The Practice of Slavery in New Testament Times

“Half the population of Rome, and a large proportion of the Empire, were slaves. Christians did not oppose slavery but taught slaves to work well for their masters, believing or unbelieving. Slavery eventually became eradicated by masters and slaves becoming brothers in Christ. The Roman army often took the brightest and best young men and women as slaves.” (Halley’s Bible Handbook Page 616)

“The punishment for runaway slaves could be death. Slaves were not generally ill-treated but they were considered the property of their masters. They could be seized and sent back by anyone if they were trying to escape.” (John Drane, 1998)

“As many as one third of those living in Mediterranean cities may have been slaves, with others having slave origins. In Rome and Italy the figures were higher, perhaps as many as 80 – 90% of the population. By the first century the main supply came from children born to slaves. Slavery was not thought of as immoral or as necessarily degrading. A slave was simply the bottom rank of the economic ladder, doing the jobs equivalent to those which, typically in the 19th and 20th centuries were undertaken by immigrant labour.” (Bowker, The Complete Bible Handbook, 1998, Page 440)

When I think of slaves I think of the worst excesses of exploitation of labour such as took place on Roman galleys or in the gladiatorial arenas. However the reality for most slaves was quite different. Slaves in the Roman Empire were often treated well, especially in the case of those whose masters were Christians. In our case we are redeemed and slaves of Christ – a wonderful master so we don’t have to have negative connotations when Paul says that we should offer ourselves as slaves to righteousness in Romans 6. As Bowker says: “The gospel brought freedom from one slavery, but human beings could only realize their full potential as God’s creatures in the relation of absolute dependence on God, which the image of slavery so powerfully expressed.” (ibid. page 441)

“…slaves are directly addressed in Paul’s letters as members of the churches written to. Paul clearly regarded them as full members of these churches.” (ibid. page 441)

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