Slavery is ‘a state of servitude by which a man is the property of another man.’ Thus defined, it is a violation of an individual’s fundamental rights as a human being, and tends to breed cruelty and exploitation.
Slavery probably originated about 10,000 years ago. Slaves were often people who had been captured in war, or were criminals or people who could not pay their debts.
Conventional wisdom runs as follows: slavery was tolerated uncritically by New Testament teachers such Paul, and allowed to continue unchallenged by Christians until the 19th century. This demonstrates, so it is claimed, the inadequacy of the Bible as a basis for ethics, and suggests that there may be other areas (personal sexual ethics, for example) where we should feel free to go beyond or even against the teaching of Scripture.
But it’s not quite as simple as that.
Slavery in the ancient Greco-Roman world
During the time of the great empires of Greece and Rome, slaves would have done most of the work. They worked on the land, in mines, in handicraft industries, and as servants in the home.
It is estimated that around 400 BC slaves made up one third of the population of Athens, and that during the 1st century AD up to 90% of the inhabitants of the Roman Empire were slaves or of slave origin.
The cultural and religious traditions of slaves were usually those of their owners and other free persons.
In contrast to New World slavery, ancient owners did not regard their adult slaves paternalistically; they clearly distinguished the roles of parents and of owners and felt no need to justify the institution of slavery.
An enslaved person generally could not be identified by appearance or clothing; racial or ethnic origins were not reliable indicators of social or legal status.
The treatment of slaves varied greatly. Although many were treated kindly, as members of the extended family, only rarely could they marry, testify in court, or own property. Those who worked in gangs in plantations or in mines worked long hours and were often treated harshly.
Aristotle referred to slaves as ‘human tools’. Nevertheless, they were granted many rights. They were virtually members of the extended family of their owners. Although they could marry, their offspring became the property of their owner, and this led to the large number of slaves in the early Empire. In the later phase of the Empire, many slaves were prisoners of war.
Persons not infrequently sold themselves to pay debts, to escape poverty, to climb socially or to obtain special governmental positions.
Slaves were able to accumulate money of their own. This meant that they might be able to purchase their own freedom or, once set free, start their own business. Slaves could own property, including their own slaves. They could accumulate funds that they might use to purchase their own freedom.
Education of slaves was encouraged, enhancing their value; some slaves were better educated than their owners. Rome’s cultural leadership in the empire largely depended on educated, foreign-born slaves who had been taken there. Partially as a result, many slaves functioned in highly responsible and sensitive positions such as workshop and household managers, accountants, tutors, personal secretaries, sea captains and physicians. An important minority of slaves had considerable influence and social power, even over freeborn persons of lesser status than the slaves’ owners.Some were architects, physicians, administrators, philosophers, shopkeepers, cooks, artists, writers and teachers. Others worked as farm workers or labourers for a daily wage, of which about two-thirds was paid to their owners. They sometimes worked alongside both freed and freeborn workers. Felix, was the imperial freedman of the emperor Claudius, and served as Roman procurator of Judea Acts 24:22-27.
By no means were the enslaved regularly to be found at the bottom of the socioeconomic pyramid. Rather those free and impoverished persons who had to seek work each day without any certainty of employment occupied the lowest level. Some of them sold themselves into slavery in order to obtain job security, food, clothing and shelter. Because slaves were found in all social strata, they did not have cohesiveness as a group and would have lacked class consciousness. Because slaves were owned by persons across the range of economic levels, they developed no consciousness of being a social class or of suffering a common plight. Thus no laws were needed to hinder public assembly of slaves.
Many ancient slaveholding societies allowed for manumission (formal release from slavery), and owners often granted this in their will as a reward for loyal service. A large number of domestic and urban slaves, perhaps the majority, could anticipate being set free (manumitted) by age thirty, becoming a freedman or a freedwoman (see Acts 6:9, “the synagogue of the freedmen”). Notable in Acts 23–25 is the Roman governor Marcus Antonius Felix, who had been a slave until Antonia, the emperor Claudius’s mother, manumitted him. There were large numbers of freed slaves during the 1st century AD. These often entered in business partnerships with their former owners. However, the majority of Roman slaves were never freed.
Spartacus had led a revolt of German slaves in 73 BC. As a result, the Romans favoured slaves from the east. Those from the North and West were made to work in chain gangs, and were housed in unpleasant ‘work-houses’, the roofs of which were so low that the slaves were not able to stand upright. It was the slaves from the East who trusted with responsible positions as household servants, teachers, accountants, and estate managers. Many of these gained their freedom.
In Christian thought and practice
A second inadequacy of the received wisdom about the Christian attitude towards slavery is the assumption that Christianity did nothing to relieve the plight of slaves for the first 18 centuries of its existence. The fact is that, even though there is no outright condemnation of slavery itself within the pages of the New Testament, they do stress the equality of all men and women before God, promulgate the Golden Rule, and demonstrate God’s concern for the poor and oppressed, thus sowing the seeds for the ultimate abolition of the institution of slavery itself.
The NT does not deal directly with the issue of the morality of slavery. The nearest reference to this is 1 Cor 7:21. See the comments on that verse.
It is clear that there were many slaves and masters in the churches of NT times (cf. Philem; 1 Cor 7:21; Eph 6:5-9; Col 3:22-4:1; 1 Tim 6:1-2; also 1 Pet 2:18-21. When a ‘household’ is referred to, this would have included the slaves, cf Rom 16:10-11; 1 Cor 1:11; 1 Cor 1:16; Acts 11:14).
Nowhere does the New Testament condemn slavery. On the contrary, the slave is urged to be obedience to his master, Eph 6:5-8, Col 3:22-25. We need to understand that slavery was not only widespread, but deeply ingrained. For the early Christian leaders to call for the emancipation of slaves would have fallen on deaf ears, or, if not that, would have led to chaos. We know how slaves in the western part of the Roman empire were treated after the revolt led by Spartacus.
On the other hand Paul deeply undermines the institution of slavery by matching his call for obedience on the part of the slave with a call for masters to do what is right and fair by their slaves, Col 4:1. Moreover, a believing slave and his master are equal before God. Both have Christ as their real master, and are brothers in Christ.
It is not surprising, then, to learn that many slaves were freed by the Christian masters in the 2nd century AD and following, and that the wholesale emancipation of slaves in later centuries was spearheaded by Christian leaders such as Wilberforce.
The theology of redemption borrows heavily from the imagery of slavery. Redemption is the setting free of a slave. Paul uses the imagery of slavery in his letters. He calls himself a slave a Christ, and develops this idea in Rom 6:15-23. The person is truly free who is a slave of Christ, for he is not only free from the tyranny of sin, but is also led by his master into a life that a good and true and right. ‘In his service is perfect freedom’.
This attitude towards slaves prevailed for the first few centuries of the Christian era. Owners and slave were brought together not only by their faith and worship, but also by their common sufferings and the experience of martyrdom. After the conversion on Constantine and the development of Christendom various mitigations were introduced that broadly followed the Christian ethic. Some slaves, for example, became priests and were automatically freed. In time, in Northern and Eastern Europe, slavery transformed into the milder institution of serfdom, which in turn gradually disappeared.
Slavery in modern times
It is anachronistic to assume that ‘slavery’ meant more or less the same thing in the ancient Greco-Roman world as it did in the American South in the 18th century. There were important social, economic and legal differences.
Following the discovery of America, there was a renewed outbreak of slave-owning, with Spanish, Portuguese and British settlers making slaves first of Indians and then of Africans. This was despite resistance from the missionaries and condemnation by a series of Popes. Quakers such as William Penn took up the movement against slavery, followed by philanthropists such as William Wilberforce. The slave trade was made illegal in 1808. Slavery was finally suppressed in the British Empire in 1833, and finally prohibited in the United States at the end of the Civil War in 1865.
Dictionary of New Testament Background
Dictionary of Paul and his Letters
Hard Sayings of the Bible
Dictionary of the Later New Testament and its Developments
Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church