Beverly Gaventa weighs Paul’s context and his response to slavery.
The first century – the Roman world in the first century – is a slave society. Estimates vary and it probably varied from place to place, but scholars put the figure as high as 30 or even 40 percent of the population was enslaved.
So slavery was ubiquitous. And sometimes people want to argue that, well it wasn’t like, you know, slavery in the US. That’s true – and yet if we think that means it was sort of nice, it was just sort of a long-term lease on your person, we’re kidding ourselves. Slaves could be used sexually; slaves belonged … I mean, Aristotle will say, a slave is something to think with, is an instrument. This is not a person at all.
What we see in Paul is, on the one hand, not a challenge – he does not argue that we go out and do away with slavery. I think that’s because he believed that Jesus would be back, that God would take care of that, you know, immediately. But he does say that we are all in Christ, slave and free; there is no slave or free in Christ. So that in the most important sense there is, that distinction does not exist.
It’s also important to see that he self-identifies as a slave. English translations often cover this over and call it servant – it’s slave, it’s doulos, it’s the word you called a slave. And I think by doing that, in part, he signals his own understanding of his relationship to God; and also, I would imagine, in the ears of many people he signals a kind of identity with them that may have been, one hopes, very elevating.