Concluding Thoughts on Personhood (Personhood Part VII)

The compromises that Christian thinkers were willing to make in order to accommodate biblical faith to Greco-Roman philosophy, ultimately, slowed the progress that Christian ideas of personhood had made and prevented these ideas from further transforming the cultures that had adopted the Christian religion. In many instances, these compromises not only prevented further progress but also undid the progress that had already been made. This is the case, for example, with slavery, which largely fell into disuse throughout the Middle Ages, sometimes being abolished outright but generally being replaced with the institution of serfdom. It was, however, revived with renewed vigor and deepened brutality in the early modern period. The early modern revival of slavery both differed from and bore similarity to ancient Greco-Roman slavery in important ways. Its greatest difference was that it was based in the new, supposedly scientific concept of race. This root, though it differed from Greco-Roman ideas, allowed the ideologists of slavery in the early modern era to revive many of the Greco-Roman arguments in favor of slavery, such as the beliefs that slaves were innately inferior and intended by nature for servility and different ontologically from their masters. The new belief that these differences were biologically-based, however, allowed early modern ideologists to ignore and circumvent the biblical tradition’s emphasis on the spiritual equality of all people. In addition, these same ideologists also drew on the beliefs of certain church fathers that slavery was a product of man’s original sin and argued that it was a kind of necessary evil.

The same could also be posited regarding the status of women. Although women were never able to attain full equality with men throughout Western history, there can be little doubt that, as existential philosopher Simone de Beauvoir observed in her landmark book on the status of women, The Second Sex, many women in the medieval world were able to stand on an “equal footing” with their husbands, being viewed as “neither a thing nor a servant” but as “his other half” in possession of “concrete autonomy” and with a meaningful and fulfilling “economic and social role.”76 According to de Beauvoir, the economic and social changes of the early modern era undermined the “equal footing” upon which men and women had stood in much of the medieval world and created a resurgence of misogyny as well as a renewal of the oppression and marginalization of women.77

While the work begun by the early Christians in the light of their new anthropology remained incomplete throughout the Middle Ages and was often compromised by some of the brightest and most important medieval minds, it was the ideas of these early Christians which planted the seeds for later developments in Western thought which sought to remedy the injustice of systems which denied the innate equality and essential personhood of all human beings, including movements such as abolitionism, feminism, anti-colonialism, and the civil rights movement in the United States. In the succinct words of Thomas Cahill, the democratic principles of the West emerge from the biblical “vision of individuals, subjects of value because they are images of God, each with a unique and personal destiny.”78 He explains, quoting the American Declaration of Independence, “there is no way that it could ever have been ‘self-evident that all men are created equal’ without” this biblical vision.

Christianity had brought a renewed vigor to and emphasis upon the Jewish ideas that all human beings possessed a special worth and dignity by virtue of having been created in the image of God by coupling this biblical idea with its own unique beliefs that God himself had become a person and thereby united humanity and divinity and made spiritual salvation available to all people. This broad vision of personhood was a shocking idea in the Greco-Roman world of Late Antiquity, in which personhood was generally restricted to an elite group of free adult Greek and Roman men, and explicitly denied to barbarians, women, slaves, and children. These groups were, in turn, attracted by this new idea which granted them a status they had never before been afforded. Through the influence of these groups, Christianity was able, eventually, to penetrate into the upper and governing classes of the Roman Empire. By the end of the fourth century, it had become the Empire’s official religion. From this vantage point, the Church was able to shape Roman law and society in conformity with its ideas. While this process of shaping law and society remained incomplete throughout the Middle Ages, it nonetheless planted the seeds for later change as various movements for legal and social equality of oppressed and marginalized groups around the world drew on the ideas and legacy of the early Christians to formulate their own visions of personhood and responses to injustice.


76 Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (New York: Random House, 2011), 110.

77 Ibid.

78 Cahill, Gifts of the Jews, 249.

Personhood in Roman Law (Personhood Part V)

The interpretation of early Christian beliefs about personhood into the law of the Roman Empire began very early in the reign of Constantine. On 21 March 315, for instance, only two years after he issued the Edict of Milan, which document granted official religious toleration to Christianity following the worst persecution the Church had yet endured, Constantine promulgated a law which ordered that “if any person should be condemned to the arena or to the mines … he shall not be branded on his face … so that the face, which has been made in the likeness of celestial beauty, may not be disfigured.”62 Although the interpretation of the doctrine of Imago Dei which this law offers is rather haphazard and peculiar, it is nonetheless significant that Christian anthropology, even if in an incomplete form, was being used as a source for Roman law at this early date. Just two months later, on 13 May 315, Constantine promulgated another law with made infanticide and exposure of infants illegal in the Roman Empire and appointed money from the imperial treasury be used to feed children whose parents could not feed them.63 Similarly, four years later, on 11 May 319, Constantine issued another law which forbade masters from mistreating or killing their slaves.64 Constantine also published a number of laws whose intent was to encourage slave owners to manumit their slaves and to make the process of manumission, formerly a complicated process under Roman law, as easy and desirable as possible for them. A law promulgated on 18 April 321, for instance, grants Christian clergy the right to legally free slaves whose owners wish to manumit them.65 Another law, promulgated in an attempt to prevent poor parents from selling their children into slavery and published on 6 July 322, stipulated that children whose parents are too poor to support them should receive their support from the imperial treasury.66 As significant as are these and other laws promulgated by Constantine, the most significant reform of Roman law in accordance with Christian beliefs came under the Emperor Justinian in the sixth century. Under the influence of his powerful wife Theodora, Justinian included in his extensive and thorough reforms of Roman law the promulgation of many laws protecting the rights of women and children. Among them were laws prohibiting forced prostitution, allowing marriages between members of any social class, banning infanticide, granting women guardianship over their children, and allowing women to more easily leave prostitution without being subject to continuing legal or social handicaps. In justifying the promulgation of such laws, Justinian echoed the words of Paul, proclaiming, “in the service of God, there is no male nor female, nor freeman nor slave.”67 The influence of the Corpus Juris Civilis, the massive product of Justinian’s comprehensive reform of Roman law, continues to the modern day. Later, in 797-802, a woman, Irene of Athens, would reign for the first time as empress regnant of the Roman Empire.68 She also convoked the Seventh Ecumenical Council of the Christian Church at Nicaea in 787.


62 Codex Theodosiani 9.40.2, in Joseph Story, ed., Conflict of Laws (Clark: Lawbook Exchange, Ltd., 1841).

63 Codex Theodosiani 11.27.1

64 Codex Theodosiani 9.12.1

65 Codex Theodosiani 4.8.1

66 Codex Theodosiani 11.27.2

67 Justinian, quoted in J. A .S. Evans, The Empress Theodora: Partner of Justinian (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003), 37.

68 Lynda Garland, Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium AD 527-1204 (London: Routledge, 1999), 73-94.

Personhood in Late Antiquity: How Barbarians, Slaves, Women, and Children Became Persons (Personhood in Late Antiquity, Part I)

The Greco-Roman world, whose Hellenistic culture and thought dominated the West throughout Antiquity, possessed a very narrow definition of what constituted a person, a full and equal member of the human political and legal community with all of the rights and responsibilities that status confers. In large part, the full application of that term and the concept it represented were limited to free adult male Greek, or, later, Roman, aristocrats. Groups such as slaves, children, women, men who were not Roman citizens, the poor, and others who did not fit into this narrow category were excluded from full participation in personhood. Slaves alone constituted a third of the population of the Roman Empire and women made up approximately half. The majority of the population of the Roman Empire, then, was seen as possessing less than full personhood. Groups that were denied full personhood were often subject to disdain, abuse, brutality, and even execution with no legal recourse. The Jews, on the other hand, who made up a small but visible minority of subjects and citizens under Greek and Roman rule in Antiquity, because of their doctrine of the Imago Dei, held a much wider understanding of personhood and included under that concept all members of the human species regardless of social status, age, gender, or nationality. As a result, Jewish law conferred upon slaves, women, children, the poor, and other such groups the status of full personhood and the rights associated with that status under Jewish law. Christianity emerged from Judaism in the first century AD and carried with it the idea of the Imago Dei, coupling with that idea its own original ideas of the Incarnation of God as man and the availability of salvation for all people through recapitulation. Already heavily influenced by Hellenistic thought from its inception, Christianity in large part became a point of synthesis between Judaism and Hellenism beginning in the second century as an increasing number of converts to the incipient religion came from segments of the Roman Empire outside of the Jewish community, especially from marginalized and oppressed groups. Because of its message of the full personhood of women, children, slaves, and other marginalized and oppressed classes in Roman society, it drew its converts especially from these groups. In the fourth century, Christianity became the official, dominant, and popular religion of the Roman Empire and began to exert a major influence on law, thought, and culture in the West. Although it continued to struggle with the process of reconciling and synthesizing the Judaic and Hellenistic elements it had inherited, Christianity introduced a new and wider understanding of who was fully a person, a definition which included even unborn children and the lowest and most degraded segments of society. Popularized and refined throughout Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, this definition became the standard understanding of what constitutes a human being according to Western thought and, although it has been and continues to be challenged from various quarters, it remains the standard understanding today.