Slavery in the New Testament by Katy E. Valentine

Slavery in the Roman Empire was a fact of life. Most people could not imagine a society without slaves. Some people spoke out against the mistreatment of slaves, and there were slave revolts, but no abolitionist movement existed.

The fate of a slave depended largely on the temperament of his or her master. Masters could punish slaves brutally for real or perceived infractions. Sexual abuse of slaves was also common. Slave work included hard labor as well as skilled service like tutoring, bookkeeping, and estate managing. Masters often freed slaves—and for numerous reasons, including as a reward for obedience and loyalty. Written contracts, however, commonly enforced continued work by freed slaves for their former masters. A wide range of circumstances dictated whether a slave would be educated, illiterate, poor, wealthy, abused, or comfortable.

New Testament writers lived in the Roman Empire and likewise adopted widespread attitudes about slaves. Some New Testament passages rely on negative stereotypes, such as slaves being lazy (Matt 25:26). Other passages use slavery as a metaphor for faithfulness. Paul calls himself a “slave of Jesus Christ” as a sign of devotion (Rom 1:1). Jesus compares the impossible task of a slave serving two masters to followers who must choose between wealth and God (Matt 6:24, Luke 16:13). Several passages address slaves directly, which is evidence that they were attracted to the early Jesus movement (1Cor 7:21, 1Tim 6:1, 1Pet 2:18). Christian slaves navigated the complex world of enslavement with their new faith.

The most famous slave in the New Testament epistles is Onesimus, the slave of Philemon. In a short letter, Paul implores Philemon to receive Onesimus as “a beloved brother” (Phlm 16). Whether Paul intended freedom for Onesimus is a matter of debate because Paul never explicitly requests his freedom. Other New Testament letters forcefully instruct slaves to obey their masters (Eph 6:5-8, Col 3:22-24, 1Tim 6:1-2, 1Pet 2:18, Titus 2:9-10). Some passages tell masters to treat slaves better—an indication that some Christians treated their slaves poorly (Eph 6:9, Col 4:1).

Slaves appear occasionally as minor characters in the Gospels and Acts. Jesus heals an ill slave of a Roman centurion (Luke 7:1-10). At Jesus’ arrest, one of his followers cuts off the ear of the slave of the high priest. Though Jesus censures this act of violence in all four Gospels, only one records Jesus healing the slave (Luke 22:51). The incident underscores how easily slaves could become victims of free people’s anger. In Acts, the slave Rhoda runs to tell the others that Peter is freed from prison. They do not believe her, perhaps owing to the stereotype that slaves were untrustworthy (Acts 12:12-17).

Jesus refers to slaves often in his parables. Slaves in the parable of the prodigal son perform routine work in the background of the estate (Luke 15:22, Luke 15:26). Other parables depict cruel treatment of slaves, such as the parable of the wicked tenants. Slaves are disposable: they suffer beatings and death at the hands of tenants (Matt 21:33-44, Mark 12:1-12, Luke 20:9-18). Some New Testament writers accepted violence against slaves as normal as seen in these parables (see Matt 18:23-35, Luke 19:11-27).

The New Testament does contain several passages that demonstrate resistance to slavery. Slave traders are included in a list of those who are lawless, probably because many acquired slaves illegally (1Tim 1:10). Another passage condemns the immoral trade of luxury goods in the Roman Empire, concluding with “bodies,” a common euphemism for slaves (Rev 18:13). These indictments of the slave trade are unusual but welcome voices in the New Testament.

Katy E. Valentine, "Slavery in the New Testament ", n.p. [cited 27 Apr 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.com/en/passages/related-articles/slavery-in-the-new-testament

Contributors

Katy E. Valentine

Katy E. Valentine
Scholar in residence, First Christian Church

Katy E. Valentine is a New Testament scholar who studies the intersections of slavery, gender, and sexuality in the Bible. She is currently a scholar in residence at First Christian Church in Chico, California.

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

Opposed to the practice of slavery.

A broad, diverse group of nations ruled by the government of a single nation.

The territories ruled by ancient Rome, from roughly 27 B.C.E. to 476 C.E., encompassing terrorities in Europe, Africa, and Asia.

An alternate spelling for "tel" meaning a mound or hill-shaped site containing several occupational layers one on top of the other over milennia.

Matt 25:26

26But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter?

Rom 1:1

Salutation
1Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God,

Matt 6:24

Serving Two Masters
24“No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. Yo ... View more

Luke 16:13

13No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God ... View more

1Cor 7:21

21Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. Even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition now more than ever.

1Tim 6:1

1Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be blasphemed.

1Pet 2:18

The Example of Christ's Suffering
18Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who a ... View more

Eph 6:5-8

Slaves and Masters
5Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ;6not only while being watched, and in ... View more

Col 3:22-24

22Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything, not only while being watched and in order to please them, but wholeheartedly, fearing the Lord.23Whatever you ... View more

1Tim 6:1-2

1Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be blasphemed.2Those wh ... View more

1Pet 2:18

The Example of Christ's Suffering
18Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who a ... View more

Titus 2:9-10

9Tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect; they are not to talk back,10not to pilfer, but to show complete and pe ... View more

Eph 6:9

9And, masters, do the same to them. Stop threatening them, for you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven, and with him there is no partiality.

Col 4:1

1Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, for you know that you also have a Master in heaven.

Luke 7:1-10

Jesus Heals a Centurion's Servant
1After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum.2A centurion there had a slave wh ... View more

Luke 22:51

51But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him.

Acts 12:12-17

12As soon as he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many had gathered and were praying.13When he kn ... View more

Luke 15:22

22But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.

Luke 15:26

26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on.

Matt 21:33-44

The Parable of the Wicked Tenants
33“Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and ... View more

Mark 12:1-12

The Parable of the Wicked Tenants
1Then he began to speak to them in parables. “A man planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a pit for the wine press, a ... View more

Luke 20:9-18

The Parable of the Wicked Tenants
9He began to tell the people this parable: “A man planted a vineyard, and leased it to tenants, and went to another country fo ... View more

Matt 18:23-35

The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant
23“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves.24When h ... View more

Luke 19:11-27

The Parable of the Ten Pounds
11As they were listening to this, he went on to tell a parable, because he was near Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the ... View more

1Tim 1:10

10fornicators, sodomites, slave traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching

Rev 18:13

13cinnamon, spice, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, olive oil, choice flour and wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, slaves—and human lives.

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