SLAVE, SLAVERY (Heb. ‘evedh, servant, slave, Gr. doulos, bondslave, servant). While the Hebrew and Greek words are very common in the Bible, the English word slave is found only twice (Jer.2.14; Rev.18.13), and the word slavery does not occur at all in KJV, because both the Hebrew and the Greek word involved are more often rendered “servant.”

SLAVE, SLAVERY (עֶ֫בֶד, H6269, δου̂λος, slave, servant). The ownership of one man by another man so that the former was viewed in most respects as property rather than as a person. It was a deeply rooted part of the economy and social structure of the ancient Near E and of the Graeco-Rom. world.


Slavery in the OT

Slavery was a widespread practice in the ancient E during OT times. However, the number of slaves in Israel prob. did not run as high as in classical times. In Israel it was cheaper to hire laborers for work than to keep slaves. The use of slaves seems to have been largely confined to household duties and to work in the field alongside the master and his family.

Literary sources.

The OT legislation is recorded in Exodus 21, Leviticus 25, and Deuteronomy 15. There are numerous references to slaves throughout the OT. Extra-Biblical data on slavery among the Jews is limited to the Elephantine Papyri from the Egyp. colony of the 5th cent. b.c. The private and public documents of the ancient Near E from the third millennium b.c. to NT times are full of references to the practice of slavery in the parallel cultures.


Acquisition of slaves

War captives.

The earliest means for the acquisition of slaves in the Near E was by military conquest. Thousands of men, women, and children were thus reduced to servitude. To the ancients this was considered a humanitarian improvement on the earlier practice of killing all of the enemy (Num 31:7-35; Deut 20:10-18; 1 Kings 20:39; 2 Chron 28:8-15). The Near Eastern codes and the OT law sought to limit the excesses of brutal punishment which captives received. The Heb. was told that, if a soldier sees a beautiful woman among the captives and marries her, he must treat her thereafter as a free person (Deut 21:10-14). He was not permitted to sell her into slavery after he ceased to delight in her. The Hebrews were subject to enslavement after capture in war at the hands of countless adversaries. The Phoenicians, Philistines, Syrians, Egyptians, and Romans held them in bondage in great numbers.


The price of slaves varied widely. Thirty shekels was the price according to Exodus 21:32. A scale of from three to fifty shekels is given in Leviticus 27:3-7, according to the age and sex of the slave. An appeal could be made to a priest when there was disagreement on price (v. 8). Twenty shekels was the price for a young man (v. 5)—the price paid for Joseph (Gen 37:28). The average price for a slave was forty shekels (2 Macc 8:11). A ransom of one talent for a captive (1 Kings 20:39) must indicate that he was an individual of great importance.

Children were sold into slavery under terms of a conditional contract. More frequently this was true of young, unmarried girls. Exodus 21 stipulates that if a man sells his daughter, she must become the wife or concubine of her master or of one of his sons when she reaches maturity. If no male member of the family takes her as a wife she is to be set free without any payment of money from her (v. 11). This condition was put in the contract because young girls were frequently purchased with the intention of making prostitutes of them when they reached maturity.

A forced sale of children into slavery is mentioned in Nehemiah 5. Presumably a father had pledged his children for loans during a time of economic hardship. As settlement for the debts the land was seized and the children were sold into slavery.

There is some evidence that the Hebrews did traffic in slaves, a common practice in the ancient Near E. An Egyp. slave is mentioned in 1 Chronicles 2:34. Two laws dealt with slave trade. Both Exodus 21:16 and Deuteronomy 24:7 forbid the kidnapping and selling of freeborn individuals. The penalty for such was death. They may not have been sold into a foreign country, but more than likely they were because of the unique nature of the covenant community. Certainly Joseph was handled in this fashion (Gen 37:28). A second law (Deut 23:15f.) prohibits the extradition of a runaway slave, presumably a Heb. who had escaped from his master in a foreign country.

Self-sale into slavery seems to have been a common practice of the Israelites. The law of Exodus (21:5, 6) and the law of Deuteronomy (15:16f.) provided for the man who had sold himself into slavery voluntarily. Both refer to the man who refused to go free after some years of service. If he refused his freedom because he enjoyed the economic security of his new home, and because he wished to remain with the wife his master provided for him, and with his children, he would serve his master for life. Leviticus 25 describes the way in which an Israelite was to be treated who entered into the state of slavery voluntarily, or who sold himself to a fellow Israelite or resident foreigner. Provision was made for release after fifty years of bondage. The value of a slave was calculated on the basis of the number of years remaining for him to serve. Evidently the sabbatical-year release of the Book of the Covenant had been forgotten or more prob. disregarded. The assumption on which the Leviticus code is based is that no Israelite could be in perpetual bondage because he was a child of God.


One of the chief sources of slaves in Pal. was the citizen who was in default of payment for his debts. The laws of Exodus (21:2-4) and Deuteronomy (15:12) deal with such a person. They sought to protect the slave by limiting his service to six years. The principle behind slavery for insolvency is clear in the terms of Exodus 22:2. The law provided that a thief should be sold into slavery, not because he had stolen goods, but rather because he was unable to recompense the owner for the loss of his property.

There are numerous references to Hebrews who were reduced to slavery to satisfy debts. A number of those who joined David at the cave of Adullam were defaulting debtors (1 Sam 22:2). 2 Kings 4:1 and Nehemiah 5:1-5 mention instances of children who were seized to satisfy creditors. Isaiah referred to that practice when he wrote these words from God: “Which of my creditors is it to whom I have sold you? Behold, for your iniquities you were sold” (Isa 50:1).

One of the reasons for insolvency was the high rates of interest charged in the ancient world. The Israelites were protected, in theory at least, from this by legislation, written in Exodus, and repeated in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, which forbade them to charge interest of their fellow men.


The non-Heb. slave could be acquired as a gift. In this way Leah received Zilpah as her slave (Gen 29:24).


Non-Hebrew slaves could be passed on from one generation to another. Leviticus 25:46 provided for the perpetual servitude of the original inhabitants of Canaan in this manner.


The children of slaves, born within the owner’s house, became the property of the master, even if the father should later become a free man (Exod 21:4; Lev 25:54).

Legal status and rights of slaves


The OT law regarding the release of slaves is stated in three passages (Exod 21:1-11; Lev 25:39-55; Deut 15:12-18). The first of these provided that a Heb. slave should be freed after he had served six years. If he was married before he became a slave, his wife was to be released with him, but, if he was provided a wife by his master, the slave was to go free, but his wife and children would remain the property of the owner. In such instances, if the slave chose to remain with his master and his wife and children, he was to appear before the judges, have his ear pierced, presumably for some tag to be affixed, and become a slave for life.

A female slave was treated quite differently. She was assumed in the sight of the law to be a concubine or wife of the owner or of one of his sons. Because it was in the best interest of the home for her to remain, a slave girl was released only under extraordinary conditions. If the owner was displeased with her, he could let her be redeemed, prob. by her family. If he had promised her to one of his sons, she was to be treated as a daughter. If the owner took another wife, he was still responsible to provide for his slave concubine. If these three conditions were not met, the slave girl was set free.

The Book of the Covenant (Exodus 20-23) also provided for the release of slaves who had been maimed by their masters. Questions arise concerning the meaning of Exodus 21:26, 27. The adjective “Hebrew” is not used. It is suggested, therefore, by some that the injunction applied only to non-Heb. slaves, as the Talmud states. However, it would be extraordinary to suggest that a man was accountable for beating a non-Heb. slave, but not for beating a Heb. slave. This, most likely, was a pronouncement which applied to the treatment of all slaves.

The law of release in Deuteronomy has one significant change. It stipulated that female slaves were to be treated in the same way as males. It was no longer assumed that a marriage commitment by the owner for himself, or one of his sons, was a condition of female servitude.

The third law of release is found in Leviticus 25:39-55. It provided that a Heb. could never be in perpetual bondage. An Israelite who sold himself into slavery was to be released in the year of Jubilee. He was not to be considered a slave, but a bondservant or hireling. True slaves were acquired from the surrounding nations, and for them there was no release. They were inherited with other property (vv. 44-46). A third provision required that, if a Heb. sold himself because of poverty to a resident foreigner, one of his relatives would have the right to redeem him. The price was to be based on the amount for which he was originally acquired, pro-rated to the number of years left to Jubilee. He was to be released in the year of Jubilee if not redeemed before then.

It is difficult to say if the laws of release were observed by the Hebrews. No document of manumission has appeared. On the contrary, Jeremiah (34:8-17) rebuked the princes of Judah who followed the decree of Zedekiah to release the slaves only to bring them into bondage again. Some see in the Jubilee release an admission that the Israelites failed to observe the right of release after six years of servitude, according to the terms of the Book of the Covenant.

Religious rights.

The slave was considered to be a part of his owner’s family; hence he shared in their religious life. The laws (Exod 20:10; 23:12) guaranteed him a right to the Sabbath rest. Deuteronomy (12:12; 16:11, 14) granted him a share in the religious feasts. Thus the sojourner could not partake of the feast until he had been circumcised, but the slave, as a member of the family, had to be circumcised and thus always took part in the feasts (Exod 12:43-45). Likewise, a slave in the house of a priest was allowed to eat of the offering of the holy things, but a sojourner in the household, or even the daughter of a priest, if she had married into a non-priestly family, was forbidden to share in the offering (Lev 22:10-12).

Civil rights.

Slaves were protected in considerable measure from inhumane treatment. The murder of a slave was punishable by death (Exod 21:12). If a master beat a slave, and he died as a result, the master was to be punished, but it is not clear what the punishment was (21:20f.). Again, if a master maimed his slave, the slave was to be set free (21:26). The terms of the prohibition on maiming were quite restrictive. A slave was to be set free if a beating resulted even in the loss of a tooth (21:27). Restrictions were also placed on the illegal sale of persons into slavery (q.v.) and on the return of runaway slaves (q.v.).


Hebrew slaves were allowed to marry. The code in Exodus stipulated that a Heb. slave was to be set free in six years. If he was married when he went into bondage, his wife and children were to be freed with him (Exod 21:3), but if he was provided a wife by his master, then the wife and children were to remain the property of the owner. This last provision was evidently the cause of some perpetual servitude, for, if a man chose to remain with his wife and children, he was taken before the judge, his ear was pierced as a sign of perpetual servitude, and he was declared a slave for life (21:5, 6).

The law in Exodus is somewhat perplexing in regard to female slaves. On the one hand, it allowed wives to be provided for Heb. slaves (21:2-4), but, on the other hand, it stated that women were to be treated differently (see D, 1). Evidently a Heb. woman could go into slavery only on the condition that she was to be a wife or concubine of her master or of one of his sons, and only foreign women were given to Heb. slaves as their wives.


From earliest times slaves were granted the right to accumulate property. The peculium could be almost any form of property, including slaves (2 Sam 9:10). The Code of Hammurabi recognized this right, and even decreed the way in which the peculium would be distributed on the death of the slave owner. The OT (Lev 25:47-55) provided that a man who sold himself into slavery might be redeemed by his nearest kin or “if he grows rich he may redeem himself” (v. 49), presumably with his peculium.

A unique provision for Heb. slaves is to be found in Deuteronomy 15:13-15. A slave who was freed in the Sabbath year was to be provided with goods from the increase of his master’s prosperity as a reminder to all that the Hebrews were delivered from bondage in Egypt.

Asylum and extradition.

The provision of the law of Deuteronomy 23:15, 16 in this regard is difficult to interpret. “You shall not give up to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you; he shall dwell with you, in your midst....” This could have meant that every runaway slave in Israel was to be granted asylum. It must refer, instead, to slaves from foreign countries who sought asylum among the Hebrews. There are parallels to this kind of provision in other Near Eastern law codes.


Since a slave was considered a piece of property, a number of different ways were used in the E to indicate his status. In Egypt slaves were stamped with the name of their owner and given a unique haircut. In Babylonia both these methods were used as well as tattoos and small tablets which were worn around the wrist, ankle, or neck. There is no clear indication that the Israelites used any of these signs of servile status. The only provision in the law was that a slave who chose to remain in bondage after six years of servitude should have his ear pierced with an awl (Exod 21:6; Deut 15:17). Evidently this was used to fasten some sort of tag to him.

Publicly owned slaves.

State slavery existed from earliest recorded time in the Near E. First mention of it is made in the Book of Joshua (16:10) and the Book of Judges (1:28) in reference to work which was performed for the state by the impressed Canaanites after the conquest of the land. State slavery evidently became more widespread and more important economically when the Davidic kingdom was established. Slaves in large numbers were used by the state to work the copper mines and mills of the Arabah. Because of extremely harsh working conditions, they must have died in great numbers. Perhaps it was for this purpose that Solomon reduced to slavery “all the people who were left of the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, who were not of the people of Israel” (1 Kings 9:20f.). In Ezra (2:55-58) and Nehemiah (7:57-60) they were combined in the census lists with the Temple slaves and their number is given as 392.

Temple slaves were common throughout the Near E in OT times. No mention of them was made in the OT until postexilic times. They were brought back by Zerubbabel and Ezra from Babylonia (Ezra 2:43-54; Neh 7:46-56). Ezra states that there were 220 of them whom David and his officials had set apart to attend the Levites (Ezra 8:20). They apparently lived in separate quarters adjoining the Temple, and worked under supervisors (Neh 3:31; 11:21). Earlier mention is made of captives who were given to the Temple, a number of Midianites (Num 31:28-30, 40), and the Gibeonites who became “hewers of wood and drawers of water for the house of my God” (Josh 9:23), but it is not clear that they functioned as Temple slaves.

The importance of slavery.

The legal codes define in considerable measure the limits of a man’s treatment of his fellow man, but they tell little of what it was like to be a slave in the ancient E. For that, one can only turn to OT narratives in which slaves were important figures. It should be noted first that slaves were members of the household and were grouped with the women and children (Exod 20:17). The latter, like slaves, could be bought and sold. The wife and the slave-concubine were often hard to distinguish. As Paul suggests (Gal 4:1), the child in Israel was “no better than a slave,” for both were flogged (Exod 21:20-27; Prov 13:24), but it was the slave who was protected from permanent injury.

Generally slaves were not owned in large numbers in Pal. except by the Temple and the state. Slaves were usually domestics in the households of the well-to-do rather than agricultural or handicraft workers in large-scale operations. A warm affection frequently developed between the master and his slave. The codes in both Exodus and Deuteronomy specifically made provision for the slave who wished to remain in bondage because of his affection for his master. Such a relationship must have existed between Abraham and Eliezer of Damascus for Eliezer was at one time designated the heir of his master (Gen 15:1-4), and later he was sent to negotiate a marriage for the heir (ch. 24). A slave of Saul (1 Sam 9:5; 16:22) was an adviser and confidant of his master, as was Gehazi, the slave of Elisha (2 Kings 4:12; 8:4). Mention is also made of one Jarha, an Egyp. slave in the household, who was given the daughter of his master in marriage (1 Chron 2:35). Thus the frequent picture that is drawn is one of affection and trust on the part of both master and slave, very much within the confines of the family.

Slavery in the NT

There is an awkward silence on the part of Christ and the apostles in regard to the slave society in which they lived. Far from condemning slavery, Paul and Peter reminded their converts who were slaves to obey their masters (Eph 6:5-8; Col 3:22-25; 1 Tim 6:1f.; 1 Pet 2:18-21). Paul further suggested that a runaway slave voluntarily return to his master (Philem 10-16). Nowhere did he suggest that Christians give up their slaves, but he did exhort masters to treat their slaves with kindness and consideration (Eph 6:9; Col 4:1). In short, the institution of slavery was not condemned, but its abuses were. The apostles’ attitude is best explained by the unique way in which Romans of the 1st cent. a.d. treated their slaves, and released them in great numbers.

Slavery had a long history in the Graeco-Rom. world by NT times. During the Rom. conquest of the 3rd to 1st centuries b.c., slaves were introduced into Rom. society by the hundreds of thousands. However, one must be exceedingly careful not to assign the barbaric treatment of slaves by the Romans in the pre-Christian centuries to the early Christian era. Sweeping humanitarian changes had been introduced into the Rom. world by the 1st cent. a.d. which led to radically improved treatment of slaves.

As in OT times men became slaves in the Graeco-Rom. world in a number of ways. Most were inherited or purchased. The latter were usually prisoners of war or persons illegally seized and sold by pirates to slave traders. Some few slave traders seem to have engaged in the ugly trade of breeding and selling slaves, a common business in earlier centuries. According to Cicero (Par. 35) indebtedness was a cause of slavery in early Rome, but this practice was forbidden by law in 326 b.c.


Slavery had become a welltraveled road to Rom. citizenship throughout the empire by the 1st cent. a.d. Captives were educated and trained in Rom. ways before becoming citizens. The younger Pliny in a letter stated in justification of manumission that he freed his slaves because of a desire to see his native country increased in the number of its citizens (Ep. 7. 32. 1). Cassius Dio (46. 7. 6) put similar words in the mouth of Augustus Caesar, but the statement is less reliable than Pliny’s. Behind these statements there is the fact that Rome was faced with a population decline of the freeborn citizenry. The freedman, therefore, under the name and patronage of his former master could fulfill obligations to the state, the most important of which was military service. Whatever the reasons, evidence of various kinds indicates that the Romans freed slaves in great numbers.

Frequency of manumission.

There is considerable evidence of manumission. Tenney Frank (AJP 53 [1932], 360) made a study of the sacred treasury of the Romans for the years 81-49 b.c. His conclusions are remarkable. One of the sources for the sacred treasury was a manumission tax of five percent of the value of the slave about to be freed. Using a value of 500 denarii per slave, a reasonable evaluation, he came to the conclusion that 500,000 slaves were freed during this period, for 12,000,000 sesterces were derived from the tax during this time. These figures are all the more startling when one learns that the total population of the city of Rome in 5 b.c. has been estimated at about 870,000.

Two other bits of evidence on the frequency of manumission during this period are significant. Caesar sent 80,000 poor people, mostly freedmen, out of the city of Rome to the provinces as colonists in the years 46-44 b.c. Earlier, in 57-56, when a dole of grain was established for needy citizens at Rome, many owners set their older slaves free. This indicates that it was not always humanitarianism which prompted some to free their slaves (Cassius Dio 39. 24).

Evidence from the early empire, since it was the time of the Early Church, is more significant and most unusual. In a study of 13,900 grave inscrs. from the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, Frank has shown that of 4,485 persons born at Rome and who, with few exceptions, were poor citizens, 3,723, or eightythree percent, had foreign names and seventy percent had Gr. names. This is a sure indication that the individual was a former slave or, perhaps, the son or daughter of a slave or freedman. There is further evidence that this percentage is prob. too low. In instances where a record of succeeding generations appears, the percentage of Gr. names shrinks from sixty-four percent to thirty-eight percent. It appears that a freedman of ambition soon tried to shed a Gr. name and presumably any other foreign name in favor of a Latin one (AHR 21 [1916], 689-708). The reliability of one aspect of Frank’s conclusions is borne out by other studies. At Minturnae seventy-seven percent of all slaves and freedmen were Gr. (Excavations at Minturnae 2 [1], 106-113). Likewise seventy-six percent of the freedmen and slaves of Cicero were Greeks and seventy-three percent of the slaves and freedmen of others, mentioned by Cicero, had Gr. names.

The legislation of Augustus indicates that on the death of their masters slaves were being freed in wholesale numbers. To curb such activity, which Dionysius of Halicarnassus says was prompted by the owner’s desire that his slaves should grace his funeral wearing the cap of freedom (4. 24), the lex Fufia Canina was passed in 2 b.c. The law stipulated that on their death owners might free a portion of their slaves on a sliding scale. If one owned two to ten slaves, one-half might be freed. If ten to thirty, one-third might be freed. If a master owned 100-500, only one-fifth might be freed (Gai 1. 42f.). In all, the evidence supports the contention that slaves in ancient Rome were freed in great numbers.

Length of service.

Information regarding the length of time a slave had to wait for his freedom is scanty. Cicero, however, made the point that a worthy slave could expect his freedom in about seven years (Phil. 8. 32), a figure which coincides remarkably with the OT requirement (Exod 21:2). It is not surprising therefore, to find that in the works of Cicero a number of individuals, such as Tiro, Statius, Dionysius, and Eutychides, to name a few, were first mentioned in connection with some important duties they performed as slaves, and a few years later were called freedmen.

Economic status of freedmen.

When a master freed his slave, he frequently established his freedman in a business and the master became a shareholder in it. Usually the slave had learned his trade as an apprentice in the master’s household or handicraft shop. Then by extra labor he saved enough to buy his freedom, or it was granted gratuitously by his master.

Many examples of the prosperity of former slaves can be cited. Because Ostia, the seaport of Rome, was a prosperous new community during the late republic and early empire, freedmen flocked there. Even a large proportion of the magistrates of the city were freedmen (Gordon, JRS 21 [1931], 70). Many others became knights; this meant that they possessed property valued at more than 50,000 sesterces. Their names are interesting and indicate their former status and often their nationality: Antistius Agathangelus, Carminius Parthenopaeus, Combarisius Vitalis, Cornelius Epagathanius, Licinius Herodes, and Lutatius Charitonaenus. They amassed their wealth as grain dealers, carpenters, wine merchants, furniture makers, and surveyors. Two other prosperous freedmen at Ostia were a silversmith and a miller.

At Rome the situation was the same. There was a street of shops, the Sacra Via, which specialized in jewelry. All the owners of the shops who could be identified were freedmen. There were seven pearl merchants, two jewelers, two goldsmiths, one engraver, and one maker of silverplate. An inscr. found at Rome illustrates the practice of the time. The patron of M. Canuleius Zosimus set up a memorial plaque to his freedman who died at twenty-eight years of age. He said of him, “he excelled in carving Clodian ware” (CIL 6.9222). There were two firms of bricklayers at Rome. These were headed by G. Domitius Trophimus and C. Calpetanus Favor, both of whom were freedmen with slaves working under them. One of the slaves, Hermes, was later freed by his master and became C. Calpetanus Hermes (CIL 15, 319, 904, 1112-1114).

Jewish freedmen.

The Jews at Rome were an interesting group. Many thousands of them came to the city as slaves in the periods of the late republic and early empire. Leon (The Jews of Ancient Rome, 237f.) in this study of the catacomb inscrs. discovered that there was not a single mention of a slave among them. This confirms the statement of Philo that many Jews came to Rome as slaves, but were soon set free (legatio 23. 155). Moreover, many Jews took lofty Rom. names for themselves and, except for the fact that they were buried in the Jewish catacombs, would never have been recognized as Jews.

All of this evidence suggests that the Rom. slave, far from living in perpetual servitude, could look forward to a day of opportunity. It became the common practice of the Romans to free their slaves and then establish them in a trade or profession. Many times the former slave became wealthier than his patron.

The status of slaves.

While an individual was a slave, he was in most respects equal to his freeborn counterpart in the Graeco-Rom. world, and in some respects he had an advantage. By the 1st cent. a.d. the slave had most of the legal rights which were granted to the free man. Sepulchral inscrs. of the 1st and 2nd centuries indicate the prosperity and family solidarity of the imperial slave. Many had a considerable amount of money at their disposal and had rights to wife and family. In a.d. 20 a decree of the Senate specified that slave criminals were to be tried in the same way as free men (Just. Dig. 48. 2. 12. 3). Pliny the Younger treated the wills of his slaves as valid on the ground that the master’s house was the substitute for the state (Ep. 8. 16. 2; 8. 24. 5). In a.d. 61 the family of a slave owner attempted to use an old prerogative: the execution of all of the slaves of the master, who had been killed by one of them. When the family of Pedanius Secundus ordered this, so great a riot broke out when the report reached Rome that troops had to be called in to quell it, and the slaves were not killed (Tac. 14. 42. 45). There was also the interesting incident that took place during the reign of Hadrian. The emperor was attacked by an insane slave, but, instead of being put to death, the slave was turned over to the care of a physician (Script. Hist. Aug., Hadrian 12. 5).

The living conditions of many slaves were better than those of free men who often slept in the streets of the city or lived in very cheap rooms. There is considerable evidence to suggest that the slaves lived within the confines of their master’s house. They usually lived on the top floor of their owner’s city house or country villa (Cil. Phil. 2. 67; Colum. Rust. 1. 63). In Pliny’s Laurentian villa the quarters for the slaves and freedmen were in separate sections of the house, but were considered attractive enough to be used for the entertainment of overnight guests (Plin. Ep. 2. 17. 22). At Pompeii in one villa, the Casa del Menandro, separate quarters for slaves were provided on one side of the building. These rooms were on the second floor, included a kitchen and a latrine, and were connected to the rest of the house by a long corridor (Maiuri, Casa del Menandro 1. 186-188).

The slave was not inferior to the free man of similar skills in regard to food and clothing. That most slaves at Rome were as well dressed as free men is indicated in an unusual way. Seneca stated that legislation was introduced in the Senate that slaves should be required to wear a type of clothing that would distinguish them from free men (Sen. de Clementia 1. 24. 1).

It is presumed that the slave ate as well as the poor free man but there is no direct evidence on the subject. At least it is hard to believe that a master would provide well for his slaves in other ways and not feed them well.

The free laborer in NT times was seldom in better circumstances than his slave counterpart. The average free laborer at Rome and in the provinces could expect to earn about one denarius a day. This was the pay of the workers in the vineyard of Jesus’ parable (Matt 20:2). Julius Caesar’s troops received 225 denarii a year plus fringe benefits of food and booty (Libernam in RE s.v. “Exercitus” 1672-1674). One of Caesar’s scribes, a skilled workman, received one denarius per day (Dessau 6087.62). Augustus raised the pay by giving a bonus of 3,000 denarii for twenty years of service in addition to the salary of 225 denarii per year (Cassius Dio 55.23). Finally in Diocletian’s time, when food prices were approximately the same as those of the late republic and early empire, where they can be compared, the wages of the unskilled were set by imperial decree at one-half to one denarius a day (Frank ESAR 1. 404). At this point Frank’s comparison of the free man with the slave is worth noting (ESAR 2. 266-283). The free man might receive one denarius a day in wages or c. 313 denarii a year, if he worked six days a week. He would spend half of that, two to two and one-half sesterces per day on food or 184 denarii a year. This would provide him with a diet of bread, vegetables, and fruit. Clothing of poor quality would cost five to ten denarii a year. If the individual did not sleep in the streets as many did, housing would cost thirty sesterces a month or ninety denarii a year. Therefore, of the 313 denarii earned, 279 would be spent on basic necessities. However, the slave, in addition to receiving these basic necessities, was given five denarii a month as spending money (Sen. Ep. 80. 7). From these statistics one can only conclude that the average free man lived no better than the slave. In fact, in time of economic hardship it was the slave and not the free man who was guaranteed the necessities of life for himself and his family.


T. Frank, “Race Mixture in the Roman Empire,” RAHR 21 (1916), 689-708; “The Sacred Treasury and the Rate of Manumission, AJP 53 (1932), 360-363; ed. Economic Survey of Ancient Rome, vol. I, II (1933-1940); I. Mendelsohn, Slavery in the Ancient Near East (1949); W. L. Westermann, The Slave Systems of the Greek and Roman Antiquity (1955); G. Kehnscherper, Die Stellung der Bibel und der alten christlichen Kirche zur Slaverei (1957).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

slav, slav’-er-i:

1. Acquiring of Slaves

2. Hebrews as War Captives

3. Freedom of Slaves

4. Rights of Slaves

5. Rights of Slave Masters

6. The New Testament Conception


The origin of the term "slave" is traced to the German sklave, meaning a captive of the Slavonic race who had been forced into servitude (compare Slav); French esclave, Dutch slaaf, Swedish slaf, Spanish esclavo. The word "slave" occurs only in Jer 2:14 and in Re 18:13, where it is suggested by the context and not expressed in the original languages (Hebrew yelidh bayith, "one born in the house"; Greek soma, "body"). However, the Hebrew word `ebhedh, in the Old Testament and the Greek word doulos, in the New Testament more properly might have been translated "slave" instead of "servant" or "bondservant," understanding though that the slavery of Judaism was not the cruel system of Greece, Rome, and later nations. The prime thought is service; the servant may render free service, the slave, obligatory, restricted service.

Scripture statement rather than philological study must form the basis of this article. We shall notice how slaves could be secured, sold and redeemed; also their rights and their masters’ rights, confining the study to Old Testament Scripture, noting in conclusion the New Testament conception. The word "slave" in this article refers to the Hebrew slave unless otherwise designated.

1. Acquiring of Slaves:

Slaves might be acquired in the following ways, namely:

(1) Bought.

But in 2 Macc 8:11 the price on the average is 90 for a talent, i.e. 40 shekels each. The ransom of an entire talent for a single man (1Ki 20:39) means that unusual value (far more than that of a slave) was set on this particular captive.

There were certain limitations on the right of sale (Ex 21:7 ).

(2) Exchange.

Slaves, i.e. non-Hebrew slaves, might be traded for other slaves, cattle, or provisions.

(3) Satisfaction of Debt.

It is probable that a debtor, reduced to extremity, could offer himself in payment of his debt (Le 25:39), though this was forbidden in the Torath Kohanim; compare ’Otsar Yisra’el, vii.292b. That a creditor could sell into slavery a debtor or any of his family, or make them his own slaves, has some foundation in the statement of the poor widow whose pathetic cry reached the ears of the prophet Elisha: "Thy servant my husband is dead; .... and the creditor is come to take unto him my two children to be bondsmen" (2Ki 4:1).

(4) Gift.

The non-Hebrew slave, and possibly the Hebrew slave, could be acquired as a gift (Ge 29:24).

(5) Inheritance.

Children could inherit non-Hebrew slaves as their own possessions (Le 25:46).

(6) Voluntary Surrender.

In the case of a slave’s release in the seventh year there was allowed a willing choice of indefinite slavery. The ceremony at such a time is interesting: "Then his master shall bring him unto the judges (margin), and shall bring him to the door, or unto the door-post; and his master shall bore his ear through with an awl; and he shall serve him for ever" (Ex 21:6). A pierced ear probably meant obedience to the master’s voice. History, however, does not record a single instance in which such a case occurred.

(7) Arrest.

"If the thief be found breaking in, .... he shall make restitution: if he have nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft" (Ex 22:2,3).

(8) Birth.

The children of slaves, born within the master’s house of a wife given to the slave there, became slaves, and could be held, even if the father went free (Ex 21:4; compare Le 25:54).

(9) Capture in War.

Thousands of men, women and children were taken in war as captives and reduced, sometimes, to most menial slavery. Such slavery, however, was more humane than wholesale butchery according to the customs of earlier times (Nu 31:7-35). Males were usually slain and females kept for slavery and concubinage (De 21:10,11,14). Captive slaves and bought slaves, "from nations round about," forced moral ruin into Israel’s early civilization.

See Siege, 3.

The two principal sources of slave supply were poverty in peace and plunder in war.

2. Hebrews as War Captives:

The Hebrews themselves were held as captive slaves at various times by

(1) Phoenicians (the greatest slave traders of ancient times),

(2) Philistines,

(3) Syrians (2Ki 5:2 ),

(4) Egyptians, and

(5) Romans.

There must have been thousands subjected to severest slavery.


3. Freedom of Slaves:

The freedom of slaves was possible in the following ways:

(1) By Redemption.

Manumission by redemption was common among the Hebrews. The slave’s freedom might be bought, the price depending on

(a) the nearness to the seventh year or the Jubilee year,

(b) the first purchase price, and

(c) personal considerations as to age and ability of the one in bondage.

A slave could be redeemed as follows:

(a) by himself,

(b) by his uncle,

(c) by his nephew or cousin,

(d) or by any near relative (Le 25:48-55).

The price depended on certain conditions as indicated above.

(2) By the Lapse of Time.

The seventh year of service brought release from bondage. "If thou buy a Hebrew servant (margin "bondman"), six years he shall serve: and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing" (Ex 21:2-4).

(3) By the Law of the Jubilee Year.

The year of Jubilee was the great year when slaves were no longer slaves but free. "He shall serve with thee unto the year of jubilee: then shall he go out from thee, he and his children .... return unto his own family, and unto the possession of his fathers" (Le 25:40 f).

(4) By Injury.

A servant whose master maimed him (or her), in particular by causing the loss of an eye or even a tooth, was thereby freed (Ex 21:26 f).

(5) By Escape.

(De 23:15 f; 1Ki 2:39). See "nodetitle" in HDB (extra vol, p. 600) and compare Phm 1:12 ff.

(6) By Indifference.

In case of a certain kind of female slave, the neglect or displeasure of her master in itself gave her the right to freedom (Ex 21:7-11; De 21:14).

(7) By Restitution.

A caught thief, having become a bondsman, after making full restitution by his service as a slave, was set at liberty (Ex 22:1-4).

(8) By the Master’s Death.

"And Abram said, .... I go childless, and he that shall be possessor of my house is Eliezer of Damascus .... and, lo, one born in my house is mine heir" (Ge 15:2 f). This passage has been mistakenly supposed to indicate that a master without children might give freedom to a slave by constituting the slave an heir to his possessions. But on the contrary, Abram seems to contemplate with horror the possibility that Eliezer will take possession of his goods in the absence of an heir. In view of the fact that adoption, the adrogatio of the Roman law, was unknown both to Biblical and Talmudic law (see Jewish Encyclopedia, under the word), the statement in Ge 15:2 does not seem to indicate any such custom as the adoption of slaves. If any method of emancipation is here suggested, it is by the death of the master without heir, a method thoroughly discussed in the Talmud (mithath ha-’adhon).

(9) By Direct Command of Yahweh.

"The word that came unto Jeremiah from Yahweh, .... that every man should let his man-servant, and .... his maid-servant, that is a Hebrew or a Hebrewess, go free; that none should make bondsmen of them .... they obeyed, and let them go" (Jer 34:8-10).

The nine methods here enumerated may be classified thus:

A. By operation of law:

1. By lapse of time.

(a) After serving six years or other contractual period. See (2) above.

(b) Upon the approach of the Jubilee year. See (3) above.

2. By death of the master without heirs. See (8) above.

B. By act of the parties:

1. By an act of the master.

(a) Voluntary manumission, including (9) above.

(b) Indifference in certain cases. See (6) above.

(c) Maiming servant. See (4) above.

2. By act of the servant.

(a) Redemption. See (1) above.

(b) Restitution. See (7) above.

(c) Escape. See (5) above.

3. By act of a third party.

Redemption--(1) above.

4. Rights of Slaves:

As noted in the beginning of this article, the Hebrew slaves fared far better than the Grecian, Roman and other slaves of later years. In general, the treatment they received and the rights they could claim made their lot reasonably good. Of course a slave was a slave, and there were masters who disobeyed God and even abused their "brothers in bonds." As usual the unfortunate female slave got the full measure of inhuman cruelty. Certain rights were discretionary, it is true, but many Hebrew slaves enjoyed valuable individual and social privileges. As far as Scripture statements throw light on this subject, the slaves of Old Testament times might claim the following rights, namely:

(1) Freedom.

Freedom might be gained in any one of the above-mentioned ways or at the master’s will. The non-Hebrew could be held as a slave in perpetuity (Le 25:44-46).

(2) Good Treatment.

"Thou shalt not rule over him (Hebrew slave) with rigor, but shalt fear thy God. .... Ye shall not rule, one over another, with rigor" (Le 25:43,46). The non-Hebrew seemed to be left unprotected.

(3) Justice.

An ancient writer raises the query of fairness to slaves. "If I have despised the cause of my man-servant or of my maid-servant, when they contended with me; what then shall I do when God riseth up?" (Job 31:13 f). No doubt the true Hebrew master was considerate of the rights of his slaves. The very fact, however, that the Hebrew master could punish a Hebrew slave, "to within an inch of his life," gave ready opportunity for sham justice. "And if a man smite his servant, or his maid ("bondman or bondwoman"), with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall surely be punished. Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two, he shall not be punished; for he is his money" (Ex 21:20 f).

(4) Family.

The slave before his release might have his wife and children (Ex 21:5).

(5) Voluntary Slavery.

Even when the seventh year came, the slave had a right to pledge himself, with awl-pierced ear, to perpetual service for his master (Ex 21:5 f; De 15:16). The traditional interpretation of "forever" in these passages is "until the next Jubilee year" (compare Kiddushin 21).

(6) Money or Property.

Some cases at least indicate that slaves could have money of their own. Thus, if a poor slave "waxed rich" he could redeem himself (Le 25:49). Compare 1Sa 9:5-10, where, however, the Hebrew throughout calls the "servant" na`ar, "a youth," never `ebhedh.

(7) Children.

If married when free, the slave could take wife and children with him when freedom came, but if he was married after becoming a slave, his wife and children must remain in possession of his master. This law led him often into perpetual slavery (Ex 21:3 f).

(8) Elevation.

A chance to rise was allowable in some instances, e.g. Eliezer, a foreign slave in a Hebrew household, and Joseph, a Hebrew slave in a foreign household. Each rose to a place of honor and usefulness (Ge 15:2; 39:4).

(9) Religious Worship.

After being circumcised, slaves were allowed to participate in the paschal sacrifice (Ex 12:44) and other religious occasions (De 12:12).

(10) Gifts.

Upon obtaining freedom, slaves, at the discretion of masters, were given supplies of cattle, grain and wine (De 15:13 f).

5. Rights of Slave Masters:

The rights of a slave master may briefly be stated as follows:

(1) to hold as chattel possession his non-Hebrew slaves (Le 25:45);

(2) to leave such slaves as an inheritance for his children (Le 25:46);

(3) to hold as his own property the wife and children of all slaves who were unmarried at the time they became slaves (Ex 21:4);

(4) to pursue and recover runaway slaves (1Ki 2:39-41);

(5) to grant freedom at any time to any slave. This is implied rather than stated. Emancipation other than at the Sabbatical and Jubilee years was evidently the right of masters;

(6) to circumcise slaves, both Jew and Gentile, within his own household (Ge 17:13,23,27);

(7) to sell, give away, or trade slaves (Ge 29:24. According to Torath Kohanim a Hebrew servant could be sold only under certain restrictions. See ''''1, (1));

(8) to chastise male and female slaves, though not unto death (Ex 21:20);

(9) to marry a slave himself, or give his female slaves in marriage to others (1Ch 2:35);

(10) to marry a daughter to a slave (1Ch 2:34 f);

(11) to purchase slaves in foreign markets (Le 25:44);

(12) to keep, though not as a slave, the runaway slave from a foreign master (De 23:15,16. See ''''3, (5));

(13) to enslave or sell a caught thief (Ge 44:8-33; Ex 22:3);

(14) to hold, in perpetuity, non-Hebrew slaves (Le 25:46);

(15) to seek advice of slaves (1Sa 25:14 ff; but the reference here is open to doubt. See ''''4, (6));

(16) to demand service (Ge 14:14; 24).

Throughout Old Testament times the rights of both slaves and masters varied, but in general the above may be called the accepted code. In later times Zedekiah covenanted with the Hebrews never again to enslave their own brothers, but they broke the covenant (Jer 34:8).

6. The New Testament Conception:

There were slaves during New Testament times. The church issued no edict sweeping away this custom of the old Judaism, but the gospel of Christ with its warm, penetrating love-message mitigated the harshness of ancient times and melted cruelty into kindness. The equality, justice and love of Christ’s teachings changed the whole attitude of man to man and master to servant. This spirit of brotherhood quickened the conscience of the age, leaped the walls of Judaism, and penetrated the remotest regions. The great apostle proclaimed this truth: "There can be neither Jew nor Greek, there can be neither bond nor free, .... ye all are one man in Christ Jesus" (Ga 3:28). The Christian slaves and masters are both exhorted in Paul’s letters to live godly lives and make Christ-like their relations one to the other--obedience to masters and forbearance with slaves. "Bondservants (m), be obedient unto .... your masters, .... as bondservants (m) of Christ .... And, ye masters .... forbear threatening: .... their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no respect of persons with him" (Eph 6:5-9).

Christ was a reformer, but not an anarchist. His gospel was dynamic but not dynamitic. It was leaven, electric with power, but permeated with love. Christ’s life and teaching were against Judaistic slavery, Roman slavery and any form of human slavery. The love of His gospel and the light of His life were destined, in time, to make human emancipation earth-wide and human brotherhood as universal as His own benign presence.


Nowack, Hebrew Arch.; Ewald, Alterthumer, III, 280-88; Grunfeld, Die Stellung des Sklaven bei den Juden, nach bibl. und talmud. Quellen, 1886; Mielziner, Die Verhaltnisse der Sklaven bei den alter Hebrdern, 1859; Mandl, Das Sklavenrecht des Altes Testament, 1886; Kahn, L’esclavagedans la Bible et le Talmud, 1867; Sayce, Social Life among the Assyrians and Babylonians; Lane, Manners and Customs of Modern Egyptians, 205; Arabian Nights, I, 64 ff; Thomson, LB; McCurdy, HPM, 1894; Trumbull, Studies in Oriental Social Life, 1894. There is a wealth of material in the Talmudic tractate Kiddushin (pp. 17-22).