Biblical Studies Slavery
John Byron
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 August 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 August 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0116


Slavery was an accepted part of the world in which the biblical authors lived and wrote. It was a vital part of the empires in the ancient Near East and the Greco-Roman West. The Hebrew Bible condones slavery, contains laws regulating it, and even uses it as a metaphor to describe God’s relationship with Israel. The New Testament, entrenched in the Greco-Roman world, accepts the fact of slavery, commands slaves to obey their masters, and even recounts the return of a slave to his master. But as attitudes began to change and abolitionism became a motivating force, biblicists were challenged to reexamine the Bible in light of the new worldview. The Bible was used both to support and to condemn slavery. More recently, the descendants of former slaves have asked how the Bible, used to subjugate their ancestors, can still be a valuable religious text. These shifts in attitude have led to a reevaluation of how slavery is studied. Scholars have moved away from legal definitions of slavery, which view the institution from the owner’s perspective, to sociological definitions that provide insight into how the institution was experienced by the enslaved.

General Overviews

A number of introductory overviews to slavery are available. Much of the 20th century was influenced by classics scholars, who sometimes downplayed the negative aspects of slavery. But these views were challenged toward the close of the century by those who defined slavery as an inhumane experience. Vogt 1975 presents slavery as a slowly diminishing institution, while St. Croix 1988 argues that Christianity helped to prolong it. Finley 1998 and Garnsey 1996 both contain helpful presentations of how the ancients thought about slavery. Goldenberg 2003 examines the role of race in ancient slavery. Patterson 1982 helped to introduce an important correction to slavery studies by focusing on the effects of enslavement rather than the legal descriptions of slavery. Prior to Patterson, scholars often assumed that legal definitions of slavery could be accepted as descriptions of slavery. Scholars have begun to focus more on its social rather than legal aspects. Horsley 1998 makes the case for biblical scholars incorporating Patterson 1982. Bradley and Cartledge 2009 provides a convenient resource for studying slavery in the ancient world.

  • Bradley, Keith, and Paul Cartledge, eds. The Cambridge World History of Slavery. Vol. 1, The Ancient Mediterranean World. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

    Volume 1 of this multivolume series examines the history of slavery in the ancient Mediterranean world. Attention is given to Jewish and Christian perspectives but with a particular focus on Greco-Roman societies.

  • Finley, Moses I. Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology. Expanded ed. Edited by Brent D. Shaw. Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener, 1998.

    Represents one of the earliest challenges to traditional interpretations of ancient slavery. The views of many classical scholars are disputed by demonstrating that slavery was a brutal institution and suggesting that moralists, Stoics, and Christians bear little responsibility for the demise of slavery.

  • Garnsey, Peter. Ideas of Slavery from Aristotle to Augustine. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

    This study asks how slavery was viewed by the leading spokesmen of Greece and Rome. It draws on a wide range of pagan, Jewish, and Christian sources to challenge the common assumption of passive acquiescence in slavery. It outlines some attitudes toward slavery, ranging from critiques to justifications drawn from some of the leading theorists of slavery, including Aristotle and the Stoics, Philo, Paul, Ambrose, and Augustine.

  • Goldenberg, David M. The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003.

    A wide-ranging study examining the effect of race and prejudice on the ancient slave trade. The study seeks to apply its results to the modern debate surrounding the place and function of black Africans in the Bible.

  • Horsley, Richard A. “The Slave Systems of Classical Antiquity and Their Reluctant Recognition by Modern Scholars.” In Slavery in Text and Interpretation. Edited by Allen Dwight Callahan, Richard A. Horsley, Abraham Smith, and David Jobling, 19–66. Semeia 83–84. Atlanta: Scholars, 1998.

    The essay challenges biblical scholars to integrate the work of Finley 1998, Patterson 1982, and others. It contains a helpful overview of how New Testament scholarship has been influenced—sometimes adversely—by classics scholars and outlines the importance of reevaluating how slavery has often been interpreted in the biblical text.

  • Patterson, Orlando. Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982.

    A seminal study concerned with the basic social facts of slavery. Slavery is interpreted as relational domination rather than a category of legal thought. The treatment of biblical texts is brief, but its impact on slavery studies has also been felt in biblical studies. Required reading for any student of slavery.

  • St. Croix, G. E. M. “Slavery and Other Forms of Unfree Labour.” In Slavery and Other Forms of Unfree Labour. Papers from a workshop held in Oxford in April 1985 under the auspices of the History Workshop Centre for Social History. Edited by Léonie J. Archer, 19–31. History Workshop Series. London and New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1988.

    The essay challenges the notion that Stoicism and Christianity played a significant role in abolishing slavery. Rather, it argues that injunctions to slaves had the opposite effect of entrenching the system for centuries.

  • Vogt, Joseph. Ancient Slavery and the Ideal of Man. Translated by Thomas Wiedemann. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975.

    The presentation seeks to demonstrate that Greeks and Romans became less tolerant of slavery over time and that the institution’s demise was the result of philosophical and religious movements that opposed slavery. Although it influenced some New Testament scholars, its conclusions should be compared carefully with those of Finley 1998, Patterson 1982, and St. Croix 1988.

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