Slavery stands as the single most contested issue in the history of biblical interpretation in the United States. Not only did the nation fracture over slavery, denominations did too. Northern and Southern Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists remained divided until well into the twentieth century; in fact, Southern Baptists still represent the nation's largest Protestant denomination. What did slavery mean in the biblical world, and how did biblical authors respond to it?
Don't let anybody tell you that biblical slavery was somehow less brutal than slavery in the United States. Without exception, biblical societies were slaveholding societies. The Bible engages remarkably diverse cultures -- Ethiopian, Egyptian, Canaanite, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, and Roman -- but in every one of them some people owned the rights to others. Slaveowners possessed not only the slaves' labor but also their sexual and reproductive capacities. When the Bible refers to female slaves who do not "please" their masters, we're talking about the sexual use of slaves. Likewise when the Bible spells out the conditions for marrying a slave (see Exodus 21:7-11).
The occupations and experiences of slaves varied greatly. Many performed manual labor in horrid conditions, perhaps living only months after beginning their work. Some highly valued slaves attained wealth and status, a possibility reflected in Genesis' account of Joseph. Perhaps the story of the centurion who highly valued his slave connotes an erotic relationship, likely one-sided (Luke 7:1-10). In all cases the owners' right to use a slave as the owner sees fit, including the right to punish slaves severely, remain unquestioned.
How did people become slaves? Slavery did not accompany a particular racial status, as it eventually did in the United States, but the Hebrew Bible stipulates preferred treatment for Israelite slaves (see Exodus 21:1-11; 25:39-55; Deuteronomy 15:12-18). Crushing debt forced many into slavery, with some people selling themselves and others selling their children. Military conquest contributed greatly to the slave market as well.
The Bible does not attempt to hide the presence of slaves. Beware modern translations that use "servant" to cover up slave language. Slaves were ubiquitous in the ancient world. Imagine ancient Rome, where slaves made up between one-third and one-half of the inhabitants -- perhaps half a million people! The Senate once considered requiring slaves to wear identifying marks, but they stopped short in the face of a chilling realization: if slaves could recognize one another, what would prevent them from organizing and pillaging the entire city?
In the New Testament, Jesus frequently refers to slaves in his parables, the witty stories that marked his most distinctive teaching style. He never addresses slavery as an institution, though unfortunately one of the parables assumes that beating a slave is acceptable (Luke 12:47-48). More controversial is the apostle Paul, often blamed for promoting or condoning slavery. The great African-American theologian Howard Thurman recalled how his illiterate formerly enslaved grandmother would not allow him to read Paul to her. Slave owners, she said, constantly employed Paul's letters to promote docility among the slaves.
However, more recent scholarship suggests that Paul may have resisted -- or at least undermined -- slavery. Many scholars believe Paul did not compose six of the thirteen letters attributed to him in the New Testament. It so happens that the most restrictive passages regarding slaves occur in those six disputed letters (see Ephesians 6:5-8; Colossians 3:22-4:1; Titus 2:9-10), while the remaining seven letters leave open the possibility that Paul sided with slaves. One letter calls the slaveowner Philemon to welcome back a certain Onesimus "no longer as a slave but as more than a slave, a beloved brother ... both in the flesh and in the Lord" (Philemon 1:16). Is Paul calling for Onesimus to be set free, or simply for his master to receive him with love? Likewise, it strains the imagination that two modern translations of 1 Corinthians 7:21 could vary so greatly, but consider this example.
Does Paul encourage slaves to embrace their captivity or to gain their freedom?
While we may debate whether Paul encouraged the manumission of Onesimus and other slaves (I think he did) one thing is certain. Some ancient Jews and Christians did resist the practice. The Essenes, likely responsible for our Dead Sea Scrolls, apparently forbade members from owning slaves. The book of Revelation lists slaves among the luxury items that Roman commerce generated by exploiting other societies (18:13). Most touchingly, very ancient documents indicate that some Christians literally sold themselves into slavery to purchase the freedom of others (1 Clement 54:4-5), while some churches collected money to buy slaves' freedom (Ignatius to Polycarp 4:8-10; Shepherd of Hermas 38.10; 50.8).
There's a simple explanation for nineteenth century debates on slavery and the Bible: the Bible isn't exactly clear on the subject. If anything, the Bible made it easier for slavery's advocates than for its opponents. On the other hand, Robert E. Putnam and David E. Campbell suggest that while religion contributed greatly in the motivation of abolitionists, their adversaries would have promoted slavery with or without religion.
Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church's Conservative Icon.
Jennifer A. Glancy, Slavery in Early Christianity.
J. Albert Harrill, Slaves in the New Testament: Literary, Social, and Moral Dimensions.
Follow Greg Carey on Twitter @GregC666.