One of the questions used to confront Christianity these days centers on the claim that the Bible teaches slavery. From inside the church, the claim is made by those who do not want to accept one Biblical teaching or another. “Well the Bible teaches slavery so we do not have to listen to it in other areas” is often the implication. From outside the church, it is used to dismiss the Bible and the Christian faith altogether as in “How can you believe something that teaches something so evil.
Well, as Paul Blart says, here is a fun fact for you. In the King James Version of the Bible the word ‘slavery’ never appears once, and the word ‘slave’ only appears twice. But, by the time the Revised Standard Version came out the word ‘slavery’ appears 157 times. What happened between those two translations? The Hebrew word ‘ebed’ and the Greek word ‘doulos’ can just as accurately be translated servant as they can slave. Do you think there may have been a cultural impact between the two translations that caused the translators to be more mindful of slavery? Maybe the American experience of slavery?
Biblical slavery was not like American slavery. It is true that in the Old Testament Hebrew culture slaves had no civil rights, but they were not thought of as inferior and were in fact seen as part of the family (Gen. 17:23, Ex. 12:44). Masters were bound by the Law of Moses as to how to treat a servant/slave and the slave was protected by the Sabbatical and Jubilee regulations. The slavery of Biblical times was not the racial slavery we think of in American history.
It is also important to notice that the Bible does not at any point “teach” slavery. It does recognize that slavery exists, but what existed was basically an economic structure, not a racial one. As a form of bankruptcy, a person could work off a debt by entering into the servant relationship. This often enabled one to continue using their skills until their debt was covered. If the Bible teaches that slavery, as we think of it, is acceptable why does Paul in I Timothy include “andrapodistes” (slave traders) among the list of the ungodly, rebellious, profane, immoral, murderous people?
When we move into New Testament times Dr. Paul Copan reminds us that it is important to notice again the actual state of slaves; especially since upwards of 80% of Rome’s population were considered slaves. They were considered property, but they were free to start their own business, could earn enough to buy their freedom, and they had the right to own property. Many who could have purchased their own freedom did not because of the security that came from living under the master (food, clothing, etc) and so we are not talking about the system most of us think of as slavery. Dr. Copan notes one freed slave in Rome who had engraved on his tombstone “Slavery was never unkind to me.” As Dr. Copan notes, Dr. Ben Witherington has documented just how different the notion of slavery was in Biblical times. He points out that…
–“No former slaved who became writers ever attacked slavery as such.”
–“Slave revolts never sought to abolish the institution but only protest abuses.”
–“More often than not, it was free workers rather than slaves who were abused by foremen and bosses, (after all, an owner stood to have an ongoing loss is he abused his slave.)”
The Bible does not teach or affirm slavery, but it does acknowledge that it existed and then gives believers a foundation of how to live in this real world. Even with all of this, we find that Biblical teaching actually is the foundation for the ending of slavery and the affirmation of human dignity. More of this next time. Slavery is no excuse to deny the authority of Scripture.
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