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. Be sure to scan through the comments below, John Byron has interacted with this post in the past. He recently published A Week in the Life of a Slave (IVP Academic, 2019). This short book uses a novel to present the life of a slave in first century Rome. It is in the same series as Gary Burge’s A Week in the Life of a Roman Centurion or James L. Papandrea, A Week in the Life of Rome.

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 also appear in Roman 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 Seinfeld 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. If a novel tried to accurately describe the life of a real slave, it would not be a very interesting novel at all! Novelists and satirists do not offer a sociological opinion of the status of the slave in the first century, therefore it would be dangerous to rely too heavily on this literature in research on first century slaves.

There is much to be learned from the sociological approaches to slavery as 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.

19 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. I would love to read the article, if it is convenient. Thank you for the kind offer.

  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. 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.


  5. 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.

  6. 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?

    • Hello Pat. I am so glad you responded to this post (even if it was eight years ago. I am assuming you were not a student at that point, but I could be wrong. I hope you still use this account so you can see this comment and we can be online friendsies :D). As PLong discussed in class, Gladiator is a fairly historically accurate. This is why by his recommendation, off campus of course, I watched this movie for class purposes. I do believe that Gladiator does carry some weight in this situation. It brings to mind the fact that Rome enslaved their enemies. After Rome conquered a territory it often enslaved its people. This then resulted in Romans having slaves from all over the ancient world, from all different backgrounds and ethnicities. These slaves, just like Maximus, were from outside of the Roman empire, could have been considered enemies, and were then taken into slavery and sent to all different parts of the empire. It is true that Maximus’s life was not a fun one in slavery. However, because he was the favorite slave to his master (probably because of the money and fame he brought to his master along with being cool much like the mater’s young self) the master treated him with special respects such as holding conversations with him, making sure he was well taken care of, etc. This is different than the modern thought on slavery, as many think that masters thought slaves were less than human and should be treated terribly, tortured, starved, etc. However, slaves in Rome were thought of more as an investment. Just like a work horse, you wanted to take care of it so you could get as many years out of your investment as possible. This does not mean that slaves were treated like family, just more that they were taken care of in the aspect of food, living on the master’s property, and other small things like this.

  7. 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.

  8. 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:

  9. Slavery was an accepted part of society in the first century. Although some slaves were treated well and given important positions in the household, others were beaten and subject to every whim of their master (TTP, 216). Sometimes a slave of a wealthy master was better off than a poor freedman (Long, 152). However, they were considered property and had few rights (Long, 152). In Paul’s letter to Philemon dealing with the slave Onesimus, there is little information given about the situation. We do not know what Onesimus’ responsibilities were or what Philemon was like as a master.
    I think the background information on slavery in the Roman world is interesting but it is not super helpful since there seems to be no consensus on what it was like. Interpreting Philemon is made more difficult because historians cannot agree on major elements of slavery. However, it does challenge our preconceived ideas of slavery in the first century and causes us to rethink how we view Onesimus.

  10. I found this blog really interesting seeing that slavery is still practiced in some countries today. This form of slavery is what people, like you mentioned, would call employed. I many third world countries big factories and corporations rather lean to the middle when it comes to paying their employees. Looking at it like this, far left would be paying their workers accordingly and right would be ‘slavery’. major corporations with factories in third world countries would rather pay their workers more toward the right-wing; still not being called slavery. There are many different forms of slavery and during the Greco Roman time era slavery could be seen as, treating their ‘property’ as animals, objects and as property. There was a different view on slavery for some slave owners and that would be as employees. From discussion in class about Philemon and Onesimus, Philemon the slave owner might have viewed Onesimus as an employee rather than ‘property’. Onesimus, even though may not have been treated poorly still ran away from his owner, Philemon. If a slave were to run away from his master would have been easily put to death was not, because of Paul. Paul makes a plea for Onesimus, after being sought out by Onesimus, to Philemon requesting that he from then on be seen as a brother in Christ. What is amusing to me is that Paul boldly pulls out the ‘I owe you’ card’ he thinks he has on Philemon in Philemon 1:19, “I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back”, in reference to any monetary amount that Onesimus might have owed Philemon, “not to mention that you owe me your very self”. Philemon must have had a change in heart seeing that he too was in evil before Paul met him and forgave Onesimus. Who than might have been freed seeing that the name Onesimus is mentioned in Colossians 4:9 “He is coming with Onesimus, our faithful and dear brother, who is one of you. They will tell you everything that is happening here.” Philemon was influenced by Paul, who was a good friend, and must’ve freed Onesimus, which was not uncommon to free slaves, but to a slave that ran away was rare.

  11. It is certainly difficult to determine what the actual Roman culture concerning slaves was during this period and how they were usually treated. However, it would seem likely that slaves would be treated differently depending on factors such as region, master, and position of the slave. For example, I would imagine that a farmhand slave, a household slave, and a gladiator could all be treated differently. Regardless, though, I think that it is clear that slaves would have been on the lower or lowest rungs of society, especially compared to their masters. It is amazing then, that Paul calls Philemon to accept Onesimus as a “beloved brother” upon his return rather than a slave (v. 16). I am no expert in the Roman societal structure, but I think that it is safe to say that welcoming a much-loved brother who just got back from a journey would be significantly different than that of a slave (and potentially a runaway slave at that). Furthermore, this would have likely been seen as scandalous to the honor crazed Romans that a master would be treating a slave as an equal. But Paul does not even stop at Philemon with this command. In Galatians 3:28, Paul explains how both slaves and free (including masters of slaves) are equal in Christ. This concept is contrary to virtually every cultures’ mindset that incorporated slaves, but it is of vital importance to our faith in Christ nonetheless.

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