Christy Cobb: Rhoda and Greco-Roman Slave Tropes

Christy Cobb, Slavery, Gender, Truth, and Power in Luke-Acts and Other Ancient Narratives (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave MacMillan, 2019), 143-144.

Even though Rhoda is a “good” slave who goes to the door when someone knocks, she ultimately forgets to open the gate for Peter, rather she leaves him standing outside as she runs back inside (Acts 12:14). In the motif of the servus currens the slave is often forgetful as well, humorously failing at a job that is relatively simple to perform. In Acts, Luke tells us why – it is “because of joy.” Instead of opening the gate, Rhoda runs inside to announce her important message: Peter is standing at the gate (v. 14)! While some commentators interpret Rhoda’s joy as an answer to the prayers of the community, there could be another reason for this phrase. In the servus currens trope, a slave who successfully delivers his/her message is often rewarded in some way. Therefore, they are portrayed on stage as running, out of breath, and even forgetful (as their focus is the reward). J. Albert Harrill, writing on slavery in the New Testament, notes that some slaves could even be hoping for manumission, as a result of their job well done. In this way, Rhoda’s joy is easily connected to the comedic strategy of a servus currens, who is so eager to deliver the accouncement to her master that she forgets the man who is standing outside the gate and thus dangerously exposed to Herod’s soldiers, who will be scouring the city for him by now. As such, Rhoda’s forgetting to open the gate for Peter is not only a comedic element in the narrative but also a suspenseful element. Peter is left high and dry while Rhoda is excitedly relaying the news of his arrival to those inside and arguing with them about its veracity.

1 thought on “Christy Cobb: Rhoda and Greco-Roman Slave Tropes

  1. An additional note on Rhoda, who is identified as a *paidiske* in the text – according to Margaret Aymer (in a workshop some years ago), this would have made her a child, maybe around 8 years old. A common practice was for ancient-world entrepreneurs to scoop up children who’d been exposed, and re-purpose them as slaves. Assuming Rhoda was a real-life person, this could plausibly have been her biography.

    Liked by 1 person

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