Slavery in the Bible:
Passages from the Christian
Scriptures (New Testament)
Webmaster's disclaimer about this essay:
We received an email from a visitor to this web site which criticized this essay. They suggested that it is irrational to for us, writing today, to expect that persons living thousands of years ago should have behaved like modern individuals and, as a result, condemned slavery in their writings.That was not our intent.
The purpose of the series of essays on slavery was to point out that there have been some examples of positive changes in morality since biblical times. When the authors of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures (a.k.a. Old and New Testaments) were alive, slavery was a perfectly normal and expected social institution. Opinions were similar when the United States was founded. But gradually, concerned people started to question the morality of slavery and criticize the institution, in spite of its acceptance in the Bible. The abolition movement led to legislative change in Canada and the British Empire, to the Civil War in the United States, and to progressive movements elsewhere.
We hope that visitors to our web site will see that some moral progress has been made since biblical times on slavery, the role of women, universal suffrage, child protection services, universal health care, welfare programs in many places, etc. However, there are exceptions -- even in developed countries. Many people note that there are still examples of sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, and other forms of bias, rejection, and hatred that need to be overcome. Slavery still exists in a few predominately Muslim countries and is seen worldwide in the form of sex trafficking. Much work remains.
The Christian Scriptures and Slavery:
Neither Jesus, nor St. Paul, nor any other Biblical figure is recorded as saying anything in opposition to the institution of slavery. Slavery was very much a part of life in Judea, Galilee, in the rest of the Roman Empire, and elsewhere during New Testament times. The practice continued in England, Canada and the rest of the English Empire until the early 19th century; it continued in the U.S. until later in the 19th century.
Quoting Rabbi M.J. Raphall, circa 1861:
"Receiving slavery as one of the conditions of society, the New Testament nowhere interferes with or contradicts the slave code of Moses; it even preserves a letter [to Philemon] written by one of the most eminent Christian teachers [Paul] to a slave owner on sending back to him his runaway slave."1
Paul's violation of the Mosaic Code on slavery:
While in prison, Paul met a runaway slave, Onesimus, the property of a Christian -- presumably Philemon. He sent the slave back to his owner. This action is forbidden in Deuteronomy 23:15-16:
"Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escaped from his master unto thee."
"He shall dwell with thee, even among you, in that place which he shall choose in one of thy gates, where it liketh him best: thou shalt not oppress him."
Rather than give the slave sanctuary, Paul returned him to his owner. Paul seems to hint that he would like Philemon to give Onesimus his freedom, but does not actually request it. See the Letter to Philemon in the Christian Scriptures.
Other references to slavery in the Christian Scriptures:
People in debt (and their children) were still being sold into slavery in the first century CE:
|Matthew 18:25: "But forasmuch as he had not to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made."|
|Mark 14:66: "And as Peter was beneath in the palace, there cometh one of the maids of the high priest:"|
Jesus is recorded as mentioning slaves in one of his parables. It is important to realize that the term "servant girl" or "maid" in many English translations of the Bible, like the American Standard Version, Amplified Bible, Phillips New Testament, Revised Standard Version, etc. refer to slaves, not employees like a butler, cook, or maid. Here, a slave which did not follow his owner's will would be beaten with many lashes of a whip. A slave who was unaware of his owner's will, but who did not behave properly, would also be beaten, but with fewer stripes.
This would have been a marvelous opportunity for Jesus to condemn the institution of slavery and its abuse of slaves. But he is not recorded of having taken it:
|Luke 12:45-48: "The lord [owner] of that servant will come in a day when he looketh not for him, and at an hour when he is not aware, and will cut him in sunder, and will appoint him his portion with the unbelievers. And that servant, which knew his lord's will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes. For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more."|
One of the favorite passages of slave-owning Christians was St. Paul's infamous instruction that slaves to obey their owners in the same way that they obey Christ:
|Ephesians 6:5-9: "Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ; Not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart; With good will doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men: Knowing that whatsoever good thing any man doeth, the same shall he receive of the Lord, whether he be bond or free. And, ye masters, do the same things unto them, forbearing threatening: knowing that your Master also is in heaven; neither is there respect of persons with him."|
Other passages instructing slaves and slave owners in proper behavior are:
|Colossians 4:1: "Masters, give unto your servants that which is just and equal; knowing that ye also have a Master in heaven."|
|1 Timothy 6:1-3 "Let as many servants as are under the yoke count their own masters worthy of all honor, that the name of God and his doctrine be not blasphemed. And they that have believing masters, let them not despise them, because they are brethren; but rather do them service, because they are faithful and beloved, partakers of the benefit. These things teach and exhort. If any man teach otherwise, and consent not to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which is according to godliness;"|
In his defense, St. Paul incorrectly expected that Jesus would return in the very near future. This might have demotivated him from speaking out against slavery or other social evils in the Roman Empire. Also, he regarded slaves as persons of worth whom at least God considers of importance. St. Paul mentioned that both slaves and free persons are sons of God, and thus all part of the body of Christ and spiritually equal.
|1 Corinthians 12:13: "For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit."|
Steve McQueen’s celebrated film, “12 Years a Slave”, is as much a commentary on religion as race. – Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight
If Charles Dickens were reviewing Steve McQueen’s new film, “12 Years a Slave”, he might begin, “It was the best of religion, it was the worst of religion.”
The movie, set to release on October 17th, is based on a true story about Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man who is duped, drugged, and sold into slavery on a Southern plantation. The cinematography is breathtaking, the cycle of despair and hope is gripping, and the depiction of the mistreatment of slaves is so unsparingly brutal that it often forces one to turn away. But the film is as much a commentary on religion as race.
“12 Years a Slave” expends a lot of energy throughout its 133-minute runtime exploring the way white Christians in the American South used scripture and their faith to perpetuate injustice. After Solomon arrives on a sugar cane plantation, his master, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), gathers all the slaves to read scripture and deliver a sermon in which he quotes from Luke 17:2, “It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones.” Since audiences have just witnessed Ford purchasing and thereby separating a female slave from her children, the hypocrisy is stifling.
When Solomon is sold to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), the oppressive owner of a cotton plantation, the commentary deepens. Epps quotes Luke 12:47 to his slaves: “And that servant, which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes.” He then shuts the Bible and says, “That’s scripture.” Epps takes this verse literally and whips the slaves who pick the least amount of cotton each day. When he has a good harvest, Epps attributes it to “righteous living”; when the crops die, he claims it must be a “biblical plague” brought on by his slaves’ unrighteousness.
McQueen seems to be making a point about how people pick and choose the verses they live by and how those verses should be applied. American history demonstrates this is true. Many Christian clergy advocated for slavery and, as historian Larry Tise notes in his book, Proslavery, ministers “wrote almost half of all defenses of slavery published in America” and believed the Bible taught that white people could own black people as work animals.
Sadly, the examples in history don’t end with emancipation. Many American clergy vocally opposed the civil rights movement and supported Jim Crow laws. In the 1950s, The Alabama Baptist newspaper editorialized, “We think it deplorable in the sight of God that there should be any change in the difference and variety in his creation and he certainly would desire to keep our races pure.”
We’re still witnessing the tendency to use scripture to acquire power and oppress people in countries like Malawi and Uganda where same sex relationships are illegal and punishable by law. In Uganda, legislators were considering an “Anti-Homosexuality Bill” that prescribes the death penalty or life imprisonment for gays and lesbians. Christian clergy in Uganda and some evangelical evangelists from America supported the bill.
Christian history, both past and present, is a sobering reminder of our tendency to manipulate the scriptures in pursuit of personal or political goals.
“12 Years a Slave” isn’t a religious jeremiad, however, and McQueen is careful to present the redemptive side of religion as well. On the plantations, slaves in the film often find solace in their faith, expressed in the singing of spirituals and hymns. The same force that causes them to despair ironically brings them hope. And the character of Bass (Brad Pitt) roots his criticism of the institution of slavery in the biblical concepts of justice and righteousness. Bass eventually helps free Solomon.
“12 Years a Slave” cast [From left: Alfre Woodard, Lupita Nyong’o, Chiwetel Ejoifor, Michael Fassbender] – photo credit: Jonathan Merritt, RNS
“People have used religion in ways to control groups of people,” Fassbender told me. “Religion is a powerful force. It depends who decides to manipulate that, in whatever form—good or evil.”
This perspective should particularly resonate with Christians because much of the Gospels tell of explosive conflicts between the Pharisees and Jesus. They are more than personal disagreements, but rather clashes between those who insisted on using religion to control and One who rightly saw faith as a freeing force. The difference between Jesus and the Pharisees is, to some extent, the chasm between slave owners and abolitionists. “12 Years a Slave” forces audiences to enter this tension and determine which side of the chasm they are on.
“I think the film is showing what [religion] is, how it was used for good, how it was used for bad, but everyone can recognize the overall power of that,” Chiwetel Ejiofor told me. “But it is for the individual viewer to see where that balance is.”
As it is with audiences who view this film so it is with all the faithful. History is littered with the carcasses of those who’ve been victimized by people who’ve chosen to use religion as a means to a selfish end rather than an end in itself. “12 Years a Slave” reminds us that every generation has a choice between a faith that crushes and oppresses and one that uplifts and liberates. As audiences explore this “Tale of Two Religions”, they are urged to choose and choose carefully.
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