Paul, Philemon, and the Problem of Slavery

Anthony Weber —  May 5, 2014 — 2 Comments

Though Paul’s letter to Philemon is often used to accuse Paul of supporting (or at least being okay with) slavery, the criticism misses the deeper purpose of this letter. Paul presented a radical message that to Philemon would have undermined everything he had been taught about masters and slaves, and could only lead to a world without slavery. 

Does that seem like a bold claim? Perhaps it is. But I believe an honest reading of the text within the context of 1st Century Greco-Roman culture leads us to this conclusion.

The term “slave” finds its origins in 13th century France; linguistically, it’s only fair to acknowledge that any discussion of 1st century conditions will be distorted if we use the word “slave” indiscriminately. The Greeks used many different words to describe people in servitude or slavery. Doulous, the word Paul uses throughout the New Testament to reference someone who is not free, cannot be indiscriminately translated as “slave” without poisoning the well.  Doulos could mean slavery, servitude, or simply self-sacrificial commitment. Jesus took upon himself the nature of a doulos (Philippians 2:7); all people are either the doulos of sin or of Christ (Romans 6:17-18); Paul said he was a doulos to everyone (1 Corinthians 9:19). In order to do justice to Paul’s message in Philemon, we must be honest about the intricacies of the language.

When the writers of the ESV sought to translate both the Hebrew and Greek words that had been commonly translated as “slave,” they ran into some problems:

“A particular difficulty is presented when words in biblical Hebrew and Greek refer to ancient practices and institutions that do not correspond directly to those in the modern world. Such is the case in the translation of ‘ebed (Hebrew) and doulos (Greek), terms which are often rendered “slave.” These terms, however, actually cover a range of relationships that require a range of renderings—either “slave,” “bondservant,” or “servant”—depending on the context. Further, the word “slave” currently carries associations with the often brutal and dehumanizing institution of slavery in nineteenth-century America.

For this reason, the ESV translation of the words ‘ebed’ and ‘doulos’ has been undertaken with particular attention to their meaning in each specific context. Thus in Old Testament times, one might enter slavery either voluntarily (e.g., to escape poverty or to pay off a debt) or involuntarily (e.g., by birth, by being captured in battle, or by judicial sentence). Protection for all in servitude in ancient Israel was provided by the Mosaic Law. In New Testament times, a doulos is often best described as a “bondservant”—that is, as someone bound to serve his master for a specific (usually lengthy) period of time, but also as someone who might nevertheless own property, achieve social advancement, and even be released or purchase his freedom. The ESV usage thus seeks to express the nuance of meaning in each context.”    “The ESV Translation Committee Debates the Translation of “Slave” 

Doulos made up about 40% of the Greek and Roman population. This seems like an astonishingly high number, but doulos in some fashion formed the backbone of the economy. There were absolutely brutal forms of doulos (particularly for captured soldiers and criminals), but other forms that bore little resemblance to what we think of today. Many were what we would think of as indentured servants (similar to what happened in the early days of American settlement). Greek and Roman doulos were often highly educated, and many were doctors, professors, teachers, administrators, public servants and even policemen.

There were a number of ways people could become doulos. Ancient cultures commonly forces captured soldiers and hardened criminals into the most brutal forms of slavery. The poor would sometimes volunteer; others were born into a life of doulos. There were no bankruptcy laws, so this was also a way in which the bankrupt found work and worked off debt. “If a man be enslaved his debts cease to bind him, and his liability does not revive if he is manumitted.” Digesta Justiniana 28. 8. 1. pr.

Household doulos were much better off than even the free-born poor. The poor were often day laborers competing for jobs that went to the well-conected doulos. Slaves like Onesimus were paid for their work, which provided them the means to eventually buy their freedom. Some owned other doulos themselves (think of the parable of unforgiving servant, who owed his master, but was in turn owed by another worse off than he was).

In Greek and Roman culture, doulos such as Onesimus often earned their freedom by the age of 30 or were granted freedom in their owner’s will. In the city of Rome, freed doulos enjoyed not only passive freedom from ownership but also active political freedom, including the right to vote. They even had a title: “the free ones.”

This system was the way for someone like Onesimus to move up in society and become a relatively successful free man. Even nobleman were known to sell themselves into the service of greater noblemen so they could move up in the Greco-Roman world. Onesimus himself probably did not ask Paul to abolish the institution of slavery, since what most likely had awaited him on the other side of his service to Philemon was a decent life and reputation. For a doulos who was a bondservant or household servant, their story often ended well.

There were, however, at least three ways the story could end poorly.

A freed doulos needed the patronage and favor of his owner,or  buying his freedom was not necessarily helpful. A doulos had to be, above all things, useful (which is the meaning of “Onesimus,” a title probably given him by Philemon). The doulos were commodities, investments. It’s not as if the owners were educating them and giving them responsibility out of the goodness of their heart. The useful doulos earned the master’s “stamp of approval.” The lazy ones did not. For those that did not, their eventual freedom would not necessarily be a good thing. They would become one of the working poor who scrabbled to survive and lost the day jobs to the doulos with patronage. If their former master chose to retain them, they would serve in a reduced status with only a taste of freedom and a portion of the master’s provision.

A runaway doulos was a nobody, useless to his master and the state. As much as a doulos could gain honor, privilege and status when he was useful, he lost it all immediately and usually irretrievably when he ran away. Runaway doulos forfeited all their ties and privileges. They were a lost cause. Their owners could pretty much do with them what they wanted. Typically, a captured runaway was either sent to hard labor (which was a death sentence), branded (the Latin word for fugitive began with an “F,” which was burned on their forehead), crucified, or whipped to death.

A revolutionary doulos could only hope for a swift death. The Romans brutally crushed the individuals involved and slaughtered the groups with which they associated. Spartacus (70 BC) had more than 70,000 in his rebellion; Rome eventually smashed the revolt and crucified 6,000 slaves.

Assuming that the biblical portrayal of Philemon is accurate, Onesimus was probably not running away from abuse and poverty; he had most likely stolen from a man who invested time, money and trust in him, and whose patronage was giving him access to a better life than many around him had. That’s not to say Philemon was off the hook (more on this in my next post), but in that culture, at that time, this was Onesimus’s ticket to freedom and respect. But now he was in trouble. Captured and awaiting impending judgment, Onesimus sought out a new person to serve. His choice of Paul – himself a prisoner – shows the level of desperation.


So what should Paul do?

He could write a blistering missive that condemned the whole system. He could command Philemon to free Onesimus and his other doulos, spread the word of freedom and inequality, and basically take on Rome. But Rome tended to view any shaking of the social order as potentially seditious. A Roman guard would certainly have read Paul’s letter, and if it looked like Paul was encouraging revolution, Paul and the letter’s recipients would most likely be killed. Nothing would change.

Even if Paul could start the overthrow of Rome’s existing social order, history suggests that the people would just substitute one form of injustice for another (I’m talking to you, French Revolution!). We even see this frustrating cycle of tyranny and corruption in popular stories like The Hunger Games and Captain America. If you change the laws on an issue but don’t change the hearts of the people effected by the issue, the same problem will just keep coming up.

Paul cared about the lives and reputation of the doulos in Rome (more on this in the next post), but he knew that to truly change a cultural of slavery and serventhood, he had to get to the root of the problem in Philemon: sin, which resides in the human heart, which in this case was expressed through injustice and discrimination, and could only be resolved through the transformation that Christ brings. As important as cultural transformation is, the message of the Gospel neither starts nor ends with external behavior modification. Paul  goes for something much bigger than merely Onesimus’s freedom. His goal is to change the source of the problem: Philemon’s heart.

Mark 7:20-22: “Jesus went on: ‘What comes out of a man is what makes him ‘unclean.’ For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean.’ “

Luke 6:45: “The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks.”

If Philemon’s heart was changed, he would help to usher in a church community in which “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:23). Paul was challenging the hearts of society’s gatekeepers, the ones who stood to benefit from the inequality inherent in the Greco-Roman economic and social system.  Paul was challenging those who demanded that people be useful above all else, or they were worth nothing. Paul was challenging the way in which we can all see people as things that exist to serve us and make us happy, not image bearers of God for whom Christ gave his life.

Paul wanted something better than freedom for Onesimus: he wanted Philemon to view Onesimus as a human being, a brother in Christ, a man of intrinsic value and worth. And if Paul could accomplish that – well, all forms of injustice and inequality would fade away. A transformation inside – if it’s genuine – will inevitably result in a change outside. In this case, the best way to change a culture of inequality, dehumanization, and injustice was to change the hearts of those who perpetuated it.

There’s more to say on this topic. As generous as he apparently was in the context of his culture, Philemon seems to have accepted a deeply entrenched Greco-Roman view of all doulos in which they were perceived as an inferior, almost sub-human element of society. Paul’s letter has more to say to Philemon – but that’s a topic for the next post.



The Epistles of Paul to the Colossians and to Philemon: An Introduction and Commentary, N.T. Wright

The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon, Douglas Moo

Paul Among the People, Sarah Ruden

“New Testament: Philemon,” (

“Philemon: Introduction, Argument and Outline,”

“The Epistle to Philemon,” 

“The Unique Characteristics of Christian Forgiveness,” Eric McKiddie (

“Keller and Carson: Greco-Roman Slavery and Race Based Slavery,” Andy Naselli (

“What Were Early Christians Like?”

“Philemon and Its Connection to Colossians,” Mike Rogers (

“Resisting Slavery in Ancient Rome,”

“Women, Children and Slaves,”

“Slavery in Ancient Greece,”

Anthony Weber


Anthony graduated from Cedarville University in 1995 with a degree in English Education, and from Trinity College of the Bible and Theological Seminary in Newburgh, Indiana in 2004 with a Master's Degree in Theology and Philosophy. Anthony is a husband and father of three, an author ("Learning to Jump Again"), high school and college teacher, pastor, blogger (,, and co-founder of etcetera, a "street-level philosophy group" in Traverse City, Michigan.