Why didn’t the Bible abolish slavery? So, which form of slavery are we talking about?


If the Bible is a revered guide to morality, why didn’t it abolish slavery? The Guy poses this issue that was raised in many comments posted after our Oct. 17, 2016, Q&A about people who abhor Jewish and Christian Scripture.


Toleration of slavery, in which some people own and control others as property, is a favorite Internet attack skeptics level against the Bible. Greg Carey of Lancaster Theological Seminary says slavery is “the single most contested issue in the history of biblical interpretation in the United States.” Indeed, the U.S. Civil War demonstrated how ingrained this economic practice was and how difficult to eliminate — think 600,000-plus war dead.

Evangelical historian Mark Noll says Christians’ pre-war debate on this undercut scriptural authority because the two opposite sides employed the Bible for support. Supporters of the South’s plantation economy argued that the Bible never required abolition of slavery, while abolitionists believed biblical principles mandate freedom and respect for each person created by God. Bible believers in that second group were largely responsible for achieving abolition of this unmitigated evil on a global scale.

Slavery existed as far back as human history can be traced, and the dimensions became staggering. The Encyclopaedia Britannica says slaves were once half the population in sectors of Asia, an estimated 18 million east Africans were subjected to the Muslim slave trade from the time of the Quran through 1900, while the west African trade involved 7 to 10 million enslaved people until British and American abolition.

Defenders of the Bible note that thousands of years ago holy writ did not require slavery but accommodated it as an unavoidable reality, and mitigated it with relatively enlightened and humane provisions.

In the ancient context unimaginable in the modern West, most people scraped by on a subsistence level. Some chose slavery to get food and housing for impoverished families, or to repay debts. (Many early colonists in America and Australia served terms of indentured servitude to escape debtors’ prison.) For prisoners of war, slavery was preferable to death, and in societies with no prison systems slavery was a more humane punishment than execution. Most ancient slaves were household servants, whereas brutality became prevalent with later agricultural and mining laborers.

The Old Testament continually reminded the Hebrews they were themselves enslaved in Egypt. In complex biblical law, slavery was not normally lifelong and freedom was required without fee after six years unless the slave chose to stay with the owner, and freed slaves were guaranteed gifts to help start their new lives (see Exodus 21:2, Deuteronomy 15:12-18). Thus the master owned a person’s labor but not the person.

Kidnapping to acquire slaves (such a vicious aspect of later slave trading) was regarded as a violation of the Ten Commandments (“you shall not steal”) and such a serious crime it was punishable by death (Deuteronony 24:7). Foreign runaway slaves were not to be returned (Deuteronomy 23:15, a favorite passage for later abolitionists). Biblical slavery was not fused with racism as with heinous later practices.

The tiny New Testament church had no power to affect the slave system in Greek and Roman society, but taught equal human worth and respect among believers of whatever status: “There is neither slave nor free . . . for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Paul’s scriptural letter to Philemon urged benign treatment of a runaway slave and may have hinted at emancipation.

Yes, 1 Timothy 6:1 told slaves to honor their masters, which was wise guidance under the circumstances. But the next verse directed Christian masters to respect slaves as “beloved.” The sin list in 1 Timothy 1: 8-11 condemned kidnappers alongside murderers, and modern scholars believe the Greek here implies seizing people for sale so “slave traders” is the preferred translation.

Christian abolitionism’s long history includes an effort 57 years before Europeans even reached the New World.

Continue reading "Why didn’t the Bible abolish slavery?" by Richard Ostling.

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