There are two types of insights born from a trip like the travel course to Greece. One insight comes in the immediate moment when a person experiences an archaeological site for the first time (e.g., my post on being at Mars Hill, or the amphitheater at Epidaurus). The other type comes from catching a running theme that cuts across several sites, like the constant reminder of the slave industry in the Greco-Roman world. As I think about the Corinth canal, the Diolkos, the Polygon wall, and the votive relief at the Athens museum (below), there are several points of intertextuality between these narratives and the New Testament. 
   For one thing, it seems unfathomable how Paul can use such a painful and horrific aspect of Greco-Roman life positively to describe the incarnation of Christ in Philippians 2.6-7a: ὃς ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ ὑπάρχων οὐχ ἁρπαγμὸν ἡγήσατο τὸ εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ, 7  ἀλλὰ ἑαυτὸν ἐκένωσεν μορφὴν δούλου λαβών. 

My interpretative translation of this verse that describes the descent of Christ is as follows:
   “who, although he was in the [pre-existent] form of God, did not consider equality with God as something [ἁρπαγμός ּּ= plunder from a royal treasury] to be held onto violently, but emptied himself [of power and privilege] by taking on the form of slave (δοῦλος).” 

   Whatever was emptied (ἐκένωσεν) at the incarnation (i.e., power/privilege but not Christ’s divine nature), there was no other way to describe the depth of the descent other than to say Christ took on the form of a slave. The slave who was at the bottom rung of Greco-Roman society, who was typically the alien and outsider (i.e., the non-Roman, even a prisoner of war, like many of the Jewish slaves used to cut Nero’s canal), and who had no real power to change one’s destiny — it was in this form, the slave, that Christ epiphanied as He entered into human history. There are several theological implications to be drawn from Christ’s identification with the slave, but let me comment on just one.

   Most importantly, Christ inverts secular notions of power and freedom upside-down. Most kings show their power by conquest and plunder (ἁρπαγμός). Christ demonstrated the character and divine nature of God by giving up power (ἐκένωσεν) and identifying himself with the lowest form of human existence: the slave.

   Not only does Christ take on the form of a slave and so identify with the whole of humanity, even with its lowest and marginalized members, but He calls all Christians to intentionally live as “a slave of all” (πάντων δοῦλος; Mark 10:42; cf. 1 Cor 9:19) by giving up our rights and paradoxically using our freedom to serve our neighbor. 

   At the end of the day, the incarnation is a mystery. None of us will ever know this side of heaven exactly what it cost the Son of God to take on flesh and bone. But Paul in Phil 2 thought that at least knowing the struggle, suffering, pain and humiliation of a slave’s life was one way to partially understand the descent of Christ and the depth of His love for us. So much is said with just three poignant words: μορφὴν δούλου λαβών (“he took on a slave’s form”). 

Photo taken by Max Lee at the Athens Museum © 2014
This photo of a votive relief (ca. 2nd century AD; Athens museum) features a young man (center) along with a slave (right corner). 

Notice that the young man in the center is heroized (shown by his features as nude, feeding a snake, next to a horse). To the very right is what looks like a child holding a helmet. But this is not a child but the slave of the young man. Slaves in reliefs are typically portrayed in diminutive size (like children) to signify their insignificant or minor status in the Greco-Roman world. No one would want to identify with a slave. But our God does!