Jewish Slavery in Antiquity

Jewish Slavery in Antiquity

Jewish Slavery in Antiquity

Jewish Slavery in Antiquity


This book is the first comprehensive analysis of Jewish attitudes towards slavery in Hellenistic and Roman times. Against the traditional opinion that after the Babylonian Exile Jews refrained from employing slaves, Catherine Hezser shows that slavery remained a significant phenomenon ofancient Jewish everyday life and generated a discourse which resembled Graeco-Roman and early Christian views while at the same time preserving specifically Jewish nuances. Hezser examines the impact of domestic slavery on the ancient Jewish household and on family relationships. She discusses theperceived advantages of slaves over other types of labor and evaluates their role within the ancient Jewish economy. The ancient Jewish experience of slavery seems to have been so pervasive that slave images also entered theological discourse. Like their Graeco-Roman and Christian counterparts,ancient Jewish intellectuals did not advocate the abolition of slavery, but they used the biblical tradition and their own judgements to ameliorate the status quo.


While many books and articles have been written on slavery in GraecoRoman society and on ancient Christian attitudes toward slaves, a detailed examination of slavery in ancient Judaism is still a desideratum. This study examines ancient Jewish discourse on slavery in the context of Graeco-Roman literary, legal, and documentary writings and on the basis of the social, economic, and political circumstances under which Jews lived. It shows that for ancient Jews just as for Greeks and Romans slavery was an everyday experience whose existence was taken for granted, whose practicalities were discussed by legal scholars, and which was repeatedly alluded to in literary, philosophical, and historiographic works. in late antiquity, when the employment of slaves in agriculture was supplemented by other types of labour, domestic slavery prevailed. the image, function, and treatment of slaves within the ancient Jewish household will therefore be analysed alongside slavery’s role within the ancient Jewish economy. Slavery also had a large symbolic significance in antiquity. the particular ways in which Jews used slave metaphors are very revealing with regard to the religious, social, and political concerns of ancient Jewish society.

Contemporary relevance

The question about Jewish involvement in the Atlantic slave trade has stirred up a popular debate which led to an upsurge of scholarly writing on the issue. Partly in response to the Nation of Islam’s claim that

See David Brian Davis, In the Image of God: Religion, Moral Values, and Our Heritage
of Slavery
, New Haven and London 2001, 63–72.

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