The yoke of asceticism: Slaves in monasteries and monastic households in the Commentarii de beatis orientalibus of the missionary John of Ephesus

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This article examines the relationship between slavery and the monastic life in the Commentarii de beatis orientalibus (abbreviated here as Comm.b.orient.) written by the missionary John of Ephesus (507–589 AD). The study begins by providing a brief biographical overview of John’s life, writings, and the socio-historical context in which he composed this work. Attention is then given to the terminology that John uses when he refers to slaves, as well as hired labourers. Slavery functions in three ways in the Comm.b.orient. First, slaves serve a referential purpose in drawing the reader’s attention to the decadent and luxurious lifestyles of the wealthy elite. Secondly, however, we find that monks and monasteries are indeed allowed to own slaves, but not in the large numbers and for the same purposes as the rich, who are criticised for their style of slaveholding. John did not expect monks to free all their slaves, even though some did indeed do so. Rather, John believed Christians should keep their slaves and hired labourers, and that these workers, along with wives and children, should follow the monastic life. Finally, and most importantly, John nowhere calls for the abolition of slavery, and for him slavery is not an impediment to the monastic life. For John, slavery was an institution that had to be Christianised and "monasticised" in order to stand in service of a society in crisis. Further details about these three aspects of slavery in the Comm.b.orient. are provided here.

In terms of the Syriac terminology John uses, the study shows that John consistently distinguishes between slaves and free hired labourers. This may support the claim that the circumstances, broadly speaking, in which slaves and the poor agricultural labourers on the larger estates of the Syrian Limestone Massif laboured were not necessarily that dissimilar. Hired labourers were also exploited by some wealthy landowners, and worked under similar conditions of control as slaves did, perhaps only with more mobility. We can deduce with some certainty that the combination of cabdē and ɔamhātā refers respectively to male and female slaves, who are differentiated from the various classes of hired labourers, servants and deacons.

The first function of mentioning slaves in the Comm.b.orient. is that they point to the excessive wealth and luxury of the wicked and wealthy elite, who have no regard for the poor and marginalised of society. Excessive slaveholding is a sign of the impious and sinful disposition of the powerful. However, it is not slavery itself that is sinful or oppressive – rather, it is wrong to own many slaves and to use them for selfish purposes. Slavery is never labelled as an evil in itself in the Comm.b.orient. Rather, John is of the opinion that the greatest injustice lies in the fact that the elite have so many resources, including scores of slaves, at their disposal, yet they never use these to the benefit of society. In the Comm.b.orient. slaves are situated somewhere between property and personhood. They remain nameless and are mostly listed alongside the inanimate wealth of the elite. In this regard, then, slaves have a referential purpose: they serve to highlight the luxury and decadence of the rich, as well as the wealthy lives that some of John's monks willingly renounced in favour of the monastic life.

Secondly, slaves also assist monks in their work of outreach and caring for the poor. Many early Christians would have considered it quite rigorous and unrealistic, and even heretical, if someone had compelled them to free all their slaves. Similarly, Christians were not forced to renounce marriage and sexual intercourse. The universal renunciation of slavery and the married life was actually characteristic of a group known as the Eustathians. The 4th-century Synod of Gangra anathematised the Eustathians precisely because of their rigorous practices with regard to the renunciation of slavery and marriage. While John admires monks who free all their slaves, renounce marriage and give away all their possessions, he does not consider this to be the ideal expression of monasticism. Rather, John sees monasteries and monastic households as the points where charity and the needs of the poor and socially marginalised intersect. It was therefore better for would-be monks or nuns to utilise all their property in service of society. Thus we read of Tribunus, a lay monk, who lived in a monastery with two of his slaves, together making a living by building partridge cages. There was no ethical contradiction to John in being a monk and, at the same time, a slaveholder.

Finally, slaves also function as monks and ascetics in their own right. In fact, this is the only instance where slaves, in themselves, receive a measure of worth and meaning. John is fond of referring to the monastic life as a burden (yūqrā) or a yoke (nīrā) – this is based on Jesus’ words in Matthew 11:30: “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (English Standard Version). In Comm.b.orient. 9 John also refers to the notion of the “yoke of monasticism” (nīrā d’dayrāyutā). What John means by this is that slavery to God takes precedence over human slavery. John actually refers to the monk as the “slave of Christ” (cabdā daMšīḥā) or the “slave of God” (cabdā d’Allāhā), and even speaks about the “bondmaid of Christ” (amtāh daMšīḥā).

Thus, both male and female slaves, as well as hired labourers, could participate in the practices of the monastic life, including vigils, fasting, caring for the poor, prayer, thanksgiving to God, hymn-singing, and so on. The monastic life is not separated from the world, and because of the highly practical and domestic nature of John's ideal monasticism, slavery fits in quite naturally with the monastery and the monastic household. At best, John seems indifferent about one's social status – he is more concerned about the spiritual state of people, and the poor and marginalised in society gain much more sympathy from John than slaves. Slavery is unfortunately not part of the social crisis to which John responds, and to follow the monastic lifestyle did not necessarily imply manumission.

Keywords: asceticism; Early Christianity; John of Ephesus; Late Antiquity; monastery; monk; Patristics; slavery; Syria; Syria

Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: Die juk van askese: Slawe in kloosters en kloosterlike huishoudings in die sendeling Johannes van Efese se Commentarii de beatis orientalibus

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