People forget that the Bible also advocates liberty. Let’s see what we can discover from these historical, culture-bound laws.
The Q & A format can clarify this complicated topic. This post is divided into four sections:
The Pentateuch or Torah (first five books of the Bible)
If you would like to see the verses, please go to Biblegateway.com, and type in the references.
The Pentateuch or Torah
- What was the historical context of slavery in the Ancient Near East?
The institution of slavery was entrenched in the economy of the ancient world. The Old Law of Moses assumes that it exists, so the law worked within it. But the Torah limits the institution.
Studies show that it takes great international effort to abolish slavery anywhere around the world and at any time, so this is true of the Ancient Near East. And the ancient world was not even close to doing that.
Source: Nadelman in “Global Prohibition Regimes: The Evolution of Norms in International Society.” International Organization 44:479–526.
So there was no realistic expectation that slavery would be cooperatively abolished internationally. So the Bible, again, recognizes the harsh reality of slavery and regulated it and took away the owners’ absolute rights.
If we impose our modern post-Civil War idea of abolishing slavery on to the Biblical historical context, we are not being reasonable or fair-minded.
Another aspect of the historical context: The most common form of forced servitude was farm labor or tenant farming. These farmers turned over a good share of the crops to the land owners.
- What does the Pentateuch or Torah actually say about slavery?
Instead of going over the main verses in the Pentateuch or Torah, here are some general principles:
First, the ancient Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt (Exod. 2:3, 5:6, 13:3 and 20:2; Deut. 5:6 and 8:14), so the law lays out a path toward freedom for the ancient Hebrews.
How does this reminder of the Israelite’s former slave status show up in the Biblical text? A Hebrew slave was freed after six years of service or in the Fiftieth Year of Jubilee. Owners were to show generosity to their temporary servants (Deut. 15:16-17). Thus the Hebrew slaves should actually be considered bondservants, not slaves. Whatever the label, this moved toward the principle of freedom.
Second, if a runaway slave fled to Israel, he was not to be extradited; he can live free (Deut. 23:15-16). This breaks with the norm and moves toward freedom. Ancient Israel could be a refuge of freedom for runaway slaves.
Third, non-Hebrew slaves had rights, which were designed to limit the owners’ absolute power over them.
- Gentile slaves could become members of the covenant (Gen. 17:12-13);
- They had to rest on the Sabbath (a day off, in effect) (Exod. 20:10 and Deut. 5:12-15);
- They were included in religious meals (Exod. 12:44; Deut. 16:11, 14);
- They could become heirs (Gen. 15:2-3);
- Even punishing non-Hebrew slaves was limited, such that the owner could himself be punished if he went too far (Exod. 21:20-27). The slave’s personal rights overrode the owner’s property rights.
- Are there overarching principles in the Torah?
Yes, and here they are:
- All humans, even slaves and bondservants, had rights and privileges under the law and before God;
- Owners’ rights and privileges were limited before the law;
- The slave’s personal rights overrode the master’s property rights.
- Slavery and bondservice was a counter-balance to widespread poverty of free persons in the Ancient Near East, especially working under a good master;
- Integration into the family and larger society was possible, both for the Hebrew bondservant and the non-Hebrew slave.
Source: G. H. Haas, “Slaves, Slavery,” Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch (Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity P, 2003).
- How much should we borrow from the Old Law of Moses on slavery?
We should borrow nothing at all. The slave laws reflect their historical context and are culturally determined. Those old laws are now obsolete.
This is where New World slave holders and their apologists made their mistake. They took too much from the Old Testament, literally. They forgot that the overarching theme of the entire Bible is liberty.
In the context of priestly rituals—more historical and culture-bound laws that were temporary—the first covenant is fading away:
But the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, and it is founded on better promises. For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another … By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear. (Heb. 8:6-7 and 13).
So whether it’s priestly laws or slave laws, living under the New Covenant, we don’t have to bring forward those old culture-bound laws into our world today and not even into the first-century Christian communities.
The Torah improves on the surrounding nations. That’s the trajectory. We can improve on the Torah in the slave laws, like abolishing slavery completely.
- Then what can we bring forward from the Old Testament?
We bring forward timeless themes, such as freedom (important for the New Testament), salvation, redemption, grace, mercy, shalom, lovingkindness, the moral law (as opposed to rituals and culture-bound laws), forgiveness of sins, and so on.
But today we don’t need to worry about those old slave laws or feel the need to defend them.
Please see the Posts: Amazing Grace (looks at this theme even in the Old Testament)
Israel was a nation that had slave laws. Jesus, on the other hand, was ushering in the Kingdom of God, which was to go far beyond the borders of Israel. In the Kingdom of God there were no human-centered slave laws because there were no human-controlled slaves in that kingdom, unless one was a servant (i.e. a “slave”) of God (John 8:34-36). But there were human-controlled slaves who joined the kingdom. Often their master did not. What then?
- What is the historical context of slavery when the New Testament was written?
Consider these facts that are relevant to slavery:
- Slavery was entrenched in the Roman economy, just as it was in the Ancient Near East.
- 50 million people lived in the Roman Empire.
- Christians numbered only in the thousands.
- The Christian communities dotting the empire did not have the political authority to abolish slavery by law or by revolt.
- On a household level, when the early Christians preached the gospel, often slaves converted, but not the masters.
- Since abolishing slavery was not a realistic goal for Christian leaders at that time, they instead argued for a harmonious household and for a slave to get one’s freedom if one could.
- Were there massive slave revolts in the first-century Roman empire to abolish slavery?
No, and here’s why:
- Most slaves could expect emancipation when they reached 30 years;
- The work of slaves was not limited to hard labor: they were often household managers, teachers, and businessmen, for example;
- Many slaves owned property;
- Because of widespread poverty among free laborers, many slaves were often better off than the impoverished free;
- Many free persons sold themselves into slavery as a means of economic advancement.
Source: NIV Study Bible (2011) (see inset at Ephesians 6:5-9).
- Was Roman-era slavery like New-World slavery?
No, for New-World slavery was race-based; in Roman times, they did not discriminate—anyone could be turned into a slave. They were mainly prisoners of war who were sold in marketplaces.
It is important to note that slavery, both in the Roman era and in the New World, depended on slave trading. Paul condemned slave traders and therefore the entire institution (see no. 19, below).
- What did Christ say about slavery?
He overturned the prevailing attitudes. We have to look for overarching themes and principles.
He healed a centurion’s servant (slave); thus he did not discriminate against the lowest class (Matt. 5:8-13).
Though a student or servant is not above his teacher or master, he can be like him, so there is a principle of inner equality (Matt. 10:24-25).
Servants are analogized to be like angels in the service of the Son of Man, or the master, so the servants have dignity to them (Matt. 13:24-30 and 36-43).
It is assumed in some parables that a servant has lots of authority in a wealthy household, and Jesus did not say this power was unjust (Matt. 18:21-35; 21:34; 22:3; 24:45; 25:14). To cite a named example, Chuza was a manager, probably a slave, of Herod’s household, so he had a lot of power, and Jesus did not challenge him, so he favored—or at least saw it as normal—that a slave could advance.
He said the first shall be last, and whoever wants to lead should become a servant or slave (Matt. 20:24-28 and 23:11). These terse statements reverse the prevailing attitude of lording authority over someone else.
Knowing the truth shall set us free (John 8:31-38). The Jews who were listening to him interpreted this as a statement about slavery. He went further and higher than that history-bound institution, but he does explain that there is freedom in the Son setting them free. He may be following the general principle of freedom in the Torah and the differences between sonship and slavery. Again, the overarching theme of freedom is advocated.
Further, in John 8:34-36 Jesus spiritualizes slavery as enslavement to sin and darkness. Slavery in a personal and moral context was not good. It’s not a far leap to conclude that human slavery was substandard and less than ideal and not good, either.
Most encouraging of all, he call us friends:
I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. (John 15:15)
- Were the servants in those Gospel passages Jewish bondservants and not Gentile slaves?
It is probable, given the historical context of Israel in the first century, that the servants mentioned in those passages in the previous question were fellow-Israelites, so the best translation is “servant” or “bondservant,” not “slave.”
In those Scriptures, Jesus assumed slaves indeed had rights.
However, if the slaves in those passages were assumed to be drawn from the Gentile world, then his assumption is all the more enlightened: Gentile slaves had rights and dignity, too.
The church was not powerful enough—in the sense that Israel was a distinct nation—to have slave laws. In other words, the church was not an earthly nation. The early Christians lived in the Roman empire and were much too few to make an impact on the empire-wide institution.
- Why did Paul not explicitly denounce slavery?
He did, but we have to look for it (see below, no. 19).
We appeal in the next five questions to a liberal Harvard professor. He was not an automatic apologist for a conservative interpretation of the Bible. Call it an admission against interest. But he explains the small Epistle to Philemon in its historical context and Paul’s attitude towards slavery.
Recall that the historical context of the entire Roman empire was explained, above.
- Given this historical context and the difficulty in abolishing slavery either by revolt or by law, is it reasonable to criticize Paul for not explicitly calling for abolishing slavery in the Roman empire?
Here is the Harvard scholar’s assessment:
It is clearly preposterous then, to criticize Paul for not calling for the abolition of slavery, or for taking the Roman imperial slave system for granted.
So, no, a reasonable person should not criticize Paul, given his historical context. He didn’t have the political position or power to abolish it.
Source: Allen Dwight Callahan, et al., eds ; Allen Dwight Callahan, et al., eds ; Society of Biblical Literature: Semeia. Semeia 83/84: Slavery in Text and Interpretation. Atlanta, GA : Society of Biblical Literature, 1998 [2001 (Semeia 83/84), S. 269.
- Since slavery was entrenched, and the early Christians were not in a powerful enough position to abolish slavery by law or by revolting that would realistically succeed, how do we evaluate Paul’s view on slavery?
The same scholar continues with more evidence showing that Paul was humane:
However, one can morally evaluate Paul in regard to the first level of confrontation with slavery: that of his face-to-face dealings with slaves of his time, because here there was a wide moral space within which he and his contemporaries ranged. And here the evidence points overwhelmingly to the fact that Paul was a humane, caring soul in regard to slaves and their plight. Like many humane persons of his day, he clearly considered the condition of slavery a great misfortune and a personal tragedy. And we may reasonably surmise that he was strongly sympathetic to the provision of all legal means for the manumission of slaves. It would have been not only immoral but downright stupid of him not to, given the fact that the most important persons in his congregations were manumitted slaves for whom freedom had been the defining experience in their lives.
Source: Allen Dwight Callahan, et al., eds . 269.
- What does the small epistle of Philemon reveal about Paul’s view of slavery?
Recall the context. Onesimus was a runaway slave who came across Paul’s path. Paul promptly converted him. So now what would Paul say? In the epistle he encouraged Philemon, the owner, to free Onesiumus.
Further, Paul took a great risk—his life—in arguing for Onesimus’s manumission or release because Paul was under house arrest and his letter to Philemon could have been intercepted:
The letter to Philemon makes all this quite clear and it is hard to imagine how it could be read in any other terms …. Paul, it should not be forgotten, was risking his life even writing this letter. Roman law was harsh on anyone who harbored runaway slaves. Paul was already under house arrest in Rome when he wrote it. There was a high chance that it could have been intercepted, and had it been, its contents would have been legally damning since in it Paul admitted that he had not only been served by Onesimus but had become a “father” to him. Even if Philemon was meant to interpret this term as a “father in Christ” or “spiritual father,” there can be little doubt how a Roman magistrate would have seen it: adoption was the most complete form of manumission in Rome and to a plain-spoken Roman officer hostile to Christian language and metaphor it would have meant one thing only: that Paul had both stolen another man’s slave and, as if that had not been criminal enough, illegally attempted to manumit him.
Source: Allen Dwight Callahan, et al., eds. 269.
Thus Paul saw himself as a spiritual father to Onesiumus, the runaway slave. So his attitude rose above the prevailing attitude of subjugation and went right to the family or household. This fits with the Torah and its view of family and household relationships and slavery.
The slave should feel and be a part of the household of God and his earthly household.
- When Paul wrote Philemon, what did Roman law say about arguing for manumission?
Once again, we appeal to the same scholar, no fundamentalist. When Paul wrote Philemon and argued for manumission, he could have been executed or at least whipped more than he already had been.
Given Paul’s knowledge of Roman law, and the fact that he was experiencing its brutal whip end when he wrote the letter, it must be wondered why he would expose himself to such unnecessary risk. The most likely explanation is that he was hinting strongly to Philemon that he should manumit Onesimus. In fact, the letter is replete with such hints and speaks volumes about his compassion toward slaves. This was morally at complete variance with the typical Roman attitude toward slaves generally, but especially toward ordinary household slaves, one of which Onesimus appears to have been.
Source: Allen Dwight Callahan, et al., eds . 270.
- What was Paul’s attitude about slavery in his epistle to Philemon?
The same scholar says Paul expressed scorn for the unjust institution.
To the Roman a slave was a vocal instrument, a human tool to be used for the master’s benefit. Significantly, the name “Onesimus” literally means “useful” or “beneficial” and Paul, as if to express scorn at Roman inhumanity, plays upon this literal meaning not once, but twice in his short letter. He tells Philemon that his slave when formerly under his control was “useless to you,” which is a strange thing to tell the owner of a vocal instrument with the name “Useful,” unless what Paul meant was that no human being can be a mere useful tool. However, Paul adds that after becoming his child in faith Useful “now…is indeed useful to you and me.”
Source: Allen Dwight Callahan, et al., eds .270.
- So what’s the bottom line on Philemon?
On a personal, household level, Paul urged Philemon to release Onesimus. Usually, the master of the household didn’t necessarily convert to Christ, while the slave might have, so Paul argued for a harmonious household in that case. However, when Philemon (master) and Onesiumus (slave) were converts and in the same household, Paul urged freedom and equality in Christ.
This took one foundation stone away from the institution of slavery, undermining it, and moves toward freedom as the ideal.
- Does Paul argue for a slave’s freedom elsewhere in his writings?
In this verse Paul offers advice to a slave who converted to Christ, but perhaps his master was not saved. Should the slave seek freedom, if he can?
Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so. (1 Cor. 7:21)
Yes, the slave should seek his freedom, if he can. So the general principle is freedom.
As Paul continues in the same passage, he says there is equality in Christ. Then once again he adds that you should not become a slave of man.
For he who was a slave when he was called by the Lord is the Lord’s freedman; similarly, he who was a free man when he was called is Christ’s slave. You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of men. (1 Cor. 7:22-23)
Slaves are free in Christ and enjoy equality with the master. This raises the slave’s dignity within the unjust system.
- So where does Paul explicitly denounce slavery?
In 1 Timothy he calls slave traders lawbreakers in the same ilk as matricides and patricides and murderers:
We also know that law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious; for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for adulterers and perverts, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine (1 Tim. 1:9-10)
Slave traders trafficked in humans, and without their “living product or commodity” they would not make any money. This is a clear condemnation of slavery as an institution because the verses strike at its roots. Without slave traders, the institution virtually collapses across the Roman empire. But he was still not in a politically powerful position to call for its abolition with a realistic approach of succeeding.
- But couldn’t Paul and other leaders unite and write to the Roman authorities or appeal to them in person and get them to abolish slavery?
Paul was in jail for a good many times in his life. The Romans did not like Christians. If Christian leaders had written to the Senate or Caesar or appealed to the Roman government in person, the authorities would have laughed them out of court.
- What was Paul’s view within the Christian communities about slaves attending church services and relating to other Christians?
In the Christian community, Paul again breaks down the social barriers between slaves and masters:
For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. (1 Cor. 12:13)
Next, the most famous passage comes from Galatians, which again abolishes the ethnic, sex, and social distinctions in the community of the saved:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal. 3:28)
Another verse expressing the same equality:
Here [in the Creator] there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. (Col. 3:11)
- Since slavery was entrenched in the Roman Empire, what did Paul advise for households that had masters and slaves in it?
He encouraged households to get along.
5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. 6 Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. 7 Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, 8 because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free. 9 And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him. (Eph. 6:5-9)
Recall that slaves sometimes converted, while their master did not. So Paul, knowing he couldn’t demand abolition, advocated for a harmonious relationship between master-slave.
And this verse says slaves have rights:
Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven. (Col. 4:1)
This agrees with the flow or main theme of slavery in the Torah: rights and privileges for the slave and limits on the owners.
See also Col. 3:22-25; 1 Tim. 6:1-2; Titus 2:9-10; 1 Peter 2:18-21.
- Taking stock, are you saying slavery was morally right?
Not at all. Just the opposite. It still deprived humans of dignity and freedom. The Bible, particularly the New Testament, moves in the direction of freedom. So should we today, going beyond the historical context of the Ancient Near East and the later Roman era.
Here are the general principles from this post.
Torah or Pentateuch
- We must take the Bible in its historical context and not impose our modern demands on it.
- Even today it takes an international effort—or a Civil War in which over 700,000 men died—to change the course of history or an embedded institution like slavery.
- The Ancient Near East depended on slavery to a large degree.
- The Hebrews were once enslaved in Egypt, and the Torah is sensitive to God’s act of liberating them.
- Following its historical context, ancient Israel had slave laws, and their general trend was to spell out the rights and privileges of slaves and limit the rights and privileges of the owners.
- The Hebrew bondservants could be freed after six years.
- Gentile slaves had rights and privileges before the law and God, while the owners did not have absolute property rights.
- The Torah favors a harmonious household if it had a slave.
- Many (though not all) slaves, particularly those who worked in the house, were better off than the free poor.
- Hebrew laws were not like New-World slavery; for one thing slavery back then was not racially motivated; most of them were prisoners of war.
- The Torah improved on slave laws in other nations.
- We can follow that trajectory and improve on those slave laws, like abolishing the institution completely. And we did, after the Civil War and in the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865.
Transitioning to the New Testament
- We don’t have to take the old Mosaic slave laws and apply them to our world or even to the first-century Christian communities.
- Jesus was expanding the Kingdom of God beyond the borders of Israel to the entire world.
- He never instituted human laws legislatively or even by divine decree. He showed us kingdom laws, which focused on spiritual growth and moral freedom. So should we.
The Historical Context
- In the New Testament the Roman empire was based on a slave economy to a large degree.
- In the historical context, slaves could advance and were often better off than the free poor, like tenant farmers.
- Often the slaves were managers and told the free but poor tenant farmers the policies of the landowner.
- As in the Ancient Near East, slavery was not race-based, but slaves came from the spoils of war and could be of any race.
- So Roman-era slavery was unlike American or New-World slavery.
- Jesus assumed slavery existed, and he treated slaves with dignity and spoke of them as if they could advance in society.
- In John 8:34-36 he spoke of slavery in a moral sense and said it was better when the Son sets people free.
- This implies that freedom was the goal, morally, personally, and socially.
- Transitioning to the Epistles, the authors, mainly Paul, did not intend to write legislatively or nationally about slavery because their purpose was more church oriented.
- The church had no political power to demand the abolition of slavery either by law or by revolt, with a realistic chance of succeeding.
- Paul said to individual slaves to get their freedom, if they could.
- Paul and others envisioned a harmonious household, wherever masters and slaves were found.
- Paul does indeed condemn the institution of slavery by condemning slave traders. If the slave trade had dried up, then the institution would have collapsed from the absence of “human commodities” or slaves.
- In Paul’s epistle to Philemon, Paul pushed for the slave Onesimus’s emancipation because the master Philemon and slave Onesimus were in the same household. On a household, personal level, this took away one cornerstone of the institution of slavery, undermining it.
- We can only speculate whether Paul urged freedom and equality in Christ in other households when the master and slave had converted.
The overarching theme of Scripture is freedom, both in God relationally and in society.
Here are some key verses:
Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you…. (Lev. 25:10; see Jer. 34)
He has sent me … to proclaim freedom for the captives … (Is. 61:1, see Luke 4:18-19)
He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.” (Mark 5:34)
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19; see Is. 61:1)
Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32)
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. (2 Cor. 3:17)
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. (Gal. 5:1)
You, my brothers, were called to be free. (Gal. 5:13).
Live as free men …. (1 Peter 2:16)
Those verses speak of moral freedom, and the highest quality of life is to live in freedom, both morally and socially.
It is verses like those that American abolitionists used to argue for emancipation of slaves.
Stand in freedom and for freedom. Live As Free People.