Slavery & The Bible (Part 5) Roman Slavery & the Lack of Christian Revolt

 

Read Part 1: Slavery & the Bible (Part 1) Cherry Picking, Worldview & Consistency

Read Part 2: Slavery & the Bible (Part 2) Not All Types of Slavery are Equal

Read Part 3: Slavery & the Bible (Part 3) American Slavery & Bearing God’s Image

Read Part 4: Slavery & The Bible (Part 4) Slavery Ain’t Always Slavery: The New Testament & Roman Slavery

rome-slavauction

INTRO

In this series, as we moved from American slavery to Roman slavery, we saw that the word often translated “slavery” in the New Testament from the ancient Greek word (doulos) actually covers a wide range of types of servanthood. Thus, every time doulos is used in the New Testament, we can’t be 100% certain it’s speaking of true slavery.

But for the sake of argument, let’s assume the worst: that all the times doulos is used in the New Testament, Paul and the other writers of the New Testament are addressing true slavery, true slave masters, and true slaves.

So, why didn’t the Apostles start a revolt — whether through armed revolution or civil disobedience? And why didn’t they tell Christian slave-owners to free their slaves? We’ll be exploring these questions next in this series, and we’ll also look at the New Testament’s slavery “problem verses.”

Why No Christian Revolt?

So, why didn’t the Apostles tell Christian slaves to revolt?

The Quick Answer:

The quick answer is best addressed with another question: Where would rebellion get Roman slaves?

The answer: Dead.

The Long Answer:

Slavery was all-pervasive throughout the Roman Empire and the ancient world. An estimated 85-90% of the inhabitants of Rome and the Italian peninsula were slaves or of slave origin in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD[1]. By the time of Christ, slaves made up well over half of the Roman population.[2] The economy, culture, and the very structure of Roman society were built upon it.

Ancient Rome isn’t 21st Century America with a rich tradition of free speech and human rights (and, yes, I’m going to say it: thanks to the Christian worldview). Captured runaway Roman slaves would have a much harsher, miserable life than the one they lived prior to running away because they would now be criminals as well as slaves. Those sentenced to slavery due to crimes often did the worst sort of labor. Often the very nature of their forced labor was a death sentence, such as working in the gloom of dangerous, lung-destroying mines. Also, it was common for runaway slaves to have the first three letters of the Latin word for “fugitive” branded into their foreheads.

Furthermore, one way Romans prevented slaves from getting ideas about any sort of violent rebellion was simply this: If the slave master ended up murdered, all of his slaves would follow him to the grave. Yes, you read that right: if one person is murdered and that person was a slave-owner, all of his slaves would be put to death. There is historical evidence of one such case of 400 slaves being executed because their master had been murdered even though there was absolutely no evidence that the 400 slaves had anything to do with his death.

Roman_Sword

With such a large population as slaves, the Roman elite needed fear and brutality to keep the idea of rebellion far from their minds. As any Christian knows, those seen as a threat to Roman power – such as insurgents and those claiming to be rival kings (such as a Jewish messiah) – were crucified – a slow, torturous death on full display for all to see, just in case anyone had any of their own ideas about challenging Roman authority.

One of the best-known slave uprisings in ancient Rome lasted 3 years from 73-71 BC, the one partly led by Spartacus, a Thracian gladiator-slave. Spartacus with about 70 other slaves escaped from a gladiator training school and raised an army as large as 120,000 slaves at the rebellion’s pinnacle. The slave armies were able to give the Roman armies a run for their money for a short time before being defeated in 71 BC. Spartacus likely died in the battle, but the 6,000 captured slaves who survived didn’t live much longer after that as they were all crucified. Yes, the Roman legions crucified them – all 6,000 of them – lining the Appian Way from Rome to Capua.

If the Apostles Paul or Peter would’ve written that slaves should rebel (in a self-condemning letter in their own hand as irrefutable evidence, no less) both men would’ve been executed on a Roman cross like their Lord and Savior (before they actually were executed for being Christians, anyhow, as they were).

Perhaps some people mistakenly think of the power of the medieval European church and mistakenly project this image of influence back on Jesus’ original disciples. Let’s be clear, the Apostles had no political power or influence. They were a small, strange group of Jews, who – all with the exception of one – met grisly early deaths for proclaiming belief in a God-man who died on a Roman cross and rose from the dead.

Telling Christian slaves to rebel, I’m afraid, wouldn’t have done much good for anyone.

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What About Non-violent Protest & Civil Disobedience?

Certainly, non-violent protest and civil disobedience is a much more Christian way of fighting slavery than violent rebellion. But, again, we’re discussing the ancient Roman Empire, not the modern United States of the 2,000s or even the British Empire in the 1800s and early 1900s.

The reason the movements led by brave men like Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi were successful is because they were doing non-violent protests and civil disobedience against a ruling class which, as unjust as they seem to us today, still had a morality that valued human life (and, yes, I’ll say it again: thanks to the influence of Christianity). The reason the movements of MLK and Gandhi (both inspired by Jesus, mind you) worked is because they actually used the sense of morality of their oppressors against them. Through non-violent resistance, they put the society’s hypocrisy on full display for the world to see, and, more importantly, for the society itself to see – as if holding up a mirror so the society could see itself as it truly was for the first time.

mahatma-gandhi

But here’s the thing about non-violent protest/civil disobedience: it doesn’t work against Hitler or Stalin or Pol Pot or Darth Vader or Saddam Hussein or Kim Jong Un or ISIS. All it would produce against such leaders would be certain death (and likely not a quick or pretty one).

I’m not saying ancient Rome was the exact equivalent of these evil reigns of power, but it wasn’t the modern United States either – by far. Protests by slaves would still be seen as a threat to the rule of the Roman Empire, and if punishment were not death, the punishment would be swift and brutal, especially for a slave. Roman society had a strict social hierarchy, and those with power were fervent in keeping everyone in their place.

MLK

Once again, we’re not talking about a country with a long tradition of free speech. This is the Roman Empire. The significance of civil disobedience – like, say, a work slow-down – would be lost on the Romans and would likely end up with at least a severe flogging.

All we have to do is look at the two earliest known records by Romans about Christians to see this. The earliest was written in about 111 AD by Pliny, a Roman senator:

 

“I have asked them if they are Christians, and if they admit it, I repeat the question a second and third time, with a warning of the punishment awaiting them. If they persist, I order them to be led away for execution; for, whatever the nature of their admission, I am convinced that their stubbornness and unshakable obstinacy ought not go unpunished… They also declared that the sum total of their guilt or error amounted to no more than this: they had met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternately amongst themselves in honor of Christ as if to a god, and also to bind themselves by oath, not for any criminal purpose, but to abstain from theft, robbery, and adultery… This made me decide it was all the more necessary to extract the truth by torture from two slave-women, whom they called deaconesses. I found nothing but a degenerate sort of cult carried to extravagant lengths.”

 

Notice, Pliny plainly states that the “guilt or error” of these Christians was not criminal, yet he still matter-of-factly states that they were tortured and led off to execution. (Also notice the early Christian church allowed women slaves to hold positions of prominence!) Human rights is not a Roman or pagan value. It’s a Christian value – all people, men and women, are made in God’s image (Genesis 1:27).

The second earliest known record written by a Roman about Christians is by Cornelius Tacitus, a Roman proconsul and historian, written in 115 AD:

 

“Therefore, to stop the rumor [that the burning of Rome in 64 AD had taken place by his order], Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus [Christ], from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty: then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.”

 

If you were a Roman Christian or Roman slave (or both) would you feel up for some civil disobedience after hearing of this? Probably not.

Non-violent protest and civil disobedience are great options for modern Americans because the United States is built upon principles that give citizens those options. Free speech is a part of the very DNA of the United States. Human life is valued. During the Roman Empire, free speech was the privilege of few, and even if your actions were non-violent, it didn’t mean violence wouldn’t be used against you – especially if you were a slave.

So, we’re back to where we started: What would rebellion – whether violent or otherwise – get Christian slaves? Nowhere good.

So, what could they do? What other options did they have?

NEXT: The New Testament Approach to Slavery & the “Problem Verses”

Read Part 1: Slavery & the Bible (Part 1) Cherry Picking, Worldview & Consistency

Read Part 2: Slavery & the Bible (Part 2) Not All Types of Slavery are Equal

Read Part 3: Slavery & the Bible (Part 3) American Slavery & Bearing God’s Image

Read Part 4: Slavery & The Bible (Part 4) Slavery Ain’t Always Slavery: The New Testament & Roman Slavery

CHECK OUT OUR NEW BOOK HERE

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Works Cited

[1] Women, Slaves, and the Gender Debate by Benjamin Reaoch.

[2] Seven Truths That Changed the World by Kenneth Richard Samples.

Slavery & The Bible (Part 4) Slavery Ain’t Always Slavery: The New Testament & Roman Slavery

Roman_collared_slaves_-_Ashmolean_Museum

Read Part 1: Slavery & the Bible (Part 1) Cherry Picking, Worldview & Consistency

Read Part 2: Slavery & the Bible (Part 2) Not All Types of Slavery are Equal

Read Part 3: Slavery & the Bible (Part 3) American Slavery & Bearing God’s Image

INTRO

So far in this series we’ve addressed 1 criticism of 3 often-voiced criticisms concerning Christianity and slavery: Criticism #1 – In the United States’ past, Christian slave-owners used the Bible to justify slavery. And we’ve found that both American slavery and racism are unbiblical. In fact, they’re anti-biblical.

In this article, we’ll start addressing criticism #2:

In the New Testament, Jesus and his Apostles never condemned slavery. In fact, the Apostles even told slaves to be obedient.

(In future articles, we’ll address criticism #3: In the Old Testament, God actually endorses slavery.)

Thus, in this article (and a few that follow), we’ll address: What the New Testament says about Roman slavery.

 

THE QUICK ANSWER

1 – Paul, an apostle of Jesus, clearly condemns as sinners “enslavers” by including them in a long list of other sinners (1 Timothy 1:10). The original Greek word used here means those who take someone captive in order to sell him into slavery. Thus, Christians are forbidden from human trafficking.

2 – The Apostle Paul tells slaves if they have an opportunity to gain their freedom to take it (1 Corinthians 7:21), and he says to not sell yourself into slavery (1 Corinthians 7:23), which was a normal practice in ancient Rome for the impoverished or those in debt.

3 – Masters are told to treat their slaves/bondservants justly and fairly, knowing they will answer to God: “Masters, treat your bondservants justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven.” (Colossians 4:1)

4 – Not only that, but slaves and masters are put on equal ground: “…[masters,] stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their [the slaves’] Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him.” (Ephesians 6:9)

5 – Christian slaves and Christian masters are “brothers” (1 Timothy 6:2). Furthermore, Colossians 3:11 reads: “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.” (Also see similar statements in Galatians 3:28 & 1 Corinthians 12:13.)

Seems pretty straight-forward but what about quotes from the New Testament, such as:

slaverymeme3NT

 

Our “Quick Answer” above may addresses many of our concerns about the New Testament and slavery (the Old Testament will be addressed in the next part of this series), but what are we to make of New Testament quotes like this? And why don’t we ever read Jesus or his apostles simply saying, “Hey, slave-owners, set your slaves free!”

To answer that, we’ll have to get into a longer answer, one which we’ll spend this article and the next few articles exploring…

 

“SLAVERY” AIN’T ALWAYS SLAVERY

slaverymemeNT2

Pop Quiz: What’s wrong with this picture?

Now, if you’ve been reading this series and paying attention, you should notice an immediate problem with the above billboard.

The picture on the billboard portrays an image depicting race-based American slavery. But the Bible quote, which is from the New Testament, would be addressing not American slavery, but Roman slavery, which was a type of slavery long extinct by the time the Americas were “discovered” by Europeans. In a pervious article, we discussed the important differences between American slavery, Roman slavery, and Israelite slavery.

So, that’s the first point I want you to keep in mind as we look at these New Testament verses addressing slavery: Roman slavery is not American slavery.

As we looked at in our last article, racism and American slavery have no grounding in the Bible; in fact, they are anti-biblical.

(Also, let me point out that the atheists who made the above billboard have to work on their knowledge of history for another reason: the New Testament was not written in the Bronze Age. The Bronze Age was long over for about a thousand years before the New Testament was written.)

(Also, let me ask: Where do atheists find any grounding for morality and human value to condemn slavery? They have none. Read more here.)

I’m not going to restate everything written in past articles (Perhaps take a moment and read more here), but to sum up: In ancient Rome, there was a wide spectrum of types of master/servant relationships that fell under the word often translated “slavery.” So when we modern people see the word translated “slave” or “slavery” in our English Bibles, it may mean something that doesn’t align with what’s in our heads at all.

“Slavery” in ancient Rome often means what we’d call indentured servanthood, or it may mean something closer to how a soldier in the modern military gives over a certain amount of years from his life to service for his country, or it could even mean something close to an apprenticeship.

Yes, in the ancient Roman Empire there was certainly what I’d call slavery-proper – meaning the slavery modern Americans think of when we hear the word “slavery” – literal ownership of another human being as property (though Roman slavery was not race-based). And this type of Roman slavery was just as repulsive and evil in God’s eyes as American slavery.

rome-slavauction

My point here is, there’s no reason to assume whenever you see the word “slavery” in the New Testament it means slavery as modern Americans define it because Roman “slavery,” the type of slavery/servanthood the writers of the New Testament lived among, was extremely different and diverse.

THE DIFFICULTY OF TRANSLATING “DOULOS

You can see this concept of diverse Roman “slavery” in the different English Bible translations we have available to us today. As I stated in an earlier article, the ancient Koine Greek word doulos that is often translated “slave” from the original New Testament manuscripts into English can also be translate “servant.” If the translators had simply chosen to use “servant” instead of “slave,” much of the hubbub about these passages may not exist.

Interestingly, I was watching an interview with Dr. Wayne Grudem, probably best known for his highly used Systematic Theology, who was also one of the scholars that worked on the ESV translation of the Bible, and when asked what was the hardest part of the translation process, he replied that it was translating the word doulos.

Translating can be challenging because there is not always an exactly matching word from one language to the next. And since the modern American concept of slavery is much different than Roman doulos, an interpretative decision had to be made. Translating doulos as “slave” would have been too harsh, but translating it “servant” was not entirely accurate either. Grudem pushed for translating it “bondservant,” which he believed represented doulos more accurately (and I agree). (Watch the interview with Dr. Grudem here. The section about translating doulos starts at 9:10 minutes. Also, there is a short video filmed by the BBC actually showing the translators of the ESV discussing/debating this exact challenge. Click here.)

roman_female_slaves

THE PROBLEM VERSES

There are 6 “problem” passages throughout the New Testament that address slavery in some way (1 Cor. 7:21, Eph. 6:5-8, Col. 3:22-25, 1 Tim. 6:1-2, Titus 2:9-10, and 1 Peter 2:18-25). Of these 6 passages, many English translations do translate all of them with the words “slave(s)” or “slavery.”

But I looked at 6 different translations, some of the most popular and reliable translations (ESV, NASB, KJV, RSV, NIV, NLT), and of those 6, only 2 translated every instance as “slave(s)” or “slavery” – the NIV and NLT, which are the two less literal translations out of the six.

The RSV translated every instance as “slave(s)” or “slavery” except for one passage (1 Peter 2:18-25), which was translated “servants.”

The King James (KJV) translated all of the instances as “servant(s).”

The NASB translated 4 of 6 instances as “slave(s),” one instance as “servant,” and one as “bondslaves.”

The ESV translates all of them as “bondservant(s),” except for one translated simply “servants.”

In the world of Bible translations, there are two kinds of translations. There are word-for-word translations, which try to match the original words as exactly as possible to, say, English words. Then there are idea-by-idea translations, which are more concerned with communicating the ideas the authors are trying to get across than the exact wording.

For example, if we were translating the opposite way (from modern English to ancient Greek) and we wanted to translate “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth,” we could translate that word-for-word, but an ancient Greek-speaker is going to be confused by this odd American folk-saying. So, instead, we may translate the idea; perhaps we translate it to this instead: Be grateful for gifts you receive and accept them without question. Obviously, an idea-by-idea translation requires a lot more interpretation on the part of the translators. (To learn more, read the GFTM article: Has the Bible Been Lost in the Translation? How Do We Know the Words in Our Bibles Today are the Original Words?)

Now, notice below, the ESV, NASB, KJV, and RSV, which are all considered solid literal, word-for-word translations differ and don’t always favor the translation “slave(s)” or “slavery,” recognizing the nuances of the original Greek. These are the most faithful translations to the original Greek, yet they differ.

My point is not that these are bad translations (because they’re not), but there’s no reason to assume the worst when you see “slave” if you understand the range and nuance of the original Greek word and the difficultly of translating to English such a word.

ESV NASB KJV RSV NLT NIV
1 Cor 7:21 Bondservant Slave Servant Slave Slave Slave
Eph 6:5-8 Bondservants Slaves Servants Slaves Slaves Slaves
Col 3:22-25 Bondservants Slaves Servants Slaves Slaves Slaves
1 Tim. 6:1-2 Bondservants Slaves Servants Slavery Slaves Slavery
Titus 2:9-10 Bondservants Bondslaves Servants Slaves Slaves Slaves
1 Peter 2:18-25 Servants Servants Servants Servants Slaves Slaves

Does this mean the translators had no idea what they were doing? No, it simply means the original Greek word has a range of meaning, which no one English word can communicate, and the context of the passages didn’t allow the translators to make a decisive decision on how it should be translated into English.

But, as I pointed out in an earlier article, many of these translations have footnotes at the bottom of the page explaining that “slave” can also be interpreted at “servant” or even a section in the preface of the Bible explaining that the word doulos covers a range of types of servanthood. In the preface to my ESV translation, a paragraph taking up about 1/3 of the page explains much of what I’ve explained in this article about doulos and Roman slavery/servanthood/bondservanthood.

So, maybe when Paul wrote in Colossians 3:22,

“Bondservants [slaves, servants, doulos], obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord,”

he meant the indentured servanthood type of “slavery.” Or maybe he was referring to a situation where the “slave” actually chose to stay in his master’s household as a servant even after earning his release, which was not uncommon in ancient Rome. It’s quite likely Paul was simply saying: You’re in a contractual obligation, so honor it by listening to your boss and doing a good job because you’re representing the Lord.

All that being said, let’s assume the worse: Let’s assume Paul and the other writers of the New Testament are addressing true slave masters and true slaves. Next, we’ll be looking more closely at these “problem verses.”

Read Part 1: Slavery & the Bible (Part 1) Cherry Picking, Worldview & Consistency

Read Part 2: Slavery & the Bible (Part 2) Not All Types of Slavery are Equal

Read Part 3: Slavery & the Bible (Part 3) American Slavery & Bearing God’s Image

CHECK OUT OUR NEW BOOK HERE

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