Christian History Project. This site contains the text of 12 volumes on the history of mankind over the last 2,000 years written from a 'collectively-denominational' Christian perspective.

Bible and Slavery |
Why the Bible condones slavery

Bible and Slavery is drawn from Chapter Seven, beginning on page 209, of Volume Two, A Pinch of Incense of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit www.TheChristians.info.

But when the campaign to abolish it finally began, it was the Christians who would lead it–often against fierce opposition from other Christians

Bible and Slavery - Why the Bible condones slavery–all the ancient world depended on it

Bible and Slavery – Why the Bible condones slavery–all the ancient world depended on it
A sculpture of a young black slave, from Aphrodisias, Turkey. With manual labor beneath the dignity of Roman citizens, slavery was omnipresent in the Roman world.

Though it was Christians who during the next twenty centuries would lead the world in a battle to stamp out slavery–often against the determined opposition of other Christians–that battle began, during an era of almost universal acceptance of the practice, which had long been pervasive throughout the Greco-Roman world. As far as is known, Jesus had never preached against slavery; in fact, Paul described Christians as “slaves of God” (Rom. 6:22).

Until the fourth century, the only other mention of slavery by Christians was in the form of appeals to slave masters for compassion and to slaves themselves for obedience. “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect, fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ,” Paul wrote in Ephesians 6:9. “Masters, treat your slaves in the same way. And 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.”

Slavery was everywhere accepted in the Mediterranean world, as it was in all major civilizations of the time from Mesopotamia to China. Both the Roman and Greek economies were actually based on slavery, in that slaves comprised the primary workforce in the countryside and the cities. Two cultural traditions made slave labor vital in the Roman Empire. First, it was not acceptable for freemen to take orders from anyone except their fathers or military leaders. Second, it was beneath the dignity of Roman citizens to actually perform manual labor.

By the time of Claudius (a.d. 41—54), historian Edward Gibbon estimates, slaves equaled freemen in number. Later historians put the proportion at perhaps one-third slave in most urban centers. A typical Christian congregation included both slave owners and slaves.

Moral concerns had seldom surfaced. Plato, for example, included a slave class in his ideal republic. Aristotle held that “from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.” He presented the view that prevailed among Greeks and Romans: Slavery was good for everyone. Masters gained workers, and slaves benefited from the guidance of their superiors. Only the small sect of the Essenes at Qumran and the Egyptian-Jewish community called the Therapeutae are known to have rejected slavery in principle.1

Slavery as practiced in the first-century Roman Empire differed significantly from that in later centuries. Race, for example, played almost no role. Slaves came from all races. Education of slaves was encouraged, and some were better educated than their owners. Many slaves held highly sensitive and responsible positions. They could own property (including other slaves). Their religious practices and responsibilities were the same as those of the freeborn. No laws prohibited public assembly of slaves. Most significant: Urban and domestic slaves could usually expect to be freed by age thirty.

Nor were legal and social status precisely linked. For example, a slave named Erastus was the treasurer of the provincial capital of Corinth, and was probably the most socially distinguished member of that city’s Christian congregation. On the other hand, the relationships of masters and slaves were often ambivalent. Slaves or ex-slaves were generally treated as social inferiors, regardless of wealth.

However, many slaves led wretched lives. Those who had been sentenced to slavery by the court as convicted criminals had no hope of manumission, that is, release. Such convicts were usually worked to death in mines or rowing galleys, or forced to fight to the death as gladiators. In rural areas, many slaves performed arduous manual labor. In urban settings some were forced into prostitution, even as children.

On the other hand, domestic slaves often had only light duties, and many slaves worked in what were essentially civil service positions. Indeed, they pursued a wide variety of occupations. Slave ranks included doctors, teachers, writers, grammarians, accountants, agents, bailiffs, overseers, secretaries, singers, actors, and sea captains.

Romans followed practices already established by the Greeks to make the system work smoothly. Beyond receiving room and board, slaves were allowed to earn and save money, and to make contracts. They were given holidays. Often a time limit was placed on their servitude. After a.d. 200, they were allowed to marry, although it remained more usual for a monogamous couple to live in concubinage. For many, slavery provided not only economic security, but also an avenue to eventual prosperity. Most contemplated the prospect of eventual manumission as a reward for faithful work.

Besides being enslaved as a court-imposed punishment following criminal conviction, a variety of circumstances led to people becoming slaves.

Some were sentenced to slavery for debt. (Athens was unique among cities in outlawing enslavement for debt.) Some were born into slavery; some had been taken prisoner in war or captured by pirates. Stealing other human beings had been practiced in the Mediterranean basin for centuries. Often in these societies, people simply abandoned unwanted babies, leaving them to die of exposure. If found alive, these infants were usually raised as slaves.

Many people sold themselves into slavery: to pay debts; to obtain a special job; to climb socially (since Roman citizenship might be bestowed upon release); and most often, to live a more secure and less strenuous life than the freeborn poor could expect. Domestic slaves acquired the social status of the master’s household. Slaves who saved enough money were often able to buy back their freedom. Some earned release by performing a particular service. Many were willed freedom at their master’s death.

The frequency of manumission actually became a problem in the Roman Empire. Caesar Augustus introduced laws to limit the numbers who could be freed. After the first century, following the end of the great wars of conquest that had brought in a steady stream of captive soldiers, the children of slaves served as the primary source.

Meanwhile, even without explicit teachings in opposition to slavery, Christianity began to erode the system’s foundations. Second-century Christians like Justin Martyr deplored the buying and selling of children. Others railed against the trade in gladiators. The spur for this growing Christian opposition to slavery lay in Christian insistence on the equality of all people in Christ. Christian salvation–faith’s greatest gift–was equally available to slave and free, and was more important than earthly circumstances. Christians did not share the Roman contempt for work. They regarded converted slaves as brothers and sisters.

“For we were all baptized by one Spirit in the body–whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free,” Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 12:13. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” In Romans 8:38, he declared that there should be no worldly impediment between believer and God. Thus, from that beginning, Christianity would come to play a decisive historical role in the elimination of slavery.

This is the end of the Bible and Slavery category article drawn from Chapter Seven, beginning on page 209, of Volume Two, A Pinch of Incense. To continue reading more about Bible and Slavery from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at www.TheChristians.info