One of the most devastating criticisms of the Bible is the accusation that it condones slavery, and even that the Bible was to blame for its continuation. Proponents argue the Bible sanctioned slavery because of the regulations surrounding it in the Old Testament. They also cite the New Testament’s instruction to slaves to behave respectfully towards their masters. Paul even sent the runaway slave Onesimus back to his Christian master, asking that he should be treated well for Paul’s sake (Philemon 1:15 -18).
The Church certainly took a long time to outlaw slavery. You’d think it would have happened when Constantine became the first Christian emperor, but it continued for hundreds of years. In England, it wasn’t until the time of William the Conqueror that the fight against slavery really began to get started.
But it is a misunderstanding to believe that the Bible commends slavery. Regulations don’t mean approval. If they did, we’d conclude that the UK condones child labour because it has so many laws that regulate it. These laws give limitations – children can’t be forced to work, they must do so in a safe environment, and their hours of work are restricted. And just as child employment in this country is not forbidden but highly controlled, the Law of Moses strictly regulated the treatment of slaves. Slaves had to be fed properly and if they were Jews (or converts), it was even expected that they would eat with the family at feasts like Passover (Exodus 12:44).
Most slaves in Israel were volunteers. That might sound like an oxymoron; however, in the days before banking, volunteering as a slave was the normal way to borrow money. If you needed a dowry for a daughter’s marriage, you agreed with a local farmer to work for him for the next six years in return for your wages upfront. During that time you weren’t given any pay (because you’d already received it), and the farmer was responsible for feeding and housing you – though he might not mind you sleeping at your own home. At the end of six years (the maximum allowed for this arrangement), some people decided they liked this life and asked to stay on; there was even a special ceremony for it (Deuteronomy 15:16-17).
Occasionally the Israelites obtained slaves by defeating their enemies in nearby nations. The enslavement of these captives didn’t end after six years, but they still had to be treated properly. If you hit your slave and knocked their tooth out, they could go free, and if you killed a slave, you were treated in the same way as if you’d murdered a free man (Exodus 21: 20, 27). Remarkably, a slave was allowed to run away from a master and find a better one – it was illegal to force a slave to return to a master (Deuteronomy 23:15-16). We know the Israelites didn’t keep all of these laws all the time, but the rules set them apart from other nations whose treatment of slaves was very different.
In New Testament times, Jews were subject to Roman law which regarded slaves as property without any individual rights. After AD 70, the Jews passed a new law that forbade any Jew from ever becoming a slave, voluntarily or through debt. They couldn’t end non-Jewish slavery, but they did treat non-Jewish slaves in accordance with Old Testament rules.
Why not free slaves?
Paul couldn’t go as far as telling Christians to release their slaves because this was illegal in Roman law for slaves below the age of 30. Instead, he told them to treat slaves with respect, like other workers, and if the slave was a Christian they were to be thought of as a ‘brother’ (Philemon 1:16). Presumably this respect included the normal Roman practice of manumission – legally freeing them when they were 30 so that they became proper Roman citizens with all of a citizen’s rights and earning capacity. This practice was wide-ranging, and some of the biggest and richest tombs along the Appian Way in Rome were built by slaves who founded thriving businesses after they were freed.
What Paul could do was to utterly condemn slave trading – as he did in 1 Timothy 1:10 where he says slave traders are “lawbreakers and rebels” (this became the key text for Wilberforce’s abolition of slavery campaign in the early nineteenth century).
Instead of condoning slavery, the Bible shows us that God’s plan was to gradually push the Jews and then Christians towards renouncing it, first by establishing rights for slaves and then by pointing out that all humans are equal (Galatians 3:28). This should have resulted in the ending of slavery as soon as Christians had the political power to do so but it didn’t happen like that. The Church didn’t recognise God’s plan.
Any coach knows that you can’t produce a perfect athlete in a single training session. You have to deal with each flaw gradually. This often means that in the meantime the coach will put up with other faults because they know that at the end of the process, they will finally all be dealt with. Through the Bible, God is gradually showing us how to live with each other. Understanding his plan helps us understand the Bible. We shouldn’t dismiss Old Testament law as irrelevant and we shouldn’t view it as his final aim: it is a part of a process. Along with the New Testament, it forms God’s training manual for societies and for individuals.
God’s plan was to gradually push the jews and then christians towards renouncing slavery
In some processes – like the abolition of slavery – the trajectory of God’s plan is especially important because if we don’t recognise it, we miss the end point. Slavery and other subjugation of fellow humans was too engrained to be abolished in New Testament times, so the Bible stated that the end point was equality for all humans, and began the process which the Church inherited.
And the task isn’t finished yet! Slavery might be illegal throughout the world, but an estimated 25-40 million people are still enslaved. The scope of international human trafficking is greater than ever. Through movements like Stop the Traffik, the Church still has vital role to play in helping to fulfil God’s plan to bring freedom to all.
David Instone-Brewer is senior research fellow in Rabbinics and New Testament at Tyndale House, Cambridge