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. By the time of Christ, slaves made up well over half of the Roman population. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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”
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 Women, Slaves, and the Gender Debate by Benjamin Reaoch.
 Seven Truths That Changed the World by Kenneth Richard Samples.