Why you shouldn’t be troubled by the New Testament’s failure to challenge the first century institution of slavery.
Modern readers are often troubled by the New Testament’s failure to criticize the first century institution of slavery.
This concern is often born of the idea that first century slavery is like pre-Civil War American slavery.
That couldn’t be further from the truth.
First Century Slavery v. 18th Century: Major Differences
Even though first century slavery was widespread (half of Rome’s approximately four million residents were slaves [warning: PDF]), slaves were often highly educated, permitted to own land and could expect emancipation.
Furthermore, slaves and masters were often of the same ethnic background. In other words, they were indistinguishable from each other.
Seneca records that a proposal was put forth to have slaves wear distinctive clothing. The proposal was shot down when someone pointed out that slaves would then see how numerous they were. [De clementia 1.24.1]
Finally, because slaves supported the personal economy of masters, masters invested in their slaves. Owners often provided medical care and sufficient housing and food for their slaves and family.
This explains why slaves often chose to remain with their masters. A free man couldn’t take those things for granted [ Between Slavery and Freedom, M. I. Finley].
Treatment of Slaves
Naturally, the ideal slave owner was a benevolent patriarch who ruled justly and fairly. Pliny claims he treated his slaves fairly, going as far as sending one to a friend’s villa on the French Riviera to recuperate from an illness.
Yet, since the treatment of slaves depended on the character of the master, mistreatment was rampant. Emperor Claudius passed laws that limited and forbid masters to punish or kill their slaves.
How to Become a First Century Slave
There were five main ways a person could become a slave during Jesus’ life.
1. Debt. People who couldn’t pay their debts offered themselves as slaves.
2. Retribution. A thief who couldn’t repay what he stole could be sold as a slave.
3. Parents. As a last resort, a father could sell his daughter into slavery to pay off a debt.
4. Birth. Children born to slave parents became property of the masters. These children were known as “house born slaves.”
5. Conquest. A person could become a slaved when their nation was conquered by another nation.
Three Ways a Slave Could Buy His Freedom
What’s unique about the first century institution of slavery versus the 18th–especially in the Jewish context–is that a slave could eventually go free. That freedom came in three fundamental ways:
1. After six years, a slave was to be released. For nothing. Exodus 21:2
2. In the year of Jubilee, all slaves were released, no matter how long they’d been slaves.
3. Finally, slaves could buy their freedom–or someone could buy it for them.
Naturally, slaves could choose to remain with their masters. As I mentioned above, there was great incentive for a slave to stay with his master.
Why Paul Didn’t Condemn Slavery
Slavery was such an essential, fundamental part of first century society–much like our current minimum-wage labor–that it was difficult for anyone embedded in the culture to call for the actual abolition of the institution. Instead, more emphasis was put on its reformation.
In that context, rather than call for an out-right rebellion, Paul advised slaves to obey their masters. But he also urged masters to treat their slaves with compassion.
There’s no doubt about it: Slaves in New Testament times stood at the bottom of the social scale.
Yet, the thrust of the New Testament is a new standing–neither free nor slave–but all one Christ. In other words, slaves are no longer second class citizens, but brothers and sisters in Christ.
Therefore, even though there isn’t a direct call to abolish slavery in the New Testament, the implication of the gospel–especially it’s ethic of love–stands in opposition to slavery.
In the end, Paul was more concerned about people apart from Christ–people who were slaves to sin. He understood: Change a person’s heart and you change the way they treat slaves.
And the beauty of the gospel is that Christ can set people free from the bondage of sin.
All Christians–especially ministers–are servants of Christ. Bondservants. Rather, slaves. Slaves do not manage their lives. Neither do Christians. We acknowledge that the Savior has power over us. And so joyfully embrace this institution of slavery.