Last semester I was blessed to take a graduate course on 1-2 Corinthians, and as part of that, I had the opportunity to read literally thousands of pages on those two epistles. I came across a lot of good material in that reading, and one of the biggest benefits I received is that I am now much better informed about the historical setting of the Greco-Roman world, which has significant implications for not just the Corinthian letters, but the rest of the New Testament as well.
One particular issue that I learned more about was the practice of slavery in the Greco-Roman world, and the purpose of this post is to share some of that information. The issue of slavery in the Bible is important, because one consistent criticism that has been made against the Bible and Christianity is the claim that it supports the practice of slavery.
This is a significant question, and one that should not be brushed aside. The practice of slavery represents a reprehensible stain on American history. The morally repugnant practice led to an increasingly bitter debate in the mid-19th century, and ultimately, became a significant cause of the American Civil War. In the course of that debate, there were many Christians who fought for abolition, but, unfortunately, many other Christians also supported slavery, and claimed that they were biblically justified in doing so.
Now, I don’t think they were correct in using biblical texts to justify slavery as it was practiced in the United States, but that doesn’t change the historical fact that they did exactly that. And it is absolutely undeniable that when Christians do horrible things and use Scripture to justify those things, it is very damaging to the cause of Christ.
In this post, I am not going to try to completely solve what is an admittedly complex issue, but I do plan to offer some preliminary thoughts in order to help you, dear reader, better examine what Scripture says about slavery in its historical context.
The Historical Context of “Slavery”
As American citizens, when we hear the word “slavery,” without exception we think of slavery as it was practiced in the United States in the 1800s. That’s only natural, because it is the history of our country and what we are most familiar with, but “we must resist the temptation to equate ancient slavery with the antebellum slavery in nineteenth-century America.” In other words, in some important ways, slavery in the ancient world was different from what we are familiar with in our own history.
Before I get into that, it’s also worth pointing out that it is an oversimplification to talk about “ancient cultures” or “ancient practices” in such a way as to imply that all “ancient” peoples did things in precisely the same ways. Looking just at the Bible, we have descriptions of a variety of different cultures spanning a period of over 2,000 years. Just as it would be historically anachronistic for us to take practices from today and impose them upon a first century context, it would also be historically inappropriate to remove practices from a Greco-Roman context and impose them upon the Israelites when they were wandering in the wilderness.
Sometimes we talk about “Bible times”, but it is worth emphasizing that the Bible covers a lot of time, and depending on where you are reading, you are going to get a different picture in certain respects.
Slavery in the Old Testament
I am not even going to try to discuss all of the verses about slavery in the Old Testament, and in fact, this post will focus more on slavery in the Greco-Roman world (i.e. the world in which Paul lived and wrote), but I did want to make a few brief statements about slavery in the Old Testament.
Admittedly, the Old Testament does assume the practice of slavery and provides guidelines to regulate it, but we should observe some key differences between this practice and the slavery that was practiced in the United States:
- This was a form of economic slavery rather than racial slavery. Old Testament slavery was not based on race, but was more related to economics. People generally sold themselves into slavery in order to pay off debts or provide for their families. To put it in the context of American history, it was more like indentured servitude than slavery.
- Biblical law made provision for the freeing of slaves under certain conditions. On the other hand, as time went on in the US, slave codes actively prohibited the process of freeing slaves.
- Biblical law forbade the practice of “man-stealing”:
“Anyone who kidnaps another and either sells him or still has him when he is caught must be put to death” (Exodus 21.16).
- Contrary to this, the African slave trade was based significantly on this very practice of rounding up native Africans, tearing them from their homes, and shipping them across the Atlantic.
Slavery in the Greco-Roman World
Paul lived and wrote in the Greco-Roman world and touched upon slavery in various places (Colossians 3.11, 4.1; 1 Timothy 6.1-3, Galatians 3.28), including multiple places in 1 Corinthians and significantly, in Philemon. Much of what has been said above also applies to Greco-Roman slavery, but to reiterate and further expound upon the differences between Greco-Roman slavery and slavery in the antebellum United States:
- Slavery was an incredibly common practice in the Roman Empire. Certainly it was common in the United States as well, with slaves comprising approximately 1/3 of the population of slave states from 1750-1860. But it was even more common in the Roman Empire: estimates suggest that up to half of the population of the city of Rome itself were slaves.
- Another difference is that slaves were often highly educated in the Greco-Roman world. Some of the most educated people in the Roman Empire and some of the most successful businessmen were or at one point had been slaves. They served in a wide variety of roles ranging from stewards, shipmasters, farm managers, custodians of children, teachers, and money-lenders. This is distinguished from the general practice of slavery in the US, where African slaves were, generally speaking, systematically denied education as a means of keeping them subjugated.
- Often, these people became slaves when they were captured in some sort of Roman conquest. Rome was frequently engaged in warfare, and this is where most Roman slaves came from. Others sold themselves into slavery out of economic necessity, because there was often better possibility for economoic security and social advancement as a slave operating under the protection of a wealthy patron than as a free poor person. Again, this differs greatly from the practice of stealing people of a certain race from their homes and forcibly enslaving them.
- Manumission was the Greco-Roman vehicle for a slave to buy freedom from his or her master. Slaves were allowed to accumulate both property and money in the course of their work, and after earning enough, if the master approved, could buy their freedom. Masters were not legally compelled to approve, but they often did: manumission was so common in the first century that Augustus actually set up laws to limit the practice. Interestingly, there is also evidence that some early Christian congregations purchased the freedom of some of their slave members! Again, all of this should be contrasted with the slavery of the American South, where it was not feasible and in many places, not even legal for slaves to seek manumission.
- Finally, in the Greco-Roman world, “no one, not even the slaves who led slave revolts, was arguing for the abolition of slavery in the Empire.” There are even inscriptions from slaves that read, “slavery was never unkind to me.” Instead, slaves sought to limit and protest abuses, and to be treated fairly. This fact may be hard for us to imagine given our own historical practice of slavery, which led to vigorous debates about abolition, but again this just points to the reality that slavery in the ancient world was fundamentally different from more modern forms of race-based slavery. That is not to say that slavery was a good thing (it was not), but simply that it cannot be equated with the practice of slavery that we are more familiar with. With that in mind, when biblical texts regulate slavery and protect against certain abuses, they are actually in line with the most revolutionary voices of the time.
The Epistle to Philemon
Familiar with the practice of slavery as described above, Paul was not a modern revolutionary who was seeking to overthrow the social order and bring about abolition for all slaves. Instead, Paul’s agenda was to set up an alternative—the church—and to guide relationships within that society. His feelings on slavery are made clearer in the Epistle to Philemon, where Paul writes to a Christian slave owner, Philemon, and pleads for the manumission of Onesimus, his slave, based on their shared identity in Christ.
As Witherington points out:
It will be noted that Paul is no revolutionary here. He is not arguing for a slave revolt, only that one slave be freed. Paul’s principle is that all Christians, of whatever background or status, are brothers and sisters in Christ, led eventually to a situation in which it was clear that slavery and Christianity, with its views of human dignity, freedom, and complete availability to only one Master, are basically incompatible.
All of this brings us back to the original issue: were 19th century American Christians correct to use the Bible to justify their practice of slavery? No. The simple truth of the matter is that even if American Christians equated their practice of slavery with what they read about in the Bible (which, as this post as made clear, they should not have; the two practices were fundamentally different), if they had paid attention to Paul’s admonitions to Philemon, the practice of slavery would have been stopped dead in its tracks. Paul’s message to Christian slave owners is that they should view their slaves as Christian brothers and sisters (or at least, as potential brothers and sisters) in the family of God, and to treat them accordingly. In such a family where all are equally servants of God, there is no place for slavery.
Alas, Paul’s words to Philemon went unheeded or overlooked by too many who considered themselves to be Christians and supported the abhorrent practice of slavery. It is their interpretation and application of Scripture and their practice of Christianity that must be condemned; not Scripture nor Christianity themselves.
 I am using “1800s” here simply as a form of shorthand; the practice of slavery certainly existed in the American colonies dating back to the 1600s.
 Ben Witherington III, A Week in the Life of Corinth (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012), 9.
 Witherington, ibid.
 Ben Witherington III, Conflict & Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 & 2 Corinthians, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1995), 99.
 Witherington, Conflict & Community, ibid.
 Witherington, A Week in the Life of Corinth, 9-10.
 Witherington, Conflict & Community, 184.
 Witherington, A Week in the Life of Corinth, 9.
 Witherington, Conflict & Community, 185.