Philemon and 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?

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

22 thoughts on “Philemon and Slavery in the First Century

  1. Phil,

    Thanks for the review of my article. I will post a link to you on my blog.

    You might be interested in an essay I wrote on Philemon in a festschrift for Jimmy Dunn. A bit of it covers the problems with legal texts and expands my CBR article. Here is a link to the book. If you email I would be happy to send you a PDF of the essay.


  2. This is a very interesting post… one which I have been researching myself for a bit now (although I have had to shelve it for a time seeing as the end of the year business has put a damper on my “recreational research”). My understanding of the book Philemon is that Paul is writing a letter to friend on behalf of a runaway slave. During this time, Onesimus appears to have become a christian like his master and has decided to return on his own but fears the repercussions of his betrayal. The fact that Paul is writing to Philemon and evokes Christian ideas suggests that Philemon is a believer and is imploring him to be merciful and gracious. This suggests that a harsh punishment could have been levied against Onesimus. Also, why would a “well to do” slave run away? He may have had his reasons but when I think of a run away, I tend to think of mistreatment or struggles. Either way, Philemon would have been in the societal right to do as he wished to Onesimus, something that Paul wishes to guide towards a biblical angle. (Phi. 1:17)


  3. “Bartchy’s view was that slavery in the first century was ‘decidedly benign,’ while Patterson argues that slavery was equivalent to a ‘death experience’” (P. Long) P. Long also says that because Barthcy’s view is more preferred to Patterson’s, our understanding of slavery in the New Testament is not what it should be, which I can see does not accurately fit to the “point of Paul’s metaphor of slavery.” Most descriptions I have heard for the tone of slavery in this era are fairly positive. It is a common assumption that slavery back then was a lot better than how we think of the old American slavery. While we think of American slavery as horrible and discriminatory, we tend to think of first century slavery as a way to merely work off debts and such. This was not always the case though. While there may have been slaves back then who were in fact treated very well, there was most certainly many slaves who were beaten, raped, and just generally treated poorly.

    I don’t know the full background story of Onesimus and Philemon, but I know that it is assumed that Onesiums stole some money or something of value, and then ran away. After which he met Paul, got saved, and repented of his theft, and Paul sent him to return to his master to settle things. I think Paul in this letter is urging Philemon to realize that we are all slave to sin – the reason why we need grace and forgiveness, and the reason Philemon is to therefore give grace and forgiveness to his repentant slave.

    (P.S. – I just love how Paul gets kind of sassy in verse 19. It’s like he’s saying “If Onesimus really owes you that much, then because I love him, I will take care of it. But ya know, if you really want to get technical about debts, and who owes whom, then I would love to take this time to remind you that you pretty much owe me a lot more than he owes you, so… yeah. Might as well just drop it, eh?”)


  4. “The slave, at the social level, was no longer a person but rather he has become property and is no longer his own.” We are called to be “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life.” (Romans 6:22) We are to be slaves to God, our master. He rules over us all, and we are to be slaves to Him. In Paul’s day, slaves were not their own, they were bought and paid for, just like we are in Christ. Our “slavehood” should envelop our entire lives, not just the social aspect mentioned above. We should be devoted with our whole being to God because He has paid the price that has been set. We are His slaves and we are made to serve Him.


  5. Slavery then and now intrigues me. I have read several books on the issue related to Biblical examples of it as well as current ones but have never run across the reference to Philemon in my “research.” I think it is interesting to look into the resources one must consider to understand slavery in a first century Biblical context. It is not just a matter of understanding the law or the thoughts of philosophers or even sociological approaches. Understanding on this issue, must be taken from a variety of sources and factors. I find Bryon’s thoughts on the matter interesting, as they clearly provide a fresh look into harsh realities of first century slavery. It makes the detailing of Philemon and Onesimus even more compelling (Philemon 1:8-22). The audacity of Paul’s pleas on the behalf of a servant in interesting especially in light of how slaves were viewed.


  6. Ah, in the time between my last post and this post, I am suddenly feeling giggly, and Lauren Assmussen calling Paul “sassy” definitely just added a little something to my giggliness… eh hem… on to serious matters…

    “Was freedom more important than slavery?” and “How does this background affect the way we look at Philemon and his slave Onesimus?”

    I think that first one is actually a really interesting cultural question. The idea of sacrificing freedom for anything is extremely counter-cultural to us, which is perhaps why Paul’s slave metaphors get so much friction in our culture. It may also be why using “servant” instead of “slave” in Bible translations gets so much attention. It seems ridiculous, but it may be worth considering that the reason we gravitate to the word servant rather than slave is not because we default to thinking of American slavery as typical of historical forms of slavery, but because we really, really, really like freedom. Servants have freedom. Servants take orders sure, just like everyone else, and just like everyone else, servants can throw in the towel at any time, quit, face the consequences and go find a new job and take orders from a new person. This is a degree of submission that we can deal with in our freedom-loving mindset.

    But slavery, in any historical form, does not work like this. Maybe in Roman society slaves had a better life than we think of them as having, but they still weren’t free. Until this moment, I was tracking right along with Doug Moo and all his talk about “servant” and “slave” being interchangeable in Greek, and how “slave” puts the wrong idea in the modern American mind. And maybe he is right… maybe it does put the wrong idea in our mind. But it also puts a piece of the right idea in our mind, and there is enough of the wrong idea of freedom in American Christians’ minds that maybe we could stand to swallow a slightly inaccurate picture of slavery if it puts the right idea of true submission into our heads….


  7. It’s hard sometimes for Americans to wrap their heads around the idea that slavery likely wasn’t quite as bad back in the first century as it was in America with black slavery, where sometimes it was even preferable to be a slave if you had to pay a debt or could live under a wealthy master. But yes, you did in a sense become less of a person, sold to your master, which makes a great analogy for our indebtedness to Christ, as Courtney wrote.

    It is interesting how Paul uses Philemon’s characteristic qualities “against him” in a way, saying in essence, “You have such love for others, you have behaved favorably towards them, now show love and favor towards me and Onesimus.” As Polhill says (pg. 347), “In short, in his thanksgiving Paul appealed to Philemon’s generosity and Christian love. In the body of the letter he urged him to demonstrate these same qualities on behalf of Onesimus.”


    • Ryan,

      Many Roman history and New Testament scholars now understand that slavery in the first centruy was just as bad as it was in the 16th-19th New World. In the Roman Empire, one was either slave or free. These two statuses were central to the social and the legal fabric of the Roman world. Unlike more recent experiences, slavery in Rome was not based on race or ethnicity; anyone could become a slave and any slave could become free. Consequently the Roman world was comprised of two groups of people who lived and worked together and were distinguishable primarily by their social status. It is sometimes said that the type of slavery practiced in Rome was different than that of North America in the 16th – 19th centuries. In one sense this is correct since Roman slavery was not based on race and there were more opportunities available for slaves to become free. But caution should be exercised. At times Roman slavery can be presented as a harmless institution that provided security and economic benefits to the enslaved. But it is important to remember that slavery, in whatever form or time period, is not a positive experience for the enslaved.



  8. I just typed a ton for this and lost it all. You gotta be kidding me!!!

    Well, I’m tired so here is my quick gist.

    Onesimus ‘ran away’… couldn’t have been that great, right?

    Some slaves are treated better than others; it depends on the master.

    So, who is our master? Is it the merciless master that is the world or “freedom?”

    Or, is it the light yoked slavery that comes from following the master of mercy, Jesus Christ?

    Sorry, this WAS in an elegant two paragraph rant where I regretfully used American slavery as an example.


  9. I think the question that needs to be asked is simply this: “Did one choose to become a slave or were they forced to become a slave?” If one is forced then this is a terrible situation, if one chooses, then they are making a “free” choice to do something that will hopefully be a better situation then before.

    So is there evidence that people were forced into slavery or that they chose this path? My only evidence is the movie Gladiator, where Maximus is forced into slavery. This movie has to hold some weight, right?


  10. If it were not true, they wouldn’t let them put it in a movie.

    I think that if someone were a captured soldier, then slavery was a painful slow death. But if someone were able to obtain slavery from a reasonably wealthy and socially prominent person, then perhaps slavery was more or less comfortable and could have been an upward movement socially. I think this would be the case for someone who was a skilled scribe or teacher. The vast majority were likely in a middle category between the heavy yoke of slavery a captured soldier might experience and the more or less light yoke a slave- turned-tutor might have had.

    /edit – John Byron’s comments just above mine say the same sort of thing.


  11. The topic of slavery in the first century is something I think about often. Was it necessarily biblical? Especially Americas founding fathers had slaves. However, as you mentioned, slaves would often volunteer to be a slave in order to pay off a debt or some form of payment such as the example of Jacob and Laban (Gen. 31). Yet, others were sold into slavery and not by their own will (Gen. 37).

    The overall interesting point is that Paul requests that Philemon give Onesimus the same welcome and honor as he would to Paul. I don’t think slaves were considered to be that worthy of honor. Joseph earned favor as a slave and was promoted. However, I cannot think of another example where the slave earned favor or honor among his master. History, especially from an American viewpoint is nasty and racist. However, I read my Bible and see how being a “slave” has its benefits and gives honor to them.

    Did the 18th and 19th century Americans have a skewed view of slavery? Maybe, I would observe that they got greedy and order many African Americans to be their slaves. Perhaps they thought they were being biblical?


  12. This context does change the way we look at Philemon and Onesimus, as it should. It is interesting to me looking at how slavery, as a whole, has been taken out of context throughout the years thus making it harder to understand with a rounded view of what it really was in biblical times. This has seeped into the story of Philemon and Onesimus as well. An example of this is the common misconception that Onesimus “ran away”. I don’t know it I am the only one who remembers being taught this story with this detail included. However, it you look at the text it never actually mentions anything about him “running away” it simply says he is “separated” from Philemon insinuating he left by his own volition to seek out Paul. (Philemon 1:15) The view of slaves in western thought is oppressed and has an extremely negative connotation which seems to be why it is assumed that he ran away, because in recent history that is what slaves had to do to get out of that lifestyle. Biblically we know that slavery was not necessarily so negative though. We can see that in Onesimus’ case he was being returned to his “master” to be used effectively and for the glory of God. Context is everything and I think it is especially useful in understanding the story of Philemon and Onesimus.


    • Of course he ran away. Of course slavery is always brutal. Certain slaves had it worse than others but servitude is always forced. If he did not run away why would he have to be brought back. If God can’t bring glory to himself without slavery then we don’t need that kind of God. This continues to justify the torture rape and murder of millions of people.


      • Hello Samuel. that “slavery is always brutal” is certainly true from the modern perspective. But as is often observed in studies on Philemon, not all slavery in the Roman world was brutal. I really think many slaves preferred slavery to freedom since it provided them some protection and social status. Better to be a slave of a prominent citizen than a freeperson barely making out a living. This is hard to take from a modern perspective especially when all slavery is brutal, and at least in America, all infringement of personal freedom is resisted. Romans did not share the modern American view of the world (or opinion of human rights!)

        Having said that, Scot McKnight does warn readers of Philemon NOT to make this background an excuse to avoid addressing modern human slavery. This is in the intro to his new book on Philemon, here is my review of that book:


  13. Our discussion in class has further opened my eyes regarding this subject, as before we observed the various interpretations of Philemon, I believed that Onesimus had run away from his master simply because he did not want to be a slave anymore. However, this may not be the only plausible explanation. During the Roman Empire, some slaves were treated almost like members of the family, and even though they did not have their freedom, they still had a higher social standing and better prospects because of those with whom they were associated. The example given in class was that Onesimus could have been like “Alfred the Butler” from Batman. In any case, we know that he ran away, but knowing about the different manners in which slaves were treated, we then must speculate whether it was Onesimus’ wrongdoing or Philemon’s wrongdoing. If Onesimus had ran away from Philemon because he was tired of being his slave, then he is disregarding Paul’s message in both Colossians and Ephesians for slaves to submit to their masters. However, we also must wonder if Onesimus ran away specifically to find Paul because of some injustice or misunderstanding between the slave and master. Because Paul believes that we are all one in Christ, he writes in verse 17 for Philemon to accept Onesimus back in the same way that he would accept Paul. In discovering the background of a book such as Philemon, we are able to dive much further into the context, rather than simply accepting what we have been taught from youth.


  14. It is highly interesting how I, like many others, grew up with the idea that Omesimus “ran away.” By addressing the situation as one where a slave ran away, there is a negative connotation providing a thought that either the slave or his master were unhappy with the present circumstances. By being taught this so-called ‘theory’ at a young age, children are not given the opportunity to think for a split second that the circumstances between Onesimus and Philemon could have been perfectly fine. After Professor Long expressed that various slaves “could have preferred the protection and social status that being a slave gave them”, one can only question the true reason for Onesimus’ departure. By going back to the beginning and changing one thought [the reality that Onesimus and Philemon could have been separated for a good reason], the attitude one reads Philemon with, changes. If Philemon is read with the same encouragement that Paul hides behind his words, the negative connotation given to slavery can slowly diminish.

    I will leave this thought: what if believing from the start that Onesimus ran away, only exaggerates our understanding of slavery in the Bible–making us believe that slavery can be equally compared to that which we see today [whether better or worse.] If that were true, slavery is taken out of context and we are utterly wrong from the beginning.


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