DID THE BIBLE CAUSE SLAVERY?
1st August, 2020
Livioandronico2013 / CC BY-SA (
BLM has, of course, made the topic of slavery somewhat topical. If, as a believer, you utter the words ‘slavery’ and ‘Bible' in the same sentence in the current climate it is likely that you will find yourself on the back foot defending the Bible from being an apology or a prescription for slavery and even the suggestion that prescribing such things is the principal reason for its existence. Such perceptions are often cemented by the technique of judicious tailoring and reordering of cause and effect in order to confirm a prejudice.
To illustrate this we can look at two ways of describing and narrating the relationship between the Bible and slavery.
For modern secular ‘humanists’ (as opposed to the Renaissance ones) typified by those dubbed variously the Four Musketeers, or the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris and their many acolytes, such as Stephen Fry, things happened in a certain order. For them the existence of verses in the Old Testament such as laws in the Pentateuch regulating the practice of slavery and St Paul’s telling slaves to obey their masters in the New Testament proves that the Judaeo-Christian tradition was the cause and slavery the effect. Their desire to seek out pretexts for indignation and to maintain the intellectual coherence of certain secular and humanist positions can drive this reading. It could be said that they are predisposed to find the biblical tradition guilty and to suggest that without it and other religious traditions all would have been sweetness and light in world history.
The other way of looking at the issue is to see the appearance of slavery in the Old Testament as an effect and to find the cause elsewhere. This is easily achieved by looking at what is actually the case. One of the benefits of the full Judeao-Christian tradition was that it prioritised the value of the individual and stressed the sanctity of human life. Before this happened human life was viewed cheaply. As a result slavery simply correlated with humanity and was the background radiation in most of the ancient empires in world history. All of the following civilisations happily embraced it as a norm: Mesopotamian, Lydian, Greek, Roman, Arab, Anglo-Saxon, Viking, Babylonian, Medean, Egyptian, Chinese, Swahili, Aztec, Inca, American Indian, Korean, Ottoman, Tatar. That it also turns up in the Jewish Old Testament, therefore, simply reflects the world-wide status quo and is unsurprising. It is an effect of the cause of prevailing default human attitudes to each other.
What, though, is truly significant in this connection is that out of the long-brewed and reflective Judaeo-Christian tradition there evolved, via the New Testament and the experience of Christendom an attitude that eventually militated against the ‘normality’ of slavery. As early as the 4th century the theologian, Gregory of Nyssa was denouncing the institution of slavery as an unpardonable sin against God. Later, it would be 18th century Quakers in America who would set in motion the movement that eventually led to the formal abolition of slavery in the United Kingdom by the Christian evangelical, William Wilberforce and others which was followed by a successful war over the same issue in the United States. Thus the Christian tradition was the cause and its effect, abolition, occurred for almost the first time in human history. The delegitimisation of slavery was achieved at huge financial and human cost in the British Empire in the 19th Century. The cost of funding the British Navy to fight the trade (it also cost the lives of many British sailors) and the compensation given to plantation owners was still being paid off by British tax payers, including myself, in 2014. This was, indeed, revolutionary and represents a very different ordering of cause and effect with the Christian tradition as the cause of abolition, its effect.
As I suggest above, one should pay attention to how people surreptitiously order their causes and effects. It is in this that one is most likely to discover their inbuilt prejudices.
If the Bible's true function is not to serve as a manual for actively promoting slavery, homophobia and the oppression of women what is it actually for ? Or, to put it another way, what exactly is it and how does it fulfil its function? These questions can be answered by looking at the role played in the wider tradition by one Old Testament book in particular which, ironically, deals very explicitly with the subject of slavery. The book of Exodus is the story (the clue is in the name) of a people being brought out of the condition of real slavery by means of a geographical journey. It aspires to the status of a literal, historical account. However, when viewed in the context of the whole Judaeo-Christian tradition, it becomes a great deal more.
The literal, historical story is taken up retrospectively by the New Testament tradition and takes on new "typological", "troplogical" and "anagogical" meanings. For a full explanation of these see footnote 1) below. In particular the tropological tradition sees the historical account of the exodus as signifying the conversion of the individual Christian; his personal liberation from bondage in the Egypt of sinfulness into the Promised Land of grace and reconciliation with God and with other people. It was, perhaps, just such a conversion that is recorded to have led William Wilberforce to achieve what he did.
The Christian biblical tradition taken as a whole thus, uses four types of allegory, prefiguring or foreshadowing, and metaphor amongst other devices. Accusations of primitivism could, therefore, not really be wider of the mark. In the sophistications which I describe it satisfies human spiritual needs together with our appetite for intellectual and literary complexity.
Ultimately the Bible, sometimes blamed for promoting one form of slavery, is about the release of the human soul from the most destructive and important form of slavery.
Litera gesta docet,
Quid credas allegoria,
Moralis quid agas,
Quo tendas anagogia.
This medieval Latin rhyme is roughly translated:
The literal teaches what God and our ancestors did,
The allegory is where our faith and belief is hid,
The moral meaning gives us the rule of daily life,
The anagogy shows us where we end our strife
To understand this it is useful to look at a discussion which exercised medieval minds. Dante Alighieri, in recommending his great poem, the Commedia, wrote to his local feudal Lord, Can Grande della Scala, to explain the four levels of meaning at which it functioned. Usefully, for the purposes of this argument, he used the book of Exodus as an example:
"A first sense derives from the letters themselves, and a second from the things signified by the letters. We call the first sense "literal" sense, the second the "allegorical", the third "moral" and the fourth "anagogical". To clarify this method of treatment, consider this verse: When Israel went out of Egypt, the house of Jacob from a barbarous people: Judea was made his sanctuary, Israel his dominion (Psalm 113). Now if we examine the letters alone, the exodus of the children of Israel from Egypt in the time of Moses is signified; in the allegory, our redemption accomplished through Christ; in the moral sense, the conversion of the soul from the grief and misery of sin to the state of grace; in the anagogical sense, the exodus of the holy soul from slavery of this corruption to the freedom of eternal glory.. they can all be called allegorical."
(In modern terminology the second meaning - "allegorical" tends to be called "typological" while the third - "moral" is known as "tropological")