Does the Bible Really Support Slavery on the Basis of Skin-Color?

Noah curses his son Ham, a 19th-century painting by Ivan Stepanovitch Ksenofontov. Ham looks pretty white to me here, but for thousands of Christians in the American South, from at least the 19th century to recent times, they thought Ham (or his son Canaan) had black skin.

One of the persistent criticisms made against the Christian faith is the claim that the Bible supports slavery. The “New Atheists” argue that the Bible’s support for slavery demonstrates that the Bible is an immoral book, an ancient text better left to the Bronze age, from which it came. Overly-enthusiastic defenders of the faith, eager to answer such critics, can sometimes overreact in the opposite direction, ignoring some of the more difficult statements found in Scripture.

The answer is, as is the case with all “social justice” issues, is a bit more complicated. For the critics, they have a point in that Leviticus 25:44-46 looks to be, on a surface reading, to be condoning chattel slavery, treating persons as property, that can be bought or sold. However, Tyndale House linguistics scholar Peter J. Williams makes the case that passages like these require a more thoughtful reading, paying closer attention to the historical context in which they were made (see video below).

Many people today find the Bible’s comments on slavery disturbing, because they often confuse the Bible’s discussion of slavery, with how Americans in the antebellum South practiced slavery, with dark-skinned Africans. Many Americans, particularly in the antebellum Old South (and even perhaps some even today!!), based the enslavement of dark-skinned Africans on a rather crude reading of Noah’s “Curse on Ham”, as found in Genesis 9:20-27, when Ham’s son, Canaan, was cursed by Noah, after Ham uncovered “the nakedness of his father.” What is striking right away is that the curse was actually made against Canaan, Ham’s son, and not Ham himself. The “African slavery” interpretation is all the more alarming, when one considers that Canaan is the ancestor of the Canaanites who populated the Promised Land, that Joshua and the Israelites settled. There is no evidence in Scripture that Canaan had any African descendants.

By the 15th century, an interpretive tradition became popular, identifying the practice of enslaving Africans, as a result of this so-called “Curse on Ham.” But according to semitic and Old Testament scholar Michael Heiser, in an episode of FringePop321, this particular Bible interpretation is woefully flawed, in multiple ways, failing to take into account, the critical presence of metaphor in Genesis, that can be seen by a more broad reading of Scripture, following the practice of interpreting Scripture with Scripture (see second video below).

So, what was the whole “nakedness of [Noah’s] father” all about? Dr. Heiser makes the compelling case that it had EVERYTHING to do with Ham seeking to usurp his father’s clan leadership, and absolutely NOTHING to do with skin color.

The bottom line? Whatever criticisms can be levied against the Bible regarding the practice of slavery, such slavery can NOT be equated with the kind of racial-based slavery practiced in the antebellum American South.

Bible interpretation matters, folks. Bible interpretation matters.

For a helpful summary of the Bible’s teaching on slavery in general, please read this excellent article over at Alisa Childers’ apologetics blog. For a critical interaction with the idea that the Bible only endorses indentured servitude, and not chattel slavery, consult this YouTube video by Digital Hammurabi (also this additional video by Digital Hammurabi: scholars appear to be divided on this issue concerning chattel slavery). For a summary of scholarly views on the Genesis 9 text, with an extensive interaction with Dr. Heiser’s exegesis, read this article by Kathleen Kasper at YourBibleBlog. Dr. Heiser’s work largely depends on research done by Roman Catholic scholars John Sietze Bergsma and Scott Hahn. Peter Leithart summarizes Bergsma and Hahn. This current blog article updates the research I did regarding the “Curse of Ham,”  for a previous blog article I wrote in 2015.

 


Sarah Osborn’s World #5

A fifth installment chronicling the story of Sarah Osborn (Previous installments: #1, #2, #3, #4).

As Sarah Osborn matured in age, so did her spiritual stature as a Christian leader in her Newport, Rhode Island community. But her spiritual influence grew out of the difficult trials she experienced in her life.

By the time Sarah Osborn hit her late 40’s, her health was so bad that she was simply unable to walk any long distances. She had to be carried to church by her friends. One would think that life for such a weak and physically disabled woman would be reduced to pure obscurity. However, this would not be the case for Sarah Osborn.

Over the next few years, Sarah Osborn would participate in an incredibly profound spiritual revival of people from all walks of life. What started out as simply an invitation to some neighbors to share in the nightly family devotional for one evening became an extensive, multi-year ministry. Night after night, people would cram inside her home to listen to Sarah share the message of the Bible. Hundreds of people from the town of Newport, Rhode Island and beyond would sit at the feet of this saintly woman who would pray for them.
Continue reading


Joseph Smith’s “Corrections” to the Bible?

Gary, the Mormon kid on South Park.

Some friends of mine are Latter-day Saints (Mormons). They are some wonderful people.

But the more I dig into the history of Mormonism, the weirder the story of Joseph Smith gets. For example, in the early 1830s, Joseph Smith, the prophet of the Latter-day Saints movement, undertook the task to “correct” some of the “mistranslations” found in the King James Bible. Smith’s rationale for doing this is well documented:

“From sundry revelations which had been received, it was apparent that many important points touching the salvation of man, had been taken from the Bible, or lost before it was compiled….I believe the Bible as it read when it came from the pen of the original writers. Ignorant translators, careless transcribers, or designing and corrupt priests have committed many errors.” (Documentary History of the Church, vol 1, p. 245 and vol. 6, p. 57).

Many Mormons are probably unaware that Joseph Smith ever made such a translation, and for good reasons. First, Smith never completely finished this new translation. Furthermore, some portions of this work appear in other Scriptures considered sacred to the Latter Day Saints, so no additional affirmation of these portions is considered necessary (as is the case of Smith’s The Book of Moses).

After Smith was killed in 1844, his surviving wife, Emma, obtained the manuscripts of his translation work, and joined what was called the RLDS, the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (now known as the Community of Christ). The RLDS were a breakaway sect, led by Joseph Smith’s son, which eventually settled in Independence, Missouri. So, the RLDS should not to be confused with the main body of Mormons that moved to Utah. The RLDS retained the copyright for the “Joseph Smith Translation,” so technically, the main Utah group does not have an official claim to it (though selections from the translation are viewable from the main LDS.org website, under “Study Helps”).

Most of the changes are relatively benign. Some changes are like a sort of commentary on difficult parts of the Scriptures, that actually chime in well with what many Christians today believe.

For example, what does it mean to “take up his cross, and follow me?” Here is the King James (KJV) on Matthew 16:24-25:

Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.

A lot of people wonder about this: What does it really mean to take up one’s cross, and follow Jesus? So, Smith added some explanatory verses:

And now for a man to take up his cross, is to deny himself all ungodliness, and every worldly lust, and keep my commandments. Break not my commandments for to save your lives; for whosoever will save his life in this world, shall lose it in the world to come. And whosoever will lose his life in this world, for my sake, shall find it in the world to come (Italics belong to Joseph Smith, from JST, Matthew 16:26-28).

I have heard numerous sermons over the years, that pretty much support the ideas that Smith inserts into the text. At first glance, it may seem credible.

Then there is Joseph Smith’s intellectual battle with Calvinism, reflecting on some of the struggles he had listening to some of the Presbyterian preachers of his youth. In the LDS official version of Joseph Smith’s famous “First Vision” account, Smith admits that he sought comfort for a time in attending the Methodist church, the Methodists being essentially an Arminian denomination, that often rejected key themes found in Calvinistic Presbyterianism. For example, consider a favorite prooftext for what many Calvinists call the “Reformed” doctrine of limited atonement:

No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day (John 6:44 KJV).

Advocates of limited atonement find support in this verse for this idea: that Jesus only died for the elect, and not for all of humanity. For only someone who is drawn by the Father can truly know Jesus, and be truly saved.

The evidence that Joseph Smith chafed at this thought is evidenced by how he seeks to “correct” this verse, in his own translation. Note the italicized additions/changes that Smith inserted into the text:

No man can come unto me, except he doeth the will of my Father who hath sent me. And this is the will of him who hath sent me, that ye receive the Son; for the Father beareth record of him; and he who receiveth the testimony, and doeth the will of him who sent me, I will raise up in the resurrection of the just (John 6:44 JST).

Smith clearly sides with the Arminians, the opponents of historic Calvinism, who champion the alternative idea of universal atonement, that Jesus died for all people. In Joseph Smith’s rendering of this verse, he even goes farther than most Arminians, by suggesting that salvation is contingent on doing the will of the Father.

Furthermore, many Calvinists rest in the confidence of a doctrine of predestination, that emphasizes the calling of God:

But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God. (I Corinthians 1:24 KJV).

But Joseph Smith will have none of this. It is not those who are “called” but those who “believe” will be saved:

But unto them who believe, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:24 JST).

Arminians: 2. Calvinists: 0…. Sorry, Calvinists.

But there are places where Smith just added some stuff, that, ….. well…. see what you can make out of it.

Here is the King James for 1 Corinthians 15:40:

There are also celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial: but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another.

Now, here is Joseph Smith on the same verse (the italics show the changes):

There are three degrees of glory in the Resurrection. Also celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial, and bodies telestial; but the glory of the celestial, one; and the terrestrial, another; and the telestial, another. (Joseph Smith Translation, 1 Corinthians 15:40).

What stands out here is that Smith takes the two realms (or degrees) from Paul’s letter, the celestial and the terrestrial, and then Smith adds a third realm, what he calls the “telestial.”

Does anybody know what “telestial” is? Not really.

Nobody really has a clue.

Even Mormon scholars.

Now, here is a real head scratcher. In Hebrews 7:3, the KJV has a real brief description of Melchizedek:

Without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life; but made like unto the Son of God; abideth a priest continually.

Joseph Smith goes on and fills out some more details. Here is his translation of Hebrews 7:3:

For this Melchizedek was ordained a priest after the order of the Son of God, which order was without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life. And all those who are ordained unto this priesthood are made like unto the Son of God, abiding a priest continually. (Italics by Joseph Smith, from Joseph Smith Translation, Hebrews 7:3).

So, where did Smith get his information for this new translation? He had no background in any biblical language: Neither Hebrew, Greek, nor Aramaic. There is no known existing variant from New Testament sources that can account for Smith’s additions. Strangely enough (or strangely not), Smith’s commentary sounds a whole lot like what is known about the Mormon priesthood.

But here is the real kicker. In standard translations of Genesis, the book ends with Genesis 50:26. Not so with the Joseph Smith’s version. He adds a good 20+ verses to the end of the book. Here is just a portion of what Smith wrote. Keep in mind that there is a not a shred of physical evidence from antiquity to support Smith’s amendments. Note where the italics, belonging to Smith, start:

And Joseph said unto his brethren, I die, and go unto my fathers; and I go down to my grave with joy. The God of my father Jacob be with you, to deliver you out of affliction in the days of your bondage; for the Lord hath visited me, and I have obtained a promise of the Lord, that out of the fruit of my loins, the Lord God will raise up a righteous branch out of my loins; and unto thee, whom my father Jacob hath named Israel, a prophet; (not the Messiah who is called Shilo;) and this prophet shall deliver my people out of Egypt in the days of thy bondage…. (Joseph Smith Translation, Genesis 50:24-26)

But here is more, towards the end:

And that seer will I bless, and they that seek to destroy him shall be confounded; for this promise I give unto you; for I will remember you from generation to generation; and his name shall be called Joseph, and it shall be after the name of his father; and he shall be like unto you; for the thing which the Lord shall bring forth by his hand shall bring my people unto salvation. (Joseph Smith Translation, Genesis 50:33)

Notice that Smith adds that a descendant of the Genesis Joseph, whose name will also be called, “Joseph,” will be a prophet, who is to come.

Joseph Smith’s first name is “Joseph.” On top of that, Joseph Smith was a “Junior,” as his father’s name was “Joseph,” too.

Get the connection?

Grant Palmer’s An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins researches problems in LDS history: Many Mormons are completely unaware of the checkered past of their own church.

If anyone has read Grant Palmer’s An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins, you will know that during the early 1830s, Smith was under tremendous pressure, as some of the early witnesses to the Book of Mormon, were denying their testimony. By appealing to his own translation of Genesis 50, he could claim that his appointment as a prophet was established back in the Old Testament, centuries before his own birth! This surely helped to bolster the flagging faith of those who might be tempted to abandon Smith’s leadership.

On what basis does Joseph Smith make the claim that “ignorant translators” and “careless transcribers” made such grevious errors, such that he and he alone was qualified to make such corrections to the received Scriptural text of the Old and New Testaments? Apparently, Smith believed that he was under divine inspiration.

Mormonism has always had what scholars call a “Restorationist” impulse; that is, a movement towards trying to recover what the original Jesus and original Christianity was all about, and restoring things back to the way it was, before corruption set into Christianity as an organized faith. But rarely do the specifics of what those “corruptions” are get discussed, in the Mormon circles I have encountered. Here, in Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Bible itself, we get an idea of what Smith was really going after.

Will Mormonism survive, in its current form, as more of these details of Mormon history emerge? Who knows.

However, I am concerned that there any many, even among my fellow evangelical Christian believers, who are also unaware of these things, and who are all too willing to say that Mormonism is fundamentally no different than any other form of Christian faith, a problematic statement at best. (see previous Veracity postings about the LDS faith here, here, here, and here).

Weigh the evidence for yourself. But it really makes you pause to think about the legitimacy of Mormon origins, when its leading figure sees fit to “correct” the Bible, to serve the purposes of the movement, which he himself started.

For more detail, watch apologist Mike Winger’s video on this topic.

For other posts addressing problematic issues concerning the Mormon faith, please consult these previous Veracity blog posts:

A brief summary of Mormon doctrine, and how the LDS movement is different than other Christian movements.

Some Christians apparently believe that Mormonism is no different than any other Protestant denomination, and even more on target spiritually-speaking than Eastern Orthodoxy. I briefly argue why this is flatly wrong.

Why attempts to somehow “whitewash” Mormon history fail to pass the historical evidence.

An overview of how Mormonism is changing (and not changing) today.

 


Joseph Smith’s First Vision

For historically-orthodox Christians, the foundational event that undergirds the Christian faith is the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. For members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), the foundational event for the Mormon faith is the “First Vision,” as described by Joseph Smith, most importantly, in an account written in 1838. The “First Vision” is about establishing the claim that Joseph Smith was selected by God to restore Christianity back to its true, original foundations. The Christian church had fallen into confusion, due to centuries of corrupt doctrine and traditions, having taken the Christian church away from its proper course.

In the “First Vision,” Joseph Smith encounters a vision of Jesus Christ and Heavenly Father, in the spring of 1820, close to his teenage home, near Palmyra, New York. There he inquires of the vision, wishing to know which branch of Christianity he should follow: Would it be the Presbyterians? The Methodists? The Baptists? The answer was “none of the above.” The LDS church has a four-minute video, detailing a depiction of that signal event:

However, the narrative of this “official” story of the “First Vision” is complicated by the fact that Joseph Smith also details another account, written in 1832, that differs in detail from the 1838 account. Two differences stand out:

  • (1) In the 1832 account, Joseph Smith only sees “the Lord,” thus indicating the appearance of only one personage, and not two, according to the standard 1838 account.
  • (2) In the 1832 account, Joseph Smith has already himself determined that none of the churches are true, which differs from the standard 1838 account, where the visionary personages instruct Joseph to believe that none of the churches are true, as an answer to his inquiry.

Can these two accounts be reconciled? For a detailed explanation, suggesting that the accounts can NOT be reconciled, you may wish to view this 35-minute YouTube video, by Dan Vogel, author of Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet.

How would you answer the question?

ComeUntoChrist.org is an evangelistic ministry of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. They often post YouTube videos encouraging others to consider the Mormon faith. Is the message of Mormonism consistent with the message of historically orthodox Christian faith?


Christians and the Coronavirus: Lessons From Church History

What did Martin Luther and Charles Spurgeon have in common? Both Christian leaders dealt with the challenge of plagues and pestilence, in their day. Luther, the 16th century German Reformer, and his wife, Kate, ministered to the sick when the Black Death descended upon their city of Wittenberg. Spurgeon, one of England’s finest preachers of the 19th century, was a 20-year-old young pastor, when a cholera epidemic swept through London.

The mortality rate for COVID-19 is high, but the rate was even far worse for the Black Death (up to 1 out of 4 people died) and London’s cholera (around 5.5 percent).

I recently read a great article by UK author Glen Scrivener, that briefly chronicles these and several other examples of how Christians faced plagues, pestilence, and pandemics in the past. Today’s coronavirus pandemic is new to many of us, but we have much to learn from believers who lived before us, who can show us examples of how followers of Jesus sought to love others, in difficult and scary times, and how the church was able to survive such challenges.

Along those same lines, I also read a great article by C.S. Lewis, whereby you can substitute the word “atomic bomb” with “coronavirus” and gain some of the Oxford don’s encouraging insight. Below is a video podcast featuring Glen Scrivener expanding upon the themes in his article.


%d bloggers like this: