How Much of the Bible Was Written by Enslaved People?

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty

Paul’s Letter to the Romans is widely regarded as the most theologically sophisticated and influential book in the New Testament. There’s no questioning its importance, and (unlike many books of the New Testament) no scholar has ever doubted that Paul himself wrote it. Yet this last point is remarkable precisely because it is so demonstrably untrue. Paul did not write this letter—or, at the very least, he did not write it alone. Tucked into the conclusion of the letter is a simple but striking interruption: “I, Tertius, the writer of this letter, greet you in the Lord” (Rom 16:22).

Who was Tertius? Almost every artistic depiction of Paul—from the carefully laid ancient murals of Ravenna to the color-saturated portraits of the Renaissance—shows Paul working alone, quill in hand, engrossed in the act of writing. In some depictions, he looks heavenward as if asking for or receiving heavenly inspiration. Paul rarely turns to another person. Yet here, in the letter itself, we find the name of another writer.

The most minimalist opinion on the subject is that Tertius was Paul’s secretary­. He was, in other words, one of the tens of thousands of erudite enslaved or formerly enslaved people who acted as stenographers, transcribed ideas, and edited the documentary output of the Roman world. With only a few exceptions, when tradition and scholarship identify Tertius they call him a “scribe,” “professional,” or “associate.” Language like this creates the impression Tertius was an educated volunteer or friend, someone who willingly lent his skills to his spiritual mentor. It ignores the fact that the people who worked as ancient secretaries were not part of an ambitious and educated middle class: they were people whose freedom had been stolen. With a name like Tertius, which simply means “Third,” the man who committed the letter to the Romans to papyrus was almost certainly enslaved.

As I show in my book God’s Ghostwriters: Enslaved Christians and the Making of the Bible, Tertius is not an exception. Towards the end of his letter to the Galatians, Paul remarks on his handwriting and invites them to “see what large letters I make when I am writing with my own hand” (Gal. 6:11). The implication is that the preceding section—what amounts to almost the entirety of the letter—had been written by someone else in a smaller script. Paul makes similar statements in 1 Cor. 16:21 and Col. 4:18, suggesting that this was his standard practice. This should not surprise us. This, after all, is how most people in the first-century world “wrote.”

Almost Everything We Know About the Earliest Copies of the New Testament Is Wrong

There was a host of reasons that people around the Roman Mediterranean used enslaved scribes and readers. Most had never been educated at all; if they wanted to draft a will or hear a Gospel read aloud, they had to rely on the skills of others. Many of those who had been educated suffered from congenital or age-related vision loss. Mobility impairments affected some who, like the emperor Galba, were unable even to hold scrolls. Some simply found reading and writing uncomfortable. It was more comfortable, the Greek writer Dio Chrysostom wrote, to be read to by someone else. Producing whole manuscripts was particularly burdensome, medieval manuscripts are filled with marginal notes from scribes lamenting the pain of copying out texts. Thus, the work of copying whole texts was left to enslaved and formerly enslaved workers in bookstores and private homes.

Often these workers are obscured by the logic of slavery. Classical scholars like Sarah Blake, Tom Geue, and Joseph Howley have revealed that enslaved assistants were erased by a predatory mindset that turned enslaved workers into body parts (“hands” and “tongues”) or tools. Often, instead of hearing about a secretary, we will be told that something “was written” or that the high-status author “wrote” it. In English translations of John 19, we hear that Pilate “had an inscription written and put on the cross” of Jesus (NRSV John 19:19). Pilate didn’t paint an inscription on a wooden plaque himself—he was much too important and it was a messy task—but both the underlying Greek and Pilate himself claim that he wrote it. (We do the same thing today. When people talk about construction work, we often say, “We are renovating our kitchen.” More often than not, though, that work is actually being done by specialized construction workers, plumbers, and electricians. Even if we oversee a project and make hundreds of decisions, most of us can’t do all the cognitive much less physical work ourselves.)

These secretaries, copyists, and professional readers matter because they helped create the meaning of the texts of the New Testament. The vision and intent of the author is, of course, critically important to the composition of the text, but the meaning of what was written down is supplied by the secretary who takes dictation. The first interpretations of that text were then provided by the enslaved workers who copied the text and read it aloud. Their decisions were consequential, and those decisions were informed both by what they thought the text was meant to say and their own real-world experiences. There were many moments where they could exercise their own agency and embed what Princeton classicist Dan-el Padilla Peralta has called “floating fragments” of enslaved subjectivity into the text. We don’t have to see this as a process by which the Bible was potentially corrupted, this was curatorial work. By fixing texts, mending manuscripts, and applying ancient insecticide, it was their skills and decision-making that helped preserve the New Testament.

Throughout his travels, Paul relied upon the skills of a whole cluster of companions to take dictation, deliver, and read aloud his letters, and convey messages to and from his churches. All of this was work that was ordinarily undertaken by enslaved or formerly enslaved workers. Much like Tertius, the social status of these individuals goes undiscussed. With the exception of Onesimus, whom almost everyone agrees was enslaved because Paul himself says as much (Philemon 10-16), they are generally assumed to be volunteers. This is surprising considering that some of Paul’s so-called assistants bear names ordinarily associated with servile status. Epaphroditus, for example, the name of the carrier of Philippians, means “lovely.” The name, classicist P.R.C. Weaver has written, was “perhaps the commonest of Roman slave names.” And yet Christian tradition continues to memorialize him, along with Paul’s other co-workers, as freeborn volunteers.

Tertius is traditionally associated with the deacon and community leader Phoebe, a wealthy member of the group of Christ-followers in Corinth. Epaphroditus, who helped raise funds for and supported Paul during his imprisonment in Ephesus, was obligated to at least one member of the congregation in Philippi. Onesimus was enslaved (or at least jointly enslaved) to a Jesus follower named Philemon. And, as New Testament scholar Katherine Shaner has recently argued, perhaps even Timothy, who appears as a co-author of several letters, was also enslaved. The identity of the anonymous scribe of Galatians is unknown, but Paul’s letters suggest that he did not have the means to rent or purchase a literate enslaved worker himself. The secretaries who took dictation from him were either loaned to or hired for him by the wealthier members of his circle. These patrons or clusters of patrons who pooled their resources provided him with access to more elite modes of literary production. They allowed him to extend his reach and his capabilities. And they shaped Paul’s end product in ways that call that very possessive—“Paul’s”—into question.

The question, then, is, if these early Christian collaborators and co-authors were enslaved, why don’t we remember them?

Christianity has a long history of elevating enslaved workers. The reason, in part, is that Roman critics of Christianity claimed that it was a “religion of women and slaves.” Even if the description was accurate, being described as effeminate or “slavish” was far from a compliment. As Christianity grew more powerful, crept into the imperial household, and came to dominate the Roman empire, many scriptural heroes were promoted to bishops. They became the founders of seemingly unbroken chains of bishops from the time of Jesus and the Apostles to the present day. The fourth-century Apostolic Constitutions turned Paul’s named associates from the Letter to Philemon into the bishops of Laodicea (Turkey), Colossae (also Turkey), and Beroea (Northern Greece). So too, the author of Mark, who in the earliest layer of tradition was pictured as an “interpreter” for the Apostle Peter, morphs over time into a member of a priestly family and the first bishop of Alexandria, Egypt. From servile secretary to religious royalty in a mere two hundred years. Given their levels of education, it was very possible, as Shaner has shown, for enslaved people to become religious leaders in the ancient world. What’s significant isn’t that enslaved early Christians were bishops, it’s that we have forgotten that they were enslaved at all.

Forgetting, of course, is the wrong word. The erasure of the status of enslaved Christians is part of a larger, more deliberate program that erases real enslavement from the lives of early Christians, just as other efforts have erased the contributions of enslaved people to history more generally. In the case of the Bible, the paradigmatic example is Mary, the mother of Jesus. Systematic mistranslation means that even though she describes herself in the original Greek of the Gospel of Luke as “the enslaved [handmaid] of the Lord” English translations call her the “handmaid” or “servant” of the Lord. Mary’s actual statement, as pioneering South African academic Winsome Munro and womanist New Testament scholar Mitzi Smith have argued, is suggestive. It also explains why later generations of readers wondered about the father of Jesus. The language of slavery preserved by Luke might be metaphorical, of course, but by that reasoning so might the language of kingship and divinity.

The problem is that while the vast majority of early Christian authors used enslaved secretaries, scribes, readers, and letter carriers, we do not remember them as such or recognize their contributions either to the New Testament or to the survival and flourishing of Christianity. They are as worthy and deserving of celebration as any named apostle, evangelist, or missionary. Paul himself acknowledges some of his collaborators as co-authors and co-workers. Ironically, we give them less credit than he did.

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