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Paul, Philemon and the Dilemma of Christian Slave-Ownership

  • John M. G. Barclay


By any standards, discussion of Paul's reaction to slavery and slave-ownership is exceptionally complex and controversial. There are more than enough difficulties in attempting to grasp the true character and significance of slavery in the Graeco-Roman world of the first century, due not merely to the fragmentary and one-sided nature of our evidence but also to the deep-rooted political and philosophical commitments which influence almost every significant treatment of the topic. But to discuss Paul in relation to slavery is to add further complications. If, with the majority of scholars, we bracket off Col 3. 22–4. 1, Eph 6. 5–9, 1 Tim 6. 1–2 and Tit 2. 9–10 as Deutero-Pauline, we are left with comparatively few texts which refer directly to the institution of slavery: Gal 3. 28 (cf. 1 Cor 12. 13), 1 Cor 7. 21–24 and the letter to Philemon are all that remain. But even these texts contain sufficient complexities and ambiguities to render an assessment of Paul's view of slavery far from straightforward. Moreover, varying ideological commitments play a significant role in interpretation here too.



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1 The best survey of these issues is by Finley, M. I., Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology (London: Chatto & Windus, 1980) 1166; cf. Vogt, J., Ancient Slavery and the Ideal of Man (Oxford: Blackwell, 1974) 170210. For a fuller description of the debate between Marxist and non-Marxist see Brockmeyer, N., Antike Sklaverei (Erträge der Forschung 116; Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1979) 373; Yavetz, Z., Slaves and Slavery in Ancient Rome (New Brunswick: Transaction, 1988) 115–75.

2 Overbeck, F., Studien zur Geschichte der alten Kirche(Schloss-Chemnitz: E. Schmeitzner, 1875) 158230; Kehnscherper, G., Die Stellung der Bibel und der alten christlichen Kirche zur Sklaverei (Halle: Max Niemeyer, 1957) 7996; Schulz, S., Gott ist kein Sklavenhalter (Zürich: Flamberg Verlag; Hamberg: Furche Verlag, 1972) 167193.

3 Lightfoot, J. B., Saint Paul's Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon (5th ed.; London: Macmillan, 1880) 323; Wright, N. T., Colossians and Philemon (TNTC; Leicester: Inter-Varsity, 1986) 150, 169.

4 Preiss, T., ‘Life in Christ and Social Ethics in the Epistle to Philemon’, in Life in Christ (SBT; London: SCM, 1954) 3242.

5 Moule, C. F. D., The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1957) 11.

6 Scott, E. F., The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon and to the Ephesians (MNTC; London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1930) 100. Cf. Wallon, H., Histoire de l'esclavage dans l'antiquité (3 vols.; 2nd ed.; Paris: Hachette, 1879) and Allard, P., Les esclaves chrétiens, depuis les premiers temps de l'Église (Paris: Gabalda, 1876).

7 Conzelmann, H., 1 Corinthians (Hermeneia; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975) 126. Lohse, Cf. E., Colossians and Philemon (Hermeneia; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1971) 203, 205 and Luther's famous statement in introducing Galatians: Christus nos liberavit, non e servitute aliqua humana aut vi tyrannorum, sed ira dei aeterna', WA 40/2, 3. Cf. Schweizer, E., ‘Zum Sklavenproblem im Neuen Testament’, EvTh 32 (1972) 502–6.

8 Most of the literature on slavery is listed in Bibliographie zur antiken Slaverei ed. J. Vogt and H. Bellen (reworked by E. Herrmann with N. Brockmeyer; Bochum: Studien-verlag Dr. N. Brockmeyer, 1983). On slavery in early Christianity see e.g. Gülzow, H., Christentum und Sklaverei in den ersten drei Jahrhunderten (Bonn: Habelt, 1969); Gayer, R., Die Stellung des Sklaverei in den paulinischen Gemeinden und bei Paulus (Bern/Frankfurt: Lang, 1976); Laub, F., Die Begegnung des frühen Christentums mit der antiken Sklaverei (SB 107; Stuttgart: Katholisches Bibelwerk, 1982).

9 The current consensus places Paul in Ephesus in the mid-50s; Lohse, , Colossians and Philemon, 188; Gnilka, J, Der Philemonbrief (HTKNT; Freiburg/Basel/Vienna: Herder, 1982) 45.

10 Knox, J., Philemon among the Letters of Paul (London: Collins, 1960, but first published in 1935). See Lohse, , Colossians and Philemon, 190–1.

11 Philemon, 15.

12 Winter, S. C., ‘Paul's Letter to Philemon’, NTS 33 (1987) 115, at 3 (emphasis hers); cf. her earlier essay, ‘Methodological Observations on a New Interpretation of Paul's Letter to Philemon’, USQR 39 (1984) 203–12. See also Houlden, J. L., Paul's Letters from Prison (London: SCM, 1970) 226 and Bruce, F. F., The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984) 197.

13 It is likely that Paul is playing on the meaning of the slave's name (Onesimus means ‘useful’) and it is possible that there is a further play on words in that ἄχρηστος would be pronounced much like ἄχριστος (i.e. without Christ); see e.g. Lohse, , Colossians and Philemon, 200–1 with references to Justin and Tertullian.

14 Bruce, , Epistles, 219.

15 Most take the reference to debt as signalling a theft, but Lohse, Colossians and Philemon, 204 rightly canvasses other possibilities; if Philemon had had to pay for the performance of Onesimus' tasks in his absence, that too would constitute a debt which the owner would expect to recover from his slave's peculium. For a slave to run away was itself a form of theft.

16 Runaway slaves frequently sought asylum, but it is unlikely that Paul in prison would qualify for this, pace Lohmeyer, E., Die Briefe an die Philipper, an die Kolosser und an Philemon (Meyers; 8th edn.; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1930) 172. And if Onesimus had met Paul as a fellow prisoner (imprisoned as a runaway), it would be the authorities, not Paul, who sent him back to his master. But given that prisoners like Paul would need the services of friends bringing food etc. to him in prison, one can imagine how Onesimus might be encouraged by Christians in Ephesus to visit Paul. If he regretted his flight, Onesimus might be eager to seek out a potentially sympathetic friend of his master who could act as an intermediary.

17 Theissen, G., The Social Setting of Pauline Christianity (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1982) 83–7, 92–4. For a broader discussion of the social status of Paul's converts and their house-church setting see Meeks, W., The First Urban Christians (New Haven/London: Yale University, 1983) 5173; Klauck, H.-J., Hausgemeinde und Hauskirche im frühen Christentum (SB 103; Stuttgart: Katholisches Bibelwerk, 1981).

18 According to Tacitus, Annals 14. 42–5, there were as many as 400 in the house of L. Pedanius Secundus, the urban prefect in Rome.

19 In the fourth century A.D. the orator Libanius pleads on behalf of impoverished lecturers who have to live in lodgings, are in debt and have only two or three slaves, Oratio 31.11 (on which see Jones, A. H. M., The Later Roman Empire A.D. 284602 [Oxford: Blackwell, 1964] 851). In both Greek and Roman worlds it could be considered the mark of utter poverty to own none at all: Lysias 24. 6 (a disabled man claiming a state pension is so poor that he cannot afford to buy a slave to work for him); Xenophon, Memorabilia 2.3.3; Catullus 23–24. See Finley, M. I., ‘Was Greek Civilization Based on Slave Labour?’ in Finley (ed.), Slavery in Classical Antiquity. Views and Controversies (Cambridge: Heffer and Sons, 1960) 5372, esp. 58. Slave-owning was particularly important as a status-indicator, quite apart from its economic value.

20 On the likely size of Gaius' house in the light of the excavations at Corinth see Murphy-O'Connor, J., St. Paul's Corinth (Wilmington: Glazier, 1983) 153–61.

21 Buckland, W. W., The Roman Law of Slavery (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1908) 1072 on the slave as res. Finley rightly notes that ‘the uniqueness of slavery … lay in the fact that the labourer himself was a commodity, not merely his labour or labour-power. His loss of control, furthermore, extended to the infinity of time, to his children and his children's children…’, Ancient Slavery, 74–5. The Delphic manumission inscriptions clarify the four basic elements of slavery: lack of legal rights, liability to seizure, inability to choose one's activities and lack of freedom to determine one's residence; see Westermann, W. L., ‘Slavery and the Elements of Freedom in Ancient Greece’, in Finley, M. I. (ed.), Slavery in Classical Antiquity, 1732.

22 E.g. Vedius Pollio's intention to throw his careless slave to his man-eating lampreys, Seneca, De Ira 3.40 (the slave begs for mercy – i.e. that he might be put to death some other way!).

23 See Vogt, J., Ancient Slavery, 103–21. Many masters recognised that if they avoided excessively harsh treatment of their slaves they would get better and longer service from them; see Philo, , Spec Leg 2. 83, 90–1.

24 Prov 29.19; LXX Ecclus 33. 24–28; Seneca, De Ira 3.24, 32, 35.

25 See the texts cited by Wiedemann, T., Greek and Roman Slavery (London: Croom Helm, 1981) 167–9 and the discussion by Finley, Ancient Slavery, 94–5 and Buckland, Roman Law, 86–97.

26 Juvenal 11. 152–3 notices the homesick slave-boy. The papyri from Egypt indicating the sale of slaves suggest the frequency of familial disruption in this procedure: see Bradley, K. R., Slaves and Masters in the Roman Empire. A Study in Social Control (Bruxelles: Latomus, 1984) 4780.

27 De Beneficiis 3.19.

28 See Petronius, e.g., Satyricon 75.11; Horace, , Satires 1.2.116–19; the elder Seneca, , Controversiae 4 preface 10; Dio Chrysostom 15. 5.

29 Seneca, , Epistle 47. 5; cf. Macrobius, , Saturnalia 1.11. 13. The memories of the (admittedly rare) slave revolts did not fade quickly and in Rome in particular there is evidence for a certain paranoia; in a Senate debate in A.D. 61 Cassius expresses a basic insecurity: conluviem istam non nisi metu coerceris, Tacitus, Annals 14. 42–5.

30 Pliny, Epistle 3.14 notes: ‘no master can feel safe because he is kind and considerate’. On the psychologically devastating insecurity of the slave, see Finley, Ancient Slavery, 74, and on the role of fear in the social control of slaves see Bradley, Slaves and Masters, 113–37.

31 Dio Chrysostom 14.1; cf. Philo, , Spec Leg 2.84; Seneca, De Beneficiis 3.19.

32 E.g. to clear debts, Dio Chrysostom 15. 23; Petronius, , Satyricon 57. 4; cf. 1 Clement 55. 2 (Christians selling themselves into slavery in order to ransom others).

33 Epictetus, Diss 4.1.33.

34 See the discussions by Treggiari, S., Roman Freedmen during the Late Republic (Oxford: Clarendon, 1969) 1120 and Duff, , Freedmen in the Early Roman Empire (Oxford: Clarendon, 1928) 1521.

35 Slaves manumitted so they can marry their masters: see ILS 1519,1552 etc. Gaining a reputation for generosity: Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities 4.24. 6. To provide an incentive for good behaviour: Philo, , Spec Leg 2. 67; cf. Aristotle, Ps., Oikonomikos 1.5. 6; Aristotle, , Politics 1330a 32–3.

36 Dio Chrysostom 15.22; Seneca, , Epistle 80.4; Hopkins, K., Conquerors and Slaves (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1978) 131: ‘For the masters, manumission was economically rational, partly because it tempted slaves to increase their productivity and lowered the cost to the master of supervising his slaves at work, and partly because the slave's purchase of freedom recapitalised his value and enabled the master to replace an older slave with a younger one.' In the records of 1237 slaves manumitted at Delphi, only two are said to have been given their freedom free of charge (167).

37 The terms for release of a Jewish slave in Ex 21.1–6 presuppose that any children born during the period of slavery will remain in the master's possession. Hopkins, Conquerors and Slaves, 155–8 and 164–8 discusses Greek examples.

38 Hopkins, , Conquerors and Slaves, 117–18, 128–32, illustrates how ‘humanity was complemented by self-interest’ (118).

39 On obsequium and operae see Duff, , Freedmen, 3649; Waldstein, W., Operae Liber-torum. Untersuchungen zur Dienstpflicht freigelassener Sklaven (Stuttgart: F. Steiner, 1986).

40 Hopkins, , Conquerors and Slaves, 133–71.

41 S. Bartchy, Μᾶλλον Χρῆσαι. First-Century Slavery and the Interpretation of 1 Corinthians 7:21(SBLDS 11; Missoula: Society of Biblical Literature) rightly insists that the terms of manumission were entirely under the control of the owner. A master could always revoke a promise of manumission or change its conditions at the last minute (Tacitus, Annals14. 42).

42 See Xenophon, , Memorabilia 2.1. 16 (chains) and ILS 8726–8733 (collars); Bellen, H.,Studien zur Sklavenflucht im römischen Kaiserreich (Wiesbaden: F. Steiner, 1971).

43 For ‘wanted’ notices see P. Oxy. 1423 and 1643 and the papyrus cited by Moule, Epistles, 34–7. For the employment of fugitivarii see Finley, Ancient Slavery, 111–12 and W. L. Westermann, The Slave Systems of Greek and Roman Antiquity (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1955) 77.

44 Under Roman law he would be, but this would probably only apply if Philemon was a Roman citizen, Coleman-Norton, P. R., ‘The Apostle Paul and the Roman Law of Slavery’, in Studies in Roman Economic and Social History (Princeton: Princeton University, 1951) 155–77. On the distinction between Roman law and the various Greek laws practised in the provinces see Crook, J. A., Law and Life of Rome (London: Thames and Hudson, 1967) 2930, 284; and on the impossibility of generalising about Greek law see Finley, M., The Use and Abuse of History (London: Chatto & Windus, 1975) 134–52.

45 See Bellen, , Sklavenflucht, 1731. Branding: Petronius,Satyricon 103.4; Juvenal 14.24. In the third century A.D. a Christian master punished a runaway Christian slave (Callistus) by sending him to a treadmill (Hippolytus, , Refutatio 9.12. 4).

46 Bradley, , Slaves and Masters, 97 notes the exceptional generosity of an anonymous Egyptian master in providing for his slaves' freedom although they had run away.

47 Note Petronius, , Satyricon 107.4.

48 This is well noted by Petersen, N. R., Rediscovering Paul. Philemon and the Sociology of Paul's Narrative World (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985) 99, although it is not necessary to suppose that Philemon might even face excommunication.

49 Petersen, , Rediscovering Paul, 74–8.

50 Knox, Philemon, 24. The argument (19–27) includes an interpretation of παρακαλῶ σε περί in v. 10 as meaning ‘I am asking for’ Onesimus (which he also takes to be implied by v. 20). Cf. Lohmeyer, , Briefe, 188; Gayer, , Stellung, 241–4.

51 Lohmeyer seems to assume that Onesimus will be manumitted, as does Knox (‘the release of a slave’, 27), although the latter also talks in terms of a ‘transfer of ownership’, 24. Dibelius, M., An die Kolosser, Epheser, an Philemon (HNT 12; Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr [P. Siebeck] 1953) 107 and Stuhlmacher, P., Der Brief an Philemon (EKK; Zürich: Benziger; Neukirchen: Neukirchener, 1975) 40–1 rightly note that Onesimus could serve Paul either as a slave or as a freedman. Stuhlmacher is unique in discussing the practical implications of these options (54 n. 104).

52 Moule, Epistles, 146 relates αίώνιον to the LXX translation of Ex 21. 6 είς τόν αίῶνα. Contrast e.g. Gnilka, Philemonbrief, 50–1 and J. F. Collange, L'Épître de Saint Paul à Philémon (CNT 2nd series 11c; Geneva: Labor et Fides, 1987) 62–3. This question is made slightly more complex by the problem of the meaning of άπέχω: see Knox, Philemon, 23 and BAG s.v.

53 See Wright, , Colossians and Philemon, 185. Others suggest that vv. 13–14 and v. 15 represent two different options for Philemon and that Paul wants to keep both open, Moule, , Epistles, 21,146–7; Stuhlmacher, , Brief, 40–3; Gnilka, , Philemonbrief, 49.

54 Lightfoot, , Epistles, 343.

55 Vincent, M. R., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistles to the Philippians and to Philemon (ICC; Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1897) 188: ‘Ώς denotes the subjective conception of Onesimus’ relation to his master, without reference to the external relation.’ One might compare v. 14 ώς κατά άνάγκην.

56 Pace e.g. Vincent, , Epistles, 189 and Lohse, , Colossians and Philemon, 203.

57 Stuhlmacher, , Brief, 42; Gnilka, , Philemonbrief, 52.

58 See Caird, G. B., Paul's Letters from Prison (Oxford: Oxford University, 1976) 222 and Bruce, , Epistles, 216.

59 Lohmeyer, , Briefe, 189; Bruce, , Epistles, 217.

60 Wright, , Colossians and Philemon, 185; Lightfoot, , Epistles, 342–3; Scott, , Epistles, 110 (Paul does not even imagine that Onesimus should be exempt punishment); Lohse, , Colossians and Philemon, 203; Gnilka, , Philemonbrief, 51.

61 Collange, , L'Épître, 63–4; Stuhlmacher, , Brief, 43 and n. 108.

62 Lightfoot, , Epistles, 345: ‘the idea [of emancipation] would seem to be present to his thoughts, though the word never passes his lips’.

63 Collange, , L'Épître, 72; Gnilka, , Philemonbrief, 88.

64 Dibelius, , An die Kolosser, 107; Lohse, , Colossians and Philemon, 206.

65 Knox, , Philemon, 17.

66 Barton, S., ‘Paul and Philemon: A Correspondence Continued’, Theology 90 (1987) 97101 imagines a puzzled reply by Philemon, who says that it was only on a second reading that he understands Paul to be expecting him to manumit Onesimus. I suspect that on a third reading Philemon might have changed his understanding of the letter again!

67 Collange, , L'Épître, 72.

68 /Lohse, , Colossians and Philemon, 202; cf. Stuhlmacher, , Brief, 41, 43, 57.

69 Schrage, W., Die konkreten Einzelgebote in der paulinischen Paränese (Gütersloh: Gütersloher, 1961).

70 Therapeutae: Philo, , De Vita Contemplativa, 70; Essenes: Philo, , Quod Omnis Probus Liber sit 79; Apologia 11. 4; Josephus, , Antiquities 18. 21 (but cf. CD 11.12 and 12.10 on the use and sale of slaves). In fact, it was not at all uncommon to declare slavery contrary to nature: see, e.g., the Sophists countered by Aristotle, , Politics 1253b and further texts discussed by Gayer, , Stellung, 2638. It was another matter to renounce the institution in practice!

71 Although Philo considered all humanity equal and naturally free (Spec Leg 2.69, 84), he thought there were thousands of jobs which required slaves (2.123). On utopian dreams of automation and slavelessness see Vogt, , Ancient Slavery, 2638.

72 Caird, , Letters, 216; cf. Gülzow, , Christentum und Sklaverei, 40.

73 See the dismissal of a critical slave at the end of Horace, Satire 2. 7.

74 Those who identify the Onesimus of Philemon with the later bishop of Antioch assume that he must have been given his freedom: see Stuhlmacher, , Brief, 53–4. However, it appears that the ministrae interrogated by Pliny (Epistle 10.96. 8) were ancillae.

75 On the Saturnalia see Pauly-Wissowa, , RE, s.v.

76 Seneca notes that it is commonly thought degrading to eat with one's slaves (Epistle 47. 28). In Aristotle, Ps., Oikonomikos 1.5.2 masters are warned about giving wine to slaves; it easily makes them insolent.

77 See Theissen, , Social Setting, 145–74.

78 Perhaps Philemon could get the best of both worlds by manumitting Onesimus with a contract binding him to carry on living and working in his house. This would enable Philemon to remain as host of the church, but the personal relations between Philemon and Onesimus in this sort of restricted freedom would be little different from that of master and slave.

79 For the subsequent Jewish interpretation of such passages see Urbach, E. E., ‘The Laws regarding Slavery as a Source for Social History of the Period of the Second Temple, the Mishnah and the Talmud’ in Weiss, J. G. (ed.), Papers of the Institute of Jewish Studies, London (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1964) 194, esp. 26–8.

80 The milder comments could refer to the special situation in which the master has only one slave (so the Hebrew and Syriac versions, but not the Greek).

81 Cf. Seneca, , Epistle 44.1; 95. 52–3; De Beneficiis 3.28.13.

82 Chrysostom, Dio, 1415; Epictetus, , Diss 4.1; Seneca, , Epistle 47.17 etc.

83 For a fuller discussion see Richter, W., ‘Seneca und die Sklaven’, Gymnasium 65 (1958) 196218 and Griffin, M. T., Seneca. A Philosopher in Politics (Oxford: Clarendon, 1976) 256–85.

84 Petersen's assertion, Rediscovering Paul, 289 that ‘it is logically and socially impossible to relate to one and the same person as both one's inferior and as one's equal' requires some qualification. Key questions are in what respects and in what context one understands the brotherly relationship of equality to apply. If the relationships ‘slave’ and ‘brother’ relate to two entirely different spheres (as for the Stoics) it is possible to be superior in one sphere but equal in another. It is when the two relationships operate in the same sphere (e.g. in everyday behaviour and the personal relationships of the home) that the tension arises.

85 See the full discussion by Bartchy, Μᾶλλον Χρῆσαι, and the important comments by Stuhlmacher, , Brief, 44–5.

86 For a discussion of these factors see Gayer, , Stellung, 212–22. Schulz, Like, Gott, 159–67, Gayer suggests that Paul is contending against an ‘enthusiast’ theology which advocates a more radical policy concerning slaves; but the evidence for such an hypothesis is not strong.

87 Even Aristotle recognised that one could have a friendship with a slave as a human being (Nicomachean Ethics 1161b 5–6) and large tracts of Roman law deal with the slave as a human being (see Buckland, Roman Law). The deep sympathy with slaves shown in Euripides' plays and in Seneca's philosophy highlights the human dimensions of slavery.

88 See e.g. Aristides, , Apology 15. 6; Lactantius, , Institutes 5. 16; Apostolic Constit 4. 12: master and slave are to love each other as fellow Christians, but the distinction in status must be observed.

89 Homily 40 on 1 Corinthians (PG 61, 384–5).

90 See Wallon, , Histoire, 3. 389443.

91 Finley, , Ancient Slavery, 121–2. Cf. Troeltsch, E., The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches (London: G. Allen and Unwin, 1931) 1. 132.

92 Croix, G. E. M. de Ste., ‘Early Christian Attitudes to Property and Slavery’, in Baker, D. (ed.), Studies in Church History 12 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1975) 138, here at 20; cf. his The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World (London: Duckworth, 1981) 418–25.

93 See the careful conclusions by Westermann, , Slave Systems, 149–62 and the comments on Wallon by Finley, Ancient Slavery, 12–17. For a sober assessment of the role of Christian ideas in the abolition of slavery one has first to acknowledge the role of Christianity in sanctioning Negro and Indian slavery in the West Indies and the Americas and the cogent biblical arguments that could be mounted against abolition: see Swartley, W. M., Slavery, Sabbath, War and Women. Case Studies in Biblical Interpretation (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald, 1983) 3164.

94 In the interests of space I have deliberately refrained from comparing the practice of slavery in other cultures and more recent periods, although if handled with care such comparisons can be illuminating. See e.g. Stampp, K. M., The Peculiar Institution. Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South (New York: Knopf, 1956); Patterson, O., Slavery and Social Death. A Comparative Study (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University, 1982).

I wish to thank Mr J. K. Riches (Glasgow) and Dr S. C. Todd (Keele) for their comments on an earlier draft of this essay.

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