November 4

The Practice of Slavery in New Testament Times

I’ve been writing, writing, writing lately! But, it’s been almost exclusively for my seminary work. I am loving every minute of it and learning so much, but I haven’t had much margin for providing words for this space. So, I thought I would share with you one of my homework assignments from Biblical Hermeneutics (definitely one of my favorite classes I’ve taken!) The assignment was to provide background information for slavery in New Testament times, in order to better understand the culture of the time and therefore better understand any New Testament passages that address slaves and/or slavery. As you read, I think you’ll see it is much different that what we tend to think of when it comes to slavery.

Enjoy!


The Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary Full Disclosure: At no additional cost to you, I earn a commission if you click this link and make a purchase. Thanks for your support! defines a slave as a person who is “totally responsible to and dependent upon another person.” 1 It was a common and customary practice in the ancient word — a “basic element” that representing much of the work force2— so much so that it is believed that one out of every five person was a slave.3 The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary Full Disclosure: At no additional cost to you, I earn a commission if you click this link and make a purchase. Thanks for your support! suggests “by the time of the New Testament, about 30 percent of the population of the Roman Empire is estimated to have been slaves.”4

Individuals became a slave for varying reasons. According to the Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary Full Disclosure: At no additional cost to you, I earn a commission if you click this link and make a purchase. Thanks for your support! , a “person could become a slave as a result of capture in war, default on a debt, inability to support and ‘voluntarily’ selling oneself, being sold as a child by destitute parents, birth to slave parents, conviction of a crime, or kidnapping and piracy.”5 Therefore, the slave population included people from many nationalities and ethnic groups,6 especially that of the eastern region of the Roman Empire.7 Because of the variety of ways one could acquire slaves, it was not possible to tell that an individual was a slave just by looking at his or her physical attributes.8   

Once a slave, an individual was legally regarded as property. Though they could not marry, some slaves did have children and any child born would become the property of the mother’s master.9 Slaves had no individual rights and were to submit themselves fully to the will of their master. The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary Full Disclosure: At no additional cost to you, I earn a commission if you click this link and make a purchase. Thanks for your support!  presents that slaves “had virtually no autonomy—no ability to make decisions regarding their own lives or destinies—and in a world that valued honor above all else, they occupied the bottom tier of the social pyramid. A slave was a person with no honor, a person who lived in shame.”10

The responsibilities and work of each slave varied, as slaves were utilized for a wide range of occupational needs. From manual labor to bureaucratic administration, agricultural to education, household to temple, slaves were ubiquitous in the daily operations of the ancient Greco-Roman world.11 Slaves were managers, mine laborers, accountants, caregivers, temple workers, field hands, teachers, prostitutes, cooks, craftsmen, and musicians. Furthermore, the ownership of slaves was not simply secular. Both Jews and Christians were known to own slaves.12

Although the law prohibited egregious abuse as well as the killing of slaves, many lived amidst dreadful conditions, especially for those in extreme manual labor situations.13 These cases were in great contrast to that of imperial slaves who worked for the elite and privileged class. Some, according to Backgrounds of Early Christianity Full Disclosure: At no additional cost to you, I earn a commission if you click this link and make a purchase. Thanks for your support! , wereslaves of the state, of townships, and of the emperor [and] did the work that now falls to the civil service, including some of the highest administrative functions in the bureaucracy. Their inscriptions show that the imperial slaves were proud of their status, and rightly so for the many necessary functions they discharged.”14 Interestingly, there were cases of individuals selling themselves into slavery in order to climb the social ladder and to procure desirable jobs.15

It was feasible and typical for slaves to be freed — a process known as manumission during Roman times — whether through paying off the debt that brought them to their position as a slave, purchasing their own freedom, or from the generous good will of their master.16 This widely accepted practice of manumission meant that most slaves during New Testamental times would expect to be freed by the age thirty.17 Although, manumission initiated by the master was often conditional of an ongoing patron-client relationship.18 Another specific mode of freedom for the slave was that of sacral manumission where, according to Backgrounds of Early Christianity Full Disclosure: At no additional cost to you, I earn a commission if you click this link and make a purchase. Thanks for your support! , “the slave’s freedom was purchased in a pagan temple in the name of the deity and with funds furnished to the deity by the slave.”19

  1. Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary Full Disclosure: At no additional cost to you, I earn a commission if you click this link and make a purchase. Thanks for your support! , p 1511
  2. Backgrounds of Early Christianity Full Disclosure: At no additional cost to you, I earn a commission if you click this link and make a purchase. Thanks for your support! , p 58
  3. Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary Full Disclosure: At no additional cost to you, I earn a commission if you click this link and make a purchase. Thanks for your support! , p 1511, Backgrounds of Early Christianity Full Disclosure: At no additional cost to you, I earn a commission if you click this link and make a purchase. Thanks for your support! , p 58
  4. p 971
  5. p. 1511
  6. Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary Full Disclosure: At no additional cost to you, I earn a commission if you click this link and make a purchase. Thanks for your support! , p 1511
  7. Backgrounds of Early Christianity Full Disclosure: At no additional cost to you, I earn a commission if you click this link and make a purchase. Thanks for your support! , p 58
  8. The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary Full Disclosure: At no additional cost to you, I earn a commission if you click this link and make a purchase. Thanks for your support! , p 971
  9. Backgrounds of Early Christianity Full Disclosure: At no additional cost to you, I earn a commission if you click this link and make a purchase. Thanks for your support! , p 59
  10. p. 971
  11. Backgrounds of Early Christianity Full Disclosure: At no additional cost to you, I earn a commission if you click this link and make a purchase. Thanks for your support! , p 60
  12. The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary Full Disclosure: At no additional cost to you, I earn a commission if you click this link and make a purchase. Thanks for your support! , p 971
  13. Ibid, p 971
  14. Backgrounds of Early Christianity Full Disclosure: At no additional cost to you, I earn a commission if you click this link and make a purchase. Thanks for your support! , p 60
  15. The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary Full Disclosure: At no additional cost to you, I earn a commission if you click this link and make a purchase. Thanks for your support! , p 971
  16. Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary Full Disclosure: At no additional cost to you, I earn a commission if you click this link and make a purchase. Thanks for your support! , p 1511
  17. The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary Full Disclosure: At no additional cost to you, I earn a commission if you click this link and make a purchase. Thanks for your support! , p 971
  18. Backgrounds of Early Christianity Full Disclosure: At no additional cost to you, I earn a commission if you click this link and make a purchase. Thanks for your support! , p 61
  19. Ibid, p 60

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