Bought With a Price

The expression “bought with a price” occurs twice in Paul’s first canonical letter to the Corinthians; viz. 1 Cor. 6. 20; 7. 23. It is generally agreed that the phrase has as its background the procedure for selling slaves.

Although the formula may well have been used to describe the purchase of slaves in general, it was certainly used in connection with one particular form of slave release. This was the ancient practice of “sacred manumission”.

The practice can be summarised as follows. A slave would scrape together such small sums of money as he was able. As, little by little, he saved these small amounts he would deposit them in his name in the temple of one of the Greek deities. This would have been a temple of Athene, Serapis, Asclepius, Apollo or some such god or goddess.

It would normally take the slave many years to amass sufficient money to equal the purchase price of his freedom. When this sum was reached, he and his master would go to the temple where the money had been deposited. At the temple the priest would pay over to the master the purchase price of the slave’s freedom. This would be done in the name of the relevant deity, who was deemed thereby to have bought the slave for himself or herself. The master had theoretically sold his slave to the god or goddess. From that moment onwards the slave became (at least notionally) the property of the deity in question. He was thereafter free from all men, and from his former master in particular.

This ritual transaction would be conducted in the presence of witnesses, and would often be recorded permanently in the form of a stone inscription. Many Greek inscriptions have been discovered which give details of such transactions. There is, for instance, an inscription dated 200-199 B.C. on the wall of Apollo’s temple at Delphi which reads:

“Apollo the Pythian bought from Sosibius of Amphissa, for freedom, a female slave, whose name is Nicaea, by race a Roman, with a price of 3½ minae of silver … The price he has received. The purchase, however, Nicaea has committed to Apollo, for freedom”.

Once the purchase price was paid over, Nicaea became the property of Apollo and was henceforth free from all men. The purchase by Apollo was, of course, a mere fiction: Nicaea had in reality bought her own freedom. Apollo’s name appeared in the transaction only to provide a sound, legal basis for her new freedom. His name served to protect the girl from any future demands that she return to slavery.

There are several interesting points which emerge from inscriptions of the kind quoted above. The recurring phrase “for freedom” (ep’ eleutheriai) should be noted. This very expression occurs in Galatians 5. 13, “For you were called for freedom (ep’ eleutheria), brethren”, lit., compare also, “For freedom (Te eleutheria) Christ has freed us”, v. 1 lit. “Not to bring us into another form of bondage did Christ liberate us from that in which we were born, but in order to make us free from bondage”, W. E. Vine. The bondage in view was that to the law (for the Jews) and to idols (for the Gentiles, 4. 8), with particular emphasis on the former.

Again, in numerous inscriptions the nature of the newly obtained liberty was highlighted by the statement that the freed man was thereafter able to “do the things that he will”. Paul may well have had this in mind when he pointed out that the effect of the power struggle within the believer (between the flesh and the Spirit) is “That you do not the things that you will”, 5. 17 lit.

Our present concern, however, lies with the expression, “bought … with a price”. We recognise that, in the actual inscription quoted above, the word translated “bought” differs from that which is used in 1 Corinthians 6. 20 and 7. 23. On the other hand, the verb which Paul uses (agorazo occurs elsewhere in secular writings to describe the purchase of slaves. For example, it appears with this meaning in the will of Attalus III, dated 133 B.C.

As far as the Bible is concerned, the formula “bought with a price” occurs only in one of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. This may well be significant. The city of Corinth boasted a grand temple of Apollo, the ruins of which can still be seen today. Overshadowing the city was the lofty hill of the Acrocorinthus. On its summit a temple of the armed Aphrodite (Astarte) was positioned. To the north-west could be clearly seen the snow covered peak of Mount Parnassus, rising 8, 000 feet above sea level. Within the circuit of Parnassus lay many shrines at which Apollo, Serapis or Asclepius were deemed to buy slaves for freedom. How vividly, therefore, would the words “bought with a price” bring home to the Christians at Corinth the meaning of their freedom in Christ.

The Corinthian believers knew, however, that their purchase by the Lord Jesus was no mere legal fiction. A real and bitter “price” had been paid — not by themselves but by Another. This was no pious pretence!

In theory the freed slave became the property of his patron god or goddess. The Christian becomes in reality the property of the One who has bought him. If you “are bought with a price”, 1 Cor. 6. 20, then it follows that you “are not your own”, v. 19. The Lord said to Israel, “I have redeemed thee … thou art mine”, Isa. 43. 1. Paul spoke openly of “God, whose I am and whom I serve”, Acts 27. 33.

The apostle did not define the “price” (time) with which we were bought. We can easily identify it, however, as our Lord’s giving of “Himself’, 1 Tim. 2. 6; Tit. 2. 14, His giving of His “life”, Mark 10. 45, and the shedding of His “blood”, Eph. 1. 7; 1 Pet. 1. 18, 19; Rev. 5. 9 (where “redeemed” - agorazo - should be translated “bought”). Note the closely associated ideas of ransom, redemption and purchase. For the distinction between redemption and purchase see Treasury of Bible Doctrine, pages 324 and 325.

It is interesting to see how the gospel has reversed the proverb, “The wicked shall be a ransom for the righteous”, Prov. 21. 18. In His grace, the Righteous One has given Himself to be a ransom for the wicked! “It had been much for Christ to speak a good word to His Father for us, but He knew that was not enough to redeem us. Though a word being spoken made the world, yet it would not redeem a sinner”, Thomas Watson, the Puritan.

The leaders of the Jews were glad, Mark 14. 11, to pay the “price” (time) for Christ’s “blood”, Matt. 26. 14, 15; 27. 6, that they might, as they saw it, save their people from the Romans, John 11. 47-50. Little did they realize that the blood of Christ itself was the “price” which He would gladly pay to save His people from their sins! Praise Him!

The needy sinner is invited to come and “buy (agorazo) without price (time)”, Isa. 55. 1 LXX. While we were not able to purchase Christ and His salvation for ourselves—but all is freely given—He was willing to purchase us, and at an inconceivable cost to Himself.

For further reading:

Light from the Ancient East by Adolph Deissmann, 4th edition, pages 319-329. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Vol. I, pages 124-125; Vol. VIII, page 178 note 58.

Dictionary of New Testament Theology; Ed. C. Brown. Vol. I, pages 715-721; Vol. III, page 597.

Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words by W. E. Vine. Article “Free”, section C. 1.