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Throughout most of their histories, Jews and Christians have tolerated slavery in a way that reflects their surrounding societies. Jewish and Christian paths sometimes intersect. The following themes will be discussed in this entry: the Jewish and Christian Bibles, canon law and its early sources, Jewish law, Byzantine slavery, slaveholding by religious leaders and institutions, redemption from slavery, the sexual use of enslaved persons, marriage, religious identity, the religions of the enslaved, reputed causes of enslavement, debates over the Bible’s, rejections of slaveholding, flights from slavery, and contemporary stances on slavery.
Enslavement Documented and Sanctioned in Jewish and Christian Bibles and Beyond
Noah curses his son Ham’s son Canaan, condemning him to slavery, because Ham saw Noah naked (Gen 9:20–27). Abraham fathers a child with the enslaved Hagar (Gen 12:14; 16:1–4; 17:13, 23, 27; 21:9–10; etc.). Rachel and Leah give the enslaved Bilhah and Zilpah to Jacob, who give birth to four of his twelve sons (Gen 29:24, 29; 46:16–18, 23–25). The Torah limits the rights of those holding fellow Hebrews in slavery (Ex 21:2–11, 20–21; Deut 15:12–15; etc.) and states that one must not treat a fellow Israelite as enslaved (Lev 25:39–43), but it does not limit those who enslave non-Israelites (Lev 25:44–46). Deuteronomy 23:16 enjoins Israelites to give refuge to persons fleeing slavery. Jeremiah rails against those who re-enslave their fellow Hebrews (Jer 34:8–22), after having first set them free (Deut 15:12), which may be closer to historical practices than the laws.
Israelites are to remember that they were enslaved in Egypt and that God brought them out of slavery (Ex 13:13). Memory of having been enslaved should cause them to provide newly freed Hebrew women and men with some of the wealth that they had created (Deut 15:15) and to follow God’s commandments, especially that on celebrating the Passover (e.g., Deut 5:15, 16:1–8).
In the New Testament, Paul encourages enslaved persons with an opportunity to become free to take it (1 Cor 7:20–21) and states that “there is no longer slave or free […] for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28), but he also apparently returns an enslaved fugitive to his owner encouraging the owner to see in him a brother rather than a person enslaved to him (Philem). The Epistles to the Colossians (Col 3:22–4:1) and the Ephesians (Eph 6:5–9) command enslaved persons to obey their masters and mistresses in all things and masters and mistresses to treat their enslaved laborers “justly and fairly” or to “do the same to them,” while not specifying what that means. 1 Peter assumes the existence of just beatings, urging enslaved persons to endure even unjust ones (1 Pet 2:18–20). At the same time, the Christ movement welcomes enslaved persons as members.
Enslaved persons serve wealthier priests in the Second Jewish Temple (Josephus, Ant. 20.181), and later such Sages as Rabban Gamli’el (mBer 2:7, etc.) and Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi’ (jBer 3:4, 6c; bRH 26b; etc.) are slaveholders.
Refuge for the Enslaved and Ancient Rejections of Slavery
The Bible prohibits Israelites from returning escaped enslaved persons to their masters or mistresses (Deut 23:15–16). Similarly, Roman law accords refuge to enslaved persons fleeing their owners to a statue of the emperor, a practice that continues under Christian Roman emperors (Theodosian Code 9.44.1 [386 CE]). In early Christianity, enslaved persons sometimes successfully flee to monasteries or churches. The ascetic group of the Eustathians apparently encourage such persons to flee and perhaps offer them refuge, for which the Synod of Gangra (ca. 343 CE) condemns them (canon 3; later incorporated into Catholic canon law: Decretum Gratiani 2, Case 17, Question 4, Canons 37–38). In the US, many Christians offer refuge to self-emancipated persons on the Underground Railroad.
Some Jews and Christians have criticized slavery or rejected it for their own groups. According to Josephus (1st cent. CE), the Essenes do not hold persons in slavery, because they see it as unjust (Ant. 18:21), and according to Philo of Alexandria (1st cent. BCE–1st cent. CE), the Therapeutai and Therapeutrides, a contemplative group of Jewish ascetics refuse to have enslaved persons serve them, which would be contrary to nature (Contempl. 70–72). Within Christianity, Karpokrates (2nd cent.) does not distinguish between enslaved and free, and Epiphanes (2nd cent.) promotes the equality of all human beings (Clement of Alexandria, Strōmateis 3.2.5–11). Gregory of Nyssa (4th cent.) vehemently criticizes purchasing humans and acting as if one could own them. He argues that God gave humans dominion over animals, but not over humans, whose nature is free and who possess free will, and that to act as if one could own humans is to treat them like animals (Fourth Homily on Ecclesiastes [on 2:7]). North African Christian groups organize to force creditors to write off debt, which can lead to enslavement (see, e.g., Optatus of Milevis [4th cent.], Against the Donatists 3.4).
Slavery in Legal Codes
Ancient councils place only light penalties on Christians who kill their enslaved laborers, even when in a gruesome fashion (Elvira ([early 3rd cent.], canon 5); Epaone ), canon 34). In 343, the Synod of Gangra prescribes excommunication for Christians who teach enslaved persons to flee their owners (canon 3). Medieval canon lawyer Gratian (12th cent.) incorporates such canons as that from Gangra into the Decretum Gratiani (2, causa 17, question 4, canon 37), which makes them part of Roman Catholic canon law from the 12th cent. through 1917. Some also become part of Greek Orthodox canon law and that of other churches.
On the other hand, in recognition of the full humanity of the enslaved, Basil of Caesarea states that enslaved persons may marry one of whom the master or mistress approves, but not one whom they wish (Letters 199 [375 CE], canons 18, 40). In his collection of canon law, Gratian (12th cent.) also affirms that unfree persons may marry (citing Gal 3:28; 1 Cor 7:39; Decretum 2, causa 29, question 2, remark before canon 1, and canon 1), without stating that their master(s) must approve. In this period, unfree persons could be either fully enslaved, which enabled their owners to buy, trade, and sell them, or they could be serfs, which meant that they were bound to the land, could be sold with it, and had duties toward their lords. Gratian’s affirmation of the right to marry likely applies to both the enslaved and to serfs. Excluding unfree Christians (serfs or the enslaved) from matrimony, which was developing into a sacrament, would have meant barring them from a church ritual. Peter Cantor (12th cent.) allows an unfree woman to flee to be with her free husband, even though her lord or master forbids her to do so, because matrimony is a divine institution, whereas bondage is merely a human one. Gratian nevertheless employs the Roman legal classification of an unfree person as both person and thing (Decretum 1, distinction 50, canon 43).
Byzantine imperial authorities between the 9th and 11th cent. begin to view enslaved persons more as individuals and less as property. The emperor’s increasing power means less power for the individual slaveholder. Simultaneously, enslaved persons’ duties to God come to loom larger. Byzantine authorities view free Christian subjects as free within the empire and free even when captured outside of it and as deserving of ransom.
During the same period, Jews also codify their laws on slavery. Thus, Maimonides/Rambam (1138–1204) codifies Jewish law on slavery in his Mishneh Torah, Acquisitions: Slaves, in which he limits the amount of time that a Hebrew would spend enslaved; delineates marriage law for enslaved persons; prohibits Jewish women from owning enslaved men; enjoins slaveholders to treat their enslaved laborers, whether Hebrew or Canaanite, i.e., non-Jew, with mildness and dignity, although Jewish law prohibits slave-holders from requiring excruciating labor from enslaved Hebrews, but not from enslaved Canaanites; and observes that freeing an enslaved Canaanite is forbidden (Lev 25:46).
Codifications such as these document full Jewish and Christian acceptance of slavery. Even church leaders, churches, and monastic communities from the early church through to New World slavery have sometimes held persons in bondage to serve them (e.g., Gregory of Nazianzen [4th cent.], Testament [PG 37.392B]; Eustathios of Thessalonike [12th cent.], Letter 27, ed. Kolovou; Jesuits [18th–19th cent.]). Occasionally, however, monks oppose monastic slaveholding (e.g., Theodore Studites [9th cent.], Testamentum [PG 99.1816D, 1817]).
Such popes as Gregory the Great (6th–7th cent.) are themselves slaveholders. Some Catholic popes criticize or condemn the slave-trade or slavery (e.g., Pius II , Urban VIII , Benedict XIV , Gregory XVI , and Leo XIII ). US bishops at the time of Gregory XVI’s 1839 encyclical construe it narrowly to prohibit just the slave-trade that did not touch “domestic slavery.”
Both Jews (e.g., bBB 8a–b) and Christians have sought to redeem members of their respective communities held in bondage by outsiders. For example, Emperor Justinian recognizes the ransoming of captive Christians (Novellae 120, 131), and the Trinitarians or Order of the Most Holy Trinity (founded in late 12th-cent. Cerfoid, northern France) and the Mercedarians or Order of Mercy (founded in early 13th-cent. Barcelona) ransom Christians captured by Muslims, whereby the Trinitarians also ransom Muslim captives to exchange them for Christian ones.
Masters’ sexual dominion over enslaved persons, especially women, has occurred in most forms of slavery. Abraham and Jacob fathered freeborn sons with enslaved women Hagar, Bilhah, and Zilpah: Ishmael, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher. The words “the more slave-women, the more lasciviousness” are attributed to Rabbinic sage Hillel (mAv 2:7). Two central features of marriage between free persons, betrothal and divorce, do not apply to the enslaved (bQidd 41b). Thus, the enslaved Jewish wife of an enslaved Jewish husband is not reserved for him alone and a divorce is not necessary when they separate. Enslaved marriage is not a change in status and is permeable, rather than bounded. Early Rabbinic sources, in line with Roman law (Gaius, Institutions 1.81), disallow a free man from marrying an enslaved woman with whom he is suspected of having had sex, including after he has freed her, but they state that they do not separate them (mYev 2:8). Resulting children would be enslaved (mQid 3:12), which aligns with Roman law, rather than with Genesis on Ishmael, etc. Early rabbis can blame and to prescribe punishments for enslaved women who have sexual contact with free men. One text prescribes flogging for an enslaved woman designated for another man, but only a guilt offering for the man (Sifra Qed 5:1–7, on Lev 10:20). According to Maimonides, a master may force an enslaved non-Jewish woman upon a Jewish man condemned by a court to slavery so that she will bear enslaved children (MishT, Acquisitions: Slaves 3:3).
The early church recognizes that masters may rape their enslaved women (Basil of Caesarea, Letters 199 [375 CE], canon 49), but no ancient canons or church orders place any penalty on a master for having done so. Centuries later, African American writer and abolitionist David Ruggles, in the face of numerous light-skinned enslaved children, charges slaveholders with sexually exploiting enslaved women and challenges White Christian women no longer to tolerate adultery (The Abrogation of the Seventh Commandment by the American Churches, 1835).
Slavery has affected marriage law and conceptualizations of marriage in both Judaism and Christianity. The Mishnah parallels the acquisition of a free wife with the acquisition of enslaved persons, although the laws also differ from one another (mQid 1:1–3). The New Testament parallels the subjection/obedience of wives, children and enslaved persons (e.g., Col 3:22–4:1), and the early rabbis exempt women, minors, and enslaved persons from certain commandments.
Enslaving the Outsider/“Other”
Modern categories of race are absent from the ancient Mediterranean, and from antiquity through the Middle Ages, religion and group membership determine who is to be enslaved and who is to be ransomed. Western concepts of religion as a phenomenon separate from ethnicity do not map onto Jewish history, and Christians could also conceptualize themselves as a people (Gr. genos; e.g., Epistle of Diognetos 1.1). Rabbinic Jews maintain the biblical distinction between enslaved Hebrews and enslaved non-Jews, i.e., “Canaanites,” although without strictly practicing that distinction. Early Christians, in contrast, do not grant any special privileges to enslaved Christian, instead stressing the New Testament exhortations to enslaved Christians to obey their owners, whether Christian or not. When Christians come to political power, they legally prohibit Jews from circumcising Christians enslaved to them or from holding Christians in slavery at all (Sirmondian Constitution 4 [335 CE]; Theodosian Code 16.9.1 [335 CE]; 16.9.2 [339 CE]; Justinian Code 1.10.1 [339 CE]). While partly concerned with conversion to Judaism, these laws, in the context of widespread slavery, put Jews at an economic disadvantage. Pope Gregory the Great (6th–7th cent.) justifies these laws theologically, instructing Christians to protect persons enslaved to Jews who flee to churches in order to convert to Christianity and to sell Christians enslaved to Jews to Christian buyers. Canon lawyer Gratian requires the manumission of an enslaved man before he can become clergy, unless the master be Jewish, in which case a judge or bishop should free the man, even against the master’s will (Decretum 1, distinction 54, remark after canon 12).
As noted, Jews should not hold fellow Jews in slavery but could hold persons of other ethnicities and religions in bondage. Islam also prohibits enslaving fellow believers. In the Middle Ages and beyond, Christians and Muslims seek to enslave each other and Jews, and Muslims allow Jews to enslave Christians and other non-Muslims. Beyond that, Christians and Muslims import other outsiders to serve them in bondage. For example, Christians in Spain bring in Slavs, and Muslims in the Arabian Peninsula import Africans. Christians, Jews, and Muslims all function as slave-traders, conforming to their respective religious strictures. The Vatican promotes the enslaving of non-Christians in the 15th cent., when it grants Portugal permission to reduce to slavery “Saracens [i.e., Muslims] and pagans […] and other enemies of Christ” in West Africa (Pope Nicholas V, Romanus Pontifex ; cf. Pope Alexander VI, Inter Caetera , concerning Spain). The Spanish Dominican Bartolomé de las Casas (1484 or 1485–1566) opposes the enslavement of Indigenous peoples in the “New World” and evangelizes them. He instead promotesthe enslavement of Africans, whom he assumes had been captured in just wars. He later argues, however, that African enslavement is equally unjust (History of the Indies). As the Slavic peoples become increasingly Christianized, Eastern Europe becomes less attractive to Christians as a source of enslaved labor, although the trade does not end. Within the Ottoman Empire from the 16th through the 19th cent., Jews also hold Christians in slavery, such as Slavic women who serve as concubines.
Originally a source of non-Christians suitable for enslavement (Pope Nicholas V, Romanus Pontifex ), West Africa eventually becomes a source of both non-Christians as well as Christians. With slavery being established in the colonies of the New World, some religious leaders seek to convert captive Africans to Christianity before they are forced into the Mid-Atlantic passage. In a departure from the medieval model but conforming to models of antiquity, that Christians should not hold fellow Christians in bondage, Jamestown, Virginia, passes a law in 1667 that baptism does not entitle a person to freedom (Act III). Slave-traders and slaveholders over the subsequent two centuries are largely White and Christian, although some persons of African origin and some Indigenous persons also hold others in bondage. Christians are the main enslavers of Indigenous persons and Africans in the Americas, but Jews, who are marginally involved in both the slave trade and in slaveholding, behave comparably to their non-Jewish neighbors. Jews generally benefit from new opportunities in the United States, whereas most Black people live as enslaved persons between 1619 and 1865, and some beyond that.
Enslaved Persons’ Religious Practices and Beliefs
Because slaveholders can publish their writings far more easily than enslaved persons, researchers know little about the practices and beliefs of enslaved Jews and Christians through history and of others enslaved to Jews and Christians. A member of the Junian clan may well have held Junia (Rom 16:7) in slavery and later freed her. Paul calls her a fellow Jew, Christ-believer, and apostle (Rom 16:7). Some enslaved early Christian women serve as religious functionaries (Pliny the Elder [ca. 61–ca.113], Letters 10, 96), and, according to The Martyrs of Lyon and Vienne (in Eusebios, Church History 5:1–4) and The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas, such enslaved early Christians as Blandina (died 177) and Felicitas (died 203) refuse to renounce Christianity and are martyred. According to tradition, at least one formerly enslaved man becomes the Bishop of Rome, known as Pope Callixtus (ca. 160–ca. 222).
In biblical tradition, male circumcision, while important, does not necessarily incorporate an enslaved man into the community. According to Genesis 17:12–13, 23, Abraham follows God’s command to circumcise all men in his household, including the enslaved. An enslaved, circumcised man may eat of the Passover sacrifice (Ex 12:44). Rabbinic authorities, however, debate whether slaveholders must circumcise their male, enslaved non-Jews (MekhY, Pisḥa on Ex 12:44). For some early rabbis, circumcising enslaved male gentiles and having them immerse in a mikveh prevents gentile impurity from entering the home. Unless he has immersed as part of a conversion ceremony, whatever an enslaved circumcised man sits or lies on is impure, and Jewish adults are prohibited from drinking wine produced by him (tAZ 3:11). Only enslaved gentile women who have immersed are allowed to eat the Passover sacrifice (tPes 7:14). Simultaneously, Roman authorities prohibit Jews from circumcising enslaved non-Jews (Digest 48.8.11 [rescript of Antoninus Pius (138–161)]; Paul (2nd–3rd cent.), Sententiae 5.22.3–4; Sirmondian Constitution 4 and Theodosian Code 16.9.1 [Constantine, 335 ce]; Theodosian Code 16.9.2 [Constantine II, 339, prescribes capital punishment]). Early Rabbinic authorities hold differing views on whether or not Jewish slaveholders may hold uncircumcised men in slavery, and the practice varies over time and from place to place. Rabbi Ishmael (1st–2nd cent.) states that Jews may keep uncircumcised men in slavery and may not make them work on the Sabbath, but Rabbi Akiva (1st–2nd cent.) states that Jews must circumcise their enslaved men (bYev 48b). These debates continue into the modern period (Schorsch 2004, 75–79, 378–379).
At the inception of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, enslaved persons show little interest in Christianity, and their masters and mistresses hesitate to try to convert them. In the US, during the Second Great Awakening (ca. 1795–1835), however, more enslaved persons become Christian. Most Christian masters and mistresses try to tightly control the practices and beliefs of their enslaved workers, sometimes hiring White preachers to urge the enslaved to obey their masters in all things (Col 3:22–25; Eph 6:5–8). Enslaved Christians hold secret worship services and develop their own theologies, as seen in the lyrics of Negro spirituals, sermons, and prayers, and in narratives of the formerly enslaved. Mary Prince (The History of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave: Reported by Herself, 1831) and Harriet Jacobs (Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself, 1861) describe their spiritual lives in the narratives.
The Exodus story of liberation from slavery in Egypt inspires Jews, White Christian settlers, and enslaved Africans. Jews commemorate that liberation at Passover; British colonists call their trans-Atlantic voyage an exodus from bondage and see North America as their promised land; enslaved Africans see that same land as Egypt and view the Exodus story as proof that God disapproves of slavery and will end it someday (e.g., Raboteau 2003, 86–93; John Winthrop, “A Modell of Christian Charity,” 1630, hints at these themes; Frederick Douglass, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: Written by Himself, 1892, 159–160). They identify with the Israelites as dear to God, chosen to be delivered from their bondage.
Debates Over Theology and the Bible
Christians like Augustine (4th–5th cent.) pose the question of the cause of slavery. Augustine writes that, by nature, humans are free, but that sin caused slavery (City of God 19.15). Aquinas (13th cent.) argues that enslavement was brought in to punish persons who had sinned, even though slavery is contrary to nature when innocence reigns (Summa Theologica III Suppl. Question 52, Article 1, Reply to Objection 2). As late as 1866, the Vatican states, “It is not contrary to the natural or divine law for a slave to be sold, bought, exchanged, or given” (Instruction of the Holy Office, 1866).
With increasing opposition to slavery in the 18th and 19th cent., US Protestants and Jews interpret their respective Bibles in some overlapping ways, and Roman Catholics look to natural and canon law for guidance. Protestants agree that the meaning of the Bible is plain for all to see and that it should influence law and policy, but Protestant disagreement over the biblical acceptability of slavery causes a theological crisis that has never been theologically resolved. Most Protestants and Catholics supported slavery. Puritan Samuel Sewall, however, argues against the curse of Ham justification (based on Gen 9:25) that Ham was not cursed, but rather his son Canaan; that Blacks descend not from Canaan, but from Ethiopia (Cush); and that the curse may be “long since out of date” (The Selling of Joseph, 1700). European American Charles Hodge argues that Abraham held persons in bondage, that Jesus and the apostles never condemned slavery, and that the Bible nowhere prohibits it nor commands Christians to emancipate anyone (Cotton is King, and Pro-Slavery Arguments, 1860). Protestant abolitionists argue that one can interpret the Bible in multiple ways. David Walker, of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, makes a forceful call for immediate abolition, criticizing those who oppress enslaved persons “with the Bible in their hands,” arguing that the ancient Egyptians treated enslaved Hebrews as human beings, in contrast to Christian enslavers in the US (Appeal in Four Articles;…to the Coloured Citizens of the World,…, 1829). White Unitarian Minister William Ellery Channing appeals to reason and to higher ethical principles that he finds embodied in Jesus, proposing that early Christians were not in a position to call for the abolition of slavery in the Roman Empire, but instead inculcated universal principles that would eventually lead to the its abolition (Slavery, 1835).
In 1861 in New York, Orthodox Rabbi Morris Raphall preaches that, although he personally opposes slavery, the Bible does not condemn it as a sin and even mentions it in the Ten Commandments. Raphall uses Genesis 9:25 as justification for enslaving the “fetish-serving benighted African” (sermon published as Bible View of Slavery, 1861). In response, Reform Rabbi David Einhorn of Baltimore, Maryland, questions how Jews, whose ancestors God liberated from Egypt, could support US slavery, comparing biblical passages on slavery with those on polygamy, which his congregants would never accept (sermon published as The Reverend Doctor M. J. Raphall’s Bible View of Slavery, 1861). Nearly all Jewish abolitionists were Reform Jewish immigrants. Neither Raphall nor Einhorn mentions the Talmud or Jewish law in their sermons. Moses Mielziner’s The Institution of Slavery Among the Ancient Hebrews, According to the Bible and the Talmud (German, 1859; English translation, 1894) influences a number of rabbis in the slavery debates. Mielziner argues that Moses tolerated slavery only because it was entrenched in the surrounding cultures, but that the values found in Jewish law points toward its eventual demise; that the enslavement of ancient Hebrews was actually only servitude, and that Israelites were to treat non-Israelites enslaved to them with dignity and not harshly; that the Mosaic law displays “tender solicitude” toward the Hebrew bondswoman; and that Israel provides a model to neighboring societies.
Christian religious beliefs motivate English Evangelical Protestants, among them Wilbur Wilberforce, and Quakers in the United Kingdom to work toward the 1807 An Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade (1807). Abolitionists eventually succeed in persuading Parliament to pass the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act, which compensates slaveholders, but not enslaved persons.
Today, both Jews and Christians consider slavery to be morally unacceptable. For example, the Union for Reform Judaism has called for a study of US reparations for slavery (2019), and the Rabbinical Assembly (Conservative) provides resources for Jews working on ending human trafficking today. The 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church forbids slavery (§§2414, 2455), the Southern Baptist Convention repudiates slavery (1995 Resolution), the Episcopal Church has paid some reparations and has resolved to “Support Legislation for Reparations for Slavery” (2006 resolution), and the Lutheran World Federation has called upon its member churches to confess Christian complicity in slavery (most recently, 2019). Some congregations are exploring their own community’s past relationship to slavery, such as worshipping in a building built by enslaved laborers.
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