Addendum on Slavery in the Roman Empire
Both Jesus and the Apostle Paul were not that concerned with the sins involving the institution of slavery. The Apostle Paul wrote in his epistles how masters and slaves need to show respect and love for each other in ways that bring glory to God (Eph. 6:5-10; Col. 3:22-4:1). Paul also wrote a letter to a leader named Philemon to the Church in Colossae about a runaway slave named Onesimus concerning forgiveness and not following through with retribution according to Roman law which would mean death to Onesimus (since desertion by a slave was a capital offense in the Roman Empire), and also pleading for his freedom. He writes:
 Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required,  yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus— I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus,(1) whose father I became in my imprisonment.  (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.)  I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart.  I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel,  but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord.  For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever,  no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.  So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me.  If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. (Philemon 8:18)
Paul even goes further that whatever wrong doing that Onesimus fugitive status might have caused Philemon, Paul repay (Philemon 8:18). He wants to share his celebration with Philemon that his runaway slave has become a brother in Christ. Slavery, back in Roman times was a way of life and part of the economic machine that was the Roman Empire. According to the ESV Archaeological Study Bible:
Slavery was the bedrock institution of the Roman economy. Slave/master relations were fraught with potential tension and sometimes marked by fear on both sides. Paul stands this institution on its head: in the new kingdom, both slaves and masters will have a new master in Christ (6:5–9).
The Roman world was built on a foundation of slaves. With the exception of debt-bondage (see Matt. 18:25) and natural reproduction, people commonly entered Roman slavery as a result of capture in warfare, judicial punishment, piracy, or the international slave trade. There was no racial element in Roman slavery. In the first century, perhaps as much as 20 percent of the population of the empire was enslaved. Roman law made a slave the absolute property of the master, and thus slaves had no legal rights, including privacy or the right to their own bodies. However, the law did place some constraints on the master’s behavior. If a slave was sold, his family typically went with him, even though slave marriages were not officially recognized. Third-century church membership guidelines from Rome show that masters who used slaves as concubines were not permitted to join the church, but the concubine (who had no choice in her role) could. (from http://esv.org – ESV Archeological Study Bible – Article on Slavery in the Roman Empire)
Martin Luther writes these observations about Philemon:
This epistle gives us a masterful and tender illustration of Christian love. For here we see how St. Paul takes the part of poor Onesimus and, to the best of his ability advocates his cause with his master. He acts exactly as if he were himself Onesimus who had done wrong. Yet he does this not with force or compulsion, as lay within his rights; but he empties himself of his rights in order to compel Philemon also to waive his rights. (Lutheran Study Bible Page 2094)
It wasn’t until recently in the past 250 years, that people became convicted that slavery was an institutional sin. William Wilberforce was one of the first advocates of ending the African Slave Trade in the United Kingdom. Many people began and were convicted that slavery wasn’t a way of life and another part of the economic machine in the world, but actual sin that needed to be set an order (justice). Therefore the passages in the Bible that were used to justify the institution of slavery were re-interpreted as sinful in light of Christ’s character and concern for those that were slaves who were suffering unjustly by the economic institution of slavery in the American South, and by harsh slave masters.
Also, it has only come to light recently in the past twenty years that women and children in the institution of prostitution are held against their will and slaves themselves. Instead of prosecution against prostitution, laws are changing which provide treatment and help for women and children who are rescued from their traffickers by law enforcement.
This would have been more relevant to the Centurion’s servant who was probably a courtier or courier in his household. In the same chapter, Luke mentions that there were malakos (Luke 7:25 – literally men in soft clothing) in Herod’s household who wore clothing that was not as masculine as was culturally accepted in Palestine.
Part of Greco-Roman society is where older men became guardians to younger men, and part of showing them the ropes includes what we would today call sexual abuse. In Matthew’s telling of the tale he uses the Greek word pais for servant instead of the word doulos which was used by Luke in his telling of the tale. Here is more from the ESV Archaeological Study Bible:
Koine Greek had several words for “servant” or “slave.” Each originally may have indicated a different aspect or status of the person in question, but in Greek literature from the time of the NT most seem to be used interchangeably. Matthew calls the centurion’s servant a pais (“boy”), while Luke calls him a doulos, the most common word for slave (Luke 7:2). Likely he was a boy or young man in personal servitude to the centurion, as a courtier would be to a royal official. This was often a highly dependent relationship for both parties, and it was in the best interests of everyone that the boy be healed. From <https://www.esv.org/Matthew+8/>
For some of you that are reading this blog may have a strong sense of justice and feel strongly when rights of people are violated. For those of you that feel this way, you may believe the best option would have been death for the slave boy. I know that many who read this blog were horrified because of the injustice they felt Jesus wasn’t fighting for the rights of the boy that was sick and near death. Jesus showed divine love to the boy and his master by demonstrating God’s Kingdom by healing the young man whether or not he was a victim of pedophilia.
Yet, this slave boy was very special to the Centurion and the relationship between the slave boy and his master was more than mere economics because the Centurion was grieving of his sickness and had hope that Jesus would bring his authority over sickness and death into this young man’s life.
Again it is only speculation if the Centurion was practicing pedophilia on the young boy based upon the text in the original language, and recent scholarship about how slavery was practiced in the Roman Empire. To the Gospel writers it wasn’t much of an issue then, as was the fact that Jesus brought the Kingdom of God to that family.