Freedom In The Roman World During The Pax Romana Period (john 8:30-33)

the-original-menorah-on-the-arch-of-titus30 As he was saying these things, many believed in him, 31 so Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

(For better viewing, click HERE). We have already made the point more than clear that “the Jews” (hoi Ioudaioi) are not ordinary members of the Jewish religion and culture, but they are members of a definable ruling group within the people of Israel at the time of Jesus. In this passage, we see that Jesus completely understands that not everyone who is part of the hoi Ioudaioi opposes him – the majority does, but there is a faithful remnant that accepts him. Remember Nicodemus (clich here) and those who agreed with him that Jesus was a teacher sent by Israel’s God. Therefore, when speaking to the mixed crowd of hoi Ioudaioi who strongly opposed him, together with those who believed in him, Jesus directed his challenge to those who were ready to listen: “In order to be my disciples you must hold on to my word; to be free you must know the Truth!” (vs.31-32) As we will see shortly this was nothing less than political language used in service of significant theological exploration.

33 They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?”

One option here is to see “they” as referring to those of whom it had been said that they were hoi Ioudaoi who did believe in Jesus (John 8.31). I think the lack of clarity in the text is unfortunate. I believe that while Jesus spoke earlier words to those who did believe in Him, he spoke these words to hoi Ioudaoi who did not believe in him. So, although commonly argued, it cannot be sustained that Jesus called even those Jews (hoi Ioudaioi) who believed in him the children of the devil (John 8.44). I think there are two separate groups within the hoi Ioudaioi. Therefore, those hoi Ioudaoi who believed in Jesus are children of God walking in freedom, while those hoi Ioudaioi who vehemently rejected him are indeed the children of the devil. A point needs to be clearly made that Jesus’ comments here are history, group and subgroup specific and do not constitute general comments about everyone who takes exception to agreeing with the statement that Jesus is the promised Messiah.

Once Jesus called the unbelieving members of hoi Ioudaioi in the crowd to obey his words and to become free, some hoi ioudaioi answered for their entire group and said that being offspring of Abraham they were not bound to anyone, most-likely referring to their privileged status under the Roman occupation.

34 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. 35 The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.

To understand the slave/free analogy is vital in this context. To do that we must take a brief historical detour to understand the practice of slavery in the Roman Empire; whose faithful subjects hoi Ioudaioi really were.

When we think today of slavery, we think of the race based slavery of American plantations with all the unfairness and injustice that was involved. The slavery that was practiced in the Roman Empire, however, was nothing like this kind of slavery; although it was far from being a perfect social platform. Roman slavery cannot even remotely be compared to the slavery we know about from more recent history.

Roman slaves were generally well to do. If someone was poor, they almost surely were not a slave. Slaves had civil rights and they could sue their masters in the court of Roman law expecting fair hearing and fast trial. Slaves in the Roman Empire were usually people taken captives in wars. More often than not, they were professionals, doctors and accountants by trade. Only those who were condemned to slavery as punishment experienced brutal conditions; the rest enjoyed a rather comfortable and safe life-style.

Slave status was temporary and usually did not last more than 20 years. There was a well-established path to freedom in the Roman world. This important feature came to an almost complete standstill during the period we call Pax Romana (1st and 2nd Centuries) when, comparatively speaking, few new slaves were generated due to the limited number of military expansion conflicts during this time. In the time of Jesus, it was actually very difficult to receive freedom in the Roman Empire. Obtaining freedom from slavery was discouraged by new unofficial Roman policy.

It is therefore telling that Jesus used the metaphor of obedience to him as being true freedom! Even during the period when freedom for Jews and others in the Roman world was almost impossible to obtain, those who believed and obeyed Him (master-slave language) could become truly free. Think about it! It is as if Jesus was saying: “Make me the master of your life. Sell yourself into slavery to me. Then and only then you will be able to gain true freedom. Why? Because I am both a slave and a master! I rule everything and yet I obey my father in everything I do.”

So, for the author of the Gospel of John it was clear: Either sin will exercise authority over the members of hoi Ioudaioi, or Jesus would. Master-Slave relationships with Jesus paradoxically brought real freedom – first-class citizenship in the Kingdom of God; whereas Roman slaves, who with great pains managed to gain their freedom, were only able to pass from being third to second class “citizens” of Rome and were still limited in significant ways.


About the author

Dr. Eli Lizorkin-EyzenbergTo secure your spot in our new course “The Jewish Background of New Testament” - CLICK HERE NOW

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