians interacting in a class system in Rome, would it have been more common for Christians and enslaved people to be, like, were—I guess my question is, would there have been a lot of exposure to more enslaved people on a social level, I guess, for Christians, where this is the language that they’re using, the context that they have, this is kind of the social context that they’re coming from? Does that make sense? 

Candida: Yeah, so I think the first thing to note is that according to non-Christians, who don’t like them very much, according to Celsus, Christianity in its beginnings was a religion for women and slaves. That’s what he says. So, in terms of were Christians mingling with enslaved people? Christians were enslaved people. And even if they weren’t, if you’re very elite, if you’re very wealthy, then you are surrounded by enslaved people all the time who are doing things for you.

If you’re from, say, an artisanal middle class, there probably are still enslaved people in your household, just fewer. But if you are sort of working quite hard for a living, you’re not destitute, but you are working, you probably work alongside enslaved workers every day. So if you think of Paul and his tanning profession, his leatherworking profession, he would have been working alongside enslaved workers. You know, rubbing elbows with them. If you imagine him or anyone else sharing stories about Jesus in sort of the courtyard of an apartment block in Rome, we have to picture that there wouldn’t just be sort of what we today might call lower middle class people there. There would also be a handful of enslaved people there too.

So I think it’s there. And I think the less affluent you are, the more aware you are that if things went very wrong for you financially, you might be forced into this predicament yourself. And so I think it’s something that is on the mind of everyone, because slavery is a sort of structuring device in Roman society.

Jared: Yeah, well put. That’s, that’s exactly the question I was asking. 

Pete: So, you know, one of Paul’s letters, I just need to ask you about now, because it’s just so rife with potential and nuances that we’re missing. But, you know, Philemon, it’s the context is an enslaved person. And I mean, have, have you given that any, any thought just how this dynamic might be working in the letter like that?

Candida: Yeah. So Philemon is of course like the classic one, right? And when you think about Onesimus, and who he was, and there are debates about is he related to his enslaver? Because of course a lot of homeborn enslaved children would be. What is his relationship to Paul? What is he doing for Paul? Many people think that he is the carrier of that letter if not also the secretary, in which case he’s helping advocate for himself. And if that seems, “no, that couldn’t be right,” I can tell you that there’s actually like a receipt from Pompeii that was found among a whole cache of receipts in which the enslaved worker who was up for sale wrote the deed of sale because the person they were being sold to who had all of this money couldn’t read or write.

And so this is unusual. I think it’s clearly a delicate situation, and the question of why Paul would like him to stay, what Paul’s relationship is there, that’s very live. It is disappointing to many people, including myself, that Paul nowhere condemns slavery. That’s a problem. And just as it’s disappointing, and rightly so, and quite horrifying that 1 Peter just exhorts people to be obedient to their enslavers, even when they did nothing wrong, these aren’t texts that age very well. But I think what Philemon shows us is the centrality of these questions to the Jesus movement from the very beginning. And the extent to which Paul is reliant upon this network of enslaved and formerly enslaved literate workers without whom he can’t write, he can’t send letters, he can’t give guidance about how those letters would be performed when they arrived. They are the backbone of the Christian missionary movement and we never talk about them. 

Pete: It’s like almost, you know, it’s enslaved people all the way down. Like, it’s just, it’s all over the place in a sense. Yeah. Yeah. And, and I think, I mean, you know, I hadn’t, honestly, Candida, I hadn’t, I have not given this much thought. You know, I would think that, you know, okay, not many people were literate in the ancient world. We hear that all the time, 5%, 10%, 15%, but the assumption that I’ve always made is that “well the ones who could read were like the super important rich people” or something and that doesn’t seem to be the case, you know, they couldn’t be bothered it seems like, it’s just too much work, you know, I don’t want to be hunched over on my left leg writing something on parchment. So yeah, I just I find that to be really stimulating to think about. 

Jared: Yeah, and I think that’s why I’m glad that we started with the context of what writing was like and what, what’s reading like and what does enslavement mean? Because I think you’re right. That’s kind of what I’m coming away with is it’s just, it infiltrates all of that of the ancient world at this time. And you’re right in that you can’t really get away from that. And so kind of it leads me to, for people who this is like an aha moment, kind of like Pete over here, who said he’s never really thought of it before. [Pete laughs] What are some practical ways—like you said, we just don’t talk about it. We don’t recognize it.

What are ways that people can take what we’re talking about here into their reading of the New Testament, how they think about their Bible, how they read their Bible, maybe how they talk about their Bible in their, you know, congregations and communities when they’re talking about these things. What are some ways that people can help this become more of a part of how we read our Bible?

Candida: Yeah, so I think for me, and I just want to say Pete’s not alone. I also just assumed it was the rich people. 

Pete: Thank you, Candida. Thank you! [Jared laughs] Not so stupid. 

Candida: You know, I have a PhD in New Testament studies. So, I think that one of the sort of big moments for me is once I started doing this, I started noticing characters in the New Testament passages that I previously thought about, or about something else, and asking myself, who is that person?

So, for me, a great example of this is the story of the healing of the paralytic. Four people, although in Greek, they’re not even identified as people, bring a paralyzed man to be healed by Jesus. They take apart the roof and they lower him down. And I learned in Sunday School, as anyone will if they Google this, that they were his friends. Um, they’re not called his friends. They’re not even called people. And when you think about who gets carried around in antiquity and how robust this bed would have to be to be lowered down through the roof of a house—wealthy people were carried in litters all the time. And so yes, he’s disabled, but he might also be rich.

And if he is rich, maybe they’re his enslaved workers. And once you notice that, and you think about just that possibility, think about the rest of the story. Jesus sees the man who did this work, he sees their faith, and then he says to the man that his sins are forgiven, and he tells the man to take up his bed and walk. And presumably it’s later, because he’s not on it. But if you now imagine that he’s someone from the enslaving class, what he’s now saying to that man is, do not just hop back on to that litter. You know? He’s like, do your own work. He’s like, you can walk now, go walk. Don’t exploit these people. It has, it has a very different meaning, and when you reread it, you’re like, “yes, he sees them. He recognizes the faith, the loyalty of these people who had lowered the man through the roof.” 

And that was a story I never even thought about that before. And so in terms of how to read the Bible, you read those stories and you find someone who’s unnamed or there’s like a passive verb, that something was done, you know, something happened. Well, presumably a person did that. And I like to now think about, well, who was that person? And you know, what was their involvement? I read stories about the woman who anoints Jesus before death differently. And I also read the story, particularly in Mark, of the crucifixion as really speaking to people who were enslaved in the first and second centuries, because crucifixion was the punishment for enslaved people.

And so if I was reading the Bible, I was giving people advice, that’s what I would say. Notice that language. For me, it also just, there are so many things that were confusing to me about the New Testament that suddenly made sense. Once I thought about it through the lens of enslavement, hell, which bothered me for so long, it just seemed so unethical. I realized that those stories in the New Testament, that those parables often involve an enslaved figure treating other enslaved figures badly and getting punished for it. And that also the mode of punishment, this is how enslaved people were punished. And so it’s sort of—as horrifying as these stories are, you know, democratizing that now that the same punishment faced by people from the sort of lowest strata of society are now being applied to everyone, you could no longer just buy your way out of prison. 

But I would say probably more broadly, it changes for me who I think I’m reading with. What is the New Testament? Whose New Testament is it? And with whom are we reading when we read these texts? It’s not just an evangelist. It’s not just sort of bishops and emperors and sort of heroes, known heroes of the church. We are also reading with and alongside the sort of group of invisible people that we should want to know, that we should want to make known, because credit, giving credit, is a really important thing.

Pete: Well, Candida, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us about this really fascinating, I think, very important issue. I had a wonderful time. So, thank you. 

Candida: Thank you so much for having me. Really, it was such a pleasure. 

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Jared: Well, thanks to everyone who supports the show. If you want to support what we do, there are three ways you can do it. One, if you just want to give a little money, go to

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Outro: You’ve just made it through another episode of the Bible for Normal People! Don’t forget you can catch our other show, Faith for Normal People, in the same feed wherever you get your podcasts. This episode was brought to you by the Bible for Normal People team: Brittany Hodge, Stephen Henning, Wesley Duckworth, Savannah Locke, Tessa Stultz, Danny Wong, Natalie Weyand, Lauren O’Connell, Jared Cazel, Jessica Shao, and Naiomi Gonzalez.

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Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.