Slavery and Early Christianity

11 May

When I started reading about Medieval History, coming up on 20 years ago, I had buckets of misconceptions. If you’ve been reading this blog for long you’ll know that I’ve never been particularly shy about mentioning them. One of these had to do with the evolution of the institution of slavery as it pertains to the ancient and medieval west.

My thinking back then was that Christianity had a major impact on the reduction in the number of slaves in the medieval period when compared with the Roman Empire. My reasoning went something like this:

Most Pagan religious sects did not believe in the immortality of the soul. Even if they did, those religions were followed by elites who gave little thought to the spiritual well-being of the rest of the people, who made up about 95% of the population. There was no value placed on these individuals so it was easy for them to be seen as objects rather than people and to be enslaved. Christianity was different. No matter someone’s station, he or she possessed a soul that was capable of salvation. The soul of a slave was just as valuable to God as the soul of an Emperor. Christians did not view slaves as mere possessions or things but as people. As they viewed slaves as people, not owned things, Christians were less favorable to slavery and once they became the majority religious group in the Empire the institution began to decline.

Makes sense, right? Or maybe it doesn’t but it did to me. And as with so many aspects of history, I have come to believe that this opinion of mine was wrong. At the very least, it is not supported by the evidence. There appears to be no significant difference between how Christians and non-Christians viewed slavery as an institution, at least to the early fourth century. In fact, while there are some writings to the contrary, there doesn’t appear to be all that much of a difference between the opinions of Christians and non-Christians about slaves as individuals/objects/people.

Mosaic depicting Roman slaves from second century, AD Tunisia. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Mosaic depicting Roman slaves from second century, AD Tunisia. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

As a starting point I’ll offer a quick summary of how Romans appeared to view slaves and slavery. Slaves were objects. They were property. They were possessions. They had no rights. Whatever use a Roman chose to put a slave to, it was legal, though at times socially frowned upon. A male slave-owner could use a slave sexually as he pleased. A woman did not have quite this level of freedom but while it was vehemently frowned upon when discovered, it appears to have been legal, so long as the woman was not married. Slaves could be bought and sold without regard to family relations. Slaves could only marry with their owner’s permission and the children of such marriages (or from sex with their owner) were able to be sold at will. While there are some protections afforded slaves in Roman law, these are relatively minimal and seem to only occasionally have been enforced. 1

As an institution, slavery was viewed as a normal aspect of Human society. Of everything I’ve read, this may be what I found most striking. As opposed to, for example, the United States in the 19th century, there was no debate about the moral evil of slavery or whether people should be able to be treated as property. I’m saying there wasn’t a whisper. It was a conversation that did not exist. There was plenty of discussion on how slaves should be treated, some of which I’ll talk about, but there was a complete absence of any thought that slavery was inappropriate or something people and society should not engage in.

It’s true that Christian doctrine viewed slaves as individuals and believed they had souls capable of salvation. It’s true that many Christian authors wrote on the need to treat slaves well. However these same authors wrote that slaves should accept their station in life. There is, quite simply, little evidence that Christians, at least in any number, disapproved of the institution of slavery. From what I’ve read, if you remove the labels “Pagan” and “Christian” attached to various authors, there is little difference in what the majority of them wrote regarding slaves and slavery. Writings of the two often contain cautions against beating a slave because of one’s own anger and that owners would be better served by controlling their own passions rather than responding rashly however each group seems to recognize the inherent validity of slavery as an institution. As with Romans, Early Christians provide no evidence that they believed that slavery was wrong – or that they even considered this question.

I’m going to offer a couple of examples and my first is from a very early source. In Matthew 26:51-52 One of Jesus’ disciples pulls out his sword and cuts off the ear of a slave of Caiaphus, the High Priest. Jesus tells the disciple, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword shall perish by the sword.”

There is a key point here beyond the obvious lesson. Note that Jesus’ concern is not for someone whose ear has just been cut off. A miracle worker, he does not touch the slave’s ear and heal him, or express any consideration for him whatsoever. His concern is for the person with the sword, that his act of anger and violence will, in the end, injure him. The author of this gospel does not consider the slave’s pain and suffering. The sword-wielding disciple is not punished by Caiaphus, so far as we know – cutting off a slave’s ear seems to not matter much at all. The slave only exists as an object by which the lesson may be demonstrated.

The Didache says, “Do not, when embittered, give orders to your slave, male or female, for they hope in the same God; otherwise, they might lose the fear of God, who is the Master of both of you. He surely is not coming to call with an eye to rank and station in life, no. But you, slaves, be submissive to your masters as to God’s image in reverence and fear.” Here we have recognition that slaves may receive salvation however slavery as an institution is accepted as part of society. The primary concern is that the slavemaster not act out of passion, or displace God as an object of fear, not the suffering the slave might endure. 2

Ignatius writes to Polycarp cautioning against manumission as the hope of freedom may both cause false conversion and detract from slaves seeking after God. “. . . let them submit themselves the more, for the glory of God, that they may obtain from God a better liberty. Let them not wish to be set free [from slavery] at the public expense, that they be not found slaves to their own desires.” Slavery is a part of society, something Ignatius appears to have no interest in changing. 3

And while the previous quotes at least show that slaves are considered individuals who might receive salvation from God, there are plenty of examples of Christians considering slaves to be worthless objects, of no concern. In 310, the recently defeated Maximian hatched a plot to assassinate Constantine by killing him in his bed. Lactantius recounts that instead of the Emperor, they placed, “a worthless eunuch who was to die in the Emperor’s stead.” I can think of other ways to catch Maximian red-handed but in this case Lactantius sees nothing wrong in sacrificing a slave for this purpose. 4

And then there’s the apocryphal, The Acts of Andrew. I covered this in detail in a post a couple of years ago. In this story Maximilla, the wife of Aegeates, on being influenced by Andrew decides to live an ascetic life and withdraws from her marriage bed. She bribes her slave, Eucleia, to lie with her husband instead(somehow Aegeates fails to notice that she’s not his wife). When Eucleia starts bragging to the other slaves and word slips out, Aegeates tortures her and, once she’s told him everything, cuts off her hands, feet, tongue, and tosses the head and torso into the street where she dies a few days later. The author considers this to be a just reward for Eucleia’s betraying her mistress. He evidently didn’t have much concern for Eucleia as a person, or consider someone sleeping with a slave to be improper (if it was, Maximilla would have been directly responsible for it and, by association, Andrew). As this story remained popular into the early Medieval period, it doesn’t appear that folks in the fifth century worried much about it either. 5

So my original belief was wrong, at least through the early 4th century. At the very least it isn’t supported by the evidence, and I was looking for it. Despite how frequently I’m wrong and how open I am about it, believe me – I’d prefer to be correct. I suppose my theory isn’t dead as Christianity could have had an impact in later centuries but I can’t say that I recall evidence in support of it then either.

If I were to post about what really caused the decline of slavery during this period I would point to the loss of wealth. The giant rural villas and agricultural estates required a large, inexpensive labor force just as much as the farming of the Nile Delta in ancient Egypt and the large plantations of the pre-Civil War United States south did. With the loss of these large estates, there was no longer a need for slavery on this scale. Slavery didn’t decline because it was considered wrong but because it was no longer needed. 6

In essence this is an aspect of a larger issue. Christians didn’t come to dominate the Empire because they were different from traditional Romans but because they were similar to them. Christianity’s success and its conversion to a political institution didn’t occur because of some societal change requiring new leadership but because Christians were good Romans. Christianity’s impact on the later Empire is not one of change but of consistency. Christians didn’t want to destroy, or even change Rome any more than the Germanics did. But unlike the Germanics, these Christians were Roman and possessed the tools to ensure the continuity and continued prosperity of the Empire.

1 For example, Antoninus Pius decreed that slaveholders who killed a slave without cause could be liable for homicide however I am unaware of an instance where this was enforced.

2 The Didache, 4.10-11.

3 Ignatius’ Epistle to Polycarp, 4.3.

4 Lactantius, On the Deaths of the Persecutors, 30.3-5. My actual quote is from Jones (1978), p. 62. I prefer it to the one in Roberts and Donaldson (2004), p. 313.

5 There are a bunch of issues here I’m not going to explore. One is whether Paul the Apostle considered sex with a slave to be adultery (or if other early Christians did). Glancy (2006) covers this in some detail and says, “First, Paul instructed the (male) Thessalonian Christians to abstain from porneia or sexual immorality. Whether Paul understood porneia to encompass precisely the field of activities connoted by the modern concept of “fornication” is unclear and even unlikely.” And, “Paul’s advice could be Construed as instructions to the male Thessalonian Christians to find morally neutral outlets for their sexual urges. And in the first century, domestic slaves were considered to be morally neutral outlets for sexual urges – vessels, we might say.” p. 60.

6 There’s also the possibility that the Germanics who came to control what had been the Western Empire had a different view of slaves and slavery. I’m putting that thought on hold for now but will look for it when I get back to reading about them.

Glancy, Jennifer A., Slavery in Early Christianity. Minneapolis: Fortress Press (2006). ISBN: 978-0-8006-3789-7.

Jones, A.H.M., Constantine and the Conversion of Europe. Toronto: Medieval Academy of America (1978). ISBN: 978-0-8020-6369-1.

Joshel, Sandra R., Slavery in the Roman World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2010). ISBN: 978-0-521-82774-4.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 7: Lactantius, Venantius, Asterius, Victorinus, Dionysius, Apostolic Teaching and Constitutions, 2 Clement, Early Liturgies. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004). ISBN: 1-56563-084-X.

Schneemelcher, Wilhelm and Wilson, R. McL., eds., New Testament Apocrypha Volume Two: Writings Related to the Apostles; Apocalypses and Related Subjects. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press (2003). ISBN: 978-0-664-22722-7.


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11 responses to “Slavery and Early Christianity

  1. mikulpepper

    May 12, 2015 at 7:14 am

    I do agree with your notion that early Christians regarded slavery as a natural part of society. But there was a difference. As Paul pointed out (several times) a master might mistreat a slave and then have to sit with him in paradise. There seems to me a bit of a sermon just beneath the surface there. And, by at least the 10th Century, there was a considerable Christian anti-slavery sentiment as evidenced by the several papal attempts to end the practice. The fact that these weren’t successful say more about papal power than about theology. And there were the various attempts to mediate slavery, such as making it Not A Good Thing for a Christian to own other Christians. Finally, there are the various testaments from folks freeing slaves “for the good of their souls” (though I have seen arguments that this only applied to Christian slaves). At any rate, there is embedded in Christian thought, a certain bias toward viewing humans as equal, at least in Fellowship. The fact that this bias was not always evidenced in practice says something else about human beings. (Leaving the medieval period behind — I recall an article, I think by Clement Eaton, about the difficulties slave-owners in the US South had with reconciling slavery and Christianity. The “children of Ham” concept was one mechanism developed to excuse the Peculiar Institution.)

    • Curt Emanuel

      May 12, 2015 at 9:23 am

      I do agree with your notion that early Christians regarded slavery as a natural part of society. But there was a difference.

      No, not to the early 4th century anyway. Paul’s concern is identical to that of the Pagan philosophers who advised against mistreating slaves – for the slave owner’s well-being, not that of the slave. Pagan philosophers believed that striking a slave in anger detracted from the effort to live a dispassionate life. The concern of early Christian authors, as in The Didache quote I offered, as well as Paul, is for the spiritual health of the Master. The slave? Not so much.

      In fact, if you read Paul’s references to slavery he often exalts the position of being a slave. In Phillippians 2:6-11, Christ is called a slave who is only freed by death. In various other places he calls Christians slaves to God who, again, will be set free by death. I don’t see anything in this which can be used to indicate anything other than that Paul believed slavery was acceptable, both to man and God.

      Most of the advice concerning treatment of slaves, when it focuses on the impact on the slave rather than the master is along the lines of, “Use firm discipline with your slaves for they are unused to/incapable of governing their own passions and depend on you, their master, to control their passions for them.”

      Manumission’s another story and one I debated mentioning but left out both in deference to post length as well as because, as with other aspects of pre-Nicene slavery, there’s little to distinguish between Roman and Christian practice. There is one single quote in all sources from the period in question, from a manumission document by Aurelius Valerius, which mentions the slave’s “exceptional Christianity” as a reason for being set free. And even this is mid-4th century, really later than the period I’m discussing. I’m not sure how this single “exceptional Christianity” reason for manumission is a big change from the “exceptional service” clause much more frequently used. In essence, the slave pleased his or her master and was set free in recognition of this.

      If there is a change, as the quote from Ignatius illustrates, it was to reduce manumission as now owners had religious justification for saying that slaves were meant to be slaves. Glancy (2006) discusses this on pages 92-101. Why would Christians set slaves free? If they were meant to be slaves, how could a Christian slave owner contradict God’s will?

      I can postulate one change which may have happened but have no direct evidence. In traditional Roman households many of the household slaves appear to have routinely been set free once they reached their 30’s. The reason is that among their roles, those slaves were expected to be aesthetically pleasing – beautiful if you will – and even occasionally available sexually for guests. With Christianity’s de-emphasis on physical appearance this reason for setting a slave free would have no longer been in effect. Then again, there isn’t much direct evidence that Roman and Christian households viewed slaves differently so it’s as likely that this had no effect.

      You’re correct that things changed later and Christianity may have had a key role – or it may have just reflected society’s values – but that’s not this post.

  2. mikulpepper

    May 13, 2015 at 3:02 am

    Okay. Maybe I was jumping ahead on manumission. I still disagree on Paul — but save that for another time. Have a good time in Kalamazoo.

  3. Curt Emanuel

    May 13, 2015 at 7:28 am

    We can disagree on Paul – it’s not like any of us knows exactly what he meant. Gives us something to argue about (I like to argue, hopefully people don’t take that as meaning I’m mad or anything). Besides, until I started reading all this stuff (last count was roughly 487 sources since 2012) I was sure early Christianity had a big impact on slavery myself. It may still have but it doesn’t show up in the evidence that I can see.

    I appreciate your commenting Mike.

  4. Heather McFarlane

    September 10, 2015 at 12:55 am

    There was a very real difference between Greek and Roman attitudes to the slave: Romans’ slaves were not a different kind of being. The Greeks, on the other hand, considered that slaves were of a fundamentally different species from free people…. very like 19th century European attitudes towards the African slave.

    Thank you so much for this essay on slavery, by the way. I’ve always been interested in this topic, and American discussions usually wander around an underbrush of invective against racism.

  5. Caroline Galwey

    November 11, 2015 at 9:26 am

    The Gospel example doesn’t make the point well. In the parallel account of the same incident in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus *does* heal the slave who has his ear cut off … which merely illustrates that these are different accounts more designed to make moral points than to report what really happened, and that different authors’ moral priorities varied.

    • Curt Emanuel

      November 11, 2015 at 8:32 pm

      It makes the point just fine – 3 of the 4 Gospel accounts do not say anything about the slave’s ear being healed. In 75% of the sources this is irrelevant and in all of them the primary point is what effect violence has on the one performing the violence.

      You’re absolutely correct about the gospels reflecting the values of the authors. Writings reflecting contemporary values was a significant point of the post.

  6. Anonymous

    February 7, 2016 at 10:06 pm

    You, Carl, wrote: “so far as we know – cutting off a slave’s ear seems to not matter much at all.” But Luke 22 has this:

    …50And one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. 51But Jesus answered and said, “Stop! No more of this.” And He touched his ear and healed him. 52Then Jesus said to the chief priests and officers of the temple and elders who had come against Him, “Have you come out with swords and clubs as you would against a robber?…

    So according to that account, Jesus did heal the ear of the slave of Caiaphus, apparently, to me, mattering to Luke and contrary to what you wrote.

    • Curt Emanuel

      February 9, 2016 at 6:53 am

      Two points:

      1. I am not named Carl.

      2. I quoted Matthew. I also said “According to the author of this gospel . . .” I did not quote Luke or reference Luke’s author.

  7. Pamela E. Foster

    January 7, 2017 at 12:59 pm

    Will you please post a bibliography of your “roughly 487 sources since 2012”? At least a partial one beyond the sources in your notes would be great.

    • Curt Emanuel

      January 7, 2017 at 9:52 pm

      No, feel free to go through my posts I’ve written since then and write them down though I’m sure I haven’t used everything I’ve read as a reference in this blog. The other option is to look at my LibraryThing page and go through the ones tagged as “Read 20xx.”

      That will only get you so far though. For example, one volume of the Ante-Nicene Father Series may have 20-30 sources so you’d have to find a table of contents someplace. A while back I put together a list of all the Hagiography I had on my shelves at that point here: I don’t plan on doing something like that for all my sources in the near future.

      I do have a spreadsheet with original sources listed – it’s up to 980 but was last updated in March, 2014 so it’s probably a little out of date. I’d be happy to e-mail that to you if you send me your address. It’s a reference list for me though so it’s not in a bibliographic format.


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