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.

44 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.

  12. Slavery has been an issue from the time of ancient Israel up to the end of the 19th century. In the times of Philemon Phil Long mentions in his blog post that according to John Byron, a surveyor of Paul’s explanations and metaphors throughout his letters in the New Testament, that the views of slavery in the NT times had softened in seeing them less as slaves to their masters and more as employees for a job. The blog post also mentions that there are multiple debates back and forth on the severity of slavery – “Bartchy’s view was that slavery in the first century was “decidedly benign,” while Patterson argues that slavery was equivalent to a “death experience.” I think this debate originates when looking at things with different perspectives. We see this in our country today with the issue of systemic racism. Now I am not advocating for either side, but both perspectives argue different severities of the situation. One side may see systemic racism as more of an issue of cultural background rather than racism, and on the other of the argument they see racism as a severe problem. This argument also enforces the importance of accurate sources. Sources and their accuracy can determine the outcome of these arguments and better give an understanding of how severe or non-severe slavery was in the book of Philemon.

  13. As you read through the book of Philemon it is important to understand what slavery meant back in those days. As P. Long mentioned in his weekly video from this week, the relationship between the slave and the master back in Paul’s time was drastically different from how we see slavery demonstrated in our history books. In the blog post, it refers to the article by John Byron to further explain Paul’s metaphor on slavery. Byron’s article brings surfaces the point that slaves in first century Rome are possibly bettering their life as a slave rather than selling oneself to slavery in order to pay debts. Slaves in the first century were treated more as an employee rather than property. This could be seen as a softened attitude toward the slaves, but there was still a number of legal problems that came with having slaves. Another problem was that even if laws were in place, it did not mean people were going to obey those laws. For example, being required to wear a mask in the store in the midst of a pandemic is something easy to get away with if the employees of the store are over the pandemic as well.
    It has been shown that there has been a shift in attitudes that people have toward slavery. However, people have taken this shift out of context. Some people have viewed this as just having stoic ethic of self-control. There are a ton of different perspectives on the lives of slaves, which makes it difficult to understand what it was truly like for the life of a slave, especially a slave in the first century.
    I find the statement “sometimes it may have been better to be a slave to a powerful person than a freedman” to be interesting. The United States puts such an emphasis on freedom that it is hard for my mind to comprehend choosing to be a slave over being free. However, knowing the background of being a slave in the first century, a slave seemed to be treated more like a brother rather than an object. I think this is important context to keep in mind when trying to understand the relationship between Philemon and his slave Onesimus.

  14. Kellum Bridgeforth
    Professor Long
    Pauline Lit
    Blog Post #9
    I really enjoyed this blog post about slavery because the way slavery was being performed is completely different in the first century compared to the American and western slavery in the 1600s. One thing that stood out to me the most from this blog post was a point made by Barchy stating that “made the slave into something more like “employee” rather than property” (P.Long). This is important because in this weeks video P.Long says that some people would actually willingly sell their self into slavery in order to either pay off debt or even live better life depending if one was a slave for a more powerful person. This oddly enough brings me to society today, for if one has a job they are essentially slaves to that occupation. I say this because yes without a job we are free from the responsibilities and the long work filled hours, however the people that work were not forced to apply and they willfully set aside their freedom in order to become “employees” and work to live a more comfortable life; just as the “slaves” in Paul’s day did. As we look at the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus we can speculate that Philemon may have been treating Onesimus unfairly or “non-Christlike” (TTP). In reference to the Blog post Barchy states that there were actual laws to help protect slaves however, Bartchy may cite “laws protecting slaves, but there is no real evidence that society accepted those laws or that authorities always enforced them” (P.Long). Thus, I believe that Philemon and Onesimus’s relationship was not very brotherly; resulting in Onesimus to escape and flee to Rome in sea

  15. It seems that scholars have differing perspectives of what slavery was actually like in the Greco-Roman world. Drawing conclusions from studying legal writings or the writings of philosophers is likely inaccurate because these often do not reflect public sentiment (Long). According to Byron being a slave was not a lot anyone would choose but rather very unpleasant. To be a slave would be like being someone’s property. Despite the negative aspects of slavery, it may have elevated one’s status depending on who their master was and often slaves and masters did have positive relationships (Long, weekly video. In Philemon Paul does not condemn ancient slavery and does not seem like his main concern is whether Onesimus remains a slave or is freed (TTP p.219). It is clear in Philemon that Paul was concerned with the relationship between a believing master and his slave especially in the case that his slave becomes a believer. The Pauline gospel asserts that believing slaves should be considered brothers and that masters are called to “sacrificial Christlike service” (TTP p.220). Paul’s picture of his relationship with Onesimus was a model of how the gospel could change someone who was formerly useless to Philemon because he ran away to someone useful and valuable to them both (ESVSB p.2355).

  16. As Pat McGillicuddy pointed out in his commentary on the blog, it is important to ask whether or not the slave was forced into his situation or not. If, for the purpose of the blog, Onesimus was forced into the situation it would be very different to look at if instead he willingly went into slavery with the hopes of looking for a better outcome for his life.
    As it was stated, there is no way to really know how slavery was percieved in Roman culture, were slaves in fact seen more as “employees” or were they seen as property like many of us now think when we hear the word ‘slave’. It seems to be whether you look at slavery in the times of western culture or the time of the Roman world, slavery and how it was percieved and how the slaves were treated ultimately fell on the slave owners shoulders and attitudes. Did Philemon treat his slaves with kindness? According to Philemon and another blog post (Why Did Paul Write to Philemon) it would appear that perhaps he did not. In the end we cannot know how slavery was seen in the Roman culture because Byron notes, “there is no evidence these writings reflect public sentiment…” (Byron, 2004).

  17. Slavery in the First Century has several differences in the way we would typically view slavery based on our U.S. History books. Although we cannot be one hundred percent clear that it was exactly like this or that back in the Bible times, as Long says, we have some good ideas. Byron says that slaves would probably actually be given a better life as a slave than if they were free. The reason being, where would they go, they would have any money, own any property and be destine to beg on a street corner. So the alternative of being a slave is not really that bad, although you have to work long hard days, you still get a place to sleep, food and maybe even some free time.
    Furthermore, Longenecker says that “slaves were not infrequently freed from the shackles of slavery” (p. 216), meaning that there is a chance of new life! Unlike the slavery we read about in history books where your race and the family that you were born into determines whether or not you’re a slave, here you actually have a chance for a better life if you obey your master for a certain number of years. This is not to say that you are without punishment if you miss behave. Slavery could still be brutal and degrading especially if you disobey your master. There were some “unimaginable punishments depending on how strict or cruel of a master you served” (p. 216). In conclusion, if Philemon really was a believer, he probably treated his slaves quite well, although not without punishments, and in the end he was able to forgive Onesimus for his wrong doing and obtain a new knowledge of how to treat slaves.

  18. Slavery in Biblical times was normal and looked different from today’s slavery. Today’s slavery is mostly based on abuse people taking advantage of others. This could be lower paying wages, sexual and loss of freedom. In the Roman-Greco world freedom was less important, usually slaves were well taken care of. Becoming a slave in the first century was an economic decision for survive and not based on being considered “free”. In the first century people would become slaves to pay off debts and when they did not have a wealthy family. People would take care of their slaves. Paul was asking Onesimus to come back to Philemon because Philemon was a believer who helped many others. Philemon 1:6-7 states, “Because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints, and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the safe of Christ.” Scholars are not entirely sure why Onesimus ran away, but many believed it was because of an augment between Philemon and Onesimus. Paul pleaded on the behalf of Philemon. John Bryon compared slavery of today with slavery of the first century. Slavery in the first century was different from today’s standard. He also believed slaves were treated more as an employee compared to a slave, (Long, 2019). Slaves were more a in live employee instead of the view slaves are considered today. Slaves are considered less in todays standards but in the first century most were well taken care of. It is important to look at how the Bible views slavery vs how we look at it now. Both are very different when compared together today.

  19. Slavery has always been an issue. It started early on in ancient Israel and it has lasted a lot longer than many people ever thought. I remember Professor Long talking about slavery in his video for the week and he mentioned something about how the relationship with the slave and his “owner” are a lot more different than what we think it was. As a takeaway from the other blog post, it is seen that Philemon and Onesimus did not have a good relationship. It was seen that Onesimus was not treated “godly” by Philemon. This may have been why Onesimus fled to find Paul. It is crazy to think about the people who would give themselves to slavery to pay off debts and to even life a better lifestyle. I know that Long touches on that subject in his video for this week as well. So as many have stated in their blog posts, but originally from McGillicuddy, it all depends on if the “slave” volunteered to be in that position or if they were put into that position without say. If they volunteered to be a slave to pay off debts then that is not so bad or looked down upon. If they were forced then it would be a terrible situation. Professor Long states “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.” (Long, 2019) The life of a slave in a novel would not be very intriguing to read upon. Long also talks about how even though we have laws, it does not mean that everyone is following them. For example, Roman law would have become less obedient to the people as many practiced slavery. It is a sad subject to talk about, but it is important to have knowledge upon slavery in the ancient days and to understand the views society has on it now. They are many different views on slavery especially in today’s society.

  20. I have been watching the comments on this thread the last few days and thought I would jump in. I think it’s hard to make the case that slaver in antiquity was much different than what was practiced in the New World. The only clear difference is that slavery in the Greco-Roman world was not based on race. I don’t know that it’s accurate to suggest that slaves in the first century were treated as employees. While some slaves were treated well, they were the exception. We should remember that, from the perspective of the enslaved, being a slave was never a good thing. The master had absolute power over your life and could at anytime sell you or punish you.

  21. When talking about a topic like slavery it can be a touchy subject as it should be because of all the horrific incidents and things that happens to the African Americans during the 19th century. It is interesting to hear and read about how slavery could have actually been used to help others, rather than make life worse for them because as Americans and the world we live it today we have grown so far from it and think the worst of it because of what happened in the past. In the blog, John Byron mentions that slavery in the first century was “decidedly benign” as it was seen as a way to buy a better life for oneself or be able to turn over a new leaf. It was interesting to hear that in the first century, slaves sometimes saw their masters or owners in more of a parental manner, that they took care and looked after them rather just treating them poorly for no apparent reason. Although we cannot be certain of what and how slavery was truly like philosophers do notice a change a shift in societal norms towards slavery (Long). They were seen as useful tools and masters had respect for them rather than in American, where they did not have any respect for them but rather saw them as objects just getting the work done. Bartchy, for example, said that those who were in slavery in the first century were seen as employees rather than what we define slaves as modern-day Americans. And seeing how Philemon was a follower of Jesus, I would assume that he treated his slaves with the “brotherly love” that Paul writes to him about. As well as, accept Onesimus for the actions of his past self and embrace him with open arms as believers and brothers in Christ.

  22. Slavery is such an interesting topic. As the article mentioned the slaves might as well be dead. Being put into slavery is terrible. Being human beings, and being treated in that way must be very hard. God formed us and created us we are to honor Gof ourselves and others. When people are in slavery like this it isnt honoring at all. We treat those people like they are animals like they don’t matter, and don’t have feelings. It is hard for people to see that when everyone is doing it, and it is acceptable. I’m glad that people finally stood up against it. Just because people have different skin colors doens’t mean they aren’t as important. People are still very important, and matter. God says that we are all made in his image. That means that we matter and we should treat each other that way.

  23. I think that it is really hard to imagine a type of slavery different from the one we are most familiar with. When I hear the word ‘slave’ or ‘slavery’ I automatically associate it with that of American history. As professor Long said, it is hard to know for sure what type of slavery was practiced back then because everything can be so loosely interpreted. An example that was used was the speed limit on a Michigan highway, it says it is 70 mph, but people never go that speed (Long). How accurate is our interpretation of the Bible when referencing slavery? “Did one choose to become a slave or were they forced to become a slave?” is the question that Professor McGillicuddy proposed. It is very important to recognize that Biblical slavery and American history slavery are very different. According to the blog post, many people that were slaves chose to live that life and many times were seen as ‘employees’ (Long). I think of it as a more human way of treating people that are considered slaves. We can, in a way, understand what it is to be an ‘employee’ in slavery. A modern world application that comes to mind is when a person gets a huge loan out for a new car but now has to find a job to pay off the loan. That person will have to sacrifice their time, expenses, family, friends, entertainment, etc. just to pay off that loan. They become slaves to their jobs until the loan is paid off. Also, if they want the loan paid off sooner then they will work for someone or somewhere with a higher position. Another example is homeless people, people who have nothing to lose and will submit themselves to a job, any job, to try and live a better life. May times employers, depending on the job, will allow them to shower, sleep, and provide them food. I think I view Philemon as a just slave owner that lost his way and had power run to his head causing Onesimus to flee. Since there are so many interpretations as to why Onesimus met with Paul in Rome, I could not have a clear view of Philemon and how he was as a master.

  24. This blog post was very interesting to me because slavery was very different then than it was in the Western culture. For the Romans slaves were seen as employees and could improve their life rather than slaves in the western culture being seen as property. It is interesting that you say people would be willing to sell themselves into slavery because it has the chance to improve their life. When we are thinking of slavery it was a terrible thing (which it is) but for the Romans it was the complete opposite. It is still very hard to know how slavery actually was but with slaves running away such as Onesimus did, it may have been how the master was treating. Maybe Philemon was not treating his slaves the correct way, but other masters were treating them better. If Philemon was a true believer we can assume that he would have treated his slaves with some respect but have punishments for them as any slave owner would, but it can come down to his ability to forgive his slaves for a possible wrong doing.

  25. When reading through Philemon, it is important to note the cultural importance and meaning of slaves. We as Americans tend to think of slaves as what America looked like before the civil war and the mistreatment of the people. The slaves in the cultural time of Philemon may not have the same picture. Long refers to Bartchy saying, “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” (Long, 2019). Long also added in his lecture that the slaves were probably made to be better off than what we may think. Slavery was “less like the horrors of American slavery” (Long). They were most likely fed with needs taken care of and better opportunity for education. The people may have not been necessarily fighting to get out of their slavery, and most were comfortable in that situation. The relationship was more of paternal loving relationship with the slave and their master (Long). This is something that I did not first think of when I read Philemon. This shows how it is important to understand the context and culture of passages in the Bible.

  26. Greetings! I am really enjoying watching and reading the interaction with this blog post. Many thanks to Dr. Long for posting it again. I would like to make one clarification. Some readers have interpreted my comments about slavery being “decidedly benign” in the first century as representing my opinion. In fact, I am characterizing what some, like Bartchy, have suggested. In truth, I see many similarities between slaver in the New Testament and that which was practiced in the New World. Both systems were abusive, exploitive and fostered a system in which one human being was able to legally control another. While it is true that slaves were often fed, cared for and sometimes educated, we should keep in mind that these actions for not a result of the owner’s altruism to enslaved peoples but rather a way of caring for his investment. Feeding a slave was a way to make sure the slave was able to work the next day. For instance, we have ancient documents that speak about the management of slaves. In these owners are told to encourage romantic contact between slaves and to even allow children to be born. The reason for this allowance was that a slave with a family we less likely to flee and any children born to a slave were the property of the owner.

  27. The question of “is freedom more important than slavery?” is a tricky one to answer. I believe that the freedom that someone receives in Christ is the most important thing that anyone can receive. The reason for that is because life here on earth is temporary and our eternal life is for the rest of eternity. This may sound harsh because one’s life on earth can be extremely hard but if they have the everlasting life in Christ it is worth it. If this has to do with someone’s life on earth, it is usually better to be a free person then be a slave. Even though some slaves were trying to get a better life for them or their children, there is a good chance that it was not worth it. As PLong said in class, that even some of the best household slaves would get sexually assaulted. There are most definitely circumstances where it is better to be a slave, but I would bet that more often than not the life of a slave would be extremely difficult.

  28. Slavery in the first century Greco-Roman world was pretty straight forward in my opinion. All slaves and their families in this time were property of their owners. Each owner had ruling over the slave, they were able to rent them out, sell them at any time, and even kill them. These people were considered property under Roman law and had no legal rights to themselves. As I said above the owner had decision making power the slaves were subjected government decision making and unlike the Roman citizens these slaves were also subjected to capital punishment. Slaves in Rome were very different than the slaves we’ve seen in the western world, back then slavery wasn’t based upon race. Slaves included multiple people groups and involved anyone that wasn’t a Roman citizen. The work that was done by these people groups was essential labor and they worked in many different areas of the city. So this makes me question why one would even consider whether or not slaves had a choice in the matter of it being normal labor. I do think that the vision we have on the Philemon and Onesimus’ situation is very different now understanding what slavery actually looked like then; in a sense it makes me justify the action of Onesimus running away. But in the end it makes the reconciled relationship that Paul pushes for between the two just that more powerful.

  29. When I read through Philemon it helps us understand what slavery meant and what it was like in back in those days. I agree with John Byron that slavery was not good. I do not get why they think slavery was good which it was not. I do not where to begin, there is a lot to say about slavery. I was reading Pat McGillicuddy comments asking if one choose to become a slave or were they forced to become slave? I was thinking both. Back in the days there are people that were forced to become including families that had to be separated or a family member will put their own family member into slavery by trading him or her for money. I remember Joseph was a favorite son to his parents until his jealous brothers sold him into slavery. Later on, Joseph became Potiphar’s personal servant. In my opinion it is not fair to have someone in their own family member to sold them into slavery or the person being forced into slavery. Even now there are people who are sold into slavery or choose to become a slave which is called human trafficking. It is not only human trafficking, but there is also sex trafficking, labor exploitation which the list goes on. Women would put themselves to be prostitute to make money whether they are doing it on their own or is forced. There are children that are young that may not know what they are doing. Children that lives in poor poverty will try to find something help their family to make ends meet. Slavery is not good and even to this day.

  30. ever since i was a kid, i have always known that slavery was different back in biblical times rather than what our history books have said about it. slavery back then was a way to repay debt, a better life for someone who grew up in a poor environment, depending on the master they were treated fairly, etc. some examples in the bible are the Joseph, the Israelites in Egypt, Jacob (to marry Rebekah), Tamar (disguised as a prostitute). each one of them were doing something to serve the master or repay what they owe to someone. as time goes on, each country has their view on what slavery is suppose to be like based on color of skin. the Ottomans thought that slaves are white (Irish) people, Americans thought that slaves are black people, so one and so forth. the point is that as time goes on, we as sinful people change what context means to a word. slavery back then was not always bad for people. now, it has become something awful and gross like sex trafficking is modern day slavery and child labor is modern day slavery. i am not saying that we should bring back the old ways of slavery, but we should be mindful to not put our view of slavery twist what it was like back then.

  31. Slavery can be a very touchy topic in the church. Obviously, the church believes that modern-day slavery is wrong and should not be practiced, however, there are many mentions of slaves throughout the Bible, both in the Old Testament and the New Testament, as well as many mentions of people owning slaves, even those who feared the Lord, or were called Christians. So how do we reconcile the use of slaves in the Bible? How do we explain to new Christians what was going on and what has changed? Some people argue that slavery in the ancient world was different. Generally, arguments about ancient slavery fall into one of two extremes, both of which are mentioned in the blog. The first extreme is that slavery was worse and it would have been better to die than to be a slave. The opposite extreme is that slavery then was much more like employers and employees. Slaves could get paid, they were well taken care of, they still had many freedoms, etc. Commonly, people choose to accept the theory that slavery was much less harsh in ancient Rome than modern-day slavery was. I think they do this in part because then it is easier to justify Biblical characters holding slaves. There are, however, some flaws with this viewpoint. Byron explains that though the main argument supporting this theory cites Roman Law, the Roman Law is from much later than the New Testament. In addition, the law does not always reflect popular opinion nor does everyone agree with it and support it. I think today of laws protecting abortion or gay rights. Many do not agree with those laws and there is much controversy over them. A historian looking back, who had nothing but the laws might draw incorrect conclusions about how society views abortion and gay rights. It is interesting to note how, in the next section of the blog, where the influence of Philosophers is discussed, that Philosophers tend to write advice or instruction that fits their own agenda. They could be compared to politicians. As a whole, no politician represents the viewpoints of the country, and they often fight for laws or make advertisements that fit their agenda. It is interesting to read an argument that completely counters what is generally said about the slavery relationship in the New Testament. To say that slavery was a death experience brings up many more questions of what do we do with slaves in the Bible, and specifically Philemon and Onesimus? It could be that slavery was very much a death experience and that is why Onesimus feared returning to Philemon so much. Jesus was very counter-cultural, he did not follow many of the societal ‘rules’ that were in place, so perhaps the Christian view of slavery was very counter-cultural as well, and took many years to change.

  32. Slavery in Biblical times was normal and looked different from today’s slavery. Today’s slavery is mostly based on abuse people taking advantage of others. Byron’s article brings surfaces the point that slaves in first century Rome are possibly bettering their life as a slave rather than selling oneself to slavery in order to pay debts. Some people volunteered themselves to become slaves just to make money. Another thing that was interesting was that Philemon and Onesimus did not have a good relationship. So This could have been the reason why he fled to find Paul. Although we cannot be certain of what and how slavery was truly like, philosophers do notice a change/ a shift in societal norms towards slavery (Long). It’s an evident change because everyone in today’s age is about equality and standing up for rights and I feel as if slavery is brought more into the light and people not only are being educated but is understanding where slavery comes from.

  33. Slavery has been practiced throughout history with varying methods and levels of brutality, and though slavery in the early Roman empire was not nearly as brutal as other versions of slavery from other times and places, it was still a generally negative practice. As was mentioned in the blog post, slaves were no longer seen as nor treated as humans by the general public. This makes Paul’s mentions of slavery in the bible especially interesting. For one, he emphasizes in Galatians and Philemon that there is no difference between the slave and the free man in God’s eyes. All people are treated fairly and judged the same by God, even if they are (in the eyes of the culture surrounding Paul) not even or barely human. Paul also demonstrates in the letter to Philemon that he sees slaves as humans and believes they deserve the love of man and of God. He does this by requesting that Philemon treat Onesimus as he would treat Paul himself and by using fictive kinship language to refer to Onesimus. Paul goes against how the wider culture felt about slaves and advocates – through his example and his explicit teachings – for the humane (and human) treatment of slaves, a major step toward social progress in his day. Paul also refers to himself and fellow believers as slaves to Christ, a metaphor which also becomes more interesting with context of slaves being dehumanized. Paul’s theology clearly (and rightly) elevates Christ above all else, and so to call himself a slave to Christ entails not only following Christ’s orders, but also the lowering of his own status down to the lowest it could be. Elevating Christ doesn’t mean that we can puff ourselves up to whatever level we desire so long as we put Christ slightly above ourselves, but rather elevating Christ means that we also lower our own status.

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