Slavery in the Bible:
Passages from the Christian
Scriptures (New Testament)
Webmaster's disclaimer about this essay:
We received an email from a visitor to this web site which criticized this essay. They suggested that it is irrational to for us, writing today, to expect that persons living thousands of years ago should have behaved like modern individuals and, as a result, condemned slavery in their writings.
That was not our intent.
The purpose of the series of essays on slavery was to point out that there have been some examples of positive changes in morality since biblical times. When the authors of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures (a.k.a. Old and New Testaments) were alive, slavery was a perfectly normal and expected social institution. Opinions were similar when the United States was founded. But gradually, concerned people started to question the morality of slavery and criticize the institution, in spite of its acceptance in the Bible. The abolition movement led to legislative change in Canada and the British Empire, to the Civil War in the United States, and to progressive movements elsewhere.
We hope that visitors to our web site will see that some moral progress has been made since biblical times on slavery, the role of women, universal suffrage, child protection services, universal health care, welfare programs in many places, etc. However, there are exceptions -- even in developed countries. Many people note that there are still examples of sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, and other forms of bias, rejection, and hatred that need to be overcome. Slavery still exists in a few predominately Muslim countries and is seen worldwide in the form of sex trafficking. Much work remains.
The Christian Scriptures and Slavery:
Neither Jesus, nor St. Paul, nor any other Biblical figure is recorded as
saying anything in opposition to the institution of slavery. Slavery was very
much a part of life in Judea, Galilee, in the rest of the Roman Empire, and elsewhere during New Testament times. The
practice continued in England, Canada and the rest of the English Empire until
the early 19th century; it continued in the U.S. until later in the 19th
Quoting Rabbi M.J. Raphall, circa 1861:
"Receiving slavery as one of the conditions of society,
the New Testament nowhere interferes with or contradicts the slave code of Moses; it even
preserves a letter [to Philemon] written by one of the most eminent Christian teachers
[Paul] to a slave owner on sending back to him his runaway slave."
Paul's violation of the Mosaic Code on slavery:
While in prison, Paul met a runaway slave, Onesimus, the
property of a Christian -- presumably Philemon. He
sent the slave back to his owner. This action is forbidden in Deuteronomy
"Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escaped from
his master unto thee."
"He shall dwell with thee, even among you, in that place which he shall
choose in one of thy gates, where it liketh him best: thou shalt not oppress
Rather than give the slave sanctuary, Paul returned him to his owner. Paul
seems to hint that he would like Philemon to give Onesimus his freedom,
but does not actually request it. See the Letter to Philemon in the Christian
Other references to slavery in the Christian Scriptures:
People in debt (and their children) were still being sold into slavery in the
first century CE:
Matthew 18:25: "But forasmuch as he had not to pay, his lord
commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and payment to
Priests still owned slaves:
Mark 14:66: "And as Peter was beneath in
the palace, there cometh one of the maids of the high priest:"
Jesus is recorded as mentioning slaves in one of his parables. It is
important to realize that the term "servant girl" or "maid" in many English translations of
the Bible, like the American Standard Version, Amplified Bible, Phillips New Testament, Revised Standard Version, etc. refer to slaves, not employees like a butler, cook, or maid. Here, a
slave which did not follow his owner's will would be beaten with many lashes of
a whip. A slave who was unaware of his owner's will, but who did not behave
properly, would also be beaten, but with fewer stripes.
This would have been a marvelous opportunity for Jesus to condemn the
institution of slavery and its abuse of slaves. But he is not recorded of having
Luke 12:45-48: "The lord [owner] of that servant will come
in a day when he looketh not for him, and at an hour when he is not
aware, and will cut him in sunder, and will appoint him his portion with
the unbelievers. And that servant, which knew his lord's will, and
prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten
with many stripes. But he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of
stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes. For unto whomsoever much is
given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed
much, of him they will ask the more."
One of the favorite passages of slave-owning Christians was St. Paul's infamous
instruction that slaves to obey their owners in the same way that they obey Christ:
Ephesians 6:5-9: "Servants, be obedient to them that are your
masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as
unto Christ; Not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but as the servants of Christ, doing the
will of God from the heart; With good will doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men:
Knowing that whatsoever good thing any man doeth, the same shall he receive of the Lord,
whether he be bond or free. And, ye masters, do the same things unto them, forbearing
threatening: knowing that your Master also is in heaven; neither is there respect of
persons with him."
Other passages instructing slaves and slave owners in proper behavior are:
Colossians 4:1: "Masters, give unto your servants that which
is just and equal; knowing that ye also have a Master in heaven."
1 Timothy 6:1-3 "Let as many servants as are under the yoke
count their own masters worthy of all honor, that the name of God and his doctrine be not
blasphemed. And they that have believing masters, let them not despise them, because they
are brethren; but rather do them service, because they are faithful and beloved, partakers
of the benefit. These things teach and exhort. If any man teach otherwise, and consent not
to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which is
according to godliness;"
In his defense, St. Paul incorrectly expected that Jesus would return in the very near
future. This might have demotivated him from speaking out against slavery or other social
evils in the Roman Empire. Also, he regarded slaves as persons of worth whom at least God
considers of importance. St. Paul mentioned that both slaves and free persons are sons of
God, and thus all part of the body of Christ and spiritually equal.
1 Corinthians 12:13: "For by one Spirit are we all baptized
into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been
all made to drink into one Spirit."
Galatians 3:28: "There is neither Jew nor
Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all
one in Christ Jesus."
Colossians 3:11: "Where there is neither Greek nor Jew,
circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all,
and in all."
Paul apparently saw no evil in the concept of one person owning another as a piece
of property. In his Letter to Philemon, he had every opportunity to discuss the
immorality of slave-owning, but declined to do so.
The following information source was used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlink is not necessarily still active today.
Rabbi M.J. Raphall, "The Bible View of Slavery," delivered in New
York City, 1861. Available at: http://www.jewish-history.com/
Copyright © 1998 to 2015 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2015-NOV-25
Author: B.A. Robinson