books available at Amazon
bibliography relating to slavery in the early Christian world
Many Gregory of Nyssa
and translations with links to Amazon
A selection below
Presence and Thought
Hans Urs von Balthasar
Re-thinking Gregory of Nyssa
Gregory of Nyssa, Ancient and (Post)modern
Gregory of Nyssa
Virginia Woods Callahan
I got me slaves and slave-girls,
and homebred slaves were born for me,
and much property in cattle and sheep became mine.
The theme of confession is still the focus of our text. The writer of
Ecclesiastes sets out in careful order virtually everything in his own
experience through which the futility of our activities in this life is known.
But at this point he touches on what appears to be a more serious piece of
evidence from his deeds through which he can be accused of the affliction of
arrogant pride. What is there in what he has laid before us so far which leads
to such a level of conceit? He has told us about a valuable house, an abundance
of vines, elegant gardens and water features, nicely constructed swimming pools,
extensive beautiful parkland. Yet, none of this can compare to his presumption
that, as a human being he believes he can lord it over people who in essence are
just like him. Because then he goes on to say: “I got me slaves and slave-girls,
and homebred slaves were born for me”.
Do you detect the excessive arrogance? An utterance like this shows that he is
exalting himself against God. We know from the words of the prophets that
absolutely everything is subject to the supreme authority in the universe (Psalm
119/118.91). But this man counts as his own what truly belongs to God and gives
to the likes of himself the kind of power which makes him think that he can be
the master of men and women. When he sees himself as so different from those who
are subject to him one can only conclude that pride has led him to go beyond
what is appropriate for his nature.
“I got me slaves and slave-girls.” You are condemning to slavery human beings
whose nature is free and characterised by free will. You are making laws that
rival the law of God, overturning the law appropriate for humankind. Human
beings were created specifically to have dominion over the earth; it was
determined by their creator that they should exercise authority. Yet you place
them under the yoke of slavery, as though you are opposing and fighting against
the divine decree.
Have you forgotten the limits of your authority? Your rule is limited to control
of irrational creatures. In scripture we read: “let them rule over birds and
fish and four-footed creatures”. (Gen 1.26) How then do you go beyond what is
subject to you and exalt yourself against a nature which is free, counting
people like you among four-footed or footless creatures. “You subjected
everything to humankind” declares the scripture through prophecy and it goes on
to list what is under human control: domestic animals, cattle and sheep. (Psalm
8/7.8) Surely human beings have not been born to you from domestic animals?
Surely cattle have not given birth to human offspring? Irrational creatures
alone are subject to humankind. “He makes grass grow for animals and green
plants for people’s slaves”. (Psalm 104/103.14) . But you have torn apart the
nature of slavery and lordship and made the same thing at one and the same time enslaved to
itself and lord of itself.
“I got me slaves and slave-girls.” Tell me what sort of price you paid. What did
you find in creation with a value corresponding to the nature of your purchase?
What price did you put on rationality? For how many obols did you value the
image of God? For how many coins did you sell this nature formed by God? God
said: “Let us make human beings in our own image and likeness” (Gen 1.26). When
we are talking about one who is in the image of God, who has dominion over the
whole earth and who has been granted by God authority over everything on the
earth, tell me, who is the seller and who the buyer? Only God has this kind of
power, or, one might almost say, not even God. For scripture says that the gifts
of God are irrevocable (Romans 11.29). God would not make a slave of humankind.
It was God who, through his own will, called us back to freedom when we were
slaves of sin. If God does not enslave a free person, then who would consider
their own authority higher than God’s?
How can people be sold who have dominion over the earth and everything on the
earth? It is essential that the assets of people being sold are sold with them.
How can we value the contents of the whole earth (Genesis 1.26)? If these are
beyond any valuation then tell me, what is the value of the one who is over
them? If you said “the world in its entirety”, even then you would not have
found anything approximating to the value (Matthew 16.26; Mark 8.36). Someone
knowing the true value of human nature said that not even the whole world is
worth enough to be given in exchange for the human soul. So when a human being
is for sale, it is nothing other than the lord of the earth being brought to the
auction room. This means that creation as we know it is at the same time being
put up for public sale. That is earth, sea and islands and all that is in them.
How then is the purchaser going to settle the payment? What will the vendor
accept considering the greatness of the property involved in the transaction?
Did the little notebook, the written agreement and the calculation in obols
trick you into thinking that you could be master of the image of God? What utter
folly! If the contract was lost, if the writing was eaten by moths, if a drop of
water fell on it and washed it away, where is there any proof that you have a
slave? Where is there anything that supports you in being a master? You have
somebody who is named as your subordinate, but beyond the mere name I see
nothing. What did such power add to your real nature? It did not give you extra
years or any genuine superiority. Your lineage is still human, your life is
similar, the sufferings of the soul and the body prevail upon you both in the
same way, with you as master and another in subjugation you are still both
affected by agony and delight, gladness and distress, sorrow and joy, anger and
fear, disease and death. Surely there is no distinction in such things between
slave and master? Do they not draw in the same air when they breathe? Do they
not see the sun in a similar way? Do they not both sustain their life by taking
in nourishment? Is not the make-up of their bodily organs the same? Do they not
both return to the same dust after death? Do they not both face one and the same
judgment? Is not the prospect of heaven and hell the same for them both?
So when you are equivalent in every way, tell me in what particular way you have
more so that you think you can become master of another human being even though
you are a human being yourself. “I got me”, you say, “slaves and slave-girls,”
as though they were a herd of goats or swine. After saying “I got me slaves and
slave-girls,” he added the good cheer that comes through flocks and herds. For
he says “And much property in cattle and sheep became mine”, as though animals
and slaves were subject to his authority to an equal degree.
(Please do not use this translation without acknowledging that it is taken
from the Early Church Texts website and by the Revd Andrew Maguire.)