The Bible And Slavery
The Bible contains many references to slavery, which was a common practice in antiquity. Biblical texts outline sources and legal status of slaves, economic roles of slavery, types of slavery, and debt slavery, which thoroughly explain the institution of slavery in Israel in antiquity. The Bible stipulates the treatment of slaves, especially in the Old Testament. There are also references to slavery in the New Testament.
Many of the patriarchs portrayed in the Bible were from the upper echelons of society and the owners of slaves and enslaved those in debt to them, bought their fellow citizens’ daughters as concubines, and perpetually enslaved foreign men to work on their fields. Masters were men, and it is not evident that women were able to own slaves until the Elephantine papyri in the 400s BC. Other than these instances, it is unclear whether or not state-instituted slavery was an accepted practice.
In the 19th century United States, abolitionists and defenders of slavery debated the Bible’s message on the topic. Abolitionists used texts from both the Old and New Testaments to argue for the manumission of slaves, and against kidnapping or “stealing men” to own or sell them as slaves.
Does The Bible Endorse Slavery
What Would You Say?
Youre in a conversation and someone says, The Bible endorses slavery. If its wrong about slavery, its probably wrong about other things too.
What would you say?
Its true that the Bible, in both the Old and New Testament, talks about slavery. But does this mean that the slave trade that is such a shameful part of our history is actually something the Bible supports? No, and here are four reasons why.
1. The slavery talked about in the Bible was more like servitude. 2. Slaves were to be treated as people, not property.
3. The Bible demands equal treatment regardless of race or class.
4. Christians ended the Slave Trade.
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A Biblical Worldview Ultimately Undermines Slavery
Jesus never spoke to the institution of slavery, either to challenge or defend it. But the Apostle Paul laid a theological foundation that in time undermined slavery and led to its demise in the Western world. Galatians 3:26-28 argues that our identity in Christ transcends any social distinctions like slave or free. Ephesians 6:5-9 points out that Jesus is Lord over all relationships, and both masters and slaves are accountable to him. In the context of Ephesians 5:21, both masters and slaves are to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. In 1 Corinthians 7:21, Paul urges slaves to become free if they can which they often could. 1 Timothy 1:9-10 clearly denounces slave trading. And in Philemon 8-21, Paul urges Philemon to free his slave Onesimus, who had come to faith in Christ.
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The New Testament Teaching On Slavery
Christians could not change the legal system. A slave rebellion would have led to the execution of the rebels. There were also legal restrictions concerning the number of slaves who could be freed and freeing them early could bar them from becoming Roman citizens .
Commanding Christians to free their slaves would not therefore have been legal, nor would it have worked as, by state law, some of those slaves would still not have been free. But Christians were commanded to love others as Christ loved us. That meant that people could no longer be treated as slaves, but Christians would then become the servants of all, as Christ was .
In their letters, Paul and Peter mention Christians exchanging a holy kiss. For the general culture, a kiss was a greeting for family only. It was not how people generally greeted each other. The runaway slave Philemon is received back “above a slave” . Jesus is called Lord because he is their Master and so no-one else could claim to be someone’s master.
Although Christians could not abolish Roman slavery, they started a new form of society, a new ‘race’, within the Roman Empire in which they lived, and this effectively challenged the status of human beings either as masters or as slaves to other human beings.
The Essence Of The Old Testament Institution
In the patriarchal system, the work in someone’s household was carried out by herdsmen and domestic servants, but if Abraham had had no offspring one of his servants would inherit all he had . Servants were trusted with money and weapons. There is no approval for selling people, although Abraham ‘acquired’ people for silver.
The following table shows a comparison of slave systems.
Conditions of slaves in different systems
Deuteronomy 23:15-16 forbids returning a runaway slave to his master. This contrasts to former slavery laws in America or even in the ancient lawcode of the Babylonian king Hammurabi .
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The Church And Slavery
There is no doubt that the Church has not consistently rejected the practice of slavery in general, nor even of the perverse versions of the past. Rather, Scriptural ambiguity and regulation has often been used to justify all kinds of corruption and oppression. It is certainly and regrettably true that many pastors and priests have argued for the permissibility of slavery on biblical grounds. This historical justification of an evil practice is certainly unfortunate, tragic and incorrect.
At the same time, it must be asked upon what principle slavery was officially abolished. What overarching worldview led to the crumbling of the imperial and colonial slave trades? Men like John Newton and William Wilberforce led the charge not on the basis of the self-evident equality of all men, but rather the dignity of man as an image-bearer of the Creator God Who has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ.
So enormous, so dreadful, so irremediable did the trades wickedness appear that my own mind was completely made up for abolition. Let the consequences be what they would: I from this time determined that I would never rest until I had effected its abolition.4
Never, never, will we desist till we have wiped away this scandal from the Christian name, released ourselves from the load of guilt, and extinguished every trace of this bloody traffic.5
Consider The Whole Bible
Progressive revelation simply means that God didnt reveal his will and character to humanity all at once, but gradually over a long period of time. Thus, you have to look at the entire narrative of biblical revelation to interpret it fairly, rather than just pull a verse from here or there.
Christians also believe God accommodates his revelation to particular historical contexts, and even to fallen social structures within them. This makes sense when you think about itunless we require that God refrain from giving any instructions or laws to a particular people at a particular time until all societal evil has been removed. An ethical exhortation in an ad hoc document , then, may not tell you everything you need to know about Gods will and character. In fact, it will probably give you more of a picture of day-to-day life as a Christian in a certain context than the Bibles overall ideal with respect to institutional and structural evil.
Similarly, practices like slavery, polygamy, and divorce were common in antiquity. Biblical instruction that allows for them in certain contexts isnt necessarily biblical approval. We must interpret them in relation to everything else the Scriptures say.
Biblical instruction that allows for in certain contexts isnt necessarily biblical approval.
Creation is essential to consider because it reveals Gods original intent for the human race. And the gospel is essential because it reveals the ultimate trajectory of Gods redemptive work.
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Why Its Wrong To Say The Bible Is Pro
The Bible is pro-slavery.
Its a common charge these days. Part of the New Atheist attack on religion, it also comes from various progressive circles in order to defend certain social views .
The claim is not incomprehensible. It has some apparent, face-value supportand not just in Old Testament law regulations, but in New Testament epistles written by the very apostles of Jesus Christ:
- Ephesians 6:5: Bondservants, obey your earthly masters.
- Colossians 3:22: Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters.
- 1 Peter 2:18: Servants, be subject to your masters.
How should Christians respond to this concern? Its a complicated issue that one brief article cannot resolve, but here are several initial appeals that may be helpful to at least draw attention to its complexity.
Translation Of The Term ‘slave’
Need to know one Hebrew word: ebed . It is commonly translated ‘slave’.
The King James Version of the Bible had two occurrences of the word slave: once in each Testament. The New King James Version in the twentieth century had 46 occurences. There has been a general increase over time in the use of the word ‘slave’ in translations of the Bible into various languages.
ebed is translated as ‘slave’ in some cases and ‘servant’ in others. Leviticus 25:42 in the English RSV translation has slave once and servant once, but both translate the same word ebed.
‘Servant’ and ‘slave’ used to overlap much more in meaning, but now have different meanings. Servants are no longer seen as slaves.
The meaning of the word ebed is not inherently negative, but relates to work. The word identifies someone as dependent on someone else with whom they stand in some sort of relation. Being an ebed could be a position of honour. Everyone is a servant / slave of someone else.
The majority meaning of ebed is ‘servant’, but can also be translated ‘slave’. It is not an inherently negative term, and is related to work. The term shows the person is subservient to another. All subjects of Israel are servants of the king. The king himself is a servant of their God. So in the time of the Old Testament, no-one is free everyone is subservient to, an ebed of, someone else.
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Property Ownership And Sale
In Hebrew, the term for selling and for buying are not distinguished from acquiring without money, so often these words in the context of slavery are about debt slavery or servitude, people “selling” themselves or a daughter in return for something when they have no other economic resources to survive. It is a pledge of future work, temporarily, for a meal today. The selling of a daughter is also related to marriage and dowries.
In interpreting the Old Testament, it is often helpful to go back first to what Creation teaches rather than to start with what the Law stipulates . Often the Old Testament Law is a matter of permitting or regulating something, rather than saying that it is good.
How To Answer This Common Question From Aggressive Skeptics
The triumvirate of complaints about the Bible from atheists typically consists of denouncing its science, denouncing its God, and denouncing its morality. Here well handle a classic moral objection: the Bible is an evil book because it supports slavery .
For example, in 2012, provocative atheist Dan Savage gave a keynote speech at a conference for high school journalists. The topic was supposed to be bullying, but instead he spent most of the speech criticizing Christianity and the Bible:
The Bible is a radically pro-slavery document. Slave owners waved Bibles over their heads during the Civil War and justified it. The shortest book in the New Testament is a letter from Paul to a Christian slave owner about owning his Christian slave. And Paul doesnt say Christians dont own people. Paul talks about how Christians own people.
We ignore what the Bible says about slavery, because the Bible got slavery wrong. Tim uh, Sam Harris, in A Letter to a Christian Nation, points out that the Bible got the easiest moral question that humanity has ever faced wrong.
How do we respond?
Even a quick examination of the New Testament and the letter to Philemon shows that Savage misses the mark in his interpretation. St. Paul exhorts Philemon to grant freedom to his slave Onesimus. In a key passage of the letter, Paul says:
Even after hearing these distinctions, a skeptic may press two additional objections:
Lets address each of those objections in turn.
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Does The Bible Support Slavery
This lecture responds to the accusation that the Bible actively supports slavery. Peter J. Williams examines the issue by explaining how biblical words connected with slavery in the Old and New Testament texts have been translated and how contemporary understandings of these words have changed over the years.
The lecture is about one hour long, followed by 15 minutes of questions and answers.
Why Did So Many Christians Support Slavery
Many southern Christians felt that slavery, in one Baptist ministers words, stands as an institution of God. Here are some common arguments made by Christians at the time:
Abraham, the father of faith, and all the patriarchs held slaves without Gods disapproval .
Canaan, Hams son, was made a slave to his brothers .
The Ten Commandments mention slavery twice, showing Gods implicit acceptance of it .
Slavery was widespread throughout the Roman world, and yet Jesus never spoke against it.
The apostle Paul specifically commanded slaves to obey their masters .
Paul returned a runaway slave, Philemon, to his master .
Charitable and Evangelistic Reasons
Slavery removes people from a culture that worshipped the devil, practiced witchcraft, and sorcery and other evils.
Slavery brings heathens to a Christian land where they can hear the gospel. Christian masters provide religious instruction for their slaves.
Under slavery, people are treated with kindness, as many northern visitors can attest.
It is in slaveholders own interest to treat their slaves well.
Slaves are treated more benevolently than are workers in oppressive northern factories.
Just as women are called to play a subordinate role , so slaves are stationed by God in their place.
Slavery is Gods means of protecting and providing for an inferior race .
The church should concentrate on spiritual matters, not political ones.
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Transatlantic Slavery Is Not In Mind In The Bible
In Transatlantic slavery, by contrast, West Africans were forcibly kidnapped . Both their person and their labor were considered the property of the slave owner. The slave owners rights over slaves and their offspring were complete. They were subject to rampant physical violence and abuse. The death penalty applied if a master killed a servant. If a master caused any kind of permanent damage to a servant, that servant was given immediate freedom. Slavery in North and South America was motivated by the economic advantage it provided for the elite. In the OT, slavery was motivated by a desire to find a way to help the poor.
Why The Bible Does
Heres some an Old Testament verse. However, You may purchase male or female slaves from among the foreigners who live among you. You may also purchase the children of such resident foreigners, Including those who have been born in your land. You may treat them as your property, Passing them on to your children as a permanent inheritance. You may treat your slaves like this, But the people of Israel, Your relatives must never be treated this wayAnd heres a New Testament verse. Slaves, Obey your earthly masters with deep respect and fear. Serve them sincerely as you would serve Christ
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Gods Providence And Care
Paul now addresses the delicate matter at hand. While we may not be able to gain absolute certainty regarding the circumstances in which Onesimus left Philemon and joined Paul, it is clear that Onesimus was a slave and, as such, was in an extremely precarious position. He, in common with all slaves in Greco-Roman society, was regarded as the possession of his master and, depending on the attitude of his master, could face violence and even death upon his return.1
In Gods providence and care for Onesimus, however, it turns out that he had a gracious and skillful advocate in Paul. Pauls appeal to Philemon shows rhetorical skill as well as pastoral sensitivity. It would be unfair, however, to suggest that Paul manipulates Philemon. While it is true that Paul deals with the delicate situation very shrewdly, there is no reason to believe that anything Paul says is insincere or that he did not seek at all times to act in the best interests of both Onesimus and Philemon.
Ancient Judaism Had A Brutal History With Slavery
The most important thing to remember about slavery during Biblical times is that everyone who was either a Jew or appreciated that Jesus came from the Jews appreciated the fact that ancient Jewish history made it impossible to embrace captive slavery. They completely, thoroughly hated it, they despised it fiercely. Think about how many times Gods people were subjected to captive slavery. They spent centuries of hellish captivity in Egypt before God sent Moses to finally lead them out of Egypt.
This event was not their only bout with being in captivity. Much of the violence in the Old Testament was that of ancient Israel defending itself against people who kept trying to seize them and bring them into captivity while taking over their land. So why would Jews, especially those who loved the story of Moses, ever want to become slave owners when they had such a nasty, bitter taste in their mouths about the despicable action of slave ownership?
Yet, Old Testament history also had stories of triumph through these times of slavery. Joseph, who was bullied by his brothers and thrown in a pit to die was captured by slavers and, by Gods grace, grew through the ranks of the slave workforce and eventually became one of the highest officers of his masters domain. He ultimately had the power to retaliate against his family, but instead he blessed them all. All this happened without giving any credit to slave ownership, but rather it happened in spite of it.
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