There is a depiction of slavery during Biblical times floating around out there that is puzzling, to say the least. It depicts slavery as portrayed in the Bible as a way to work one’s way out of poverty and get ahead economically. While this idea sounds positive on the surface, the portrayal falls apart when looked at with any level of scrutiny.
I think I understand where people who propose this theory are coming from. We know that slavery is dehumanizing and wrong, we know that the role of slavery in the history/formation of the United States is a hot-button issue, and we don’t want people to get “turned off” to the Bible by knowing that it depicts slavery without flatly saying “slavery is bad.” But David and I have seen unbelievers being resistant to the gospel because Christians use misguided interpretations of historical and/or scientific evidence to falsely prop up the Bible, even when the Bible is able to better stand on its own without the misguided interpretations. The use of faulty evidence thus undermines our credibility to speak authoritatively upon the actual veracity of Scripture.
To put it bluntly, blindly accepting bad evidence to support “Biblical truths” is what makes unbelievers think we Christians are stupid.
And, as we will see, a misunderstanding of slavery during Biblical times can also cause us to miss out on what Biblical authors may actually be trying to communicate.
The Faulty Depiction of Slavery in the Bible
The two sources for this faulty depiction of slavery that I’ll be interacting with most here are a post at The Gospel Coalition titled Why It’s Wrong to Say the Bible is Pro-Slavery and the first part of a sermon from Doxa Church called The Witness of Your Work. These are not the only two sources out there, but are representative of what is generally said.
In the faulty depiction of slavery in the Bible, there is generally a distinction drawn between it and race-based chattel slavery in the antebellum south of the United States specifically. Slavery in the Bible is described as being a way for people in poverty to commit to working for a person for seven years in exchange for food, shelter, etc. At the end of the seven years, the enslaved person could go free if they so desired. Slaves could be highly skilled, even doctors, and some even owned their own slaves. Slaves could also earn money to buy their freedom. It was a viable economic alternative to poverty, so the problematic portrayal says. And, unlike American enslavement of Africans and their descendants, slavery in the Bible was theoretically not race-based.
I should probably interject at this point that I have a Bachelor’s degree in history, coincidentally focusing on Ancient Greece and Rome. And my dad’s a history buff of U.S. history, so I’ve picked up a lot by osmosis.
I also want to affirm that I hold a high view of Scripture and the historical evidence for the life/death/resurrection of Jesus. And I don’t think the Bible condones slavery. But the evidence used by the article and sermon above to support the idea that the Bible doesn’t condone slavery is built on shifting historical sand instead of a strong historical foundation (if I may borrow a metaphor from Matthew). I suspect whatever sources they’ve used for historical context of slavery are either cherry-picking information or don’t have a strong understanding of how historical evidence is weighed.
Which brings me to the topic of historiography. In layman’s terms, historiography is the process by which evidence is examined in order to determine which information is more likely to be true and which information is less likely to be true. We look at the source: who is writing something, and what might be their possible motives or biases? Is this a primary source writing about something they directly witnessed, or is it a secondary source writing about something they didn’t see themselves? Primary sources are generally better regarded than secondary sources. And you always, always cite (quote or give credit to) your source. At least, you do if you want to be taken seriously.
If you think this sounds a lot like investigative detective work, you won’t be too far off the mark.
I’m going to include links below simply to cite sources and keep myself accountable. (Something you will notice neither The Gospel Coalition article nor the Doxa Church sermon do for historical information specifically, but that’s a discussion for another time that runs the risk of setting off the sassy-o-meter.) I don’t expect you to read the sources I cite unless you happen to be a glutton for punishment or genuinely curious. But I’d like to help provide a stronger foundation for the claim that the Bible does not condone slavery, if I may.
Slavery in the Historical Record
Before anything else, we must define terms. There are two different kinds of servitude, both in the historical record and, consequently, in Scripture. One of them, “indentured servitude,” was indeed voluntary and for a period of seven years. To contrast, “chattel slavery” was for life and included kidnapping victims, prisoners of war, those born into slavery, and the truly desperate who sold themselves or their children rather than starve to death in an era without government-sponsored social safety nets.
If we look at Scripture, Leviticus has provisions for both indentured servitude and chattel slavery. Leviticus 25:39-43 describes “one of your countrymen” who “becomes poor” and “is to be treated as a hired worker or a temporary resident among you… until the Year of Jubilee.” Which is what we’d call indentured servitude. To contrast, immediately following, Leviticus 25:44-46 describes “your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you… and they will become your property… [you] can make them slaves for life [which is what we’d call chattel slavery], but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.” So while it wasn’t ok to rule over “fellow Israelites” ruthlessly, it was ok to do this with foreigners.
Thus, Leviticus also tells us that slavery in ancient Israel was race-based, similar to chattel slavery in the United States. Israelites could be indentured servants (or voluntarily enter life-long servitude per Exodus 21:5, for example), but only non-Israelites could be made chattel slaves against their will.
Even in the U.S., race-based slavery wasn’t always black-and-white (no pun intended). African-Americans could own African-American chattel slaves and also (for a time) hold the bonds for white indentured servants (https://www.theroot.com/did-black-people-own-slaves-1790895436). In addition, African-American slaves could also be highly skilled laborers, including blacksmiths, seamstresses, cobblers, cooks, etc. (https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/slave-labor/). Some could earn an income, with the approval of their master, and buy their freedom (https://www.loc.gov/classroom-materials/united-states-history-primary-source-timeline/national-expansion-and-reform-1815-1880/pre-civil-war-african-american-slavery/).
None of the above information takes away from the fact that slavery was (and still is) abhorrent and dehumanizing.
In contrast to ancient Israel and the U.S., slavery in the Roman Empire was not race-based. Which could explain some of the confusion of proponents of the faulty view of slavery in the Bible, if they’re not taking into account that the Bible describes cultures under different legal and government systems hundreds of years apart. But not being race-based didn’t make slavery in the Roman Empire any more humane.
Like the southern United States, Rome lived in fear of violent slave uprisings. Like the United States, treatment of individual slaves varied by master, but they were still considered property. Slaves were raped, beaten, and killed with impunity. Not too long before the time of the New Testament, if a slave killed a master, the entire household of slaves could be executed. Like the United States, many slaves were skilled laborers. (As a side note, the profession of doctor was not automatically an esteemed one in Rome; many “doctors” were simply herbalists or folk healers without formal training. Which is why it was ok for slaves to perform those services. Ancient Greece, on the other hand, trained/regarded doctors differently, which probably adds to modern-day confusion.) Some slaves in the Roman Empire earned an income and their freedom; though not uncommon, this was also not normative. (https://www.britishmuseum.org/exhibitions/nero-man-behind-myth/slavery-ancient-rome and “As the Romans Did, A Sourcebook in Roman Social History” by Jo-Ann Shelton)
Like slavery in the United States, slavery in Ancient Rome was abhorrent and dehumanizing. There was also a form of indentured servitude in Ancient Rome (“nexum”), but it was not as prevalent as chattel slavery.
Where This Leaves Christians
Unfortunately, verses such as 1 Timothy 6:1-2, where slaves are encouraged to obey their masters, have historically been used to justify slavery (as a much better article at The Gospel Coalition by Aaron Menikoff describes). But when taken in the context of the wider body of Scripture, we see how counter-cultural to slavery the message of Scripture actually is. We don’t even have to look outside of Scripture for evidence.
1 Timothy (the subject of the sermon from Doxa Church) was written while Timothy was in Ephesus (1 Timothy 1:3). Remember what else Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus?
Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart… because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free. And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.Ephesians 6:5-9, emphasis added
“In the same way.” Paul could not order Christian masters to free their slaves without being accused of fomenting another slave uprising. The most recent (and most difficult to quell) slave revolt was less than 100 years before Ephesians was written, and still fresh in the minds of collective Roman society (as World War I and II are for us). (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Third_Servile_War) But by indirectly encouraging slave owners to treat their slaves “with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart,” Paul points the way to a more humane treatment of enslaved persons and to their freedom. Particularly with the reminder that, unlike with earthly authorities, God shows no preferential treatment between masters and slaves, between those with power and prestige and those without.
In a way, this passage is an echo of Galatians 3:28. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Colossians 3:22-24 has also been used to justify slavery.
Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.Colossians 3:22-24
But when we look at the very next two verses, we again see Paul turning the accepted social order on its head: “Anyone [not just those who don’t have power, but anyone] who does wrong will be repaid for their wrongs, and there is no favoritism. Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven” (Colossians 3:25-4:1). It echoes Paul’s words above from his letter to the Ephesians.
Furthermore, we know that one of the people hand-delivering Paul’s letter to the church at Colossae was Onesimus (Colossians 4:7-9). The same Onesimus who was the subject of Paul’s plea to Philemon for manumission.
Onesimus is not just a slave, but a problem slave, having escaped from Philemon. Now returned as an emissary of the Apostle Paul himself. Yet, Paul says, “I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you… Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord. So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me” (Philemon 12-17, emphasis added).
Again, we see an echo of Galatians 3:28.
While the case against chattel slavery is admittedly not as clear-cut in the Old Testament, even there we see a seed planted. “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:17-19, emphasis added). As we saw above in Leviticus 25, chattel slaves in ancient Israel were (likely primarily) foreigners. Yet the Israelites are told that God loves the foreigner, and are reminded that they were once also foreigners, themselves. And slaves as well, I might add.
Abolitionists had no problem finding reasons to end slavery by looking at Scripture. When we do the same, it’s not hard to see why.
What This Means For Us Today
Looking at Ephesians 6 and Colossians 3 (and even 1 Timothy 6) in the context of the whole of Scripture does also make me kinda wonder if the message Paul is preaching is aimed more at slaves or masters. After all, what Paul asked slaves to do is already what their masters and society wanted them to do. As the above linked article by Aaron Menikoff observed, perhaps Paul was simply encouraging “Christians who cannot change their circumstances to live holy lives.” But what Paul was asking masters to do is what would have been really jarring to first-century ears.
Which kinda makes Ephesians 6 and Colossians 3 seem more directed toward employers instead of employees, doesn’t it?
But that’s another conversation for another day.
But Before We Go
For further reading, you may enjoy this article from the Text and Canon Institute, The Bible and Slavery in Colonia America.
And before leaving this topic entirely, next week we’ll be looking in more detail at the sermon from Doxa Church in particular, where slavery is described as “a workable economic system.” We’ll examine both the Scriptural and historical evidence it provides for slavery during Biblical times, as well as the conclusions it draws from said evidence. And along the way, I think we’ll discover some interesting things.