“A Slave of Christ Jesus”: Ancient Slavery as a Biblical Metaphor for Salvation

By Matthew J. Grey

Matthew J. Grey, “‘A Slave of Christ Jesus’: Ancient Slavery as a Biblical Metaphor for Salvation,” in Selections from the Religious Education Student Symposium 2003 (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2003), 81–100.

“A Slave of Christ Jesus”: Ancient Slavery as a Biblical Metaphor for Salvation

Matthew J. Grey

Throughout the scriptures, various symbols and metaphors are employed to instruct the reader on important concepts dealing with salvation and man’s relationship with God. One of the most explicit, and perhaps least understood, is the biblical use of servitude to illustrate these critical principles. In many cases the matter is softened in translation, resulting in a weakening of the intended symbolism. For example, the salutations beginning many of Paul’s epistles, “Paulos doulos Christou Iesou” (Romans 1:1, also Titus 1:1, Philemon 1:1) are translated as, “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ.” However, a closer look at the Greek text demands that the word doulos, here translated as “servant,” should be more clearly rendered as “slave.” [1] Thus, “Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus” is closer to the original. This loss of impact in translation accordingly lessens the reader’s understanding of Paul’s intended meaning.

The purpose of this paper is to discuss the role of slavery in the ancient world and to emphasize the use of the institution by the biblical writers as a powerful metaphor. The slavery metaphor offers the reader profound symbolism reflecting the relationship between God (the master) and His people (His slaves). To illuminate the metaphor, brief historical use and the cultural context of slavery in the ancient Near East will be given. As this background is presented, the various symbolic uses of the practice by Old Testament authors will be discussed, followed by a similar treatment of the New Testament. The hope is that once such context is offered, the intended meaning of the scriptural authors will become powerfully clear. Indeed, the practice of slavery in the ancient world can metaphorically teach us much about mankind’s relationship to God, as well as the Savior’s role as Redeemer of all mankind.

Slavery in the Ancient Near East—An Old Testament Metaphor

To understand the use of slavery as a salvific metaphor, the background of the practice in the biblical world must be given. While the length of this paper will not allow an in-depth treatment, a brief overview of relevant concepts will be offered. The reader is invited to personally note significant symbolism in the details of the description.

To begin, it is important to clarify the ancient use of a slave. In our modern context, we naturally reflect on the cruel and inhumane nineteenth-century American slavery when approaching the topic. This would be harmful in the case of the ancient world, as the slavery known to the biblical writers was quite different. Generally speaking, the relationship between master and slave in the ancient world was much more civilized and compassionate than the modern model with which we are familiar. [2]

A brief history. The institution was, however, commonly employed in the ancient world and had a powerful impact on the psyche of the people. [3] In the society of the Old Testament, between one-fifth and one-sixth of the population were slaves. [4] From the earliest examples of Mesopotamian city-states, we see the centralization of power leading to an increase in social stratification, which ultimately results in an increase of slavery. [5]

Significantly, this was the world into which the nation of ancient Israel was born. As part of his call to lead Israel out of Egyptian slavery, Moses was told, “When thou hast brought forth the people out of Egypt [slavery], ye shall serve [literally in Hebrew, “be slaves (to)”] God upon this mountain” (Exodus 3:12). Immediately, Israel is to have the sense that they are moving from one form of slavery (in Egypt, often symbolic of the world) to another (in the service of the Lord). [6]

Throughout the Exodus, various laws are given (see Exodus 21; Deuteronomy 15; Leviticus 25) regarding slavery (to be discussed below), implying that the institution will continue to exist among the Israelites themselves. It is clear from the biblical record that slavery continues throughout the monarchial period, all the while closely resembling its use in the neighboring Mesopotamian city-states. [7] Ze’ev W. Falk notes that these slaves included personal slaves, slaves for the king, and temple slaves called nethinim (who eventually developed into “a cultic guild of religious functionaries”). [8] The actual Mosiac laws governing the practice were observed with varying degrees of success at different periods. [9] By the time of Zedekiah, a universal call to re-institute the slave laws was issued in preparation for the impending Babylonian invasion. [10]

Sources of slavery. Important to our discussion of slavery as a metaphor is an understanding of the sources from which these slaves originated. Essentially there are two types of slaves dealt with in the ancient Near East. The first is termed the “foreign chattel” slave. These are usually prisoners of foreign wars brought back as slaves to the victors and subsequently have no rights whatsoever. [11] The second group is far more common as well as relevant to the scriptural discussion. These are the “debt slaves” who have been forced into slavery for a variety of reasons. Crop failure, excessive taxation, inability to repay loans, and even violation of the law are all factors leading to seizure of person and property [12] or the forcing of individuals to sell themselves into the servitude of their creditor or landlord. [13] In this state they would be compelled to work off their debt or work until they were able to repay the loan. [14]

The Master-Slave Relationship

With this brief introduction to the topic, we are now prepared to examine the actual relationship between the master and the slave and discuss the powerful symbolism associated with it. The Hebrew word for slave (often weakly translated as “servant”) is ebed. [15] The word for master is adonai, which is, significantly, a word also translated in both secular use and in reference to Yahweh as “Lord.” [16] Thus we are initially presented with the slave (ebed) and his lord or master (adonai). As was previously stressed, the slave is not treated in a cruel and inhumane manner as the modern reader might imagine. Rather “the slave’s position was in practice closer to that of a filius-familias,” and was thus quite literally treated as part of the family. [17] On occasion, these slaves could even be chosen as successor to the estate and perpetuator of the family line (see Genesis 15:3; 1 Chronicles 2:34). [18]

This system easily lends itself as a natural symbol for the relationship between the Lord and His people. Through personal sin (or even a violation of the law in some instances), we, as His people, like the indentured slave, can be seen as having incurred a great debt that we cannot repay. As a result, our freedom has been forfeited and we are compelled into indentured servitude. Our master must now be the Lord (adonai), who takes us in, treats us as part of His family, allows us to attempt working off the debt in His service, and even offers the possibility of becoming an heir to His estate.

Redemption and Manumission

Along with these basic concepts it is important to discuss further elements of the slave system as it relates to possible symbolism. Certainly the two most relevant to the Old Testament are redemption and manumission.

Redemption. Dating to the earliest of Near Eastern tribal customs is the redemption of slaves by close family members. [19] The Hebrew root of go’el provides the meaning of the verb “to buy back” [20] as well as the noun “redeemer.” [21] In both cases, the concept is that of near kin acting as the redeemer to the one in slavery by paying the set price for the slave (“buying back,” or “redeeming” him) in order to purchase his freedom. The redeemer will also stand up for the rights of the slave and plead his cause before any officiating individuals. [22] The former slave will now belong to the kinsman-redeemer and will work to repay him on his own terms, [23] thus keeping the redemption and subsequent servitude a “family or clan affair.” [24]

The law of redemption was an important element in the Mosaic law. In Leviticus 25 the ancient Israelites were told that if a brother (a close member of the family) was forced to sell himself into slavery to a stranger, “he may be redeemed [g’ulah, literally, “bought back”] again; one of his brethren may redeem him. . . . any that is nigh of kin unto him of his family may redeem him” (Leviticus 25:48–49). The one acting as redeemer must then “reckon with him that bought him . . . and the price of his sale shall be according unto the number of years” (Leviticus 25:50). The price is then paid and the person redeemed. The Lord then gives the moral of the proceedings. “For unto me the children of Israel are servants [ebadim, literally, “slaves”]; they are my servants [“slaves”] whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 25:55).

This process of redemption was symbolically used by the Lord Himself in reference to delivering Israel out of Egyptian slavery. In Exodus 13:1–13 the “Redemption of the First Born” is commanded, which is instructive since Israel is collectively seen as the firstborn of the Lord who must be redeemed from bondage so He can serve His true master, Yahweh (see Exodus 4:22–23). [25]

That this has further symbolism to our personal relationship with the Lord hardly needs commentary. Surely we are each the one who has been compelled into a state of slavery and need to be redeemed, or bought back from our bondage. Thankfully, our near kinsman (the Savior Jesus Christ) has stepped in, pled our cause, paid the price through the suffering of the Atonement, and thus redeemed us from our awful plight. We now owe our allegiance to Him as His “slaves.”

Manumission. Another aspect of the ancient Israelite slave system that had symbolic meaning for the Lord and His people were the laws of manumission. These were laws allowing for the eventual release of slaves designed to curb the institution of debt-slavery commonly established throughout the Near East. [26] In the case of the Old Testament, these provisions of release were part of the Mosaic law given in Exodus 21:1–6 and Deuteronomy 15:12–18. [27] Interestingly enough, these manumission laws are not viewed with much symbolism in the current volumes of biblical commentary. However, to a Latter-day Saint audience these laws should offer deeply profound metaphorical insights into our personal relationship with the Lord.

The fact that the slave law given in Exodus 21:1–6 is placed at the forefront of the “covenant code” of the book of Exodus catches the attention of some biblical scholars. While not giving detailed reasons, both Anthony Phillips and G.C. Chirichigno feel that in some way this priority placement of the law must act as a theological statement. [28] Perhaps this statement can be fleshed out when viewed through the perspective of the restoration.

The slave law begins by stating, “If thou buy an Hebrew servant [ebed evri, “Hebrew slave”], six years he shall serve: and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing” (Exodus 21:2). Immediately a significant relationship is referred to. Note that the law pertains if the person buys a “Hebrew” slave. This clearly sets the Hebrew debt-slave apart from the foreign chattel slave, who has neither right to redemption nor right to manumission. [29] The spiritual reality behind this symbolism of manumission is only available for one in the covenant family, i.e., a “Hebrew slave.” Those of the outside world seem to have no part in this matter.

While the slave will now be allowed to go free, there are certain considerations that must be taken into account. If during his enslavement “his master” (adonai, “Lord”) had given him a wife and she bore him children, it is stated that “the wife and her children shall be her master’s, and he shall go out by himself” (Exodus 21:4). However, “if the servant [ha-ebed] shall plainly say, I love my master [et-adonai], my wife, and my children; I will not go out free” (Exodus 21:5), then he has the opportunity to forego his freedom and remain with his lord and his family.

This aspect may provide symbolism unique to the Latter-day Saints. Here the slave is offered the opportunity for freedom but chooses to forfeit that freedom out of love for his master and the desire to remain with his family. Latter-day Saint theology is quite alone in its insistence that the family unit can remain intact forever (l’olam; see Exodus 21:6). Yet in this manumission law we may see a metaphor for not only being able to stay with a master (the Lord) out of love for him but also being able to remain with the wife and children (originally given by the master-Lord) out of love for them. The possibility comes from a significant ceremony designed to signify this desire to forego the offered freedom.

The oath ceremony is as follows: “His master shall bring him unto the judges [ha-elohim]; he shall also bring him to the door, or unto the door post [al-hamezuzah]; and his master shall bore his ear through with an aul; and he shall serve him [abado, literally, “be his slave”] forever [l’olam]” (Exodus 21:6).

That it says “bring him unto the gods [ha-elohim]” may have reference to an officiating priest or judge. [30] Some have suggested that it refers to the small household gods kept near the doorway of the house (unlikely, however, as the same Mosaic law strictly forbids such images in Exodus 20:4). Chirichingo interprets this to simply mean “God who resides in the sanctuary,” placing the ceremony either at the central tabernacle (later the temple), or at an authorized local shrine. [31] Given the context and surrounding laws, this interpretation seems most plausible. In any case, the scene is clearly that of a sacred oath ceremony.

Next, the seemingly strange aspect of the nailing of the ear into the doorpost may again have important significance to Latter-day Saint belief and practice. Surely the symbol here is that the slave is ritually giving a sign (having his ear temporarily nailed to the master’s door), which graphically depicts his being fastened to the master’s house. Afterwards, it is believed he wore an earring or small tag in that ear as a public token of his new status. [32] The Hebrew word for “house” (beit, used in the Deuteronomy 15:16 version of this discussion) can sometimes be seen as a play on words meaning both “a house” which is a building, as well as “a house” that is a lineage or family line (i.e., “house of Jacob”). [33] Both are probable as the act officially adopted the slave as a legal heir to the family estate. [34] Thus, the slave has ritually signified through the nail in the ear that he will be a part of his master’s house (building or family line) forever.

Hugh Nibley connects this ceremony with two comments made in the later writings of the prophets Isaiah and Ezra. [35] Isaiah refers to a slave Eliakim (possibly symbolic of the Savior Himself because the name means “God will cause to rise”) who will be clothed in a robe and girdle, will be given keys to bind and loose, will sit on a throne, and will be fastened “as a nail in a sure place,” thus giving him “all the glory of his father’s house, the offspring and the issue” (Isaiah 22:20–25; emphasis added). This slave will experience the same ritual of the nail and by such will be given authority and place in the “house.” Incidentally, this verse is also recommended by Elder Russell M. Nelson in connection with the study of insightful ancient temple practices. [36]

Likewise, Ezra refers to the Babylonian captivity in terms of this ceremony. Speaking of the previous bondage of their fathers, “and now for a little space grace hath been shewed from the Lord our God . . . to give us a nail in his holy place, that our God may lighten our eyes, and give us a little reviving in our bondage [avdutaynu, literally, “our slavery”]. For we were bondsmen [ebedim]; yet our God hath not forsaken us in our bondage” (Ezra 9:8–9; emphasis added).

The symbolism for the Latter-day Saints is quite profound. We are welcomed to go free on our own. However, if we love the Lord (our Master), we love the wife and children He has given us, and we desire to stay in His “house” with our family through the eternities, we must also go through a sacred ceremony declaring our intention to bind ourselves to Him forever. We demonstrate our consecration to Him in a sacred sanctuary as we are ritually fastened “as a nail in a sure place,” and we are likewise guaranteed a place in His kingdom with our families forever.

Interestingly enough, this manumission law is repeated with slight variation in Deuteronomy 15:12–18. The Deuteronomy account does not mention the role of the wife and children and does not demand a sanctuary setting for the ceremony but does offer a differing motivation for the release of a slave. Often these additions and omissions found here are seen as a discrepancy derived from a much later rewriting of the law (perhaps in the reforms of Josiah or Zedekiah). [37]

Again, Chirichingo provides the most plausible explanation that will be accepted here. He demonstrates that the emphasis in the Deuteronomy account differs from Exodus only because it is to be read from the point of view of the master rather than the slave (as in Exodus). [38] He sees these additions and omissions as an important theological statement on behalf of the author. [39]

After all, the Deuteronomy pericope instructs that the master must use his own possessions to furnish his slave (Deuteronomy 15:14). The reason given is “thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondsman [ebed] in the land of Egypt, and the Lord thy God redeemed thee: therefore I command thee this thing to day” (Deuteronomy 15:15).

Thus the difference in emphasis does not stem from authorship or discrepancies, rather the two sections together provide the symbolism for both sides of the matter—the slave and the master. The Exodus account discusses the motivations and responsibilities from the perspective of the slave (love for family and master), while the Deuteronomy account offers instructions for the master. The master is to act as God acts in fully providing for his people, for he was a slave himself before the Lord redeemed him.

As we have seen from the above discussions on master-slave relationships, redemption, and laws of manumission, the writers of the Old Testament had a powerful symbol to teach Israel of salvation and their relationship with God. Ancient Israel was indeed born in a world of slavery, redeemed by the Lord Himself, and awaited the future promises as heir to the estate. While the image is used throughout the Old Testament (prophets as “servants of God,” Israel as His “servants,” and so forth), what has been presented here is merely an introduction to the topic, allowing the reader to make further study into the well-employed metaphor. [40]

Slavery in the Greco-Roman World—A New Testament Metaphor

Use of slave imagery in the Gospels. Coming from a background of scriptural use and a world where slavery remains an important element, the authors of the New Testament continue the use of slavery as a metaphor for salvation. In New Testament Greek, the word doulos is used in the place of the Hebrew ebed. In its noun form the word is literally “slave,” while its usage as a verb (douleuein) is “to be enslaved.” [41] Likewise the Hebrew adonai (“master” or “lord”) is replaced by the Greek kurios, also meaning “master” or “Lord.” [42]

Throughout the Gospels Jesus employs these images from the beginning to the end of His ministry. In every case it seems that He is the kurios (Lord) and His people are the douloi (slaves). From the ministerial outset, Jesus demands that “no man can serve [douleuein, literally, “be slaves to”] two masters [kuriois]. . . . ye cannot serve [douleuein] God and mammon [mamona, literally, “wealth” [43]]” (Matthew 6:24). For Jesus, either you are a slave to God or a slave to your money, but it is impossible to be both.

The metaphor is used with even greater emphasis at the end of Jesus’ ministry. Often it is used as an eschatological (dealing with the last days) image. In Mark 13 Jesus tells of a man (representing Himself) who goes out of town and leaves his possessions in the hands of his slaves (doulois). They are instructed to watch and be ready, for “ye know not when the master [kurios] of the house cometh” (see Mark 13:32–37). Likewise, in Matthew 18 we are given the parable of the unforgiving slave (doulon) who owes a great debt, is forgiven by his lord (kurios), turns in a vicious manner upon his fellow slaves, and is subsequently rebuked by the lord (Matthew 18:23–35).

And finally, in one of the last great eschatological parables we are told of three slaves who are each given a responsibility over the lord’s possessions (talanta, each a 57-pound piece of gold). [44] When the lord returns, the two slaves who have been wise stewards over the lord’s money have proven they can handle a little and are in turn made rulers over much. The slave who has proven incompetent in handling the lord’s possession is relieved of all duty and is severely punished (see Matthew 25:14–30).

The slavery metaphor in the Pauline epistles. An even more detailed and extensive use of the slavery metaphor is offered by Paul. However, to understand Paul’s intricate use of it, the reader must be familiar with aspects of the slave system that are unique to the Greco-Roman world. In many ways Roman slavery was similar to its ancient Near Eastern predecessor. Being practiced on a larger scale (about one-third of the population in the Roman Empire were slaves), [45] its impact was accordingly greater on society. Like the Near East, sources of slavery included prisoners of foreign wars, those forced into indentured servitude, those born into slavery, and, more unique to the Greco-Roman world, those children who were exposed as infants and were picked up by slave traders. [46]

Inscriptions are clear that slaves were used as personal stewards, custodians and teachers of children, musicians, managers of property, and money lenders. [47] Indeed, the entire economy of the Roman Empire was dependent upon the practice of slavery, [48] and it was an integral part of every aspect of Roman life. [49] Contemporary writers such as Cicero would themselves use the institution as a metaphor in various situations. [50]

A fundamental difference in the Greco-Roman view of slavery to that of the Near Eastern model is the perception of freedom and bondage. Contrary to the Jewish way of viewing slavery (even for a Hellenistic writer such as Philo) as man being exalted before God, the Greeks from earliest times placed an enormous emphasis on the value of freedom. [51] The Greek concept of eleutheria (“freedom”) [52] was the ideal state of existence, personal dignity was found in being free, and bondage was viewed with scorn. [53] This view would have made Paul’s use of slavery as a metaphor for ultimate salvation quite shocking. Understanding this himself, Paul’s symbolism becomes all the more intentional and instructive.

Notwithstanding society’s disdain for the thought of themselves being in bondage, the early Christians nevertheless continued to use the slave experience as a model for their relationship with the Lord. Paul wrote to the Ephesians that Christian slaves (douloi) were to be obedient “to them that are your masters according to the flesh . . . as unto Christ . . . as the servants of Christ [douloi Xristou], doing the will of God from the heart; with good will doing service, as to the Lord [kurio]” (Ephesians 6:5–7). Likewise any Christian masters [kurioi] were to treat their slaves well, “knowing that your Master [ho kurios] also is in heaven” (Ephesians 6:9). Clearly to Paul, the relationship was indicative of that of God and His people, and Christians on both sides of the temporal situation were to recognize that and live accordingly. The Didache (a first-century Christian document containing teachings of the Apostles) emphasizes this as well: “And you slaves shall be submissive to your masters in respect and fear, as to a symbol of God.” [54]

Truly the early Christians viewed themselves as slaves of the Lord, as a slave belongs wholly to the master and exists only to carry out his will and interests. [55] Since the honor of the Greco-Roman slave depended completely upon the honor of his master, the Christians saw themselves in good hands. [56] That the redemption metaphor continued to be used as well is important to note. [57] Paul writes to the Christians in Corinth (then a Roman colony in Greece with a massive slave market), [58] “Ye are not your own, for ye are bought with a price” (1 Corinthians 6:19–20; emphasis added). Clearly Christ is the Redeemer purchasing the Christians with His atonement, and they now belong to Him.

Also available to the Roman slave was the possibility of manumission. While the concept is similar to that in the ancient Near East, the process is slightly different. These differences are quite legalistic, but to Paul they offer an even more profound metaphor. Indeed, to understand Paul’s servitude theology, one must be at least familiar with the basic process of manumission as practiced in Roman law.

Liberation was often offered as a reward to a servus fidelis[59] Once such a faithful servant was set free, he now had the opportunity to progress in remarkable ways. For example, one possibility was the attaining of full citizenship in the Roman Empire. [60] Now a free citizen, the former slave may, if his relationship with his former master was exceptional, be fully adopted as a son of the master. [61] This act would cancel all previous debts and establish a father-son relationship in his new paterfamilias[62] Finally, the adoption would lead to the natural position as an heir to the estate. [63] This entire manumission process of being liberated, made a citizen, and adopted as an heir to the former master’s estate provides Paul with a masterful metaphor for our salvific relationship with Jesus. [64]

Paul devotes the entire three chapter pericope of Romans 6–8 to presenting salvation in terms of the legal Roman manumission process. His salutation in the beginning of the epistle sets the stage for the theology to follow. “Paulos doulos Christou Iesou,” which again insists in translation, “Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus” (Romans 1:1). In chapters 6–9 he will explain why he refers to himself in this manner, all the while admitting that he is using a man-made system to illustrate his doctrine (“I speak after the manner of men” [Romans 6:19]).

The metaphor begins as Paul presents a fascinating dichotomy.

For sin shall not have dominion [kurieusei, “have lordship”] over you. ...

Know ye not, that to whom ye yield yourselves servants [doulous, “slaves”] to obey, his servants [douloi] ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness?

But God be thanked, that ye were the servants [douloi] of sin, but ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you.

Being then made free [eleutherothentes] from sin, ye became the servants [edoulothete] of righteousness. ...

But now being made free [eleutherothentes] from sin, and become servants [doulothentes] to God. ...

For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 6:14–23)

Here Paul seems to be saying that we are slaves regardless—either we are slaves to the world (where sin has “lordship” over us), or we are slaves to the Lord. We must choose one or the other. He is also careful to remind us that if we choose the slavery of the world, we can only be destroyed because the wages are death. However, if we choose slavery to the Lord, that is the servitude which will give us the true freedom (eleutheria) the Greco-Roman world yearned for.

The liberation process for those in the Lord’s service continues to offer exalting possibilities. Just as the former slave in the Greco-Roman world may receive adoption into the family of the master, so Paul sees this as indicative of what awaits the slaves of Christ. “For ye have not received the spirit of bondage [douleias, “slavery”] again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. ...we are the children of God” (Romans 8:15–16; emphasis added). To Paul, all who are faithful in the service of Jesus will not only be set free, but will receive adoption into the family.

Naturally adoption places one in the position of an heir to the estate, and that is exactly what Paul insists upon next. “And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ ... that we may be also glorified together” (Romans 8:17; emphasis added). In the household of God, those who have been faithful slaves will be truly set free, adopted as a son or daughter, and thus made an heir to the entire estate. What an incredible promise to receive all that the master has! Indeed, for Paul the manumission process acts as a perfect symbol for the process of fallen man having the possibility of exaltation with the Master.

In the meantime, while we are awaiting to receive the expected promises, we are given the “firstfruits of the Spirit ... waiting for the adoption” (Romans 8:23). W. G. Rollins identifies the firstfruits (aparche) of the Spirit as the deposit on a purchase. [65] Elsewhere Paul refers to the receiving of the Spirit as “the earnest of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession” (Ephesians 1:14). In both cases the concept is the same. While we are awaiting the exalting process of being heirs to eternal kingdoms, we now only receive the down payment of the Holy Ghost.

This initial payment of eternal reward is intended to provide us with the hope to keep us going until we reach the full promises of exaltation with the Master. “For we are saved by hope [elpidi], but hope that is seen is not hope” (Romans 8:24). This use of the term elpidi, “hope,” can easily refer to the hope of a slave awaiting the full manumission process. [66]

To summarize, Paul masterfully uses the legal terms and concepts of the Roman manumission process to fully express his understanding of the exaltation process. First, we must choose to which slavery we will belong—the slavery of the world, which will destroy us, or the slavery of Christ, which will eventually exalt us. Once we have chosen Jesus’ slavery, we understand that we will be set free, adopted as a child into the heavenly family, and as such be made an heir to all things that our Father has. In the meantime, while we are awaiting the fulfillment of our promises, we are given the down payment of the Holy Ghost, intended to offer us the hope and assurance that the process is under way and will ultimately result in our exaltation. Perhaps Paul could not have chosen a more fitting and beautiful metaphor to illustrate the plan of salvation and the relationship between man and God.


While this paper has only provided a brief overview of a topic that deserves a master’s thesis, it is hoped that it at least offered a helpful introduction to a powerful concept. From the Old Testament period and on throughout the New Testament period, scriptural authors have found a wonderful metaphor of salvation and man’s relationship with God in the slavery systems of their day.

Indeed, the Old Testament authors provide us with powerful lessons on how we relate to the Lord as our Master, the role of Christ as our Redeemer, and the possibility of manumission. In Exodus 21 and Deuteronomy 15 we are given a set of slave laws which, to Latter-day Saints, may be seen as having powerful significance to remaining in the house of the Lord, maintaining an eternal family, and demonstrating our consecration through sacred ritual.

For the New Testament authors, similar imagery is employed in the context of Greco-Roman slavery. As Paul demonstrates, the institution offers a parallel to our eternal progression. First we choose slavery to Christ over slavery of the world. We are then set free, adopted, become heirs to the kingdom of God, and eventually receive our exaltation with Jesus. Indeed, it is both moving and instructional as we can examine the social context in which these powerful texts were written.


[1] Joseph H. Thayer, Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2000), 157–58. See also H. G. Liddell and Robert Scott, An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000), 210.

[2] Muhammad A. Dandamayev, “Slavery,” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 6:58.

[3] Dandamayev, “Slavery,” 6:65.

[4] Dandamayev, “Slavery,” 6:64.

[5] Gregory C. Chirichigno, Debt-Slavery in Israel and the Ancient Near East (Sheffield: Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Press, 1993), 35.

[6] For a thought-provoking metaphorical treatment of the exodus story in which Egypt is viewed as a symbol of the world, see Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, The Exodus Story: Ancient and Modern Parallels (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1997), 49–60.

[7] Chirichigno, Debt-Slavery, 113.

[8] Ze’ev W. Falk, Hebrew Law in Biblical Times (Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 2001), 115. “The temple slaves, called nethinim (dedicated), developed in the course of time into a cultic guild of religious functionaries and returned from the Babylonian exile together with other strata of Hebrew society (1 Chronicles 9:2; Nehemiah 7:57; 10:29; 11:3; Ezra 2:55; 7; Ezekiel 44:7–9).”

[9] Chirichigno, Debt-Slavery, 140–41.

[10] Chirichigno, Debt-Slavery, 286.

[11] Chirichigno, Debt-Slavery, 146–48.

[12] Christopher J. H. Wright, “What Happened Every Seven Years in Israel?” Evangelical Quarterly 56:4 (October 1984): 195.

[13] See Anthony Phillips, “The Laws of Slavery: Exodus 21:2–11,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 30 (1984): 54. See also Dandamayev, “Slavery,” 59, and Chirichigno, Debt-Slavery, 57, 127.

[14] Chirichigno, Debt Slavery, 81.

[15] F. Brown, S. Driver, and C. Briggs, The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996), 713.

[16] Brown, Driver, and Briggs, Hebrew and English Lexicon, 10–11.

[17] Falk, Hebrew Law, 114.

[18] Falk, Hebrew Law, 115.

[19] Falk, Hebrew Law, 117.

[20] William L. Holladay, A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1988), 52.

[21] Helmer Ringgren, “ga’al,” in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1975), 2:351.

[22] Ringgren, “ga’al,” 2:351.

[23] Dandameyev, “Slavery,” 63.

[24] Wright, “What Happened,” 197.

[25] Another powerful symbolic use of the redemption metaphor is found in the book of Ruth. In the story we read of Ruth being redeemed by Boaz, a close kinsman, who subsequently takes her under his protection and into his house (Ruth 1–4). In this way, the Ruth-Boaz story becomes another useful symbol in describing the relationship between Jesus as the Redeemer and His people.

[26] Chirichigno, Debt-Slavery, 54–60. One of the more famous of these laws was the Law Code of Hammurabi 117. “If a liability has become due against a man and he has sold his wife his son or his daughter or bound them, or each of them, or himself over into servitude, for 3 years they shall do work in the house of him who has bought them or taken them into servitude; in the fourth year their release shall be reestablished.”

[27] There is also another set of laws pertaining to the “Year of Jubilee” release found in Leviticus 25, but since these apparently do not apply to the Israelite debt-slavery being discussed in this paper, it must be left to be treated separately some other time.

[28] Phillips, Laws, 51–52. Also Chirichigno, Debt-Slavery, 189. “Therefore, . . . debt-slave laws may have been placed at the head of the Covenant Code in order to make a theological statement.”

[29] Chirichigno, Debt-Slavery, 53.

[30] Chirichigno, Debt-Slavery, 242.

[31] Chirichigno, Debt-Slavery, 238–39, 346–47.

[32] Isaac Mendelsohn, Slavery in the Ancient Near East (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1949), 49. “It is difficult to see what the purpose of this piercing was. ... It may, therefore, be suggested that the hole was made in order to push through it a ring, or cord, on which was fastened a tag made of clay or metal. This does not exclude the possibility of the existence also of a tattooing mark. Cain’s mark (Genesis 4:15), the writing of Yahweh’s name on the hand (Isaiah 44:5; 49:16), and the tau mark on the forehead (Ezra 9:4) clearly show that the tattoo marks were used to signify possession. We may therefore conclude that, as in Babylonia, Palestinian slaves were marked with property signs either in the form of a suspended tag attached to the ear, or with a tattoo mark bearing the owner’s name on the wrist.” See also Anthony Phillips, “Some Aspects of Family Law in Pre-Exilic Israel” Vetus Testamentum 23 (1973): 357. “The pierced ear would, of course, have indicated to the general public the slave’s official position.”

[33] A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, 139. See also Brown, Driver, and Briggs, Hebrew and English Lexicon, 108–10.

[34] Chirichigno, Debt-Slavery, 234.

[35] Hugh W. Nibley, “On the Sacred and the Symbolic,” in Temples of the Ancient World, ed. Donald W. Parry (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1994), 555–56.

[36] Russell M. Nelson, “Personal Preparation for Temple Blessings,” Ensign, May 2001, 35, n. 34.

[37] Wright, “What Happened,” 193.

[38] Chirichigno, Debt-Slavery, 286. “These omissions, like the deuteronomic additions, reflect the theological intentions of the deuteronomist.”

[39] Chirichigno, Debt-Slavery, 300–301.

[40] While the length limitations on this paper will not allow for a discussion of the many examples where the image is employed in the Old Testament, the interested reader is invited to examine James Strong, The New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1996), 1192–99 for a listing of every biblical use of the word “servant” in both literal and figurative terms.

[41] Thayer, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 157–58. See also Liddell and Scott, Greek-English Lexicon, 210.

[42] Thayer, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 365. See also Liddell and Scott, Greek-English Lexicon, 458.

[43] Liddell and Scott, Greek-English Lexicon, 486.

[44] Liddell and Scott, Greek-English Lexicon, 790.

[45] Dandameyev, “Slavery,” 67. During the reign of Claudius the slave count in the empire was estimated at 20 million, with 400,000 in the city of Rome alone. See also Wayne G. Rollins, “Greco-Roman Slave Terminology and Pauline Metaphors for Salvation,” in Society of Biblical Literature 1987 Seminar Papers, ed. Kent Harold Richards (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1987), 102.

[46] Dandameyev, “Slavery,” 67. The exposure of infants refers to the depositing of unwanted babies in a nearby trash heap to be either picked up by slave traders, die naturally, or be devoured by wild animals.

[47] Rollins, “Greco-Roman Slave,” 102–3. One such inscription offers a list of slave names and their respective responsibilities: “Venustus, buying agent; Decimianius, treasurer; Dicaeus, attendant; Communis, chamberlain; Firmus, cook; etc.”

[48] Francis Lyall, Slaves, Citizens, Sons: Legal Metaphors in the Epistles (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Academie Books, 1984), 27. “In New Testament times slavery was widespread. Indeed, the social structure and whole economy of the Roman Empire were dependent upon the pool of slave labor, skilled and unskilled. Work done by slaves ranged the gamut of occupations from factory work and mining to medicine, from farming and business management, from cooking and teaching. Some slaves even acted as secretaries to the administrators of the empire, rising to important positions of high responsibility before being freed to become useful additions to the higher echelons of the citizenry.”

[49] Dandameyev, “Slavery,” 69.

[50] Rollins, “Greco-Roman Slave,” 102. Cicero wrote in the fifth century B.C. attacking the policies of Marcus Antonius before the Senate, “After six years, members of the Senate, we can now hope for our freedom. We have suffered slavery for a longer period than careful and hardworking captives taken in war normally have to. Should we refuse to be wakeful, to be anxious, to make every effort, in order to give the Roman people back its freedom?”

[51] Gerhard Kittel, ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1964), 2:268–69.

[52] Liddell and Scott, Greek-English Lexicon, 249. See also Thayer, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 204.

[53] Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 261–62.

[54] Didache 4:11, in The Apostolic Fathers, trans. J. B. Lightfoot and J. R. Hammer (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1989), 152; emphasis added.

[55] Lyall, Slaves, Citizens, Sons, 36.

[56] Dandameyev, “Slavery,” 66.

[57] Lyall, Slaves, Citizens, Sons, 164–47. After discussing the Old Testament background to the use of redemption, here Lyall points out the concept of “buying back” inherent in the literal meaning of the Latin redemptio, from which we derive our English word redemption.

[58] Lyall, Slaves, Citizens, Sons, 39.

[59] Dandameyev, “Slavery,” 70.

[60] Dandameyev, “Slavery,” 66.

[61] Rollins, “Greco-Roman Slave,” 108.

[62] Lyall, Slaves, Citizens, Sons, 83.

[63] Lyall, Slaves, Citizens, Sons, 69–70.

[64] The image is also employed in other early Christian writings such as the important Shepherd of Hermas. Here the author uses the manumission as a parable. A master left for a time and placed the responsibility from his land in the hand of his slave. Upon return, the master found the estate in a greater condition than when he left it, and “he rejoiced greatly at what his slave had done.” The master then calls his son and all his household and declares, “I promised this slave his freedom if he obeyed the command which I gave him. He has obeyed my command ... therefore, in return for his work which he has done, I wish to make him joint-heir with my son.” Thereupon all present rejoiced and “heartily approved of the slave being made a joint-heir with his son.” The Shepherd of Hermas, Parable 5:2, in The Apostolic Fathers, 241–42.

[65] Rollins, “Greco-Roman Slave,” 108. Rollins begins this argument by citing Philo’s “referring to the custom of the Alexandrian Jewish community to refer to the ‘first-fruits’ (aparche) presented to the temple as ‘ransom money’ (lytra). Philo explains: ‘For the donors bring the first-fruit expecting that the payment will give them release from slavery, or healing of diseases or the enjoyment of liberty fully secured.’ [Spec. I, 77.]” Here Rollins also cites Kaesemann’s conclusion that “the aparche is to be construed as synonymous with arrabon (2 Corinthians 1:22, 5:5) the ‘down payment’ of the Spirit.”

[66] Rollins, “Greco-Roman Slave,” 109. “The language of ‘hope’ can hardly be regarded as intrinsically servile. At the same time it is indigenous to servile existence. ...As noted earlier, ‘hope’ is cited in this passage as the quintessential ingredient of salvation, borrowing on the fact that it is also a quintessential factor in the life of a slave awaiting manumission.” Philo also uses the language of “hope” in the context of relaxed servitude on the Sabbath: “The servants are not to refuse higher hopes (ameinoous elpidas), but should find in the relaxation allowed after six days an ember or spark of freedom (zopyron eleutherias) and looks forward to their complete liberation if they continue to serve well and loyally [Spec. II, 67].”