Slavery & the Bible (Part 9) Did Christianity End Slavery? What History Tells Us.

 

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ONE LAST QUESTION CONCERNING THE NEW TESTAMENT APPROACH TO SLAVERY:

DID IT WORK?

In the last several articles of this series, we examined the New Testament and what its writers had to say about slavery. (See a list of past articles below.) But did the New Testament writers know what they were talking about? Did their guidance to slaves and slave-owners of their time end slavery in Rome? In fact, did the Christian way spread past the Roman Empire and end slavery in other cultures, even future ones, such as slavery in the United States?

As sociologist Rodney Stark writes in his book The Triumph of Christianity,

“All classical societies were slave societies – both Plato and Aristotle were slave-owners, as were most free residents of Greek city-states. In fact, all known societies above the very primitive level have been slave societies – even many of the Northwest American Indian tribes had slaves long before Columbus’s voyage. Amid this universal slavery, only one civilization ever rejected human bondage: Christendom.”

In another book, For the Glory of God, Stark writes, “[O]nly in the West did significant moral opposition ever arise and lead to abolition” and, except for some Jewish sects, “Christian theology was unique in eventually developing an abolitionist perspective.”

SLAVERY: A UNIVERSAL HUMAN EVIL

All early civilizations, including Babylon, Egypt, China, and India, used slave labor extensively, but the Greeks and Romans were the first true slave societies. Major Roman markets were capable of handling 20,000 slaves a day.

No records exist of any protests against slavery in the ancient Middle East cultures like Babylon or Assyria. In fact, the Code of Hammurabi (1750 B.C.) says helping a slave to escape is punishable by death.

No famous Greek philosopher every condemned slavery. Aristotle argued that it was the slave’s nature to be a slave, and thus, it was to the benefit of both society and the slave for the slave to remain a slave. He argued that “a slave is a living tool, just as a tool is an inanimate slave. Therefore there can be no friendship with a slave as slave” (Nichomachean Ethics 8.11). Plato thought no differently, felt slaves should be treated harshly, and owned at least five slaves at the time of his death.

No record of any pagan Roman protest against slavery exists or any evidence of any move to eradicate slavery either. In fact, several histories point out that even the semi-successful famous slave revolt involving Spartacus never had ending slavery as a goal. Personal freedom was their goal; eradicating the institution of slavery was not even on their radar.

About 600 years after Christ, Mohammad bought, sold, captured, and owned slaves. Thus, long before European slave-trading in the Americas, Muslim slave-trading began. Slavery didn’t officially end in Muslim nations until recently (some only because of pressure by Western nations) and still continues “unofficially” in some.

Stark’s book, For the Glory of God, includes a photo taken in 1900 of a Muslim Moroccan merchant with his new African slave. At least 1.2 million slaves were transported into Muslim nations between 1800 and 1900. Saudi Arabia didn’t legally abolish slavery until 1962, and Mauritania didn’t abolish it until 1981!

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I took this picture at the Muhammed Ali Center in Louisville, KY. Sadly, many black Americans who embrace Islam see the racism of “Christian” America as a reason to reject Christianity. If only they knew the history of Islam and the correct biblical view of racism and slavery.

Furthermore, Islamic and European slave-buyers were dependent on native African suppliers because “slavery and slave-trading were well established in Africa long before the arrival of Europeans.” Most, if not all, precolonial African societies had systems of slavery, and it continues in parts of Africa today, including in Sudan, Africa’s largest country.

Let’s not forget, some Native American cultures practiced slavery too.

Ethiopia had slavery until 1942; Peru until 1964; and India until 1976.

In modern thinking, abolitionism finds itself lacking champions too in the secular philosophies. Stark states a “virtual Who’s Who of ‘Enlightenment’ figures fully accepted slavery.” This includes Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Voltaire, David Hume, and Edmund Burke, who even “dismissed abolitionists as religious fanatics.”

So who were these “religious fanatics” fighting against slavery? And where in the world did they get such a crazy idea in a world where slavery was a normal part of almost all human civilizations?

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CHRISTIAN RESISTANCE:

The First Several Centuries

Steven Weinberg in “A Designer Universe?” wrote that Christianity “lived comfortably with slavery for many centuries.” Not exactly.

First, we have to remember that Christianity for its first 300 years until it was legalized by Emperor Constantine was an often-persecuted religious minority with no political power.

Once Constantine and Rome began to embrace Christian values and its high view of human life, things like gladiator fights and the common practice of abandoning for dead unwanted newborns soon disappeared. Likewise, slavery, a pillar of Roman civilization, eventually faded from Christendom and was replaced with the medieval feudal system.

It’s impossible to know how many, but Christian clergy in the early church were known for freeing slaves. Evidence shows that the early church, long before Constantine, considered slaves as equal worth to all people. The early church was know for baptizing slaves into Christ’s church.

The earliest known record about Christians by a Roman (Pliny, a pagan Roman senator, written in about 111 A.D.) tells of interrogating two slave women who were Christian deaconesses. This, along with the New Testament itself (as we’ve seen), shows that slaves (and women) have always been part of Christ’s church and even held positions of prominence within the church.

Augustine (354-430), who is still renowned today by Christians, wrote in his classic work The City of God (19.15) that slavery was the product of sin and opposed to God’s divine plan, and many of the clergy under him in Hippo freed their slaves. Chrysostom (349-407), another influential father of the early church, proclaimed that “in Christ Jesus there is no slave,” and he encouraged Christians to buy slaves, teach them a skill with which to support themselves, and then set them free (Homily 40 on 1 Corinthians 10).

In the 400s, St. Patrick fought against slavery in Ireland. In the 600s, Saint Bathilda (wife of King Clovis II) campaigned to stop slave-trading and to free all slaves. In 851, Saint Anskar began efforts to stop the Viking slave trade.

The Anti-Slavery Popes

The great Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) pronounced slavery a sin, and a series of popes beginning in 1435 said the same thing. Sadly, biases against the Catholic Church by secularists and even Protestant Christian historians have ignored the fact that many popes were the first of influential Christians to take strong stands against slavery in official church documents. (As a Reformed Protestant, I’m no fan of the Catholic Church or the papacy, but let’s be fair; this is a matter of historic fact.)

Pope Paul III in 1537 made three major pronouncements (called “bulls”) against slavery, imposing excommunication for anyone involved in slavery. The popes were encouraged to stand against slavery by many Catholic missionaries who were witnessing the evils of slavery firsthand. Later, Pope Pius VII (1815) and Pope Gregory XVI (1839) demanded the end of the slave trade.

As Starks puts it: “The problem wasn’t that the Church failed to condemn slavery; it was that few heard and most of them did not listen. In this era, popes had little or no influence over the Spanish and the Portuguese,” and if the pope had little influence in Europe, he had even less in the New World colonies. So, the problem wasn’t that the Catholic Church stayed silent; the problem was so-called Catholics weren’t listening.

In one case, Pope Urban VIII’s bull against slavery was read publicly by Jesuit priests in Rio de Janeiro and the pro-slavery locals in turn attacked the local Jesuit college and injured several priests. In Santos, a mob trampled a Jesuit for trying to publish the anti-slavery bull and the Jesuits were forced out of Sao Paulo all together.

It’s sadly ironic that once the Europeans became involved in slave-trading, the French and Spanish colonies gave slaves more rights and treated them much more humanely than the British because of their Catholic beliefs. It seems the French and Spanish allowed their religious convictions to have some superficial impact on their anti-biblical practice of slavery, where the Protestant British (and also the Dutch) shamefully ignored their supposed Christian faith all together and treated slaves harshly.

Sadly, there were prominent Christians throughout history that kept slaves and even approved of slavery, including Polycarp, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Pope Paul III. So, we have to ask: Which group of Christians were influenced by their culture and which were influenced by God’s Word?

If you have been following this series, I think it’s clear God’s Word does not condone slavery. And where we’re not denying that those that called themselves Christians sometimes approved of slavery and even at times tried to use the Bible to justify slavery, history shows that Christians who faithfully studied God’s Word and tried their best to live accordingly fought against slavery (as we have seen and will see more as we continue).

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In America: Quakers, Puritans & More

America’s first formal proclamation against slavery was written in 1688 by Franz Daniel Pastorius, a German immigrant, a lawyer, and a Mennonite.  But the American abolitionist movement was really started by the Quakers at a yearly meeting in Philadelphia, prompted by the 1746 anti-slavery pamphlet by Quaker John Woolers. In it, he quotes Matthew 25:40 (And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers,  you did it to me.’), saying to enslave anyone is to enslave Christ.

The following year, the Quakers published their own anti-slavery tracts, stating if you profit from slavery “the influence of the Holy Spirit is not the prevailing principle in you.” Shortly after, several Quaker meetings on the East Coast prohibited members from owning slaves under penalty of exclusion. The well-organized and influential Quakers were essential to the anti-slavery movement.

Further, in 1790, every state in the U.S. had slavery except Massachusetts and Maine because the Puritans had made it illegal in those states in 1771. On June 19, 1700, Samuel Sewall, a devout Puritan, had published the first abolitionist tract written in America, The Selling of Joseph.

Abolition groups and publications sprang up everywhere, all clearly connected to devout Christians and their biblical beliefs, including the American Anti-Slavery Society, which appointed traveling agents to specific territories. Fifty-two percent of the traveling agents were ordained ministers, and 75% of local agents were clergy. “Two-thirds of the abolitionists in the mid-1830s were Christian clergymen,” writes Alvin Schmidt in How Christianity Changed the World.

Elijah Lovejoy, a Presbyterian clergyman, is considered the first martyr of the abolitionist movement, killed by pro-slavery rioters at his printing office in 1837. An ally of Lovejoy, Edward Beecher (another Presbyterian clergyman) was a promoter of abolition and the president of Illinois College, which allowed black students to attend. He was the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which is considered a major force leading to the Civil War. Stowe’s Christian faith is evident throughout the novel. Their father, Lyman Beecher, an evangelistic preacher, was also an influential Christian leader in the anti-slavery movement.

Finally, we can’t forget the huge contributions black churches gave to the Underground Railroad and the abolitionist movement.

Sadly, major schisms occurred within Protestant denominations between anti-slavery and pro-slavery people. (This led to the founding of the very denomination I belong to, the Southern Baptists, who were, shamefully, pro-slavery and have since publicly repented of this clear sin.) Regardless, abolitionism spread throughout the North through Christian churches.

In Britain: More Quakers, Wesley & Of Course, Wilberforce

The American Quakers influenced their cousins in Britain, so the Quakers in Britain kicked off the anti-slavery movement there (though documents show a London church council condemning slavery as early as 1102.) With this, John Wesley, founder of the Methodist denomination, began a preaching campaign against slavery and wrote anti-slavery tracts.

Of course, the juggernaut of the abolition movement in Britain was William Wilberforce. A strong Christian, Wilberforce led the anti-slavery movement in the House of Commons. At the same time, Thomas Clarkson, another Christian, mobilized public opinion, started a petition campaign, and started calling on Parliament to end the slave trade. These petitions gave Wilberforce “powerful ammunition” in Parliament.

In 1791, on his deathbed, John Wesley wrote to William Wilberforce, “Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be won out by the opposition of men and devils; but if God be for you, who can be against you? Are all of them together stronger than God? Be not weary in well-doing.”

In 1807, a bill to abolish the slave trade throughout the British colonies was approved overwhelmingly in both the House of Lords and the House of Commons thanks to Wilberforce’s and Clarkson’s efforts. Then, in 1833, just a month after Wilberforce’s death, an act was passed ending slavery in all of the British empire.

Meanwhile, Methodists and Baptists continued to be heavily involved in the anti-slavery movement both in Britain and the U.S. Unfortunately, the violence against anti-slavery preachers caused some of them to quiet down.

And So…

Today, Christian groups like Christian Solidarity International buys slaves in Sudan and sets them free. Many Christian groups are also involved in fighting the underground slave trade (human trafficking), including within the U.S., such as Love True.

As I stated before, the question isn’t whether “Christians” supported slavery. There were certainly people who claimed to be Christian who supported and practiced slavery and probably even true Christians who allowed themselves to be influenced by things other than God’s Word. But the question is, Who was truly following their faith?

If I did my job well in this series, you would have seen that anyone who believes the Bible is the Word of God cannot condone slavery. While there has been Christians who have supported slavery, they have not done so consistently with their faith’s teachings. As this short history has shown, the Bible inspired Christians who worked to obey the God’s Word faithfully to become the essential force in ending slavery.

Stark writes, “The larger point is that the abolitionists, whether popes or evangelists, spoke almost exclusively in the language of Christian faith. And although many Southern clergy proposed theological defenses of slavery, pro-slavery rhetoric was overwhelmingly secular — references were made to ‘liberty’ and ‘states’ rights,’ not to ‘sin’ or ‘salvation.'”

Steven J. Keillor in his book This Rebellious House states, “Where [Christian] doctrine and economics conflicted, the [plantation owners] insisted that the church back down.”

I think it’s safe to say “Christian” slave-owners were influenced by money much more than their faith in Christ.

Stark goes on to point out that the Christian worldview was a “necessary basis” for the anti-slavery movement because “only those religious thinkers working within the Christian tradition were able to reach anti-slavery conclusions.”

NEXT: We wanted examine slavery and the Old Testament, but this series has already gone on much longer than we originally intended, so we will be taking a break from slavery for a time but we will return to address the Old Testament later. In the meantime, the first article of this series did address some of what the Old Testament says about slavery.

Slavery & the Bible GFTM Series…

Read Part 1: Cherry Picking, Worldview & Consistency

Read Part 2: Not All Types of Slavery are Equal

Read Part 3: American Slavery & Bearing God’s Image

Read Part 4: Slavery Ain’t Always Slavery: The New Testament & Roman Slavery

Read Part 5: Roman Slavery & the Lack of Christian Revolt

Read Part 6: The New Testament Response & Problem Verses

Read Part 7:  Another Type of Slavery & Freedom in the New Testament

Read Part 8: Why Didn’t Jesus Free the Slaves?

NEXT SERIES:

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Check out Who Jesus Ain’t and other books by GFTM here.

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Slavery & The Bible (Part 4) Slavery Ain’t Always Slavery: The New Testament & Roman Slavery

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Read Part 1: Slavery & the Bible (Part 1) Cherry Picking, Worldview & Consistency

Read Part 2: Slavery & the Bible (Part 2) Not All Types of Slavery are Equal

Read Part 3: Slavery & the Bible (Part 3) American Slavery & Bearing God’s Image

INTRO

So far in this series we’ve addressed 1 criticism of 3 often-voiced criticisms concerning Christianity and slavery: Criticism #1 – In the United States’ past, Christian slave-owners used the Bible to justify slavery. And we’ve found that both American slavery and racism are unbiblical. In fact, they’re anti-biblical.

In this article, we’ll start addressing criticism #2:

In the New Testament, Jesus and his Apostles never condemned slavery. In fact, the Apostles even told slaves to be obedient.

(In future articles, we’ll address criticism #3: In the Old Testament, God actually endorses slavery.)

Thus, in this article (and a few that follow), we’ll address: What the New Testament says about Roman slavery.

 

THE QUICK ANSWER

1 – Paul, an apostle of Jesus, clearly condemns as sinners “enslavers” by including them in a long list of other sinners (1 Timothy 1:10). The original Greek word used here means those who take someone captive in order to sell him into slavery. Thus, Christians are forbidden from human trafficking.

2 – The Apostle Paul tells slaves if they have an opportunity to gain their freedom to take it (1 Corinthians 7:21), and he says to not sell yourself into slavery (1 Corinthians 7:23), which was a normal practice in ancient Rome for the impoverished or those in debt.

3 – Masters are told to treat their slaves/bondservants justly and fairly, knowing they will answer to God: “Masters, treat your bondservants justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven.” (Colossians 4:1)

4 – Not only that, but slaves and masters are put on equal ground: “…[masters,] stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their [the slaves’] Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him.” (Ephesians 6:9)

5 – Christian slaves and Christian masters are “brothers” (1 Timothy 6:2). Furthermore, Colossians 3:11 reads: “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.” (Also see similar statements in Galatians 3:28 & 1 Corinthians 12:13.)

Seems pretty straight-forward but what about quotes from the New Testament, such as:

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Our “Quick Answer” above may addresses many of our concerns about the New Testament and slavery (the Old Testament will be addressed in the next part of this series), but what are we to make of New Testament quotes like this? And why don’t we ever read Jesus or his apostles simply saying, “Hey, slave-owners, set your slaves free!”

To answer that, we’ll have to get into a longer answer, one which we’ll spend this article and the next few articles exploring…

 

“SLAVERY” AIN’T ALWAYS SLAVERY

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Pop Quiz: What’s wrong with this picture?

Now, if you’ve been reading this series and paying attention, you should notice an immediate problem with the above billboard.

The picture on the billboard portrays an image depicting race-based American slavery. But the Bible quote, which is from the New Testament, would be addressing not American slavery, but Roman slavery, which was a type of slavery long extinct by the time the Americas were “discovered” by Europeans. In a pervious article, we discussed the important differences between American slavery, Roman slavery, and Israelite slavery.

So, that’s the first point I want you to keep in mind as we look at these New Testament verses addressing slavery: Roman slavery is not American slavery.

As we looked at in our last article, racism and American slavery have no grounding in the Bible; in fact, they are anti-biblical.

(Also, let me point out that the atheists who made the above billboard have to work on their knowledge of history for another reason: the New Testament was not written in the Bronze Age. The Bronze Age was long over for about a thousand years before the New Testament was written.)

(Also, let me ask: Where do atheists find any grounding for morality and human value to condemn slavery? They have none. Read more here.)

I’m not going to restate everything written in past articles (Perhaps take a moment and read more here), but to sum up: In ancient Rome, there was a wide spectrum of types of master/servant relationships that fell under the word often translated “slavery.” So when we modern people see the word translated “slave” or “slavery” in our English Bibles, it may mean something that doesn’t align with what’s in our heads at all.

“Slavery” in ancient Rome often means what we’d call indentured servanthood, or it may mean something closer to how a soldier in the modern military gives over a certain amount of years from his life to service for his country, or it could even mean something close to an apprenticeship.

Yes, in the ancient Roman Empire there was certainly what I’d call slavery-proper – meaning the slavery modern Americans think of when we hear the word “slavery” – literal ownership of another human being as property (though Roman slavery was not race-based). And this type of Roman slavery was just as repulsive and evil in God’s eyes as American slavery.

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My point here is, there’s no reason to assume whenever you see the word “slavery” in the New Testament it means slavery as modern Americans define it because Roman “slavery,” the type of slavery/servanthood the writers of the New Testament lived among, was extremely different and diverse.

THE DIFFICULTY OF TRANSLATING “DOULOS

You can see this concept of diverse Roman “slavery” in the different English Bible translations we have available to us today. As I stated in an earlier article, the ancient Koine Greek word doulos that is often translated “slave” from the original New Testament manuscripts into English can also be translate “servant.” If the translators had simply chosen to use “servant” instead of “slave,” much of the hubbub about these passages may not exist.

Interestingly, I was watching an interview with Dr. Wayne Grudem, probably best known for his highly used Systematic Theology, who was also one of the scholars that worked on the ESV translation of the Bible, and when asked what was the hardest part of the translation process, he replied that it was translating the word doulos.

Translating can be challenging because there is not always an exactly matching word from one language to the next. And since the modern American concept of slavery is much different than Roman doulos, an interpretative decision had to be made. Translating doulos as “slave” would have been too harsh, but translating it “servant” was not entirely accurate either. Grudem pushed for translating it “bondservant,” which he believed represented doulos more accurately (and I agree). (Watch the interview with Dr. Grudem here. The section about translating doulos starts at 9:10 minutes. Also, there is a short video filmed by the BBC actually showing the translators of the ESV discussing/debating this exact challenge. Click here.)

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THE PROBLEM VERSES

There are 6 “problem” passages throughout the New Testament that address slavery in some way (1 Cor. 7:21, Eph. 6:5-8, Col. 3:22-25, 1 Tim. 6:1-2, Titus 2:9-10, and 1 Peter 2:18-25). Of these 6 passages, many English translations do translate all of them with the words “slave(s)” or “slavery.”

But I looked at 6 different translations, some of the most popular and reliable translations (ESV, NASB, KJV, RSV, NIV, NLT), and of those 6, only 2 translated every instance as “slave(s)” or “slavery” – the NIV and NLT, which are the two less literal translations out of the six.

The RSV translated every instance as “slave(s)” or “slavery” except for one passage (1 Peter 2:18-25), which was translated “servants.”

The King James (KJV) translated all of the instances as “servant(s).”

The NASB translated 4 of 6 instances as “slave(s),” one instance as “servant,” and one as “bondslaves.”

The ESV translates all of them as “bondservant(s),” except for one translated simply “servants.”

In the world of Bible translations, there are two kinds of translations. There are word-for-word translations, which try to match the original words as exactly as possible to, say, English words. Then there are idea-by-idea translations, which are more concerned with communicating the ideas the authors are trying to get across than the exact wording.

For example, if we were translating the opposite way (from modern English to ancient Greek) and we wanted to translate “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth,” we could translate that word-for-word, but an ancient Greek-speaker is going to be confused by this odd American folk-saying. So, instead, we may translate the idea; perhaps we translate it to this instead: Be grateful for gifts you receive and accept them without question. Obviously, an idea-by-idea translation requires a lot more interpretation on the part of the translators. (To learn more, read the GFTM article: Has the Bible Been Lost in the Translation? How Do We Know the Words in Our Bibles Today are the Original Words?)

Now, notice below, the ESV, NASB, KJV, and RSV, which are all considered solid literal, word-for-word translations differ and don’t always favor the translation “slave(s)” or “slavery,” recognizing the nuances of the original Greek. These are the most faithful translations to the original Greek, yet they differ.

My point is not that these are bad translations (because they’re not), but there’s no reason to assume the worst when you see “slave” if you understand the range and nuance of the original Greek word and the difficultly of translating to English such a word.

ESV NASB KJV RSV NLT NIV
1 Cor 7:21 Bondservant Slave Servant Slave Slave Slave
Eph 6:5-8 Bondservants Slaves Servants Slaves Slaves Slaves
Col 3:22-25 Bondservants Slaves Servants Slaves Slaves Slaves
1 Tim. 6:1-2 Bondservants Slaves Servants Slavery Slaves Slavery
Titus 2:9-10 Bondservants Bondslaves Servants Slaves Slaves Slaves
1 Peter 2:18-25 Servants Servants Servants Servants Slaves Slaves

Does this mean the translators had no idea what they were doing? No, it simply means the original Greek word has a range of meaning, which no one English word can communicate, and the context of the passages didn’t allow the translators to make a decisive decision on how it should be translated into English.

But, as I pointed out in an earlier article, many of these translations have footnotes at the bottom of the page explaining that “slave” can also be interpreted at “servant” or even a section in the preface of the Bible explaining that the word doulos covers a range of types of servanthood. In the preface to my ESV translation, a paragraph taking up about 1/3 of the page explains much of what I’ve explained in this article about doulos and Roman slavery/servanthood/bondservanthood.

So, maybe when Paul wrote in Colossians 3:22,

“Bondservants [slaves, servants, doulos], obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord,”

he meant the indentured servanthood type of “slavery.” Or maybe he was referring to a situation where the “slave” actually chose to stay in his master’s household as a servant even after earning his release, which was not uncommon in ancient Rome. It’s quite likely Paul was simply saying: You’re in a contractual obligation, so honor it by listening to your boss and doing a good job because you’re representing the Lord.

All that being said, let’s assume the worse: Let’s assume Paul and the other writers of the New Testament are addressing true slave masters and true slaves. Next, we’ll be looking more closely at these “problem verses.”

Read Part 1: Slavery & the Bible (Part 1) Cherry Picking, Worldview & Consistency

Read Part 2: Slavery & the Bible (Part 2) Not All Types of Slavery are Equal

Read Part 3: Slavery & the Bible (Part 3) American Slavery & Bearing God’s Image

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Slavery & the Bible (Part 2) Not All Types of Slavery are Equal

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When it comes to slavery and Christianity, three major criticisms are often brought up:

  1. In the United States’ past, Christian slave-owners used the Bible to justify slavery.
  2. In the New Testament, Jesus and his Apostles never condemned slavery. In fact, they even told slaves to be obedient.
  3. In the Old Testament, God actually endorses slavery.

This breakdown into three major criticisms is helpful, because we actually are talking about three distinct types of slavery in three distinct eras of human history. In other words, recognizing that “slavery” is not identical in these three eras is important.

So, let’s start with the most recent and work back in time:

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American Slavery

Many know the deplorable history of this stain on the United States, a country built upon the self-evident truth that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Slavery is the sad, sad irony of the Land of the Free. American slavery was a system based on the forceful kidnapping and enslavement of African people. It was race-based, where an entire race was demeaned to subhuman status to justify their treatment as literal objects of property.

American slaves had no rights as human beings and were at the sole mercy of their owners, no different than had they been pigs or cattle. Therefore, they could be worked ruthlessly, often within striking distance of a whip. Few slaves could read or write or were allowed any sort of an education. Families could be ripped apart as parents and children where bought and sold at the whim of their masters. Slave masters also were free to starve, beat, and even rape their slaves without facing any legal consequences. Further, these slaves had no hope of freedom.

It’s a dark stain on the history of the United States indeed, one that still haunts us to this day.

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Roman Slavery (New Testament Era)

The slavery we find in the New Testament is specifically the slavery of the ancient Roman Empire, which is different from both American slavery and the slavery we find in the Old Testament, yet it shares some similarities with both.

Almost everything said about American slavery above can be said about Roman slavery, except Roman slavery was not race-based. Race was not a factor; one could become a slave by being born into it, by committing a grievous crime, by going into debt, by being a prisoner of war, by being sold by his or her parents, and even by voluntarily selling oneself into slavery. But Roman slavery was also a much more diverse, complicated social and economic system than American slavery.

To put it simply, Roman slavery included a wide, wide spectrum of types of servanthood within that system. So, many slaves were treated similar to American slaves, but many were also treated quite well and benefited from the arrangement. Many slaves actually chose to be slaves; some actually preferred to be slaves due to their low economic status and the benefits of being a “slave” under an affluent person. Slavery guaranteed a roof and food in an unstable world. Many Roman slaves were highly educated, even highly successful and wealthy. Like American slaves, Roman slaves were at the mercy of their masters and were property, but unlike American slaves, Roman slaves had many of the same opportunities given to free men, and it was likely they could even become free themselves.

Often modern people look at the word “slave” in the Bible and immediately connect that word with American slavery, but it’s a mistake to assume all “slavery” during the Roman Empire is the same as American slavery. Often it was much more similar to what we would call indentured servanthood, where one would be under contract to another person for a limited time until they fulfilled their contract or bought their own freedom.

Please don’t misunderstand me; much of the slavery of Rome was just as dehumanizing as what happened in American’s past. Gladiators were slaves, forced to battle, even die, for entertainment (though even gladiators could be wealthy celebrities as slaves). Some slaves were kept strictly for sex. Some slaves, usually criminals, were essentially issued death sentences to work in the darkness of underground mines until their lungs gave out. Runaway slaves were branded on their foreheads. If a slave master were murdered, all of his slaves would also be killed. This was a way of quelling thoughts of rebellion, as a huge part of Rome’s population were slaves. There is a record of one incident where 400 slaves were killed because their master had been murdered though there was no evidence the slaves had anything to do with it.

But there was also the indentured servant or contracted worker side of the Roman “slavery” spectrum, where many slaves/servants benefited under the care of someone better off economically than they were, and where they even had an opportunity to make an independent living, or where they may even choose to stay as a part of their master’s household once they earned their freedom. This sort of contract “slavery” could even be compared to an apprenticeship or the sort of service contract one makes when he joins the modern military. The Greek word often translated “Slave” in the New Testament can also be simply translated “servant,” and most modern Bibles will state this in the footnotes.

The important thing to remember concerning Roman Slavery is that it was deeply ingrained in the culture and economy, and there was a wide spectrum of variety within that slavery/servant system.

Egypt

Israelite Slavery (Old Testament Era)

In the Old Testament era, the cultures surrounding Israel had slavery, and the Israelites themselves were slaves in Egypt for 400 years before being freed. The type of slavery that surrounded Israel was the type most of us think about when we hear “slavery.” Like American slavery, the slavery of much of the ancient Near Middle East was harsh and dehumanizing. But not so with Israelite “slavery.”

Later in this series, we’ll be specifically looking at Israelite “slavery” in the Old Testament, because it – unlike American and Roman slavery – is part of God’s Word. In a way, those hostile to Christianity are right: God does endorse this type of “slavery” (and this type only). But the slavery of ancient Israel is nothing like American slavery, nor other Near Middle East slavery. It’s a truly unique biblical, Israelite “slavery.” Just like the ancient Greek word, the Hebrew word often translated “slave” can also be translated “servant,” and most modern Bibles tell you this in the footnotes.

As I said, we’ll explore this idea much more in depth in later articles, but for now know that Israelite slavery is more comparable to indentured servanthood or working under contract than slavery proper. So, where we find Roman slavery is a spectrum that goes from American-type slavery (minus the racism) to indentured servanthood and contract workers, Israelite “slavery” is simply a type of indentured servanthood or contract work.

In later articles, you’ll see just how radically different biblical, Old Testament “slavery” is from American slavery and the slavery of the nations surrounding Israel. (If you’d like a preview, I addressed some of this already in Part One of this series)

 

In this series, we’ll be addressing the 3 criticisms concerning Christianity and slavery:

  1. In the United States’ past, Christian slave-owners used the Bible to justify slavery.
  2. In the New Testament, Jesus and his Apostles never condemned slavery. In fact, they even told slaves to be obedient.
  3. In the Old Testament, God actually endorses slavery.

Thus, we will be exploring:

  1. What the Bible says about American slavery.
  2. What the New Testament says about Roman slavery.
  3. What the Old Testament says about Israelite slavery.

As I said above, the Greek and Hebrew words used in the Bible that are often translated “slave” can also be translated “servant.” This shows the wide range of meaning those words can have. Perhaps if the translators of the Bible simply used “servant” instead of “slave,” Christians would have to address this issue much less!

NEXT: The Bible VS. Race-Based American Slavery
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