Jesus' Parables for Disciples
Beginning the Journey (for new Christians).
1, 2, and 3 John
1 & 2 Thessalonians
1 & 2 Timothy
2 Peter, Jude
7 Last Words of Christ
Acts 1-12: The Early Church
Christ Powered Life (Rom 5-8)
Conquering Lamb of Revelation
David, Life of
Glorious Kingdom, The
Early Church: Acts1-12
Holy Spirit, Disciple's Guide
Jesus and the Kingdom
Lamb of God
Listening for God's Voice
Names of God
Names of Jesus
Rebuild & Renew: Post-Exilic Books
Sermon on the Mount
Songs of Ascent (Ps 120-135)
Appendix 6. Slavery in Jesus' Day
Several of Jesus' parables picture "servants" in first century Palestine. Our English Bibles usually translate Greek doulos as "servant," though the word actually describes a slave in most cases. Bartchy says,
"In contrast to the practice of the [King James Version], doulos should be translated 'slave' instead of 'servant' in order to point to the legal subordination of the 'slave' as property of the owner."1
The standard New Testament Greek lexicon defines doulos as:
"Male slave as an entity in a socioeconomic context, slave. ('Servant' for 'slave' is largely confined to Biblical translations and early American times.)"2
In addition, a few other words are used in the Gospels for slaves as opposed to servants.3
Slavery as Involuntary Servitude
One way to define slavery is involuntary servitude, subjecting one person to the power of another. Most slaves were considered chattel, that is, property that can be bought or sold.
In America, we still haven't recovered from 400 years of slavery. Blame, victim mentality, economic disadvantage, and racism continue to plague our society. But slavery is repugnant to us -- so repugnant, in fact, that it is difficult for Americans to read about slavery in the Bible without loading the subject with a great deal of emotional and historical baggage that relate to the treatment of plantation slaves in the South.
But to Jews in the first century Roman empire, slavery was just a fact of life. Rome's wars to subjugate the Mediterranean world, much of Europe, and the British Isles had resulted in taking hundreds of thousands of slaves captive, and selling them in the slave markets of Rome and other Italian cities. This is how soldiers -- and especially the officers -- were paid!
Slavery came about through warfare, piracy, brigandage, the international slave trade, kidnapping, infant exposure, failure to pay a debt, forced labor of alien populations, natural reproduction of the existing slave population, and the punishment of criminals to the mines or gladiatorial combat.
Of these, warfare seems to be the main source of slaves as Roman armies expanded the Empire and carried out wars to reinforce their control. In urban areas of Roman imperial society, the slave population was considerable -- perhaps between 17% and 33%.4 For example, we know that after Roman general Pompey conquered Judea and Jerusalem in 63 BC, many thousands of Jews were enslaved and transported to Rome.
By New Testament times, however, most of the Roman world was at peace, reducing the numbers of prisoners of war sold on the slave market, though there were still many, many slaves remaining, and their children and children's children.
Though it might seem strange to us, a number of people would sell themselves into slavery, principally "to enter a life that was easier and more secure than existence as a poor, freeborn person." Slaves sometimes received an education at their owner's expense, and, if they sold themselves to a Roman citizen, when manumitted they might expect to become Roman citizens themselves. According to the Torah, thieves could be sold as slaves if they were unable to make restitution (Exodus 22:3).
While the Greeks considered slaves to be sub-human, Hebrew history in Egypt taught Jews to show respect to their slaves. And Romans, as mentioned, might manumit a slave and make him a citizen. Nor did slaves just have servile duties. Some might be tutors, physicians, companions, household managers, sales agents, and administrators.5
Slavery in Jesus' Parables
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The average person in Jesus' culture didn't own slaves, but many villages would have a wealthier person who owned one or more slaves. A farmer might have a single slave to help with farming, as well as around the house (as in the Parable of the Dutiful Servant, Lesson 11.1). But many of Jesus' parables talk about household slaves of a wealthy person, as well as a manager or steward to direct them.
Slaves and slavery figure into a number of parables.
- Parables of the Talents and of the Minas (Lesson 11.2)
- Parable of the Prodigal Son (Lesson 1.1)
- Parable of the Wise and Faithful Steward (Lesson 5.3)
- Analogy of the Slave and the Son (Appendix 4.2)
- Parable of the Two Masters (Lesson 10.2)
- Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Lesson 1.2)
- Parable of the Dutiful Servant (Lesson 11:1)
- Acted Parable of Washing the Disciples' Feet (Lesson 11.3)
 S. Scott Bartchy, "Servant; Slave," ISBE 4:420.
 Doulos, BDAG 260, 1a.
 Misthios, "day laborer, hired man" (BDAG 653) distinguished hired workers from slaves (Luke 15:17, 19, 21). Another term we find is pais, "child," is commonly used in the sense, "one who is committed in total obedience to another, slave, servant," used of slaves and personal attendants (BDAG 750, 3a), such as in Matthew 8:6, 8, 13; Luke 7:7; 15:26. Oiketēs, "house slave, domestic, and "slave" generally (BDAG 694; Luke 16:13). Syndoulos, "one who, along with others, is in a relationship of total obedience to one master or owner, fellow-slave" (Matthew 24:49), or "a subordinate in total obedience to a ruler, slave" (Matthew 18:49; BDAG 966, meanings 1 and 2a).
 J. Albert Harrill, "Slavery," in Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter (eds.), Dictionary of New Testament Background (Intervarsity Press, 2000), pp. 1124-1127.
 S. Scott Bartchy, "Slavery," ISBE 4:539-546; S. Scott Bartchy, "Servant," ISBE 4:419-421.
In-depth Bible study books
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- 28 Advent Scriptures
- 1, 2, and 3 John
- 1 Peter
- 2 Peter & Jude
- 1 & 2 Thessalonians
- 1 & 2 Timothy
- 1 Corinthians
- 2 Corinthians
- Apostle Paul
- Abraham, Faith of
- Christ Powered Life (Romans 5-8)
- Christmas Incarnation
- Colossians and Philemon
- Conquering Lamb of Revelation
- David, Life of
- Early Church: Acts 1-12
- Glorious Kingdom, The
- Grace: Favor for the Undeserving
- Great Prayers of the Bible
- Holy Spirit, Disciple's Guide
- Jacob, Life of
- Jesus and the Kingdom of God
- JesusWalk: Beginning the Journey
- John's Gospel
- Lamb of God
- Listening for God's Voice
- Lord's Supper
- Luke's Gospel
- Moses the Reluctant Leader
- Names and Titles of God
- Names and Titles of Jesus
- Rebuild & Renew: Post-Exilic Books
- Resurrection and Easter Faith
- Sermon on the Mount
- Seven Last Words of Christ
- Songs of Ascent (Ps 120-134)