‘The smallest division of a household into parts gives three pairs,’ says Aristotle in the Politics, ‘master and slave, husband and wife, father and children’.footnote1 It is obvious that a modern sociology textbook would not endorse such analytical presuppositions. But it is equally clear that modern readers would have no difficulty in understanding Aristotle’s reasoning. That the ancient Greek world was sharply divided into slaves and free persons and that the hierarchical structure of its families was patriarchal comes as no surprise to anyone with the slightest knowledge of its history. In line with Aristotle, at least since the Communist Manifesto, the division of human societies into slaves and free persons is commonly regarded as an early stage of class differentiation which have a continuous development to the present day.footnote2

Modern readers would have no difficulties in grasping a common metaphorical usage of slavery either. Socrates, for example, is reported, among others, to have spoken about enslavement to gluttony, lechery, drink, or foolish and costly ambitionsfootnote3. Slavery as an institution has been effectively extinguished in the Western world, yet being a slave to one’s passions remains a meaningful expression. A further claim of some later Greek authors, that among those who are called slaves, many have the spirit of free men, while among free men, many are altogether servile, is also apprehended as the natural and (comparatively) noble extension of the same metaphorical usage.footnote4

The maltreatment of slaves, especially under the Romans, has become legend. But modern admirers of Classical culture find consolation in a number of humane reflections, which have come down as representative of the antique philosophical mentality—however few they may have been, and however alien to actual practice. ‘How about reflecting that the person you call your slave’, wrote Seneca in an often quoted passage, ‘traces his origins back to the same stock as yourself, has the same good sky above him, breathes as you do, lives as you do, dies as you do?’ In sharp rejection of some Greek theories which held nature responsible for the distinction between slaves and free persons,footnote5 the Stoics regarded slavery as the result of convention. Freedom, in their view, is not to be found in the blood of people but in their fortune. Seneca’s conclusion is admired by many modern moralists: ‘Treat your inferiors in the way in which you would like to be treated by your own superiors’.footnote6 Some Hellenistic and Roman authors were prepared to concede that there is a human nature common to all people—which does not imply that all people are or should become socially equal.

Given the predominance of slavery in the ancient world, it seems natural to modern readers that almost all New Testament documents refer to slaves as a matter of courses—although the most widely read English versions much prefer to use ‘servant’ in place of the proper translation ‘slave’. Most practising Christians find it more perplexing to accept that the New Testament is permeated by a slave-owning mentality. In a typical Jesus parable, for example, it is suggested that the kingdom of Heaven should be thought of as a king who decided to settle accounts with his slaves. Appropriately, the slaves are also represented in the parable as belonging to an internal hierarchy (Mt. 18:23 ff.). Slaves were constantly reminded to obey their masters in reverence and fear.footnote7 Strict observance of one’s duties, not free choice of proper behaviour was the accepted value of early Christian morals. ‘Let us render God service’, several Church Fathers declared, ‘at least as our slaves render it to us’.footnote8 Yet, although modern Christian discourse is egalitarian in its basic presuppositions, no modern Christian would have problems with the meaning of such attitudes to slavery.

In the New Testament, however, no less than in many pagan texts, there are references to slavery which make little, if any, sense today. The following advice in the First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, for example, has been among the mostly read and least understood Christian metaphors:

Every man should remain in the condition in which he was called [to Christianity]. Were you a slave when you were called? Do not let that trouble you; but even if a chance of liberty should come, choose rather to make good use of your servitude. For the man who as a slave received the call to be a Christian is the Lord’s freedman, and, equally, the free man who received the call is a slave in the service of Christ. You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of men. Thus each one, my friends, is to remain before God in the condition in which he received his call (1 Cor. 7:20–4).footnote9

In spite of unequivocal evidence, few twentieth century Christians are prepared to accept the hard fact that early Christianity did not condemn the institution of slavery and did not suggest that it would favour its abolition. But even acceptance of this hard fact does not make Paul’s reasoning any less striking. Indeed, the recommendation that a slave given the chance to become free should prefer to remain in bondage surprised several ancient readers of the epistle as well.footnote10