Divine King; Slavery in Antiquity

I started Helmut Koester’s History, Culture, and Religion of the Hellenistic Age.  I have two items.

1.  In my last reading, Koester talked in a couple of places about the concept of a divine king.  According to Koester, Alexander the Great was treated as a god by Greek ambassadors while he was still alive.  Koester attributes this, not to Persian influence (since the Persians did not regard their kings as gods), but rather to “Greek ideas about the presence of the divine in extraordinary persons” (page 11).  Koester is also open to the possibility that “Egyptian ideas…played some additional role in the formation of the concept of the divine king” (page 11).  Koester sees a difference, however, between the Egyptian notion of a divine ruler and the Hellenistic idea.  On page 33, Koester states: “The Pharaoh…was divine simply because he was the Pharaoh, while ‘the divinity of the Hellenistic ruler was based on his excellence’ (A.D. Nock)” (page 33).  Koester traces the development of the Greek idea back to the fifth-fourth centuries B.C.E., when the Greek polis was collapsing, and philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, and Xenophon were saying that “only a divinely gifted individual would be able to reestablish peace, order, and prosperity” (page 33).

Hellenistic royal figures were also conflated with gods.  Ptolemy IV Philopator claimed to be descended from Dionysus, Queen Berenice was equated with Isis, and Seleucus I was worshiped as Zeus Nicator.  According to Koester, this conception continued in the Roman Imperial cult.

So Hellenism regarded the king as somewhat of a god while he was still alive.  But Koester also mentions other scenarios: members of the royal family were deified after they died, and a new temple and festival accompanied a new deity arising. 

I can only speculate as I try to put these pieces together, for there is much that I do not know about this issue.  Perhaps the king was considered to be indwelt by particular gods, and thus he was regarded as an incarnation.  But, after the king died, he was in the afterlife with other kings in whom a god dwelt.  Not all of those kings can be that particular god, right?  Consequently, they were each declared a god in their own right.  This is just my speculation, though.

2.  Koester talks at length about slavery.  On page 60, Koester distinguishes slavery in antiquity from the slavery that existed in the American South during the eighteenth-nineteenth centuries.  He says that slaves in antiquity had rights and privileges (i.e., property ownership), and that Roman emperors humanized slavery more by making the “abuse and killing of slaves…a punishable crime.”  There were also slaves who could gain skills and education.  In addition, there were philosophical criticisms of slavery (i.e., by Sophists), government attempts to discourage slavery (i.e., Greeks in Egypt imposed high taxes on slave-owners), a depiction of slaves as human beings in literature and philosophy, and slave revolts.  Slaves along with free people were in mystery cults.  Regarding Christianity, some church fathers advocated the abolition of slavery, and “the manumission of a slave was considered to be a good work” (page 62).

But Koester does refer to a few opposite trends regarding slaves in antiquity, for he notes that “the slaves working on the large estates and in the mines were excluded from normal interaction with free citizens” (page 62).

Koester himself is not a Christian apologist.  But Christian apologists have used the issue of slavery in antiquity in two ways.  One way is to say that slavery was not that bad in antiquity, and so the New Testament passages that condone slavery are not as bad as we think.  Another way is to say that slavery was bad in antiquity, and so the early Christians were being revolutionary in their opposition to slavery, and thus Christianity was essential to an anti-slavery position coming into being.  (See here and here.)  Koester’s position is that Christianity was continuing “the noblest traditions of Greek thought” (page 62).

Regarding the New Testament and slavery, granted, many slaves had rights in antiquity.  But did the New Testament permit slaves to exercise those rights?  My impression is “yes” and “no”.  On the “yes” side, Paul in I Corinthians 7:21 appears to say that slaves should gain their freedom if possible.  On the “no” side, I Peter 2 tells slaves to endure masters who are harsh.  A professor of mine once suggested that this passage was telling slaves not to take legal action if they are abused by their masters, but to submit.  There may have been a variety of reasons for this: So Christians (who were marginalized) did not get reputations as troublemakers, or so that Christian slaves could win over their masters to Christ.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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1 Response to Divine King; Slavery in Antiquity

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