Slavery, The Bible, and Abolition

Slavery continues to exist in the present day.  Most societies agree that the practice of slavery was, and still is, a heinous, immoral, and unconscionable institution.  Institutional, state-sanctioned slavery has disappeared in most parts of the world, but many countries continue to impose labor on state prisoners. Some nations still force labor on their citizens for the purpose of providing aid to the state military. When I speak of the death of slavery during this lecture, I am speaking of the former practice of slavery. But it is important to keep in mind that global slave labor and the sexual slave trade continue to survive and thrive in the contemporary world.  The expression, human trafficking, is an umbrella term for the various types of forced labor and human bondage imposed on people around the world.

Andrew Cockburn has written an excellent article for National Geographic Magazine. He has researched the issue of human trafficking and states that: “There are more slaves today than were seized from Africa in four centuries of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The modern commerce in humans rivals illegal drug trafficking in its global reach- and in the destruction of lives.” The United States fought a devastating war to help rid our country of the institution of slavery in the 19th Century. That form of slavery and the slave trade that supplied it was a state-sponsored, Bible approved practice.  In the present day, slavery is most often carried out by organized crime, which makes immense profits by trafficking human victims.

My figures are from the International Labor Organization, or ILO’s 2012 Report. Human trafficking involves some of these categories: “… forced labor, forced sexual work, illegal organ sales, child soldier recruitment and so on.”  Terrorist groups of various kinds also make use of people, frequently minors, for some of the same types of slavery.  Some of those terrorist groups that are religious cite their holy scriptures as sanctioning slavery, so the practice of finding justification for human bondage in religious beliefs and sacred books has not ceased. According to the ILO, some three out of every thousand persons worldwide are in forced labor at any given point in time. The report states that “…women and girls represent the greater share of the total- 11.4 million women and girls, or 55%, as compared to 9.5 million, or 45%, men and boys.”

“Of the total number of some 20.9 million forced laborers, 18.7 million (90%) are exploited in the private economy by individuals or enterprises. Out of these, 4.5 million (22%) are victims of forced sexual exploitation and 14.2 million (68%) are victims of forced labor exploitation in economic activities such as agriculture, construction, domestic work or manufacturing. The remaining 2.2 million (10%) are in state-imposed forms of forced labor, for example, in prisons or in work imposed by the state military or by rebel armed forces.”

This lecture is gratefully dependent on Hector Avalos’ 2013 Slavery, Abolitionism and the Ethics of Biblical Scholarship. Those who are interested in pursuing the topic of the Bible and its relation to slavery will find a wealth of information in that volume.

This lecture will look at the slave trade of the ancient world, with an emphasis on Israel. Then I shall glance at slavery as practiced in early Christianity, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The desire and religious justification for human bondage that grew with the discovery of the New World during the 16th, 17, and 18th Centuries will be discussed.  The lecture will then turn to American and British slavery and its abolition in the 19th Century. The purpose of this lecture is to shed light on the false Christian assertion that in some manner, not very specified and at the same time, very hazy, Christianity was responsible for doing away with state-sponsored slavery.  The Christian claim is untrue. The Christian Bible contains an abundance of verses that could be, and was, used by countries, popes, churchmen, slave owners and slave traders to justify the shameful ownership and forced labor of humans by other humans.  This lecture will give the lie to apologists for Christianity and for its Bible. Christianity, using Holy Scriptures, upheld the institution of slavery.

British and American abolitionists did initially use scriptures to condemn the abhorrent practice of slavery.  But as time went by, white and black abolitionists turned to more secular, humanistic reasons for abolition. They started to forgo religious quotations from the Bible against slavery, because Scripture was filled with justifications for it. They began to take up legal, economic and humanitarian reasons for abolishing slavery.  During this talk, we shall see why.

I would like to glance at some of the legislation in the ancient world concerning slaves and their owners, such as treatment of slaves, term limits of bondage, and manumission practices. The 1754 BCE Mesopotamian Code of Hammurabi is likely the first extensive law code we have.

The Code provides significant information about the institution of slavery in that country. For example, slaves were freed in Mesopotamia after a number of years, usually three. Hittites law codes are also available to the modern world. The Hittite Law 24 stated that if a slave ran away, whoever decided to harbor him or her had to pay a fine.  In Hittite society, slaves had the right to bring a lawsuit. We shall see how Israel’s Old Testament laws on slavery compared to those of its neighboring countries and to those of pagan Greece and Rome.

Ramsay MacMullen maintains that pagan slaves had greater freedom than Christian slaves in late antiquity. Ancient Greek culture was notorious for its slave society. Slaves, for example, would not have their testimony accepted without first being tortured. The same practice was extensive in ancient Rome. Most of the Greek philosophers, including Plato, found the institution of slavery quite acceptable. The slave trade in the Roman Empire was immense. Ships landed every week bearing slaves for the sex trade as well as for other types of labor. But the Roman law was an improvement over Greek slave codes.  Greece did have some manumission policies and as far as can be ascertained from documents, slaves were allowed to hold property. A small number of classicists have tried to make a case for classical slavery being more benign than later Christian slavery. That claim is not sound.

But in contrast with other nations, Rome did enact a few rather liberal laws for dealing with slaves. To begin with, Rome’s manumission policies were quite common and extensive. Secondly Rome had a very well developed tradition called ‘peculium,’  That custom allowed a slave to accumulate property and funds, which he or she could then use to purchase freedom.

The Catholic Church later made use of the same tradition in Latin America and in Louisiana.  According to Hector Avalos, that is the reason that Louisiana had a large population of free black people as opposed to many slave-holding Protestant states in America. Thirdly, Orlando Patterson states that the Roman practice of granting citizenship with full rights to former slaves was innovative. A minority of former Roman slaves became wealthy, and with complete moral vacuity, became slave owners themselves. While some countries in the ancient world had more liberal manumission policies, most of the time, freed slaves remained a semi-caste group. They were not allowed any pretensions to equality or citizenship as they were in Rome.

Seneca, (4 BCE- 65 CE), the Roman philosopher, showed himself more humane and aware of the human condition than the theologians of the Christian Church. He advised that people should treat their inferiors as they would wish to be treated by their betters. Seneca warned that fortunes were subject to change, and in the future, owners might become slaves themselves. He believed that slaves should be treated as family members and that the master should dine with slaves of worthy character.

I have glanced at the pre-Christian world’s practice of slavery in order to make clear that there were Near Eastern, Greek and Roman civilizations that offered some advantages to slaves.  Biblical scholars and historians who make the claim that the coming of Christianity somehow loosened the onus of slavery are incorrect. Laws and customs about the practice of slavery existed in earlier civilizations. Reprehensible as the institution was, pagan cultures had slavery codes in place before the coming of Christianity. 

When Christian practices are compared with those of the Near East, it becomes clear that the Christian belief that man was made in god’s image had no practical effect on the ethics of slavery. Slavery carried out by Christians was neither benign nor humane. Hector Avalos goes so far as to argue that: “… if Christianity made any advances it would not be because it was original, but because it reverted to ‘pagan’ practices that preceded it.” Claims made by apologists about the humaneness of Christian slavery are not legitimate.

Now I should like to turn to the Hebrew/Old Testament Bible to scrutinize how slavery was practiced in Israel.  The word used for slave at that time was “ebed.” “Ebed” meant ‘slave’.  Some theists claim that “ebed” did not signify ‘slave’ in the technical manner that it does in English, but actually meant ‘servant’. In this manner, they attempt to imply that even if the Israelites enslaved people, they treated those people as servants.  There are Judaic and Christian scholars who admit that Israel adopted the slave practices of neighboring countries but try to argue that Israel’s slave codes contained the most humane treatment of slaves possible. Israel’s law codes do not provide any proof of more humanitarian treatment of slaves than those of neighboring Near Eastern countries. In reality, some of the Judaic slave codes were harsher than those of Mesopotamia.

There are a number of Christian scholars who have tried to make the case for the humane slave codes of Israel.  An examination and comparison of Hebrew codes with the pagan codes of earlier people will demonstrate that any such claims are false. 

The language used in Old Testament narratives and in Jewish legal structures of the time reveal how the practice of slavery was carried out in Israel. Israel’s slave laws were harsh and sometimes brutal.  They speak for themselves.

I would like to begin with the myth of Noah’s curse, which took place right after the Great Flood when Noah and his family exited the Ark.  The curious tale of Noah is related in Gen. 9. 18-27. Noah became intoxicated by drinking the wine in his own vineyards. He then fell into a drunken sleep in his tent, naked and uncovered. When his son, Ham, saw him in that state, he told his brothers Shem and Japheth.  Both Shem and Japheth hurried to cover Noah with a blanket, but kept their faces turned away so they would not see their father naked. When Noah woke up and discovered that Ham had behaved disrespectfully to him, he cursed him.

Noah decreed that both Ham and Ham’s land of Canaan would be enslaved by Japheth and Shem. There is an ongoing argument among Biblical philologists whether the name, Ham, was ever associated with blackness. The general consensus is that Ham does not mean black. However, the story of Ham’s curse was taken to provide justification for Israel to enslave whole groups of people and nations, regardless of color.

There is some disagreement among Biblical experts as to whether the curse Noah bestowed on his son, Ham, was the most quoted justification for slavery in later centuries. Some scholars believe that pseudo-scientific arguments involving racism superseded the Biblical approval of slavery.

But Stephen R. Hayne’s 2002 Noah’s Curse: The Biblical Justification for American Slavery, argues that the most persuasive arguments for the institution were Biblical tales and passages. Those narratives had been used long before the American Civil War of 1861 and were simply repeated by pro-slavery apologists of that era.

The story of Sarah and Abraham in Genesis 16 reveals another Old Testament justification of human bondage.  Sarah could not have children, so she allowed her husband, Abraham, to impregnate Hagar, their slave woman. Hagar ran away because Sarah had begun to treat her badly. But an angel appeared to the poor slave and sent her back to her mistress.  That Biblical tale was often employed by later pro-slavery advocates to endorse the practice of returning escaped slaves to their owners.

The story of Hagar and Ishmael, the son she bore, discloses an important aspect of Old Testament law. The narrative casts light on the Old Testament’s refusal to grant inheritance rights to children born of free fathers and slave mothers. The story of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar concluded on a harsh note. Sarah finally conceived a son. As a result, she wanted her own son to inherit all of Abraham’s property.  She insisted that Abraham send Hagar and his illegitimate son, Ishmael, away. Abraham consulted god and god told him that Ishmael was destined to father a race of people and carry on Abraham’s line.  So Abraham gave Hagar and Ishmael bread and water and sent them off into the desert.  The young man was deprived of his inheritance rights, with god’s approval. 

The treatment of Ishmael was not considered unjust, as biblical precepts were clear that the son of a slave woman could not inherit any of his father’s property. By contrast, the Code of Hammurabi contained a provision for sons born of slave women to inherit some of their father’s property on his death.  The Code required that the father only had to state that he acknowledged the children as his.  The Old Testament of Israel was very much behind the Mesopotamian Code in providing for the inheritance rights of children born to slaves.

There have been claims made by Christian apologists that Israel integrated foreign slaves into its culture.  But the so-called integration was a further erosion of a slave’s humanity, as slaves were no longer able to practice their original religion. As a matter of fact, Deuteronomy 29, 10-13, implies that slaves could be put to death if they were not faithful in their service to Yahweh, the Hebrew god. Most Near Eastern cultures did not necessarily require slaves to convert to the owner’s religion unless the slaves agreed to the conversion.  Once again, Hebrew slave laws and customs in the Old Testament reveal their inferiority to those of their neighbors.

Furthermore, all the foreign male slaves of an Israelite owner were forced to undergo circumcision.  Male children born to foreign slave women were automatically circumcised.  But adult male slaves who were foreigners also had to submit to the religious mutilation. The operation was very painful and dangerous, but the slave had to undergo it in order to demonstrate his loyalty to his master. The practice of circumcision was fundamental to all the men of Israel, including slaves, from the time of Abraham, according to Genesis 17:23. Pro-slavery advocates often quoted those passages to prove that Abraham was not prevented by his slave-owning from being blessed by god “in all things.”

The Exodus tale of the Israelites’ flight to freedom from oppressive Egyptian slavery has captured the imagination of countless African Americans for decades. But pointing to Exodus as a story which endorsed human freedom is not accurate.  Exodus merely celebrated the Hebrew people’s freedom from slavery; it said nothing about any other people.  As a matter of fact, the Israelites went on to conquer the cursed land of Canaan, killing many Canaanite people and enslaving numerous others. The Old Testament rejoiced in the winning of Israelite freedom but displayed no ethical qualms about Israel’s consequent enslavement of the Canaanites. Avalos states that this story revealed the ethical failure of the Bible and disclosed a group-privileging rationale analogous to the rationale used in later New World slavery. The Israeli people did not feel that they owed other people the liberty Israel had gained from Egypt. White Europeans felt entitled to liberty but did not feel that they owed liberty to the other people they began to encounter in the New World. 

Old Testament manumission codes were also inferior to the Code of Hammurabi.  Manumission policies appeared to apply to Hebrew slaves alone. Foreign slaves might be kept in bondage for life and could be inherited by the owner’s children.  The ordinances set out in Exodus 21. 1-16 state that when an owner bought a Hebrew slave, the term of bondage was to be six years, with that slave’s release in the seventh year. If the slave had brought a wife with him into slavery, she was to be released with him at the same time. But if the slave’s owner had given him a wife and she had given birth to children, his family could not be released with him. If that unfortunate slave did not want to leave without his family, he informed his master of the fact.  At that juncture, he would be enslaved for life. 

His master would use an awl to make a hole in the slave’s ear and that was the end of his potential freedom.

By contrast, the Code of Hammurabi stated that a man could place his wife, son or daughter into slavery in exchange for debt release. The slave would then have to serve the owner for three years and would gain release in the fourth. The Code also treated native and foreign slaves more equally than in the Old Testament. It does not appear that Old Testament manumission policies were an improvement. With regard to the Code of Hammurabi’s term limits, they were a regression.

A few verses in the Old Testament did condemn kidnapping a man and enslaving him or selling him. But that prohibition had narrow limits, and most likely applied exclusively to Hebrews. Some scholars have argued that it applied exclusively to stealing another owner’s slave. Those sparse verses have been misused to claim the Old Testament condemns slavery. Such a position is indefensible. There are too many justifications of slavery in the Old Testament to make claims to the contrary credible.

The Old Testament provided justification for killing the young boys of conquered people and for using the young girls as sex slaves. This is in striking contrast with how the Code of Hammurabi dealt with the mistreatment of children. The Code ordered that whoever killed the child of another man would be put to death. But Numbers 31. 17-18 allowed the Israelites to kill every male among the “little ones” of the Midianite people. They were also told to kill any of the Midianite women who were not virgins. The Israeli men were then given full permission to keep all the young Midianite virgins for their own use, in other words, as sex slaves.

Leviticus 25. 39-46 apparently attempted to revise the Exodus 21.6 law that allowed the enslavement of fellow Hebrews. Leviticus specifically prohibited the enslaving of Hebrews. But it permitted enslaving other peoples. The passage was quite long and emphasized that a Hebrew who fell into debt and was forced to go into servitude should be treated as a hired servant. It also stipulated that he should be freed, along with his family, at the time of Jubilee, which could be a long term.

Leviticus then specifically instructed the people of Israel that they were allowed to buy both male and female slaves from neighboring nations.  They were also given permission to buy foreigners who lived in Israel. Such slaves could be inherited by the next generation and remain slaves forever. There were a few verses that ordered Israeli owners to give manumitted slaves animals, food and wine to make a new start in life, but in general slaves could expect to wait a long time for their freedom.

 Exodus 21.26-27 contained several laws concerning the punishment of slaves. If the owner struck his slave and that slave lost a tooth or an eye, the slave had to be set free.  Other organs were not mentioned. Verses 20-21 are written with an odd construction, and their meaning is still debated. They stated that if a master beat a slave with a rod and the slave died, the owner would be punished.  But if the slave lingered a day or two, then the owner would not be punished because the “slave was his money.”Scholars are still contesting whether those passages mean that the outcome was contingent on whether the slave died in a day or two, or lingered a day or two and then recovered. By contrast, Hector Avalos points out that the Greek historian, Xenophon (430 -354 CE), wrote that one was not allowed to hit a slave in Athens.  

It is difficult to see how Jewish punishment of slaves was an improvement over their treatment by the Greeks, Romans, and neighboring Near Eastern nations.

Avalos states that Biblical exegetes who attempt to demonstrate the “superiority of biblical directives” are not using impartial evidence. He argues that they regularly engage in “comparing the biblical best” with the pagan “worst. He concludes that: “In all cases, we can find misrepresentations of neighboring cultures and/or omission of countervailing examples and evidence. What is very clear is that despite such disingenuous and ameliorating strategies, the Old Testament does not provide any real evidence for more humane treatment of slaves than pagan societies.” In some cases, as I have mentioned, the Old Testament represented a regression.

Is the New Testament any more humane? Many New Testament authors accepted the fact of slavery and did not condemn it. Since many Christians cite the New Testament as their most important source of ethical behavior, the New Testament acceptance of slavery creates some difficulty for them. Hector Avalos cites the four major arguments used by scholars who discuss New Testament ethics. The first argument is that there is a canon within a canon, particularly for the purpose of privileging the “authentic” Pauline Epistles, which favor freedom. The second approach is that since Roman slavery may be considered relatively benign, any commands to be obedient slaves were not an unjust burden.

The third argument contradicts the second. This approach states that Roman slavery was generally brutal and that the New Testament was benign by comparison.  The fourth and last approach of some scholars is that some of the New Testament passages that apparently support slavery actually do not.

Many Christians point to the Golden Rule from Matthew 7:12 as an ethical injunction about the treatment of people. The Golden Rule was said to be uttered by Jesus.  It states: “So whatever you wish that men would do to you, so do to them; for this is the law and the prophets.” When Jesus exhorted his listeners to follow the Golden Rule, he did not condemn the practice of slavery in connection with it. He never condemned the slave holders with whom he came into contact during his ministry. No New Testament writer ever claimed the Golden Rule was incompatible with the practice of slavery.  Slaves were still ordered to obey their masters in Eph. 6.5 and 1 Pet. 2.18 of the New Testament. It is difficult to see how the New Testament’s acceptance of slavery was an improvement over the Old Testament.

Despite Christian claims to the contrary, the Golden Rule was not an original idea. It was not unique to Christianity as a source of ethical behavior.  Confucius used a similar injunction many years before Jesus. Avalos cites the Roman philosopher, Seneca, who said: “Treat your inferiors as you would be treated by your betters.”Pagan authors such as Epictetus and Cicero frequently reminded readers that all men had a common origin and descent, and that there was a universal brotherhood of man. Paul himself mentioned the pagan authors who spoke of equality.

Christian apologists who claim that Christianity created the idea of universal brotherhood are contradicted by the New Testament itself, which stated the idea had already been voiced in non-Christian cultures.

Paul stated that there was value in remaining a slave in 1 Cor. 7.21 and in its more extended context in 1 Cor. 7.20.25. Paul’s meaning and the translations of his words are the subject of fervent contention. They are hotly debated by authors who wish to prove that Paul was not encouraging people to remain in slavery.  I encourage those who are interested in the exact meaning to look up the passages and examine them. Paul stated that a slave should remain in the condition he or she was in when called to belief in Christ.  “Called” also meant the moment the slave became a Christian. Paul counseled slaves that they should not be concerned about their condition. He exhorted them to make use of it, even if they should gain their freedom eventually. He explained that whoever was a slave when called to the Lord was a free person, and that whoever was free when called to the Lord was a slave of Christ.

In Rom. 13. 1-5, Paul advised followers to subject themselves to the governing authorities as any authority which existed came from god. In Phil. 2-4-11, Paul explained that Christ himself took the form of a servant (a different translation uses the word, ‘slave’) when he could have chosen freedom. I believe that Paul was advising Christian members to accept authority and their given condition in the world’s hierarchy. If we keep in mind that the early Christian Church attracted slaves and the very poor as members, it would make perfect sense that Paul would claim that all members were partaking in the higher freedom of Christ’s salvation.

In Galatians 3.24-28, he told his followers that: “…there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Paul elaborated on the members’ spiritual equality, stating that they were all heirs (obviously to salvation) according to promise.

Hector Avalos and other scholars argue that Gal. 3.28 is not the revolutionary screed or Magna Carta that some Christians claim. Maintaining that Gal. 3.28 is an original passage in favor of liberation has resulted in less than scholarly attempts to ignore or diminish the work of earlier non-Christian thinkers and writers. Betz quotes from the teachings of Alcidamas, a Greek Sophist, who maintained that “…God has set all men free, nature has made no man a slave.” Betz states that the philosopher Zeno also advocated equality for slaves in 5th Century Greece. The 4th Century philosopher, Aristotle, spoke against the Greek institution of slavery. In the 5th Century, Xenophon wrote about the attempted implementation of equality of people in Athens, and he was referring specifically to slaves and foreigners.  Paul did not invent any concepts that promoted equality between people; he most likely adapted such ideas from the earlier Greek philosophers. Avalos believes that it was Greek ideas of equality of all humans that were taken up by later Christians. 

Early Christians seemed to favor the admonitions to slaves to obey their earthly masters in such texts as Eph. 6.5, Peter 2.18 and other New Testament scriptures.  As scholars note, early Christians certainly did not regard Gal. 3.28 as a revolutionary call to abolish slavery.  Earthly slavery was one thing; the heavenly freedom of spiritual liberation was another.

The Christian Church helped keep slavery alive for the next two thousand years. It did so by citing both the Old Testament’s and the New Testament’s acceptance and approval of slavery.

I would like to reference some other passages in the New Testament which are examples of Christianity’s investment in the status quo of legal slavery. Eph. 6.5: “Slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters, with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart as to Christ.” This quotation from Ephesians was written by Paul. There are biblical scholars who work to explain away such passages.  But they go too far when they claim that that particular order to slaves did not constitute an endorsement of slavery. As Avalos points out, the institution of slavery had always been maintained by slaves obeying their slave masters. If they did not, the practice would have experienced severe difficulties. The law would have to be brought in, slaves would be killed, and a costly disruption of the status quo would have ensued. But if slaves were obedient, the only possible way that slavery could end was if slave owners wanted to abolish it. It would not have been to the owners’ advantage to do so.

Since some of Paul’s letters have now been found to be forgeries, apologists are quick to claim that Paul did not approve of slavery. But questions of forgeries aside, Christians during the Middle Ages and later believed they were reading Paul’s own words.  Those letters were included in the Christian canon and the passages endorsing slavery were quoted by slave masters to their bondservants.  Apologists also try to make the case that some of the parts of the New Testament corpus are not primary, and therefore not the continuation of Paul’s legacy.  But they are unable to offer proof for their claims.

1 Timothy states: “Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of god and the teaching may not be defamed. Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful on the ground that they are brethren; rather they must serve all the better since those who benefit by their service are believers and beloved. ”Timothy underscored the fact that Christians who were respected members of the Church felt comfortable owning slaves.

It is important to keep in mind that when a master or lady of the house became a Christian, all members of the household, children, relatives and slaves were urged, or coerced, to convert as well. So some of the Christian slaves receiving advice from 1 Timothy might not have been voluntary Christians. Unethical practices, whether of owning slaves or of browbeating them to become Christians, were not seen to be incompatible with Christ’s teaching.

Avalos contradicts the two most popular arguments apologists offer in defense of the New Testament’s attitude toward slavery. The first argument is that neither Jesus nor Paul wanted to appear as if they were advocating revolution in the society of their time. Proposing the end of slavery would have been dangerous.  The second argument is that institutions such as slavery were so embedded in the culture that it would not have occurred to anyone to do away with them. “Slavery,” says Richard Horsely, “was part and parcel of the whole political-economic religious structure. The only way even of imagining society without slavery would have been to imagine a different society.”

Avalos makes telling points against both defenses. If Jesus, Paul or other church leaders had urged the abolition of the institution, it would not have brought chaos to the society- they would likely have been ignored. The Christian Church would not have needed to try to force non-Christians to give up owning slaves. But if Christian leaders had criticized slaveholding, their ethical message might have had some impact.  They might have persuaded their Christian members not to own slaves.

 Paul did not seem reluctant to usher in a genuine social revolution when he demanded that people stop getting drunk and committing adultery.  During the Church’s early years, Christians were known to be revolutionary, and Christians continually voiced beliefs that were meant to change customs and behavior. In addition, they were not afraid to make the claim that there was another king who was Jesus. That statement was not only revolutionary but could entail the death penalty for those who voiced it. Jesus had said that he had come not to bring peace but a sword.  Even though he was speaking metaphorically, he was in favor of radically altering family structures and other “norms” of the society. So the argument that Christians did not want to appear revolutionary is not sound.

The second argument is incorrect as well. Apologists claim that it would not have occurred to anyone during that era that slavery should be abolished. But alternative societies had been envisioned for many years. Plato’s Republic , 360 BCE, conceived of an alternative society. The Christian Churches themselves were seen as “beachheads” until Jesus returned, and an alternative society could be established.

There were already groups like the Jewish Essenes who had done away with slavery. According to Philo (25 BCE-50 CE), the Essenes required members to be free of owning slaves and they denounced nonmembers who were slaveholders. There is strong evidence that the cities of Locris and Phocis in ancient Greece prohibited slavery. There were many alternative societies, both practiced and envisioned, in the ancient world. As has been noted by secular critics, apologists for Christianity try to claim that Christianity was a revolutionary new ethical system, but then try to make the case that the biblical authors were unable to imagine a free society.

There is some evidence that attitudes toward slavery in the New Testament were less humane than in the Old Testament. Margaret Davies argues that the New Testament shows “… an impoverishment of traditions.” For example, the Old Testament set term limits for at least some slaves; New Testament slavery seems to have lasted indefinitely. The Old Testament required manumission of severely injured slaves. But the New Testament advised slaves to be submissive to cruel masters. There was surely regression in the New Testament commands to slaves concerning their conduct.  Their emancipation was never broached by Christianity’s theologians, important leaders or its putative founder, Jesus.

With regard to Jesus, secular biblical experts maintain that the language used to describe him vis-à-vis his relationship with his followers was imperial. He was the master and his members were his slaves. They argue that analyzing such language helps to understand why slavery endured so long in Christianity.

This might be an over-extended claim, but the concept of an imperial Christ with earthly slaves was surely a factor in the acceptance of slavery. It is known that Jesus never criticized the institution of slavery in the New Testament, and when he spoke in parables, he sometimes used the metaphor of master and servant, or slave, to explain and dramatize the point he was making.

Not only was Christ portrayed as parallel to the Roman emperor, he was also referred to with specific words in early Christianity.  He was often called, ‘Kyrios,’ which is the Greek word for Lord or master, or ‘dominus’, a word related to domination.  A follower, however, was often referred to as a ‘doulos.’ This Greek word meant ‘slave.’ Paul referred to himself as a doulos of Christ. Believers were all viewed as slaves of Christ.  In Rom. 6.22, Paul says to members: “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of god, the return you get is sanctification and its end, eternal life.” There have been challenges to the translation of the word ‘doulos.’ Some Christian apologists maintain that the word does not always mean slave, but their objections are not sound.

There was a tradition in ancient Near Eastern societies that the people were servant/slaves of the gods and/or rulers, who were approved by the gods. Such language was not uncommon. There are fundamentalist thinkers and writers in the present day who agree that the word, ‘doulos,’ meant slave. Such writers argue that believers in Christianity need to understand that they are slaves of Christ, who is their master. The tradition of a master/slave relationship with Christ remains alive in some quarters in the present day.

Despite portrayals of Jesus as benign and loving, the other image, the one of the imperial Jesus ruling over his slave colony of humans has endured, with detrimental consequences, for some two thousand years.

The Church in late antiquity, which was post New Testament and dates from about 150 CE to 1000 CE, carried on the tradition of approving slavery. From about 313 CE on, Christianity was established by Constantine as the imperial religion. Eventually an ecclesial legal tradition grew out of Roman law, and such religious laws were enforced by Christian kings or churchmen. Slavery was accepted and even encouraged by many Christian theologians, popes, church councils and Christian rulers. Neither Church doctrine nor the texts of the period criticized slavery but both simply assumed it was acceptable. Some church officials tried to further regulate it.

Ideas of race began to creep into some major theological writings. The writers referred back to the myth of Noah cursing Ham and his people, the Canaanites, condemning them to slavery. According to linguists, Ham’s name is not associated with blackness, but blackness was beginning to be paired with negative qualities during that era. Well-regarded theologians such as Origen (185- 254 CE), and John Chrysostom (347- 407 CE) showed themselves favorable to slavery.

Augustine of Hippo, (354-430 CE), arguably the most important theologian prior to Thomas of Aquinas, was very much in favor of slavery. His influential writings were much quoted and helped perpetuate the institution for the next 1500 years.

Letters written by him emerged in the 1990’s, which provided evidence that the slave trade in his area, North Africa, was much more extensive than had previously been thought.  Augustine’s letters proved that he knew the workings of the slave trade and its miseries very well. Nevertheless, he believed that Christians were god’s favored slaves, and should receive special benefits. One of these was the right to own non-Christian slaves, while non-Christians were not supposed to own Christian slaves. He attributed the beginning of slavery to Ham’s curse in the Old Testament. Augustine accepted slavery as part of the postlapsarian world brought about by man’s sinning.

There were prominent Church officials who were slave owners or who found the institution of slavery was allowable. An example is the will of Gregory of Nazianzus, who was the 4th century Bishop of Constantinopole. His last testament stated that his slaves were to be released at his death, but that some of them might become church property. Cyprian, the 3rd Century Bishop of Carthage, maintained that some Christian masters might have to enforce obedience by such methods as flagellation, starvation and imprisonment of slaves. Pope Gregory I (540 – 604 CE) believed that slavery was the result of humans’ sinful state, a position in agreement with the earlier belief of Augustine.  Gregory admonished slaves to bear themselves humbly, not despise their masters, and quoted scriptural passages ordering slaves to obey their masters.

Theodosius II (401 – 450 CE) and Justinian the Great (483 – 565 CE) were zealous Christian emperors. Both of them issued major legal codes which became the law of the Roman Empire. If you recall from earlier lectures, they were egregiously harsh toward what they considered infractions against proper sexual mores.

Both were very severe when punishing prostitution and homosexuality. Justinian’s legal codes were the most draconian. His laws stated that war, birth and self-sale were all legal grounds enslaving people. The historical records speak for themselves. The first thousand years of Christianity did nothing to abolish or condemn slavery. A few clerics, such as Gregory of Nyssa, (330 – 394 CE), did not approve of the practice, but they were rare and their opinions were disregarded.

Nothing changed during the Middle Ages. St. Thomas of Aquinas, (1227 – 1274 CE), the preeminent theologian of the Catholic Church, did not criticize slavery. A few Christian apologists claim he was not acquainted at first hand with the evils of slavery, but such arguments are disingenuous.  Aquinas believed that slavery of the soul was an evil, not slavery of the body. He found that slavery accorded with a second type of natural law, which was based on utility and commensurability. Aquinas quoted 1 Timothy 6, which stated that slaves should honor their masters. That Aquinas quoted Timothy is telling: Timothy took for granted that Christians could own slaves and not be sinful.

The idea of associating blackness with sin was becoming well established in the first millennium of Christian hegemony. The growing racism was aided by the story of Ham being cursed by Noah and condemned to slavery, even though the name of Ham was not associated with blackness. Black slaves were increasingly made use of and the notion of Ethiopian sin was cited by Pope Gregory the Great.  The association of blackness with slavery would not reach its apotheosis until the 17th Century in the New Word. The difference in the New World was the growth of the institution, which was extensive and made nearly exclusive use of black slaves.

Some Christian scholars make the claim that abolitionism was a long standing policy of Catholicism. Their allegations are either mistaken or disingenuous.  A glance at the Renaissance is important because that era, from the mid 1450’s CE to the late 1500’s CE, was when the New World was discovered. It was also a time when new avenues opened for enslavement of humans. European empires had achieved a global reach.  The Protestant Reformation, a revolutionary development, had begun. The printing press had arrived, and with it, the possibility of mass communication.

Hector Avalos states: “Papal policies formulated in the Renaissance helped shape views toward the enslavement of both Indians and Africans for centuries afterward.” Papal pronouncements were issued and disseminated more widely than before.  The highest form of papal communication is called a bull. This means “an apostolic letter with a leaden seal.” I would like to glance at a few papal pronouncements from the Renaissance that display papal appeals to biblical authority and ethics. The popes  were convinced that Christians had a right to spread Christianity all over the world, and that there were scriptural and theological rationales for the practice of enslaving other peoples.

The sicut dudum (1435 CE) is often cited as a bull that guaranteed the rights of newly encountered people. But Pope Eugene IV (1431-1447 CE) was speaking about the right to perpetual freedom for the people in the Canary Islands, who were already Christian. In fact, becoming a Christian in that area guaranteed avoiding enslavement. The Romanus Pontifex of 1454-1455 CE authorized the enslavement of black Africans and of Muslims captured in war.  

Those examples are merely two of the papal pronouncements that gave permission for many types of slavery, particularly of non-Christians captured in war. Most of those wars were not initiated by non-Christians but were begun by Christian nations for the purpose of extending their influence and gaining more wealth and power.

The Sublimus Deus,(1537 CE) which contradicted earlier statements on slavery by Pope Paul III, was an injunction against enslaving Indians in the New World. What apologists fail to mention, however, is that Pope Paul was on the record that he believed that particular bull had been extorted from him. He annulled its companion piece a year later. In 1548, his new document allowed slavery even in Rome. The Pope stated officially that any slaves who fled to Rome and appealed for liberty should be returned to their owners and, if proper, should be punished as runaways.

Many Popes owned and sold slaves. Christian apologists try to find excuses for that practice by stating that such slaves were often gifts. The truth of the matter is that the 16th Century papacy was highly involved in retaining the institution of slavery. The popes gave voice to policies that were a green light to Christian rulers to enslave millions of people.  Many of the popes cited the Bible as having sanctioned slavery. But according to Hector Avalos, Christians had found an additional endorsement for slavery. They claimed that the Christian god owned the whole world and that his chosen people were justified in spreading his Gospel throughout the world (Mt. 28. 19-20).

The popes maintained that since they were vicars of Christ, they had a duty to make sure that the entire world became subject to Christ.  They hoped the means to bring such a Christian world about were peaceful, but if the necessity should arise, force was an acceptable measure. The New Testament notion of humans being the slaves of an imperial Jesus supplied the Christian empire with a logical rationale to conquer and enslave foreign people. 

Protestant attitudes toward slavery in the 16th Century did not differ substantially from those of the Catholic Church. The major Protestant figures of the era did not live in countries that were heavily involved in the New World slave trade.  But there was slavery in their midst and they were well aware of events taking place in the New World. Martin Luther (1483- 1546 CE) was the most significant figure at the beginning of the Protestant movement. His views on so-called religious ‘liberty’ are well known. But Christian apologists are silent about his ideas concerning slavery. Here is an example of Luther’s views. He undertook to review the complaints of Swabian peasants in 1525. They claimed that they were receiving oppressive treatment from their landowners.  Luther’s answer was very clear. He claimed that a worldly kingdom was unable to exist without inequality.  He cited Paul’s biblical teachings on slavery and stated that he believed freeing slaves/serfs from their masters was robbery.

John Calvin (1509 – 1564 CE) was a well-known founder of Protestantism. Calvin approved of slavery, even though he wrote that it was a degrading and harsh condition.  He quoted Eph. 6.5 and other scriptural passages that ordered slaves to obey their masters, even if their owners were hard or cruel.

He left the question of emancipation of bond servants to the slave masters. In other words, slavery could be a life term if the master decided it should be.  Neither Calvin nor Luther found the institution of slavery incompatible with Christ’s teaching in the New Testament.

 Some important British and American abolitionists of the 18th and 19th Centuries marginalized quoting from the Bible when advancing emancipation of slaves and abolition of the institution of slavery.  There were abolitionists that did cite the Bible, but they were forced to use a few insignificant passages, translate and restate others and in general, present a skewed version of original biblical injunctions.  William Wilberforce (1759-1883 CE) was one of the most influential members of the British Parliament who fought against slavery. Wilberforce discouraged the use of the Bible when slavery was discussed in the Parliament. He wrote there was no doubt that the Bible was against slavery, but on that topic, “… explanations would be required.”

Wilberforce’s arguments against slavery were not based on the Bible and one may see how wise he was to avoid the pitfalls of quoting a Christian Bible filled with pro-slavery sentiments, orders and justifications. John Barclay has studied British abolitionist positions against slavery. He maintains that “…when it came to detailed exegesis and a commitment to take the Bible at face value, the pro-slavery arguments often had the better case.” British abolitionists realized they had to move beyond the Bible and they did so. Wilberforce’s main tract on slavery made no direct references to Jesus or Paul. Avalos states: “In short, the argumentation of British abolitionists shows how little they appealed to the Bible to support their cause.”

American abolitionists generally depended on weak interpretive exegeses to demonstrate the Biblical disapproval of slavery. But their efforts produced “linguistically dubious and easily refuted arguments.” The pro-slavery faction had a much better biblical rationale for the continuation of slavery. American slave holders were able to cite numerous passages approving slavery. Harsh overseers quoted biblical exhortations to their slaves about being obedient to their masters. Overseers and slave owners did not hesitate to use the Bible as a means to subdue slaves who had been converted to Christianity.

One man stood out among the black abolitionists of the time. That was Frederick Douglass (1818- 1895 CE), an important 19th Century advocate for freedom. There are claims from Christian apologists that the ideas of this heroic, brilliant and eloquent former slave were precursors to contemporary concepts of liberation theology. But Williamson and Stuckey have conducted significant studies of Douglass’ views on the Bible and religion. Their work demonstrates that Douglass had an ambivalent view of scripture with regard to its passages on slavery.

Avalos has conducted his own study of Douglass’ writings and he maintains that despite a professed love of the Bible, Douglass employed it marginally in his argumentations against slavery. Avalos has found that Douglass became more aligned with secular humanism as time went on.  Douglass went so far as to exalt the ethics of Robert G. Ingersoll, the agnostic, over those of D.L. Moody, the celebrated Christian evangelical leader.

There cannot be any doubt that Christianity helped perpetuate the institution of slavery. Biblical approval and papal bulls justified slavery. The Old Testament contained specific rules for the treatment of bondservants and terms of service.  The New Testament did nothing to advance the cause of abolition. It contained passages that claimed Christian followers were the slaves of an imperial Christ. There were many Christians in the abolitionist movement of the 19th Century, but they were hampered by the lack of biblical criticism against slavery.

 Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a Christian work that held the institution of slavery up to critical examination. The novel’s melodramatic tone underscored the human suffering and injustice of slavery and helped stir the conscience of the American nation. Christian apologists cite such well known abolitionists and would have the number of Christians who worked for the end of slavery enlarged and secular abolitionists marginalized. But the truth is that Christian abolitionists were in the minority. Most Christian churches and their members were adamantly pro-slavery. 

What brought about the end of slavery? There were economic,  demographic, military and philosophical factors at work that eventually combined to bring about the condemnation and abolition of slavery as an accepted institution sanctioned by governments. I would like to list some of the factors that helped achieve the effective end to state-sanctioned slavery between 1775 and 1900 CE. Many of those reasons were secular rather than religious.  The passages in the Bible quoted by Christian apologists as being against slavery were in reality an aid to perpetuating the institution. 

Apologists are also mistaken or disingenuous when they claim that Christian churches led the way against slavery. Some American churches owned slaves, and most of them were pro-slavery.  This fact has been researched and confirmed by writers such as Lester B. Scherer, in his 1975 Slavery in the Church in Early America, 1619-1819. 

One of the most interesting factors involved in the impetus to end slavery between 1775 and 1900 was the embrace of the concept of freedom.  Orlando Patterson explains: “…freedom was generated from the experience of slavery.” Avalos maintains that the Bible is not needed as a reference because freedom appears to be a human disposition or desire. If it were not, no force would have been necessary to compel slaves to remain in their imprisoned state.

There were economic reasons for the end to slavery. Eric Williams wrote a controversial book in 1944 titled Capitalism and Slavery. He argued that abolitionist narratives had over-emphasized humanitarian and/or religious motives.  Williams maintained that the abolitionist movement was coincident with the rise of industrial capitalism. That new economic paradigm, especially in Britain, found it advantageous to get rid of outdated monopolies that were using slavery. The British had ignored or defended slavery when the production in the West Indies was needed by the economy, As West Indian production became less important, and then a genuine nuisance, Britain began to dismantle slavery as a first step in destroying the West Indian monopoly. Williams’ theory has been contested, but many elements in it are sound. The newer industrial economy was starting to discover that it was cheaper to employ hired workers at a low wage. Slavery entailed money laid out for buying slaves, then paying to feed, clothe and house them.

The influential economist, Adam Smith, had expressed the same idea much earlier in his 1776, Wealth of Nations.  Smith maintained that slave labor appeared inexpensive in the short run but was more expensive in the long one.  He believed that slavery was destined to fail eventually as an economic institution.

The third factor that influenced the movement toward abolition was demographic imbalances.  The Caribbean historian, Jean Rogozinski, argues that the Jamaican slave rebellion of 1831 helped end slavery. Some 60,000 slaves, led by Samuel Sharpe (1801-1832 CE), a Baptist lay preacher, burned down about 2000 plantations before the revolt was suppressed. As black populations of slaves rose to a majority in the Caribbean, and to lesser but still significant numbers in other areas, slave revolts began to rise. The revolts were accompanied by white fear. South Carolina made it against the law to import slaves in 1792. Many white areas began to fear being overrun by slave and black populations and started to restrict the slave trade.

Haiti was the sole successful slave revolt in history that ended with a nation controlled by former slaves. The revolt took place from 1791-1804, culminating in victory for independence. That success is an example of non-Christian abolition. Frederick Douglass was minister of state to Haiti under President Harrison. Douglass stated: “Until Haiti struck for freedom, the conscience of the Christian world slept profoundly over slavery… Until Haiti spoke, no Christian nation had given the world an organized effort to abolish slavery.” The revolution was not influenced by the Christian religion.  The Haitian population was invested in Voodoo, whose leaders helped inspire the nation in their bid for freedom. Voodoo had been brought to Haiti by African slaves from Benin and neighboring cultures.

Abolition was a successful military strategy, the fourth factor that contributed to abolition. When countries were short of an adequate number of soldiers, they extended liberty to slaves in exchange for military service. According to historians, some black slaves in the United States won freedom by fighting in various wars between England and France.  Some of these experts are of the opinion that the Emancipation Proclamation of Abraham Lincoln in 1863 was as much of a military tactic as it was a humanitarian move. There were complex wars nearing global extent that were fought between 1775 and the 1830’s.  The wars aided the change in attitude about the institution of slavery. Military considerations were more important in contributing to abolition than any major change in Christianity at that time.

Secularization was also a factor in abolition. The British Granville Sharp was an influential figure in the fight to free slaves. Avalos points out that Sharp’s 1769 tract, A Representation of the Injustice and Dangerous Tendency of Tolerating Slavery did not contain one single religious argument against the practice of slavery. The American Thomas Paine (1737- 1809) was a well-known religious skeptic who wrote energetically against slavery. In some quarters of the pro-slavery movement, it was believed that abolitionism had been inspired by secularization.

Another factor in the triumph of abolition was the decline of biblical authority. The decline is never mentioned by religious apologists, but some well-regarded historians consider it of some relevance in contributing to the end of slavery. Reventlow and others have concluded “… with the Enlightenment, the Bible lost its significance for philosophical thought and for the constitutional foundations of political ideas.

I have already mentioned that Wilberforce discouraged using the Bible during parliamentary discussions on slavery. Important abolitionist court records of the time are telling as well- there is a reliance on legal, not biblical, arguments about slavery.

No one reason for abolition’s success can be asserted with confidence. But this lecture has pointed out that there were many reasons involved in the end of institutional slavery. Apologists who credit the Bible and Christian ethics are either disingenuous or mistaken. Christianity had been the predominant faith in Western imperial nations for around 1800 or more years and slavery was not only well-established, but also pervasive and harsh. It became more egregious from the 16th Century on, with the conquering of the New World. Advancements in abolition did not come about until the 18th and 19th Centuries.

There is extensive historical opinion that the Bible not only  accepted but endorsed slavery.  The established Christian religions, both Catholic and Protestant, sanctioned the institution. Many Christian leaders quoted the Bible for their justification of slavery. But when abolitionists tried to quote the Bible, they were forced to present a reinterpretation of it rather than the literal and original biblical meaning. Christian apologists try to make a case for reinterpreting the Bible. But if its original meaning is lost, it is no longer the Bible it was intended to be. When the Bible’s pro-slavery ethics are reinterpreted, the result is to deny and hide the biblical authority that upheld them.  According to Hector Avalos, that authority “…was one of the greatest pillars of slavery ever seen in human history.”

The Christian Bible is a complete failure with regard to human rights and respect for all human life. The most common consensus on ethics in the contemporary world is the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Judged by such a standard, the Bible fails. I would like to quote Hector Avalos as I end my lecture, because his condemnation of the Bible and its execrable ethical stance is so true and so eloquent.

“The Bible’s stance on slavery alone is sufficient to confirm the New Atheism’s general stance that this collection of books has been one of the greatest obstacles to human ethical progress in history. The Bible is part of a world whose ethics and values are best left in the past. Accordingly, the modern world must completely unshackle itself from using the Bible as any sort of ethical or social authority.”


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Avalos, Hector. Slavery, Abolitionism and the Ethics of Biblical Scholarship. Sheffield, England: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2013.

Barclay, John M.G. “Am I Not a Man and a Brother? in The Bible and British Anti-Slavery Campaign. Expository Times 119 (2007). pp 3-14.

Betz, Hans Dieter. Galatians. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979.

Brown, Oscar J. ‘Aquinas’ Doctrine of Slavery in Relation to Thomistic Teaching on Natural Law,’ Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association 53 (1979), pp 173-81.

Davies, Margaret. ‘Work and Slavery in the New Testament: Impoverishment of Tradition,” in Rogerson, Davies and Carroll, R. Eds., the Bible in Ethics, pp 315-47.

Davis, David Brion. Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Horsley, Richard A. I Corinthians. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1988.

Kirk, Alan. “Love Your Enemies,” The Golden Rule and Ancient Reciprocity. (Luke 6: 27-35), JBL 122 (203), pp. 667-88.

Martin, Dale B.  Slavery as Salvation: The Metaphor of Slavery in Pauline Christianity. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990.

Patterson, Orlando. Freedom in the Making of Western Culture. New York: Basic Books, 1991.

Reventlow, Henning Graf. The Authority of the Bible and the Rise of the Modern World. Tras. John Bowden.  Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985.

Rogozinski, Jan. A Brief History of the Caribbean: From the Arawak to the Carib to the Present. New York: Penguin Putnam, 1999.

Scherer, Lester B.  Slavery and the Churches in Early America. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1976.

Williams, Eric. Capitalism and Slavery. Ed. Colin A. Palmer. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1944.

Williamson, Scott C. The Narrative Life: The Moral and Religious Thought of Frederick Douglass. Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 2002.