Slavery & the Bible (Part 2) Not All Types of Slavery are Equal

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When it comes to slavery and Christianity, three major criticisms are often brought up:

  1. In the United States’ past, Christian slave-owners used the Bible to justify slavery.
  2. In the New Testament, Jesus and his Apostles never condemned slavery. In fact, they even told slaves to be obedient.
  3. In the Old Testament, God actually endorses slavery.

This breakdown into three major criticisms is helpful, because we actually are talking about three distinct types of slavery in three distinct eras of human history. In other words, recognizing that “slavery” is not identical in these three eras is important.

So, let’s start with the most recent and work back in time:

American_baby

American Slavery

Many know the deplorable history of this stain on the United States, a country built upon the self-evident truth that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Slavery is the sad, sad irony of the Land of the Free. American slavery was a system based on the forceful kidnapping and enslavement of African people. It was race-based, where an entire race was demeaned to subhuman status to justify their treatment as literal objects of property.

American slaves had no rights as human beings and were at the sole mercy of their owners, no different than had they been pigs or cattle. Therefore, they could be worked ruthlessly, often within striking distance of a whip. Few slaves could read or write or were allowed any sort of an education. Families could be ripped apart as parents and children where bought and sold at the whim of their masters. Slave masters also were free to starve, beat, and even rape their slaves without facing any legal consequences. Further, these slaves had no hope of freedom.

It’s a dark stain on the history of the United States indeed, one that still haunts us to this day.

Roman

Roman Slavery (New Testament Era)

The slavery we find in the New Testament is specifically the slavery of the ancient Roman Empire, which is different from both American slavery and the slavery we find in the Old Testament, yet it shares some similarities with both.

Almost everything said about American slavery above can be said about Roman slavery, except Roman slavery was not race-based. Race was not a factor; one could become a slave by being born into it, by committing a grievous crime, by going into debt, by being a prisoner of war, by being sold by his or her parents, and even by voluntarily selling oneself into slavery. But Roman slavery was also a much more diverse, complicated social and economic system than American slavery.

To put it simply, Roman slavery included a wide, wide spectrum of types of servanthood within that system. So, many slaves were treated similar to American slaves, but many were also treated quite well and benefited from the arrangement. Many slaves actually chose to be slaves; some actually preferred to be slaves due to their low economic status and the benefits of being a “slave” under an affluent person. Slavery guaranteed a roof and food in an unstable world. Many Roman slaves were highly educated, even highly successful and wealthy. Like American slaves, Roman slaves were at the mercy of their masters and were property, but unlike American slaves, Roman slaves had many of the same opportunities given to free men, and it was likely they could even become free themselves.

Often modern people look at the word “slave” in the Bible and immediately connect that word with American slavery, but it’s a mistake to assume all “slavery” during the Roman Empire is the same as American slavery. Often it was much more similar to what we would call indentured servanthood, where one would be under contract to another person for a limited time until they fulfilled their contract or bought their own freedom.

Please don’t misunderstand me; much of the slavery of Rome was just as dehumanizing as what happened in American’s past. Gladiators were slaves, forced to battle, even die, for entertainment (though even gladiators could be wealthy celebrities as slaves). Some slaves were kept strictly for sex. Some slaves, usually criminals, were essentially issued death sentences to work in the darkness of underground mines until their lungs gave out. Runaway slaves were branded on their foreheads. If a slave master were murdered, all of his slaves would also be killed. This was a way of quelling thoughts of rebellion, as a huge part of Rome’s population were slaves. There is a record of one incident where 400 slaves were killed because their master had been murdered though there was no evidence the slaves had anything to do with it.

But there was also the indentured servant or contracted worker side of the Roman “slavery” spectrum, where many slaves/servants benefited under the care of someone better off economically than they were, and where they even had an opportunity to make an independent living, or where they may even choose to stay as a part of their master’s household once they earned their freedom. This sort of contract “slavery” could even be compared to an apprenticeship or the sort of service contract one makes when he joins the modern military. The Greek word often translated “Slave” in the New Testament can also be simply translated “servant,” and most modern Bibles will state this in the footnotes.

The important thing to remember concerning Roman Slavery is that it was deeply ingrained in the culture and economy, and there was a wide spectrum of variety within that slavery/servant system.

Egypt

Israelite Slavery (Old Testament Era)

In the Old Testament era, the cultures surrounding Israel had slavery, and the Israelites themselves were slaves in Egypt for 400 years before being freed. The type of slavery that surrounded Israel was the type most of us think about when we hear “slavery.” Like American slavery, the slavery of much of the ancient Near Middle East was harsh and dehumanizing. But not so with Israelite “slavery.”

Later in this series, we’ll be specifically looking at Israelite “slavery” in the Old Testament, because it – unlike American and Roman slavery – is part of God’s Word. In a way, those hostile to Christianity are right: God does endorse this type of “slavery” (and this type only). But the slavery of ancient Israel is nothing like American slavery, nor other Near Middle East slavery. It’s a truly unique biblical, Israelite “slavery.” Just like the ancient Greek word, the Hebrew word often translated “slave” can also be translated “servant,” and most modern Bibles tell you this in the footnotes.

As I said, we’ll explore this idea much more in depth in later articles, but for now know that Israelite slavery is more comparable to indentured servanthood or working under contract than slavery proper. So, where we find Roman slavery is a spectrum that goes from American-type slavery (minus the racism) to indentured servanthood and contract workers, Israelite “slavery” is simply a type of indentured servanthood or contract work.

In later articles, you’ll see just how radically different biblical, Old Testament “slavery” is from American slavery and the slavery of the nations surrounding Israel. (If you’d like a preview, I addressed some of this already in Part One of this series)

 

In this series, we’ll be addressing the 3 criticisms concerning Christianity and slavery:

  1. In the United States’ past, Christian slave-owners used the Bible to justify slavery.
  2. In the New Testament, Jesus and his Apostles never condemned slavery. In fact, they even told slaves to be obedient.
  3. In the Old Testament, God actually endorses slavery.

Thus, we will be exploring:

  1. What the Bible says about American slavery.
  2. What the New Testament says about Roman slavery.
  3. What the Old Testament says about Israelite slavery.

As I said above, the Greek and Hebrew words used in the Bible that are often translated “slave” can also be translated “servant.” This shows the wide range of meaning those words can have. Perhaps if the translators of the Bible simply used “servant” instead of “slave,” Christians would have to address this issue much less!

NEXT: The Bible VS. Race-Based American Slavery
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7 thoughts on “Slavery & the Bible (Part 2) Not All Types of Slavery are Equal

  1. Pingback: Slavery & the Bible (Part 9) Did Christianity End Slavery? What History Tells Us. | god from the machine

  2. Pingback: Slavery & the Bible (Part 8) Why Didn’t Jesus Free the Slaves? | god from the machine

  3. Pingback: Slavery & the Bible (Part 7) Another Type of Slavery & Freedom in the New Testament | god from the machine

  4. Pingback: Slavery & the Bible (Part 6) The New Testament Response & Problem Verses | god from the machine

  5. Pingback: Slavery & The Bible (Part 5) Roman Slavery & the Lack of Christian Revolt | god from the machine

  6. Pingback: Slavery & The Bible (Part 4) Slavery Ain’t Always Slavery: The New Testament & Roman Slavery | god from the machine

  7. Pingback: Slavery & the Bible (Part 3) American Slavery & Bearing God’s Image | god from the machine

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