Shibboleth on slavery
Shibboleth is to Will and Testament what The Stig is to Top Gear. He's a masked crusader who occasionally pipes up to do battle against hermeneuticial abuse and theological misunderstanding. This week, our very own biblical Stig has been exercised about some commenters' views on slavery and the Bible.
IS THE BIBLE PRO-SLAVERY?
One hesitates to even begin delving into this topic. It is one of those issues where one set of people assume that the bible is invariably dark, bizarre and oppressive whilst another set of people assume that the bible must invariably conform to the canons of modern western liberalism. The truth is somewhat more nuanced, and we can only trace some general contours of the issue here.
The background to the Bible, both the Old and New Testament, was one where all the major cultures practiced and endorsed slavery. Whether it be the Egyptians of the mid second millennium BC or the Romans of the first millennium AD, slavery was a norm within society. Ancient Israel was not an exception to this, and even a cursory glace within the pages of the OT demonstrates this point. The OT law codes - for example the section known as the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 21 and following) - contain many laws regulating the keeping of slaves. One will look in vain for any text in the OT that simply and unequivocally condemns slavery, because the OT assumes slavery as a basic social norm.
In ancient Israel, the majority of slaves were actually Hebrew citizens who fell into debt and were forced to voluntarily enter into slavery on a time limited basis. Manumission was automatic after seven years or at other set times. The remainder of the slave populations seems to have been foreigners captured in war, which must have been a fairly insignificant number of people for most of the history of ancient Israel.
Scholars of the socio-economics of Ancient Israel note that if the lists of people recorded in Ezra are representative, the ratio of free people to slaves was about 5:1 , and that no part of the Israelite economy was dependant upon slave labour. It is assumed that most slaves were employed in non-skilled domestic labour.
Where the OT differs radically from the norms of the Ancient near East is that the good treatment of slaves is demanded and the human rights of slaves are upheld in many key OT passages. This was particularly true for Hebrew citizens who had temporarily become slaves, but many laws protecting the rights of foreign slaves are to be found in the OT. These include legal protections for foreign women who became slaves in Israel. See, for example, Exodus 21.20, 26, 27; Leviticus 19.20.
In conclusion, the OT does not denounce slavery as a social institution, but it does recognise slaves as human beings who were to be protected from abuse. So, whilst it may be far in advance of the practices of the Ancient world, it does not conform to modern sensibilities.
The New Testament has relatively little to say upon the issue of slavery. Most of the NT references are metaphorical, likening the relationship of Christians to their Lord as one of joyous, liberating slavery. This paradoxical language was apposite to its cultural milieu and does not imply an endorsement of slavery. Paul makes it clear that slave trading is abhorrent and places slave traders in the same category as murderers (1 Timothy 1.10 – some versions say kidnappers, but kidnapping for purposes of slavery is intended).
Nevertheless, some readers of the NT are critical of the fact that there is no outright and whole-scale condemnation of slavery.
Paul wrote against a cultural setting that denied that slaves were actually full human beings, but rather just relatively worthless chattels. Paul writes so as to wholly undermine this belief system. Paul had to be somewhat circumspect in what he said, lest he be construed by the Romans as a dangerous social revolutionary, but his words were radical in their context. He does not call upon Christian slaves to rise up against their earthly masters, nor does he call upon Christian slave owners to set slaves free. Rather, Paul adopts the strategy of encouraging both to see one another as children of Christ and to respect and love one another for that reason. Paul gently pressurises Philemon to release Onesimus on the grounds that it was wrong for a Christian to keep another Christian as a slave.
Paul’s words had the desired effect, and the patristic writings record that most Christian slave owners abandoned the practice on the grounds that it was impossible to keep a fellow Christian in slavery. For this reason, it was common for slave owners in the recent past – in 19th century America for example – to deny slaves access to the New Testament or to anything other than bastardised forms of Christianity.