Roman Kitchen Slave
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28. Roman Kitchen Slave

Early Church Serving

Roman Slave MarketChristian Households of Faith gathered in the Greco-Roman world were directly affected by Greek and Roman cultures. Households of Faith encouraged new members, but problems arose because of the existing social classes and some of the groups' status. Some Christians were patrons or owners where they and their families ruled, whereas other Christians were slaves, and their families were those who served. The Christian baptismal confession in Galatians 3.28b affirmed that "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." A Household slave was a member of the household of faith and, in theory, therefore, equal before Christ to a family member and the patron himself.

Master of the House

Early Church Serving SlavesThe Christian confession and the layout design of the "Domus" or Greco-Roman house were also at odds. "One important rule in a slave-owning society was to contrast the servants' area and other areas of the house adequately" so that the slave quarters were sparse and the family space was luxuriant. Most kitchens where Roman slaves worked were poorly lit and never decorated, or strangely they had red vertical stripes in the corners, although we don't know what purpose this served.

Nobodies Nowhere

Slaves Serving MasterOwners of larger houses deliberately segregated cooking and dining, placing kitchen smells, noises, and persons as far away as possible from the dining rooms. "The kitchen slave was essentially a nobody who worked nowhere." Once a year, to mark the Feast of Saturnalia, at a Greco-Roman symposium, it was customary for servants, slaves, guests, and sometimes uninvited guests to recline and be waited on by the patron and his family. At The Feast of Saturnalia, which fell in December, the regular order of things reversed, and the family served the servants. In Roman society, rich hosts waited on the house slaves once a year in a kind of upside-down relationship. Once annually, on December 17th, at the Saturnalia Winter solstice festival, the family turned social relations upside down without regard to rank or wealth. It was a time for feasting, goodwill, giving to the poor, gift-giving, and even tree decoration.

Saturnalia Feast

At the Saturnalia feast, each servant or slave took whatever couch he wished, drank the same wine as the host, ate the same food, and the host and his friends served the household slaves. Because they rejected slavery, the Therapeutae in Lake Mariout Egypt, who was a Jewish sect in Alexandria described by Philo (BC 20-50 AD) in "The Contemplative Life," went even further as "Therapeutae" meant merely "servants." Both servers and served were servants. Carolyn Osiek and David L. Balch told us in "Families in the New Testament World - Households and House Churches" that the wealthy appointed the most virtuous young men to serve the others, which inevitably meant that the young aspired to perform this service. How did the Pauline church resolve these tensions? Unlike the Therapeutae, they seem to have continued their former customs, maintaining distinctions between rich and poor, masters and slaves. The Therapeutae flourished in Alexandria and other parts of the Diaspora of Hellenistic Judaism in the Second Temple's final years.

Jesus Servant Model

Jesus Washes FeetThe Jesus servant model, when he washed the disciples' feet turned on its head, the conventional thinking in Roman society about slaves serving their masters. Jesus made himself a model of service in Luke 14.26. He encouraged them, "Let the greatest among you become as the youngest and the leader as one who serves." The Apostles in 1 Corinthians 11.26b remained leaders, for there were "great ones among you." But the leader was somehow to become as those held in low esteem, as the young, and as slaves like the Jesus servant model.

Conventional Thinking

The usual pattern of kings ruling and of their being benefactors had something negative about it, so Jesus recommended an extraordinary change. Jesus criticized a benefactor or patron for placing a client in an inferior position to be indebted to the patron. Some interpreters saw a close relationship with John 13, where Jesus washed the disciples' feet, although the word "serve" does not appear in the Johannine account. John wrote in John 13.3-5, "Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples' feet, drying them with the towel wrapped around him." Luke 12.37 is a parable about being ready for the master's coming. Jesus said, "It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes. Truly I tell you, he will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on them."

Segregated Kitchen

Mark 13.33-37 was closer. Slaves in Luke 12.37 waited for the master to come home, who, when he found them awake, "will gird himself and have them recline at the table, and will come and wait on them." The Lukan parable of the doorkeeper astoundingly had the master serving the slaves, quite as remarkable as Jesus' servant model. Reading both Luke 12 and 22, interpreters understandably agreed that Jesus was helping others reclining at the meal. Such a symbolic action would have been astonishing in a Greco-Roman house as the wealthier the Greco-Roman house, the farther they "segregated" the kitchen and its slave staff from the dining rooms and the elite.

Congregational Shared Meal

Paul states his views about the rich and the poor coming to dine together as the congregational shared meal. The first of two problems around the congregation's shared meal resulted in the wealthy having eaten their food, and the latecomers would have little or none to eat. Geoffrey Hugo Lampe (1912-1980 AD), a British Biblical scholar, cited a similar challenge in the ancient Greek writer Xenophon (BC 430-354) from the late 5th and early centuries BC. The word "Xenophobia" comes from this root and means "the intense and irrational dislike or fear of people from other countries." Participants in the congregation shared meal brought their meat, fish, and vegetables, but some contributed a lot, others little, each keeping their own. Socrates (BC c470-399), the classical Greek philosopher, thought this destroyed fellowship at the meal. Therefore, he instructed the slaves to redistribute food baskets to all or distribute the food itself so that everyone at the shared meal had sufficient food before them. Saint Paul suggested something similar, probably with the slaves still serving. 1 Corinthians 11.33 showed that Saint Paul wanted the Corinthians to eat a shared meal. The term Saint Paul used for "dinner" never referred only to bread but also foods consumed with the bread. Therefore, the verse, "if anyone is hungry, let this one eat at home," must have been interpreted in light of the previous verse "when you come together to eat, wait for one another." Saint Paul indicated that if a wealthy person had visited the baths and was hungry, let that person eat something at home before going to the shared meal.

Afternoon Thermal Bath

Leaves For DinnerThe wealthy in Roman Society enjoyed the luxury of a hot early afternoon thermal bath followed by their meal. Lucian of Samosata (125-180 AD), a Greek novelist noted for his witty and scoffing nature, wrote a satirical letter in Greek urging the aristocracy to take in the poor and needy to feed them. He wrote, "Tell them [the rich], moreover, to invite the poor to dinner, taking in four or five at a time, not as they do nowadays, though, but more democratically, all having an equal share." Saint Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 11.20-22b, "When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord's Supper. When the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your supper, and one goes hungry, and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes in which to eat and drink? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?"

Elite and Poor

Only the elite had the luxury to go to a hot afternoon thermal bath and begin their meals in mid-afternoon. This ability was in contrast to their more impoverished clients or slaves who were unable or lacked the time in the afternoon or the resources to bring their food. Geoffrey Hugo Lampe (1912-1980), a British Biblical scholar, gave us an outline of Greco-Roman meals and suggested how they might have structured the Corinthian Eucharist. The "First Tables" (the afternoon meal) began around 3 pm, but the poor and some slaves would arrive only in time for "second tables." So the poor would miss out on the food, and the rich would gorge themselves.

"Roman Kitchen Slave"
by Ron Meacock © 2021

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