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.

Roman

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.

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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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