Slavery and God’s hierarchical kingdom

Despite numerous attempts to find in Jesus’ teachings an anti-slavery ethic, Jesus appears to have viewed the institution in ways typical for his time. By all accounts his apocalyptic message neither challenged slavery in the present evil age nor envisioned an egalitarian eschaton. Consider the following.

  • Jesus honored the Law of Moses as God’s word to Israel and taught others to obey it (cf. Matthew 23:23). As did all other legal codes of the time, Moses’ Law codified the enslavement of foreigners and natives.
  • Jesus rewarded a faithful slave master by healing his valued slave [without correction or rebuke] (Matthew 8:5-13, Luke 7:2-10).
  • In the special L material Jesus assumes some of his disciples are slave masters: “Jesus said to his disciples… ‘Who among you would say to your slave…?'” (Luke 17:7-10). The teaching affirms the widespread assumption that 1) slaves should attend to their master’s desires before their own, and 2) that slaves seeking reward should do more than what they are commanded.1
  • Early Christians owned slaves without compunction. Philemon, Mary the mother of John, and Cornelius are three such examples (Philemon 15-16, Acts 12:13, 10:7, cf. Colossians 4:1, Ephesians 6:9).2

The slave-owning God of the parables

The mind behind the parable tradition also assumes the moral rectitude of slavery. Jesus regularly represents God as a slave master,3 righteous Israelites as dutiful slaves, and disobedient Israelites as derelict slaves. As in the story of the noble slave-owning centurion mentioned above, there is no attempt in the parables to subvert or question the institution. Rather, as a just slave master, the God of the parables rewards good slaves and punishes bad slaves. He eviscerates those who take advantage of his absence and elevates those who obey without supervision. That these actions of the master are appropriate is taken for granted.

The moral lessons encoded in these parables thus depend on the shared belief that rebellious slaves—like rebellious sons and rebellious subjects—ought to be castigated for upsetting the hierarchical order put in place by God. Just as it was viewed as right for a mortal to obey (and be punished by) God, it was also viewed as right for a slave to obey (and be punished by) his master (cf. Colossians 3:22, Titus 2:9).

A non-egalitarian kingdom

This hierarchical view of the world exists even within Jesus’ teachings on the coming kingdom. In that imagined political order a great reversal would take place, not a great equalization (cf. Mark 10:31; 43-44). The first in the present age would find themselves last in the age to come. The last, moreover, would find themselves highly exalted above their rivals. Some, those who obeyed Jesus wholeheartedly, would become great in the kingdom of God. Others, those who were lukewarm in their commitment, would become least. Still others would be excluded altogether, shut out in the outer darkness (Matthew 5:19, cf. 11:11, 25:30).

According to Jesus then, God would soon subject the powerful and wicked to the rule of his persecuted and marginalized saints. Faithful Christians, regardless of their social status in this age, would inherit ownership of the world to come. By an act of divine eschatological reversal, slaves who obeyed Jesus (and their earthly masters) would enslave or destroy the powers that be and direct the nations with a rod of iron (cf. Isaiah 14:1-2, 60:12, Luke 19:19). This new political order, while still hierarchical, would operate according to the justice and mercy of Israel’s god (cf. Leviticus 25, Deuteronomy 15), not the whims of a pagan king.

1—Jesus said to his disciples… “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”

2—Wealthy households sometimes entrusted a young female slave (παιδίσκη) to open and shut the door (cf. Acts 12:13, John 18:17).

3—On a couple of occasions Jesus also pictures himself as a slave master in his relationship with his disciples. He has the moral authority to reward and punish his slaves at the eschaton, for instance (Luke 19:11-27, Matthew 24:45-51, cf. 1 Cor 7:22).

14 thoughts on “Slavery and God’s hierarchical kingdom

  1. This reading is pretty basic, it seems to me, and overlooks any deeper analysis and recent literature. For example, with a single sentence, you simplify the whole relationship between Jesus and the Mosaic law as “Jesus cited Moses!” But the idea that Jesus affirmed the Law is simply incorrect – he “fulfilled” it per Matt. 5:17. I have done a whole analysis on this topic on my own blog, and the conclusion is self-evident. Jesus’ teachings were meant to bring about a perfected version of the previously imperfect Torah, and Jesus often contradicts and rejects Mosaic laws. For example, Matthew 19:8: “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning”. Jesus goes on to teach that you can’t really divorce, like Moses said, just by giving a certificate of divorce. Changing this description, Jesus concludes that only on the basis of adultery is divorce permitted (Matt. 5:31-32). There are other cases. Whereas the Torah says you can swear an oath, Jesus says you can’t. So that simply will not work.

    If you want a more recent analysis on slavery as depicted in the parables, although one that may not conform to the conclusion you reach here, see Edmund Neufeld, “Vulnerable Bodies and Volunteer Slaves: Slave Parable Violence in the Rest of Matthew” JTI (2020).

    I’m not sure you correctly understood the whole reversal thing. Jesus is saying that, in the end, the people who put themselves first, the powerful, the wicked, will answer for their wickedness, whereas the merciful, meek, those who were oppressed and stomped on, will be vindicated and given justice. I’m not sure how this is anything but justice. God will vindicate the crushed and merciful, and destroy those who have been oppressing them all along with their vain and destructive power.

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    1. I wouldn’t build our understanding of Jesus’ relationship with the Law upon Matthew 5:17 as it is weighed down by later theological convictions. If we are to keep Matthew 5:17-20 as historical though, it ought to be read as an affirmation of Moses’ Law and Jesus’ intention to keep it, all of it—not as a renunciation of the Law. A perfect and imperfect Torah goes far beyond the scope of the text and far beyond the historical (Jewish) Jesus.

      A better historical grounding, I think, is to start where scholars like Meier and Fredriksen start—with Jesus as a conservative Galilean Torah-observant Jew of Antiquity. With this foundation, Jesus did not supplant the Law, he submitted to it—even when some of his interpretations were against convention. I view Matthew 23:1-3 as particularly important here as it is a saying the later church would not have invented (cf. Mark 1:44).

      All this to say that without evidence to the contrary, we should assume Jesus accepted the standard interpretation of Torah—e.g. that God codified slavery for Israel. Jesus explicitly approves of capital punishment for disobedient children, so why wouldn’t he have approved of the laws regarding slaves? Both strike moderns as a relic of a hierarchical worldview—but Jesus wasn’t an egalitarian/Marxist thinker, after all.

      As for God’s eschatological judgement, I don’t accept traditional theological interpretations. I think Jesus anticipated the arrival of a real kingdom over the earth and its nations. The particularly righteous would receive particular authority—as Jesus’ language suggests (cf. Matthew 19:28, Luke 19:16-26).


      1. I’m quite puzzled as to why you think that reading is “historical”, given the fact that it’s not even a reading that can be derived from the passage, not to mention is contradicted by Jesus himself a few verses later when he changes Mosaic laws concerning both divorce and oath-making.

        I don’t think Fredriksen’s methodology is the best methodology. In one paper, Dale Allison made an obvious point regarding the New Perspective school that Fredriksen belongs to and its opposing school. What Paul underwent was both a call and a conversion – they’re not mutually exclusive. When you assert a school of thought, you need to demonstrate it, mate.

        “All this to say that without evidence to the contrary, we should assume Jesus accepted the standard interpretation of Torah”

        Umm, but there IS evidence to the contrary. Namely, Matthew 5:17 where Jesus fulfills the law and a bunch of other passages in Matthew and the other Gospels. Mark says Jesus fulfilled the dietary law. Luke talks about a “new covenant”. This clearly couldn’t have come from nowhere.

        Jesus didn’t approve capital punishment for disobedient children. He does, though, refute the Pharisees on the interpretation of that Pharisaic law. You also made your point about slavery without consulting the paper I cited.


        1. I suspect we are coming at these questions with divergent assumptions and worldviews—so it’s nice that we can interact. Thanks for taking interest in my writing. I see you have a blog that I will be looking into too. (I recognize my views usually appear crazy, maybe they usually are.)

          Just for clarification, and getting back to the topic of slavery, is it your position that Jesus opposed God’s codification of slavery to Israel through Moses as immoral, imperfect, and/or untrue? If so, what do you do make of texts that speak of Moses’ Law as “perfect” (Psalm 19:7), “true” (Nehemiah 9:13), “holy,” “righteous,” and “good” (Romans 7:12, Timothy 1:8)? Further, why would Torah-observant Jews like Pharisees have been interested in discussing anything with this Law-breaking Jesus? Why would it seem that Jesus taught his disciples to obey all of the Law and all that the Pharisees teach?

          From my perspective the Jesus you are describing—a supercessionist Jesus who “changes” Moses’ Law through his “fulfilment” of it—is a later Christian invention meant to bolster the idea that Jesus created a new religion. Jesus as a historical person was a Torah-observant Jew with interpretive strategies akin to the Pharisees (though more influenced by imminent apocalypticism). The religious charges against Jesus, namely that he broke the Sabbath were ultimately untrue, at least from Jesus’ perspective. Jesus did not present himself openly as a sinner; nor did he teach Jews to abandon their Law.

          When Jesus did conflict with Moses, as with divorce and oath-taking, I believe he intensified the principles already in the Law in order to avoid lawbreaking. That is, he placed a boundary around the Law in order to protect the Law. So, though oaths are legal, better to not make oaths at all since it raises the potential for falsity. Though divorce is legal, better to not divorce (or marry) at all since God has joined the two together in a sacred bond. Such interpretations came from a posture of devotion to the Law and Moses, not from a posture of superiority over and disregard for them.

          (As an example, in the case of divorce Jesus does not simply override God’s Law as if he has the authority to do away with it; rather, he appeals to an earlier and more foundational principle in God’s revelation to Moses—Genesis 2:24. This amounts to interpretation of the Law through the Law.)

          I don’t agree that Jesus has done away with the dietary laws in Mark 7 as his argument against the Pharisees hinges on his accusation that they, not he, break the Law given to Moses (which he calls God’s word). As for capital punishment in the case of disobedient children see Matthew 15:4. Jesus says God told Israel to punish children in this way and suggests that the Pharisees are heinously avoiding God’s righteous wrath through the Corban oath.


          1. Once again, I think you’re assuming that Jesus had to be perfectly Torah observant and in line with the Torah. If you consider the fact that all the Gospels portray Jesus otherwise, in addition to the fact that Paul was also thoroughly against this whole law stuff after joining the Jesus movement, this seems to straight forwardly historically suggest that the founder of the movement, Jesus, held similar views. After all, why do they all agree on that? Also, notice how Luke calls it a “new covenant”. Often, in the OT, the covenant that comes after the previous one has different rules, right? And if Luke could think there’s a new covenant, there’s no reason why, strictly, Jesus couldn’t. Without a doubt, there is influence from the reference in Jeremiah to a “new covenant” on Luke’s own reference. So we know Jeremiah could be understood in this way and at this time. In addition, Paul says that he was the most zealous Jew and the most hardcore keeper of prior traditions beyond all his fellow Jews before he joined the Jesus movement (Gal. 1:13-14). But all of a sudden, upon joining it, he suddenly is against circumcision, dietary laws, and so forth. What happened? It would make a lot of sense to suggest that this was the attitude of the Jesus movement itself. If the whole movement was thinking this way, again, it makes sense that it goes back to Jesus. Furthermore, let’s look back at how we interpret Jesus’ changing of the Law.

            I’ve heard the interpretation you’re offering before – namely, that Jesus is really intensifying the law. But this does not work. Take a look here;

            Matthew 19:8: He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.”

            Here, Jesus flatly dismisses Mosaic law on the reasoning that it wasn’t this way “from the beginning”. His reasoning for changing Mosaic law on divorce hardly has anything to do with keeping it more tightly, or making sure that additional rules are added to keep it – he thinks the whole thing is irrelevant, not the way it’s really supposed to be, as it was in the beginning. This also suggests that Jesus did not think the Law was perfect, contra the Psalms and other texts you cite.

            In addition, let’s look carefully at the grammar of Matthew 5:17. Jesus says he has come to “fulfill” the law. The Greek word can either mean one of two things. It can either mean that Jesus brought the law to completion, or it can mean that Jesus rendered it perfect. There really is no other way to look at it. Matthew has to be saying one or the other. Now, because the OT refers to the law as eternal, I reject the first interpretation. It’s possible that I’m simply wrong on this point and that Jesus didn’t care that the Law said that about itself, but either way, both readings of the grammar cant be found consistent with your position. Either Jesus brought the law to completion, or he rendered it perfect, which implies it was imperfect beforehand. Couple that with Matthew 19:8 and the attitude of the whole Jesus movement, and you’ve got yourself a pretty significant indication that Jesus was not as Torah observant as you’re suggesting.

            Matt. 15:4 has been taken to mean by some scholars that Jesus was simply proving that the Pharisees were misrepresenting the OT. Nowhere does he actually say disobedient children should be killed, he just says that that’s what the Torah says and that the Pharisees misrepresent it. Evidently, in other places, like Matt. 19:8, Jesus didn’t care that Moses said this or that. Also, look at Matt. 24:20. Jesus says that you should pray your travel doesn’t fall on the Sabbath. But he doesn’t say that you can’t travel on the Sabbath. Strictly speaking, the OT would require death for that as well. But Jesus just says it’s unfavourable.

            Let’s go back to slavery. There’s a lot here. Let me focus in on one thing. Jesus teaches his disciples that in order to be a true leader in your community, you must become the “slave of all” (Mark 10:44). Jesus is, quite intentionally, subverting the economic order here, and subverting the role that the disciples – who should be superior given how close they are to the Son of God – should in fact be serving others. In John 13:1-20, Jesus performs a typical slaves task by washing the feet of one of his disciples. It’s hard to think that Jesus could be fine with the disciples or himself owning slaves in the context of a text like this. And this is exactly how some understood it. For example, in the 4th century, a certain abbot in Egypt named Shenoute rejected the presence of slavery on his monastery, calling it essentially blasphemous, on the basis that it is the superior who must in fact serve the inferior. The influence is not hard to track – these thoughts were influenced by what Jesus says here in Mark.

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  2. What a great misinterpretation of scripture and of Jesus. Jesus, who called His disciples His brethren (Mt. 28:10) and told His disciples that they were all brethren (Mt. 23:8), and advised us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves and love our enemies; could not have been establishing a hierarchical order in the Christian family. Jesus called the would-be greatest to be the servant (And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant…Mt 20:27).  Jesus taught lessons using existing examples and relationships that were familiar to His audience. He did not validate all relationships that were tools for teaching the lesson. Jesus did respect order, which He submitted to in His execution. He also respected process, which he submitted to in fulfilling the Law before progressing to grace. Paul also respected order and process in sending Philemon back to his master and then writing a letter in the expectation that the master would realize his Christian responsibility to honor Philemon as a Christian brother (Phm 1:16  Not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother …). From the example of Abraham establishing a new family in the earth with God as Father to the picture of the church as the family of God to the fellowship of heaven, we see a family relationship. Paul clearly taught that: “… the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster (Gal 3:24-25).” The training wheels used to teach us would no longer be needed once we matured. Slavery, which was sometimes punishment or penalty of sin, was not to be utilized in the kingdom family of God. As you mentioned, God will certainly perform the ranking in heaven for rewards and the dethroning of the wicked from power according to their deeds. Good job breaking out the scriptures but I believe the conclusion is flawed.


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