Christians in Caesar's Household

The Emperors' Slaves in the Makings of Christianity

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Michael Flexsenhar, III
  • University Park, PA: 
    Pennsylvania State University Press
    , February
     2019.
     208 pages.
     $89.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780271082332.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Christians in Caesar’s Household: The Emperors’ Slaves in the Makings of Christianity is a revised doctoral dissertation undertaken at the University of Texas at Austin. The monograph aims to debunk the claim that Christians were already present within the inner circles of imperial power during the 1st century. By using some of the methodological tools associated with memory studies, and by doing close analysis of literary and material sources, Michael Flexsenhar III has produced a very complex work. The book aims to subvert the often taken-for-granted assumption that Christian slaves in imperial households were pioneers who influenced the course of early Christian history. As the author states clearly, “This book reveals a disjunction between the way that modern scholarship has utilized the imperial household to invent early Christianity and the way that early Christians utilized the imperial household to invent themselves” (20).    

Chapter 1 investigates what exactly Paul meant in his greetings to those working in “Caesar’s household” (Phil 4:22). Flexsenhar argues that Paul’s greeting needs to be understood as addressing a local group of imperial slaves who worked in a particular part of the broader imperial bureaucracy. These specific slaves, following the author’s argument, should not be placed within a grand narrative that place them in a triumphalist Christian narrative.

Chapter 2 investigates the early reception of the trope by showing how Paul’s “saints from Caesar’s household” was reworked first in the Martyrdom of Paul (ca 98-117 CE) and later in the Acts of Peter (ca. 250 CE) to articulate certain Christian apologetic and polemical discourse. The martyrdom narrative was developed to participate in placing Christians within the sites of power, as it also endeavored to challenge the power of the emperor in place in late 2nd century Rome.

The apologetic reasoning behind the usage of the Christian slaves in Caesar’s household is further explored in chapter 3. There two texts of the early 3rd century are explored: Hyppolytus’ Refutation of All Heresies (ca 220 CE) and Tertullian’s brief apologetic letter To Scapula (212 CE). These authors, following the argument advanced, had reworked the tradition about Paul and Caesar’s household in Rome as a way to exercise control over communities with which they were associated.

Chapter 4 shows the creative work of some other early Christian writers of the second half of the 3rd century in their attempt to demarcate Christian worship practices from that of other religious groups. However, Flexsenhar demonstrates that devotion to Christ was much more complex, more hybrid, and more flexible than most ancient Christian authors present it to be.

Chapter 5 introduces the sophisticated analysis of ancient material remains to question the mythical constructions of Christians in Caesar’s household. The author points to the necessity for readers to understand both the flexibility and the relations Christians had with other groups in the ancient Mediterranean world. The meaning of “Christian” was multifaceted and conditioned by numerous variables. Flexsenhar concludes the chapter by pointing out that “particularly in expressions of material culture, “Christian” and “Roman” were also intertwined more tightly, and for much longer, than is often acknowledged” (102).

In Chapter 6 the author examines the history of various epitaph stones and some specific symbols in order to continue his debunking project of questioning the association of Christians in Caesar’s household, which rhetorical construction has served to explain certain divine and/or natural expansion of Christianity through these Christian pioneers.

The monograph is well written and the analysis undertaken very sophisticated. This reviewer would have liked to see clearer introductions to each chapter, with the aims and arguments clearly outlined at the beginning of each chapter. The two appendixes at the end of the text belong better in the doctoral thesis than in this revised version. The book’s main argument that the Roman emperors’ slaves and freedpersons were essential to early Christians’ self-conception as a distinct people in the Mediterranean is well presented. The book will be helpful to anyone interested in ancient slavery and the myths associated with the rise of Christianity.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ronald Charles is Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada.

Date of Review: 
December 9, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael Flexsenhar III is Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Rhodes College.

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