Social Aspects of the Pauline World by Felix Just, S.J., Ph.D.
Introduction: Old vs. New Methods of Doing "History"
The older "Great Men" approach: focused on the "movers & shakers"
(generals, kings, bishops), on "important" military and political events, on overall
economic structures and social institutions.
The newer "Social History" approach: investigates the "daily life"
of ordinary people, their interpersonal/social relationships, their problems, questions,
struggles and concerns.
We need to challenge previous assumptions and ask fresh questions;
the answers may not be as easy or obvious as they seem!
This is not just a trivia game; we always also need to ask about the
theological relevance: the "SO WHAT?" question!
Some Aspects of the "Social Situation" of the "Pauline World"
A. Paul's "Citizenship"
Citizenship in the Roman Empire:
originally, only the free inhabitants of the city of Rome were considered "Roman
but as time went on more and more people from other areas gained citizenship
through various means;
if non-Roman soldiers retired from the imperial army, they were usually given
if slaves belonging to Roman citizens were freed, they were usually granted
yet most people in the Roman Empire were not "Roman citizens,"
but citizens of their own native cities or countries (Acts 19:35)
Privileges of Roman Citizenship:
Roman citizens had more legal rights: they could not be flogged or held in
prison without trial (Acts 16:37-38)
Roman citizens could appeal to the Emperor (the "Supreme Court")
if found guilty by a local court (25:10-12)
Roman citizens could only be executed by the sword (i.e., beheading), but not
tortured (e.g., crucifixion)
Roman citizens were exempt from some taxes and other obligations, esp. local
rules and regulations
Paul's Multiple Citizenships:
a Hebrew, an Israelite, Jew/Judean - 2Cor 11:22; Phil 3:5; Acts 21:39--22:3
a citizen of Tarsus - Acts 9:1; 21:39; 22:3; cf. Acts 15:21; Gal 1:21
a Roman citizen - Acts 16:16-40 (esp. 37-38); 22:25-29; 23:27
a citizen of heaven! - Phil 3:20; Eph 2:19
B. Churches & Households
Definitions: In the NT, a "church" is not a building, but a community
of believers who met in private houses.
The Greek word usually translated "church" (ekklesia) originally means
"assembly, congregation, community."
The weekly gatherings of a church were held in the larger homes of the wealthier
members of the community.
Nature of churches: The composition, size, number of NT churches
was much smaller than we might assume:
During the Pauline period, there was usually only one church in each city or
town; only in the largest cities (like Rome) were there more than one church.
Each church community was only as large as could gather in the homes where
they met (only a few dozen, not thousands)
See Gal 3:28; 1Cor 1:26-29; Rom 16:1-16; 1Cor 1:2;
Community leadership & structure: There were different kinds
of leaders in the early Christian communities:
The persons in whose homes the communities met were considered "patrons" or
"hosts", but might not be the main leaders.
Sometimes the "first converts" in a particular city would be the natural leaders
of the local community
See 1Cor 1:10-16; 12:27-30; 16:15-19; Rom 16:23a;
C. Slavery in the Roman Empire - Slavery in the 1st century Mediterranean
was very different from slavery in 19th century America:
Who were slaves? In the ancient world, people could become slaves
for various reasons:
Birth: children born to slaves were automatically also slaves.
POWs: prisoners of war would often be sold as slaves.
Debts: some people were sold, or sold themselves (or their children)
into slavery to pay debts (cf. Matt 18:25).
How did slaves live? The socio-economic situation of ancient slaves
was not necessarily all that bad:
Life would obviously be miserable for slaves doing hard labor in the mines
or similar situations;
But life might be fairly comfortable for slaves of rich people, like senators,
governors, or emperors (cf. Rom 16:23b; Phil 4:22).
Slaves could own money and other property, so that a slave might even own another
Slaves might be given large amounts of authority by their masters (cf. Matt
How long were they slaves? Ancient slavery was not always life-long;
many would eventually be freed (cf. 1Cor 7:21-23):
Debt-slaves often had a limited time of service agreed upon with their masters.
Some slaves might be able to save enough money to buy their own freedom.
Masters might reward especially good slaves for their service by setting them
free (cf. Phlm 13-16).
Slaves of Roman citizens would usually be granted Roman citizenship when they
Slaves in the New Testament? There are many NT references to slavery:
Christians who are slaves are told to obey their earthly masters (Col 3:22-24;
Christian masters were not expected to free their slaves (1Tim 6:1-2), with
a few individual exceptions (Phlm 13-16).
Masters are told not to treat their slaves harshly (Col 4:1; Eph 6:9).
Erastus, the "city treasurer", was probably a slave (Rom 16:23b).
Paul and other Christians often use "slave" language metaphorically to describe
their relationship with Jesus and/or God (Rom 1:1; 1Cor 7:21-23; Gal 1:10; etc.)
D. Travel & Mail
Travel: In the early Roman empire, travel was relatively easy,
safe and fast, both by land and by sea:
see Rom 15:17-32; 1Cor 16:6, 11, 18; 2Cor 1:16; and all of Acts!
Roads: The Romans built a large network of stone-paved roads connecting
many parts of the empire:
originally built for the military (like our interstate highway system!), but
benefited all travelers
Accommodations: Public Inns were available, but most people preferred
see Rom 12:13; Acts 2:46; 12:12; 15:3; 20:38;
Mail: Letters could easily be sent to friends living in other places:
The Roman empire had regular mail service for government and military officials,
but not for the general public.
Most people would have to send letters along with friends or merchants traveling
to other places.
Letters of recommendation were important for travelers visiting friends of
friends: see 1Cor 16:1-4, 10-11; 2Cor 8:16-24; Rom 16:1-2;
E. Courts & Trials, Prisons & Prisoners - The ancient judicial system
was completely different from today's in several different respects:
Prisons today are mostly for the incarceration of people after they have
been found guilty of a crime;
Ancient prisons were only used as holding tanks for people before they
came to trial (Acts 5:17-40; 12:3-19);
But since there was no right to a "speedy trial", people might remain in prison
for months or years (Acts 21:27--26:32; 28:16-31).
Prison conditions were generally abysmal, and prisoners awaiting trial were
often mistreated (Acts 16:16-40).
Roman citizens were not supposed to be beaten, and had certain other privileges
(Acts 16:37; 22:25).
Modern prisons provide food, medicine, etc., but ancient prisons provided almost
nothing for prisoners.
To survive, a prisoner's family or friends had to bring him food, blankets,
medicine, and other necessities.
Without outside help, a prisoner could easily starve or die of illness before
even coming to trial.
The NT has several examples of people providing assistance to Paul while he
was in prison (Phil 2:25-30; Phlm 10-14).
That is why "visiting prisoners" is such an important charitable obligation
(Matt 25:31-46; etc.; see also Lucian, Peregrinus 12-13).
There was no separate judicial branch in ancient governments, but the political
administrators served as judges:
The Romans usually allowed local peoples to live under their own laws, and
be judged by their own rulers.
More important cases were tried before the provincial governors, but only citizens
of Rome could "appeal to the emperor."
The state did not bring charges against individuals, but other private individuals
had to accuse people of crimes.
If the defendant was found innocent, the penalty he/she would have received
sometimes fell upon the accuser!
After trial, innocent people were freed, while guilty people could be punished
in various ways (but did not remain incarcerated):
Fines: monetary penalties or the forfeit of property.
Flogging: beatings or other physical punishments (Acts 5:40).
Exile: being forced to leave home and/or told where they may live
Death: capital punishment, using especially means of execution for slaves
and foreigners (Jesus).
Thus Paul was not in prison because he had been found guilty of some
crime, but he was still awaiting trial after being arrested (see Phlm 1,
9, 23; Col 4:3, 10; Phil 1:7-26; 2Cor 1:8-11; cf. Acts
"So What?" - Sample Application: Interpreting Paul's Letter to Philemon
Onesimus is a "runaway slave" who had stolen something from his master Philemon.
Onesimus meets Paul in prison, and becomes a Christian. Then Paul sends Onesimus
back to his master, pleading for Philemon to show mercy and not to punish him too
Onesimus is a slave sent by Philemon to help care for Paul in prison. Paul
converts him to Christianity, and wants him to stay with him and become his missionary
associate. So Paul carefully asks Philemon to do him this great favor and free