“So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self. I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.” (Letter from Paul to Philemon about Philemon’s slave)
The horrific treatment of slaves in the United States between 1619 and 1865 has led many Bible skeptics to question the often-mentioned practice of Biblical slavery, with the assumption that the systems of the U.S. were similar to those in Biblical times. The intention of the present blog is to offer contextual evidence that counters this assertion and other condemnations of the Bible.
- The Bible is an historical textbook, which documented actual events in our history.
- If we wanted a book devoid of actual events and our sometimes ugly history, the Bible would have been a fairy tale instead of an historical text.
- Some question the historicity of the Bible. Over a hundred years ago, famed Scottish archaeologist William Ramsay, who was highly critical of the book of Acts, set out to explore the book’s history by conducting digs over two decades in Asia Minor and Greece. He came to the conclusion that Luke’s work was “trustworthy” and “exceptionally valuable” and unsurpassed for its historical and archaeological accuracy. A detailed account can be accessed here: https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/ramsay/ramsay_gasque.pdf
- Slavery was an integral part of the functioning of societies in Biblical times.
- “As much as two thirds of the Roman empire were slaves (before the first century it was as high as 90%). By the first century AD an increasingly large number of slaves were being freed—so much so that Caesar had to write up laws that governed the procedure!” (Wallace, 2004).
- Ancient people would have had a difficult, if not impossible time of building societies without the manpower of slaves. Today, we have powerful electronics, motorized vehicles, and automated machines and equipment. In days of old, manual labor was the only source of labor to build pyramids, temples, homes, and other buildings and to grow and maintain crops and livestock. Slavery was an essential component that aided in fueling ancient economic and agricultural systems.
- Slaves were captives of war, children of slaves, abandoned children, criminals, or debt-servants. Slavery was not due to skin color.
- “Egypt, Nubia, China, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome, Carthage, India all had slavery. The principle that governed slavery in the ancient world was the idea that captives of war may either be killed or their lives might be spared and they would become slaves. If you lost a war, the price that the soldiers and the civilians paid was that they might be enslaved. This “captives of war” slavery had nothing to do with race or color. It was an “equal opportunity” enslavement. When the Greek city states of Athens and Sparta fought, the losers suffered enslavement. The Romans might take captives from whatever population they defeated: Egyptians, Judeans, Greeks, Britons, Gauls, Carthaginians, Germans, it made no difference” (Rutgers, n.d.).4. Old World slavery differed from New World Slavery
- “It is also important to point out that there are different types of slavery. Some systems of slavery are relatively mild or benign. In the Old World, the slave was a person with customary rights. They could marry. It was not always hereditary. In Moslem societies, a man would set free his children by a slave woman. Most often, a slave was like a house servant. Slaves could own property and have money” (Rutgers, n.d.).
- “The type of institution that developed in the New World was plantation slavery, and chattel slavery, in which the captives are worked in the fields from sunup to sundown. Chattel means property. Chattel slaves were not thought of as people, but as objects, as property, like livestock. New World slaves had no rights. In the US they could not own or possess property. Families were broken up in forced sales. And worst of all, slave masters sexually exploited slave women as concubines and did not acknowledge their children or set them free. This would have been unimaginable in African or Islamic (Moslem) culture. The chattel slavery that evolved in the New World was an extreme institution that animalized and dehumanized (per David Brion Davis) the slave. It was much worse than what normally existed in the Old World. This is why New World chattel and plantation slavery really cannot be equated with Old World slavery, and why it cannot be equated with African or Islamic or ancient slavery” (Rutgers, n.d.).
- This article offers a good perspective on the difference between slavery in Israel versus plantation slavery of the South in the United States: http://enrichmentjournal.ag.org/201102/201102_108_slavery.htm.cfm
4. Three provisions for slaves in Israel differ markedly from the rights afforded them in the New World (see above source for additional details).
- Anti-harm laws: When an employer accidentally harmed a slave, the slave was to go free, as per Exodus 21: 26-27. Further, in the same passage, if an owner put a slave to death, the owner was to be put to death. In the New World, slaves did not have such rights and owners were not punished for harming slaves.
- Anti-kidnapping laws: Kidnapping was condemned and punishable by death, as per Exodus 21:16 and Deuteronomy 24:7. In the New World, slavery began by the kidnapping of people in Africa.
- Anti-return laws: Deuteronomy 23: 15-16 states that Israel is to offer a safe haven to harbor runaway slaves, which strongly contrasts the “Fugitive Slave Law” of the United States. It further contrasts the treatment other societies of the same time period afforded their slaves. As noted by Old Testament scholar Christopher Wright: “No other ancient near Eastern law has been found that holds a master to account for the treatment of his own slaves (as distinct from injury done to the slave of another master), and the otherwise universal law regarding runaway slaves was that they must be sent back, with severe penalties for those who failed to comply” (Wright, 2011, p. 292).
5. We should consider the New Covenant of the New Testament when discussing Biblical Slavery.
- The intention of the New Covenant is to share the message to love our Lord above all other gods and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Such a simple message translates to the way we would treat any human on the planet, whether free or enslaved.
- Just as we would not consider valid the application to today’s organizations of the rules prevalent in organizations during and just following the Industrial Revolution in the Western world, we should consider the rules of the New Covenant to be superior to those in the Old Testament. For example, prior to 1935 and 1964 in the U.S., respectively, it was legal to discriminate against workers with intentions to join unions and against women and minorities. With the passage of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935 and the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, such discrimination is illegal. Therefore, we apply the newer laws (c.f., the New Covenant) to today’s organizations.
6. The New Testament treatment of slaves demonstrated kindness
- In the book of Philemon (15-21), we see that Philemon owned a slave – and the fine treatment Paul afforded the slave:
“Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.
So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self. I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.”
- “Some critics claim, “Jesus never said anything about the wrongness of slavery.” Not so. He explicitly opposed every form of oppression in His mission ‘to proclaim release to the captives … to set free those who are oppressed’ (Luke 4:18 NASB1; cp. Isaiah 61:1)” (Copans, 2011). While Jesus did not press for some economic reform plan in Israel, He did address attitudes such as greed, materialism, contentment, and generosity (Copans, 2011).
- “The New Testament presupposes a fundamental equality because all humans are created in God’s image (James 3:9). Yet, an even deeper unity in Christ transcends human boundaries and social structures: no Jew or Greek, slave or free, no male and female, as all believers are all ‘one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28; cp. Colossians 3:11)” (Copans, 2011).
- Unlike Christians, Romans believed slaves were a “living tool, just as a tool is an inanimate slave. Therefore, there can be no friendship with a slave” (Nichomachean ethics 8.11).
- Christians freed slaves with estimates of at least 15,600 between 95 and 400 A.D. (Lecky, 1927).
- With the emergence of Christianity came the belief that Christians wouldn’t enslave other Christians (Rutgers, n.d.).
7. Judging God’s actions to permit slavery or to terminate a particular society is faulty when we lack God’s omniscience and presence in the past, present, or future.
- If we had the ability to foresee horrendous destruction a society could bring upon society and we did not stop it, we would be to blame. God had the ability to foresee the destruction of ISIS-like groups such as the Assyrians or the Babylonians or the Chaldeans or the Canaanites, so He had them destroyed. You can’t judge Him for destroying those with potential to turn the tides of humanity towards the depths of hell.
- “By the time of their destruction, Canaanite culture was, in fact, debauched and cruel, embracing such practices as ritual prostitution and even child sacrifice. The Canaanites are to be destroyed “that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods, and so you sin against the Lord your God” (Deut. 20.18). God had morally sufficient reasons for His judgment upon Canaan, and Israel was merely the instrument of His justice, just as centuries later God would use the pagan nations of Assyria and Babylon to judge Israel” (Craig, 2007).
- Furthermore, let us consider the Parable of the Tares and the potential source of the Assyrians, Babylonians, Chaldeans, and Canaanites.
8. Judging the practice of slavery in the Old Testament or New Testament requires assessing it against an objective moral standard, not a relative (society-specific, fluctuating) standard.
- By what standard do atheists judge the so-called atrocities of the Bible? Kindness? Truth? Justice? Equity? Equality? Atheists believe that moral values are construed within each culture in a relative sense, so to ascribe today’s values to yesterday’s societies violates atheist fundamentals, as conceived by famous atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett.
9. Before judging societies for what they were during Biblical times, which consisted of high slavery populations and harsh conditions, consider the true message of the Bible and its entire purpose, which was to pave the path for Jesus.
- Consider the true message and themes in the Bible. Christians don’t read the Bible to learn how to treat their slaves. We know the practice is neither acceptable nor ethical in our advanced societies today. We read the Bible to learn how to be better people and more like Jesus.
- Consider Jesus’ lessons. As examples, reflect on the Beatitudes, in which Jesus blessed the poor, the meek, and the humble; the Parable of the Lost Sheep, in which God shows us how He never gives up on even one of His children; and the Parable of the Prodigal Son, in which God shows us how much forgiveness He gives His children.
- Consider Jesus’ person. Jesus exemplified perfection in humility, wisdom, and love for the downtrodden. He revered the Good Samaritan and forgave both the woman at the well and the adulteress about to be stoned. In the latter situation, He asked those who had not sinned to cast the first stone.
- The Bible preaches love, forgiveness, humility, truth, justice, equality, and fear of the Lord. One can pretend that its messages are of hatred, but the simple facts oppose that suggestion. John 4:8 and 4:16 say that God is love.
- The Bible says that the meek shall inherit the world – and the last will be first and some of the first will be last. Such verses exalt the lowliest in societies, such as those in bondage, while promising those on pedestals that they will be called into judgment. God’s objective moral standard suggests equity for all in the end.
Thank you for your time.
Excellent articles on these topics include the following, which, along with several other references in this article, I attribute to my friend Heather Schuldt:
Craig, W.L. (2007). Slaughter of the Canaanites. August 6. Available at: https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/question-answer/slaughter-of-the-canaanites/
Copans, P. (2011). Why is the New Testament silent on slavery? Or is it? Available at: http://enrichmentjournal.ag.org/201104/201104_108_NT_slavery.cfm
Lecky, W.E.H. (1927). History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne. New York and London: D. Appleton and Company.
Nichomachean Ethics. 8.11
Rutgers (n.d.). Slavery in the ancient world and middle ages. http://crab.rutgers.edu/~glasker/SLAVERYANCIENT.htm
Wallace, D.B. (2004). Some initial reflections on slavery in the New Testament. Available at: https://bible.org/article/some-initial-reflections-slavery-new-testament
Wright, C.J.H. (2011). Old Testament Ethics for the People of God. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press.