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How did Onesimus become a slave in the household of Philemon? I have no doubt Paul might have inquired from Onesimus when the two encountered each other. If this presupposition is correct, then this information about Onesimus may had elicited certain emotional sympathy of Paul for him. Whereas we cannot conclusively know how Onesimus entered into slavery, a general description of the several ways to lose one’s freedom, to be forced into slavery, or to bow to its yoke voluntarily is apt.
One could became slave through war and piracy. Just as in the great ancient Near Eastern empires of Babylonia, Assyria, and Egypt, and in Israel, so in Greece and Rome prisoners of war were made slaves, unless otherwise they were instantly ransomed. Also, pirates or human hunters indiscriminately caught people to either extract ransom money from relatives or be sold on the market.
Secondly, there were open- slave markets in Greek cities of Athens and Corinth, in the Near East of Tyre and Ephesus (where Paul was imprisoned) and in the West, Rome.
In the time of Cicero, the price of an able-bodied adult equated the yearly income of a free artisan. Usually, the buyer was responsible for the payment of private debts the slave might have incurred under his former owner. Slaves were bought by states, cities, temples, shop owners, and other private citizens. Another way of becoming a slave was self-sale. Under the pressure of debts and extreme neds, a free man could self himself into slavery sometimes together with his family.
The main reasons for self-sale was poverty and debt. In addition, insolvent debtors could be condemned by a court to slave labour or to become slaves. Even though it was made illegal by the Roman emperors, debt enslavement continued throughout the empire.
Also, exposure of unwanted children were often brought up or sold by their finders as slaves, prostitutes, or wives. One could also become slave through house birth. After the end of the great Roman wars of expansion, an increasing proportion of slaves in Graeco-Roman world were born and raised in the households of slave owners. Some house-born slaves were begotten by the master and borne by female slaves. Others stemmed from voluntary or enforced copulation between male and female slaves. Slave breeding was seen to be more economical and desirable than slave buying unless a bought slave was a skilled artisan, a businessman, a teacher. At the time of Paul, majority of slaves had never tasted freedom because they were house born. It is this phenomenon of house-born slaves that made classical theorists like Aristotle to theorise that slavery had its foundations in nature. He writes, “from the hour of their birth, some (persons) are marked out for subjection, others for rule…Some persons are by nature free, and others are slaves, and … for these latter, slavery is both expedient and right”. In Greek, the same term, physei connotes both “by birth” and “by nature”
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