Tag Archives: slavery

Did the Apostle Paul Condone Slavery?

Did the Apostle Paul condone slavery? Yes and no. A fuller answer requires a bit of unpacking.

In short, the Apostle Paul never comes out to explicitly condemn slavery. On the other hand, Paul deftly and implicitly undercuts the whole basis for why a person should remain a slave, or can become a slave in the first place, thus laying an axe at the root of the slavery system. Let me explain.

While done with good intentions, sometimes Christian apologists come out a bit too quick to exonerate the Bible from charges of condoning slavery. The story is actually more complex. A cursory reading of American Southern defenders of 19th century slavery should dispel that notion, as preachers who wrote tracts in support of enslaving Africans had a number of different Bible verses to choose from to make their case. Here is a short sample from Paul’s writings:

  • Ephesians 6:5: “Bondservants, obey your earthly masters.” (ESV)
  • Colossians 3:22: “Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters.” (ESV)

Yikes. Those verses alone can make a lot of Christians today cringe.

Yet notice how the English Standard Version above uses the word “bondservant.” Who uses the word “bondservant” today? Does anyone?

Nate Parker’s 2016 film The Birth of a Nation tells the story of the Nat Turner slave rebellion of 1831, in Courtland, Virginia, a little over an hour drive from my home. The Nat Turner tragedy is a complicated story about American history, slavery, and bad Bible interpretation. We need to be honest and clear about what the Bible says and not says about slavery.

A number of secular-minded critics today of the Christian faith will cry foul, claiming that popular evangelical Bible translations are sugar-coating passages in the Bible regarding slavery. They claim that Christians are trying to sidestep the hard truth: that the Bible sanctions slavery, and that is simply not morally acceptable for a 21st century person. Therefore, Christianity should be rejected as immoral.

As a Christian, when I hear criticisms like this, I tend to do either one of two things: One, I will stiffen up in defense of my Bible, and perhaps immediately run to some other passage, like God delivering His people, Israel, from slavery in Israel, as described in the Book of the Exodus. While raising an objection like this surely has its place, it can often come across as a “my-Bible-verse-beats-up-your-Bible-verse” approach to spiritual conversation. 

Or second, I will want to ignore the topic at hand, change the subject, or otherwise just try to fade into the woodwork, hoping that the criticism will simply go away. The problem with both approaches is that they do not fairly address the criticism being presented. Sometimes our non-believing friends are a lot more honest about reading the Bible than we as Christians are. So, we need to face the criticism head-on, and see if we can dig deeper to get at a better solution.

Political Correctness” In Today’s Bible Translations?

The vast majority of Christians today would condemn all slavery as unthinkable. But such was not so in the antebellum American South, during the plantation era. Back when I was studying history in college, reading books about early 19th century Southern (and even some Northern!) preachers defending slavery, I would rant in my dorm room that so many of my white Christian ancestors were not really Christians at all! But when I read some of those apologetic defenses of slavery, they sounded eerily like some Christian condemnations of same-sex marriage today. Charges of bigotry against Christians are not that far behind. A lot of 21st century Christians, who are familiar with the history of how some early 19th century Christians fought tooth-and-nail to defend slavery, are often left confused.

So, is it true that today’s Christians are somehow embarrassed at what is plainly in view, when we read our Bibles? Is it true that Christians are making their Bibles more “politically correct,” in order to find more social acceptance in our post-modern society?

Other Bible translations, including the venerable KJV, uses the more well-known word “slave” to translate the Greek word “doulos“. In a July, 2021 Slate article, writer Paul Rosenberg in interviewing anthropologist Samuel Perry accuses the ESV of obfuscating the actual meaning of the word “slave,” by replacing it with the more innocuous “bondservant.”

The cynicism laced throughout Rosenberg’s essay and Perry’s interview critique is pretty hard to ignore.1  But Rosenberg/Perry do raise a point, as to how tricky it is to properly translate “slave/bondservant” for a 21st century English readership. The new Legacy Standard Bible, being produced by Pastor John MacArthur’s Master’s Seminary faculty, takes aim at the ESV from the opposite direction and unashamedly reinserts “slave” largely wherever the ESV has “bondservant.” So, how are we then to think of “slave/bondservant” today, when we read our Bibles?

Placing the Slavery/Bible Question in the Larger Historical Context

When I was a young believer, I often imagined that Paul was really talking about the relationship between workers and their bosses, more broadly. Well, that kind of works, but not really. Slavery was built into the very fabric of the ancient world, from the time of the Israelite patriarchs up through the Greco-Roman world of Paul’s day. To be a slave in the ancient world was a dehumanizing status to have.

Part of our problem is that our 21st century way of thinking about slavery is seen through the lens of America’s tortured history of racially-based, cradle-to-grave, chattel slavery, that precipitated the crisis of the American Civil War of the mid-19th century. A better approach would be to begin with this: What was slavery like in the days of the Old and New Testaments, when compared to the horror experienced by the vast majority of today’s African American ancestors?

Much of what we know of ancient history indicates that the institution of slavery was primarily a means of erasing debt. Even in the Old Testament, voluntary servitude was acknowledged as a legitimate means of canceling certain kinds of personal debt. For example, if you were a poor ancient Hebrew, and you owed your fellow Hebrew some money, and you had no personal property available to pay off that debt, you could voluntarily arrange to offer the labor of your own hands and body, for a limited time, in order to work off that debt. In a day where bankruptcy laws were unknown, the Bible appears to be acknowledging such forms of slavery as a morally acceptable practice, within limits. In our day, when many of us get mailed credit card applications sent to us on an almost weekly basis, we become oblivious to the historical reality that getting into debt with someone else was a serious matter, where the slavery system seemed to be the most obvious solution.

Extending that notion of slavery to a more macro-level gets more complicated. In the ancient world, an entire people group could be enslaved as result of war. Wars, then and now, cost money. Even if one side is victorious, the victor must find a way to pay for military activity. Soldiers deserve compensation for their service, care for the wounded is required, etc. The victor would seek reparations from the loser, just as in more modern times, when the victorious Allied powers after World War I sought to make Germany pay for the war effort. But what if the loser of the war was so devastated by the loss that they could not reasonably pay reparations with worldly goods? This is where slavery on a mass scale came in. 

As opposed to the American history of slavery, which was primarily based on skin color, the question of race was less of an issue in ancient times. When the empires of the ancient near east world fought one another, and drove people into enslavement, the skin color differences between the victors and those conquered were largely minimal. Greeks, Persians, and even Jews, rarely differed that much in terms of skin pigment.

This more nuanced understanding of slavery partly explains why the ESV translation chose to translate the Greek word doulos as “bondservant,” a person bound in service without wages. Whether scholars agree or not agree, “bondservant” carries a lot less cultural baggage than does the typical American connotation behind the word “slave,” which is often front-loaded with concepts of race today, which were foreign to the Scriptural writers. 

Furthermore, even in our day, if you experience indebtedness to someone else, or if, for example, a friend of yours owes you money, and does not pay you back, then you know how awkward it is to have a relationship with someone who you are not “right” with when it comes to an unsettled debt. The person owing the debt feels “enslaved” to the one owed the debt. The bigger the debt, the greater the feeling of enslavement. You do not need be an ancient person, nor someone living in the Deep American South, during the Antebellum era, to know what the distortion of slavery feels like.

Nevertheless, despite all of these noted differences, one still wonders why at least the New Testament does not come out and explicitly condemn slavery as an institution. Many readers of the New Testament can still get stuck on those disturbing words of the Apostle Paul, cited above.

I know that many Christians like to then appeal to Jesus Himself, over Paul, in defense of the abolition of slavery. After all, Jesus is God in human form, and Paul was not, right? Jesus’ preaching takes priority over Paul, correct? I mean, those words from the lips of Jesus, written in red, as those “Red Letter Bibles” tell us, carries more weight, right? 

Well, that might sound convincing, until you start reading the Gospels more closely. Jesus talks quite a bit about slaves working for their masters. But Jesus himself never gives any indication that slavery is an evil institution. For example, when Jesus teaches the parable of the tenants, in Matthew 21:33-46, he indicates that these tenants beat up the slaves who work for their master. The reader does gets the sense that beating up the slaves was wrong, according to Jesus. But Jesus never suggests that there was anything specially wrong with slavery itself

Mmmm……

Pardon an expression from football that might offend Roman Catholic readers, but trying to throw a “Hail Mary” pass in making an appeal to the Jesus of the Gospel, to rescue the Bible from charges of upholding slavery, does not really work.

Instead, you need to go back to Paul if you are looking for some definitive posture that the New Testament takes on slavery. So, what else do we find in Paul?

Sarah Ruden’s Paul Among the People straightens out of misconceptions that both Christians and non-Christians have about the Apostle Paul, regarding such topics as homosexuality, the treatment of women, and in particular, slavery.

Is Paul the Great Apologist for Slavery? The Answer May Surprise You

To get a better handle on this, I wanted to learn more from a scholar who specializes in the history of the classical period. Sarah Ruden is a scholar of the Greco-Roman classical period, who knows the cultural setting that Paul lived in better than most people. Unlike most scholars interested in Christian origins, Ruden specializes first in Greco-Roman culture, and from there takes an interest in Paul. Ruden is best known for her English translations of ancient Greco-Roman texts, who also recently released her own translation of the Gospels.2 While Sarah Ruden professes to be a Quaker, she does not expressly believe in a conservative evangelical view of the inspiration of the Bible, as being the definitive, inspired Word of God.3 But her specific area of research challenges a lot misconceptions that both Christians and non-Christians have about the Bible’s perspective on slavery.

It should come as no surprise that the Apostle Paul has been derided as representing the very worst characteristics of the Christian faith. As my kindly-Virginian mother told me on more that one occasion, “I really like Jesus, but I am not so sure about that Apostle Paul.” Paul has at various times been regarded as a chauvinistic hater of women, an apologist for the political establishment, a homophobe, and, for the purposes of this blog post, a callous proponent of slavery. Yet what is so intriguing about Sarah Ruden’s scholarship is that she insists that we read Paul within his own historical context, as a Jew and a Roman citizen, in an ancient era. Ruden’s work effectively works to dismiss this common negative narrative that surrounds the Apostle Paul, thus working against the grain of so many popular portrayals of his deficiencies.

In her study of Paul, Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time, she lays out the stark problem in understanding this most influential Apostle for the Christian faith:

We really want Paul to have been against slavery, but the evidence is galling. It’s not that he was for slavery… It’s that he doesn’t seem to have cared one way or another.” (p. 177)

That seems like an overly crass and unfair evaluation, but I get Ruden’s point. On the one hand, you can read a passage like 1 Corinthians 7:21-23 , where Paul advises; “Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so,” Paul at least encourages slaves to seek their freedom, if possible. Score a major point in Paul’s favor!

In comparison to the Gospels, the “Red Letters” of Jesus do not even give you that! But there is also a sense that in this passage, Paul, like Jesus, really does not condemn slavery as an institution as forcefully as many of us would like to hear today. 

Nevertheless, Sarah Ruden offers some powerful insight showing how Paul’s approach to the question of slavery, more than any other Biblical writer, has proven to be the most potential force for radical culture change, even down to the present day. In Ruden’s study of the Greco-Roman world, slaves were essentially subhuman. They were more “like pets: good treatment of them was about the master’s enlightenment, never about the slaves’ inherent equality” (Kindle location 2448). A slave was “nobody and nothing aside from his usefulness” (Kindle location 2512).

Ruden rightly points out that the most significant treatment of slavery is found in one of the most neglected books of the New Testament, Paul’s letter to Philemon, the shortest of all of Paul’s letters. Most Christians and others who dislike Paul tend to skip over this tiny letter, at the very end of the Pauline corpus found in the New Testament. But in doing so, Sarah Ruden discovers a nugget of prose that shows just how revolutionary and progressive Paul really was. In writing to Philemon, Paul is telling about his relationship to Onesimus, a runaway slave who had belonged to Philemon, but who met up with Paul for support and for a sanctuary. Paul, in turn, wishes to hand Onesimus back over to Philemon, but with some extremely provocative requirements involved:

Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus— I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord (Philemon 8-16).

Among the several things to observe in this passage, we read that Paul considers Onesimus to be his “child” (son) as well as a “beloved brother.” Unlike what we see in popular Hollywood movies, like 12 Years a Slave, or The Birth of a Nation, that portray the horror of slavery inflicted on African Americans, Paul does not come across as an angry white dude, intent on returning a runaway, disobedient slave. Instead, Paul displays a tender affection for Onesimus, and wants to make sure that Philemon knows that.

True, Paul does not explicitly demand that Philemon set Onesimus free from being a slave. However, Sarah Ruden states that “Paul had a much more ambitious plan than making Onesimus legally free. He wanted to make him into a human being, and he had a paradigm. As God chose and loved and guided the Israelites, he had now chosen and loved and could guide everyone… The way Paul makes the point in his letter to Philemon is beyond ingenious. He equates Onesimus with a son and a brother. He turns what Greco-Roman society saw as the fundamental, insurmountable differences between a slave and his master into an immense joke” (Kindle location 2541). 

In the history of ancient slavery, a slave generally had no value in terms of being part of a family. Even up through the dawn of the modern era in the late 18th century, during the near thousand year period since about the beginning of Islam, Islamic raiders in ships would invade European costal towns and kidnap European Christians, and take them back to Islamic countries, to be placed in forced servitude, for the remainder of their lives. Though dwarfed by the some 12 million Africans taken to the Americas, during the colonial period, historians estimate that nearly 1 million European Christians ended up in this forgotten system of slavery, by their Islamic captors. Yet we know little of what became of these Europeans as their line of descendants were largely wiped out, during their experience of slavery. 

Certainly in the Apostle Paul’s day, the story of what happened to Greco-Roman slaves was forgotten, because of the loss of familial connections: no sons, no brothers. Ruden comments that “one of the greatest cruelties of slavery was that, having no legal family, a slave was boxed off in time, without a real tomb or recognized descendants or anything else to ensure he was remembered” (Kindle location 2550).

However, in the letter of Philemon, the Apostle Paul changed all of that. Paul cut at the very heart of the ancient slavery system, by declaring his affection for Onesimus and challenging Philemon to do the same. For if Paul were to merely ask Philemon to set Onesimus free, it would not have helped Onesimus very much in a culture that regarded slaves, particularly runaway slaves, as nobodies. By asking Philemon to take Onesimus on as a family member, as Paul did, this act of treating Onesimus as a human being, and not subhuman, effectively turns the whole rationale behind the slavery system on its head.

What Sarah Ruden fails to mention in her analysis of Paul is the Old Testament ground for Paul’s radical call for discipleship. In the Law of Moses, while provision was made for slavery of Hebrews by other Hebrews, in the case of eliminating debt, for a set period of time, and non-Hebrews could be held as slaves in perpetuity, the Law of Moses also prohibited the Hebrews from enslaving their fellow Hebrews in the same manner as enslaving non-Hebrews

In other words, according to Torah, Jews were forbidden to enslave fellow Jews in the same manner the pagan Greco-Romans would enslave one another. Why? Because a fellow Jew was like family. There were like sons and brothers. 

Under Paul’s new Gospel message, the implications were clear in Paul’s mind. Now in the era of the Risen Jesus, the message of Christ has gone beyond the borders of covenant Israel, to include the Gentiles, for those who have faith in that Risen Jesus. Now, we can call Jew and Gentile as brothers and sisters (sons and daughters) together in Christ, including both slave and free (Galatians 3:28). By calling Onesimus both a son and a brother, Paul considers the runaway slave to having the same status as a fellow Israelite under the Law of Moses. 

The message is as subtle as it is profound. In not mounting a full scale frontal attack on the institution of slavery, Paul was not one to directly challenge the social order. Instead, Paul takes an indirect, yet more radical approach, of undercutting the very conditions by which one is made a slave in the first place. As the Gospel goes forth, inviting all to place their faith and trust in Jesus, more people are added to the family of God. But since the most dehumanizing form of slavery is forbidden of family members, the whole system of chattel slavery is set on notice. As Ruden puts it, Paul “turns his sermonizing into a bomb, presses down the detonator, and walks away, leaving glittering fragments of absurdity in place of the conviction that people solve problems” (Kindle location 2657). God has declared a new family order of things, and Paul has been entrusted with the message of that declaration, to be given to all peoples. Kaboom!!

An Implicit Argument, Found in the Bible, that Rejects Slavery

As a side note, some Evangelical Bible scholars have tried to make the case that Christians should apply a redemptive-movement model of interpreting the Bible, such as found in William J. Webb’s Slaves, Women & Homosexuals. In other words, instead of getting too hung up on the actual thoughts of Paul described in the Scriptural text that tend of embarrass us today, Christians should seek to best understand the spirit behind the text, so that we might arrive at a new ethic that moves beyond the static literalism of certain statements made by Paul. Critics of this thesis argue that such a hermeneutical model of reading Scripture is unsustainable, as similar redemptive movement models have been used in recent years to justify same-sex marriage and transgender-based ideologies. Furthermore, a redemptive-movement hermeneutic does not seriously enough take into the consideration that the New Testament is ultimately the definitive commentary on the Old Testament.

Yet when it comes to slavery, my reading of Sarah Ruden’s Paul Among the People convinces me that there is enough substance in the subtext of Paul’s argument in Philemon that makes Paul into a compelling advocate for the elimination of the slavery system, albeit through an implicit means. A problematic redemptive-movement model is not necessary when it comes to dealing the death blow to slavery.

Proof of this can be seen in the history of the early church itself. The aftershocks of Paul’s letter to Philemon have been felt down through the centuries. As historian Tom Holland tells us, Gregory of Nyssa, one of the greatest and influential of the early church fathers, was an outspoken critic of slavery as being against the very concept of what it means to be created in the image of God. Ruden herself observes that as the Christian faith grew throughout the Roman empire, the slavery system almost entirely disappeared, as those early Christians, within just a few hundred years after the closing of the New Testament, chimed in with Gregory of Nyssa’s condemnation of slavery. True, feudalism eventually replaced slavery in the medieval era, but this was nothing like the chattel slavery system that was revived hundreds of years later by European slave traders, who sought to take advantage of conquered African tribes, in hopes obtaining greater wealth from the New World in the Americas. Many centuries before William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglas, and 20th-century activists like Martin Luther King Jr., Christians like Gregory of Nyssa were paving the way towards a slave-free society.

If anything, it was the utter failure of the Christian church, in the era of the African slave trade, to properly interpret the Bible responsibly, that led to the false justification of the slavery system, during the colonial era (for more on that, read this critique found on Veracity). It was as though the slave-holding Christians during the colonial era became totally disconnected from the witness of Gregory of Nyssa, hundreds of years earlier.

However, it would not be fair to throw every European-based Christian in colonial America under the bus. Sarah Ruden’s Quaker tradition held a strongly anti-slavery position by the late 17th century, throughout the colonies. Even in Virginia, where the African slavery system first took root in the North America, Christian opponents to slavery would seek to evangelize the African slaves, with the hope that they might be baptized, as it was part of British policy that it would be wrong to enslave a fellow baptized Christian. As a result, defenders of slavery would then discourage Christian missionaries from evangelizing their African slaves. It was not until 1667, decades after the first Africans landed at Jamestown, when the Virginia assembly eventually passed a law that explicitly ruled that even Christian baptism did not allow for a slave to obtain their freedom, thereby making it more difficult to get rid of the slavery system.

A lot of the contemporary distrust of the Bible stems back to the ugly stain that the American slavery system has left on Christian history. Sarah Ruden’s exploration into the world of the Apostle Paul has reminded me that the original New Testament context, within the period of the early church, tells a much more balanced story.

Evangelical theologian and reviewer Peter Leithart observes that Sarah Ruden’s book is “one of the best defenses of Paul,” in an age where Paul is often perceived to be an embarrassment to the Christian faith, in comparison to Jesus. Ruden offers other provocative defenses of Paul, with respect to Paul’s condemnation of homosexual acts, as well as Paul’s treatment of women. Ruden does not hold to an evangelical view of Scripture, as she holds to the critical consensus, that only seven of the thirteen letters attributed to Paul are indeed authentically Pauline. Interestingly however, as an academic critical scholar, she still comes to many of the same conclusions regarding Paul, that are agreeable with historically orthodox perceptions of him. 

A final word of warning here, for potential readers of Ruden’s book:  Paul Among the Peoples is not for the faint of heart. Her quotations of Greco-Roman poets of the day demonstrate just how crude, bawdy and degrading Greco-Roman pagan culture could be. Plus, there are moments where she tends to psychoanalyze Paul a bit too much. Sure, she humanizes Paul, but she does so at the expense of diluting the divine character of the sacred text at times. But the best benefit in reading Sarah Ruden, despite her wide embrace of the more liberal, critical end of historical criticism in New Testament scholarship, is in showing just how much the writings of the Apostle Paul completely re-oriented the world of ancient Greco-Roman culture, and continues to impact the world today.

Circling back to those difficult passages in Colossians and Ephesians, towards the beginning of this blog post, it helps to read more of the text, to see just how revolutionary Paul was, in challenging the status quo of his day. Simply consider what we read in Colossians (which parallels Ephesians 6:5-9):

  • Colossians 3:22-4:1 (ESV) Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality. Masters, treat your bondservants justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven.”

First, note how bondservants/slaves are not simply to obey their earthly master, but that they are to fear the Lord, to “work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.” As opposed to the pater familias tradition of Greco-Roman culture, that Sarah Ruden describes with such unease to our modern ears, which put the male head of household in complete autocratic rule over slaves, to do anything they want with them, Paul argues that ultimately bondservants/slaves are to serve the Lord instead. Secondly, Paul does not let slavemasters get off of the hook for one minute, urging slavemasters to treat their bondservants/slaves “justly and fairly,” which undermined the dehumanizing practice of the Greco-Romans.

Do I wish that the Bible had been more explicit in condemning slavery? Sure, I do. But when we read the Bible within its historical context, and in particularly take a closer look as to how Paul’s strategy worked in trying to persuade Philemon to welcome the runaway slave, Onesimus, we get a far more liberating picture of the message of the New Testament.

 

——————-

For a helpful video that briefly summaries some of the arguments found in this blog post, I would recommend the following video by Dr. Matthew Hall, at Southern Baptist Seminary:

Notes:

1. See this thorough and excellent YouTube video rejoinder by Bible Study Magazine editor, Mark Ward. Mark Ward’s YouTube channel is “Bible Nerdy,” but entertains just as well as it educates. The Slate article goes onto rightly observe that the English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible does have a definite complementarian bent to it, emphasizing the distinct roles that differentiate men and women, in contrast with other translations, like the Common English Bible (CEB), that favors a more egalitarian approach, that tends to see male and female in more or less interchangeable terms, particularly when it comes to leadership offices in the church. The Slate article also suggests that the ESV was “compromising” by putting together a special translation of the ESV to the Gideons, that kept more “KJV-friendly” verses in the Bible, which is overly-simplistic. The KJV is outdated in many ways, but the ESV has always sought to stand within the tradition of the KJV. So, the idea that the ESV is simply “marketing” the Bible to appeal to a particular audience is really a cynical way of looking at Bible translations. Kudos to Mark Ward for his work in expose the flaws in the Slate article. 

2. Here is a delightful nugget of insight that Sarah Ruden has in reading the Gospels, which is simply too good to ignore: Matthew 15:26-27 is part of an episode where Jesus meets a Canaanite women (i.e. not a Jew, but a Gentile), where the woman cries out to Jesus for him to help her. The NIV renders Jesus’ response and the woman’s rejoinder like this, ‘” He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”’ The problem with this type of translation is that it makes Jesus sound very severe and serious, even condescending towards the woman. But Ruden rightly notes that the word for “dog” used by both Jesus and the woman is not what many Christians typically think. Most Greek dictionaries will translate this directly to English as “little dog,” which is better, but Ruden says that there is more to it. Instead, Ruden says that Jesus is being playful here, as the word is better rendered as “little doggie.”  That sounds less seriously spiritual, but it is more accurate. The NIV could have been improved with the following, for Jesus’ statement: ““It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the little doggies.”  That sounds a lot less harsh, and more tongue in cheek. What a wonderful insight Sarah Ruden gives to the passage.

3. For those unfamiliar with a “conservative evangelical” view of the Bible’s inspiration, a short of way of putting it is that conservative evangelicals believe that the Bible is not only written by humans, it is also written by God. There is an essential divine/human character to Holy Scripture. More liberal scholars, who adhere to what is typically described as the “historical critical method,” mainly emphasize the Bible as a human work of literature. Sarah Ruden herself even says that she is trying to lay aside the idea of the Bible as being “sacred” in order to get more at the humanity of the text. But why the dichotomy? Why not do scholarship with the Bible that reads it as both divine revelation AND as human literature? While the “historical critical method” can help at times to reveal certain blindspots in how to read and interpret the Bible, which sometimes happens with conservative Christians, one must be careful to understand that historical criticism inherently takes an anti-supernatural bias contrary to biblical revelation. Thankfully, Sarah Ruden focuses most of the time on using the “good” side of historical criticism, when doing her work, which is extremely rewarding and helpful to the church. Conservative Christians have a lot to learn from her.  


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.

 


Jamestown: 1619 Remembered

Growing up in Williamsburg, Virginia, I pretty much took nearby Jamestown Island, the 1607 site of the first successful English settlement in North America, for granted. Yet sadly, I still meet people who know very little about Jamestown, and its historical importance. So, it is very exciting to remember Jamestown on this day, when many of the world’s eyes are upon this island.

On July 30, 1619, a very hot day indeed, the very first democratic English assembly was held, in the “New World,” known as the House of Burgesses, the forerunner to today’s Virginia General Assembly.

Aerial look over Jamestown, Virginia, in the 1950s, showing the beginning of modern archaeological work being performed on the island. 20-years later, as a middle school kid, I worked on one of those archaeological projects (taken from the book, New Discoveries at Jamestown, by archaeologist J. Paul Hudson and co-author John L. Cotter).

1619 was a big year in Jamestown for other reasons. The small colony established at Jamestown was starting to stabilize, but with very few women around, a lot of the men wanted to leave (for understandable reasons). In response, the Virginia Company of London ordered that “…a fit hundredth might be sent of women, maids young and uncorrupt, to make wives to the inhabitants and by that means to make the men there more settled and less movable….” By 1620-1621, women started to show up at Jamestown.

It was a tough sell to get women to come live in an area, centered in a mosquito-infested, swampy island. Some women were secretly kidnapped to bring them to Virginia, but a more voluntary arrangement was needed for the colony to survive. What effectively was a “mail-order” bride system, to provide incentives for impoverished English women to make the journey across the Atlantic, saved the day for the young Virginia colony.

Barely a month after the first House of Burgesses meeting, in July, 1619, the first Africans arrived at Jamestown. What is particularly notable was that among this first boatload of Africans, were actually prisoners taken from a Portuguese slave ship. These Africans were originally treated as indentured servants. In principle, these Africans could purchase their freedom.

But over the following decades, the rules gradually changed. What started out as customs, here and there, eventually became Virgina colony law, as the indentured servanthood status of dark-skinned persons was transformed to make them slaves for life.

There was some resistance to these legal changes. For example, it was not considered proper for a Christian to enslave a fellow Christian. So, if an African person was baptized, they could claim a right to their freedom. Yet as regretted now, in our day, even that exemption was eventually eradicated. Even racial intermarriage was outlawed in 1691.

I wonder what would have happened if those slavery laws were never passed in the Virginia colony. I wonder what it might have been like, if Christians in Virginia would have studied their Bibles a bit more closely, to learn that racism has no actual basis in the Scriptures. Perhaps they might have rethought the whole slavery business, and the inherent racism that undergirded it.

It is worth thinking about… and remembering.

Other posts about Jamestown: (a) Musings about the parallels between Jamestown’s Captain John Smith and the ancient Jewish historian, Josephus, (b) Jamestown and the first Thanksgiving, and (c) Veracity co-blogger, John Paine, takes us on a YouTube video trip to Jamestown, to help us learn some lessons about the historicity of Jesus.


Nat Turner’s Virginia Slave Rebellion, Hollywood, and How We Read the Bible

In August, 1831, a literate slave and Bible preacher, Nat Turner, led a rebellion against his white masters, in rural Southampton County, about a one hour drive south of where I live in Williamsburg, Virginia. After the 48-hour mass killing of 55 whites ended, Turner’s insurrection was eventually crushed, and tougher laws were enacted to try to prevent such slave uprisings in the future.

Nate Parker’s new film, The Birth of a Nation, is a fictionalized retelling of this tragic and violent story (deserving of the R-rating)…and just to think, the events depicted only happened less than two hundred years ago, practically in my own backyard. The film’s director is enveloped in controversy, and early reviews of the film are mixed. Intended to subplant the legacy of the 1915 silent film of the same name, a cinematic apology for the Ku Klux Klan, Parker raises a number of important issues, but one wonders what the film will actually accomplish.

Gospel Coalition blogger, Justin Taylor, summarizes some of the most significant elements regarding the history behind the film’s story. For more details on the history, you can start with the Nat Turner Project. Some historians are disappointed with the inaccuracies of the film, which frustrates me, as I am more interested in the actual history than I am in Hollywood’s fantasies. Does the film tell us about what really happened, or does it tell us more about the mind and state of contemporary pop-culture? How much of the film is about Nat Turner, and how much of it is about the film’s director, Nate Parker?

In the film trailer below, the Nat Turner character recites 1 Peter 2:18, in an effort to encourage his fellow slaves to keep in line. I confess that I, as do so many other evangelicals, tend to water this passage down:

Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust (1 Peter 2:18 ESV).

I have euphemistically tried to replace “servants” with “workers,” and “masters” with “supervisors,” but does that really get at the original context? I am afraid not.

Slavery during the New Testament period is difficult to comprehend in modern terms, and it was very different from how many Americans viewed slavery prior to the Civil War. As I have argued elsewhere (here and here), many of my southern, Virginia evangelical forefathers did not properly understand passages like this either. Instead, they read things into the Bible that were not there.

If any Veracity readers end up seeing the film, I would like to know your thoughts.

 


The Civil War as a Theological Crisis

A steep, dugout embankment defending Redoubt #1, off of Quarterpath Road, where Confederate troops waited for advancing Federal soldiers to attack from Tutter's Mill Pond below, during the Battle of Williamsburg. Sadly, relatively very few of my fellow Williamsburg neighbors even know that this place even exists.

A steep, dugout embankment defending Redoubt #1, off of Quarterpath Road, where Confederate troops waited for advancing Federal soldiers to attack from Tutter’s Mill Pond below, during the Battle of Williamsburg. Sadly, relatively very few of my fellow Williamsburg neighbors even know that this place even exists.

Does the American national tragedy over the Civil War have something to teach us about how we are to read the Bible?

As a kid, I grew up near the remains of an oft-forgotten, Civil War battlefield. Whenever I ran among the dugout, redoubt embankments, I always kept in mind the warnings of neighbors to be careful, as there was likely to be found unexploded ordinance somewhere underneath my feet.

On the same day, hundreds of miles away, when Mexico was resisting the French on May 5, 1862, remembered now as Cinco de Mayo, Federal forces met Confederate forces just east of my town, for the Battle of Williamsburg, with nearly 4,000 casualties among both sides. Within a couple of years, the significance of that battle faded, displaced in memory by placenames like Antietam and Gettysburg.

Efforts to preserve the battlefield from being run over by suburban housing developments have been somewhat, moderately successful, though the land, as well as the intellectual debates that the led up to the war, have sometimes been forgotten. I often wonder myself, if such a national crisis could have been averted, without such terrible bloodshed.
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