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The Oxford Study Bible Study Bible supplemented with commentary from scholars of various religions.

Slave and Free

Even among the masses of the “more humble,” people were ever conscious of differences of social level, though those differences were not so clearly marked as among the elite. The most fundamental difference was between slave and free. Most urban slaves could expect to be freed by around age thirty, but both they and their children would continue to carry a social stigma. The importance of that stigma varied, however. In a colony like Corinth, inscriptions show that many of the leading citizens were freed slaves or their descendants. Moreover, the slave of an important family, and above all of Caesar, might tower above an ordinary free worker. Tombstones of such slaves recorded their status with pride. In a large household, epitaphs of slaves often distinguished those who had more prestigious functions (nurse, doctor, valet). When Paul called himself “a slave of Christ,” the title did not convey only humility to many members of his audience.

Slavery was a ubiquitous but varied factor in ancient society. The precise numbers of slaves are unknown; in Pergamum, one of the few cities for which there is specific evidence, they were about one-third of the population. The quality of a slave's life varied from the relatively happy state of managers of imperial offices or of businesses of wealthy families to the misery endured by gangs of laborers on rural estates or, even worse, in mines.

As an urban phenomenon, early Christianity did not include the most deprived groups of the society, rural workers both slave and free. The Christian groups did include both slaves and slave owners from the beginning, and there is some evidence that persons with the ambiguous status of “freedpersons” played a particularly large role in the movement's growth. A movement like Christianity was bound to experience some tensions, for it brought together members of different social levels and its baptismal ritual declared that for those who had “put on Christ” such old dichotomies as Jew-Greek, slave-free, male-female had been overcome (Gal. 3.28 ). Paul's eloquent appeal to Philemon to receive his slave Onesimus back “no longer as a slave but as more than a slave: as a dear brother” (Philem. 16 ) represents one possible resolution of those tensions. More commonly, the Christian groups reaffirmed the standard rules of the hierarchical household, insisting that slaves “give entire obedience to your earthly masters” (Col. 3.22; cf. Eph. 6.5; 1 Pet. 2.18 ). In the second century, Christians had to be warned occasionally not to use church money to purchase the freedom of slaves (Ignatius, To Polycarp 4.3), but some ascetic Christians urged emancipation on principle (Acts of Thomas 9.83; cf. Acts of Peter 28). For the most part, however, Christian attitudes toward slavery reflected those of the larger society.

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