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 (
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.
The OT legislation is recorded in
Acquisition of slaves
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 (
The price of slaves varied widely. Thirty shekels was the price according to
Children were sold into slavery under terms of a conditional contract. More frequently this was true of young, unmarried girls.
A forced sale of children into slavery is mentioned in
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
Self-sale into slavery seems to have been a common practice of the Israelites. The law of Exodus (
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 (
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 (
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 (
Non-Hebrew slaves could be passed on from one generation to another.
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 (
Legal status and rights of slaves
The OT law regarding the release of slaves is stated in three passages (
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 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
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.
The slave was considered to be a part of his owner’s family; hence he shared in their religious life. The laws (
Slaves were protected in considerable measure from inhumane treatment. The murder of a slave was punishable by death (
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 (
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 (
From earliest times slaves were granted the right to accumulate property. The peculium could be almost any form of property, including slaves (
A unique provision for Heb. slaves is to be found in
Asylum and extradition.
The provision of the law of
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 (
Publicly owned slaves.
State slavery existed from earliest recorded time in the Near E. First mention of it is made in the
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 (
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 (
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 (
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 (
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 , 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 , 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 , 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 , 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 (
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 , 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).
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). 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 (
T. Frank, “Race Mixture in the,” 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)
1. Acquiring of Slaves
2. Hebrews as War Captives
3. Freedom of Slaves
4. Rights of Slaves
5. Rights of Slave Masters
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
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:
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 (
There were certain limitations on the right of sale (
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 (
The non-Hebrew slave, and possibly the Hebrew slave, could be acquired as a gift (
Children could inherit non-Hebrew slaves as their own possessions (
(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" (
"If the thief be found breaking in, .... he shall make restitution: if he have nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft" (
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 (
(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 (
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),
(3) Syrians (
(4) Egyptians, and
There must have been thousands subjected to severest slavery.
See also EGYPT; ISRAEL; PHARAOH; SERVANT, etc.
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 (
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" (
(3) By the Law of the.
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" (
(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 (
(5) By Escape.
(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 (
(7) By Restitution.
A caught thief, having become a bondsman, after making full restitution by his service as a slave, was set at liberty (
(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" (
(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" (
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.
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:
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 (
(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" (
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?" (
The slave before his release might have his wife and children (
(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 (
(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 (
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 (
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 (
(9) Religious Worship.
After being circumcised, slaves were allowed to participate in the paschal sacrifice (
Upon obtaining freedom, slaves, at the discretion of masters, were given supplies of cattle, grain and wine (
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 (
(2) to leave such slaves as an inheritance for his children (
(3) to hold as his own property the wife and children of all slaves who were unmarried at the time they became slaves (
(4) to pursue and recover runaway slaves (
(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 (
(7) to sell, give away, or trade slaves (
(8) to chastise male and female slaves, though not unto death (
(9) to marry a slave himself, or give his female slaves in marriage to others (
(10) to marry a daughter to a slave (
(11) to purchase slaves in foreign markets (
(12) to keep, though not as a slave, the runaway slave from a foreign master (
(13) to enslave or sell a caught thief (
(14) to hold, in perpetuity, non-Hebrew slaves (
(15) to seek advice of slaves (
(16) to demand service (
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 (
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" (
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).