2013-11-11

“With All Fear”: Christianity and Slavery (Part 2)

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by Tim Widowfield

Unlike other religions?

We noted last time that Thomas Madden in his course on early Christianity claimed, “Unlike any other ideologies at the time, Christianity also considered slavery — the institution of slavery — to be inherently wrong.” He said that attitude stemmed from their belief that: “Unlike other religions, Christianity held that all people, men or women, free or slaves, were the same in God’s eyes.

English: Remains of living quarters at Qumran.

English: Remains of living quarters at Qumran. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As we will see, and as you probably already know, most Christians until relatively recently did not see slavery as inherently wrong. Further, despite Madden’s sweeping statement to the contrary, we do know of one Jewish sect that actually did condemn the practice. According to both Josephus and Philo, the Essenes did not keep slaves. As Philo wrote:

There is not a single slave among them, but they are all free, serving one another; they condemn masters, not only as representing a principle of unrighteousness in opposition to that of equality, but as personifications of wickedness in that they violate the law of nature which made us all brethren, created alike. (Quoted by the Jewish Encyclopedia from Philo, Vol. VI, Loeb Classical Library)

Granted, the Essenes set themselves apart from general society, dwelling in communes, keeping all things in common, and living as “free men.” So one could argue that since they lived in their own little world, they didn’t have to worry about letting loose a “frightful revolution” (in the words of the Catholic Encyclopedia).

However, the fact remains that the Essenes, not the Christians, were one of the few (if not the only) communities or sects in the ancient world who, it was believed, unequivocally condemned slavery. Moreover, they put their money where their mouths were.

[T]hey emancipated slaves and taught them the Law, which says: “They are My servants (Lev. xxv. 42), but should not be servants of servants, and should not wear the yoke of flesh and blood.” (Jewish Encyclopedia)

They pooled their resources and purchased the freedom of enslaved Jews. That’s pretty remarkable. Of course, we should temper our respect with the textual evidence that the Qumran community may have indeed kept slaves. Jennifer Glancy writes:

Doubts have arisen about whether the Essenes actually repudiated slaveholding. The Dead Sea Scrolls, widely believed to be the work of the Essenes, include a text known as the Damascus Document. The Damascus Document suggests that slaves labored in Essene communities, although those slaves were the property not of individuals but of the community itself. How to account for this discrepancy? Perhaps Philo and Josephus were mistaken in the details they report about Essene life. Perhaps, as some scholars hold, the Essenes did not author the Damascus Document. Perhaps Essene practice changed between the composition of the Damascus Document and the time when Philo and Josephus wrote. For our purposes how the Essenes treated slaves matters less than their reputation for eschewing slavery. (Slavery As Moral Problem, p. 107, emphasis mine)

At the risk of flogging a dead horse, we may wonder how a professor of history (and until recently the Chair of the History Department at Saint Louis University) who undertakes the task of teaching a course on the origins and development of early Christianity could be so unfamiliar with Josephus and Philo. That said, I think he’s hardly unique. Do you seriously believe most NT scholars have actually read and studied Josephus beyond the Testimonium Flavianum?

With all fear

You may recognize the title of this series of posts from a verse in 1 Peter:

Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward. (1 Peter 2:18, KJV)

I would translate the verse like this:

Household slaves, submit to your masters with all fear, not only to the good and gentle, but also to the morally twisted (σκολιός/skolios: bent, twisted, perverse). 

Detail from Albrecht Dürer

St. Peter — Detail from Albrecht Dürer’s “Die Vier Apostel” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The NIV translates skolios as “harsh,” while the ESV prefers “unjust.” But I think it’s important to convey the full meaning of “twisted.” The writer pretending to be Peter isn’t simply saying some masters are “cruel” (NLT) or “unreasonable” (NASB). If that were the case he could have written “unrighteous” or alluded to their cruel behavior as “persecution.” The full meaning has to include perverse or “twisted” behavior.

Hence, no matter what a master may ask of you, no matter how morally degenerate he may be, “Peter” says if you are a slave you must submit with all fear. We could certainly render that as “with deference” or “with all respect,” but the message could hardly be more obvious.

By the way, the NIV translates ἐν παντὶ φόβῳ (en panti phobō) as “in reverent fear of God,” as if the author were implying that one shows reverence to God by obeying one’s master. However, that’s a gratuitous assumption. The text clearly means that fear and obedience are due to the slaveholder.

Compare Peter’s admonition to the doctrine of the Essenes. Could they be any farther apart? But maybe I’m not being fair. Perhaps I am making too much of one verse.

Does the New Testament condemn slavery?

If you search the web you’ll find many apologist sites that claim to know “what the Bible really says” about slavery. For example, Ben Smart writes that “it is clear the Bible is not pro-slavery.” Ben first quotes from Ephesians 6:5-9 in which Paul tells slaves to obey their masters with fear and trembling (naturally, he uses the NIV’s “respect and fear” instead), and asks: “Is Paul condoning slavery?” I realize that’s a rhetorical question, but I must insist that the answer is “yes.”

Ultimately, Mr. Smart does not ask what Paul thought about slavery versus what Peter or even Jesus thought; rather, he seeks to know what the Bible teaches about slavery. That’s because in the mind of the evangelical apologist, the Bible represents the inspired word of God. So what does the Bible say?

He first points to 1 Timothy 1:9-11, and quotes from the NIV. That reminds me — back when I used to listen to the Bible Geek, I recall Robert M. Price saying that he’d like to write a tongue-in-cheek New Testament translation for evangelicals, rewriting all the questionable sections with what they really wanted it to say. That’s a funny idea, but I keep thinking that we pretty much already have that with the NIV — e.g.:

9. We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers,

10. for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers — and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine

11. that conforms to the gospel concerning the glory of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.

Mr. Smart asks: “Condoning slavery?” He answers his own question: “Doesn’t look like it.”

Menstealers

But the Greek word the NIV translators rendered as “slave traders” is an interesting one. The deutero-Pauline writer used ἀνδραποδισταῖς (andrapodistais), which is more properly translated as “kidnapper,” or “one who kidnaps people and sells them into slavery.” The KJV succinctly (and quite nicely) calls them “menstealers.” We know that this practice, this crime, did exist in ancient times. The word, then, does not refer to the normal buying and selling of slaves, but rather illegal slave trade.

quote_begin I have no problem with admitting that ancient people often had sensibilities and a code of morality that cannot be reconciled with my own. But for those among us who need to hold up the Bible as the source of inerrant truth, things aren’t so easy. quote_end

For more on the mistranslations and of 1 Timothy 1:10 and other slave-related verses, check out the essay by Michael Marlowe entitled, “Make Good Use of Your Servitude,” in which he correctly concludes:

If the translators were not satisfied with “kidnappers” because this word does not indicate the connection with the illegal slave trade, they might have rendered it “slave-kidnappers,” but “enslavers” [or slave traders] is not the meaning of this word.

We suspect an apologetic purpose for these mistranslations. All of these versions [referring to the NIV, NLV, and NIRV] were sponsored by evangelical publishers, and many evangelical apologists have used isolated misinterpretations of 1 Timothy 1:10 in support of their contention that the Bible does not really condone slavery after all. But however well-meaning this may be, and however expedient it may be for apologists, it prevents people from really coming to terms with the world-view of the Biblical authors—a world-view which is very remote from modern egalitarian values and agendas. (emphasis mine)

Many of today’s Christians have a hard time coming to terms with the sad reality of the past. As an amateur historian and an avowed secularist, I have no problem with admitting that ancient people often had sensibilities and a code of morality that cannot be reconciled with my own. But for those among us who need to hold up the Bible as the source of inerrant truth, things aren’t so easy. As Marlowe puts it:

[T]he Bible is domesticated in order to avoid scandalizing those who would be shocked to discover how utterly foreign it is to modern values. This tendency appears in many forms. Regarding slavery, some of our English translations remove the offense by using the word “servants” instead of “slaves,” and many evangelical expositors have tried to distract attention from the foreignness of the Bible’s teaching on slavery by dwelling upon things in the Bible which they allege to be part of some latent egalitarian “trajectory.” (Marlowe’s italics)

A difficult situation

Our apologist blogger, Mr. Smart, next draws our attention to 1 Corinthians 7:21, which he insists does not condone slavery (a “difficult situation”), but instead “seeks to minimise and avoid it.”

Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you — although if you can gain your freedom, do so. (NIV)

In this case, the NIV is not the only English version with a questionable translation. The actual wording in Greek is rather ambiguous — and that ambiguity can almost be seen in the Authorized Version.

Art thou called being a servant? care not for it: but if thou mayest be made free, use it rather. (KJV)

Use what? Your freedom or your slavery? As Ellingworth and Hatton put it:

The meaning of verse 21b is not clear. The alternatives given in (1) the TEV [Today’s English Version] text, where “use it” means “use the chance to become a free man,” and (2) the TEV footnote “but even if you have the chance to become a free man, choose rather to make the best of your condition as a slave.” For convenience we will call (1) the “freedom translation” and (2) the “slavery translation.” Scholars have long been divided between these two interpretations and still are. (A Translator’s Handbook on Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, p. 139, emphasis mine)

Naturally, most Christians remain insulated from such controversies. Nearly all English translations put option 1 in the main text, and either relegate option 2 to a footnote or omit it completely. For example, here’s the RSV:

21 Were you a slave when called? Never mind. But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.[x]

x Or make use of your present condition instead

The original Greek is, in fact, so ambiguous commentators and translators must appeal to the surrounding text for clues. In other words, we can only understand what the author meant by examining the context of the verse. Ellingworth and Hatton ultimately come down on the side of option 1 (freedom), but since they represent the UBS party line, we shouldn’t be surprised.

Given the clarity previous verse, I find it hard to understand why it’s such a difficult translation. The struggle to make sense of it must arise from the fact that the obvious meaning of the text indicates that Paul’s message to slaves was cold comfort: “No biggie; do the best you can in your current situation.” Paul writes:

7:20  Each man must remain in that condition in which he was called. (NASB)

No harm, no foul

Returning again to Marlowe’s article, we find that option 2 (slavery) was popular with some early church fathers. He quotes from John Chrysostom’s commentary (homily):

As circumcision profits not, and uncircumcision does no harm, so neither doth slavery, nor yet liberty. And that he might point out this with surpassing clearness, he says, “But even (All eikai dunasai) if thou canst become free, use it rather:” that is, rather continue a slave. Now upon what possible ground does he tell the person who might be set free to remain a slave? He means to point out that slavery is no harm but rather an advantage.

Read the text of 1 Cor 7:17-24 and see if you don’t agree. In whatever state you were called to Christ, Paul says that you should stay in that state. Chrysostom knew of other interpretations, but argued that they made no sense.

Now we are not ignorant that some say the words, “use it rather,” are spoken with regard to liberty: interpreting it, “if thou canst become free, become free.” But the expression would be very contrary to Paul’s manner if he intended this. For he would not, when consoling the slave and signifying that he was in no respect injured, have told him to get free. Since perhaps someone might say, “What then, if I am not able? I am an injured and degraded person.” This then is not what he says: but as I said, meaning to point out that a man gets nothing by being made free, he says, “Though thou hast it in thy power to be made free, remain rather in slavery.

Melodrama?

I have to agree with Marlowe that the NT authors had no problem with the institution of slavery. However, I must strongly disagree with wrong-headed comments he makes early on in the discussion:

Part of the problem is that we have false ideas about what slavery was really like. The life of a slave was not easy, but we get an exaggerated idea of the hardships of slavery from watching movies or reading historical material that is written on a popular level. Here the purpose is usually to dramatize the plight of slaves or to make some point about the evils of slavery in general, (1) but the historical reality was less dramatic. In most cases the life of a slave was not much different from the life of any lower-class worker.

His footnote (1) cites Schaff’s History of the Christian Church. He chastises the author:

Indeed, life was harsh for all working-class people in ancient Rome by modern standards. But it strains credulity when we are asked to believe (without any evidence presented for the sweeping assertion) that “the character of the master” was “as a rule . . . cruel.” Such characterizations belong more to the realm of melodrama than to history.

It is unfortunate that Marlowe gives with one hand, but takes away with the other. He recognizes that the NT condones slavery, but then imagines that being a slave wasn’t all that bad. Well, yes, it was that bad. In truth, it was far worse than we can imagine.

In the next post, we’ll take a look at just how miserable the lot of the Greco-Roman slave really was.

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27 Comments

  • J. Wagenseil
    2013-11-11 03:26:43 UTC - 03:26 | Permalink

    “ἀνδραποδισταῖς” -slave kidnapper-man stealer- or according to its roots aner-man / pous-foot, one who puts men on their feet (Strong’s Concordance 405)
    .
    Does “ἀνδραποδισταῖς” refer to someone who steals slaves (ie a man-stealer) for the purposes of liberating themt?
    If this is the case, not only does the Bible condone slavery, it condemns anyone who attempts to liberate them.
    It would be an interesting project to find the Liddle-Scott translation of ἀνδραποδισταῖς, and to search the Perseus Project to find the contexts in which the word is used.

    • 2013-11-11 04:07:34 UTC - 04:07 | Permalink

      That’s a fairly long bow.

    • Tim Widowfield
      2013-11-11 05:56:16 UTC - 05:56 | Permalink

      In Classical Greek the verb generally referred to the selling of free men of a conquered territory into slavery. See this link at Perseus.

      Incidentally, the Vulgate uses “plagiariis,” the dative plural of “kidnappers.” For Jerome, the crime was the stealing, not the selling, of men.

      • J. Wagenseil
        2013-11-11 14:03:35 UTC - 14:03 | Permalink

        Tim, thanks for the explanation.

  • 2013-11-11 03:33:20 UTC - 03:33 | Permalink

    The overall tone of the scriptures is that all humans are created in God’s image and are not to used in manners that ignore or defy this. But on a greater matter, how could you possibly agree with Marlowe in saying that the Bible is domesticated to fit in with the mores of the culture and not to appear shocking? Saying “Jesus is Lord” is the most shocking thing possible in a culture that allowed you to believe what you wanted in private, but demanded you put your pinch of incense on the altar for Caesar and publicly mumble the words “Caesar is Lord.” The Jews had special dispensations precisely because the Roman authorities could not domesticate them without destroying them (something they did in AD70-72). Likewise do you really think that the surges of persecution that Christians experienced matches with them choosing domesticity over allegiance to Jesus? At every turn they were despised, and much of that was their conviction about Jesus and who he was. If they went to the crosses, arenas etc for the sake of fidelity to Jesus as Lord, then why on earth, on a “minor” matter such as slavery, would they try to tidy up their beliefs for a quiet life? Granted Paul did seem to tell them to keep their heads down, but permitting something is not the same as championing it. One suspects another agenda in your protestations.

    • Tim Widowfield
      2013-11-11 05:11:51 UTC - 05:11 | Permalink

      I appreciate that you feel the need to witness, but I think you need to read more carefully.

      Stephen: . . . how could you possibly agree with Marlowe in saying that the Bible is domesticated to fit in with the mores of the culture and not to appear shocking?

      Marlowe is talking about translations of the Bible. In other words, in order to steer clear of controversy and give the people what they want to hear, rough passages are smoothed over. Here’s how the quote begins:

      Unfortunately, it is not only liberal scholars who refuse to immerse themselves sympathetically in the Bible, but also many ‘evangelical’ scholars. We are not always well served by our own conservative commentators and translators in this matter. There seems to be an apologetic motive at work here — the Bible is domesticated in order to avoid scandalizing those who would be shocked to discover how utterly foreign it is to modern values . . . etc., etc.

      Stephen: Likewise do you really think that the surges of persecution that Christians experienced matches with them choosing domesticity over allegiance to Jesus?

      I don’t think I understand the question. Could you rephrase it?

      Stephen: Granted Paul did seem to tell them to keep their heads down, but permitting something is not the same as championing it. One suspects another agenda in your protestations.

      I’ve been careful to use the word “condone.” However, in future posts I will be writing about a bronze slave collar dated to the fourth or fifth century C.E. Engraved on the collar we find this inscription: “I am the slave of the archdeacon Felix. Hold me so that I do not flee.”

      I’m curious how you’ll explain away the fact that Christians owned slaves well after Constantine, and this one, at least, was eager to keep a wayward slave under his thumb. You might wonder why after it became “cool to be Christian” slaves still needed to “keep their heads down.”

    • 2013-11-11 09:26:14 UTC - 09:26 | Permalink

      ‘but demanded you put your pinch of incense on the altar for Caesar and publicly mumble the words “Caesar is Lord.” ‘

      Christians would sometimes get their slaves to do that, or get a non-believing member of the household to do it, or simply bribe the guy to write that it had been done.

  • Gary Michener
    2013-11-11 13:18:12 UTC - 13:18 | Permalink

    Mr. Widowfield, How are you defining slavery?

    • Tim Widowfield
      2013-11-11 13:30:40 UTC - 13:30 | Permalink

      By the standards of the day. The status of being human yet property at the same time.

  • 2013-11-11 13:18:22 UTC - 13:18 | Permalink

    Hey Tim,

    Thanks for this post, and for engaging on this issue with what the biblical authors wrote. It is clear that we won’t arrive at the same conclusions on the issue of the Bible’s position on slavery because, as you’ve pointed out, I see cohesion and unity between the biblical authors where you do not. But still, I think it is worth engaging on a few things:

    On the most broad level, I do find it interesting that of the 3 places in the NT I alluded to that (I believe) demonstrate a less-than-positive outlook on slavery (1 Tim, 1 Cor, and Phil), you chose to ignore the one that is most clear: Philemon. Is there a reason for that? I only ask because even if (as you claim) 1 Timothy decries only illegal enslaving, and even if 1 Corinthians 7 counselled slaves to remain as they are, then Philemon would still stand as a clear example, un-contradicted by either of the other two.

    So even if one was to concede your conclusions for those two passages, you haven’t done anything to weaken the argument that I made in my post or demonstrate that the Bible isn’t anti-slavery.

    In addition, though, I should make some brief comments about your treatment of 1 Tim 1:10 and 1 Cor 7.

    Firstly, to restrict the meaning of ἀνδραποδιστής to only the illegal slave trade based purely on its semantic range is just completely incorrect. The word can even be used for those who willingly sell themselves into slavery (read some Xenophon) – would you call that illegal? Marlowe is being selective and misleading in his treatment of the word.

    As for your treatment of 1 Corinthians 7:21, I disagree with your conclusion, but do of course concede that neither of us can conclusively say one way or another – it is ambiguous. Your comment about the immediate context favouring your preferred interpretation, however, is as misleading as it is simplistic; while 7:20 might suggest the “slavery translation,” 7:22-23, on the other hand, favours the “freedom translation.” Despite what your post suggests, the question is at best ambiguous.

    And on top of all this, Philemon still stands tall and clear to demonstrate that the New Testament is not in support of slavery. I don’t expect this matters too much to you (as it is no problem for you if the biblical authors disagreed with each other), but you can understand why it would for anyone who sees a unity in the message of the Bible. I don’t expect to convince you overall, but just thought it would be good to speak up in defence of the conclusions that I drew in my post and answer some of your criticisms. Thanks for engaging on this issue, especially in a respectful manner as you did. Cheers.

    • Tim Widowfield
      2013-11-11 13:29:15 UTC - 13:29 | Permalink

      I promise we’ll get to Philemon. The main reason I left it out of this post’s discussion is I that it had already reached 2,500 words.

      I will try to address your points above in the future, but for now recall that in the 19th century United States, both slaveholders and abolitionists used the same New Testament — including Philemon — to “prove” their side was correct.

      • 2013-11-12 08:15:21 UTC - 08:15 | Permalink

        Looking forward to it, that’s a totally legit reason to leave it til later. And I appreciate your willingness to engage with the points above.

        As for your point on the American slave trade, surely you realise that that has absolutely nothing to do with the text means. I can give you all sorts of examples where people have had ideas that they’ve tried to “prove” with the Bible (let’s go with the countless ‘end of the world’ predictions over the centuries), but it would be erroneous to argue that the Bible therefore actually supports their ideas. Your point is equally nonsensical.

        Let’s rather engage with what the biblical authors wrote, as you’ve done in your post and I’m sure will continue to do.

        • 2013-11-12 08:22:39 UTC - 08:22 | Permalink

          ‘ I can give you all sorts of examples where people have had ideas that they’ve tried to “prove” with the Bible …’

          I can give you another one.

          Early Christians campaigned for slaves to be freed, because they held that slavery was wrong.

          Mind you , even Christians who managed to get that one out of the Bible somehow, still don’t go as far as to say that Paul cited Biblical texts in support of ‘his’ (ie their) contention that slavery was wrong.

          Even if Paul thought that slavery was wrong, he never managed to find a proof-text from the Old Testament he could use.

          • 2013-11-12 10:45:05 UTC - 10:45 | Permalink

            mhmm, thanks for that intelligent contribution to the conversation

            • 2013-11-12 10:51:13 UTC - 10:51 | Permalink

              I wonder what Paul thought that Jesus, his Lord and Saviour, had said on the subject of slavery.

              Presumably Paul could not find one single word by Jesus in support of freeing slaves.

              And he certainly couldn’t find any Bible texts which supported freeing slaves.

            • Jesus Himself, aka the Savior
              2013-11-18 04:39:12 UTC - 04:39 | Permalink

              Questioning whether the Bible is pro slavery is akin to questioning whether the Old Testament is pro animal sacrifice or pro stoning people to death.

              It’s certainly fair to remember the circumstances of ancient cultures, but to try and rescue the Bible’s stance on allowing humans to be treated as personal property seems rather desperate.

        • Tim Widowfield
          2013-11-12 16:06:06 UTC - 16:06 | Permalink

          Ben wrote, “Your point is equally nonsensical.”

          You aren’t following my point. The reason both the North and South could use the NT (including Philemon) is the ambiguity therein. It’s the same reason John Chrysostom thought Paul was pro-slavery while you think Paul was not.

          • 2013-11-13 08:44:45 UTC - 08:44 | Permalink

            Yes, I follow your point. People disagree on what the Bible says here, and the Bible has been used to support slavery (as it has with many other ideas). What I’m saying is that it is ultimately a superficial point, because it says more about the people interpreting the Bible than it says about the meaning of the Bible itself.

            I’m not saying your statement is wrong. Of course it’s not. All I’m saying is that it doesn’t actually deal with what the Bible says. In effect, I read your point as saying, “people disagree about what the Bible says on this topic.” Yes, this is true. But it doesn’t actually help us engage with what the Bible really does say.

            I should not have called your point “nonsensical”. I was more concerned with the implication behind it. Yes, the statement that both slaveholders and abolitionists used the Bible to ‘prove’ their position is true. But if this statement were used to suggest that the Bible can therefore legitimately be understood to be pro-slavery, I would point out the leap in logic. “Person X believed the Bible supports Z” cannot be used to infer that “therefore, the Bible supports Z”. Let’s rather deal with the text, and interpret it.

            I hope that makes my point clearer than I made it earlier.

            • Tim Widowfield
              2013-11-13 19:35:24 UTC - 19:35 | Permalink

              Ben: All I’m saying is that it doesn’t actually deal with what the Bible says.

              To be clear, my aim in this series is not solely or even especially to discover or deal with “what the Bible says.” I treat the subject exactly as I would the U.S. Constitution. I’m interested in what the authors of the NT intended, what the initial audience probably thought it meant, and what subsequent Christians thought it meant.

              Ben: But it doesn’t actually help us engage with what the Bible really does say.

              I am, of course, interested in what Paul (or whoever the author is) “really” wrote. But I’m also interested in what the first readers thought it meant, and following that what the early church fathers thought it meant.

              Ben: But if this statement were used to suggest that the Bible can therefore legitimately be understood to be pro-slavery, I would point out the leap in logic.

              I’ve been drawing your attention to the range of interpretations from clergymen and scholars through the centuries to drive home the point that people might not be deliberately or maliciously misinterpreting the Bible. It’s more likely that the root of the problem lies with the ambiguity of the passages themselves.

              I think I’ve been pretty careful to characterize my tentative conclusions not so much as accusing “the Bible” as being pro-slavery; rather the writers simply thought within the confines of their current social structure. If modern scholarship is correct, and the very first Christians were apocalyptic, then perhaps that’s why Paul told people to remain where they were when they were called. “Are you married to an unbeliever? Are you uncircumcised? Are you a slave? Don’t worry, the end of days is fast approaching.”

  • Bob Moore
    2013-11-11 15:03:33 UTC - 15:03 | Permalink

    Wow. The Essenes were way ahead of their time–when it comes to moral awakenings. Too bad they didn’t survive. Once one is on the slippery slope to less violence,then things like fear and slavery to a god would be on their way out too (c.f. Lev 25.42 “…they are My servants.”)

  • RoHa
    2013-11-12 02:12:22 UTC - 02:12 | Permalink

    As far as I can tell, Cynicism and Stoicism took a dim view of slavery. The Stoics, however, thought that being a slave to someone else was less detrimental than being a slave to your own undisciplined thoughts and feelings. Advocating the freeing of slaves was regarded as incitement to a slave rebellion, and usually punished by death, so most philosophers were cautious about what they said on the topic. The conditions of slaves were greatly improved by Epicurean and Stoic lawyers, and by the Epicurean Emperor Hadrian. I don’t know that the Christians did any good for slaves.

    • C.J. O'Brien
      2013-11-12 23:08:14 UTC - 23:08 | Permalink

      You make it sound as if Stoics would have liked to advocate the freeing of the slaves but did not speak up for obvious political reasons. But I think that’s not true at all; in keeping with what I think is part of Tim’s point here: nobody in Greco-Roman society advocated for, or even thought it would be a good idea, pie in the sky, not to have a slave economy. From what we have here, with the possible exception of the Essenes. I find all generalizations about that group suspect as a rule, but for the sake of argument, we can call them the exception.
      As regards Stoicism, no less than Seneca wrote a whole surviving letter (#47) on the topic of slavery. Nowhere in it does he give the slightest indication that the institution itself is suspect or immoral. In fact, all of his advice and admonitions assume the continuation of the institution (contrast, e.g. Lincoln, who had his political doubts, was just as racist as the average white Midwesterner in those days, but was under no illusions as to the immorality of the trade). And while Seneca certainly advocated eschewing cruelty and treating slaves as fully human beings whose souls and minds are not in bondage, only their bodies, it’s instructive that there is no moral argument in terms of modern “human rights” anywhere there. It is rather on behalf of his peers, for slave masters’ betterment, that he offers his thoughts on the topic.
      I think we have to accept a gulf here between the ancients and ourselves.

      I don’t doubt that the condition of some slaves were improved by those (possibly rare) individuals who acted toward them as Seneca advocated, but as far as the sort of social reforms made by Hadrian, on one hand, those were largely reversals of Trajan’s somewhat anomalously draconian legislation, that is, not innovations but reversions to older customs; and, on the other, such high-minded social legislation from the Princeps was often as much theater as enforceable policy. Famously for instance it was made illegal by Hadrian for a master to kill his slave. What is often obscured when his fact is presented, however, is that, in order to bring about the violent death of a disfavored slave, all one had to do was arrange for his legal execution. No questions asked. A master still had complete control over the life and death of his chattel, it’s only that the opprobrium against violent action “in the heat of the moment” at that time acquired the force of law. And, again, as with the attitudes of Seneca, it’s important to understand the tenor of that opprobrium. It was bad form for a master to have to be constantly abusing his staff to keep them in line; this was not motivated by any pity or compassion. A Roman paterfamilias was expected to run a tight ship and keep discipline behind closed doors. Beating or killing a slave was a moral lapse of sorts, but what is so alien –and needs to be kept in view– is that the victim’s rights, or feelings, or person, entered into it not at all. The wronged party, if any, was the master himself, or at least his honor, and his standing in society.

  • 2013-11-13 02:51:20 UTC - 02:51 | Permalink

    A related interpretation (among liberal Christians) of Paul (and sometimes Jesus) is that even though he might have been a product of his day, he nonetheless supposedly expressed indications that he was open and tolerant enough to have eventually come to modern conclusions about including women, homosexuals, and various non-conformists in beliefs about Jesus in the all-welcoming body, without any discrimination, and would also have come to believe slaves should be liberated. Quite apart from the mind-reading fallacy here, and the tendentious interpretation of a few proof-texts, this notion fails to grasp that modern attitudes on these issues have largely been the product of the development of the concept of “the rights of man/human rights” from the philosophical movements of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. “Human rights” is a relatively recent concept, I believe. The notion is alien to anything in the Bible. “Human rights” means much more than reciprocity and common justice.

  • 2013-11-13 08:53:15 UTC - 08:53 | Permalink

    ‘He said that attitude stemmed from their belief that: “Unlike other religions, Christianity held that all people, men or women, free or slaves, were the same in God’s eyes.”’

    I see.

    So if I said that free people and slave people were the same in God’s eyes, that would mean that God disapproved of people being slaves.

    So if I said that white people and black people were the same in God’s eyes, that would mean that God disapproved of people being black.

    Surely that passage means that being a slave is perfectly OK in the eyes of God.

    • 2013-11-14 13:28:54 UTC - 13:28 | Permalink

      That is actually a really good observation. Freemen and slaves being the same in God’s eyes does not imply that God disapproves of slavery.

  • John
    2013-11-15 21:01:22 UTC - 21:01 | Permalink

    Okay Tim, I had a look at this post. I didn’t realize that there could even be any question whether or not the “bible” (OT and NT) was “pro-” or “anti-slavery.” I’ve always felt (based mostly on the OT, though nothing in the NT, as far as I was aware, seemed to contradict it) that it was exactly like you said in your response to me under part 3, that slavery was just part of the way things were. I’m not saying that God or Paul were slap happy about slavery (with respect to my “cool with it” remark), only that it was something that was there, and people did what they could to cope with it (like Paul appealing to Philemon).

    The Essene slavery question is interesting. I hadn’t given any thought before about what the DSS “position” could be on that. I’ll keep that in mind the next time I’m looking at the Damascus Document.

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