Rabbinic Literature

“Rabbinic and Roman texts create the impression of a clear dichotomy between slaves and free people…”

Rabbinic and Roman texts create the impression of a clear dichotomy between slaves and free people. Just as free male Roman citizens were eager to distinguish themselves from slaves (servi), rabbis emphasized their distinction from those who had human masters (‘avadim). The literary contrast between slave and free status served rabbis’ and Romans’ claims of superiority over servile others. In reality, however, the boundaries between slaves and free persons were blurred, and traces of this ambiguity can be found in ancient Jewish and Greco-Roman literary sources. Slaves could be very educated, manage significant amounts of property, have authority and influence, and eventually become free and honored members of synagogue communities. Freeborn persons would be dependent on male householders if they were women and minors. Disciples had to perform servile tasks for their masters. Poor people had to reckon with debt slavery if they could not repay their loans. A person could be half slave and half free, if he belonged to two masters and one of them released him, or if he was manumitted partially only. Furthermore, Jews were considered a servile people by their Roman conquerors. Pious Jews saw God as their master and were obedient in fulfilling his will. Freeborn people lived under constraints that could resemble slavery. Therefore slavery and freedom should be seen as ambiguous categories that overlapped and were only relative. This observation is not meant to downplay the evil of slavery but to question the usefulness of clear-cut dichotomies.

Catherine Hezser, “Blurred Boundaries between Slaves and Free Persons in Ancient Judaism”, AJS Perspectives (Fall 2016), 44.