Wednesday, 24 July 2019

The Sociocultural Context of the New Testament (Part 5): Households and Slavery


In the New Testament we read about the households of a nobleman of Cana (John 4:53), Cornelius (Acts 10:2; 11:14), Lydia (Acts 16:15), the jailer at Philippi (Acts 16:31-34), Crispus (Acts 18:8), Aristobulus (Rom. 16:10), Narcissus (Rom. 16:11), Chloe (1 Cor. 1:11), Stephanas (1 Cor. 1:16; 16:15-17), Onesiphorus (2 Tim. 1:16; 4:19), and even Caesar (Phil. 4:22). Specific instructions are given for Christian households,a number of which would have formed the nucleus of local congregations.

In the ancient Mediterranean world a “household” [oîkos“was essentially a patriarchal institution, with other members of the household, not least wives, children, and slaves, subject to the authority of its male head” (J. D. G. Dunn, Theology of Paul 591 n. 128). This generalized description, however, does not consider households (without a male head) managed by women (e.g. Acts 12:12; 16:14-15; cf. Rom. 16:1-2; 1 Cor. 1:11). Certain household communities would have also included “not only immediate relatives but also slaves, freedmen, hired workers, and sometimes tenants and partners in trade or craft” (W. A. Meeks, First Urban Christians 75-76). 


Christianity entered a world where slavery was already an established element of society and regarded as an economic necessity, though not necessarily comparable to the harsher forms in other times and societies. It has been estimated that 1 in 5 of the Empire’s population and 1 in 3 of Italy’s population were slaves.The condition of slavery was the result of prisoners of war, criminal conviction, debt, abandoned children, or birth to a slave mother. A more sinister means involved the so-called  andrapodistē(1 Tim. 1:10), i.e., enslaver, slave-dealer, kidnapper, or one who steals and sells another’s slaves.

Different kinds of slavery co-existed, and one must be careful not to make sweeping generalizations. Ethnicity and race were not determinative factors.Domestic house slaves were much better off than those (usually condemned criminals) working in the fields or mines. Educated slaves were valued. A slave middle class consisted of skilled craftsmen, secretaries, educators, and medical practitioners. Slaves could earn and save money and own property. Influential positions held by a number of slaves afforded benefits and power over free persons of lower social standing.4

M. Barth and H. Blanke observe: “The dividing line between slaves and free persons was not always sharply drawn or easily recognized …. Often a reasonably rich man’s slave was better off than a poor citizen in possession of all civil rights …. Among ancient slaves there were highly intelligent and well-trained people who did qualified work and had — especially in Paul’s day — a fair chance of being eventually manumitted and/or of marrying into the owner’s or another free person’s family …. in many respects an ancient slave’s treatment was better and his life conditions more secure than those of a nineteenth-century factory worker” (Letter to Philemon 3-4).

Being a Roman slave was not necessarily a permanent plight, as indicated by the plethoric former slaves throughout the Empire. Antonius Felix, procurator of Judea (Acts 23:26–24:27), was a freed slave (cf. Tacitus, Histories 5.9). In Jerusalem there was a “synagogue of freedmen” (Acts 6:9), apparently founded by Jewish ex-slaves. However, manumission was no guarantee that one’s social and economic circumstances would improve, and in many cases would have resulted in destitution. Depending on the wealth, status, and temperament of the owner, emancipation might not be the desirable option.

The New Testament does not enjoin, endorse, or condone slavery but simply gives regulatory instructions within the existing social structure. In his letter to Philemon (a Christian slave-owner), Paul urges a new relationship between Philemon and Onesimus but stops short of demanding emancipation. Elsewhere Paul encourages Christian slaves who could legally obtain freedom to take advantage of this opportunity, but otherwise their situation in life was to be accepted and used to the glory of God (1 Cor. 7:17-24). A Christian slave was still free in Christ (cf. Gal. 5:1), just as a free Christian was Christ’s slave (1 Cor. 7:22). Even though Paul taught compliance for slaves and fairness for masters (Eph. 6:5-9; Col. 3:22–4:1), the principles of Christianity were to mitigate the harshness of slavery and eventually lead to its demise.5

--Kevin L. Moore

     Eph. 5:22–6:9; Col. 3:18–4:1; 1 Tim. 3:4; 5:4, 8; 6:1-2; Tit. 2:1-10; 1 Pet. 2:18-20; 3:1-7. 
     M. Cartwright, “Slavery in the Roman World,” Ancient History Encyclopedia (1 Nov. 2013), <Web>. During the 1st century approximately 16-20 percent were reportedly slaves within a population of about 60 million (W. V. Harris, “Towards a Study of the Roman Slave Trade” MAAR 36:117-40); some estimates are as high as 33-40 percent (K. R. Bradley, Slavery and Society 33). 
     “Many of these slaves were natives of Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. Later, as the Roman Empire expanded westward, the peoples of Britain, Germany, and Gaul (modern-day France) became new sources for slave labor” (R. E. Van Voorst, Reading the NT Today 93-94).
     S. S. Bartchy, “Slaves and Slavery,” in The World of the NT [eds. J. B. Green and L. M. McDonald] 172-73.
     Cf. 1 Cor. 12:13; Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:11; 1 Tim. 6:1-2; Tit. 2:9-10; 1 Pet. 2:18-21. When a 1st-century slave owner obeyed the gospel, the master-slave relationship was turned on its head. He was taught to treat his slaves like he wished to be treated (Matt. 7:12), to love them as himself (Matt. 22:39), to put their interests before his own (Phil. 2:3-4), and instead of threatening, to serve them out of respect for Christ (Eph. 6:9). “Slavery is turned upside down, so that the master becomes the servant of his servant…. The gospel changed a master and a slave into family and that is one of the miracles of Christianity” (W. McAdams, “Does the Bible Condone Slavery?” Radically Christian [6 Sept. 2017], <Web>). See also B. M. Metzger, The New Testament: Background, Growth, Content (3rd ed.) 268-69.

Related Articles: Kyle Butt, The Bible and Slavery

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