17 March 2014
Does the Bible really condone slavery?
by Dr Philip Church
I was recently listening to a debate between a Christian and an atheist, making cases for their faith or lack of it. The atheist participant commented that he had no respect for the Bible because, for one, “it condoned slavery.” This remark reminded me of a discussion I once overheard among members of a Bible translation committee as to whether or not they should use the word “slave” for doulos in the NT. The question at issue was precisely the one that came up in the debate. The picture that the word “slavery” evokes in our minds is quite different from the reality in both the OT and the NT. Indeed, in their preface the ESV translators (whose discussion I overheard) write, “the word “slave” currently carries associations with the often brutal and dehumanising institution of slavery in nineteenth-century America. For this reason, the ESV translation of the words ‘ebed and doulos has been undertaken with particular attention to their meaning in each specific context.” Of course this is what every Bible translator needs to do.
There is no space here for a detailed study of two words that appear over 800 times in the OT (‘ebed) and over 120 times in the NT (doulos). Rather, I want to consider the question whether the Bible condones slavery, as we know it, and as I assume the atheist participant in the debate understood it.
The ESV translators sum it up well when they say “the word “slave” currently carries associations with the often brutal and dehumanising institution of slavery in nineteenth-century America.” The other picture that comes into my mind is of the millions of women and young girls who are sold as “sex-slaves” into forced prostitution. Indeed, according to Human Rights Watch, there are approximately 15 million prostitutes in India alone, most of them having become prostitutes involuntarily (http://www.lighthouseforwomen.org/article3.htm, accessed 5 March 2014). If this is what the Bible condones, then I too would have no respect for it. But in reality the picture is quite different. In what follows, I rely mainly on the article “Slave, Slavery,” by G. H. Haas, Dictionary of the Old Testament Pentateuch, 778-83, and an article with the same name in Dictionary of Paul and his Letters by A. A. Rupprecht, 881-83.
In the Ancient Near East slavery was a common feature in all societies, and this was the environment in which the people of Israel emerged. It was common, and an accepted part of life. Citizens of a city-state were considered to be slaves of the ruler, and were forced to work the land that belonged to the ruler, and to give most of the produce to the temple and other institutions. Slaves were also often foreigners, usually prisoners of war. Indeed, the Israelites in Egypt before the Exodus were in this category, forced into slavery and treated harshly.
This situation is, however, what defines slavery among the Israelites. They were the people that God “brought out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exod 20:2). Thus, far from condoning slavery, God freed a group of slaves when he saw their harsh treatment. And their release by God was what governed the practice of slavery in Israel. In the ancient Israelite economy, which was quite different from western twenty-first century capitalism, sometimes a peasant farmer fell into debt and would be required to work for his creditor until the debt was extinguished. Then, or at the end of six years, or in the Jubilee year, whatever came first the slave was to be freed. There was to be no permanent slavery among the people of God. On the other hand if the slave had married another slave and neither wanted to break up the family, or when slaves loved their master, they might want to agree to remain slaves forever. But, this decision was up to the slave, not the master. Moreover, it was anticipated that slavery like this would be rare, for God’s people were called to care for the poor and provide for their needs so that they did not fall into debt and have to sell themselves into slavery.
Slaves were not chattels of their masters either. They were to be freed from having to work on the Sabbath, and males had to be circumcised to enable them to participate in religious rituals. In contrast to the rest of the Ancient Near East, runaway slaves in Israel were not to be returned to their masters, nor were they to be oppressed; they were to be allowed to live where they pleased. Slaves were not to be mistreated. If the discipline of a slave resulted in death, then the owner was punished, and in the case of serious injury the slave was to be freed. Haas summarises slavery in ancient Israel under three heads (782): (1) slaves had rights and privileges as human beings and had to be treated with dignity, (2) slavery was preferable to poverty and destitution, especially to a good master, and (3) the slave’s family was an important part of the institution in Israel, and families were not be broken up by one member being enslaved, or freed.
The New Testament comes from a totally different era from ancient Israel, but even there slavery was an important part of economic life. Rupprecht estimates that “85-90 percent of the inhabitants of Rome and peninsula Italy were slaves or of slave origin” (881). It is in this context that we need to understand the references to slavery in the NT. It was an accepted part of everyday life, and to do away with it would have caused the collapse of economic life in the Mediterranean world.
In the NT slavery appears in two main senses. First, it is a metaphor for a believer’s relationship with Christ. This has two sides. First, those who become believers are considered “redeemed,” set free from slavery to an old master and enslaved to Christ, becoming a truly free member of God’s new family. They are freed from a tyrannical master to serve the Lord Christ. Secondly, there is literal slavery. Since it was so much a part of the Mediterranean world in the first century there were bound to be slaves in the NT. Some of the individuals named in Paul’s letters were apparently wealthy individuals whose households would almost certainly have included slaves. And Paul nowhere suggests that slavery should be abolished. In 1 Cor 7:20-22 he addresses slaves and encourages them to remain so until the opportunity of freedom came. Then they could take it. In Eph 6, he encourages Christian slaves to serve their master well, as though they were serving Christ, and Christian masters to treat their slaves with respect, remembering that both slaves and masters serve God with whom their it no partiality. The question for Paul was not about the abolition of slavery – that was far too simplistic. Rather, as Rupprecht says, Paul asked, “given the fact of slavery, what are its advantages for the proclamation of the gospel?” (882).
Finally, I turn to the case of Onesimus, Philemon’s runaway slave. Apparently Onesimus had become a believer in Christ while imprisoned with Paul. Paul sent him back to his master Philemon, begging Philemon to receive him back, “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a dearly loved brother (Phm 16). The relationship between master and slave was transformed by the gospel.
So, does the Bible condone slavery? In a sense it does, for it was a normal and accepted part of life in both the Ancient Near East and in the first century Greco-Roman world. But, the slavery it condones was a far cry from nineteenth century America or modern day sex slavery. Moreover, the Bible sought to transform the slavery that it condoned, from where people were considered chattels to be treated badly or well at the whim of the slave owner, to where they were to be given rights dignity and fellow humans, and at times as fellow believers. Christian slaves and masters were to treat each other with respect, as fellow believers and sons and daughters of God.
One more thing. It was Wilberforce, the British Christian politician who led the movement to abolish slavery in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. He had noticed the appalling slave trade, the appalling conditions of the slaves and their appalling treatment at the hands of the traders and of their owners. No doubt he was deeply influenced by reading the Bible, and it was this that led him to embark on what was perhaps his life’s greatest work. It is just too simplistic to dismiss the Bible because it seems to condone slavery. The Bible’s treatment is far more nuanced than that.