7 Ways Ancient Slavery Was Different from Modern Slavery

This article was originally published on the TGC-Africa and was written by Joseph Byamukama

Few attacks levelled against the Bible are as scathing as the claim that it supports slavery. Attackers, often armed with knowledge of the 16th to 19th century Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade (TST), repeat the contemptuous chorus: ‘how can you believe a book that teaches you to enslave another?’ Before considering whether the Bible condones slavery, we must ask ourselves two questions. First, how was life as a slave in biblical times? Secondly, are we correct to read the TST narrative back into the ancient world’s context?

My intent in writing this short article is not to make an apologetic for slavery—ancient or otherwise. Neither do I suggest that the life of a slave in ancient times was easy. Life long ago was hardly easy for anyone. But the chorus argument of many against faith in Christ because the Bible supports slavery needs addressing. To do so, I start by stating ways in which ancient slavery differed from our modern understanding of the same.

Like rubber, slavery in the ancient world was elastic. The state of the slave in those days hugely depended on the status of his/her master. Slaves occupied various positions in society, from the lowest to the highest offices, as the biblical story of Joseph reveals (Genesis 41:40). Like current employment, the life of ancient slaves fluctuated from the pitiable to the admired, depending on which master one served. There was no single story for all slaves, as we will see.

Slavery in the Ancient World

John F. Defelice in the Dictionary of Daily Life (DDL) defines slavery as “one person’s owning another and having almost total control over his or her life.” As Muhammad A. Dandamayev notes in Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (ABD), the Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) society consisted principally of freemen, a semi-free population (or serfs), and slaves. In a broader sense, all subjects, regardless of rank, were slaves to the king. Such was the case in Egypt, where Pharaoh owned all the land, and all Egyptians served him as their landlord.

Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel state in the Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (BEB) that “by Roman times slavery was so extensive that in the early Christian period one out of every two people was a slave.” The idea of slavery was so pervasive that both slaves and free people could not imagine a society without it. As Defelice delicately puts it, “the border between what is traditionally called chattel slavery and other forms of dependent servitude can blur the distinction between who is a slave and who is free.” As such, in the entire ANE World, “the institution of slavery was taken for granted not only by the free persons but also by the slaves themselves, who never demanded its abolition” (ABD).

Slaves aspired, not for the abolishment of the system, but that they too may own slaves. It is akin to how today’s employees dream of ‘becoming boss’ someday without ever dreaming about the abolition of the employment system; however harsh their working conditions. As we will see, many free people voluntarily sold themselves into slavery as a way of survival. Let us consider below how people became slaves:

Sources of Slave Labour in the Ancient World

Slavery as a Substitute for Death

War was the principal source of slaves in ancient times. Ancient kingdoms like Egypt, Mesopotamia, or Persia placed a small fraction of their prisoners of war into servitude. Others became ‘palace and temple serfs.’ The Egyptian Pharaohs Ahmose I and Tuthmose III boasted of their prisoners of war. Rather than kill them, victors would enslave a small portion of the conquered nation while resettling the overwhelming majority as ‘semi-free’ people.

Debt Slaves

In the ancient world, people who could not pay their debt would sell themselves and/or family as slaves to the creditor to pay off their debt (2 Kings 4:1; Nehemiah 5:5-8). ABD notes how this practice is widely attested to especially in Nuzi, an ancient Mesopotamian city, and in Assyria. Paragraph 117 of The Code of Hammurabi reads: “If anyone fails to meet a claim for debt, and sell himself, his wife, his son, and daughter for money or gives them away to forced labour: they shall work for three years in the house of the man who bought them, or the proprietor, and in the fourth year they shall be set free.”

Slavery as the Source of Survival

In Nuzi, evidence exists of many who sold themselves into slavery to obtain food and clothing. Some parents who could not afford food for their children would abandon them so they could be raised as slaves rather than see them starve. In the reign of Nabonidus, during a famine in Babylonia, a woman sold her two children as temple slaves after her husband died. “The text notes that the children were given to the temple so they would not die of starvation” (ABD). Leviticus 25:47 speaks of this sort of voluntary slavery.

Slavery as Criminal Punishment

Evidence from “Law Codes and records of court cases from the Third Dynasty of Ur (2112-2004 BCE)” indicates that those who violated the law (like thieves) without the ability to pay compensation could serve their sentence as slaves to the victim or the victim’s family (DDL).

Seven Ways Ancient Slavery Differed from Modern Slavery

Having seen the various ways people became slaves in the ancient world, let us now consider seven ways ancient slavery then differs from the modern one.

1. Slaves Served for a Specific Time

We begin by noting laws existing in Mesopotamia, Israel, and Rome, that required slaves to be released after a certain period. The Babylonian king Ammiṣaduqa in the 17th century “issued an edict, according to which all inhabitants of his kingdom who had been compelled by debt to become slaves should be released together with their families’ (ABD). As we read above, the Code of Hammurabi limited debt slavery to three years. Deuteronomy 15:18 commands masters to free their slaves after six years. Leviticus 25:48 stipulates that a sold slave can be redeemed any time. In Israel, God forbade any Hebrew to be enslaved for life (Exodus 21:2; Leviticus 25:10, 13; Deuteronomy 15:12–14).

‘Manumission’ is the term referring to the freeing of the slave by his/her master after serving a given time. Sometimes, the master adopted the manumitted slave as his daughter or son, a practice that existed in Mesopotamia for over 2000 years. Adoption, like marriage or dedication/sale to the temple, was a possible route to manumission from chattel slavery (DDL). In Sumerian society, the price for a slave was less than that of a donkey. Thus, a slave could save up and buy back his freedom, as many did. In Rome, a master could free their slaves without payment. Freed slaves were called freedmen (Acts 6:9).

2. Slavery was Not Racially Delimited

Unlike TST, people were not slaves because of their race or skin colour. Slavery was not a statement of the superiority of one race over another. Aristotle’s view of ‘barbarians’ (non-Greeks) being ‘slaves by nature’ belonged to a minority. As Moyer V. Hubbard notes, “A Roman household might have slaves who hailed from Bithynia, Syria, Numidia, and sometimes Rome itself.”

3. Slaves Could Marry Free People

Some laws permitted marriages between a free person and a slave. Where such was not allowed, slaves could have ‘tent companions’ that looked everything like marriage. As discussed above, such a union could be a way out of slavery. The Code of Hammurabi “allowed a wife to present her husband with a female slave if she proved to be infertile” (DDL). As in Egypt, the children of such union would be free. One can see this practice in the biblical stories of Abraham and Jacob.

4. Slaves Could Own Property

Slaves could own personal property, including their own slaves. Enterprising slaves “actively participated in all spheres of economic activity, were engaged in trade, ran taverns and workshops, taught other persons various trades, pawned and mortgaged their property, and they themselves received the property of others as security for loans” (ABD). To be sure, on paper, the property belonged to the master. But in practice, the slave could use his property as he wished.

5. Slaves Could Occupy High Offices

“Roman slaves carried the prestige of their owner” (DDL). As mentioned before, the state of the slave depended on the status of their master. Felix, who was governor of Judea (Acts 24) started his life as a slave of Emperor Claudius’s mother. Slaves of well-to-do households received proper and specialized training and became managers of estates or businesses. Others rose to great ranks, becoming the envy of free yet poor populace.

6. Slaves Accessed Court

Unlike the TST, “slaves had access to courts and sometimes successfully contested their status” (DDL). As such, slaves could not be killed without sound reason.

7. Death to Those Who Kidnapped and Sold People as Slaves

Lastly, according to BEB, “Selling a kidnapped person into slavery, was a capital offence under the law code of Hammurabi (Section 14) and the Mosaic law (Deuteronomy 24:7).” Unlike the TST, forcing people into slavery carried a death sentence in some laws, as well as in the Bible.

Know the Differences

This article highlights the complexity of the ancient system of slavery. It surveyed attitudes and laws regulating slaves in Mesopotamia, Egypt, among the Hittites, Greeks, and Romans. And what we see is that ancient slavery was not the same as the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Those who make a scathing attack on the Bible neither show understanding of this reality nor of the Bible. And as my next article will argue, the Bible and Christianity have always undermined the foundation of slavery, leading to its eventual abolishment through the efforts of none but Christians.

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