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

Jesus' Parables for Disciples, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Available in paperback, PDF, and Kindle formats

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.


References and Abbreviations

[1] S. Scott Bartchy, "Servant; Slave," ISBE 4:420.

[2] Doulos, BDAG 260, 1a.

[3] 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).

[4] J. Albert Harrill, "Slavery," in Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter (eds.), Dictionary of New Testament Background (Intervarsity Press, 2000), pp. 1124-1127.

[5] S. Scott Bartchy, "Slavery," ISBE 4:539-546; S. Scott Bartchy, "Servant," ISBE 4:419-421.

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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