A Commentary by John Stott
Ephesians 6:5-8. 3) The duty of slaves.
Slavery seems to have been universal in the ancient world. A high percentage of the population were slaves. It has been computed that in the Roman Empire there were 60,000,000 slaves.’ They constituted the work force, and included not only domestic servants and manual labourers but educated people as well, like doctors, teachers and administrators. Slaves could be inherited or purchased, or acquired in settlement of a bad debt, and prisoners of war commonly became slaves. Nobody queried or challenged the arrangement. ‘The institution of slavery was a fact of Mediterranean economic life so completely accepted as a part of the labour structure of the time that one cannot correctly speak of the slave “problem” in antiquity. This unquestioning acceptance of the slave system explains why Plato in his plan of the good life as depicted in *The Republic* did not need to mention the slave class. It was simply there.’
To those of us who live in countries in which slavery has been abolished by law for one and a half centuries, it is hard to conceive how the ownership of one human being by another can have been countenanced in this way. It is even harder to understand how slaves can have been regarded more as things than as persons. For all his intellect and culture Aristotle could not contemplate any friendship between a slave and a slave-owner, for, he said ‘A slave is a living tool, just as a tool is an inanimate slave’, although he could at least concede that ‘a slave is a kind of possession with a soul’.
This dehumanization of slaves in the public mind was mirrored in early Roman legislation. ‘Legally they were only chattels without rights, whom their master could treat virtually as he pleased.’ The Roman state left the problem of the discipline of slaves to the owners…The *pater familias* (the head of the household)had completecontrol over all slaves owned in his *familia*, the power of punishment by whipping and by confinement in the *ergastulum*, (a workhouse or prison for offending slaves) and the right of execution of the death penalty.’ Consequently, accounts of terrible atrocities have survived, especially from the pre-Christian era. Slaves were sometimes whipped, mutilated and imprisoned in chains, their teeth were knocked out, their eyes gouged out, they were even thrown to the wild beasts or crucified, and all this sometimes for the most trivial offences. The fact that some slaves ran away (risking, if caught, branding, flogging and even summary execution), while others committed suicide, is sufficient evidence that cruelty towards them was widespread.
At the same time, it would be a grave mistake to suppose that this kind of barbaric treatment was either habitual or universal, or that it continued unabated into the first century AD. Although the law at first prescribed no penalties for slave owners who illtreated their slaves, yet more often than not they were restrained by other factors, either by their own sense of responsibility, or by public opinion, or by self-interest. As for public opinion, Paul’s Stoic contemporary Seneca was teaching the brotherhood of man and urging kindness to slaves. As for self-interest, masters knew that their slaves represented a high capital investment. It was, therefore, to their own advantage to take good care of their slaves, just as they did their farm animals and their furniture.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Ephesians: Being a Christian. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.