What was slavery like in the NT world?

The latest Grove Biblical booklet is on Slavery in the New Testament and is by Caryn Reeder, Professor of New Testament at Westmont College, Santa Barbara. It offers a really helpful exploration of the phenomenon of slavery in the New Testament world, and highlights the importance of our understanding since the mention of slavery, both literal and metaphorical, is actually so prominent in the NT texts. She begins:

Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. (Mark 10.43–44)

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3.28)

Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh. (1 Pet 2.18)

In the New Testament, slaves guarded doors (Acts 12.13–14), managed their owners’ wealth (Matt 25.14–30), prepared feasts and more (Luke 15.23). Slaves, freed slaves and slave owners worshipped together in early church communities (1 Cor 7.21–23; 1 Tim 6.1–2; Philemon 15–16). The imagery of slavery described a person’s relationship to sin and to God (John 8.33–36; Rom 6.16–20).

These references help us see just how common slavery was in the world of the earliest Christians. The Roman Empire was a slave society. According to Gaius, a second-century Roman lawyer, ‘The principal distinction made by the law of nature is this, that all human beings are either free people or slaves’ (Institutes 1.9). ‘Slave,’ ‘freed slave’ and ‘freeborn’ were fundamental categories of identity. A person’s status determined their legal rights (or lack of rights), their ability to protect their own bodies against abuse and their capacity for social honour.

Although slavery was pervasive in the world of the New Testament, it is often invisible to us. When a story or letter does not identify a person as ‘slave’ or ‘free,’ we do not ask about their status, or how that status affected their daily life. Therefore, we do not wonder what the gospel message meant for slaves, freed slaves and slave owners. For instance, how did the earliest Christians experience the unity of slaves and free people in Christ? How did they understand the exhortations for Christians to humble themselves and serve (or ‘be enslaved to’) each other? What did freedom in Christ mean for Christians who were enslaved to human owners?

Caryn sets out the social reality of slavery in the Empire, and then gives a whole chapter to exploring the experience of slavery.

Some slaves in the Roman Empire were born into slavery, but freeborn people also became slaves through capture in war or less legal means. The experience of slavery was very different for people who were born and raised to be slaves and those who became enslaved later in their lives.

Rome’s wars brought many new slaves into the Empire, as Jesus warned in Luke 21.24. Josephus, a Jewish historian who wrote about the Jewish revolt against Rome in the first century, claimed that the Roman army captured 97,000 slaves in Galilee and Judea—so many that the slave market was glutted (Jewish War 6.384, 420).

For people who had been free before their capture, the loss of rights over their own bodies added to the trauma of war. The same would be true for people kidnapped by pirates or brigands in deserted places around the Empire. The fall from the honour of freedom into the humiliation of slavery was so distressing that, in many stories, the newly enslaved committed suicide. This is the reason Josephus gave for the mass suicide at Masada on the eve of the Roman victory over the Jews there (Jewish War 7.380–387)…

In very wealthy homes, some young child slaves became objects of affection to their owners, pampered and played with (sometimes in disturbingly sexualized ways). Most child slaves did not have what we would consider a childhood. Rather, they began work as soon as their bodies were capable of simple tasks. The first-century writer Columella commented that slaves on agricultural estates were ‘hardened to farm work from infancy’ (On Agriculture 1.8.2), and contracts for apprenticeships to weavers and other skilled workers record young ages for slaves…

Slaves who were part of the same household lived, worked and relaxed together. In funerary inscriptions, slaves referred to each other as family members and friends. Funerary inscriptions also indicate enduring relationships between slaves and slave owners.

We see such relationships in Acts. Rhoda, a slave, knew Peter well enough to recognize him immediately when he unexpectedly came to the door. She was one of a few members of the church in Jerusalem to be recorded by name (Acts 12.12–15). Two slaves and a soldier escorted Peter to Cornelius’s house and, therefore, these slaves were instrumental in the preaching of the gospel to Gentiles (Acts 10.7–8). When the head of the household like Cornelius or Lydia became a Christian, all the members of the household—a group which included slaves—were baptized (Acts 10.44–48; 16.15, 33).

While slaves were part of their owners’ households, under Roman law they could not legally marry. However, slaves might form relationships akin to marriage with each other and have children together. In the parable in Matt 18.24–25, a slave had a wife and children. But the owner’s actions indicated that he owned his slave’s wife and children. Owners permitted or forbade their slaves’ relationships. Owners also arranged or enforced relationships in order to encourage procreation and additions to the numbers of slaves in a household.

Being in a slave marriage did not protect a slave’s body from others. Slaves had no right to refuse their owners’ sexual advances. Seneca the Elder claimed that unchastity was a necessity for slaves (Controversies 4, preface 10), and Plutarch said that husbands honoured their wives by using slaves for sex (Marriage Advice 16). Numerous stories, letters, and poetry from the Roman world indicate the expectation of the sexual availability of male and female slaves of all ages, both within private households and as public prostitutes, to their (male) owners.

Come and join us for the Third Festival of Theology on Tuesday 8th October!

Caryn then turns to the vexed question of what the New Testament writers thought about slavery ethically, and why they did not explicitly advocate manumission (freedom for slaves). She considers Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians, and the particular case of Onesimus and Philemon, before making more general observations.

It may be surprising to readers today that New Testament authors did not ask slave owners to free their slaves (an issue addressed in the next chapter). There are, nonetheless, some important differences from the Greco-Roman household codes. First, unlike the Greco-Roman examples, the New Testament texts directly addressed the slaves themselves. The direct address gave the slaves their own agency, making them—and not their owners—responsible for their own behaviour. Secondly, in Eph 6.9 and Col 4.1, Paul commanded slave owners not to threaten their slaves, but rather treat them with ‘justice and equality.’ Like the instructions given to husbands and fathers in Eph 5.25–33 and 6.4 and Col 3.19 and 21, the instructions to slave owners limited their power over vulnerable members of their households. Thirdly, Paul reminded slaves that their true owner is God—and slave owners are also owned by God. In these ways, the New Testament household codes challenged Greco-Roman social norms…

Slavery was fundamental to life in the Roman Empire. Perhaps because of this, there is no command in the New Testament for Christian slave owners to free their slaves. Instead, Paul and Peter instructed Christian slaves to be good slaves, obeying their human owners as if they were obeying God (Eph 6.5–8; 1 Pet 2.18–21).

The New Testament household codes, among other texts, were used by supporters of slavery in the Americas to counter the abolitionist movement. Slave owners argued that slavery was a natural part of the social order of the world. They also claimed that the enslavement of Africans and indigenous peoples was for their own good. According to white slave owners, races they saw as inferior would become civilized through slavery.

Opponents of slavery also drew on biblical evidence. They pointed to the refrain that repeats through the Old Testament: God saved Israel from slavery (Exod 20.2; Ps 81.10; Jer 34.13). Paul proclaimed that in Christ, there was no slave or free (1 Cor 12.13; Gal 3.27–28; Col 3.11). For Christian slaves and abolitionists, texts like these demanded the abolition of slavery.

Slavery’s children entered history from below: from their straitened vantage they came to see in the holy Scriptures that God grants victory to the unlikeliest people—people like themselves—and by the unlikeliest means. The Bible privileges those without privilege and honours those without honour…(A Callahan, The Talking Book)

New Testament authors did not demand the end of slavery as a social and economic system. However, they did critique the core assumptions of Roman slavery: the dehumanizing of people made in God’s image; abusiveness as a matter of course; and the very idea of ownership over human lives. As in Rev 18.11–13, slavery and the slave trade brought divine judgment on the Roman Empire. The message of mutual submission is fundamental to discipleship in the New Testament.

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. (Gal 5.13)

We should not overlook how radical this message would have sounded in the early church, in the midst of Rome’s slave society. Even if the New Testament authors did not proclaim the end of slavery, their redefinition of freedom and slavery challenged the fundamental social values of their day.

How might these messages sound today? The New Testament asks us to question our own structures of power and status. Even if we consider slavery to be illegal, are there ways we nonetheless fail to recognize the basic humanity of the people around us? Are there ways that Christian leaders could do better at giving up their power and privilege for the sake of their congregations? If we listen carefully, the subtle challenges to the Roman system of slavery in the New Testament encourage those with power and privilege to give up their privileges for the sake of the less privileged.

Finally, Caryn turns to the question of the meaning of slavery metaphors and images in the New Testament.

The metaphor of slavery and freedom runs through Rom 5–8. The Christians in Rome lived at the centre of the imperial slave society. Roman Italy had the highest percentage of slaves of any region of the Empire. Paul’s metaphors in his letter to the Roman churches used the reality they knew to teach a powerful lesson about sin, death, grace and life…

Freedom from sin did not mean Christians had no owner. In Christ, they were slaves to God, obedient to righteousness, and rewarded with life (Rom 6.13–23). For an audience in the heart of the Roman Empire, the metaphors of slavery and freedom, death and life, would resonate with slaves and slave owners alike. But as in the mutual enslavement of Christians to each other, the call to be slaves to God reminded slave owners that they also were owned. As Paul said in 1 Cor 6.19–20, no one belonged to themself. Christians were purchased by God, and like slaves they should live for God.

This is an invaluable study, providing essential information about the context of slavery in the first century as we read both literal and metaphorical language of slavery. It highlights how prominent this language is in the New Testament, and the theological freight that it carries, and offers vital background for any ethical discussion of slavery and the Bible.

You can order the booklet post free for £3.95 in the UK from the Grove website, or buy it as a PDF e-booklet.

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24 thoughts on “What was slavery like in the NT world?”

  1. There does not seem to be any mention here of the problematic authorisation of slavery in passages in the Old Testament, and whether such authorisation was endorsed by God.

    Prisoners taken in warfare could be enslaved. God’s soldiers could take captured virgins for themselves.

    In Leviticus, slaves are treated as property that could be inherited. And fathers could sell their daughters into slavery.

    Clearly if we view the Bible as the authoritative Word of God, and if we believe God was behind the laws set out in the Bible, then some explanation or rationalisation is needed, because slavery is disgusting. Why would God condone, endorse, or authorise slavery? That doesn’t ring true – it seems incongruent to other things we know or understand about God.

    Could anyone here offer thoughts on this? Why would God want to advocate anything to do with slavery, or mandate its active use, and the acquisition of more slaves?

    Or was this just ‘culture’ and the authors not actually expressing what God would want or instruct, but reflecting their own societal assumptions and privileges?

    • There does not seem to be any mention here of the problematic authorisation of slavery in passages in the Old Testament

      That’s probably because the book is called ‘Slavery in the New Testament’.

      I mean I’m just guessing.

    • Perhaps Jesus’ comments on divorce during Moses’ time are relevant – God’s commands were necessary due to their ‘hardness of heart’ rather than it being His intention all along? It seems he worked with people as they were, allowing ‘concessions’.

      Today when we look back at servants in large households in the 19th/early 20th centuries (only 100 years ago), we tend to feel sorry for them and think it was a pretty bad life (if you’ve ever taken a tour round one of those large houses, you’ll know what I mean when comparing the owners’ lives with their servants’ – I visited one where the kitchen staff slept in bays in the kitchen walls!). But then it was the ‘norm’ and perfectly acceptable in society.

    • The scriptures are designed to be a guide to the liberation of mankind from the stranglehold of sin. We have to read levitical law through the lens of the context of cultural norms versus the spiritual component that has GOD’s divine will weaved into the narrative of the text. I am of the belief GOD didn’t ordain slavery. Slavery was a product of the fall of mankind. Adam the first Man was in perfect harmony with GOD without in bondage to how he was intended to live. GOD’s mass exodus of the Hebrews proves he never intended for people to live under the rule of one another and certainly not in the context of what slavery does to people. While the Bible explains the divine will of GOD while humans are doing vile things to each other we must not believe that GOD wanted slavery because of what some writers in scripture was saying in context of their times. Some writers actually declared the freedom of people several times over. So the humanity and lens of the writer for the times they existed isn’t meant to justify slavery but it is to show GOD’s plan for mankind overall endured our rebellion towards his will and sovereignty

      • Worth also noting the in the AV, the word ‘slavery’ occurs only twice in the OT. The OT mostly describes debt servitude—the equivalent of a mortgage or conditional loan.

  2. Susannah believes that slavery is disgusting. But where did that value judgement come from? I suggest it came from the Bible itself. Also we need to define what we mean by slavery? If it is a lack of choice many people in our day also have a lack of choice. Consider the single mother with three children in a Glasgow tenement block working on the minimum wage in the local supermarket. What choices does she have?

      • Conscience.

        You don’t have to be a Christian to know that slavery is disgusting.

        Some people say the same thing about same-sex relationships. How do you know your conscience is right and theirs is wrong?

    • She’s not chattel, which is the crucial line between slave and free. Whatever choices she lacks, she’s not property, and has fundamental rights under Scots law.

      As I noted when this last arose here, Rome treated her slaves horrifically, working many to death in mines or on farms. Yet knowing this as they did, the N.T. authors didn’t condemn the peculiar institution. Why not? Simply, they were men of their time, and should be read as such.

      This embeddedness is also reflected in the positive aspects of the Bible’s treatment of slavery. It wasn’t unique. Within Roman society, the barbarism was ameliorated by Stoic reforms, rooted in a philosophy that predated Christianity by centuries (and may’ve influenced the New Testament authors).

      The texts become a lot easier to read when viewed as historical documents, not timeless truth.

      • As I noted when this last arose here, Rome treated her slaves horrifically, working many to death in mines or on farms. Yet knowing this as they did, the N.T. authors didn’t condemn the peculiar institution. Why not? Simply, they were men of their time, and should be read as such

        But the N.T. authors didn’t uncritically accept every aspect of Roman society. How does the ‘they were men of their time’ thesis explain that?

        • Easy: like the Stoics, early Christians were radical for their time, just as, say, England’s Chartists were dangerously progressive by Victorian standards, but the most horrific sexists by ours. Being time-bound and being uncritical are clean different things.

      • As ever these things are complex. But I don’t imagine Wilberforce was inspired to lead his campaign by Stoicism. And your comment about the (not so?) hypothetical woman is a reference to legal status. I was pointing out the end result for many people – and even more so in the third world – is for many today there is often little freedom of choice. Nonetheless, if we consider our world today – how many countries James would you want to live in that hadn’t been the subject of Christian influence?

        • I assume the sweeping “Christian influence” criterion would extend to developed democracies like South Korea and Japan? If so, this question’s too nebulous to meaningfully answer. If not, them.

          I’ll flip it around: which undoubted members of Christendom wouldn’t you want to live in? If, say, Russia’s on the list, what sets her apart? The failure of the rule of law ever to take root there, as it failed to take root in much of pre-18th century Europe. Clearly, Christianity alone’s insufficient.

          As for Wilberforce, I’m not disputing that he was a brave man driven by a devout faith. He also had some horrific views about the subjects of his campaigning, and took years to come around to opposing slavery itself. A great man for sure, but another man of his time.

          • I assume the sweeping “Christian influence” criterion would extend to developed democracies like South Korea and Japan?

            Neither of which would have become a democracy — developed or not — if it hadn’t been for the influence of the (inspired by Christian philosophy) United States. So yes I think it extends to them.

            On the other hand there are countries which haven’t had much of a Christian influence, having never come under the influence of a Christian country or having done so only briefly and lightly: China, for instance, or, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey. So it’s not really a nebulous question at all.

            Clearly, Christianity alone’s insufficient.

            Indeed: Christianity is necessary but not sufficient.

      • “Within Roman society, the barbarism was ameliorated by Stoic reforms, rooted in a philosophy that predated Christianity by centuries.”

        Stoicism was a profound influence for good in a brutal empire: slavery could not simply be banned, because that would have been political suicide, but people like Marcus Aurelius (riding on the back of centuries of stoicism) held strong beliefs about the dignity of human freedom, and passed laws to create a more lenient system for slaves. I suspect he went as far as he could without his regime descending into civil war.

        I am a little dismayed at insinuations here and there in this thread, that Christians are somehow ‘better’ than other people – which is so obviously a reversal of the understanding of moral poverty and the need for grace.

        I have known atheists and agnostics who are profoundly good and decent: people who have worked sacrificially so that people could have better lives. Christianity does not have a monopoly on moral goodness, nor is it a prerequisite for it.

        The moral values of stoicism fed into our Western civilisation, along with Christianity. I don’t think ‘goodness’ is a competition. Both traditions contributed to commonweal, alongside one another, and probably contributing to one another.

        Unlike the Roman Emperor, Christian authors of the Bible could have condemned slavery outright, but they chose not to. Whether that was because of shortcomings in their cultural background – acculturation to slavery’s acceptability – or because of the hope of meeting political authority ‘half way’ and not rocking the boat on such an economic issue… I do agree with James, that the text with regard to slavery as a human institution makes far more sense when read as a document located inside its own cultures, rather than as a timeless truth on the matter.

        I love the equanimity of the stoics, and the ‘Meditations’ of Marcus Aurelius are invaluable, and inspiring, reading. As is the Bible, of course.

        • My man Aurelius!

          Particularly agree that Christianity’s not a prerequisite for goodness (given its grim history of heresy-hunting, anti-Semitism and kowtowing to tyrants, I’d hope few would claim that it has any kinda monopoly on virtue). Think we’d agree that Stoic ideas are just as crucial to the development of what we know as fundamental human rights, alongside the common law tradition, and the Enlightenment that it’s become so fashionable to trash-talk across the political and theological spectrum.

          Force the New Testament to don the robes of timeless truth and in short order, you’ll end up either ignoring its words, or worse, downplaying the evil of slavery. Let it speak with the voice of its time and it sings.

          • Of course a modern example of modern slavery is the church’s wide-spread endorsement of the early post-apostolic teaching about divorce and remarriage. A wife is to submit to her husband and can only escape from this contract if either she – or he – is sexually immoral. A member of our church had a life possibly worse than that of many slaves in enlightened Roman households. She eventually fulfilled the church”s mandate with the aforesaid sexually immorality and was duly granted freedom from the contract.

          • A wife is to submit to her husband and can only escape from this contract if either she – or he – is sexually immoral

            Surely the church does not see marriage as a contract?

  3. Much of the ancient world, the Graeco-Romans, and people of the slave trade era all had a faulty consciences then? What do you think might have brought about the newly sensitive conscience of much of the West? Secular humanism is a possibility. But I somehow doubt it.

    • In Rome herself, change to the treatment of slaves was brought principally by Stoicism: by the time that Christianity became powerful under Constantine, there’d already been centuries of reforms to the slave codes, granting slaves the Roman idea of basic human rights (a minimum standard still falling far short of anything we’d find acceptable). Following its rise, Christianity … didn’t exactly lead to rapid improvements.

  4. The final paragraphs of this piece explain why Christianity failed to stage any great moral revolution with regard to slavery in the ancient world–and indeed in the modern world. Christians accepted and still accept slavery on Earth because at its core is slavery to god. While this ultimate power hierarchy remains in place, as it must, in monotheism, Christianity will fail again and again to enact its own moral progress. Stoicism is just as good (and bad) about slavery as Christianity. Secular liberalism is better than either, but of course it didn’t exist as such in the ancient world.
    “In Christ, they were slaves to God, obedient to righteousness, and rewarded with life (Rom 6.13–23). For an audience in the heart of the Roman Empire, the metaphors of slavery and freedom, death and life, would resonate with slaves and slave owners alike. But as in the mutual enslavement of Christians to each other, the call to be slaves to God reminded slave owners that they also were owned.”

    • Interesting comment—but it fails to take account of the radical theological egalitarianism in the idea of all humanity made in the image of God, worked out in commands like Paul’s for masters to treat their slaves ‘with equality’ (Col 4.1)


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