a tippling philosopher

This is an essay submitted by Sarah Cook, an undergraduate student reading Religious and Theological Studies at Cardiff University. It is a good, concise synopsis on whether Paul defends slavery or doesn't; and whether he does so from a position of historical and cultural context or from his own understanding of the morality of slavery.

“Paul a slave of Jesus Christ” Romans 1:1.  Discussing Paul's attitude towards slavery and freedom - By Sarah Cook, University of Cardiff


The issue of slavery in the Bible is a controversial topic; although the Old Testament has much to offer on the topic of slavery[1], it is through the letters of St Paul, his epistles in the New Testament, that most people within the Christian tradition come into contact with ideas regarding slaves. At first, Paul's apparent innovative writings such as 'there is no slave or free'[2] and 'do not become slaves of men'[3] may be viewed as the basis of factions, such as the Abolition Movement[4], for the eradication of slavery. He is described as a 'creative, theological thinker'[5] who called for a “Oneness”[6] in Christ.  However, although clearly a man who changed the status quo regarding a number of issues, Paul's position on the institution of slavery is debated. Would he have advocated an end to slavery if it was not so fundamental to the ancient world? Or was it that he held no concerns over the ownership of slaves, so long as one treated them as equals within the Christian tradition? 


A main topic of this essay is whether Paul's doctrine on slavery has been developed beyond what he was initially preaching[7], in that he was not contending for the freedom of slaves, but accepted it as a social institution. The keeping of slaves was common at the time he lived in (the first century CE), and it was believed to be necessary for society to function well[8]. This essay will question whether he was a revolutionary thinker or more socially conservative. Paul's background, character, theology and aims for the Christian faith will all be explored when searching for his real attitudes towards slaves and the issues of slavery and freedom. Ultimately, if Paul's views are really indifferent to the issue of slavery, can he really be blamed for this or was he simply a product of the time he was writing in? I will be using evidence from the undisputed Pauline letters, mainly 1 Corinthians, Galatians and Philemon, to ensure that it is without doubt Paul's own thoughts under scrutiny. 


Slavery, even prior to Paul, has been both defended and criticised. It is estimated that slaves made up almost one third of the population of the Roman Empire[9]; the whole ancient world was said to ‘depend economically’ upon them[10]. Opposition to slavery, however, may have been developing within Stoic philosophy[11] from the fourth century BCE[12] and so was already, at the time Paul was writing, part of a wider philosophical tradition. Nevertheless, the main position of Stoic thinkers was indifference to legal slavery except in the case of Philo of Alexandria[13], who described slavery as a '”lesser evil” that should be avoided[14]. The majority view towards slavery, therefore, was generally one of acceptance based on necessity. It was in this world that Paul was educated and writing in. He was a Jew, influenced by Greek culture and also a citizen of the Empire; he was essentially born into and accustomed to a world where the owning of slaves was commonplace. However, this is not to say that he could not challenge this social norm, or at least some attitudes towards it.


It is in a number of Paul’s letters that we find numerous comments concerning slaves and the nature of slavery itself. However, in many he is simply using the notion of slavery as a metaphor[15]. It is in 1 Corinthians (7:20-24) that Paul actually addresses slaves directly; he tells them to 'remain in the condition in which you were called'. However, this is one of the most contested passages in the New Testament as the translation can be unclear. Paul is telling slaves to remain in their current situation and accept the life that God has given to them but there is a dispute as to whether he tells slaves to take freedom if it is offered to them or to remain a slave - different translations of his letters show separate interpretations[16]. Sampley argues that the passage's grammar and syntax heavily favour the “take liberty” interpretation'[17] which may also be thought to correlate to his message in the letter to Philemon. In one translation he is credited as saying slaves should remain in their situation, yet in the other Paul states a slave should take freedom only when it is offered, otherwise they should remain in servitude. However, in neither of these translations is Paul specifically advocating the freeing of slaves or condoning the institution as unjust. Moreover, this message specifically for slaves does not stand out in the wider context of the letter. The first letter to the Corinthians discloses a large amount of information to the people of the troublesome church in Corinth. Many issues are about how they should conduct themselves, both within the church and among the wider society[18]. The city of Corinth is described as operating more under the 'Roman model and legacy of slavery'[19] than any of the other places where Paul set up a church. Here was a place, more than any other Paul knew in the Roman Empire, where slaves were owned and used to such a great extent.  Since slaves had to take part in the same religion as their masters, there probably would have been a significant amount within the church. Furthermore, Paul needing to address slaves and their situation directly would demonstrate that there may have been instances where slaves, or freedmen, may have questioned their status within the church. Since manumission was practiced widely throughout the Empire at the time[20], there might have been questions over whether this should be given to all slaves since the Christian church was based on the sentiments of love and freedom, as we shall see. Paul, however, counteracts this by saying that each person has their place and role within the community and that “each man...should remain in the situation God called him to” (1Cor 7:24). It is believed that a large freeing of slaves would have been highly 'impractical'[21] in the ancient world, especially in a city so dependent upon them as Corinth was.


One of the most central letters on issues of social status within the Christian tradition is in his letter to the Galatians. It further credits Paul's theology as being one which produces a theology of mutual love and affection, as preached elsewhere (Romans 12:10):


'There is no longer Jew or Greek...slave or free...male and female; for all of you are one in Jesus Christ.'  (Gal 3:28)


The letter appears to address a community that is being subject to people attempting to undermine Paul's gospel by spreading a different gospel to his (Gal 1:6-7), something he is deeply worried about. The style and tone show that Paul is greatly incensed by this and the letter ultimately attempts to demonstrate his legitimacy as an 'apostle' of Christ (Gal 1:1).  It may be suggested that it is Peter’s (the disciple) version of the gospel of Christ, since he is mentioned in the letter (Gal 2:11), which is attempting to counteract Paul's, and mainly regards issues of how much of the Jewish law gentile converts must adhere to. It is within this wider setting of the defence of his own gospel that the famous quotation above is given by Paul. It is not given as a reference to society outside, or even within the church but is more of a reference to an abstract, spiritual life in Christ, brought about by faith in him and not from the works of the law (Gal 3:23-25).


Here again, therefore, Paul is not presenting any challenge to the institution of slavery. He acknowledges the presence of slaves within the church and states that no one is above another in the eyes of Christ; yet he does not condemn the ownership of one person by another within the wider social context of the Roman Empire. This passage, however, is important as it may reveal the influences upon the philosophy of Paul regarding slaves and other matters. Paul is described as having been influenced by the aforementioned philosophical tradition of Stoicism. For Stoics, slavery and freedom were popular topics[22]; they were thought ultimately to be irrelevant as both slaves and the free could be 'virtuous'. What was stressed, however, and similarly to Paul’s message in Galatians (3:23-28), was that 'one pursued the true freedom of the spirit and rejected spiritual enslavement'[23]. This would seem to correlate with Paul's view of the Jewish law being imposed on gentiles; those gentiles who seek to take up the Jewish laws, something which Paul believes to be unnecessary, would only make them ‘burdened again by a yoke of slavery’ (Gal 5:1).


The letter to Philemon is personal letter written by Paul concerning an individual slave, Onesimus.  How Paul came into contact with Onesimus is unknown[24]; however, the main focus of the letter for this essay is regarding what Paul asks of Philemon. It has been suggested that Paul was alluding to the manumission on Onesimus when he returned to Philemon, stating that ‘you might have him back…no longer as a slave….but as a dear brother’ (Philemon 15-16). This may seem to refute Paul’s position as a social conservative indifferent to slavery. Nevertheless, manumission was common, legal practice in the Empire and to ‘abide by the rules of the keeping and manumission of slaves was to reinforce [the] legitimacy’ of the institution[25].  It is suggested that Paul is hinting at the manumission of Onesimus in the hope that he might be sent back to him. Therefore, instead of evidence for Paul’s belief in the liberation of slaves, one is presented with a picture of Paul as working 'within the institutions of Roman society rather than challenging them'[26]; possibly as quite an egocentric character, asking for the manumission of Onesimus for his own personal benefit. Boxall presents an argument which reasons for Paul’s acceptance of slavery. He defends Paul, saying that although he does not directly oppose slavery, Paul believed 'Christ [was] already undermining the structures which sustain slavery'[27] and that the master and slave dynamic was being weakened by a notion of mutual ‘brotherly love' (Philemon 16).


Although Paul addresses slavery in a number of his letters, his position concerning the institution is still debated. One major defence for Paul's lack of concern about slavery is that he expected the return of Christ would occur within his lifetime[28]. This proximity to the coming of the ‘Kingdom of God[29] 'did not lead his efforts to change the present society in fundamental ways'[30]. Paul was wholly concentrated on the preparation for the return of the Messiah and it could be argued that this, and not the mere human restraints of society, was his main concern. As Wright describes, Paul was 'a man who wanted to extend his brand'; he wanted to spread his message of Christ to as many people as possible[31]. Also, the theology of Paul has been described as ‘deeply rooted in his frustrations’[32], therefore meaning he predominantly focuses and comments upon issues or activities which seem to deviate from that which he is trying to preach. Consequently, if slaves were not causing problems within the church then Paul was not likely to feel the need to address them or their circumstances. Overall, on the topic of Paul’s view of slavery, through the limited evidence available on slavery in the ancient world[33] and what can be deduced from Paul's letters, it is believed that his outlook 'hardly differed from that [of] the wider Greco-Roman culture'[34]. It appears that although Paul may have believed all Christians to be spiritually equal (Galatians 3:28), they still had their place in a hierarchical society. It therefore seems apparent that Paul was somewhat indifferent to slavery and when mentioned in his letters it was often as a metaphor for comparison, or in a way that shows his thoughts to be aligned with those of the wider Greco-Roman tradition.


[1]    Genesis 17:1, Exodus 21:1-4, Exodus 21:7, Leviticus 25:44-46, <http://www.religioustolerance.org/sla_bibl1.htm>, [accessed 04/03/11].  All subsequent biblical references will be from this source

[2]    Galatians 3:28

[3]    1 Corinthians 7:23

[4]    The Abolition Movement was backed by the Quakers and their speaker from 1789 was William Wilberfore; an evangelical Christian who believed the institution of slavery was a sin. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity/people/williamwilberforce_1.shtml> <http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/wilberforce_william.shtml> [accessed 04/03/11]

[5]    Howard Marshall, Stephen Travis and Ian Paul (2002), Exploring the New Testament: Volume 2 The Letters and Revelation, London, SPCK, p193.

[6]    Galatians 3:28

[7]   Within arguments for the abolition of slavery.

[8]    Howard Marshall et al. (2002), Exploring the New Testament, London, Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, p144.

[9]    J. Albert Harrill, Paul and Slavery, within J. Paul Sampley (2003), Paul in the Greco-Roman World, London, Trinity Press International, pp575-607, p579

[10]  Marshall et al. (2002), p144.

[11]  Stoicism is a form of philosophical thought.  Stoics 'held that every living thing in existence was either a “good thing”, a “bad thing”, or an “indifferent thing”, they also presented their philosophy [under Socrates] as 'primarily concerned with how one should live.'  Will Deming (2003), Paul and Indifferent Things, within Paul in the Greco-Roman World, London, Trinity Press International, pp384-403, p384 and John Sellars (2006), Stoicism, University of California Press, p2

[12]  Deming (2003), p393

[13]  Philo of Alexandria was Hellenised Jew, living in the Roman Empire (like Paul), born towards the end of the first century BCE whose philosophies (which would be greatly influential to Christian communities) incorporated aspects of 'stoic doctrine and terminology'. Diarmaid MacCulloch, Christian History, Peterborough, Epworth Press, p36 and sourced at http://www.iep.utm.edu/philo/ , 03/04/11

[14]  Deming (2003), p393

[15]  This mainly concerns the issue regarding how much the laws, which govern the Jewish faith, would be necessary to gentile converts to Christianity.  Paul is thought to be using the metaphor of slavery here in relation to how relevant observing the Jewish laws, mainly regarding circumcision and food laws, are to gentile converts to Christianity.  It is suggested that Paul believes that, through the death and resurrection, it is now through Christ, not ‘the works of the law [which will ultimately enslave people to them], that people can stand as members of the righteous covenant people of God’.  David G Horrell (2000), An Introduction to the Study of Paul, London, Continuum, pp55-56

[16]  Harrill (2003), p586

[17]  Harrill (2003), p587

[18]  Many issues are raised and people are told by Paul on how to act appropriately.  Some of these include, guidance regarding marriage (7), sacrifices to idols (8) and a note on orderly worship (14:26)

[19]  Harrill (2003), p588

[20]  Marshall, et al. (2002), P147

[21]  Marshall, et al. (2002), P147

[22]  Deming (2003), p390

[23]   Deming (2003), p390

[24]   There a multiple hypothesis suggesting the circumstances surrounding Onesimus’ situation, some state he was a runaway slave who encountered Paul in Prison and was baptised into the church.  Another hypothesis is that Onesimus was specifically sent to Paul by Philemon while he was imprisoned.  Harrill (2003), pp590-591

[25] Harrill (2003), p593

[26] Ian Boxall (2007), The Books of the New Testament, Hymns Ancient and Modern Ltd, p86

[27] Boxall (2007), p86

[28] ‘The expectation of the coming of the Lord is very frequent within Paul’s letters.’  E. P. Sanders (1977), Paul and Palestinian Judaism, University of California, Fortress Press, p448

[29] Galatians 5:21

[30] Harrill (2003), p588

[31] Robert Wright (2009), The Evolution of God, New York, Little Brown and Company, p267

[32] Charles Freeman (2009), A New History of Christianity, Yale University Press, p47

[33] Harrill (2003), p585

[34] Harrill (2003), p586


Boxall, Ian (2007), The Books of the New Testament, Hymns Ancient and Modern Ltd


Freeman, Charles (2009), A New History of Christianity, USA, Yale University Press


Henry, John. Reumann, Paul (1991), Variety and Unity in New Testament Thought, Oxford, Oxford University Press

Horrell, David G. (2000), An Introduction to the Study of Paul, London, Continuum

Kung, Hans (1994), Great Christian Thinkers, London, Continuum International Publishing Group

MacCulloch, Diarmaid, Christian History, Peterborough, Epworth Press

Marshall, Howard. Travis, Stephen. Paul (2002), Exploring the New Testament: Volume 2 The Letters and Revelation, London, SPCK


Sampley, J. Paul (2003), Paul in the Greco-Roman World, London, Trinity Press International


Sanders, E. P. (1977), Paul and Palestinian Judaism, University of California, Fortress Press


Sellars, John (2006), Stoicism, University of California Press


Wright, Robert (2009), The Evolution of God, New York, Little Brown and Company


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