Friday, January 4, 2013

Paying to be a Slave: Voluntary Slavery in Egypt and Early Christian Texts

2,200-year-old contract comprised of fragments from Papyrus
Carlsberg and British Museum (University of Copenhagen)

I ran across an interesting article on about the practice of voluntary slavery in ancient Egypt. Over 100 slave contracts reveal that some people enslaved themselves to a local temple and paid for the privilege. Here is some of what the article has to say.

Dr Ryholt, who reports the discovery in his article in the forthcoming publication Lotus and Laurel – Studies on Egyptian Language and Religion, said: “90 per cent of the people who entered into these slave contracts were unable to name their fathers, although this was normally required. They were presumably children of prostitutes. This is a clear indication that they belonged to the lower classes which the king could subject to forced labor, for example digging canals, if he so desired. However, we know from other contemporary records that temple slaves were exempt from forced labor.”

“Many therefore chose to live as temple slaves because it was the only way of avoiding the harsh and possibly even deadly alternative; the temple was simply the lesser of two evils for these people. And for the temples, this was a lucrative practice that gave them extra resources and money.”

According to Kim Ryholt, the practice of avoiding forced labor by entering into slave contracts with temples was limited to a 60-year-period – from roughly 190 BC to 130 BC. There is no indication that the practice existed in any other period in ancient Egypt; probably because the royal family could not, in the long run, afford to yield that many resources to the temples.

I found the article interesting for two reasons: 1) because it documents the practice of self-slave among slaves and 2) because it points out that the evidence for this practice is found in a narrow 60 year period. This means that while some slaves in Egypt did sell themselves, it was not a “common practice” as some suppose. This is particualry the case in New Testament studies.

I noted in my Recent Research on Paul and Slavery that most NT scholars are familiar with the thesis that individuals would sell themselves into slavery as a way to relieve themselves of debt, improve their quality of life or even as a means of social improvement. This has also been sometimes suggested as the background for Paul’s discussion of slavery to sin and God in Rom. 6:16–22 and his understanding of slavery to Christ. However, how frequently this form of enslavement was practiced is not clear. 

References to self-sale in the Roman jurists indicate that individuals who sold themselves into slavery had not only given up their inalienable right to freedom, but also brought shame upon themselves and their family (Digest; 40.12.1). Apart from two references in the Jurists, references to self-sale are few and obscure. Keith Bradley gives little attention to the practice in his work and comments: “It is generally agreed that self-sale as a mode of enslavement was of negligible importance in the central period of Roman history.”(‘Roman Slavery and Roman Law’, Reflexions historiques 15 (1988), p. 482).

The only clear allusion to the practice in Christian literature is found in 1 Clement 55.2. The reference is enigmatic, however, and seems to be referring more to those who were willing to suffer for others rather than suggesting that the author was familiar with the practice of self-sale. 

Another allusion is found in Petronius’s Satyricon where the freedman Trimalchio claims to have sold himself into slavery in order to improve his social standing. However satire was intended to distort common social values for the purpose of comedy while reinforcing those values at the same time. (Glancy, Slavery in Early Christianity, p. 82) This limited evidence for the practice of self-sale should serve as a caution to NT scholars. Horsley considers this “a good illustration of the limitation of uncritical use of Roman law as a historical source.”(Horsley, ‘The Slave Systems of Classical Antiquity’, p. 36).

The discovery of the Egyptian slave contracts certainly demonstrate that some did sell themselves into slavery to gain a better life. But the contracts also tell us that this practice was limited to a specific period of time in a particular geographic area. They do not suggest that self sale was a widespread or even desirable practice. One thing we need to keep in mind when studying this topic is that slavery, in whatever form or time period, was/is not a positive experience for the enslaved.


  1. Thanks John, that was interesting. How would you compare this to the bondslave mentioned in the OT? Can this comparison be made?

  2. Bill,

    In the case of the bond servant, the individual was limited to seven years because he/she was a fellow Israelite. All other people groups could be enslaved without a time restriction. Also, there is no internal evidence that the Israelites practiced temple slavery, as was happening in Egypt.

    The case in the OT does demonstrate that at times people did sell themselves into slavery, but at times we have made too much of this acting as if slavery was nothing more than an apprentice system. In the end it depended on who your master was and how he or she would treat you. We think of slavery in monolithic terms, but there were many variables.

  3. John,

    It was a preferable route though at times, to me that's what we can take from this example. Especially in ancient days.

    I am no Roman scholar, I had heard many were avid to become Caesar's slaves though for this exact same logic. Plus, being a servant of a "god" had to have some social value as well as economic value.

  4. Patrick,

    Yes, in some cases it was preferable to be a slave than to be free and poor. But it also depended on your position. Living as a household slave probably meant a better, longer life than working in the fields, mines or other dangerous occupations. But again, it depended on who you master was and how you were treated.

    As far as being the slave of Caesar, or any other high ranking Roman official, one's position was only as secure as your master. If, for instance, your master fell out of favor there was a good chance the same happened to you. And in the end, you were still a slave. Better off than many, but still a slave. And less than 1% of the slave population was "fortunate enough" to hold such positions.

    As far as the "slave of god" having economic value, I am unaware of any studies that suggest this. Do you have an example in mind?

  5. No, I have no info. I was making a supposition only. I appreciate your reply here, this is an interesting topic in it's own way.

    Specifically relating to Paul's use of the term doulos of Christ, my preacher made a comment the other day that might shed some light on this one.

    Christ, in his opinion, is shown to have changed a bond slave from lack of personal freedom to maximum freedom in association with Him.

    He turned the existing world upside down so to speak. One more example of the great reversal.

    That's as good an explanation as any I've heard for Paul's use of the term in this relationship.