Freed by Love and for Love: Freedom in the New Testament

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Freed by Love and for Love: Freedom in the New Testament1

L. W. Hurtado (School of Divinity, University of Edinburgh)

Freedom unquestionably continues to be a major theme of modern life and thought. Whether it is the political freedom of nations and groups within nations, or greater social freedom of individuals and/or groups within given societies, the topic figures large in current discourse. For Christians, and for others as well who may be affected by what Christians think and do, it is worthwhile to note how freedom is treated in the New Testament (NT), as this body of texts has a central significance in shaping Christian thought and behaviour. Moreover, as we shall see, freedom was in fact also a major topic in the ancient Roman period of the NT writers, and so it is not an anachronistic question to ask how the topic is handled in these texts.2

In what follows, I commence by setting NT references to freedom in the Roman historical context of slavery and freedom. I then survey discourse about freedom in the NT broadly, followed by a focus on the particular emphases on freedom as divine gift and consequent responsibility. In particular I emphasize that the treatment of “freedom” in the NT is notable in emphasizing freedom for a certain direction in life, rather than simply freedom from circumstances or other people.3 This is not a totally new observation. More specifically, however, I intend to show that the NT emphasis is that believers are set free and enabled to engage others in agapē. In this, I contend, the NT is distinguishable from dominant treatments of freedom in the Roman era, and in our era as well. Indeed this idea of freedom-for-love is so distinguishable as perhaps to render it practically unrecognizable as freedom in the eyes of those for whom Greek and Roman ideas are decisive. I will also propose that this NT emphasis also provides a potentially productive and noteworthy line of thought for Christian participation in, and discussions about, freedom in the current scene. This freedom is based in powerful spiritual realities, but is intended to have outward and very material manifestations in new social relationships, especially within the circle of the ekklesia. In the final paragraphs of this essay, I offer some concluding reflections on how the treatment of freedom in the NT might suggest directions of thought and action by Christians today.

Freedom in the Historical Context

Before we turn to the NT, however, and precisely to see more clearly the specific contours of how freedom is treated in these texts, it is worthwhile first to give some attention to the traditions that formed the larger intellectual and cultural environment of earliest Christianity. In view of several previous and thorough studies, it is sufficient here to sketch matters briefly.4

We may begin with the national-political connotation of “freedom” and what it means for a nation or people to be free in that sense. In Greek tradition especially, there was a strong emphasis on this, memorably associated with resistance to the might of the Persians.5 By the first century CE, however, Roman military adventures and expansion had produced conquest and colonization of many peoples and territories, and Rome was very conscious of being the victor, not the vanquished. Emblems and monuments to Roman victory and enforced peace were frequent and widely displayed.6 It is obvious, thus, that the conquered and colonized peoples were well aware of their status as such, and that any collective ethnic or national freedom eluded them under the weight of Roman force. Consequently, it is not surprising that one does not see much reference to ideas of ethnic freedom in Roman-era texts.

Indeed, to my knowledge, the only salient expressions of the ideal of national freedom (from Rome), and the expressions that clearly proved the greatest worry to Roman authorities as well, were those from Jewish resistance movements. As Martin Hengel has shown, in the artefacts from, and reports on, these movements, which produced a series of revolts including two major wars aimed to achieve liberation from Rome, the ideal of national “freedom” figures prominently.7 Unfortunately, much NT scholarship on freedom in the NT has overlooked the emphasis on freedom in Jewish circles of the day. NT scholars may note Philo’s references to freedom, but usually as an instance of Greek influence upon Diaspora Jews. The use of the term by Jewish freedom-fighters in Roman Palestine, however, shows that there is much more in the Jewish tradition than usually reckoned with by NT scholars.

To understand fully the stance of these Jewish resistance groups, we have to take account of the strongly religious character of the freedom that they sought. They were not simply nationalists in some modern sense of the term. As Hengel noted, it is undoubtedly significant that the coins of the revolts speak of the “Freedom of Zion” and “Freedom of Jerusalem,” not, e.g., “Freedom of Israel”.8 These inscriptions suggest that the focus of concern was profoundly religious, for Jerusalem as the temple-city to be free of pagan/gentile influence; and “freedom” meant what we would call “religious” freedom to be responsible and fully faithful solely to the God of Israel, owning God alone as the rightful king. That is, for these Jewish resistance groups “freedom” primarily involved being free of anything (e.g., taxation paid to Rome) that limited or seemed to compromise in any way God’s sole rule. Put more positively, for them, freedom meant the full realization of God’s own rule, which included social and political dimensions.

In short, this “freedom” was obviously an eschatological hope and condition, even if, as these Jewish resistance groups seemed to have believed, their own direct actions were necessary in contributing to the fulfilment of this eschatological vision. This idea of a future “freedom” probably draws on the OT theme that God freed Israel from “the land of Egypt . . . the house of slavery” (e.g., Jer. 34:13; Micah 6:4). Moreover, as we shall see shortly, this particular view of freedom as eschatological blessing will be more important than is sometimes appreciated in considering some NT passages, such as Romans 8:18-25 (esp. v. 21).

There were also a few Roman voices raised in support of traditional ideas of the rights and freedoms of Roman citizens, and in lament over the erosion of these rights and freedoms in the transition from the Republic to Empire. Among these voices, Cicero is perhaps the best known, but a somewhat similar standpoint is also reflected in Tacitus.9 However, it does not really appear that this sort of discourse involved more than those who were among the traditionally social-elite of Rome who objected to the negative effects upon their own privileges that resulted from the emergence of imperial structures.

By far, the most common notion of freedom in the Roman period was to designate social/legal status, especially the pervasive distinction between free(d) persons and slaves. In Roman-era societies, slavery was a common and familiar social and legal category, its often ugly and always demeaning effects well known. Indeed, slaves comprised a major part of the human population of the Empire, and particularly in wealthier agrarian estates and urban households easily outnumbered those who owned them. In this ironic situation of ubiquitous slavery and universal abhorrence of being a slave, to be “free” meant, most commonly and explicitly, not to be a slave. By definition, in Roman law a slave was responsible fully to the demands of the master/mistress, with no valid will of his/her own recognized.10 The common reference to slaves as sōmata (bodies) in Greek texts of the time reflects the view that they are essentially physical resources available to the owner, mere instruments with no other significance.11

Quite understandably, therefore, the free person took pleasure and pride in not being in this demeaning status. Those born free were proud never to have been in the subject condition, and freedmen and freedwomen were glad to be delivered from it. Epictetus (a former slave himself) wrote: “Does freedom seem to you to be a good thing? Yes, indeed, the greatest”.12 In fact, one might even say that the meaning of “free(dom)” in Roman times can scarcely be understood adequately without the contrasting condition of slavery. It is not going too far to judge that the ubiquitous place of slavery and its well-known features likely help account for the considerable place given to the discussion of personal freedom in Roman-era texts. I note, for instance, that in Epictetus’ Discourses, by far the largest section (4.1., some 177 verses in the Loeb edition) deals with the topic.13 To cite another example from a very different social quarter, there is Philo’s substantial treatise, “Every Good Man is Free”.14 Consequently, later in this essay, in the interest of rooting our discussion of freedom in the NT in the specific cultural setting in which NT texts were written, we shall give some sustained attention to references to slaves/slavery and to the use of related terminology.

As a third type of discourse about freedom, there is also the philosophical development of the idea of freedom (e.g., Stoic tradition) as an inner state in which, by diligent cultivation of the right frame of mind, one regarded oneself as free and sovereign within, whatever one’s outward situation. In this notion, one disregarded in varying ways the outer world and focused on the internal, subjective realm. In the Cynic vision of such freedom, one treats with complete disdain all social conventions and any attempt by others to manipulate or direct one’s way of life. The ultimate ideal freedom in these philosophical circles is to be free from fear, especially fear of death, a freedom which gives one full scope for action without regard for the consequences.

It is important to note that in all these preceding types of freedom as treated in Roman-era texts, the dominant emphasis is on autarchy, the ability of a people or an individual to be master of choices and actions, not dictated to by, or bound to regard, anyone else. To cite again one of the most generous thinkers of the Roman period, Epictetus, “He is free who lives as he wills, who is subject neither to compulsion, nor hindrance, nor force, whose choices are unhampered, whose desires attain their end.”15 Or, to cite an old Greek saying, “The free man is one who lives as he chooses.”16 We may also note Philo’s characterization of freedom as obeying no orders and working no will but one’s own.17

It is important to note that in this sort of view, others (whether other nations, social groups, or individuals) are essentially always a real or potential threat to one’s freedom, or at best are an unavoidable constraint upon the scope of one’s freedom. So, for example, in some Greek philosophical discussions of the ideal polis, although it may be necessary to agree certain limitations upon the exercise and scope of individual freedom (these limitations expressed in nomos) to avoid social conflict and tyranny. But, however practical and necessary this may be, it is still seen as a diminution of individuals’ freedom. As I shall demonstrate shortly, this makes for interesting comparison with the religious notions of “freedom” that we encounter in the NT, in which other people play a very different role, and are, in fact, positively constitutive to true freedom.

Freedom in the New Testament18

We may begin our analysis of freedom in the NT with the basic question of just how much of a place notions of freedom have in these texts. If, as in some previous studies, this question is addressed simply on the basis of occurrences of the Greek words which are translated directly as “freedom” (eleutheria), “free” (eleutheros), and “set free” (eleutheroun), then one could conclude that the idea of freedom is heavily Pauline and not otherwise all that important in the rest of the NT.19 As any concordance will show, the Pauline corpus accounts for sixteen of the twenty-three uses of eleutheros, seven of the eleven uses of eleutheria, and five of the seven uses of the verb eleutheroun. Moreover, except for the two uses of eleutheros in Ephesians 6:8 and Colossians 3:11, all of the remainder of the Pauline uses of these three terms are in the Hauptbriefe. So they are unquestionably authentic words in Pauline vocabulary, and more frequently used by Paul than by other NT authors. On this basis, Niederwimmer judged, “In diesem Sinne ist Freiheit wesentlich ein ‘paulinische’ Begriff.”20

But to restrict attention to these three terms falls considerably short of an adequate consideration of all the terms relevant for an analysis of what we may characterize as the “discourse concept” of “freedom” in the NT.21 A “discourse concept” may be comprised of a number of words (“lexemes”), and not only words that are etymologically related. For example, “upward” and “downward,” “left” and “right” are obvious (in this case, contrasting) components in a discourse concept of “direction,” just as “affection,” “endearment,” and “fondness” are among the components in a discourse concept of “love”. So, a concept of “freedom” may be reflected in sentences that do not even use the words “freedom” or “free”.

To illustrate this point, the terms lytroō, lytron, antilytron, antilytrōsis, lytrōsis, and lytrōtēs all have associations with the liberation of captives and slaves by payment of some fee or ransom. Likewise, the words exousia and exestin can be used to refer to the right/freedom of action characteristic of a “free” person, as distinguished from the captive will of a slave. The term parrēsia can denote the boldness and freedom to speak that pertains to a free person. As noted already, in the Roman period “freedom” was most readily defined as the opposite of slavery. So, clearly, if we wish to grasp the full discourse concept of “freedom” in Greek texts of that era, we simply must take account of these terms as well as those more customarily considered.

Although space does not permit here a detailed discussion, it is clear that references to ideas and images of “freedom” are more frequent, more important, and more widely distributed in the NT than might at first appear.22 For example, if we simply take account of lutron and cognate words, the great majority of uses of this word-group lie outside the Pauline corpus, and are scattered among several NT authors.23 Furthermore, the uses of these terms in these texts with a religious sense, to refer to God’s redemption of Israel and/or Christian believers, indicates how “freedom” quickly assumed a major place in articulating soteriological hopes and beliefs. To cite another example in support of this point, Paul’s reference to Jesus as having come to “redeem [exagorazō|] those who were under the Law” (Gal 4:5) so that they might no longer be slaves but fully-entitled as heirs (“sons”) appropriates ancient notions of debt-slaves and freedom in order to make a vivid soteriological point.
Political and Social Freedom

It will be disappointing to many moderns, however, that there is scant overt reference to the political idea of freedom in the NT. That is, it is very difficult to find any direct reference in the NT to aspirations for political enfranchisement and political rights as we know them today. There is, e.g., no encouragement to mount overt resistance to the regnant Roman regime or to organize to secure change of the political system. Of course, this probably reflects the Roman historical situation in which Roman rule was widely deemed sufficiently tolerable, or at least was unavoidable, serious change in political structures was in any case judged completely unfeasible, and revolt was deemed unlikely to succeed or (for religious reasons specific to early Christian faith) inappropriate to contemplate. On the other hand, in the NT (most explicitly in Revelation), we certainly have indications of a longing for a “regime change”, and even the expectation that it was certainly to come. But, the perception of the endemic nature of evil in political structures and more broadly in society meant that any genuine change for the better could come in reality only through divine intervention. So, for many early Christians, the prayer-petition, “Your kingdom come,” appears to have expressed a sincere longing for radical change from the often dismal experience of human rule. But there was scant confidence that this longing could be answered by human political action. Instead, God’s kingdom would require divine action to establish it.

In short, one factor accounting for the apparent lack of interest in attempting to promote greater political freedom through some sort of social or political movement was, obviously, the strong eschatological outlook characteristic in the NT. Paul, for example, seems to have looked fervently for Jesus’ return in power and glory (e.g., 1 Thess 4:13—5:11), which would also involve divine “wrath” upon all evil; and it is apparently this hope that Paul alludes to in his passing reference to the transitory nature of the “rulers of this age” (1 Cor. 2:8). Nevertheless, and although he could also express a certain disdain for the civil courts and urged Corinthian believers to handle their differences with one another without recourse to “the unrighteous,” Paul does not provide any hint of a programme of wider political action intended, for example, to achieve greater enfranchisement of believers, or anyone else for that matter.

Yet it would be anachronistic and unfair to complain about this lack of any programme of political action in the NT. These texts were written in a time when popular movements for democratic enfranchisement were simply not in view by anyone. Moreover, we should remember that those few in the ancient world who did advocate what at first appears to be “democracy” typically meant enfranchisement and a certain political equality only for free, white males. We should not unduly romanticize the ancients!

It would also be mistaken to ascribe this lack of a political programme of change in the NT simply to a socially conservative mindset of the authors of these texts.24 Paul, for example, should not be confused with Seneca! Granted, Paul accepts the political structures of his time as simply the reality of the day, and can even appreciate some of the potential benefits (and so, e.g., he can advise respect for authorities and the paying of taxes, Rom. 13:1-7). Moreover, as a consistent monotheist he had to see everything as in one way or another ordained or at least permitted by God, and also answerable to God. So his advice hardly sprang from a political conservatism allergic to change in social structures. Instead, he clearly longed for the radical change that he associates with Jesus’ Parousia. Indeed, Paul’s eschatological outlook represents a far more significant qualification of earthly political and social structures than is sometime realized today, perhaps because for most modern readers of Paul (whether Christian or not) his futurist eschatology is foreign and embarrassing, and thus difficult to engage with the necessary critical sympathy.25

Also, it is a simplistic outlook that makes decisive in some way this lack of an explicit authorization of political action in the NT, whether this is done to justify political and social conservatism today, or to argue that the NT is irrelevant for contemporary Christian life and thought. The Christian message first circulated in, and was articulated with reference to, that specific ancient time and cultural setting, as had to be the case for it to be meaningful and relevant. Consequently, for example, we should not expect direct teaching on how Christians are to exercise the political responsibilities and opportunities that are afforded only in modern, liberal democracies. But, as I hope to show later in this study, we should also not imagine that the lack of such direct teaching means that the NT has little to offer to moderns in grappling with questions of what “freedom” might mean.

Likewise, in my view, the treatment of slaves/slavery in the NT, which has received focused attention in some recent studies, can easily be mishandled. We are the beneficiaries of a renewed scholarly interest in, and also significant revisions of scholarly views about, slavery in the Roman world. 26 The net effect of this work includes a wider scholarly recognition that, however diverse the experience of it, slavery was ubiquitous and always, though in various ways and degrees, a demeaning, and often quite a degrading and monstrous, violation of those enslaved.27 As noted earlier, it is therefore all the more important to observe with care what attitudes toward slaves and slavery may be reflected in the NT. Unfortunately, however, at least some recent discussions of these matters appear to me to misjudge matters seriously.28

My first observation is that, indisputably, there is no NT text directly condemning slavery or openly urging Christians against holding slaves. But the question is what to make of this. That is, does this lack of an explicit condemnation of slavery adequately represent all that the NT offers on the subject? Moreover, what implications should we draw in considering how Christians have sometimes used the NT to justify slavery and other practices?29 Slavery was enshrined in the legal system of the Roman period, and it would have amounted to an open attack upon that whole system to seek to abolish slavery. Indeed, there was no mechanism or precedent for such an objective, and I know of no such effort anywhere in the time of the NT authors. Let us remember, after all, that the efforts to abolish slavery in Britain and then the United States were not finally successful until well into the modern period (in the USA not quite 150 years ago), after long struggles, and only because these nations had come to adopt varying forms of democratic systems that permitted open efforts to change laws through political processes. Orlando Patterson’s observation about Paul and his cultural setting is applicable generally to the NT:

The truth of the matter is that Paul neither defended nor condemned the system of slavery, for the simple reason that in the first-century Roman imperial world in which he lived the abolition of slavery was intellectually inconceivable, and socially, politically and economically impossible.30

Yet, here again, we should also take seriously the eschatological stance everywhere reflected in the NT. The full manifestation of God’s kingdom which was fervently hoped for surely meant the abolition of slavery and all other distinctions used to make inferior, to oppress and to exploit others. The entire body of elect were to enjoy fully “the freedom of the glory of the children [teknōn] of God” (Rom. 8:21), and in Revelation believers are all to be “a kingdom and priests to God” (Rev. 1:6).31 So, although Patterson is correct that abolition of slavery by social/political action was “intellectually inconceivable” in that time, the ending of slavery was certainly conceived as one happy feature of the eagerly expected eschatological redemption to be consummated with Christ’s return.

Moreover, although slavery is not challenged as a legal institution in the NT, these texts do reflect attitudes and values that, if acted upon, made at least for the amelioration of slave-status. Most significantly, of course, was the acceptance of slaves along with the free(d) as full co-religionists, one’s “brothers” and “sisters”, in the ekklēsiai. Certainly, there were also some other voluntary associations in which slaves could be included, although slaves were usually required to obtain the permission of their owners to be enrolled in these groups.32 But the evidence suggests that churches typically included slaves. This regular inclusion of slaves in itself represents an important and tangible expression of acceptance of those who were slaves as full co-religionists, fellow members of God’s family, joint recipients of God’s mercy and of Christ’s redemptive work.33

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