Slavery in the Bible

Middlesex token, payable in Ireland, anti-slavery, 1789-1800. (token)

Some people say that the Bible promotes slavery and other social evils. Others say that it does not. What does the Bible actually teach about slavery? What can we learn about slavery in the Bible?

By Mark D. Harris

Slavery has been a major institution in the world since the beginning of time. The most ancient documents we possess from Egypt and Mesopotamia refer to slavery in the third millennium before Christ. Almost every known people group has owned slaves. The Muslims had slave armies such as the Janissaries and Mamelukes. African tribes had slaves, as did the Pre-Columbian Indian empires and the peoples of East Asia. China abolished official slavery in 1910, and India officially abolished it under British suzerainty in 1843. The history of slavery in Europe and North America is well known. What is less appreciated is that American Indians and even some light-skinned blacks had slaves. Human Rights Watch estimated that in 2009, 28 million people were enslaved worldwide, a business worth $91 billion annually.

Where did slaves come from?

Slaves generally came from the following sources:
1. Prisoners of war – men were often killed but could be enslaved. Women and children were a problem. After war it was impractical to have thousands of women and children, often unable to support themselves in the Bronze Age, without having someone responsible for them. Therefore they were enslaved, a practice considered a humanitarian improvement on mass slaughter (Numbers 31, Deuteronomy 20:10-18).
2. Free parents with excessive debt could sell their children.
3. Children of slaves often automatically became slaves.
4. Children abandoned at birth could be collected and sold as slaves.
5. Slave traders captured free people, men, women and children, and sold them to others as slaves. This activity was punishable by death in Israel (Exodus 21:16).
6. Slaves could be bought and sold, or given as gifts or inheritance to others.

There is some controversy about slavery in the Bible. Some verses have been used to justify slavery in the past (Exodus 21:20-27, Leviticus 25:44-46) and neither Jesus nor the disciples spoke out specifically against slavery. However, the Bible was also used by men like William Wilberforce and groups like the American Abolitionists against slavery. What is the truth about slavery in the Bible?

Old Testament

The Law of Moses permitted the Israelites to acquire slaves from the pagan nations that were around them and the foreigners sojourning among them, to consider them their possessions, and to bequeath them to their children (Leviticus 25:44-46). It did not permit them to take their countrymen as slaves (Leviticus 25:39-41), nor did it allow escaped slaves to be forcibly returned to their masters (Deuteronomy 23:15-16). Leviticus 19:28 prohibited tattoos and branding, thus making it harder to mark and therefore identify runaway slaves. Murder of a slave was punishable by death (Exodus 21:12) and slaves who were intentionally maimed, even so little as knocking out a tooth, were to be set free (Exodus 21:26). Slaves were considered part of the family and expected to participate in the religious rites of Israel (Exodus 23:12). Female slaves were considered the wife or concubine of the master or one of his sons. If she was not given as such she was to be set free. This was to prevent young girls from being taken as slaves and sold into prostitution. The Jubilee has a provision for slaves to gain their freedom (Leviticus 25). Compare the Bible’s teachings on slavery (about 1450 BC) to that of Hammurabi, considered progressive at the time (about 1770 BC).

Hammurabi’s Code

14. If anyone steal the minor son of another, he shall be put to death.
15. If anyone take a male or female slave of the court, or a male or female slave of a freed man, outside the city gates, he shall be put to death.
16. If anyone receive into his house a runaway male or female slave of the court, or of a freedman, and does not bring it out at the public proclamation of the major domus, the master of the house shall be put to death.
17. If anyone find runaway male or female slaves in the open country and bring them to their masters, the master of the slaves shall pay him two shekels of silver.
18. If the slave will not give the name of the master, the finder shall bring him to the palace; a further investigation must follow, and the slave shall be returned to his master.
19. If he hold (sic) the slaves in his house, and they are caught there, he shall be put to death.
20. If the slave that he caught run away from him, then shall he swear to the owners of the slave, and he is free of all blame.
* * *
117. If anyone fail to meet a claim for debt, and sell himself, his wife, his son, and daughter for money or give them away to forced labor: they shall work for three years in the house of the man who bought them, or the proprietor, and in the fourth year they shall be set free.
118. If he give a male or female slave away for forced labor, and the merchant sublease them, or sell them for money, no objection can be raised.
119. If anyone fail to meet a claim for debt, and he sell the maid servant who has borne him children, for money, the money which the merchant has paid shall be repaid to him by the owner of the slave and she shall be freed.

The slave laws in most ancient near eastern nations were much harsher. The account of Israelite slavery in Egypt, for example, reflect brutality, murder and even genocide (Exodus 1:11-22).

New Testament

In the Roman Empire in the first century, slaves comprised up to one-third of the population and could be found in almost any occupation, working as laborers, teachers, musicians, accountants, artists, and even doctors. The most brutal servitude was slavery on the galleys and slavery in the mines. Both were essentially a sentence of death. The Romans considered slaves to be possessions, but in 20 AD granted them the right to a jury trial when accused rather than being summarily punished. Slaves were usually educated and apprenticed in the trade of their masters.

Manumission is the word for freeing slaves. A slave in first century Rome who had enough money could buy his freedom and that of another, typically a spouse. Masters sometimes freed slaves for a variety of reasons. Slaves were commonly freed in wills, so much so that Augustus (37 BC – 14 AD) in 2 BC in the law Fufia Canina decreed that no more than 100 slaves could be freed and no one under 30 years of age could be freed in that manner. Freed slaves might become knights, meaning that their personal property exceeded 50,000 sesterces (1 sesterce = approximately 100 denarii) or sixteen years worth of a laborers pay. Freedmen could serve in the army and many became craftsmen, setting up profitable businesses.

Slaves in the first century Roman Empire received far better treatment than those in Rome in the previous centuries. In many ways, their status was superior to poor free laborers. Manumission was the norm, and adult slaves typically served seven years before being freed.

Financial Comparison of Commoners in first century Rome (Bible Encyclopedia (Tenney Vol 5, p460))

Free laborer – Income ½ to 1 denarius per day, depending upon job and skill level. Working six days per week, this equals about 313 denarii per year. Food 184 denarii per year.  Housing – assuming he did not sleep in the streets, which many did, 90 denarii per year. Clothing 5 to 10 denarii per year.  Total cost of living 279 denarii per year.  Remainder 34 denarii per year

Slave – income 5 denarii per month typically, or 60 denarii per year. Food, clothing and housing provided by master

Soldier – income 225 denarii per year + 3000 denarii for 20 years service. Food, clothing and housing provided by army.

Neither Jesus nor the apostles ever directly denounced slavery, probably because to do so would have turned Christianity from a religious into a political movement. Though Christ cares deeply for the life of man on earth and social justice is an important theme throughout Scripture, He is more concerned with our eternal destiny (Matthew 10:28, 2 Corinthians 4:17).

The New Testament made clear that in Christ we are all equal, including Jews and Gentiles, men and women, and slave and free (Galatians 3:28). God does not honor human distinctions among persons (Acts 10:34-35, Romans 2:11); the only distinction He makes is between those who know Him and those who do not. This was a radical departure from conventional wisdom in antiquity; even Plato and Aristotle believed that slaves were inferior beings. The Bible’s teaching led directly to the modern Western belief that “all men are created equal” and to the concept of human rights. Thus, the Bible laid the groundwork for the destruction of slavery. The book of Philemon advocated freeing a slave (Onesimus) and reminded the slave owner (Philemon) that he was equal to his slave before God. This would have been outrageous to many Romans. In the early church, slavery rapidly dwindled. Pope Pius 1 (140-154 AD) was a former slave.


In Scripture, God provided revelation to His people slowly, giving them information as they could understand it. He tolerated slavery just as He tolerated divorce (Matthew 19:8), always intending that slavery would eventually wither and die. With time it has done so and slavery is now considered immoral and illegal in almost every country. The Bible stands in stark opposition to slavery and has been instrumental in eliminating legal slavery. Christians and many others worldwide are struggling to vanquish all slavery. One day, perhaps in this world but definitely in the kingdom to come, slavery will be no more.

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