Slavery in the New World caused one of the greatest controversies of modern times. People have used the Bible to argue for and against this extremely inhumane practice. Few institutions in history have caused more suffering. A Slave is defined as “a human being who is the property of another and subject to compulsory labor, beyond the limits of the family” (Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics p.596). Slavery comes in different forms. Women in some societies are called slaves because they have almost no rights. People refer to whole nations of slaves living under totalitarian dictators or to the subjection of tribes or an entire peoples or to various forms of serfdom as enslavement but true slavery can only exist where there is freedom, where free men hold other men in bondage. Slavery has existed throughout known history and is still carried on today in parts of Africa and Asia. People have used the Bible to both support and condemn slavery. But what does the Bible really say about slavery? Parts of the Bible condone slavery while others show outright support for it; however these passages reflect the writings and customs of people, not of God. A true Christian would see the evils of slavery and rally against it instead of literally believing in the Bible as the absolute source of all truth.
The first mention of slavery in the Bible appears in Genesis, when Noah cursed his grandson Canaan (and all of the descendants of Canaan) because Noah’s son Ham had seen Noah naked (Genesis 9:25-27). In these verses, Noah curses Canaan after Ham, his son, sees him naked. These verses seem to send a highly immoral message. The curse does not punish the person responsible. It instead punishes the son of the perpetrator, and the son’s descendants forever. In all probability, Canaan was nowhere in the vicinity of Noah’s tent when the event happened. This was one of the favorite passages of theologians who tried to justify slavery on Biblical grounds. The descendants of Ham were assumed to be Africans. According to this verse, they were to be slaves forever. Thus the Southern slave owner was only carrying out God’s wishes.
In the Bible it is often unclear whether the Greek word doulos is meant to mean slave or servant. The King James Bible often uses ambiguous terms such as “servant” or “bondsman” while modern, more accurate translations often use “slave”. Some scholars believe this was done on purpose to disguise the practice of slavery in the Bible. Because of this, the entire issue of slavery in the Bible has become clouded. While no passage in the Bible clearly condemns slavery, two passages have been used to try to show that the Bible is against it.
The first is Luke 4:18 which describes Jesus as quoting a passage from Isaiah 61:1-2 which says that “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised.” The word “captives” is the crucial part of this quote. It is unknown whether it refers to slaves or to prisoners. The second passage is 1 Timothy 1:10. In the OAB it refers to a group of “fornicators, sodomites, slave traders, liars, perjurers…” Different versions of the Bible translate the verse differently, with slave traders usually translated as kidnappers or “men-stealers”. In the original Greek, the word is “andrapodistes”, which combines the words for man and foot. This apparently means to control a person completely. In any case this passage is ambiguous.
The Bible’s seemingly ambivalent stance on slavery has lead some people to question it as a source of morals. The book of Exodus is an ironic place for the Bible to condone slavery but in Exodus 21:1-6 guidelines are set forth for the buying, selling, and treatment of slaves. This is similar to Deuteronomy 15:12-18. It differentiates between a male Hebrew slave and Gentile slaves, saying that a Hebrew who sold himself into slavery is to be freed after six years, but if he has married or had a family they are to stay with the master. The Hebrew can choose to stay a slave to be with his family by mutilating his ear (the organ of obedience) with an awl and remain a slave for life. In the Ten Commandments, four and ten both mention slavery and say nothing about its’ evils. This may be because the accompanying explanations of each commandment were added by a later editor.
An important time in Biblical history is the time of the Patriarchs. In about 2000 B.C. God called to Abraham and and told him to leave his father’s family and to travel to the land we know today as Israel. He obeyed and took with him “his wife Sari and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired…”. The “people they had acquired” were most likely slaves. Jefferson Davis (President of the CSA) said that slavery “was established by decree of Almighty God.” We now know, through archeological evidence, that slavery was common in the ancient Middle East and that the custom was adopted from neighboring tribes and not an order from God. Abraham’s son, Issac and Issac’s son Jacob, also possessed slaves, including concubines that bore them sons. There is no legislation about slavery during the patriarchal times in the book of Genesis, but we can guess what it was like from the Nuzi Tablets.
The Nuzi Tablets are ancient Middle East legal documents from Abraham’s time that include many laws and regulations concerning slaves. Slaves had (limited) protection from the law when they were mistreated. The Genesis narrative portrays the slaves more as members of the family. In Genesis 17:9-14, in order to keep the covenant, Abraham must circumcise his male slaves as well as himself and his sons. This suggests the slaves were considered more than just property because they too were recipients of the spiritual blessing of the covenant. Mircea Eliade says that “among the Jews treatment of the slave was never debasing or cruel.” (619). Slavery seems to be more humane under the patriarchs then it would become in ancient Greek or Rome or under the slave trade to the New World but it still existed, even among Gods chosen people.
Supporters of slavery often quoted Ephesians 5:6 and Colossians 3:22, which say “Slaves, obey your earthly masters”. This is the most blatant passage in the Bible supporting slavery. It was passages like these that lead Karl Marx to call religion the “opiate of the masses”. Ephesians 5:6-8 clearly tells slaves to be faithful to God so they can be rewarded in the next life instead of this one. In Marx’s time he was more concerned about wage slavery when people sold themselves for their labor. Christianity message of obedience and faithfulness as well as Judaism’s strict emphasis on the Torah law has caused many to believe that the Bible condones slavery. Why did Jesus not directly address this evil institution? Herb Vander Lugt suggests three reasons, “Common sense, futility and priority” (11).
The first reason is the “Common-sense factor”. Lugt says that “slavery in the Roman Empire was quite humane” (11). Slavery had become so common that even common people kept slaves. Often a family slave would be treated almost as a member of a family. But slaves were also used in the mines under appalling conditions and used to build public buildings. One cannot generalize slavery and call it “humane”; anytime in which one human “owns” another there is a tremendous potential for abuse.
The second factor mentioned is that of futility. Mircea Eliade writes that the “immediate abolition or attempted abolition of slavery in the Roman empire would probably have led to the collapse of the fabric of society” (602). This is impossible to know of course, but slavery was an integral, if horrible, part of Roman civilization. To attempt to abolish it would have been a radical and dangerous action, to say the least. Still Jesus’ silence is disturbing.
The final reason offered is that of priority. Jesus came to “provide eternal salvation through death” and to “reveal the father” (Lugt, 12). While Jesus’ most important act was proclaiming the good news of salvation,
surely He had enough time between performing miracles to put in one word about the practice of slavery. Lugt echoes the argument of many Christian scholars when he asks “Why should they (Jesus and his disciples) risk getting into trouble over what was then such a minor issue?” (11). He points out that Jesus was never a political activist. However Jesus is quite adamant about some other issues such as divorce. In Luke 16:18 He says that “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and whoever marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.” There is no record of Jesus or anyone else in the Bible ever says anything clearly against slavery.
Traditionally, Moses is thought to have had the entire Torah dictated to him by God. Conservative Jews and Christians still believe this (some conservative Christians now believe that Moses wrote it himself but that God preserved it from error). Almost any Christian will fervently deny that God condones slavery. What then of the Torah or Peter’s letters? Before criticism of the Bible in the 18th century most everybody accepted that slavery was meant to be because of the Bible. Paul returned a runaway slave to his master but it should be remembered that the early church is not synonymous with Jesus. Just because Paul did this does not mean that Jesus would have.
Personal slavery disappeared from the Christian world during the Middle ages to be replaced by serfdom, a condition in which the rural poor were still unfree. It rose up again in fifteenth century with the Transatlantic slave trade. It is ironic that slavery resumed in Europe during the Renaissance, when Europe supposedly became less barbaric and embraced classical ideals. The greatest debate over slavery occurred during the 18th century. Christians were divided on the subject. Reverend Furman, a Baptist, said that “The right of holding slaves is clearly established in the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example.” Rabbi M.J. Raphall (circa 1861) gave an extremely convincing speech arguing that slavery is sanctioned by God. In it he asks, “How dare you, in the face of the sanction and protection afforded to slave property in the Ten Commandments–how dare you denounce slave holding as a sin? When you remember that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Job–the men with whom the Almighty conversed, with whose names he emphatically connects his own most holy name, and to whom He vouchsafed to give the character of ‘perfect, upright, fearing God and eschewing evil’ (Job 1:8)–that all these men were slave holders, does it not strike you that you are guilty of something very little short of blasphemy?” Still, black leaders and abolition spokesmen all used the Bible to help prove slavery unjust and immoral.
Just because many passages in the Bible condone slavery and because Jesus never addresses it, does not mean that God is in favor of it. The Bible was written by real people and editors. The New Testament writers were largely writing for a Hellenistic audience to which slavery was a “fact of life”. Slavery was finally abolished in the U.S. in 1863 and in most other Western European countries. Louis Cable writes that “It is the secular state, not the Bible, which we have to thank for ending slavery” (1). Despite this and the many passages in the Bible that appear to support slavery, Black abolitionist leaders still used their Christianity and the Bible to prove that slavery is wrong. They were inspired by the Exodus story and Jesus’ teachings of love. Civil rights leaders in the fifties and sixties, most notably Dr. Martin Luther King, often quoted from the Bible in their struggle for equal rights. They appealed to Christians’ higher sense of ethics, not to a literal, fundamentalist understanding of the Bible.
Cable, Louis. Does the Bible Condon Slavery?. 1997.