Overview

Slavery has a long and problematic relationship with biblical scholarship, with the latter justifying the former for almost 2000 years. Here, the relationship between slavery and Christian scholarship is introduced.

Reading Time: 11 minutes

Some moral questions are difficult. Some are shrouded in uncertainty. Some come into focus only with the passage of time. There are some on which reasonable people can disagree.

Then there is slavery.

Sadly, the horror of slavery still exists in 2022, both in practice and in its legacy. There are still thought to be 40 million enslaved people worldwide, 1 in 4 of them children, 71% women and girls. What’s more, the effects of slavery are rife, hard-baked into the communities and societies that have suffered, often long after the practice ended.

Haiti is still largely crushed by the heavy boot of colonial France more than 200 years after that colonial rule ended. In the 18th century, the enslaved Haitian population had a rebellion and declared independence. And yet they were required to pay reparations to compensate the French for the colonists’ lost revenues from slavery—a massive burden that lay the foundation for Haitian poverty and underdevelopment to this day.

In California, a new 500-page report produced by the task force on reparations for Black Americans details “segregation, racial terror, harmful racist neglect” that has created and perpetuated “atrocities in nearly every sector of civil society have inflicted harms, which cascade over a lifetime and compound over generations, resulting in the current wealth gap between Black and white Americans.” Once again, the legacy of slavery long outlived the practice itself.

Slavery is arguably the simplest and clearest of moral outrages. No excuse of place, time, or culture can justify the inability to see slavery as a grotesque, immoral practice. Any moral philosophy or resource suggesting otherwise instantly renounces any claim to validity.

If the Bible, and indeed Christianity, fails on the question of slavery, then it fails as a whole. It does both.

It’s as simple as that.

The idea that God would knowingly use the Bible as the primary source of revelation for his existence and as a moral exemplar is thoroughly problematic if he knew it would be used to justify slavery by countless people over almost 2,000 years.

In skeptical circles, the connection of slavery to scripture has long been acknowledged. But the connection hasn’t always been a major concern in academia. Arguably, it has been ignored or reasoned away with nary a hand wave.

So how have biblical scholars themselves addressed the topic of slavery?

What is slavery?

In the superb Slavery, Abolitionism, and the Ethics of Biblical Scholarship, the late biblical scholar Hector Avalos defined slavery as

a socioeconomic system centering on the use of forced laborers, who are viewed as property or under the control of their superiors for whatever term was determined by their masters or by their society. This definition encompasses modern and ancient situations. Within a broader context, slavery means that human beings could be abducted from their families and be subjected to the most cruel and horrible treatment. Any mercy was completely at the discretion of the master or the broader society to which the master belonged.

Hector Avalos, Slavery, Abolitionism, and the Ethics of Biblical Scholarship, p. 7.

Many apologists argue that biblical slavery was a much more benign version of slavery than one might have thought. This is to be expected: the job of apologists is to explain their religion in the best possible light and argue for its moral primacy.

Jim Wallace of Cold Case Christianity does what many apologists do: He changes the word “slavery” to “servitude.” In “Four Differences Between New Testament Servitude and New World Slavery,” he concludes:

While it is clear that the ancient Israelites did possess slaves, it is also clear the reason for their possession, the manner in which they were treated, and the manner in which they could be released was very different from the institution of slavery in more recent times in Europe and America. . . .  It is unfair to say that the God of the Bible supports the institution of slavery as we understand it in more modern times. That version of slavery had little in common with the version of servitude in Biblical times.

OnlySky’s Bob Seidensticker rightly gave such a conclusion short shrift in his treatment of the subject, concluding:

What do we do then? What do we make of this conflict between the obvious wrongness of slavery and the obvious support of slavery in the Bible? Should we just presuppose God and then figure that he has his own good reasons for acting in a way that, in any other situation, you’d call “immoral”? Or should we drop any special pleading and evaluate the Bible as we would any other claimed moral source? I’m certain Wallace wouldn’t take this approach to avoid critique of any other holy book.

“[I]t was abandoning or marginalizing biblical argumentation, and shifting to secularized economic, humanitarian, and practical arguments, that made a much greater impact on abolition.”

Our definition here needs to be understood in contrast to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 4, which states in its entirety,

No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

That was easy.

I’m not sure why the Ten Commandments or the Covenant Code in the Bible couldn’t have said that. It would have saved an awful lot of confusion and…slavery. The point cannot be overemphasized: That God did not etch “Slavery is morally bad and is outlawed” as rule no. 1 on the Ten Commandments is a morally unacceptable omission.

That God did not etch “Slavery is morally bad and is outlawed” as rule no. 1 on the Ten Commandments is a morally unacceptable omission.

Given what we know about how it was used for so long to justify slavery, no further argument against the Bible as moral text is necessary.

The starting point is wrong

The key, as Avalos puts it, is that the axiom upon which apologists build their case is problematic and circular:

If one reads almost any book on Christian ethics written by academic biblical scholars, one finds something extremely peculiar: Jesus never does anything wrong….

[M]ost biblical scholars, whether in secular academia or in seminaries, still see Jesus as divine, and not as a human being with faults. Such scholars are still studying Jesus through the confessional lenses of Nicea or Chalcedon rather than through a historical approach we would use with other human beings.

Avalos, p.1-2.

Hector Avalos’s book is a project to see exactly how biblical scholarship has interacted over time with the idea of biblically-endorsed slavery, from slave traders, slave consumers, and slavery advocates using the Bible to defend the terrible idea for 1900 of the last 2000 years.

When Christians claim that abolition was founded upon Christianity and Christian thought, Avalos is rightfully skeptical. His book is fundamentally opposed to this, showing that not only is this claim incorrect (the reasons that abolitionism came about were multi-faceted), but that biblical scholarship and interpretation was itself a primary cause or defense of slavery.

So, given that slavery is oddly very much a feature in the Bible, a book detailing the social and moral diktats of the all-loving OmniGod, how do biblical scholars deal with this?

An academic vacuum

In fact, the initial approach to slavery being contained and countenanced in the Bible was to ignore the problem. As R. Norman Whybray, noted biblical scholar, admitted:

The dark side of God is a subject that has received astonishingly little attention from Old Testament scholars. The standard Old Testament theologies, monographs, about the Old Testament doctrine of God, articles about particular passages, even commentaries are almost silent on the matter…even those that make reference to them have tended to play down such passages or sought to explain them away with a variety of arguments.

R. Norman Whybray, ‘”Shall not the judge of the earth do what is just?” God’s Oppression of the Innocent in the Old Testament,’ in Shall Not the Judge of the Earth do What is Right?, Penchansky & Redditt, (2000), p. 1-19.

This is a stark admission. Indeed, Waldemar Janzen’s Old Testament Ethics: Paradigmatic Approach does not contain a single reference to “slavery,” and the authoritative Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible does not even contain an entry for “slavery” (though a more recent edition contains a supplement on it).

That said, the most common approach to slavery in biblical scholarship these days is apologetics.

The apologetic framework

Secular and atheistic scholars and commentators have been a noisy lot of late and so slavery isn’t something that can be so easily glossed over, or simply ignored. When we do see it mentioned, there is often the approach of employing (something I mentioned recently in a piece on politics) adversative conjunctions. “Yes, slavery was mentioned in the Bible, but look how much better biblical figures treated their slaves!” It’s a case of making a descriptive statement about slavery and then mitigating it with a “however” or a “but.” Here are some examples (my emphasis):

As for the Israelites, they can have foreign slaves in perpetuity… However, we should recall that even the Covenant Code prescribes the immediate liberation of male and female slaves if their master puts out an eye or breaks a tooth (Ex 21:26f)… It is clear that the protection of slaves that the Torah seeks to assure is very inadequate, but on the whole Jewish law was much in advance of other legislation in antiquity.

Leon Epsztein, Social Justice in the Ancient Near East and the People of the Bible, (1986), p. 122-23.

[T]his denial of the right of possession of man by man in perpetuity is as yet restricted to Hebrews only…but it is a step which no other religion had taken before.

Isaac Mendelsohn, Slavery in the Ancient Near East, (1949), p. 123.

[I]n spite of the slurs, insults, and denigrating remarks that are heaped upon the Canaanites in Biblical and Rabbinic literature, there is no explicit or implicit denial of their human dignity and their equality with Israelites as human beings.

Ephraim Isaac, ‘Genesis, Judaism, and the “Sons of Ham”‘ in Slaves & Slavery in Muslim Africa, John Ralph Willis, (1985), p. 89-79.

These quotes leave me shaking my head. Surely, biblical commands to kill and enslave Canaanites is a rather explicit “denial of their human dignity and their equality with Israelites as human beings”! I have no idea what Bible John Ralph Wallis of the quote above was reading, but it is certainly a different one to mine.

This “yeah, but…” approach stretches to the New Testament analyses, too (my bold):

[I]n all this material, we find Paul treating all members of the family, including the children and slaves, as moral agents responsible for their own behavior. This is remarkable in comparison with other ethical literature of the day, which treated women, children, and slaves as property or objects to be managed rather than as subjects to be related to.

Ben Witherington III, “Was Paul a Pro-Slavery Chauvinist? Making Sense of Paul’s Seemingly Mixed Moral Messages,” BR 20, no. 2 (2004), p. 44.

It is as if the apologist’s goal is to sit down and explicitly answer, “How can I make Jesus or God come out of this looking as good as possible?” Here, we refer back to the circularity of their axiom, as mentioned earlier. If God or Jesus as portrayed in the Bible has to be perfect, then any interpretation of the Bible must conclude that God and Jesus are perfect.

This makes the whole enterprise of biblical scholarship corrupt. It is merely spin-doctoring.

So what gave rise to abolitionism?

Given the aforementioned approach, it is no surprise that apologists and Christians in general look at abolition and only see in it that Christians and Christianity were responsible. However, to say that Christianity is responsible for the abolition of slavery—even if this were true—is always (for the Christian) to ignore that Christianity was largely responsible for it in the first place, or at least for serving as its most powerful justification.

The analogy would be for Harry to congratulate himself for having the moral pedigree of saving Jimmy from drowning by pulling him out of the river. But the reality is that Harry threw Jimmy in the river in the first place and then held his head down. Or, to be even more accurate, created the river and the concept of drowning.

With that understanding, it’s a bit much to see Harry patting himself on the back for a moral job well done.

Nowadays, different theories are presented for the arrival of abolitionist thinking and abolition as a movement. These include economic theories (such as what Eric Williams espoused in Capitalism and Slavery), the evolution of Enlightenment thinking, the change in British political culture, and so on. For example, as scholar David B. Davis stated:

I would still maintain that hostility to slavery, largely religious and philosophical in origin, had little chance of having any practical effect until it became incorporated into the political culture of the British governing elite.

David B. Davis, “The Perils of Doing History by Ahistorical Abstraction: A Reply to Thomas L. Haskell’s AHR Forum Reply,” in The Antislavery Debate: Capitalism as a Problem in Historical Interpretation, Thomas Bender, 1992, p. 308.

Invariably, the answer will be nuanced and might well entail a Christian theological variable as a contributing factor. Christians see it as not a variable but the reason—and the question, for Avalos in his book in particular, is whether these Christians are justified.

The idea that God would knowingly use the Bible as the primary source of revelation for his existence and as a moral exemplar is thoroughly problematic if he knew it would be used to justify slavery by countless people over almost 2000 years.

The problem for believers is that they have historically used the Bible to defend slavery, and for a very long time. Moreover, they were arguably more justified in doing so than abolitionists were in using the Bible to justify abolition. As scholar J. Albert Harrill admitted in the supplemental article on slavery in the New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible:

In the late 19th century conflict over the Bible and slavery, American abolitionists, many of whom were Christian evangelicals, ransacked Scripture for texts condemning slavery, but found few. As a consequence, they developed new hermeneutical strategies to read the Bible to counter ‘plain sense’ (literalist) reading of proslavery theology… Most embarrassing for today’s readers of the Bible, the proslavery clergymen were holding the more defensible position from the perspective of historical criticism. The passages in the Bible about slavery signal the acceptance of an ancient model of civilization for which the patriarchy and subjugation were not merely desirable but essential.

Harrill’s “Slavery” entry, p. 307.

If you are to take anything away from this article, take that. The modern apologists’ penchant for reinterpreting the Bible to defend their enlightened moral evaluation of the abhorrence of slavery is a tough gig. They have their work cut out to make the Bible mean something it clearly was not intended to mean.

Many readers will be aware of sociologist Rodney Stark, who has written many times on the development of Christianity. Avalos says of him:

Rodney Stark’s impressive publishing record in the study of American religion has catapulted him into being a spokesperson in areas of history in which he has done very little primary research.

Avalos, p. 11.

Stark has very facile conclusions that appear nothing more than the wishful thinking of Christian apologetics:

Just as science arose only once, so, too, did effective moral opposition to slavery. Christian theology was essential to both….

Slavery did not die of its own inefficiency and emancipation was not a capitalist ploy… Moral fervor is the fundamental topic of this entire book; the potent capacity of monotheism, and especially Christianity, to activate extraordinary episodes that have shaped Western Civilization.

Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts and the End of Slavery, p. 291, 365.

Look no further than the title of his book to understand his motivations. Dinesh D’Souza is another example (in What’s So Great About Christianity) in a long line of Christians arguing and glorifying how wonderful Christianity is and how abolition was a direct result of Christian thinking and theology.

1900 years of Christian defense of slavery

But nothing that such apologists say can possibly overturn the very real evidence of almost 2000 years of Christian defense of slavery. As an example here, proslavery clergyman Fred A. Ross (1796-1883) attacks the way in which an abolitionist minister (Albert Barnes) was using and abusing the Bible to reach his abolitionist conclusions:

You get nothing by torturing the English version. People understand English. Nay, you get little by applying the rack of Hebrew and Greek; even before a tribunal of men like you, who proclaim that Moses, in Hebrew, and Paul, in Greek, must condemn slavery because ‘it is in violation of the first sentiments of the Declaration of Independence’. You find it difficult to persuade men that Moses and Paul were moved by the Holy Ghost to sanction the philosophy of Thomas Jefferson!

Fred A. Ross, Slavery Ordained of God, (1969 [1859]), p. 97.

This is powerful stuff, where Ross is accusing abolitionists of retrojecting Enlightenment thinking into the intentions and meaning of the words of biblical characters and authors.

Former slave Frederick Douglass, ruminated on the causality of abolition himself:

It may not be a useless speculation to inquire when[ce] comes the disposition or suggestion of reform; whence that irresistible power that impels men to brave all the hardships and dangers in pioneering an unpopular cause? Has it a natural or a celestial origin? Is it human or is it divine, or is it both?

Frederick Douglass, from Blassingame & MvKivigan (eds.) The frederick Douglass Papers, Series One, V, p. 137.

It seems that the modern desire to whitewash the Bible to clean it of its moral muck and murk is to ignore the strong tradition of muck-raking over the preceding millennia.

A conclusion of sorts

In his book, Hector Avalos seeks to show three things:

  1. Biblical scholarship serves as an apology for unethical views, of which slavery is one of the foremost examples.
  2. Biblical ethics and theology has generally delayed abolition and progress toward freedom.
  3. Credit given to the Bible for such progressive advances is usually the result of arbitrary exegesis, reinterpretation, and the abandonment of biblical principles.

As Avalos concludes in the introduction to his book:

While there are instances where reliance on the Bible can be credited with ethical advance, this study will confirm that the Bible presents such contradictory and ambiguous notions of ethics that oposing positions could easily justify almost anythign relying on it. In fact, it demonstrates that it was abandoning or marginalizing biblical argumentation, and shifting to secularized economic, humanitarian, and practical arguments, that made a much greater impact on abolition.

Avalos, p.18-19.

Modern academics who work so hard to let the Bible—and God—off the hook and perpetuate the myth that Christianity is a wonderful theological edifice that was used to shelter freed slaves. While it may have become that, the building originally served as the very slave market itself.

It’s bad enough that the most important and influential book in the world’s history contains and countenances slavery. But it’s worse that those held under the book’s spell have minimized and justified its existence. And it’s utterly inexcusable that they still do.

The sooner Christians realize this, the sooner they will realize that their holy book is not the sacrosanct origin of moral revelation they think it is, and the sooner they can throw off the shackles of their own bondage to an outdated and indefensible religion.

Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...