Early Christian Slavery, Early Christian Slaves

The NT evidence is clear that the earliest Christians owned, bought and sold slaves, and the NT writings overwhelmingly uphold the rights and privileges of slaveholders. Nonetheless, enslaved believers belonged to early Christian congregations, which they joined for both this-worldly and spiritual reasons.

See also: The First Christian Slave: Onesimus in Context (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2021)

By Mary Ann Beavis
Professor Emerita
Religion and Culture
St. Thomas More College, CA
February 2024

Introduction

To contemporary Christians, the idea that slavery went unchallenged in the early church, and that ancient believers both owned, and sometimes were, slaves, is difficult to square with ideals of Christian freedom, equality and morality. Historically, the absence of anti-slavery teachings in the NT has been used to uphold it as an institution sanctioned by the Bible. Conversely, it has been argued, with little evidence, that the form of slavery practiced in NT times was relatively mild, and that some free persons actually sold themselves into slavery to improve their career prospects, on the understanding that they would eventually be freed (see discussion in Glancy 2006, 80-85). Another apologetic is that although the NT does not forbid slavery, its redemptive potential eventually (over the course of nearly two millennia!) resulted in the abolition of slavery. 
 

         In order to provide readers with some clarity on these issues, this essay will review what the NT reveals about earliest Christian attitudes to slaves and slavery, and tackle the thornier issue of the identity and experience of early Christian slaves.

Early Christian Slavery       

Considerable scholarship has been devoted to the topic of early Christian slavery. In general, this work has focussed on the fact that early Christian believers undeniably and unapologetically owned slaves (e.g., Glancy 2006, Harrill 2006). The term “slave” (doulos) appears 122 times in the NT. Historically, English translations—notably, the KJV—have often rendered this word as “servant,” but in context it is clear that the authors took for granted chattel slavery—in which people were the property of slaveholders, could be bought and sold by them, and as such could be used and abused at will.

         Slaves are stock figures in the Gospel parables (Mark 12:1-12//Matthew 21:33-44//Luke 20:9-18; Mark 13:33-37; Matt 13:24-30; 18:23-35; Matthew 22:1-14//Luke 14:15-24; Matthew 24:45-51//Luke 12:42-48; Matthew 25:14-30//Luke 19:12-27; Luke 12:35-38; 15:11-32; 16:1-8; 17:7-10), not only illustrating that the presence of slaves was part and parcel of daily life, but that the abuse of enslaved people went unquestioned—even by Jesus. For example, in the parable of the faithful and unfaithful slaves (Matt 24:45-51), a household slave is severely punished (literally, “cut in two”) for neglecting his duties; in the parable of the talents, a slave is harshly disciplined for not earning interest on a deposit left with him by his master for safekeeping (Matt 25:14-30). In the parables, slaves are portrayed positively when they do the will of their masters. If they are rewarded it is by added responsibility—they are never given their freedom (an exception to this rule is the extra-biblical Shepherd of Hermas, Parable 5). Even in the one parable where a slaveholder returns home at an unexpected hour and finds his slaves faithfully watching for him, their reward is that he invites them to dine with him and actually serves them (Luke 5:35-38)—a temporary, and highly unusual, role reversal.

          Examples drawn from the lives of the enslaved are a feature of teaching attributed to Jesus: no one can serve two masters (Matt 6:24//Luke 16:13); a slave is not above a master (Matt 10:24-25; John 13:16; 15:20); whoever wishes to be first among the disciples must be a slave of all (Mark 10:44//Matt 20:27); sinners are slaves to sin (John 8:34); slaves, unlike sons, do not have a permanent place in the household (John 8:35). Like the “slave parables,” these sayings assume an audience of free persons who are invited either to regard themselves as the rightful children of God, or, more often, to humble themselves in a slave-like way to their teacher/master. For actual slaves, such teachings would be a kind of “double trouble,” not only urging them to submit themselves to their owners, but also to their spiritual leaders (Kartzow 2018).

        Several NT letters contain instructions for slaves and slaveholders (Col 3:22-24; Eph 6:5-9; 1 Tim 6:1-2; Tit 2:9-10). 1 Peter 2:20-21 admonishes slaves to endure beatings in imitation of Christ’s suffering: “If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do good and suffer for it, this is a commendable thing before God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps” (all biblical quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are from the NRSVUE). There is scant evidence that believing slaveholders treated the slaves in their households significantly better than their unbelieving neighbors, even if the enslaved were also believers. For example, 1 Tim 6:1-2 instructs: “Let 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. Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful to them on the ground that they are brothers and sisters; rather, they must serve them all the more, since those who benefit by their service are believers and beloved.” In other words, enslaved believers should not expect special treatment from believing slaveholders; rather, they should redouble their efforts to please them. The famous baptismal formula in Gal 3:28 (“There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus”) assumes that there are enslaved people in the ecclesia, but the equality envisioned is spiritual, not temporal (cf. 1 Cor 12:13; Col 3:11; Eph 6:8). The similar teaching in Colossians 3:11 (“there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, enslaved and free, but Christ is all and in all”) is followed by the admonition for slaves to obey their “earthly masters” in the hope of an eschatological reward. Admittedly, the similar teaching in Eph 6:5-9 adds a brief instruction for masters to treat their slaves “in the same way” (v. 9), but the admonitions to slaves are considerably longer and more detailed.

         Most of the letters cited above are Deutero-Pauline (likely not written by Paul) or non-Pauline (1 Peter). Paul himself used slavery as a metaphor for bondage to sin and death (Rom 6:5-14; 7:1-25; 8:21; Gal 4:1-11), and described believers as slaves of Christ (1 Cor 7:21-24; 9:19). The famous Philippians hymn (Phil 2:6-11) portrays the incarnation in terms of the pre-existent Christ humbling himself by taking on the form of a slave (mortal human being) as a prelude to his restoration to divine status. However, as Sheila Briggs has observed, the “enslavement” of Christ in the hymn is voluntary, unlike that of real-life slaves (Briggs 1989, 147-48).

         Paul’s only direct reference to slaves in his audience is 1 Cor 7:21-24, where he advises enslaved believers to make the best of their position in life, and not be unduly concerned about being manumitted. A great deal of scholarship has been devoted to the question of whether Paul was actually advising the enslaved to reject freedom if it was offered to them. Whatever the slave’s wishes, it was not up to the enslaved, but the slaveholder, whether or not he or she would be freed. Even a slave who managed to save enough money to purchase their freedom would be subject to the will—or whim—of the master. It is questionable whether real-life slaves would agree with Paul’s assertion that “whoever was called in the Lord as a slave is a freed person belonging to the Lord, just as whoever was free when called is a slave belonging to Christ” (1 Cor 7:22), although it may have been a slight comfort to some.

Early Christian Slaves

In contrast to the availability of research on early Christian slavery, much  less attention has been paid to the evidence concerning early Christian slaves themselves. This is not surprising, since virtually all of the evidence we have about early Christian slavery comes from authors who were either freeborn or freed persons, many of whom owned slaves. Thus, the NT authors, whether they personally owned slaves or not, tended to assume the perspective of the slaveholder, as opposed to the enslaved, thus reinforcing the authority of the master over the slave, and the latter’s obligation to remain humble and obedient. Although slaves clearly formed part of the community of believers, there is no expectation in NT writings that believing slaveholders should free their slaves (although there is scattered evidence that in the second century and later, a few churches collected funds to pay for the manumission of enslaved members [Harrill 1995]).

         Despite the slaveholder bias inherent in the texts, it is obvious that enslaved people did belong to early congregations of believers, since, as noted above, NT authors sometimes address them directly. However, few of them are actually named. Presumably, the slave girl (paidiskō) Rhoda (Acts 12:13-15) belonged to the church that met in the house of Mary of Jerusalem. The scribe Tertius (Latin: “Third”) who includes his own greeting to the believers in Rome (Rom 16:22) bore a name commonly given to slaves; so is Epaphroditus (Phil 2:19, 24, 4:25; cf. Phlm 23; Col 1:7; 4:12). A few names of Christian slaves from later centuries are extant: Euelpistos (Martyrdom of Justin 3), Felicitas, Revocatus, Saturninus and Secundulus (Passion of Perpetua 1), Sabine (Martyrdom of Pionius), Porphyry (Martyrs of Palestine), and Blandina (Martyrs of Vienne and Lyons). The prophet Hermas  (Shepherd of Hermas) was a freedman who may have been a member of a Christian household before his manumission. Patrick of Ireland was by his own account enslaved in Ireland for six years, an experience that led to his own conversion (see Beavis 2020).

         In the NT itself, the most famous slave is Onesimus, who, although he is mentioned only once in the letter to Philemon (Phlm 10), is the subject of the entire letter: “I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment.” Paul, imprisoned in an unspecified location (Phlm 1), writes to the leaders of a house church (Philemon, Apphia, and Archippus), asking for a favor relating to a man named Onesimus (“Useful”), like Tertius, a common slave name. Paul expresses his intent to return Onesimus, who had been “ministering” to the imprisoned Paul for some time, back to Philemon’s household with the request that he be treated  “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord” (Phlm 16).

         The usual explanation of the situation behind the letter is that Onesimus was a runaway who had sought out Paul in prison, perhaps to intercede with his master. However, it is extremely unlikely that a runaway slave would flee to a Roman prison! More likely, Philemon had sent Onesimus to Paul to provide services to the prisoner while he awaited trial. Such services would include providing him with food, water, and other necessities. Even Onesimus’ presence as a regular visitor would have been welcome to Paul, who would be vulnerable to feelings of isolation, anxiety, and depression in the extremely adverse setting of an ancient prison. Perhaps Onesimus was already a believer in the house church presided over by Philemon and Apphia, or perhaps he was evangelized by Paul. At time of writing, Philemon had insisted on the return of his human property, and Paul was sending Onesimus back to his household, bearing a letter requesting that he be treated with the consideration due to a brother in faith, as opposed to a slave. More than this, Paul strongly hints that he would like Onesimus to be returned to him (Phlm 13-14), so that his “usefulness” to him could be restored. This may have been a veiled request for Philemon to free his slave, or to lend or gift Onesimus to Paul to assist him in his ministry should he be acquitted.

         What Onesimus thought of Paul’s wishes for his future are impossible to discern with certainty. Perhaps he had become as fond of Paul as Paul was of him (“I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. . . . I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you” [Phlm 10, 12]). He may have concluded that service to Paul, whether as a freedman or as a slave, was preferable to his lot in Philemon’s household. The “service” rendered to Paul “in the chains of the Gospel” (Phlm 13) is referred to by the verb diakonē, related to the words “deacon” (diakonos) and “diaconal service” (diakonia). In early Christian literature, deacons are often associated with visiting and providing support to incarcerated believers (Beavis 2021, 84-85). Onesimus may have viewed his diaconal service to Paul, whether temporary or permanent, as an affirmation of his own spiritual worth.

         Scholars of early Christian slavery often invoke the concept of “social death,” the condition of the enslaved and other persons considered by the society at large not to be fully human, defined by Orlando Patterson as “the permanent, violent domination of natally alienated and generally dishonored persons” (Patterson 2000, 13). This is sometimes used to cast doubt on the notion that the subjectivity of ancient slaves can be reconstructed since they were “dead” in the eyes of society. However, this concept applies to free, slaveholding members of society, not to the enslaved themselves.

         Admittedly, there is very little primary evidence of the self-understanding of slaves from antiquity. In contrast to the scarcity of ancient sources, there are many published accounts by freed slaves of eighteenth- and especially nineteenth-century North America. These writings illustrate profusely that slaves had feelings, opinions, and hopes that contrasted with those of their enslavers. They struggled to maintain family ties, to better their prospects in life, and to maintain a sense of personal worth. They scrimped to buy their own freedom, and the freedom of their family members, risked their lives by fleeing slavery, and occasionally even planned and participated in revolts. They had rich and varied spiritual lives. Some, like Patrick of Ireland, experienced deeply felt religious conversions. Some became clergy, either ordained or unofficial. As Daina Ramey Berry puts it, enslaved people recognized their own “soul value,” the human and spiritual values that they found in themselves and each other (Berry 2017). Although the circumstances of ancient slaves were different in some details, there is no reason to doubt that ancient slaves, including Onesimus, did likewise.

         Interpreters have often regarded Phlm 18 (“If he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge that to me”) as evidence of the runaway slave hypothesis, taking it to mean either that Paul was willing to compensate Philemon for the temporary absence of his property, or even that he had committed theft before fleeing. If, as is more likely, Onesimus had been lent to Paul to look after him while he was in prison, Paul’s remark may mean that Onesimus had stayed with Paul longer than Philemon had anticipated, and that Philemon was tactfully blaming his slave, rather than Paul, for the inconvenience. Alternatively, Paul’s remark may simply be an invocation of the stereotype that the enslaved were prone to dishonesty (cf. Titus 2:9-10: “Urge slaves to be submissive to their masters in everything, to be pleasing, not talking back, not stealing, but showing complete and perfect fidelity, so that in everything they may be an ornament to the teaching of God our Savior”).

         This assumption that slaves were inherently dishonest relates to an issue that would have been an impediment to enslaved believers. For slaves, petty theft might be a risky way of improving their lives and, if they had families, of their partners and children. It might be conceived as recompense for unpaid labor—as Frederick Douglass put it, “the right to supply myself with what was my own” (Douglass 1892, 104-5). Pastoral exhortations not to steal—or commit other minor offences—might deprive enslaved believers of much-needed ways of ameliorating hunger and other forms of deprivation. Early Christian teachings regarding sexual morality would be impossible for the enslaved to obey, since they were forbidden to marry, and were subject to sexual use by their owners at any time. Believing slaves would no doubt have arrived at their own mental accommodations to such moral dilemmas.

         To contemporary Christians, it may seem self-evident that slaves would want to avail themselves of the benefits of the faith. However, ancient slaves could, with their masters’ permission, join other cults that offered them membership in a community and a sense of shared identity, as well as hope for a blessed afterlife. It is possible that, as ancient critics asserted, early Christian missionaries opportunistically proselytized vulnerable populations of women, children and slaves (Origen, Against Celsus 3.49-50, 55; Minucius Felix, Octavius 8.3-4). Perhaps some, like Onesimus, were simply members of believing households, expected to participate in the family cult with more or less enthusiasm. Although it rarely happened, they may have hoped that their coreligionist masters might be more likely to manumit them, or that at least treat them with more consideration. As members of a house church, slaves might have the opportunity to authoritatively pray and prophesy in the assembly (cf. Acts 2:18), or, like Philemon, to serve in diaconal or other special roles (Phlm 13; cf. Pliny, Letter to Trajan 10.96.8), if and when they had the time and opportunity. According to early church tradition, Onesimus eventually became the bishop of Ephesus—an idea usually dismissed by scholars as unlikely, but not unthinkable in the light of the indisputable evidence that the fugitive slave Patrick famously became Bishop of Ireland.

         Niall McKeown remarks that: “We cannot look into the hearts of the long-dead, but we must be more open to the possibility that many slaves acted as they did for primarily religious reasons, and not just to spite their masters” (2012, 301). However imperfectly lived out in the ancient churches, the soul value of the enslaved is implicit in scattered NT teachings: the baptismal creed of Gal 3:28 (1 Cor 12:13; Col 3:11; Eph 6:8) and Rev 18:13, where the “bodies” of enslaved human beings are pointedly identified as “human souls” (psychas anthrōpōn). As Glancy observes, “By emphasizing that not only bodies but also souls were for sale, John implicitly condemned the practice of trading in human flesh” (2006, 85)—and affirmed the soul value of the “bodies” bought and sold in the Roman empire.

Conclusion

The NT evidence is clear that the earliest Christians owned, bought and sold slaves, and the NT writings overwhelmingly uphold the rights and privileges of slaveholders. Nonetheless, enslaved believers belonged to early Christian congregations, which they joined for both this-worldly and spiritual reasons. It is important not to underplay either the harshness and immorality of early Christian slavery, or to forget that enslaved persons made their own contributions to the church, both in antiquity and throughout most of Christian history, often despite, rather than because of, biblical teachings on slavery.

References

Beavis, Mary Ann. “Six Years a Slave: The Confessio of St. Patrick as Slave Narrative.” Irish Theological Quarterly 85,4 (2020): 1-13.

———. The First Christian Slave: Onesimus in Context. Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2021.

Berry, Daina Ramey. The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, From Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation. Boston: Beacon, 2017.

Briggs, Sheila. “Can an Enslaved God Liberate? Hermeneutical Reflections of Philippians 2:6-11.” Semeia 47 (1989): 137-53.

Douglass, Frederick. Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself. New York:  Macmillan, 1962 [1892].

Glancy, Jennifer E. Slavery in Early Christianity. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006.

Harrill, J. Albert.  The Manumission of Slaves in Early Christianity. Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1995.

———. Slaves in the New Testament: Literary, Social, and Moral Dimensions. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006.

Kartzow, Marianne Bjelland. The Slave Metaphor and Gendered Enslavement in Early Christian Discourse: Double Trouble Embodied. Routledge Studies in the Early Christian World. London: Routledge, 2018.

McKeown, Niall. “Magic, Religion, and the Roman Slave: Resistance, Control, and Community.” In Slaves and Religions in Graeco-Roman Antiquity and Modern Brazil, edited by Stephen Hodkinson and Dick Geary, 279-308. Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars, 2012.

Patterson, Orlando. Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982, 2018.

Article Comments

Submitted by Dave Lindsay on Sat, 03/02/2024 - 12:33

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Mary:
Most interpreters have followed the old theory that Onesimus was a runaway slave even though it based on flimsy logic. I agree with your statement that it is "more likely, Onesimus had been lent to Paul to look after him while he was in prison." Most scholars see a connection between Colossians and Philemon and think that Epaphras travelled from Colossae to visit Paul in prison and bring news about the Colossian Church. That could have been a perfect time for Philemon to send Onesimus along as a companion with Epaphras.

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