Slavery in the First Century

There is an obvious need for a clear understanding of slavery as we approach the book of Philemon.   In this  post I want to summarize a few points from John Byron on slavery.   The article is dealing with Paul’s metaphor of a slave, but some of the information provides an excellent entry point into the difficulties of dealing with slavery in the first century.

John Byron surveys recent attempts to deal with Paul’s slavery metaphors in New Testament studies.  The bulk of the article deals with a shift from the work of Bartchy in 1973 which made extensive use of Greco-Roman and Jewish legal texts to more recent sociological studies by Patterson and others.  Bartchy’s view was that slavery in the first century was “decidedly benign,” while Patterson argues that slavery was equivalent to a “death experience.”  Bartchy’s views have been far more influential on New Testament commentaries than Patterson’s studies, perhaps skewing the point of Paul’s metaphor of slavery.   Byron’s article is a challenge to the commonly taught idea of selling one’s self into slavery to pay debts and the possibility of a better life as a slave.

This debate highlights the problem of sources.  Bartchy, for example, uses legal texts to show that there was a softening of attitudes toward slaves in the first century which made the slave into something more like “employee” rather than property.  There are a number of problems with using legal, as Byron points out in his conclusion.  The main source for Roman Law is dated to A.D. 533, well after the first century.  In addition, there is a great difference between a law and actual social attitudes.  Bartchy may cite laws protecting slaves, but there is no real evidence that society accepted those laws or that authorities always enforced them. Even in America, we know that simply having a law does not guarantee everyone obeys the law, nor does the law tell us anything about society’s attitude toward the law.  Traffic laws would be a good example here.  Someone studying American law could say the maximum speed on the highway is no more than 70 M.P.H., but we know this is not the case at all.  In some cases, authorities may choose not to enforce a strict speed limit.  The same may have been true for slavery, therefore Roman law becomes less secure for reconstructing actual practice towards slaves in the first century.  Consistency in application of laws is not a forgone conclusion in the case of slavery in the world of the first century.

There are other literary sources for slavery dating to the first century which may provide some data.  Philosophers are often cited as indicating a shift in society’s attitude toward slavery.  As Byron notes, there is no evidence these writings reflect public sentiment.  In fact, one might argue there are very few times in history where the writings of a philosopher accurately reflected the views of society as a whole!  It is possible to miss the point of a philosopher by not taking a saying in context of their system of thought.  For example, the oft-cited view of Seneca that masters ought to not mistreat their slaves is not an example of a softening of attitudes toward slaves but rather an example of the Stoic ethic of self-control.
References to slaves appear in the satirists and in novels.  These references are also problematic since they do not really say anything about the status of a slave in the society.  To take sayings of Marital, for example, as indicative of the general thinking of the populace is akin to taking Jerry Sienfeld as an example of how all Americans think.  Novels which portray slaves as virtuous, socially mobile, etc. are poor evidence since the slave character is usually a prince who has wrongfully been enslaved and overcomes this setback and is restored to his proper status in the end.  The novelist and satirist do not intend to give a sociological opinion of the status of the slave in the first century, therefore it would be dangerous to rely too heavily on them in our research.

There is much to be learned from the sociological approaches to slavery described by Byron.  These studies seem to turn the accepted view of slavery one normally encounters in a commentary on Philemon around in a completely opposite direction. The law codes are a “legal fiction” and slavery was far from a pleasant experience.  If one was forced into slavery it was as if one has died.  This was no mere economic decision (selling yourself into seven years of slavery to pay off a debt, for example.)  The slave, at the social level, was no longer a person but rather he has become property and is no longer his own. This “dying to self” and giving up personal ownership to a master is an appealing element when looking at Paul’s use of the metaphor, but it may be more influenced by American / western values of individuality and freedom rather than that of the Greco-Roman world.  Was “freedom” more important than slavery?  Perhaps not, sometimes it my have been better to be a slave to a powerful person than a freedman.

How does this “background” effect the way we look at Philemon and his slave, Onesimus?

John Byron, “Paul And The Background Of Slavery: The Status Quaestionis In New Testament Scholarship,” CBR 3.1 (2004) 116-139.

38 thoughts on “Slavery in the First Century

  1. Wow. With this perspective, Paul’s letter to Philemon seems to be less of a letter about Paul request as a friend vs. an authority. This letter may have been the very thing that kept Onesimus alive. I have never encountered slavery (that I know of), but I am reminded of a friend of mine in TZ. This friend was beaten by his older sister, when he was disobedient. I remember sitting against a house talking with him and two other friends, when his sister came holding a long stick. He screamed, instantly burst into tears, and tried frantically to get away. But his sister grabbed his arm and caried him off, to punish him for his disobedience. In my mind, this is a better picture of the severity of a slaves disobedience. With this in mind, Paul’s friend vs. authority statements seem to be a way of keeping Philemon from becoming more angry, but hopefully willing to forgive.

  2. This is a very interesting subject. You are right Zach, Onesimus seems to be shielded by the letter, considering the questions that this post raises. I have never had any run-ins with slavery myself, but the assumptions based on insufficient evidence, Sienfeld as a classic case in point as P Long described, would be enough for reasonable doubt concerning the state of slavery in the first century. The face value seems positive enough, but not sufficient for a basis for facts. Whatever the case, freedom or not, the slave metaphor still appeals to me, I would rather be a slave to the all powerful God rather than free to live in my own vices. Whether this was the case in the first century, the faithfulness to a master in whatever circumstance still seems to be a commendable practice.

  3. P Long questions the use of novels or satire as evidence of a slave’s standing in the culture that produced those works, summing up: “The novelist and satirist do not intend to give a sociological opinion of the status of the slave in the first century, therefore it would be dangerous to rely too heavily on them in our research.”

    I both agree and disagree with this statement. Doesn’t every literary work present ideas in the author’s mind? And as such, is it not revelatory of at least one person’s concept of a topic (in this case, the status of a 1st-century slave) ? At the very least, it seems to me, we have to say that this is one contemporary view and as such it does reveal part, if not all, of the picture.

    On the other hand, we have an excellent example in our own country and more or less recent history of how incomplete a picture one individual’s experience, intent, and prejudice may provide. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in the 1850’s, with the express purpose of raising anti-slavery sentiment. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the picture she painted was a vilification of slavery in the South out of all proportion to reality. While it is true that what happened to Uncle Tom could have happened, and possibly did to a limited number of slaves, it was far from the daily life of most slaves in the areas of which she wrote. However, the people of the North who had no personal experience of slavery read the novel, took it as fact, and were incensed. That one book had a lot to do with the Civil War taking place – Lincoln supposedly called Stowe, “the little lady that started this big war” – and it shaped and continues to shape many societal perceptions of slavery. But it is far from being a sociological treatise, and presents no genuine data whatsoever.

    All of that to say – it’s got to be pretty tough to come up with a good picture of what slavery was like in the first century, because it seems clear from P Long’s outline of the data available that there’s not much for cold hard fact. The Philemon epistle may be the most trustworthy document we have available, since we know we can trust its veracity, we know it refers to people who really lived, and we know the intent of the author. That being the case, I think Paul’s stated intent and the intensity with which he pursues it are strong clues.

    I do believe that the text itself in Philemon makes it pretty clear that Paul was concerned for the safety and wellbeing of Onesimus. He plays the authority card, “though I might be very bold in Christ to command you”; the affection card, “yet for love’s sake I rather appeal to you”; the age card, “Paul, the aged”; the trials card, “a prisoner “; the relationship card, “my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten while in my chains” (“while in my chains”? I mean, seriously – it’s right around here I always start to feel sorry for Philemon!!!); the changed character card, “once unprofitable…to you, but now is profitable”; the trust card – he sends him back; and it goes on – guilt-trip, calling in favors, appeal to nobility of character, offering to personally supply any loss Philemon has suffered, and “writing in [his] own hand”.

    Paul is pleading for Onesimus, and there’s no way he stacked that deck of powerful arguments without holding a strong concern for Onesimus’ wellbeing. It seems to me that, whatever the universal situation of slaves may have been, this is one slave that was in for a very rough time had it not been for Paul’s intervention. And why should Paul assume this to be the case if it were not common practice? Was he expecting a Christian master to be more cruel than a pagan one? That hardly seems likely.

    • Good critique, although I my point is that Marital is more like Jerry Sienfeld (or maybe Bill Mahr?) than Harriet Beecher Stowe. There is social criticism, but it is embedded in layers of humor, sarcasm and perversity so that it is hard to know what is reflecting the culture of the day and what is exaggeration for humor’s sake. I am not sure I would want to write a study of American culture and morals based solely on the Simpsons and Family Guy. Amusing at that may be, it is bound to be skewed by the genre of the evidence.

      I am certain that Paul cared deeply for Onesimus, that is not under debate. According to history (legend?) Onesimus eventually becomes a bishop in Ephesus.

  4. As one looks to slavery, independent of the time period in which it has or is taking place, there must be an understanding of the evils of human nature. We are reminded throughout the Bible that man’s thoughts and heart is bent on evil. Romans 7 describes the fierce battle which goes on in our minds against sin. When considering slavery, even if it were the described ‘beneficial’ situation there would still be instances of abuse because of the fallen nature of the world. However, with a Christian worldview this changes everything with a person. If they are in Christ, they will be filled with the Spirit and no longer seek to harm anyone in anyway (but that is beside the point). The point here is that there will always be abuse to some extent. It seems from Byron that there is little evidence that can be wholly trusted with regard to this issue, it could go either way. What can be counted on is the evilness within man. Therefore, slavery could have indeed taken on a very cruel nature. To be honest, I do not think that this system was ideal. However, Polhill makes a good point in saying that if Paul were to go against slavery, Christians would not only become a rebellious people, but if slavery were to be ended abruptly then the whole Roman economy would fail resulting in a catastrophe. Philemon in mind, had Onesimus escaped, punishment would be the correct admonishment, maybe even death. In an attempt to spare Onesimus pain, reconcile new brothers in Christ and keep with a ‘Christian ethic’ Paul had to address Philemon.

    • Good comment Caleb, and I think that Polhill’s answer to the very hard problem of why Christians did not stop using slaves is correct — they reformed slavery rather than end it. And I also think that hte church should have continued that reform and ended slavery sooner than they did.

      My point above was simply to say that slavery in first century Rome was potentially better than 19th century America.

  5. Slavery…When most people hear the world they think of it as a bad thing. Especially when you think of slavery in America. Yes, there were some good slave owners, but the were also some really bad slave owners. Also, most of the people that were in slavery were forced into slavery. They did not have a choice. They were taken from their homeland and brought to America. I think that we can not use that same view when we think of slavery in biblical times. Yes, there are some similar, but there are also some differences We have many stories of slaves in the Bible. Think of the little slave girl, she had a voice in her house that she was able to save her master. Think of Joseph. Yes, his brothers sold him into slavery, but when he was in Potiphar’s house it almost seems like he was in charge of the whole house hold. He had a lot of responsibilities, he also was given a lot of freedom, even though he was still a slave. I think sometimes, the way that you got to be given more responsibilities was if you able to be trusted and how you did the work. I think that Joseph was a guy who did everything with 100% effort and did not hold anything back. Because of that, Potiphar trusted him.
    I think that we need to realize that slavery was not always bad. You had your good owners but you also had your bad. I think that in Philemon and Onesimus case, this was a good master/slave relationship. Even though Onesimus ran away, I think that Philemon was a good master. I do not think that he would have treated Onesimus harshly if he was a follower of Christ. Onesimus was a good worker; we see that because he was a great blessing to Paul. Paul did not want Philemon to put Onesimus to death because what he did required the death punishment. But I think because Onesimus got saved, Paul wanted Philemon to show mercy on him.

    • Im sorry, if there is slavery there are going to be more people that are going to take advantage of a human being than it being good. It is like setting up a socialist government. It is good on paper and it will help out some, but as a whole it cheats people and demotivates them. Slavery in the first century probably was similar to what we have seen recently. If you quote all the good examples of Joseph and maybe even Onesimus we can see hundreds of bad examples. Just look at all the conquests of the nations. When Israel was scattered they were massacred and scattered from where they were. They were put into slavery. This was NOT good. Women were taken advantage of and the young men were put to work. This picture of slavery does not put a good light on it.

      To go even further I do not think that slavery was particularly good even during Onesimus’ time because there were cases of people running away. If they had a good master it would make more sense that they would not run away. But we see during that time that there were severe punishments for running away: DEATH. And we see here that there were cases that they did still run away even though they knew of this punishment. I do not know about you, but I would not run away unless it was worth the risk of dying. If I had somewhat of a good owner that would persuade me to not run.

      • As far as bad cases of slaver, no doubt. I would disagree with the running away bit. Why would a slave run away? To be sure, a bad master might be one of those reasons, however, Paul writes to Philemon as a Christian brother, not as some hideous slave owner. He treats both of them in familiar terms and shows affection for both parties. This cannot be the case then in Onesimus’ case. If this were so, I can imagine Paul writing a letter of rebuke to Philemon to tell him to shape up. What other reasons why a slave run away knowing it would result in death? Could it be that Onesimus did something that was already deserving of death so running away was of no consequence to him because either way he was supposed to die? A man would risks his life if he had nothing left to lose and it is likely from Paul’s remark in 18 that Onesimus offended Philemon in some way deserving of a death sentence. Paul writes a letter back to Philemon stating that whatever Onesimus had done to charge it to his account and to be able to forgive his slave for the wrong committed. To make it to Paul, Onesimus would have had means of travel and the finances to get him there. Once more, Onesimus was familiar enough with Paul to seek him out and plead his case. If he had not be familiar with Paul then he wouldn’t have known that Paul would have helped him out.

        It is likely that the two were reconciled and continued in their relation to one another as master and slave.

        Onesimus (the only account of a person as a slave, who is named and dealt with directly, in the Bible!), would have had other motives for running away, probably because he was already dead. So based on the one account we do have, a great deal can be said for their relationship. Yes, Paul was in practicality Philemon’s patron (by extension of the church) but we have already discussed a friendship letter and an authoritative letter. This is a friendship letter written to Philemon as a plea for Onesimus.

        I’m not saying that slavery is good, Brent. I don’t think any of us are saying that. But the kind of ruthless treatment of American slaves has no bounds on Greco-Roman society. I have yet to see any convincing evidence that slave life for the most part is a majority of the time bad. Yes, there are some inconsistency of sources; yes, there are some holes in an argument for a better slavery. However, I think it is the most coherent view thus far for the very fact that though the other side can claim that there is an inconsistency (as I can with the opposing view as well), there is a lack of evidence on the part of Byron other than criticisms.

  6. I really enjoyed this post again because it dealt with several good historical questions dealing with slavery. I am always intrigued with the concept of slaves because I cannot fathom holding a fellow human being captive like that.
    I would agree with P. Long where satirical and novels are not a good barometer to measure slavery by. I would use the same example as Hope, but she has already said all there is to say about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But she is non the less correct.

    P. Long’s bit about legal documents was interesting and made sense. Legal documents of a time seem like a good place to start, until you take int consideration the fact that within objective laws there is a great deal of subjective thinking that is involved with their enforcement. It is kind of like the technical law which states, “In the state of Michigan, a wife may not get her hair cut without the permission of her husband.” (true old school law by the way), but when was the last time anyone has heard of this law being enforced?

    “Sometimes it my have been better to be a slave to a powerful person than a freedman.” WOW! it is scary how much sense this makes when you mull it over a bit.

    • In Seattle, it is illegal for a cat to chase a dog up a telephone pole.
      In Texas, it is illegal to fish with a lasso.
      In New York, it is illegal to have a hippo in your apartment…if it weighs over 1000 lbs.
      In Seattle, it is illegal to carry a concealed weapon…over six feet in length.

      Josh makes a good point about some of the ridiculous laws that are written into being. However, it begs the question, Why were these laws created? When you think about it, a law is typically created because it is a matter of majority, or at least safety concern at the time. Granted it is impossible to know how the general public felt about or obeyed these laws, with examples like the speed limit, (good example by the way) but we can’t eliminate them all together either. It is very possible that at one time or another, whether before the 1st century or during the time that these letters were written, that the laws concerning slavery were indeed a matter of public concern.

      • well obivously the laws concerning slavery were a matter of public concern otherwise… why would they be in the Bible? like john pooints out of course the hair cutting law and slavery are not a matter of the same severity but isn’t the principle the same? it is a law put in place in an attempt to bring some kind of order to the people under said law. i think that maybe the way that it is enforced is the part that varies. even today in the U.S. there are people who are slaves. maybe not slaves in the traditional sense of the word, but there are people who are taking advantage of other people without respect for the law.

      • Silly laws are a diversion in this conversation, though, since the laws concerning slavery in the first century cannot be classed with these odd-ball sorts of things. It was legal and socially acceptable to own slaves, to have them manage most if not all your property, and treatment of the slave was not regulated and may have become abusive. But slavery was also a socially acceptable way to deal with debt, or even to me socially mobile – one could improve a child’s lot in life by selling them into slavery.

        Why the church did not eliminate the practice is a multi-level problem including history and sociological issues. It is hard to dismiss the issue with a “those ancient people were weird” strategy.

    • I’m not sure I agree with the stupid laws. I know they are created now (and most of them are because someone did some thing stupid so they made a law prohibiting that action in case it happens again but no one enforces it). I hardly think slavery and hair cutting are of the same severity.

  7. As I was thinking about slavery and the law from the post, I remembered that we are to be subject to the law as Christians (Romans 13.1-3; It’s how my old school used to keep us under the speed limit…). If there were laws about slavery, and I’m sure there were (where’s there’s government, there’s law) the church would then have been encouraged to uphold the governing laws, as long as they didn’t contradict God’s supreme law. This meant that knowledgeable Christian slaves would have been more valuable to Roman slave owners than their ignorant Greek counterparts. So, it just begs the question, why didn’t Christianity flourish more in the first and second century?

    • I think that is a good point to ponder. Maybe in Paul’s day with these Christians, that were either formerly Jews and Gentiles, thought and felt that they did not need to be under a seperate law that was not God’s himself.

  8. I liked the point P-long made about the law. Laws don’t always indicate the social attitudes and feelings of the general public. Slavery in America is a great example of this, there were still not that level of acceptance, and equality despite changed laws because it was a matter of social attitudes.
    The slavery issue in the Bible presents itself as problematic because as Polhill points out, “Paul called for emancipation nowhere in the epistle, or anywhere else for that matter” (348). As Christians we think, how can that be possible?! But Polhill makes the point that “The whole economy of the Roman Empire was established on slavery. Abolition of slavery would have meant total economic chaos, and any group advocating it would have been considered countercultural and dangerous” (348). I think that Paul in some ways had to fight the right battles at the right time and this was an issue that takes steps. He couldn’t jump to the desired end result, he could only tackle and focus on so many issues at once in his ministry. Spending ministry pushing for the abolition of slaves could have set the Roman society against Christians and hindered his ministry and mission. “Christianity was a small nascent movement fighting for its life. It did not have the power to effect a radical agenda of social transformation. It sought to adjust as much as possible to the social realities of the time” (349).

    • Reading through Polhill’s overview of Philemon, I was thinking much to similar lines. “Revolution” is a word with a broad definition and application to our culture today. We remember the Revolutionary War as the the fight for freedom from a tyrant, to become self governing bodies not subject to another Master or his taxes. The spirit of the Revolution is high in its intensity and remains that way in various other adapted forms of individuality and equality today. But the Civil War was a revolution as well, and also the suppression of this revolution for secession. About 100 years after America fought for it’s independence and freedom, this same self-governing body of democracy suppressed a revolt by force for preservation of it’s union. And if you look closely at, just even at the political level of things today, this spirit of supressionism also exists in various ways. I guess the point which I would like to argue here is that we suppose revolution for freedom as necessary and right and we adhere to radical views and movements without hesitation to fight for and uphold freedom because an individual has certain unalienable rights. But if this is the right spirit, then why does it still put up such a fight?

      The Greco-Roman perspective of slavery may have differed greatly from our culture today, but perhaps it doesn’t so much as we’d like to think. Perhaps we’re still fighting this radical fight for freedom of the individual, but it’s visual image is different than what we’d expect. But should we be? Certainly we cannot deny the great achievements of historical figures like William Wilberforce or Martin Luther King. But these were forerunners of social justice, not the advance of the gospel. Polhill suggested briefly that Paul did not urge such radical change of one’s social status, partially due to his near expectancy of Christ’s return. As noted above, there were numerous social circumstances that might have dissuaded radical movements for social reform, both for the economic stability of the economy and for the survival of Christianity itself which was “fighting for its life” (Polhill, 349).

      What is our perspective on slavery, freedom, liberty, revolution, independence, et cetera? Socially, we stress and emphasize liberty yet Christianity relinquishes every claim to self and individuality to God, becoming slaves and servants to Christ, aiming to do nothing outside of the will of God, nothing on our own power, nor making any decision based solely upon our own desires or intents. Can these emphases be contradictory? Might we have a misplaced priority of liberty and freedom and individuality, especially as Christians? There are two things about freedom we don’t normally contemplate, that it always comes with a cost to be paid, and it is always, at east socially and culturally speaking, limited no matter the degree of allowance…there is always a cap on freedom.

      Mainly, I want to leave off with Polhill’s last remarks in chapter 16 in regards to the countless interpretations of this text of history’s time. “We really cannot read between the lines” (Polhill, 349). We may never get a satisfactory and all together right and true understanding of the issue of slavery in Paul’s eyes, or in this first century context, because it is impossible for us to not read into it our cultural standards and, therefore, presuppositions.

      • Excellent post, Justin – you said “We may never get a satisfactory and all together right and true understanding of the issue of slavery in Paul’s eyes.” I agree, but also would point out that the lack of certainty should not stop us from trying — we have a much clearer perspective now on the issue of slavery than 150 years ago, and (I think) the world is better for it.

        We need to continue developing our thinking and seek a clear understanding of the Bible on all kinds of topics — what does the Bible say about Women, for example? If, as you say, Christianity did not address slavery strongly because it was “fighting for it’s life,” could we apply that thinking to gender-equality? Paul could not come out more strongly for a woman’s rights because of the first century place of women, but today we can advance the rights of women beyond what the Bible seems to allow?

        If that is true, what about other sexual issues, such as homosexuality? We need to be careful about how we determine what is something that is reformable and what is not, and what our method ought to be for drawing implications from the text of scripture.

        (By the way, this is the topic of an excellent book by William Webb, Slaves Women and Homosexuality. The book has provoked quite a few responses, but it asks some very pointed questions along these lines.)

    • “Christianity was a small nascent movement fighting for its life. It did not have the power to effect a radical agenda of social transformation. It sought to adjust as much as possible to the social realities of the time” (349).

      Nice comment. It seems extremely interesting that you would make the observation that Paul was making steps in this battle of slavery.

      “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother.” – Philemon 1:16 [NIV]

      I really like what Justin had to say also in regards to what Paul was actually attempting to do within this letter. If Paul was indeed expecting Christ to come back soon… what was Paul’s real focus?

      “Christianity was a small nascent movement fighting for its life. It did not have the power to effect a radical agenda of social transformation. It sought to adjust as much as possible to the social realities of the time” (349).

  9. It would seem that after this post we are still at a standstill. Even if we follow Byrons idea, none of us can truly know the social perpective on slavery in the first century as none of us were there. With that in mind, i think that Paul’s letter to Philemon is both, friendly, yet a harsh reminder of Paul’s authority.

  10. I will be the first to disagree with P.Long’s post. For one, the post is highlighting Bryon’s critique of Bartchy (following in the footsteps of Patterson). P.Long does not make his opinion known during the whole article. He cites Bryon and gives a “review” about the interesting character behind someone who was interested in a minority view and was able to do so persuasively. I remember in class and else where Long telling us about slavery conditions of the Greco-Roman world not being as American Slavery. However, Long is a fan of minority views (as can be seen in the location and date of both Galatians and Philippians); so I may have been reading the post wrong but it seemed he was giving a rather non-biased review of Byron.

    Even if the laws do not give an accurate picture of the treatment of slaves, a traffic violation is hardly a good example. “Bartchy may cite laws protecting slaves, but there is no real evidence that society accepted those laws or that authorities always enforced them.” There is also no evidence stating that society did not accept these laws. I saw no evidence to the contrary to this claim aside from contemporary examples (in the big picture American slavery is a contemporary example).

    Long’s “old” opinion (I say old because I do not know if he changed his stance due to this short critique), is stated in a series of questions that I want to flesh out. The first is the concept of “individuality.” The concept of the individual is a relatively modern concept. To be sure, there were concepts of the individual in Greco-Roman society but not to the extreme of American individualism or the western notion of “freedom.” Rome was extremely patriotic. We know this because they worshiped their emperor as a God and who ever didn’t was tried for high treason. Rome is very sensitive to treason, there are many accounts of cities losing their citizenship due to the fact they held Rome in contempt or took the wrong side in a war. So to be a part of Rome was more important than the individual. You were a Roman (a part of Rome, part of a household or a free man) before you were a man.

    The second question deals with our concept of “freedom.” Was freedom such a good thing for people of a lower standing? Roman citizenship was expensive, and hard to gain access to, first off. Only the wealthy could actually bribe their way to being freed. There were other ways of getting freedom, and that was joining the army. After so many years you would be freed after active service…if you lived to tell about it. Rome was constantly at war, not only with itself but also with border countries. Being in a Roman army was not like being in the army today, where you may or may not be called into active duty. Roman freedom, then, was not only expensive but extremely dangerous at times to obtain if not rare depending on where you lived and the status of the city you lived in. It seems (due to the matron/patron system) that everyone had a slave (by everyone I mean anyone who counted, namely the rich and powerful). Roman cities weren’t back road plantations. There were slaves who worked fields, yes. But there were also slaves who cleaned the house, cooked the food, raised the kids. Conditions may have been harsh if a slave disobeyed, but if you were poor, then you would have been excited to be taken in by a rich household. Even if you were free you would be poor still if you were poor beforehand. Being free did not automatically award you with land, a title, a job, and a decent income (at least if you didn’t have them first).

    For me there is too much evidence to the contrary of Byron’s opinion to feel remotely compelled to take it as my own. Yes, he argues persuasively that some of Bartchy’s sources are sketchy, but do we not rely on political satire to observe the social critique of eras? Do not novels give us a glimpse into a worldview? Yes, they are fictional, but all fiction follows some sort of pattern. To be a good novel critic you have to be able to pick up on the social commentary and social assumptions made by the author. I think Byron gives a good exercise to keep everyone on their toes to not except everything they read in commentaries, however, this summary of his critique is not enough to make me change my own view.

    • I really like Johns second point here. Our 21st century American citizens view of freedom is obviously going to be much different than that of citizens of first century Rome. John points out many of just simple facts from first century Rome that i’m sure we as a society just don’t think about (i know it is not the first thing i think). Things like having to buy Roman citizenship, being poor after freedom, and not having anywhere to go once you are free unless you already had someplace before you became a slave…

      So although it may have been rough for some, especially if they disobeyed, maybe it was better for them to be a slave?

    • >P.Long does not make his opinion known during the
      > whole article…Long is a fan of minority views…..Long’s
      > “old” opinion (I say old because I do not know if he
      > changed his stance due to this short critique)

      Ouch. I was trying to “rather non-biased review of Byron” yes, and to do so in 400 or so words. The issue of slavery as a social phenomenon is somewhat controversial, especially with respect to the question of “was slavery a good thing” for people. I think that you might consider reading the ABD article on slavery (which is by Bartchy, and will give you a bit of insight into his “side” of the argument.”

      The real issue is how you got to be a slave. A slave in Caesar’s household in Rome might have things pretty easy, especially compared to the exceeding poor free person who had to work very hard for his living. A slave might very well be a socially well-connected middle manager who was educated and literate, while a free man might be uneducated and starving.

      But if one was a captured soldier, you might find yourself in the salt mines getting your fair share of whipping. IMHO, Onesimus was the former, “upper class” slave rather than a captured soldier who was subject to abuse and the like.

      Hah. I gave an opinion that isn’t minority.

      • So then, is it better to be a slave to a rich man or a poor man free? Captured soldiers aside (the treatment of prisoners is a different issue here than a slave who was born a slave or a man who sells himself into slavery or why a man would do such a thing). I see your point that there are bad cases, but I don’t think in major metropolis’ this is as much of a problem. Maybe I’m wishy washy, but I think not.

        Sorry for the bad rep. Everyone was saying they agree with you when they actually agree with Byron, so that’s why I said that but I had to put a disclaimer in there just in case I had read your review wrong. I was sure it was an unbiased review, but just in case it wasn’t I had to let it be known that I also disagree with you in that case.

      • To add to this, I think I put a lot of faith in humanity as being good and not evil when in an ordered society. Maybe I’m naive but if humanity was evil then God wouldn’t have wasted his time, but I think there is a basic good because God created us good even if our nature is now fallen from God’s grace. I think people were still good (a bit barbaric, see the games and the Colosseum), but still I think there was still a general good in Greco-Roman society. I guess if you saw humans as the incarnate evil of creation, then you’re outlook on the treatment of slavery in the ancient world would be different then my own.

      • Bottom Line, Roman slavery is not as bad as 20th century fiction makes it out to be, for the most part. Since this is supposed to be background to Philemon, I suggest that Onesimus is not a lower level galley slave type, but a slave for a wealthy man and probably was educated, perhaps even a manger of Philemon’s property. I think I’ll come back to this later, but this provides a better foundation for reading Philemon than that he was a low-level slave who ran away to Freedom, as if that were even desirable in the first century.

  11. Well done Hope, couldn’t agree more with what you have to say. Paul definitely seems to be wording his letter very specifically urging with everything he has for the well-being of Onesimus. When I read the passage I can’t help but hear a pleading in his voice as he lists of all of his leverage points. It makes me feel in a sense that Paul is most likely hearing things that bring distress to his heart and feels if there is anything he can do, he’s going to do it.

    I also agree with John that the stupid law thing really plays very little part in this. Many stupid laws exist because someone did something stupid and another person felt it was wrong so they filed a complaint. The result would become a law instantly due to the whole legal thing where a ruling in the past holds true to future events and to change those laws you have to take it up the chain. I’m not a poli sci major so correct me if i’m wrong but that is the general idea of how that works. So if I put a light house light on top of my house shine it during the night and someone files a complaint and the court rules against me…then a law is created stating people cannot shine a light house light from their roof. These laws don’t relate to slavery as john previously stated. I can understand that looking to old written laws could lead us to false insight but I think that laws regarding slavery hold a different relevance.

  12. Slavery in the Philemon passage brings great comfort to slaves whose owners are followers of Jesus the Christ; because to be treated in the same way by your master that the Master treats us is a wonderful way to be treated. People are only truly free when we are slave to Christ. Why do we have such a hard time with what the word save means when it is used here in Philemon and we do not question what it means when the Bible says we are slaves to Christ?

    • Help me understand what you are trying to say here. What I understand you are trying to say that we are uncomfortable with the way that people talk about human slavery when we say that we are slaves to Christ?

      Human slavery to me is a bit different to the way we serve Christ. We see the example of we are slaves to Christ in a different light. In that situation we are comparing being “slaves” of two owners and it is a question to which one we will serve. The question is not if we are going to be free but which one is the master of our lives. It is the question of the flesh and the Spirit and which one will reign in our lives. I think our American culture gets caught up too much with the term slavery because we have such a distaste for it and we see that we can be free and we want that freedom.

  13. Just throwing this out there-

    I think Paul almost considered Onesimus to be his own slave. My Bible says that ‘Onesimus’ meant ‘useful’. In verse 11 Paul says to Philemon that before Onesimus came to Paul he was not useful- he was not himself but after coming to Paul Onesimus became useful to both Philemon and Paul. He became a slave to both Paul and Philemon. This is evident in that Paul didn’t want to act without Philemon, his partner (vs. 17), in his ordering Onesimus around in verse 14.

    Other language that makes me think this is how Paul refers to Onesimus as his ‘son’ (vs. 10) and how Paul is ‘sending’ him, even though he wants to ‘keep’ him. (vs. 12-13)

    However, this slavery seems to be different than what Philemon would have thought. Paul says that Onesimus is now more like a ‘dear brother’ and even a ‘partner’. (vs. 16-17)

    It seems like Onesimus became a Christian, meaning he had a new master- Jesus, and that meant he had to follow Paul, the closest to Jesus he could probably get. Considering this, Paul transformed the language of slavery that Philemon would have use to describe Onesimus and turned it around on Philemon to the slavery of Christ in which all are ‘brothers’ and ‘partners’.

    I think there are some complex social language going on between Paul and Philemon in which Onesimus is the faithful, if unintelligent, bystander.

    • Ben – You said “Paul transformed the language of slavery…” This is a great point, since the early church which met in Phiemon’s home would have used family-language to describe their relationships — Onesimus is now a brother (and a slave), but a brother first. Social obligations are different toward a family member than toward a slave.

      Did Paul continue the family language from Jesus? (Who is it that is Jesus’ brothers and Sisters? the ones that do his will.)

  14. I most definitely was NOT equating hair cutting with slavery in regards to severity…I am not sure any sane human being would do that.

  15. I just happened to stumble upon this conversation and noticed that it is my article that is being summarized. I appreciate knowing that someone has read the work and was positively influenced. For those who are interested in the topic I can direct you to two others. A monograph that greatly expands upon the article summarized here is my Recent Research on Paul and Slavery (Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2008). Concerning the application of social versus legal approaches to Philemon I wrote an essay in a volume that was just published: “The Epistle to Philemon: Paul’s strategy for forging the ties of kinship” in Jesus and Paul: Global Perspectives in Honor of James D.G. Dunn for his 70th Birthday. (LNTS; T & T Clark, 2009).

    As far as Philemon, I argue that we know little about why Onesimus left Philemon and whether or not Philemon was a “bad” master. It does seem that Onesimus owes some sort of debt to Philemon, but whether this is a result of theft or lost time while he was AWOL or something else, we cannot know for sure.

    However it does appear that Onesimus was suffering from a form of natal alienation. Slavery eradicated family and national ties and replaced them with new relationships artificially created by the individual’s position in the institution. It is this aspect of slavery that Orlando Patterson has identified as natal alienation. “Slaves differed from other human beings in that they were not allowed freely to integrate the experience of their ancestors into their lives, to inform their understanding of social reality with the inherited meanings of their natural forbears, or to anchor the living present in any conscious community of memory.”

    I submit that Onesimus suffered a compounded form of natal alienation. As a slave he was denied the right to identify himself to a parent or a particular tribe. As an unconverted slave in a Christian household, he was alienated to the degree that he was not fully integrated into Philemon’s family. An unconverted slave in an important Christian household suggests some sort of neglect on the part of the family’s leader.

    What we observe in this short epistle, then, is how Paul forges ties of kinship where none had previously existed. By social custom Onesimus was probably always known as the slave or former slave of Philemon. But with conversion and entrance into the body of Christ, the institution of slavery was subverted. Onesimus became the child of the Apostle Paul. Moreover, since Paul is also the spiritual father of Philemon, slave and master are both brothers. Within this new kinship structure the apostle encourages Philemon to treat Onesimus in the same way that he has other saints, by refreshing his heart. Whether Philemon followed through with Paul’s request or even went so far as to manumit Onesimus is a mystery. But if he embraced Onesimus as a brother, then the artificial structures of slavery and the effects of natal alienation would have been seriously undermined. While New Testament scholars have often lamented Paul’s relative silence on the topic of slavery, we may be missing his most significant critique. The bonds of kinship created within the body of Christ can replace the artificial ones created by slavery.

  16. John – thanks for your comments! I read your article some time ago when taking a class on metaphors in the NT and found it helpful not only for Paul’s “slave” language but also for Philemon, hence the reference here. With respect to Philemon, you are correct that we do not (or cannot) know much about Philemon as a good or bad master. My point here was to point out that slavery was not necessary like the American experience (ie., Roots), nor were all slaves horribly treated in the Roman empire. That alone is something of a surprise to most students.

    I have wondered about why Onesimus met Paul. It seems somewhat remarkable that they would meet in a city the size of Rome (assuming Roman imprisonment, of course). Several have suggested therefore that Onesimus sought Paul out to help adjudicate some issue with Philemon, and as a result came to Christ. I think there is no evidence, but there is a certain sense to that kind of reconstruction.

  17. Philip – I have a hard time with the Roman imprisonment based on geography. On top of trying to figure out how Onesimus met Paul in prison, we need to consider the 1,200 miles Onesimus would have travelled to get to Rome. Although the eivdence is lacking, I think an Ephesian imprisonment would be a better choice. Whether Onesimus went to Paul or was brought to Paul is not clear. Lightfoot suggested that one of Paul’s companions recognized Onesimus and brought him to Paul for an interview. Perhaps, but the absence of detail is frustrating.

    BTW, I thought Jerry Sienfeld was how America thinks! And Disney World is what America looks like.

  18. I understand the problem with Rome, and have no problem with Ephesus (or Caesarea for that matter). In either case, it seems to me that Onesimus has to seek out Paul rather than some random encounter.

    > I thought Jerry Sienfeld was how America thinks!
    > And Disney World is what America looks like.

    Are you British, then?

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