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Does the Bible Condone Slavery?

by Doug Becker, Pastor of Theology

Does the Bible condone slavery? Eventually, every thinking Christian must confront this question. For one thing, if you read your Bible on a regular basis, it is only a matter of time before you will run into passages that speak quite frankly of it, such as the laws in Exodus that govern slave-master relationships. The New Testament too has passages such as Ephesians 6:5: “Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ.” Paul convinced the fugitive slave Onesimus to return to his master Philemon, who was a Christian prominent enough to host a house church. We must all face the grim reality that texts like these have been used to justify even the vilest forms of slavery, such as that which was common in the American South before the Civil War.

This issue is much deeper than a question of intellectual curiosity, or of scoring points against the Bible’s critics who love to cite slave texts as a parade example of the Bible’s alleged ethical shortcomings. For the Christian, these passages, and others like them, are the inspired Word of God, which reveal his moral will to us. And so, the question may arise, “How can I love a God who finds it acceptable that one human being can own another?” Abraham Lincoln has been quoted as saying, “If anything is wrong, slavery is wrong.” If Lincoln knew this, why doesn’t God? And is such a God worthy of our love, adoration, and worship?

Here we will confront these issues head-on. Our purpose is not to explain away the relevant slavery passages in the Bible, but to attempt to understand them in their proper contexts. This is a somewhat daunting task, and so we will be as brief as possible, yet hopefully thorough enough to do justice to this significant issue.


In order to present an accurate picture of slavery in the Bible, we must delve in some detail into all of the most relevant passages. By the very nature of the beast, this requires a somewhat lengthy treatment. Though I have been as brief as possible, I realize that not every reader will want to read this entire treatment. For those simply looking for a brief overview, I offer the following points that will be fleshed out in the following essay:

  • In both the Old and New Testaments, the words used to denote slaves did not necessarily carry the same connotations that we associate with slavery today. Only by understanding the biblical texts and the cultures that produced them can we understand what is being referred to in the Bible.

  • The stealing and selling of human beings, such as has been common throughout human history, is a capital offense according to Old Testament law. The return of fugitive slaves to their masters was also illegal.

  • In almost every instance, the kind of slavery governed by Old Testament law was debt-slavery, where an individual would offer labor in exchange for an outstanding debt that he could not pay. The laws that govern such transactions are given to protect the rights of such slaves, who could only serve for a maximum of six years.

  • Early Christians had to work out their treatment of one another under Roman law, which they lacked the political influence to change.

  • The Christian community was a counter-cultural movement in which social distinctions were all but erased. Jesus is the true Lord, and masters and slaves were expected to treat each other as beloved brothers and sisters and equal members of the body of Christ.

Slavery in Old Testament Law

Out the outset, we must make an important distinction between the Old Testament passages on slavery and those found in the New Testament. The passages in the Old Testament that we will be considering are found \ in the laws of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. One of the primary purposes of these laws was to govern ancient Israel—a nation that enjoyed a special covenant relationship with God and lived under kings and rulers who were supposed to govern in accordance with these laws. The New Testament passages, by contrast, are written to Christians who lived in the Roman Empire, where slavery was an important, socially-embedded institution. In other words, while the Old Testament law was given by God to be the law of the land, the admonitions in the New Testament are given to people living under someone else’s law. Accordingly, we will treat them separately.

Getting the Terminology Straight

A major cause of confusion for contemporary readers is the assumption that the word “slave,” as it is found in Old Testament legal passages, meant the same thing in ancient Israel as it does for us today. The Old Testament was written in Classical Hebrew, and so it is not surprising that certain words do not have perfect equivalents in modern English. The difficulty felt by Bible translators in rendering the Hebrew terms relating to slavery is fairly well-publicized.[1] Strictly speaking, the Old Testament does not call an individual bound to the service of another a “slave;” it calls him an ʿebed (pronounced eved), and a woman in such a role is called an ʾāmâ. While these terms can connote very harsh slavery, comparable to that which was found in the Antebellum South (e.g., the Hebrews as Egyptian slaves), it often does not, as is the case in most of the words’ appearances in the so-called Old Testament “slave laws.” The most that can be said about in general about these two terms, especially the first, is that they are used to denote a social class that is relatively lower than another. Thus, it is common in Old Testament speech for people to refer to themselves as “your servant” (Heb. ʿabdekā) when addressing someone submissively.

General Observations

So just how similar was Israelite slavery to our conception of the institution that bears the same name? Not much. Consider first that Israelite slavery was voluntary. Exodus 21:16 says, “Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death.” Found among the earliest cluster of slave laws, this speaks directly to the issue of slavery, and forbids anything resembling a slave trade among the ancient Israelites. This verse alone should make it clear that “slavery” in Old Testament law is vastly different than anything that we commonly associate with slavery. By contrast, Leviticus 25:39 and 47 speak of the poor Israelite as “selling himself” into servitude, suggesting what we will soon discover—that Israelite slaves were debt-servants, not human chattel deprived of freedom and basic rights. The fourth commandment even requires that slaves enjoy the Sabbath along with their masters (Exod 20:8–11). Thus, any passage that speaks of masters as “buying” Hebrew servants should be understood as referring to a voluntary act, in which the slave was not sold by another, but sold his own labor to another Israelite.

Another important law that should inform our understanding of what was legal in ancient Israel is Deuteronomy 23:15–16: “You shall not give up to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. He shall dwell with you, in your midst, in the place that he shall choose within one of your towns, wherever it suits him. You shall not wrong him.” According to the law of Moses, it was actually illegal to return a fugitive slave.[2] In fact, this passage commands his fellow Israelites to allow him to dwell wherever he pleases. Effectively, Israelite slaves could break their service contracts simply by leaving. Slavery in Israelite law was entered into voluntarily and could be ended voluntarily. This stands in stark contrast to other ancient Near Eastern law codes of the day, such as the Law of Hammurabi (ca. 1792–1750 BC), which gives a drastically different perspective on runaway slaves:

If a man should harbor a fugitive slave or slave woman of either the palace or of a commoner in his house and not bring him out at the herald’s public proclamation, that householder shall be killed.

If a man seizes a fugitive slave or slave woman in the open country and leads him back to his owner, the slave owner shall give him 2 shekels of silver.

If that slave should refuse to identify his owner, he shall lead him off to the palace, his circumstances shall be investigated, and they shall return him to his owner.

If he should detain that slave in his own house and afterward the slave is discovered in his possession, that man shall be killed.

Debt Slavery in Old Testament Law

Slavery, as it is described in Israelite law, was a way in which a family could deal with debt. Imagine that you are an ancient Israelite—the head of a household. You spend all day farming and keeping a small flock of sheep and goats, helped by everyone in your extended household. What do you do if you have a bad year, and are unable to feed your family? The answer is that you borrow from someone who has enough surplus grain (or some other commodity) to lend you. Under Israelite law, this loan would be interest-free (Lev 25:35–37), but you still need to pay back what you borrowed. But now imagine that you have another bad year, and so you need to borrow again. Year after year, your debt accumulates, and you have no way to pay it back. Unless your intention is to default on the loan—effectively stealing from the one who lent to you at no interest rather than selling his grain—your only option is to repay your debt with your only means available, the labor of the people in your household.

The term of service that an Israelite could serve another under these conditions was six years. In the seventh, he had to be released (Exod 21:2). This is an upper limit; smaller debts could presumably be paid in less time. As far as the nature of the labor involved, it is important to note that the Israelite slave would be doing essentially the same thing that he would have been doing in his family’s household: Working fields and shepherding flocks. Under the care of a wealthier family, he would have been better fed, better clothed, and able to engage in work that was probably more rewarding. Then, at the end of their six-year term,[4] Israelite slaves had two options:

They could return to their household. If this is chosen, the master would be obligated to follow Deuteronomy 15:12–14:
If your brother, a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, sells himself to you, he shall serve you six years, and in the seventh year you shall let him go free from you. And when you let him go free from you, you shall not let him go empty-handed. You shall furnish him liberally out of your flock, out of your threshing floor, and out of your winepress. As the LORD your God has blessed you, you shall give to him.

The Israelite slave was not expected to start over from scratch after he was released from service. Rather, his now former master, who had benefitted from his labor, was to provide him with “liberal” amounts of livestock, grain, and wine, in order to get him back on his feet, as part of Israel’s legal provision for the poor.

They could remain permanently in the house of their master. Exodus 21:5–6 reads as follows:
But if the slave plainly says,[5] ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children: I will not go out free,’ then his master shall bring him to God, and he shall bring him to the door or doorpost. And his master shall bore his ear through with an awl, and he shall be his slave forever.

Deuteronomy 15:16, which addresses the same situation, adds an additional reason why a slave might choose to stay: "Since he is well-off with you."

What is interesting about these passages is that they speak indirectly to the nature of Israelite debt-servitude, and speak to the reality that, for some (or many) Israelite slaves, life could have been significantly better with their masters than it would have been in their own households. There is a real “love” for the master, akin to the love for his own family (i.e., his wife and children).[6] If the slave desires to stay, then he and his master are to go to a public area (“to God” probably designates the tabernacle or temple), and to put a mark on his ear that would serve as permanent evidence that the servant publically declared his desire to remain with his master, and that he was not being exploited by being held against his will.

The passage at the beginning of Exodus 21 continues with a stipulation that requires some comment. Speaking of the debt slave introduced in verses 1 and 2, we read, “If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s and he shall go out alone” (Exod 21:3–4). At first blush, this seems misogynistic, denying the woman of the same rights given to the man in the previous verse. A man can be released after six years, but not a woman? This is emphatically not what is going on here. Notice that the woman in question was given to the male slave as a wife during his time as a slave. This woman would have been a female slave.[7] What this passage is teaching is that her term of service is not to be cut short simply because her husband’s ended before hers. In such a case, his options would have been either to wait for her to be freed or to ransom her, perhaps with some of the provisions that he received at the time of his release. As for the children, these would all be young, a maximum of five years old (assuming the woman entered service a year after the man and was married to him immediately), an age at which they need their mother, not their father. This law probably would have influenced how often marriage between slaves would have taken place and would have prevented women from foolishly entering into a marriage only to gain an early manumission.

The following paragraph also prevents a puzzling case:
When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do [that is, she shall not be released from her service at the end of six years]. If she does not please her master, who has designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people since he has broken faith with her. If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her as with a daughter. If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, or her marital rights. And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out for nothing, without payment of money (Exod 21:7–11).

It is clear that the woman in this passage has been given in marriage to the master’s household. The master here has either “designated her for himself” or “for his son” (vv. 8–9), and verse 10 gives the condition, “If he takes another wife for himself . . .” In ancient Near Eastern marriages, the groom customarily gave the bride’s family a bride price.[8] Here, forgiveness of debt would serve as that gift. The reason, then, that this female “slave”[9] is not given release is because marriage is for life, and doesn’t magically end after six years. If the notion of a father giving her daughter in marriage to man in order to pay off debt seems disturbing, it should be remembered that the practice of arranged marriage has been the norm in many cultures, even in our own day, and often results in marriages that are just as happy and fulfilled as ones that are not arranged. At any rate, such an objection is not to the institution of Israelite debt-slavery per se, but to the practice of arranged marriages.

The law under question is geared exclusively towards the protection of the woman’s rights, to protect her from exploitation at the hands of a more powerful family. Should the master desire to divorce her (i.e., “if she does not please her master”),[10] he is not permitted to sell her to a foreigner (v. 16). Since it was illegal to sell an Israelite to another Israelite (see above), only foreigners are mentioned here. In other words, the master couldn’t circumvent Exod 21:16 by attempting to turn a profit in selling his ex-wife to a non-Israelite. No Israelite could deprive another of their membership in the covenant people of God. Instead, he was to permit her to be redeemed (v. 8)—a provision which only needs to be specified here since a marriage is in view.

The second situation, mentioned in verse 9, is that if she has been given to in marriage to his son. Here she must be treated as a full-daughter, which means that her children would be legitimate heirs with full inheritance rights, not second-generation servants. In case it isn’t obvious, this was a very big deal.

Finally, in the event that a second wife is taken (polygamy was sometimes practiced in Israel, always with disastrous results), her status is not to be lower than the second wife. Any violation of the terms stated here result in her “freedom” (lit., her “going out”), and her family’s debt is forgiven, even if the marriage was short-lived.

If the idea of debt servitude strikes us a primitive, we need to remember that many of the options that are available to us today were not available in the ancient world, for better or for worse. And how preferable is the modern situation, where the poor grow ever poorer as debt grows and grows, until the only option for the poor becomes bankruptcy, which not only destroys the debtor’s access to credit, but also amounts to breaking one’s oath at best, and thievery at worst? This system in ancient Israel was intended to maintain incentives to lend to the poor, where interest is not an option and when the risk of default werenoften quite high. These are the kinds of situations addressed by Old Testament law in a society that differed greatly from our own. It isn’t a matter of whether these options would be good for us, living in twenty-first century America, but whether or not these were good for the ancient Israelites, living from 1200 to 586 BC.

Difficult Passages

The laws that we have considered so far have shown a high degree of concern for the rights of Israelite slaves, and for their dignity as human beings created in the image of God. Later in Exodus 21, however, there are two other laws that are much more liable to confusion. Yet, as we will see, any offense taken at these laws owes more to our unfamiliarity in reading biblical law than it does with anything inherently immoral the laws themselves. We will consider the latter law first, since a good understanding of it will have a bearing on how we understand the former.

In Exod 21:25–26, we read, “When a man strikes the eye of his slave, male or female, and destroys it, he shall let the slave go free because of his eye. If he knocks out the tooth of his slave, male or female, he shall let the slave go free because of his tooth.” The first thing to note is that many Old Testament laws begin with “when” or “if” clauses (i.e., conditional clauses, Heb. or ʾīm): “If or when someone does x, then do y.” An application of very simple logic reveals that such laws in no way condone what is contained in the when/if clause. If I say, “If a man robs this liquor store, don’t shoot him on sight; call the cops,” I’m not condoning the robbing of liquor stores. The situation is exactly the same with laws like this one. In fact, Jesus seems to address one such misreading of Deuteronomy 24 by the Pharisees in Matthew 19. Exodus 2 in no way sanctions physical mistreatment of slaves.

What this verse does do is provide release from servitude for any serious physical injury caused by a master. The mention of eyes and teeth here does not restrict this provision to only these two kinds of injuries, any more than it does in the “eye for eye/tooth for tooth” principle given in the immediately preceding verses (vv. 23–25).[11]

Exodus 21:20–21 says, “When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be avenged. But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged, for the slave is his money.” Does this give masters impunity to beat a slave within an inch of his life? Absolutely not. As was the case with the previous example (vv. 25–26), we should not read an implied approval into the presence of a conditional (i.e., an if) clause. Actually, by allowing the slave’s death to be “avenged,” the law is treating the slave’s life on par with any other free Israelite.[12] Only eight verses earlier, murder is established as a capital crime (v. 12). The slave’s life is of no less value than his master’s.

Or is it? The truly tricky part of this law is verse 21. The ESV reads, "If the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged." This, however, is a misleading way to translate this verse, because the Hebrew literally reads, “If, in a day or two, he stands up . . .”[13] The NIV is helpful here: “If the slave recovers after a day or two.” That, in itself, doesn’t help us very much, until we take into account the law that immediately precedes this one in verses 18–19. This describes a situation that arises when two men fight and one is injured so that he cannot work. Verse 19 concludes with language very similar to our slave law in verse 21: “Then, if the man rises again and walks outdoors with his staff, he who struck him shall be clear.” So, the scenario painted here is of a slave owner who beats his slave but does not kill him, and this law prohibits a family member from exacting vengeance on the master for the mistreatment.[14]

But that’s not all. Recall that, according to verses 26 and 27 (see above), a master who beats his slave is required to release him. This would have been the case here, and explains well the otherwise troubling way this law ends: “For he is his money.”[15] In other words, the slave is his master’s capital investment (his “money”), and losing him under the law of Exod 21:26–27 is punishment enough; it hits him in the wallet.

The most difficult passage on slavery in Old Testament law is Leviticus 25:44–46:

As for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are around you. You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their clans that are with you, who have been born in your land, and they may be your property. You may bequeath them to your sons after you to inherit as a possession forever. You may make slaves of them, but over your brothers the people of Israel you shall not rule, one over another ruthlessly.

Having observed the lengths to which the law goes to protect the rights and dignity of Israelites who sold themselves into slavery in order to pay off debt, it now seems that the same law denies these things to foreigners. There is a degree of truth to this. Most strikingly, while Exodus 21:16 forbade a slave trade within Israel, this passage permits Israelites to engage in the slave trade of other nations. Individuals acquired through these means do become “property,”[16] which can be passed down from generation to generation.

But this law does not exist in isolation, either from other passages regarding the treatment of foreigners, or from the culture to which it was given. It is quite easy to criticize a law from over 3,000 years ago from the comforts and standards of a twenty-first century liberal capitalist democracy, with a worldwide community that is more or less concerned about human rights. But we must remember that this was not the world into which God spoke when he gave Leviticus 25. Ancient Israel was a tiny part of a much larger world, were a robust and often ruthless international slave trade existed. Of course, one option would have been for God to have forbidden his people to participate in it, and that would have meant that those slaves would have been sold in other lands, where there was no understanding of the basic dignity of all human beings created in the image of God and where slaves were less than full persons. Such individuals would have often found themselves in conditions similar to the Israelites in Egypt, as human chattel forced into backbreaking and degrading labor, with no Sabbath rest, and no laws defending the worth of the sojourner and the alien, let alone those purchased from slave caravans.

The Old Testament’s emphasis on the loving treatment of the foreigner is apparent from several important passages. Leviticus 19:33–34 instructs, “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.” Notice that this verse clearly extends the category of “sojourner” to slaves, using the same word (gēr) to refer to the status of the Hebrews when they lived in Egypt (also Deut 10:19). We should not miss the language: He or she shall not be “wronged” (oppressed), and he shall be treated as a native Israelite. In fact, the same wording is used for this person as is used for the “neighbor” in the second greatest commandment, quoted by Jesus (Matt 19:199; 22:39; Mark 12:31; also Rom 13:9; Gal 5:14; Jas 2:8), which is found originally in Lev 19:18: “You shall love him as yourself.”[17]

It should also be noted that the land of Israel was given to tribal clans for perpetual ownership (Joshua 14–21; Num 26:52–56), and therefore could not be permanently sold outside the clan to whom it was designated. This is why land—even land that had been sold—was to be returned to its owners in the years of liberty (i.e., every forty-ninth year; Lev 25:13–17, 23).[18] The reason for this was to prevent the oppression of poorer Israelites by opportunistic landowners. Refusal to observe these laws becomes the object of prophetic rebuke later in Israel’s history (e.g., 1 Kgs 21:3; Isa 5:8; Mic 2:1–2). For this reason, foreigners could not be easily assimilated into Israel’s agrarian and pastoralist socio-economic system, although there are plenty of examples in the Old Testament of non-natives who were. Examples of this include Rahab, Ruth, and Uriah the Hittite (who lived within eyeshot of David’s palace), as well as lesser-known examples such as Obed-edom the Gittite (2 Samuel 6), Ittai the Gittite (2 Samuel 15), and Araunah the Jebusite (2 Samuel 24). Given these considerations, we can see how slave purchase provided a place for individuals enslaved in other countries to be integrated into Israelite society, and to be blessed by the Lord as a part of the covenant community. God constantly reminds the Israelites that they are not to mistreat slaves as they were mistreated in Egypt (Exod 22:21; 23:9; Lev 19:34; Deut 5:15; 10:19; 15:15; 16:12; 24:18, 22). And we should also bear in mind that nothing in the prohibition against returning fugitive slaves (Deut 23:15–16) restricts the law to Hebrew debt servants.

Slavery in the New Testament

The situation with New Testament slave texts is significantly different than what we find in the Old, and it is not hard to see why. As noted earlier, the Old Testament law was given by God to govern his people Israel, and it expresses the moral will of God for a specific people at a specific time and for a specific purpose. It was given in order to provide the national law for Israel, a theocratic nation under the sovereign rule of God. The New Testament, by way of contrast, speaks to God’s people, the church, as subjects living within an already-existing political entity (the Roman Empire), whose laws and norms were the result of human political philosophy, not God’s moral will. In the New Testament, God is not at work establishing a political entity, but is rather redeeming a people for himself, called out from every nation. Accordingly, God gives his people instructions on how to live in already existing social structure.

Christian slaves are addressed directly in Ephesians 6:5–9, Colossians 3:22–25, and 1 Peter 2:18–25. In all these passages, emphasis is placed on obedience towards masters and serving faithfully as an act of obedience to God. Ephesians 6:9 and Colossians 4:1 also address masters, both stressing fair and just treatment, and an understanding that we all have the same “master” in heaven, the Lord Jesus.[19] The passage in first Peter is geared specifically towards slaves who are treated unjustly by apparently non-Christian masters, and is part of Peter’s exhortation to endure suffering in the footsteps of Jesus.

The short book of Philemon is addressed to a Christian slave owner whose escaped slave, Onesimus, had come into contact with Paul while Paul was in prison. During the course of their interaction, Onesimus became a Christian and had been discipled by Paul. Paul then sent Onesimus back to Philemon, carrying the letter, in which Paul tactfully exhorts Philemon to receive Onesimus back, “no longer as a bondservant, but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother” (16). Not only does Paul not want Philemon to punish Onesimus; he wants him to accept him as a full member of the Christian community, and even promises to pay from his own pocket for any of the damages Onesimus’ flight may have cost Philemon (18–19). Due to the diplomatic way in which Paul makes his requests in this letter, it is not entirely clear if Paul is urging Philemon to free Onesimus. But he does seem to imply this when he states that he wishes Onesimus would remain available to him in order to help in his ministry (13–14).[20] Moreover, it has been argued (persuasively, in my judgment) that reception of Onesimus “as a beloved brother . . . both in the flesh and in the Lord” amounts to a direct request for his manumission.[21]

Greco-Roman Slavery

In order to address some of the questions that arise from these passages, we need to observe some aspects of the deeply-embedded and exceedingly common institution of slavery in the Greco-Roman world. Some estimates place the number of slaves in Rome itself at up to 90 percent of the city’s total population.[22] In this culture, people became slaves either to pay debt, because they had been captured in war, or because they had been born into the slave class. An individual could also sell himself into slavery in order to live an easier life than he had as a freedperson, and even to advance socially.[23] Following the precedent set by earlier Greek law, slaves differed from freedpersons in four primary ways:[24]

  1. They could not represent themselves in legal matters.
  2. They were subject to seizure and arrest in ways that freedpersons were not.
  3. Their occupation was determined by their master.
  4. They had to live where their master decided.

In Roman society, slaves could own property and other slaves, they were not enslaved based on the color of their skin (it was not a racist institution), and slavery was often temporary. While there were certainly very degrading and dehumanizing forms of slavery in the Roman world (e.g., mining), many served in more dignified positions, such as tutors, professors, estate managers, bookkeepers, and doctors, or as artisans. Roman Emperors used slaves to manage imperial estates and often placed them in charge of important tasks, such as lighting, tailoring, wine-keeping and tasting, and cooking. The slaves addressed in Ephesians 6 and Colossians 3, as well as Onesimus in Philemon, would have been household slaves, as is evident by the placement of these texts amongst advice to household members (i.e., husbands, wives, and children).

The conditions of a slave’s life depended highly on the disposition of their master. Some were brutally abused, while others enjoyed very kind treatment, such as was shown by the centurion who sought Jesus on behalf of his slave who had fallen sick (Luke 7:1–11). Of course, fair treatment of slaves was not purely altruistic; masters benefitted from slaves who were content.[25]

The New Testament Response

As modern readers, it is common to wonder why the New Testament writers don’t speak more forcefully against slavery. Many feel justified in criticizing Paul, or Peter, or Jesus, for that matter, for not being staunch abolitionists. However, such objections reflect modern sensitivities and a lack of appreciation for both the historical realities in the first century and the transformative nature of the gospel.[26] If we are to gain understanding, we need to allow these texts to speak first into the culture to which they were originally written. The possibility of wholesale abolition was not available until much later in history, and then it was the result of the theological convictions of Christians, based on the very texts in question.

Nevertheless, it should be noted that at least twice in the New Testament, the institution and practice of slavery is condemned. In 1 Timothy 1:10, Paul lists “enslavers” (Gk. andrapodistai) among “the lawless and disobedient, the ungodly and sinners,” who practice “what is contrary to sound doctrine.” In Revelation 18:13, the trading in “slaves, that is, human souls” is listed among the evils of Rome (called “Babylon the great” in v. 2).

For us, living in a post-Enlightenment, “post-Braveheart world,” freedom appears to be a basic value—indeed the fundamental right without which happiness and fulfillment cannot be attained. But we need to realize that this is a modern conviction that may have not been obvious or desirable at earlier points in human history. Moreover, it was well-understood that freedom in the Roman world often meant a lower standard of living for freed slaves. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus (himself once a slave) writes of the common experience of freed slaves:

“'If I shall be set free, immediately it is all happiness, I care for no man, I speak to all as an equal and, like to them, I go where I choose, I come from any place I choose, and I go where I choose.' Then he is set free; and forthwith having no place where he can eat, he looks for some man to flatter, some one with whom he shall sup: then he either works with his body and endures the most dreadful things; and if he can obtain a manager, he falls into a slavery much worse than his former slavery; or even if he is become rich, being a man without any knowledge of what is good, he loves some little girl, and in his happiness laments and desires to be a slave again. He says, 'What evil did I suffer in my state of slavery? Another clothed me, another supplied me with shoes, another fed me, another looked after me in sickness; and I did only a few services for him. But now a wretched man, what things I suffer, being a slave of many instead of to one.'”[27]

We must also realize that the early Christians did not enjoy the kind of political influence they do today. They lived under a powerful authoritarian state, and were virtually powerless to change government policies. Were any of the New Testament writers to incite slaves to rise up against their masters, they would essentially have been compelling them to death, probably by crucifixion, as was the fate of the 6,000 who revolted with Spartacus a century earlier. There were also laws restricting manumission, such as the lex Fufia Caninia, instituted by Caesar Augustus in 2 BC, which set limits on the number of slaves that masters could free: only two out of three, half of between four and ten, and a third of between eleven and thirty. Nevertheless, Paul does have words for those slaves who were able to gain their freedom: “Avail yourself of the opportunity” (1 Cor 7:21).

The most important dimension to the New Testament’s stance on slavery, however, is the gospel’s transformative power, beginning in the hearts of individuals. Application of the ethics of the kingdom of God to the community of believers resulted in a counter-culture that transcended, and in some ways abolished, social hierarchy. This is exemplified in texts such as Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (also Col 3:11). Jesus himself assumed the role of a slave, and this in turn influences the way Christians related to one another. Several texts that employ slave language are illustrative of this important point:

After washing his disciples feet, Jesus taught his disciples: “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them” (John 13:12–17).

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt 20:25–29).

“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:5–11).

The ethic taught in these passages would have applied to masters’ conduct towards slaves as well as slaves’ towards their masters.

Another dimension to the radical transformation that takes place within the Christian community is the leveling of all individuals to the level of brother and sister. This language is so common in the New Testament that we pass by it without thinking twice, but there would have been profound implications for slaves and masters regarding one another as brothers and loving one another with sincere “brotherly affection” (Rom 12:10; 2 Pet 1:7), as Christ first loved us. Indeed, Paul’s appeal to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus is nothing less than revolutionary, that he might “have him back forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord” (Phlm 15b–16). The appeal (which seems strange to us) to “greet one another with a holy kiss” (Rom 16:16; 1 Cor 16:20; 2 Cor 13:12; 1 Thess 5:26) is another strong example of the affection and egalitarian spirit that pervaded the early church. Marianne Thompson sums up the situation well: “It should be noted that for Paul manumission was not the highest good or goal; belonging to Christ was—and that had implications for both the master and the slave. If a Christian owned a slave, the highest duty to which that master could be called was not to set the other free but to love the slave with the selfgiving love of Christ.”[28]

Although for centuries they were relatively powerless to change Roman society from the top down, the early Christians changed it from the bottom up. Following the example of Christ, they plowed a counter-culture based not on worldly social stratification, but on oneness within the body of Christ. Even leadership within the church was to be based on Christian maturity, rather than connections and impressive worldly credentials. The second century church father Ignatius of Antioch even makes an intriguing reference to an individual with familiar name who served as the bishop of Ephesus: “I received, therefore, your whole multitude in the name of God, through Onesimus, a man of inexpressible love, and your bishop in the flesh, whom I pray you by Jesus Christ to love, and that you would all seek to be like him.”[29]


[1] The preface of the English Standard Version, for example, notes, with respect to both the Hebrew term ʿebed and the Greek doulos, “A particular difficulty is presented when words in biblical Hebrew and Greek refer to ancient practices and institutions that do not correspond directly to those in the modern world” (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version [Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2001], x).

[2] Moshe Weinfeld, Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic School (Winona Lake, IN:
Eisenbrauns, 1992), 272 n. 5; Dale Patrick, Old Testament Law (Atlanta: John Knox, 1985), 133. Some commentators, following Jewish tradition (Gittin 45a), restrict this to foreign slaves who have fled for refuge to Israel, claiming that the wording of verse 17 suggests this (Peter C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy [NICOT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976], 300). I remain unconvinced of this. There is no clear designation of the slave in question as a foreigner, as is the case in Lev 25:44, the only passage in the Mosaic law that speaks unambiguously of foreign slaves. Moreover, there are a variety of reasons why an escaped Israelite slave may wish to dwell in a town not his own. For example, perhaps the household he had served in was more than a day’s journey from his home. The Hebrew actually reads, “. . . in one of your gates (šeʿāreykā), wherever is good to him,” suggesting that he is seeking justice for having been wronged (justice was often administered in city gates, which had various chambers built into them for the purpose of public legal transactions.

[3] Martha Roth, “The Laws of Hammurabi,” in Context of Scripture Volume 2: Monumental Inscriptions from the Biblical World (ed. William W. Hallo and K. Lawson Younger, Jr.; Leiden: Brill, 2003), 2.131 §16–19.

[4] It is unclear whether manumission was to be at the beginning or the end of the seventh year.

[5] Here, the Hebrew employs an infinitive absolute, which is a verbal form that intensifies the main verb or “forcefully presents the certainty of a completed event” (Bruce K. Waltke and Michael O’Connor, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax [Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2004] § 35.3.1b; Paul Joüon, A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew [trans. and rev. T. Muraoka; Subsidia Biblica 14; Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1993] § 123j). This is the same form that is used in the serpent’s initial question to Eve in Gen 3:1: “Did God really say?" The reason this is important here is that it stresses the necessity of determining whether or not a slave truly desires to stay. This would have been the responsibility of the town judges to decide. Here we have one of the many reasons why there is so much stress in the Old Testament on using judges who will not take bribes or otherwise pervert justice.

[6] The mention of a wife and children here reflects the situation covered in the previous verses 3–4, where the slave is given a wife during his term of service.

[7] Would a well-off Israelite give his birth daughter to one of his slaves as a wife?

[8] For example, Abraham’s servant gives Rebekah’s family “costly ornaments” in exchange for her hand in marriage to Isaac (Gen 24:53).

[9] The translation “slave” here is unfortunate. As noted above, this is not what the Hebrew text says. This is merely a translation of a social status designation—the female servant is an ʾāmâ.

[10] The sexual connotations associated with the language of “pleasing” come from our preconceptions and English innuendo, rather than any notion of this in ancient Hebrew culture. The expression used here is much more general.

[11] This principle, commonly referred to as lex talionis, is meant to restrict retaliation by limiting it to punishments that fit the crime as exactly as possible. Jesus, in the New Testament, dismisses this as the standard for the people of his kingdom, and it is worth quoting him in detail: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you” (Matt 5:38–42).

[12] One of the ways the law deals with murder is by allowing an “avenger of blood” (lit. “the redeemer of blood;” Heb. gōʾēl haddām) to avenge the death of his kinsman. Cities of refuge were provided in order to protect those merely guilty of manslaughter from blood “vengeance” in the interim period before their trial (see, e.g., Num 35:9–34).

[13] Heb., ʾak ʾim-yôm ʾô yômayim yaʿămōd.

[14] The implication may be that vengeance may be sought if the slave does not “stand” after two days. The law governing this would probably be “eye for an eye,” which is also in the immediate context (v. 24).

[15] The NIV has “the slave is his property.” This is absolutely incorrect and has often been used by the Bible’s critics who accuse this verse of saying something it does not say. The term in question (kesep) literally means “silver,” and always refers to currency, not property in either a general or specific sense. The standard Hebrew lexicon, HALOT, gives four definitions: “silver as metal,” “[silver] as material,” “in general, money,” and “misc.: pl. uncoined pieces of silver” (Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament [rev. Walter Baumgartner and Johann Jakob Stamm; trans. and ed. M. E. J. Richardson; Leiden: Brill, 1994] 2:490).

[16] The word used here is ʾăḥuzzâ, which is used elsewhere of property that is owned. Nonhuman examples would include land, usually as an enduring inheritance (e.g., Gen 17:8; 23:20; 47:11; 49:30; 50:13; Lev 25:33; Jos 22:19; Ps 2:8; Neh 11:3). This is in contrast to Exod 21:27, where we saw Hebrew slaves referred to as “money” (Heb. kesep, i.e., “capital investment”). Interestingly, in Ezekiel, God refers to himself as Israel’s ʾăḥuzzâ (Eze 44:28).

[17] Heb. ʾāhabtā lô kāmôkā.

[18] Heb. derûr, often translated “Jubilee.”

[19] The same Greek word (kurios) stands behind both “master” and “lord.”

[20] The lack of clarity on this and several other questions relevant to the intent of Philemon is due to the fact that Paul apparently wants Philemon to choose to do this of his own accord, and therefore avoids issuing explicit commands. Paul expects Philemon to conclude for himself what is the right course of action. At the same time, he also employs highly suggestive language to urge Philemon in the right direction. Paul even explains his strategy in verses 8 and 9: “Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus.” Also, in verse 14: “I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord.” He does this by reminding Philemon of his love and charity towards “all the saints” (4–7); he states his desire to have Onesimus help him in his own ministry, calling him “my very heart” (12–14); he offers to personally bear the burden of any loss that Onesimus’ behavior may have cost him (17–20); he says he is “confident of [Philemon’s] obedience;” he tells him that he intends to visit after he is released from jail, implying that he will personally follow up on the situation; and he concludes with greetings from other prominent Christians, who are apparently aware of the situation and in agreement with Paul (23–24).

[21] Douglas J. Moo, The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon (Pillar New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 373.

[22] A. A. Ruprecht, “Slave, Slavery, “in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (ed. Gerald Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid; Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1993), 881–83.

[23] S. Scott Bartchy, ΜΑΛΛΟΝ ΧΡΗΣΑΙ: First-Century Slavery and the Interpretation of 1 Corinthians 7:21 (SBLDS 11; Missoula, MT: Society of Biblical Literature, 1972), 46.

[24] Harold W. Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 801. See also W. L. Westermann, “Slavery and the Elements of Freedom in Ancient Greece,” Quarterly Bulletin of the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences in America 1 (Jan. 1943): 10–11.

[25] Hoehner (803) cites Pseudo-Aristotle Oeconomica 1.5.2–5 §§ 1344a.29–1344b.22; Columella Rei Rusticae 1.8–9, and Seneca Epistulae Morales 47.11 as writers who strongly urged masters to treat their slaves well.

[26] Steven Spielberg’s excellent film, Lincoln, contains an exchange between Abraham Lincoln and the abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, in which Lincoln tempers Stevens’ unrealistic idealism: “The compass . . . will point you true north from where you’re standing, but it’s got no advice about the swamps, the deserts, the chasms that you’ll encounter along the way. If, in proceeding to your destination, you plunge ahead, heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp, what’s the use of knowing true north?”

[27] Epictetus, Dissertationes 4.

[28] Marianne Meye Thompson, Colossians and Philemon (The Two Horizons New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 266.

[29] Ignatius, Letter to the Ephesians, chapter 1. It is not beyond dispute that this is the same Onesimus from Philemon, but several scholars of considerable standing have argued that this is precisely the case: F. F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), 202; C. F. D. Moule, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Colossians and to Philemon (CGTC; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 21; Peter Stuhlmacher, Der Brief an Philemon (4th ed.; EKKNT 18; NeukirchenVluyn: Neukirchener and Düsseldorf; Benzinger, 2004), 19.
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