New Testament Greco-Roman Slavery

I am currently working through the book “Grasping God’s Word” as a way to grow my skills of properly interpreting and applying the Bible. This book has become immediately fruitful after each chapter I read. At the end of 
each chapter, there are a few assignment suggestions, and if you put in the effort to complete them, you will reap the benefits. I highly encourage you to check it out! 

This post is a result of one of the assignments from chapter 6. I was tasked with reading the book of Philemon; a one-chapter book in the New Testament that deals with the slavery of an individual named Onesimus. The assignment was to read the book of Philemon and then research slavery in the Greco-Roman culture. 

This post is a compilation of what I found through my research. In this post I cover: 

  • Background of Philemon
  • What is Greco-Roman Culture
  • Slavery in Greco-Roman Culture
  • Slavery Social Status
  • Paul's Teaching on Slavery
  • Reading Scripture with the Cultural Context
I hope this post helps provide a better understanding of the culture of slavery, and how to understand the terms "slave" and "servant" when you read the New Testament scriptures.

Background of Philemon
In this letter, Paul was writing to his Christian brother, Philemon, about his slave Onesimus. Paul addressed the letter to Philemon, Apphia (Philemon’s wife), and Archippus (Philemon’s son and leader of the church in Colosse). Philemon was a Christian, a fellow brother in Christ, who ran a house church at his home, which means he was likely very wealthy. 

Onesimus was Philemon’s slave who evidently stole from Philemon and then ran away. This type of behavior could be grounds for execution, or if captured and returned to his master, could be branded with a red-hot iron on his forehead with the letter “F” for fugitive. Running away from a master as a slave was a serious offense that the Greco-Roman culture would not take lightly. There were so many slaves in the population, that punishment was taken very seriously to avoid a slave revolt. 

However, when Onesimus fled to Rome, he encountered Paul and became a Christian. What an amazing divine appointment, that Onesimus would meet Paul, who was a very close friend with Philemon (Onesimus’ master). When Onesimus met Paul and became a Christian, this was a pivotal twist in his relationship with Philemon.

Paul’s letter on behalf of Onesimus was an appeal for Philemon to forgive his slave. Paul even stated that he would take on any of Onesimus’ debts as his own. In a sense, this was a parallel to what Jesus Christ did for Paul and for us. Jesus paid for the sins of the world by dying on the cross, and like Paul, our lives are indebted to Jesus forever. 

What is Greco-Roman Culture? 
To better understand the book of Philemon, we need to understand the culture of that time. The Greco-Roman culture was a blend of Greek and Roman cultures, language, and religion. Both were pagan and believed in polytheism (multiple gods). When Rome conquered Greece, they actually adopted the Greek language and philosophy. Rather than abolish their pagan gods, they just aligned their Roman names to the same gods. If you are in Classical Conversations, you can probably sing the song: 

 Greek gods Roman gods
Zeus Jupiter
Hera Juno
Ares Mars
Aphrodite Venus
Hermes Mercury
Athena Minerva
Poseidon Neptune

Slavery in Greco-Roman Culture
In the Greco-Roman culture, over ⅓ to ½ of the population were slaves. There were two types of slaves: domestic slaves and public slaves. A domestic slave was a person who worked for a master, typically in a home setting. Domestic slaves were generally treated better than those in the agricultural setting, and definitely better than those in the mines. Slaves in the domestic setting were expected to complete their task without being seen or heard. 

A public slave was a person who worked as a civil servant for the state. For example, a public slave would provide free labor as a police officer, doctor, educator, accountant, etc. Majority of the people became slaves from being a prisoner of war. When cities were conquered, they would take the people captive and sell them into slavery. Children born from a mother enslaved, would inherently become slaves to her master. People could also become a slave by a way of clearing a debt or crime.

The slavery in this culture was not based on race or ethnicity. Anyone could become a slave, there was no partiality. Slavery was a critical aspect to the function of their society. They survived and thrived on the free labor of people. 

The price to purchase a slave depended on their gender, education, and skill set. The cost of a slave could range from 500 denarii to 6,000 denarii. To put that into perspective, 1 denarius was a day's wage, so 300 denarii was about a year's full wage. As you can see, slaves were expensive, and the more elite people in society could afford more slaves and more skilled workers. Highly skilled slaves would consist of educated slaves for tutoring positions, specialty cooks, and even hair dressers.

Slavery Social Status
When a person became a slave, they lost all their rights. The term “slave” or “servant” was the lowest status a person could have in society. It was considered “social death.” A slave was a chattel, which means the property of another person. They had absolutely no rights. In fact, a released criminal had more rights than a slave. Enslaved people of businesses were not listed as employees, but rather as instruments and tools for the business. 

Here is the legal structure of a wealthier Roman household:

The head of the household was the eldest man, known as the Paterfamilias. He was wealthy and everyone was under his provisions. The Paterfamilias' sons and daughters were the next highest ranking in the household. Clients were free men (with Roman rights), but they served the Paterfamilias as a way of protection and provision. Freedmen were slaves that were set free by their owner and received some rights in society; however, they were still legally tied to the master's household. The lowest ranking was a slave who had absolutely no rights in society.

Treatment of a slave was dependent on the master. The treatment of slaves was terrible. Women would often be sold for sexual purposes, being treated like property for sexual pleasure. Women would serve other women by doing hair, makeup, or becoming a wet nurse. It was common for slave owners to impregnate their female slaves in order to build their slave count. Any child a slave woman had was legal "property" of her owner. A child born by a slave mother was automatically enslaved. 

Slaves could receive freedom if they were over the age of 30. The freedom was dependent on the master and his will. Slaves could also buy their way to freedom but this was not common. Once a slave was freed, they were considered a “freedman”. They still operated under the master’s household, but they gained some basic rights like the right to vote and own property.

One benefit of being a slave to a Roman citizen, was if the Roman master freed their slave, the slave would inherently become a Roman citizen. So in some cases, people would use slavery as a way to improve their social status by becoming a Roman citizen after emancipation. If a slave to a Roman citizen had children after being freed, then their children would inherently become Roman citizens as well. So in a sense, this was a strategic way to improve a generation’s social status in Roman society. In just two generations, a family could become free Roman citizens, the highest social status.

Paul’s Teaching on Slavery
The letter to Philemon was written in approximately 60 A.D. Christianity was not legalized until 325 A.D. So, until then, it was illegal to push a religion that was not rooted in Greco-Roman paganism. Christianity was a radical theology of that time because it was belief in one God (monotheism). It was actually dangerous to be sharing the Christian faith of salvation, yet many Christians were missionaries and boldly shared their faith to the point of death.

During the time of the letter, Paul was not only preaching a radical theology, but he was also trying to shift the social equality between the servant and master relationship. This was another radical idea for that culture and time. In order to further the gospel, Paul's focus was not on the abolishment of slavery, but rather on the proper treatment of slaves, and showing Christ’s love in the master-servant relationship. Paul was focused on changing people's hearts, not politics. If Paul were to strictly preach the abolishment of slavery in the Greco-Roman culture, it would have prohibited the spread of the gospel message. 

Reading Scripture with the Cultural Context: 
After understanding the terminology of slavery and servant (which can be used interchangeably) in the Greco-Roman culture, I see these verses in a new light. Commentators state that most of Paul's teachings were in regards to domestic household slaves. 

1 Corinthians 7:20-24

Let each of you remain in the situation in which he was called. 21 Were you called while a slave? Don’t let it concern you. But if you can become free, by all means take the opportunity. 22 For he who is called by the Lord as a slave is the Lord’s freedman. Likewise he who is called as a free man is Christ’s slave. 23 You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of people. 24 Brothers and sisters, each person is to remain with God in the situation in which he was called.

Things that I now understand and read differently:

  • Paul is stating that you can serve God and show Christ-like love in whatever situation you were in when you became a believer.
  • If you were a slave when you became a believer, let God work through you in your situation. 
  • Paul is emphasizing that one’s earthly status is temporary.
  • “Lord’s Freedman” - a freedman was a slave that was set free by the master, received some rights in society, but still belonged in the master’s household.
  • “Free Man” - a free man was a person who was never enslaved. They had full rights as a Roman citizen. Paul states those people are slaves to Christ. 

Ephesians 6:5-9

5 Slaves, obey your human masters with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as you would Christ. 6 Don’t work only while being watched, as people-pleasers, but as slaves of Christ, do God’s will from your heart. 7 Serve with a good attitude, as to the Lord and not to people, 8 knowing that whatever good each one does, slave or free, he will receive this back from the Lord. 9 And masters, treat your slaves the same way, without threatening them, because you know that both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.

Things that I now understand and read differently:

  • Slaves were instructed to serve with a good attitude. How difficult would this be with a cruel master? They are reminded to serve because ultimately they are serving the Lord. The Lord sees their efforts and heart. 
  • Masters are commanded to treat their slaves well. Paul emphasizes that there is no favoritism in heaven. On earth, masters may be elite, but in heaven there is no favoritism. Slave and master will be equal. 
  • As Christians (Slave or Free), we are all slaves to the same Master, Jesus Christ.


Slaves, obey your human masters in everything. Don’t work only while being watched, as people-pleasers, but work wholeheartedly, fearing the Lord. 23 Whatever you do, do it from the heart, as something done for the Lord and not for people, 24 knowing that you will receive the reward of an inheritance from the Lord. You serve the Lord Christ. 25 For the wrongdoer will be paid back for whatever wrong he has done, and there is no favoritism. 4 Masters, deal with your slaves justly and fairly, since you know that you too have a Master in heaven. 

Things that I now understand and read differently:

  • Slaves commanded to work hard even if their master isn’t watching because the Lord is always watching.
  • Have the mindset that they are not working for an earthly master, but for their heavenly master, Jesus. 
  • Emphasis on no favoritism in heaven. Greco-Roman culture favored the wealthy and elite. In heaven there is no favoritism. 
  • Masters commanded to be fair and just. Reminding them they really aren’t free because they have a Master in heaven - Jesus. 

When you understand the slave / servant role in the Greco-Roman society, it helps put into perspective the slave terminology and metaphors of the New Testament letters. It also helps put into perspective the humility of Jesus who often placed Himself at the lowest social status to model humility and serving others. Jesus was beaten and killed, which was a similar life to that of a slave.

It's absolutely gut-wrenching to read the stories of slavery in that culture. Yet, it's also amazing when you realize the significance of God choosing to come as a humble servant and not a royal elite. Jesus was worthy of being served, but chose to serve others during His lifetime. He modeled humility, kindness, and love, even to His worst enemies.

I hope after reading this post, you have a better understanding of the cultural context and significance of slavery in the time of the New Testament scriptures. I hope you can approach the scriptures with a new mindset and perspective to properly apply the lessons being taught to the Christians at that time. 


  1.  David Guzik, Blue Letter Bible 
  2. The Lexham Bible Dictionary
  3. Faith Life Study Bible
  4. John MacArthur, Bible Introduction - Philemon
  5. Christian Standard Bible (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2020), 1 Co 7:20–24.

  6. Christian Standard Bible (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2020), Eph 6:5–9.
  7. Christian Standard Bible (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2020), Col 3:22–4:2.
  8. Yale Courses - Greco-Roman World

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