Historic Jesus

Slavery was an integral part of ancient civilization, whether in Mesopotamia, Palestine, Greece, or Rome. When the Bible refers to "servants," the word used generally means "slave." The Jews owned both Jewish and Gentile slaves, but the regulations for dealing with them differed.

The Law of Moses established the basic terms for slavery in the Jewish community. A person became a slave by being captured in war, being purchased from other slave owners or from merchants dealing in the slave trade, being born of a slave, or being sold by the judicial court to pay off debts if there were no other way to raise money. You could become a slave by selling yourself or your children to pay off debts, or by being abducted and sold into slavery. Jewish slaves held by Jewish owners were freed after six years if debt was the reason for their condition. Their owner was obliged to provide them enough assets to make a new start in life. All other Jewish slaves, including those who voluntarily chose to remain slaves, were freed in the year of jubilee, which occurred once every fiftieth year. In this way no permanent slave class developed among the Jews.

The Jewish slave was not given hard physical labor of a degrading nature. He was not even required to wash his owner's feet or put on his shoes. More often than not, he was given a responsible position as a steward or overseer of his owner's affairs. The Law enjoined the owner to treat the Jewish slave as though he were the eldest son of the family by providing him with good food, proper clothing, a decent bed, and a good seat at the table. Slaves could accumulate personal property, including other slaves, and thus would be able to shorten their servitude by paying back their debts earlier than six years.

Sometimes the rights enjoyed by Jewish slaves meant that they were more of a burden than a bonus to the owner. A saying from the Talmud expresses the ambivalent nature of holding slaves: "Whoever buys himself a Jewish slave buys himself a master.

Gentile slaves owned by Jews did not have the same rights as their Jewish counterparts. There was no schedule for freeing such slaves; they were owned indefinitely. Gentile slaves ranked in the popular mind only one step above Samaritans. Since there were no vast agricultural holdings in Palestine, as there were in Italy, most slaves were domestic servants rather than farm workers. During the time of Jesus, most of the Gentile slaves probably came from Arabia, having been captured in one of Herod's many campaigns.

The price for slaves varied with the supply and the age, sex, and health of the person. Child-bearing women brought the highest price. Gentile slaves could acquire no property; even their children belonged to the owner. The Gentile slave had no rights, was not treated as a son of the family, could be beaten at will, and could be sold when convenient. He was subject, however, to the rites of conversion to Judaism, and he was obliged to observe some religious commandments, including Sabbath observance. At least he could rest one day out of seven, unlike Greek- or Roman-owned slaves.

Neither Jesus nor any of his disciples were slave owners. Jesus, however, often told stories involving the aristocracy or rich people, who normally owned domestic slaves. He used these stories about masters and slaves to illustrate the nature of the kingdom of God. He often spoke of himself as the master and of his disciples as the slaves (Matt. 10.24), though he always emphasized that in his kingdom the master was also the slave of all. He even washed his disciples' feet to demonstrate this point. He also made it clear that his disciples were more than his servants; they were his (John 15.15).