Major David Cavanagh of the The Salvation Army offers this response to Mitzi J. Smith’s reading of doule in Luke 1:38.
“Was the Virgin Mary actually a slave?” That is the question raised by Mitzi J. Smith, J. Davison Philips Professor of New Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary, and Professor of Gender Studies at the University of South Africa, in an article published in Bitter the Chastening Rod: Africana Biblical Interpretation after Stony the Road We Trod in the Age of BLM, SayHerName, and MeToo (Fortress Academic, 2022). The article, published last August, has recently been recycled in blogs by Candida Moss, Was the Virgin Mary Actually a Slave?, and Kevin Giles, What If Jesus’s Mother Mary Was A Slave?.
Having spent eighteen years as the leader of several local congregations, together with my wife, I remember all too well the pressure to find ways of giving the “old, old story” fresh relevance, especially at recurring moments in the ecclesiastical calendar, such as Advent. It would not surprise me if this hypothesis were to be recycled in sermons next December, when preachers will again be looking for a new angle on the Annunciation, the Christmas story and the gospel itself.
Preachers might find this hypothesis appealing because its corollary is that, as the child of a slave woman, Jesus himself might have been a slave—an idea which would certainly grab any congregation’s attention! Candida Moss quotes Smith as telling her that “In any slave society, a child born to an enslaved woman is born enslaved”, while Antony Thiselton notes that “Those who were born as children of a woman in slavery constituted up to around a third of the slave population in major urban centres”.1 Smith also points to the fact that Jesus began his ministry at the age of thirty, noting that under legislation passed in AD 40 by the emperor Augustus,2 this was the age of manumission for enslaved men, and if Jesus had indeed been a slave, he would not have been free to begin his ministry any earlier. If Jesus, as the child as a slave woman, was indeed a slave, this might shed new light on Jesus’ ministry both in its’ original setting and for some contemporary debates. Smith comments that if Jesus was born as a slave, this
situates Jesus at the bottom of the society into which he was born. He lived in stigmatized flesh like so many other people during his lifetime and beyond, including Black people, people of color, poor people, immigrants, and so on…The injustice of the world is an injustice that Jesus himself experienced.
Turning to what this might mean for today, she argues that this creates ethical demands for Christians today: in a world where many people still suffer and are dehumanized, Christians are called to fight to free God’s children. Similarly, Giles suggests that understanding Jesus as a formerly enslaved person provides greater insight into his compassion for “the least of these,” and offers us a window into the everyday reality of most of those who lived during this period as subjects and literal slaves:
If Jesus was born a slave…it would make so many of Jesus’s sayings from the Sermon on the Mount resonate with greater authority and power… Jesus’s status as a former slave would have added immeasurable weight and power to his words and his audience would have accepted him as one of their own and not as an entitled free man who had no idea what the harsh realities of their life was really like.
However, wise preachers should perhaps be wary before reaching too quickly for this appealing hypothesis, no matter how weary they may be. What is the evidence for this revolutionary proposal that Jesus was a slave?
Moss and Giles, presumably drawing on Smith’s work, expend some considerable time sketching out the place of slavery in the ancient world in an attempt to show that this proposal is plausible. They argue that slavery was so common in the ancient world that
Almost everyone at this time either was a slave, owned a slave, or knew people who were enslaved
and that under Roman rule, Jewish people were enslaved in large numbers, especially in times of political unrest, citing in support of this a figure of 97,000 residents of Jerusalem and its’ environs captured after the Jewish War of 66-70 AD.
If Luke’s gospel was written after the fall of Jerusalem, as is generally agreed, this background would certainly give any reference to slavery a particular resonance for Jewish readers. Of course, it should also be remembered that Luke is generally thought to have written for a Gentile audience, who would not have experienced the horrors of the war and its aftermath, and references to slavery would not have elicited the same response for such readers as for Jews who had suffered in the Jewish defeat, the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple.
However, some caution is called for. Moss and Smith seem to equate “capture” with “slavery”, whereas as Thiselton notes that the custom of enslaving defeated enemies “effectively ceased at the beginning of the Imperial period” and had become “sporadic”.3 Furthermore, Moss and Smith give no source for this figure, and ancient writings are in any case notoriously unreliable sources for statistics, with numbers often reflecting the author’s bias. In the case in point, Thiselton, presumably drawing on different sources, gives a figure of 6,000 Jews taken by Vespasian (and for “forced labour”, which again should perhaps not be taken to necessarily equate with slavery).
More generally, this is very much a “broad-brush” background sketch of ancient culture, which arguably neglects the particularities of Jewish society. A modern parallel might be discussing commerce in a Muslim society entirely in terms of the dominant Western capitalist culture. While it is clear that slavery existed in ancient Israel [though note this significant challenge on the meaning of the word from Peter Williams], it is evident that the founding event of the Exodus, when YHWH freed the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, occupied a central place in Israel’s memory (cf. Exodus 13:3-16; 20:2; Leviticus 26:13; Deuteronomy 5:6; 6:12, 20-25; 16:12; 24:22) and exercised a restraining influence on the practice of slavery.
Because YHWH had freed Israel from slavery in Egypt, no Israelite was to be enslaved and limits were placed on any term of bound service an Israelite might enter into (Exodus 21:1-4; Leviticus 25:39-46; Deuteronomy 15:12-15). Special protections were accorded to female captive slaves (Deuteronomy 21:10-14), abusive masters would forfeit their slaves (Exodus 21:26-27) and slaves who had escaped into Israel were not to be returned to their masters (Deuteronomy 23:15-16). Similarly, slaves were to be included in Sabbath rest and in Israel’s worship (Exodus 20:10; 23:12; Deuteronomy 5:14-15; 12:12).
In the light of all this, it would be extremely odd if Mary were Joseph’s slave, rather than his wife, as historically understood. While this possibility cannot be excluded, it has to be asked what biblical grounds there are for this hypothesis, and for the corollary that her son, Jesus, would in turn have been born a slave.
This is where the proposal really begins to unravel. The only evidence presented to support this claim is Mary’s response to the angel Gabriel’s announcement that she is to bear a child. Mary identifies herself as a δουλη, a Greek word that unambiguously means “enslaved girl” (Luke 1:38). Moss comments that
If we were reading any other ancient text written in Greek, we would assume that Mary was enslaved
and quotes Smith as telling her that
Any first-century reader, of any ethnicity, culture or religion, living under the Roman empire…..would have taken Mary’s self-designation as an enslaved woman seriously and as a declaration of her material or physical lived reality and not simply as a metaphor. And we should, too.
This strikes me as a wilfully tendentious reading. For a start, we are not reading “any other text”: we are reading the New Testament, in which δουλος is commonly used as a metaphor with no indication of actual socio-economic status. For instance, the feminine form used in Luke 1:38 recurs in the Magnificat, when Mary declares that God “has looked with favour on the lowliness of his δουλη” (Luke 1:48) and also in Acts 2:18 at Pentecost, when Peter reminds the crowds of Joel’s prophecy that “Even upon my slaves, both men and women (Greek: καί γε ἐπὶ τοὺς δούλους μου καὶ ἐπὶ τὰς δούλας) I will pour out my spirit”. In neither case is socio-economic status is being indicated, and in that both instances are drawn from Luke, suggest that he did not necessarily intend us to take Mary’s words as “a declaration of her material or physical lived reality”. Indeed, together with Simeon’s description of himself as τὸν δοῦλόν σου, δέσποτα (Luke 2:29), these texts strongly suggest that Luke is happy to use the term as a metaphor.
Given these clear precedents, it is highly problematic that Smith truncates Mary’s response, which in full reads: Ἰδοὺ ἡ δούλη κυρίου (“Here am I, the δουλη of the Lord”). Mary indeed identifies herself as a “slave”, but it is not Joseph she refers to as her master, but “the Lord” – ie. God. Mary is not classifying herself in a socio-economic category: rather, as I.H. Marshall points out, she is drawing on a traditional Jewish form of expressing devotion to God, as attested by the LXX use of δουλος and its cognates in 1 Sam. 11:1; 25:41; 2 Sam. 9:6; 2 Ki. 4:16.4 As Green comments, by “describing herself as the Lord’s servant”, Mary “acknowledges her submission to God’s purpose” and “her role in assisting that purpose”.5
As one might expect, such uses of δουλος and its cognates are by no means limited to Luke but are common in the New Testament. The apostle Paul typically presents himself and his companions as “slaves” of Christ Jesus and of the gospel (Romans 1:1; 1 Corinthans 3:5, 9; 4:1; 2 Corinthians 4:5; 6:4; Galatians 1:10; Philippians 1:1). Similar formulae appear in James 1:1, 2 Peter 1:1, and Jude 1. Elsewhere, Moses is described as a δουλος in God’s house (Hebrews 3:5) and as God’s δουλος (Revelation 1:1), and the term is also applied more widely to Christians in general (John 13:16; Romans 6:18-19; 7:6; 1 Corinthians 7:22; 1 Peter 2:16).
The New Testament usage of δουλος is of course far more complex and varied than this whistle-tour of texts might suggest. The apostle Paul in particular uses the term to refer to bondage under the Law, to sin, or to elemental spiritual forces (Romans 6:6; 6:16-20 – five occurrences; 7:14; 7:25; Galatians 2:4; 4:8; 5:1), usually contrasted with the freedom that God has given through Christ to those who believe in him (Romans 8:15; 1 Corinthians 7:22; Galatians 5:1).
For our purposes, however, the most significant appearance of δουλος is perhaps that of Philippians 2:6-7, where Paul calls on the example of Jesus, who
though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a δουλου, being born in human likeness.
Once again, the term is used metaphorically, in this case to illustrate the enormous gulf between “equality with God” and taking on “human likeness”. As Fee puts it, Christ’s taking the form of a slave has to do with his ’being made in the likeness of human beings’” and “taking on the role of a slave” is equivalent to “humbling himself to the point of death”.6 The idea is similar to that of 2 Corinthians 8:9, where Christ is said to have made himself poor by becoming human.
In conclusion: it appears that Smith’s hypothesis rests on a hermeneutic of suspicion, which decides a priori that the text cannot be trusted and occludes realities which can only be uncovered and deciphered by challenging its vested interests. Such a hermeneutic is ultimately unsustainable because it will, hydra-like, turn upon and consume itself: the proposed reading is itself highly vulnerable to the charge that it is driven by the reader’s vested interests.
In this particular case, Smith’s reading clearly relies upon distorting the actual text and ignoring the canonical context, failing to take account of the multiple inter-textual echoes which should govern our understanding of Mary’s words. Preachers looking for the wonder of the gospel would be well-advised to rediscover the wonder of the incarnation of the eternal Word in Jesus of Nazareth, and the ways in which his life, death and resurrection free human beings from the slavery of oppressive sin.
David Cavanagh was commissioned and ordained as an officer of The Salvation Army in 1992. He subsequently spent 28 years with The Salvation Army in Italy, serving together with his wife, Elaine, as the leader of local congregations in Milan, Catania, Naples and Florence before being appointed as the General Secretary for Italy and Greece. Returning to the UK in the summer of 2020, he now serves as the Assistant Secretary for Scotland, with responsibility for The Salvation Army’s political engagement and ecumenical and interfaith relations in Scotland.
He holds a BA in English & American Literature from the University of Manchester (1986), a BA in Religion and Theology from Oxford Brookes University (2014) and is about to embark on the MA in Mission from Cliff College. His theological interests include hermeneutics, the Quest of the Historical Jesus, the New Perspective on Paul, and Christian Mission.
Gordon D. Fee, The Letter of Paul to the Philippians: New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995).
Kevin Giles, “What if Jesus’ mother Mary was a slave?”: Patheos blog 04.01.23 at What If Jesus’s Mother Mary Was A Slave? accessed 20.01.23.
Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke: New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997).
I.H. Marshall, The Gospel of Luke: New International Commentary on the Greek Text (Exeter: Paternoster, 1978).
Candida Moss, ““What if Jesus’ mother Mary was a slave?” at Was the Virgin Mary Actually a Slave? accessed 20.01.23.
Mitzi J. Smith (ed.), Bitter the Chastening Rod: Africana Biblical Interpretation after Stony the Road We Trod in the Age of BLM, SayHerName, and MeToo (Fortress Academic, 2022)
Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: New International Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000
- Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), p. 562.
- Lex Aelia Sentia
- Thiselton, op. cit., p. 563
- I.H. Marshall, The Gospel of Luke: New International Greek Text Commentary (Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1980), p. 72
- Joel Green, The Gospel of Luke: New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman, 1997), p. 92.
- Gordon D. Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians: New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), p. 196, 197.