Slavery has been around since the beginning of recorded history. From as early as 1900 B.C., a Sumerian Code of Law has been found with laws concerning the treatment of slaves. Usually a slave was an outsider - from a different race, ethnicity, nationality and religion from their owners. Few societies could withstand the tension inherent in enslaving its own people. One became a slave from conquest, birth, or selling oneself into slavery - either forced or willingly because of debts or lack of ability to support oneself. From Genesis 12:16 we know Abraham had many slaves. We know the names of Eliezer and Hagar. He acquired more slaves as a parting gesture from Abimelech in Genesis 20. We're told how Joseph, the favored son of Jacob, was sold to be a slave in Genesis 37. In Egypt, as a slave to Potiphar, Joseph rose to the rank of overseer of Potiphar's household and put in charge of all that Potiphar had.
Slavery was sanctioned by the society in which it existed. Each society developed its own laws governing the institution of slavery. In most societies the slaves were in complete subordination to their master. The more control the masters had over the slaves, the less laws the society had about slavery.
The Mosaic Law had quite a bit to say about slavery in Exodus 21. It allowed a slave to keep his dignity as a human being. Stealing or selling a fellow Israelite into slavery was a capitol offense. No Israelite could be forced into slavery, but he could contract himself into servanthood for a seven-year period. If he chose, he could bind himself permanently by allowing the master to bore his ear with an awl against a door before God. The Israelites could have foreigners as slaves (Leviticus 25:44-46). A slave would become in essence a member of the Israelite household with the rights of any other family member except the right of inheritance. The owner could circumcise the male slave and invite him to worship with other Jews (Exodus 12:44-49). Cruelty to a slave was forbidden and punishable. If an owner punished a man to death, the law branded him a murderer. An owner could use corporal punishment, but remember Exodus 21:21 says the slave is the master's money and few masters wanted to damage their money. If a master permanently injured a slave, destroyed an eye or knocked out a tooth, the slave could go free. These regulations reminded the Israelites that every person was created in the image of God - even the slave.
The Israelite slavery law of a fellow Hebrew serving for a seven-year period was never really adopted by the other societies at that time. It was viewed as unprofitable. Indeed, Islam adopted a similar law for all their slaves much later in history, but this led to frequent slave raids as there was a constant need to replenish their slave supply.
Throughout most of history, slavery has been viewed as a natural condition that might befall anyone due to lost finances or conquest. Keep in mind that our ideas of slavery have been vastly formed from our American plantation slavery days and our own civil war. In this instance, we had one race enslaving another race. Their slaves' skin, morals and religion were quite different from their white masters. Historians say this is usually the most cruel form of slavery - when everything about the enslaved is foreign.
The Roman slaves, however, were of a different nationality, but usually of the same race. They absolutely adored their Greek slaves and would pay handsomely for them and take good care of them. When discussing their assets with others, they might mention their "48 slaves, 13 of which are Greek." If you were a good asset to your master, he would take good care of you. Also keep in mind that material and sometimes other conditions of slaves were frequently better than those of free people. Good food and housing were quite often preferred over freedom. Occasionally, someone would volunteer to become a slave. This was an acceptable form of social welfare. Buying oneself out of slavery was frequent.
Just as there were five classes of Roman citizens, there were also classes of Roman slaves. The highest rank was a slave minister who held some government office or administered provinces. There were also temple slaves for the religious institutions who might be priestesses or janitors for the temple. There were estate manager slaves, merchant and craftsmen slaves, agricultural slaves, as well as the most common domestic slave. The lowest class of slaves were the prostitutes, miners, or other dangerous occupation workers.
The institution of Roman slavery was quite elaborate. Did you know they had a three-day festival the last of the year called Saturnalia? This was a sort of "Sadie Hawkins Day" for slaves. Society was turned upside down. It was the merriest of festivals for the year: all business was suspended and for three days slaves were waited on by their masters. They could do and say what they liked. Moral restrictions were eased. Gifts were exchanged and food was abundant. There is evidence that our Christmas celebration came about to replace this pagan holiday.
The Romans did experience slave rebellions from time to time. The agricultural slaves in Sicily well outnumbered their Roman citizen masters and were always rebelling or threatening to rebel. The most famous rebellion was led by Sparticus. Sparticus himself was not a slave. He had been a undesirably discharged Roman soldier who had volunteered to become a gladiator hoping to seek fame instead of being exiled. As a gladiator he still was inciting problems, killed the manager of the gladiator school, led the gladiators and their slave girls to Mt. Vesuvius for refuge. And it was there that many runaway slaves ran to Sparticus for refuge for awhile. He eventually was subdued and 6600 Sparticus followers were captured. Since it was 132 miles on the Via Appia from Rome to Capua (home of the gladiator school), a Roman slave was crucified every 100 feet along that road. They were tied on to the cross and their bones were not broken so that they would live and suffer longer. They hung there dying and rotting for 18 months. Many a Roman master brought a misbehaving slave out to view that sight.
Roman slave laws varied from time to time. They reached their highest moral pinnacle with the Great Pandects of Justinian in A.D. 533 that stated that a slave is a person, not a thing. A death penalty was enacted for an owner who killed his slave by torture, poison, or fire. This was at a time when Christianity was on the rise all over the civilized world.
Six hundred years earlier, 100 B.C., a century before this book was written to Philemon, the laws were not so compassionate. The head of a Roman family, the paterfamilias, had complete control over the lives of anyone in his household - from wife, sons and daughters to the slaves. His very word was law. No law of the Senate and People of Rome stood between him and his absolute authority over his household. If his wife committed adultery, he could have her killed. If a son was guilty of cowardice, the father could have him killed. From the mother, son, daughter, all the way down to the slave, any transgression, any indecent conduct (as defined by the father) could result in punishment by death.
It is difficult to determine exactly what the slave laws were when this book was written by Paul to Philemon. Just as our tax laws keep changing with whomever is in power at the time, so the Roman slavery laws kept changing with their political changes. There were many political changes between 100 B.C. and 60 A.D. The Roman Republic had died, replaced by the Empire. Julius Caesar had come and gone. Augustus Caesar ruled as emperor and sole ruler for 44 years and enacted many great social reforms. Next Tiberius ruled and tried to legislate morality to the point that most everyone was sick of him and his "righteousness," and were relieved when he died. He was followed by the Emperors Caligula and Claudius. Now Nero was Caesar and emperor. Since he didn't have any morals to speak of, the Senate and People's Assembly were back in charge of restricting rights if they could sneak them past Nero.
Even if the old paterfamilias right had been totally restored, it is doubtful that death would be the penalty of choice for a run-away slave. There were other options. Just as the Bible reminds the Israelites that their slaves were their money, this was true for all societies. Slaves were a commodity. They had value. Just as most landowners don't go around burning down their own fields, few slave owners would kill their slave. It was not good economics. The going rate for a slave at this time was 30 pieces of silver - about a month's salary. If a runaway slave could be retrieved, he could be sold or he could be punished by a lashing. If someone had been discovered harboring or inadvertently engaging the services of a run-away slave, the true master could demand payment from them for lost wages. So if Onesimus had been in the care of Paul for a week or a month's time, Philemon could have expected Paul to pay him for that amount of time. I believe that is what Paul is offering to pay Philemon in verse 18. Onesimus would have known if he had stolen money and either Paul would have sent that sum with Onesimus and Tychicus or Paul would have said, "I will pay it," not "If he owes you..."
The new Christian religion set forth no revolutionary edict abolishing slavery. In fact, it accepted slavery and even seemed to sanction slavery, telling the slaves to be obedient and in subjection to their masters in Ephesians 6:5-9. I Timothy 6:1-2 even went as far as to tell the slaves to regard their masters as worthy of honor. Masters were told to be fair in dealing with their slaves. Paul said in I Corinthians 7:20-24 not to try to make radical changes in their social position. In heaven it wasn't going to matter if you had been a free man or a slave. The early Christians came to understand that good might be commanded, even legislated, but goodness is by free will. Christianity's primary focus was on spiritual values and salvation after death rather than on temporal conditions and the present life. They understood that lasting power was not in laws or arms, but in the Blood. They understood that if they wanted to change the world, they would have to change the hearts of the world. Christianity had not come to change societies and to overthrow governments, but it had come to change individuals. It had come to reconcile a slave and a master to the Greatest Master--God.
Along with these teachings on how to interact with others, no matter what your position in life, came other teachings, such as "Love your neighbor as yourself" and "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Over the years these teachings changed the hearts of individuals. How could you love them, do unto them, submit, and serve a slave? By its very nature, Christianity conquered slavery by conquering hearts, not nations and governments. Christianity became the ultimate equalizing force of the human race.
We can learn a lesson from the church/slavery problem. We see that the early church did not break any laws or take to the street to challenge the social order. What they did was teach the word of God, convert individuals and let the leavening power of Christian love break down the institution of slavery.
As we study this letter together, look for the picture that Warren Wiersbe points out in his Be Faithful commentary on Philemon. In this short letter to Philemon we see Paul mirroring the life of Jesus in three important roles. In verses 1-7 we see the beloved friend telling how highly Paul regards his friend, Philemon. In verses 8-16 we see the beloved intercessor as Paul tells Philemon how much he has come to love Onesimus and is concerned about his future. In verses 17-25 we see the burdened partner. Paul wants to take on the responsibility of financially redeeming Onesimus back to Philemon, offering to pay what Onesimus owed.
Did you see yourself in the picture? You are Onesimus. We are imperfect slaves because of our sin. We have sinned against our Master. We have robbed Him of our time and labor. We are the ones in need of a Friend and Intercessor who is willing to pay our debt and who also needs us to be useful to Him once again.
West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR