Thursday, July 9, 2009

Fabian Udoh on the Unrighteous Manager in Luke 16:1-8

The current Journal of Biblical Literature features an impressive article by Fabian Udoh, "The Tale of an Unrighteous Slave (Luke 16:1-8 [13])," JBL 128 (2009): 311-35. I've only enjoyed Fabian's company once, but the next time I see him, I'll be intimidated. This article is grounded in a super-impressive body of research into slavery in ancient Palestine and in the Greco-Roman world. The article raises a major question for me (the last sentence of this post), and I'd be grateful for comments that help me understand the problem.

More to the point, the parable of the Dishonest Manager is among the most challenging passages in the New Testament. The problem? What are we to make of a parable in which the hero is also a scoundrel? As C. H. Dodd famously observed, it looks as if even the author of Luke struggled with this one, tacking on multiple -- and conflicting -- "sermon notes" to the end of the story.

(Other tough passages include Matthew 19:12 [what does Jesus have in mind?], 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 [what on earth is Paul trying to say?] and Romans 13:1-7 [given what Paul says elsewhere, why would he say this?].)

Fabian is making me think about this parable differently. He brings forth massive evidence that agricultural managers (oikonomoi) were nearly always slaves in the ancient world. Thus, the manager is also a slave -- or possibly, a freedperson (a manumitted slave). When the master threatens to remove the manager from his position, the threat implies the possibility of demotion to deadly manual labor: "I'm not strong enough to dig," the manager reflects.

I would assign this essay to students just for the wealth of information on slavery in the ancient world. Unfortunately, the essay is pretty technical.

Anyway, in Udoh's reading the slave remains dishonest throughout the story. And it's that behavior that (Udoh says we'll never know the basis for this) he wins the master's approval: he acts "prudently" in his own interests.

But Fabian's reading hits a snag. If the manager is indeed a slave -- and Fabian's historical evidence is compelling -- why does he think (a) that he might be forced to beg and (b) that he might receive a welcome from the master's debtors? A slave will not have to beg, and free people will not accept someone else's slave into their homes.

At this point Fabian backs up a little and says, Maybe the manager is a freedperson. Unfortunately, the article devotes little space to the condition of freedpersons in the ancient world (see the brief discussion on 333-34). We should avoid the hasty assumption that a freedperson would have been "free" in a modern sense, as in without obligation to the master. In a footnote on pp. 324-25, Udoh gives the impression that the distinction between slave and freedman is immaterial to this question, since even the freedman manager would be acting in a servile role. (On p. 333 n. 128 he calls the distinction "insignificant.") It seems to me, however, that the distinction is very important for understanding the manager's deliberations and actions. So my question: Would the options presenting a freedperson differ significantly from those of a slave in the ancient world?


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site said...

It can't work in reality, that's exactly what I think.

RangerTx said...

A Slave that could not dig would be a worthless asset. So the cheapest thing for the Master to do would be to set him free. Free to starve or beg, the master would not be out the slaves keep.
Just a thought.