Friday, February 06, 2015

Slavery in the First Century CE

In the deceptively simple-looking publication Exploring the NT World, Albert A. Bell, Jr. provides a useful discussion of slavery in the first century world (pp. 192-194). Bell supplies a number of primary sources to uphold his contentions, and what he concludes is that while first-century Christians did not push for an abolition of slavery, they did "call for an enlightened attitude toward slaves as fellow human beings" (Bell 194). Cf. Gal. 3:28.

Richard R. Melick, Jr. also has some perceptive observations in his commentary on Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. (See pp. 316-320, 341-345 of his work.) Melick lists a number of good reasons why Paul did not protest slavery (railing against slavery could have made matters extremely difficult for those who were slaves!), while also showing that Paul "taught equality" and paved the way for first-century Roman society to make changes in its own thinking regarding slavery. In Colossians, Paul showed that those who were "masters" in a fleshly sense also had the Master over them (Col. 4:1).

Here is a more detailed passage from Melick's commentary on this issue:

"Slaves were, generally speaking, victims of war. The slavery was political and economic, not racial. Similarly, virtually every class of person lived with the realization that war could cause them to lose everything and be sold into slavery. Those who revolted, seeking to use power to gain freedom, found themselves in a worse position than before. It simply would not do for Paul to advocate slaves walking away from their masters. That would endanger many innocent lives and frustrate the spread of the gospel" (Melick 316).

Additionally, we read:

"Treating others the way they wanted to be treated [a message preached by both Jesus and Paul] would mean the release of slaves. As discussed earlier, however, the Roman Empire was not ready for that message, and to preach that kind of rebellion in those circumstances would have hindered the message of the gospel. The deeper matters of fair dealing had to come from the heart anyway, and Paul spoke directly to that end" (Ibid., 320).

Even if Paul or Peter had issued pronouncements against slavery, these locutions would have carried no weight with the Roman world, and later slave-owners would have found yet other reasons to perpetuate the institution of slavery and cruelly treat their human property. The fact of the matter is that neither the OT nor the NT encourages those who own slaves to treat them inhumanely (vide Exodus 21:20; 21:26). Even if God permitted slavery, he never urged masters to beat or mistreat their slaves: never would God have exhorted one man to hurl racial epithets at another man. Teachings against racism and nationalism are perspicuously contained in the early Christian documents.

The Apostle Peter said that God is not partial, and Paul reminded the Romans that people of the nations can worship Jehovah too(Acts 10:34, 35; Rom. 3:29; 1 Cor. 7:39; Tit.3:3). Furthermore, if one reads the entire account of Philemon, it quickly becomes evident that ancient Christians did not favor the enslavement of fellow humans(Philemon 13-16).

Exploring The NT World. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1998.

Philippians, Colossians, Philemon. The New American Commentary. Nashville,
TN: Broadman, 1991.


Duncan said...


Everyone learned to speak and think in Latin, even the slaves,
who in the second century raised their standard of living to the
level of the ingenui. Legislation had grown more and more humane
and had progressively lightened their chains and favoured their
emancipation. The practical good sense of the Romans, no less
than the fundamental humanity instinctive in their peasant hearts,
had always kept them from showing cruelty toward the servi.
They had always treated their slaves with consideration, as Cato
had treated his plough oxen; however far back we go in history
we find the Romans spurring their slaves to effort by offering
them pay and bonuses which accumulated to form a nest egg that
as a rule served ultimately to buy their freedom. With few ex-
ceptions, slavery in Rome was neither eternal nor, while it lasted,
intolerable; but never had it been lighter or easier to escape from
than under the Antonines* "

Edgar Foster said...


thanks for the quote. I used to think that way about Graeco-Roman slavery, but not any longer. I'm away from my sources now, but Kevin Giles provides evidence that shows the other side of the coin. Roman masters could be threatening and even had the power of life/death in their hands. They often belittled their slaves, and treated them cruelly. There's a good reason why most people today disapprove of slavery. It seems immoral (or not completely right) for one person to be another's property (in this specific way).

Edgar Foster said...

From Kevin Giles' work on the Trinity and Subordinationism:

First, Giles observes that there are a number of special characteristics that define slavery: (1) Slaves are considered to be the property of other humans; (2) They are volitionally subjugated (ex toto)
to their masters; (3) A slave is normally cocerced into performing manual labor for his/her master; (4) A slave is the "commodity" of another human being.

While it has commonly been assumed or thought that
Roman slavery was not as bad or cruel as "black slavery" from the 15th to the 19th century, Giles
provides ample reasons to think that this notion of ancient slavery is idealistic since slaves in the Roman Empire were also forced to work under the threat of violence to their person, they were exploited sexually, and were sometimes forced to work until they dropped.
Their treatment in large part was contingent on the demeanor
of those who owned them (p. 219). Regardless of the owner's personal disposition, though, ancient slavery was an "awful" institution. The RAISON D'^ETRE of the ancient master was to break his slave and he thought
that if violence was needed to "tame" a slave, so be

As late as 362 CE, Giles writes, the Council of Gangrae leveled an anathema against "anyone [who]
under the pretense of godliness should teach a slave
to despise his master, or withdraw himself from his
master" (Giles, p. 220).

Giles and other historians supply plenty of evidence that masters could be harsh in the first century.

Duncan said...

Many were worked to death but we would not define them as slaves who are owned but as soon as you lose the ability to provide for your family from the direct environment around you (resources from the land) you become in effect a slave. Agriculture, it's control and taxation has always been the primary source for this societal structure.

2 Samuel 11:1 And it came about at the return of the year, at the time that kings sally forth,...

This simple phrase has huge implications.

Edgar Foster said...


what I had in mind--so did Giles--is someone who is worked to death rather than a person who works himself/herself to death of his/her own volotion. That's a big difference. Abusive masters existed in the first century--they were often cruel to their legal property and were condescending.

Anonymous said...


you said: "someone who is worked to death rather than a person who works himself/herself to death of his/her own volotion. That's a big difference. Abusive masters existed in the first century--they were often cruel to their legal property and were condescending."

Well, as far as I understand in both cases the result was death. And to be honest, I find it much more disturbing, when people work themselves to death on their own volition, as it is common use in neo-liberal capitalistic society. Today's slaves only think, that they are free, while they are in no better condition, than slaves in the first century. At least owners of slaves cared for their "capital" and fed them. Today quite a number of jobs doesn't feed the labourers.

So, I apply for the return of slavery. :)


Edgar Foster said...

Dear Bernd,

While I understand what you're saying and agree to some extent, I take what you express above to be hyperbolic.

I don't know many people in the western world, who literally work themselves to an early death like the ancient slaves (or slaves in America) did. Yes, one could draw some parallels between ancient/American slavery and today. But I'll take my life over what Frederick Douglass or ancient Philemon went through any day. :)

"I'm working myself to death" has become a metaphor for most of us. Even when I worded in the furniture factory, my bosses did not stand there with a whip, insults, and make me work until I drop. Let's not excuse the behavior of those ancient masters whop abused their legal property. Furthermore, how would you like to be someone's legal property--body and soul?

Edgar Foster said...

I don't need a master to feed me scraps, give me a dirt floor to sleep on, and raggedy clothes that are fit only for field work.

I'm not rich, but my employment allows me to live in a house, drive a car, have my own clothes and bed, and I can purchase my own food. My work schedule is approximately 22-25 hours per week; not 12 hours, 5-6 days per week. :)

Anonymous said...

Good point.

What was Paul supposed to say? "Slaves, do not be subject to your masters, try your best to irritate them, and run away as quickly as possible?"

Duncan said...

Some useful sources in Bibliographical note on pg 18.

Duncan said...

Just thought it interesting looking at one of your April 2016 posts that the English designation of "lord" comes from a Germanic term which is referring to the one who supplies bread. I have a feeling that this concept goes back much further to the early stages of agriculture when it superceded horticulture as the method of feeding the majority of the civis.

Duncan said...

This last link also makes some interesting comments about our understanding of terms like "Hellenisation".

Edgar Foster said...

They all look like helpful links. I have not studied Graeco-Roman slavery in a long time, but these might spur me toward the subject again. I'll put them in my slavery folder. Thanks.