The Bible has a lot to say about slavery, which should not come as a surprise since slavery was a major feature of life in the ancient world. However, the assertion that the Bible endorses slavery is misleading, to say the least.
When the subject of slavery is broached, we tend to imagine the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade. Men, women and children, kidnapped from villages in West Africa, transported across the ocean in subhuman conditions and forced to work on plantations for cruel masters who treated them worse than animals. That was certainly a reality from the 16th to the 19th centuries, but a far cry from anything described in either the Old or the New Testament. Exodus 21.16 defines kidnapping as a capital offence, which precludes outright the kind of practices that characterised the transatlantic slave trade.
So, what kind of slavery do we find in the Bible? Firstly, in the book of Exodus, we read about the Israelites’ captivity and forced labour in Egypt. This situation was categorically bad, and Pharaoh, who was largely responsible for it, is depicted as perhaps the most malevolent character in all of scripture.
Secondly, we have the slaves of Hebrew culture, who were in fact bond servants. These were people who had sold themselves into slavery, for a period of six years, in the case of extreme financial hardship. From our cultural vista, the situation of a bond servant might seem intolerable, however, the practice existed to prevent a person or family from becoming completely destitute. Exodus 21 details a number of laws pertaining to the treatment of bond servants and it is clear that the overall thrust of these laws seeks to prevent their mistreatment. Bond servants had all their basic needs provided for and to be in the employ of a good and kind master (as prescribed by the law), was by far the most secure and comfortable existence for those of meagre means.
Thirdly, the New Testament is set against the backdrop of Greco-Roman culture, of which slavery was a significant element. Again, the slavery of the Greco-Roman world was very different to that of the transatlantic slave trade. Slaves were often well educated, they could own property and even buy their freedom. What is more, slavery was never racialised. That is to say, a person’s race or skin colour was not indicative of them being “slave material”.
Having outlined what is meant by “slavery” in the Bible, let us examine whether it is endorsed.
On page one of the Bible, we find the astonishing statement that human beings are made in the image of God. That being the case, we are all of equal value to God. It was this premise, among others, that inspired the abolitionists of the 18th and 19th centuries. The abolitionist movement, led by devout Christians, eventually caused Britain to become the first nation in history, not only to abolish slavery, but to impose and police its anti-slavery policies internationally.
Many claim that Ephesians 6 is an endorsement of slavery, since it exhorts slaves to obey their masters. Notwithstanding, it also exhorts masters to reciprocate their slaves’ respect and integrity. It is not surprising that the New Testament writers did not set about dismantling slavery in a revolutionary way. After all, their mission was to proclaim eternal salvation through Jesus Christ. Moreover, slavery was an integral part of ancient culture; to abolish it, as it were, overnight would be like calling time on the Internet in the modern era. It is not something that could have been done rapidly without creating enormous problems for society.
The New Testament creates the vision of a new society based on Jesus’ kingdom values. The remarkable claim of Christianity is that God stooped down to the level of a slave in order that the lowest could be raised up. Jesus told his disciples that “the last will be first, and the first will be last” and that the one who wants to be great must be a servant.
The Apostle Paul sent an escaped slave back to his master with a letter beseeching him to receive his slave back, “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother”. And in Galatians 3, Paul makes the following radical claim, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” In other words, society’s divisive barriers become null and void in Christ’s kingdom.
Whilst abolishing slavery may not have been the top priority for the New Testament authors, it was inevitable that the practice would come under critical scrutiny from those who sought to live within the parameters of Jesus’ radical new kingdom.
In the Museum of the Bible, in Washington DC, is a copy of The Slave Bible. The Slave Bible was compiled by slave owners in the 1800s and given to slaves as a method of justifying their slavery. Rather tellingly, The Slave Bible is missing 90 per cent of the Old Testament and 50 per cent of the New. Or, to put it another way, it comprises just 232 chapters, compared with the 1189 chapters that we find in any other Protestant Bible. This demonstrates that, whilst certain verses taken out of context can appear to justify slavery, the overall witness of the Bible points in the opposite direction. Far from endorsing slavery, the Bible, as a whole, makes the practice untenable. It is little wonder that plantation owners went to such lengths to prevent slaves from reading the full canon of scripture and drawing their own conclusions.
First Published on the St Andrew’s, Springfield website in June 2023.Jump to next article