Why Bibles Given To Slaves Omitted Most Of The Old Testament
Museum of the Bible
The so-called Slave Bible told of Josephs enslavement but left out the parts where Moses led the Israelites to freedom.
When slavery was legal, its proponents often justified it with the Bible specifically, a verse that tells servants to obey their masters. There were also a lot of verses that abolitionists could and did use to argue against slavery. But you wouldnt find those in the heavily-redacted Slave Bible.
Most of the Old Testament is missing, and only about half of the New Testament remains. The reason? So that the enslaved Africans in the Caribbean islands of Jamaica, Barbados and Antigua couldnt read or be read anything that might incite them to rebel.
The Slave Bible was actually titled .
Its not clear who exactly directed these changes. British planters in the Caribbean had long been weary of missionaries, and couldve demanded that they only teach enslaved people certain parts of the Bible. But some missionaries may have also believed that it was only appropriate to teach enslaved people excerpts that reinforced their enslaved status.
Whoever the Slave Bibles editors were, theyre really highlighting portions that would instill obedience, says Anthony Schmidt, a curator at Washington, D.C. Museum of the Bible, which has a copy of the Slave Bible on display. There are only two other known copies.
The Slave Bible on display as part of an exhibition at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C.
Museum of the Bible
Does The Bible Talk About 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 Bibles 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.
Kilometer : But Isnt Slavery In The Bible
Lets fly over a couple hundred years of history. When Abrahams grandson, Israel, got old, a severe famine afflicted the land. His growing family was forced to flee to Egypt, where one of his sons, Joseph, had been promoted to second in command.
Egypt has plenty of food due to the leadership of Joseph, and Israels family ends up stayingfor generations. As the nation grows within the confines of Egypt, they begin to be viewed as a threat. When a Pharaoh takes the throne who knew nothing of Joseph, the Egyptians make the power move, enslaving the Israelites. For 400 years, Gods people are unpaid laborers building the Egyptian dynasty. Mistreated and abused, God sees their misery and takes action .
Another important American distinction we need to understand is that slavery in the ancient world was almost never based on race. Generally, one would become a slave through a military loss, to pay a debt you couldnt financially afford, or as punishment for wrongdoing. American history has tied slavery and racism together, so its important we cover this full kilometer. But the distinction remains. In the Bible, enslavement would have been based around something more than melanin.
For the Israelites are My slaves. They are My slaves I brought out of the land of Egypt I am the LORD your God.
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Manuscripts Encourages Readers To Approach The Bible Like A Novel
As people come from a multitude of backgrounds, Schmidt says how they encounter the Bible can vary greatly from person to person and, as such, the exhibit will affect them all differently.
I hope people take away a greater appreciation for that and maybe even a self reflection to be more cognizant of why you read something a certain way, he says. If people can better appreciate that then maybe they can better empathize with others.
NPRs Robert Baldwin III and Elizabeth Baker produced and edited the audio for this story. Wynne Davis adapted it for digital.
Brief Notes From The Lecture
Is there a distinction between slavery and forced labour in certain circumstances, eg. making people who are in prison work?
Thesis of the talk: when we consider historical definitions of slavery it is clear that the Bible does not support that kind of slavery.
Sam Harris talks of slavery and the Bible in Letter to a Christian Nation, calling it “an abomination”, quoting Leviticus 25:44-46 .
The issue we face as Christians can be set out as follows:
The talk is in four parts: 1. Translation of the term slave 2. Examination of what the Old Testament says on the subject 3. A re-examination of the account of the Exodus 4. Examination of what the New Testament says on the subject.
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Slavery And Racism In The Bible
- M.A., Princeton University
- B.A., University of Pennsylvania
The Bible contains quite a number of broad, vague, and even contradictory statements, so whenever the Bible is used to justify an action, it must be placed in context. One such issue is the biblical position on slavery.
Race relations, especially between whites and Blacks, have long been a serious problem in the United States. Some Christians’ interpretation of the Bible shares some of the blame.
Does The Bible Promote Slavery
Consult the Bible, and you will discover that the creator of the universe clearly expects us to keep slaves. 1 This provocative statement by atheist Sam Harris is meant to cast shade on the God of the Bible. After all, if civilized humanity overwhelmingly condemns slavery, why should we worship a God who thinks its acceptable?
The question of slavery and the Bible is a bit more complicated than Sam Harris makes it out to be. Unfortunately, Harris and others arent interested in providing context or nuance in their books. Instead, they quote mine verses and then spin them in such a way to make the slavery laws look as ridiculous and backwoodsy as possible. Furthermore, they assume that biblical slavery and pre-Civil War slavery are essentially the same institutions.
In the remaining space, Ill attempt to provide some context and nuance for slavery in the Bible. I cant address everything which would require much more than a blog post but I hope to provide some clarity on the issue by looking at eight key points.
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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.
And Now You Christians Cannot Excuse Slavery As An Old Testament Thing
Now a centurion had a slave who was dear to him, who was sick and at the point of death. When he heard of Jesus, he sent to him elders of the Jews, asking him to come and heal his slave. And when they came to Jesus, they besought him earnestly, saying, He is worthy to have you do this for him, for he loves our nation, and he built us our synagogue. And Jesus went with them. When he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to him, saying to him, Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof therefore I did not presume to come to you. But say the word, and let my servant be healed. For I am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me: and I say to one, Go, and he goes and to another, Come, and he comes and to my slave, Do this, and he does it. When Jesus heard this he marveled at him, and turned and said to the multitude that followed him, I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith. And when those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave well.Luke, Chapter 7, verse 2:
Here Jesus shows that he is completely comfortable with the concept of slavery. Jesus heals the slave without any thought of freeing the slave or admonishing the slaves owner. Read that phrase again nonsense. Jesus is impressed by the centurion who bosses people around.
Here God shows that he is in complete acceptance of a slaves position, and encourages slaves to work hard. This sentiment is repeated in
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Purpose Of The New Testament
The purpose of the New Testament is not to correct societal ills. All societal ills and evils will be set straight during Christs millennial kingdom. At present, the bible merely acknowledges that there will be injustices in society, and so be it. Practically there will be employers and employees. Some employees will be underpaid and have to work in very harsh conditions. And sometimes, this is because of their ethnicity. That is just an unfortunate reality in the world we live in. The apostles acknowledged these realities without comment.
However, in Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither bond nor free, neither male nor female . But they never used that Galatians scripture to argue for societal equality, only spiritual equality. So thats why Paul told Philemon, that even though Onesimus was his slave, he was also his brother in Christ . If we examine that Galatians scripture carefully, we see that in the mind of Paul, social tiers are on the level as gender differences and racial diversity. Just as there are men and women blacks, whites and none-of-the-aboves there are masters and slaves. That is the implication of Galatians 3:28.
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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Slavery In Historical Perspective
Slavery was a reality of the ancient world. Hammurabis code discusses slavery, the Hebrews were subject to harsh slavery in Egypt as well as Assyria and Babylon later on. In the middle ages, the Moors enslaved Europeans and sold them in North African slave markets, and later the Norse sold other European peoples as slaves in Scandinavia. Roma people were sold as slaves in Romania only a few centuries ago, and in our modern time, slavery is still practiced in Darfur in Sudan as well as many exploited people around the world who live as de facto slaves.
As Christians, we believe that God hates the exploitation of the weak and wants us as His people to fight against it. But how then should we understand Leviticus 25? What about other places in the Bible that talk about slavery?
Focus On The Gospel Not Societal Reform
Christians today focus too much on reforming society rather than winning souls to Christ. We want to free all the slaves, give everyone equal opportunities, and provide homes for all the refugees of war. Now dont get me wrong, there is a place for this. James 1:27 tells us that Christians should care for the orphans, widows, poor and oppressed. But that is not the dominant emphasis of Christianity. The main emphasis is evangelism. The problem many conservative Evangelicals have with the Pope is that he focuses too much on these societal issues and too little on the weightier aspects of the gospel. We will never be able to reform society in this life. That is not what we are called to do. Christ will reform society when He returns. Our job is to evangelize the world.
Sometimes our fight for social causes comes across as very hypocritical. If you try to buy the original Tom and Jerry on Amazon, there is a disclaimer that the cartoons may contain racist content. Why? Because the maid in Tom and Jerry was black, thus perpetuating the stereotype of black women as domestic slaves. But Americans have no problem using Mexican immigrants as maids. They have no problem buying low cost clothing made by Chinese children. These societal ills are an unfortunate reality in the world we live. Some will even argue that society cannot function without tiers.
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Slavery In Ancient Israel
Christian slaveholders in the American South answered this question with a resounding yes. Of course, their livelihood and economic well-being had become so dependent upon the institution of slavery that its hard to imagine them taking any other position. Nonetheless, religious Southerners came up with intricate theological arguments to assert that the Bible really does advocate slavery.2 And with so many verses at their disposal, its no surprise they convinced themselves of the rightness of their cause.
But it may be important to begin by noting how different slavery in ancient Israel was from the more recent, race-based slavery in the new world.3
Israel was a small, pastoralagricultural society in which the Hebrew word now translated into English as slave referred more accurately to a bonded worker or domestic servant.4 Granted, these workers lived in a state of servitude because of conquest, ethnicity, or inability to pay a debt, so their situation was a form of slavery. Nevertheless, few Israelites owned slaves, and those who did owned few.
This is a distinction that is often neglected, though it is unwise to impose upon the Bible such pictures of slavery.
Slavery In The Roman Empire Was A Unique Institution
Slavery in the Roman Empire was not regulated by the OT provisions. Slaves made up anywhere between one-third to one-half of the Roman Empires population. People became slaves by military conquest, indebtedness, and birth. The owner had the right to use a slave as they saw fit, including the right to punish slaves severely. Many slaves performed manual labor. Yet others attained wealth and social status.
In contrast to the slavery of West Africans in the Americas, slaves in the Roman world had legal rights. They could own property and save money. They could lodge legal complaints about mistreatment. Slaves often had more social mobility than the free poor, and people often became slaves voluntarily to increase their chances of a better life. Setting slaves free was widespread, frequent, and often expected. Freedom was not always an advantage and slavery was not always a negative experience.
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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 .