In this volume, Michael Flexsenhar III advances the argument that imperial slaves and freedpersons in the Roman Empire were essential to early Christians’ self-conception as a distinct people in the Mediterranean and played a multifaceted role in the making of early Christianity.
Scholarship in early Christianity has for centuries viewed Roman emperors’ slaves and freedmen as responsible for ushering Christianity onto the world stage, traditionally using Paul’s allusion to “the saints from Caesar’s household” in Philippians 4:22 as a core literary lens. Merging textual and material evidence with diaspora and memory studies, Flexsenhar expands on this narrative to explore new and more nuanced representations of this group, showing how the long-accepted stories of Christian slaves and freepersons in Caesar’s household should not be taken at face value but should instead be understood within the context of Christian myth- and meaning-making. Flexsenhar analyzes textual and material evidence from the first to the sixth century, spanning Roman Asia, the Aegean rim, Gaul, and the coast of North Africa as well as the imperial capital itself. As a result, this book shows how stories of the emperor’s slaves were integral to key developments in the spread of Christianity, generating origin myths in Rome and establishing a shared history and geography there, differentiating and negotiating assimilation with other groups, and expressing commemorative language, ritual acts, and a material culture.
With its thoughtful critical readings of literary and material sources and its fresh analysis of the lived experiences of imperial slaves and freedpersons, Christians in Caesar’s Household is indispensable reading for scholars of early Christianity, the origins of religion, and the Roman Empire.
The thesis of this volume is fairly simple: slaves played a pivotal role in early Christianity. To make his case the author sets the stage in the introduction, discussing such matters as the history of research into the issue of slavery in early Christianity and related matters. He also offers a fairly in depth description of the chapters to follow, setting out the argument of the whole.
Chapter one (see the link above for the full table of contents, which needn’t be repeated here) offers the author’s first bit of evidence in support of his thesis: Philippians 4:22. He examines in thorough detail the world into which this verse fits and provides tables, charts, and a map to help illustrate is viewpoint. His takeaway is this:
Christians seized on the idea that Paul had made converts from among Caesar’s household in Rome. The idea became a foundational narrative that not only shaped early Christianity through the second and third centuries but helped launch a tradition that would endure for millennia.
It strikes me as a bit of an exaggeration to say that converted slaves from the Emperor’s household were somehow made into a foundational narrative for Christianity. Slaves converted, but so did others. In sum, the ‘how so?’ question which looms over the thesis remains.
Chapter two moves readers into the issue of martyrdoms of Peter and Paul as described in noncanonical texts. Here the central theme is the notion that the stories of those martyrdoms somehow connect the Apostles to the Imperial household and that this connection is somehow meaningful for the later Christian tradition. While it may be possible that Paul’s imperial connections served an apologetic purpose, it remains the case that the still remaining ‘how so?’ question posed of the thesis of the volume remains unanswered.
Chapter three moves further forward into Christian history and examines later apologetic and polemic regarding Caesar’s household. As well, chapter four moves even further forward. Here readers discover (or are reintroduced to) the ways in which Christian piety and martyrdom demonstrate (tenuous) connections with the Imperial family.
Chapters 5 and 6 offer the same, this time with a focus on the evidence for Imperial freed men and the remnants of Christians connected to the Imperial family discovered in the catacombs.
Finally arriving at the conclusion, readers hear the summary of the argument for the claimed impact of Imperial slaves on early Christianity:
With ‘Caesar’s household’ in their cultural repository, Christians could reinvent themselves as a people who from the very beginning were destined, like Paul once said, to inherit the world (Rom 4:13).
How so? What an odd argument this turns out to be. Are we supposed to believe that the early Church made a big deal of the inclusion of slaves from the Imperial residence simply so as to be able to claim that they would inherit the earth? All they needed for that was Jesus’s remark from the Sermon on the Mount! The participation of slaves in the Church neither added to nor took away from that theological notion.
Flexhensar’s book is a very good examination of the early church. It is loaded with important and interesting details. But it is wrongheaded in that it doesn’t achieve its aim or goal of showing the importance of the connection between Roman slaves and Christian tradition. Christian tradition would have developed with a notion that the meek would inherit the earth had there never been so much as a single slave join the movement, much less a single slave from Caesar’s house.
This would, in my view, be better as a book if it were simply a discussion of early Christianity in general and not an attempt to prove that early Christians somehow saw the slaves of the Imperial house who belonged to their number as their claim to fame in terms of ‘inheriting the earth’.
My advice, in sum, is that you read this book for the details it contains, but not for the argument it makes.