Bernadette Brooten Looking Into Ancient Slavery

From the Brandeis Hoot:

A Brandeis professor is researching the history of slavery dating back to ancient times with a team that has acquired information from such varied sources as Greek or Latin graves, papyrus and tax receipts of antiquity to uncover the lives of enslaved women and their female owners as well.

Professor Bernadette Brooten (NEJS), an authority on early Christianity, will head the group, using a grant awarded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The Robert and Myra Kraft and Jacob Hiatt Professor of Christian Studies and this year’s visiting scholar at the Harvard Divinity School’s Women’s Studies in Religion Program, Brooten received the grant for the current academic year to research early Christian women who were enslaved or who were slaveholders from the first to fourth centuries.

“Slavery has been part of our lives for most of our history,” Brooten, who is also a professor of Classical Studies; Women’s and Gender Studies; and Religious Studies; and director of the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project, said in a BrandeisNOW release. “Christianity, Judaism and Islam tolerated slavery for most of its history and the habits of slavery are deeply entrenched in our thinking. In order to overcome them, we need to see how deep they are in our history and our habits of thought.”

Brooten will examine the ethical challenges faced by enslaved women in early Christianity to better understand the perspective of this most marginalized of groups. Celibacy, along with the idea of keeping one’s body pure and holy for Christ, was a Christian ideal very early on but, while elite women were able to honor that if they wished, what, Brooten asked, was the Christian decision of God’s judgment on enslaved women?

She hypothesizes that the idea would have been difficult, as owners wanted enslaved women to give birth to ensure further enslaved labor.

Brooten said she will examine how the institution of slavery affected enslaved girls and women who were at risk of enslavement and slaveholding women. She will document how the early Christian majority decision to tolerate slavery, including the enslavement of fellow Christians, and to condemn those who encouraged enslaved persons to flee from their owners shaped teachings on marriage, fidelity, chastity and celibacy.

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