The Bible is much more understandable (and actually more relevant) if we view it in light of the authors’ time and culture. Of course they didn’t denounce slavery because, like every known ancient civilization, slavery was a major part of their economy. Saying that God justified capturing, owning, and selling slaves was simply (and obviously) a man-made attempt to enshrine the right to own other human beings into law. We shouldn’t be shocked that Biblical law does not differ significantly from that of other ancient Near Eastern tribes; it is simply a product of them. If Christians, Jews, and Muslims would just acknowledge this fact rather than claim divine guidance, atheists would be much less likely to harp on these issues.
But of course, Christians also believe the Bible is inspired revelation from God. So slavery is one of the difficult issues that arise as a result, because the Bible seems to present it in accepting terms and to not denounce it (or not as much as it should). We’ve worked through that, just like we’ve worked through all of the tough issues concerning the Bible and Christianity, like the problem of evil, etc.
Every viewpoint has problems that have to be worked through. That’s simply “grown-up” thinking and “intellectual reality.” It would be foolish to think that a document as long and complex (and old) as the Bible would not present thorny issues to be grappled with and agonized over.
Your solution is the simplistic and easy one, but it’s not one that orthodox Christians can take.
For further reading, see: “The Bible, Church History, and Slavery (Resources)”.
“Did the Church Ever Support Slavery?” (Steve Weidenkopf, Catholic Answers Magazine, 9-18-17)
I wrote in another paper: “As to the Flood, so what if other cultures mentioned it? We would fully expect that.”
I don’t see how that casts into doubt the Scriptural story [or biblical inspiration]. C. S. Lewis makes a similar argument about how pagan precursors to Christianity were how God planned it, in His providence. Far from being disproofs of Christianity, they confirm it:
What light is really thrown on the truth of falsehood of Christian Theology by the occurrence of similar ideas in Pagan religion? . . . Supposing, for purposes of argument, that Christianity is true; then it could avoid all coincidence with other religions only on the supposition that all other religions are one hundred percent erroneous . . . The truth is that the resemblances tell nothing either for or against the truth of Christian Theology. If you start from the assumption that the Theology is false, the resemblances are quite consistent with that assumption. One would expect creatures of the same sort, faced with the same universe, to make the same false guess more than once. But if you start with the assumption that the Theology is true, the resemblances fit in equally well. Theology, while saying that a special illumination has been vouchsafed to Christians and (earlier) to Jews, also says that there is some divine illumination vouchsafed to all men . . . We should, therefore, expect to find in the imagination of great Pagan teachers and myth makers some glimpse of that theme which we believe to be the very plot of the whole cosmic story — the theme of the incarnation, death, and re-birth. And the difference between the Pagan Christs (Balder, Osiris, etc.) and the Christ Himself is much what we should expect to find. The Pagan stories are all about someone dying and rising, either every year, or else nobody knows where and nobody knows when. The Christian story is about a historical personage, whose execution can be dated pretty accurately, under a named Roman magistrate, and with whom the society that He founded is in a continuous relation down to the present day. It is not the difference between falsehood and truth. It is the difference between a real event on the one hand and dim dreams or premonitions of that same event on the other. (The Weight of Glory, New York: Macmillan / Collier Books, revised and expanded edition, 1980, edited by Walter Hooper, New York: 83-84, from “Is Theology Poetry?”: originally read to the Oxford University Socratic Club on 6 November 1944 and published in The Socratic Digest, vol. 3, 1945)
G. K. Chesterton makes an elaborate argument along these same lines in his Everlasting Man (a marvelous book, and the one that Lewis said was his biggest influence).
Thank you for the civil reply. I know that the discussion on religion can be quite heated, so I appreciate it. From my perspective (of that as someone born and raised in the Catholic Church), it seems that one of the greatest aspects about the Catholic faith which differs from more fundamentalist forms is that it does not take the Bible literally. Yes, some events (Jesus being born of a virgin and rising from the dead) are to be accepted literally, but others may be viewed within the context of the culture of the writers and used as metaphor. For example, we know from multiple branches of science that Noah’s flood did not happen as the Bible says (the entire world was flooded). In the scientific community, this is beyond debate. However, if one considers the prospective of the Biblical writers, their world was flooded because there was a huge flood in the Ancient Near East which destroyed many cities and ravished the area. Using that prospective, one does not have to reject either science or religion; he/she is free to accept both on their own terms. Catholics have embraced evolution, the Big Bang (discovered by a Catholic priest, no less), and blood/organ transplants whereas a fundamentalist reading of the Bible would denounce all of these.
Thanks for your detailed and civil reply as well. I agree with this, and in fact, I understood and believed that the Flood was not universal over thirty years ago when I was a Protestant, after reading The Christian View of Science and Scripture by Bernard Ramm. We believe this not only because science indicates the position, for various reasons, but because the Bible — rightly understood — never required it in the first place. Even the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia (“Deluge”) stated that the Flood didn’t have to be interpreted as literally universal:
Neither Sacred Scripture nor universal ecclesiastical tradition, nor again scientific considerations, render it advisable to adhere to the opinion that the Flood covered the whole surface of the earth.
I’ve also argued vigorously against young earth creationist flood geology (which presupposes a universal Flood).
Whether something is literal or not in the Bible depends on the literary genre and context. Early Genesis (first eleven chapters), for example, has both literal (a real Adam and Eve and a real fall and original sin) and symbolic elements. The days are not literal, and the trees and the talking snake need not be literal. I recently wrote about the serpent. The choice need not be “totally symbolic / mythical Genesis” vs. “completely literal Genesis, meaning a young earth and no evolution.”
While I certainly appreciate the prospective of those wish to view the Bible solely under the lens of the divine, historical documents (and the Bible is perhaps the greatest one in Western civilization, if not the world) must be viewed in practical terms as to the culture and socio-economic needs of those who wrote them in order to fully understand them. For example: when Paul decided not to enforce Jewish dietary laws and circumcision upon the Gentile population, we can view it in part from his own detailed account as to his belief that Christ’s sacrifice fulfilled that portion of the law and made it no longer necessary. However, we must also be practical and admit that Paul, whose mission in life after his conversion was to attract converts to the faith, most likely knew that few Greeks would clamor to embrace a faith which required cutting delicate body parts and giving up a meat which was a staple in the region. To ignore that obvious point is to ignore the rational.
Once again, you imply that cultural influences in the Bible are somehow logically contrary to inspiration. I don’t see how that follows at all, as I have already argued. Your point about Paul and circumcision is an interesting one, and I think it has some validity. But I could just as easily argue that God in His providence understood the same factors you reference, and so it was decided (with God’s guidance at the Jerusalem Council: Acts 15) that circumcision was no longer required. Christianity has shown itself adaptable to particular cultures, without compromise of principle, to a large degree throughout history.
Thus, I’m not required to deny anything that is rational or a cultural explanation in this respect (or many others), but at the same time I need not deny biblical inspiration or the notion (held in faith) that the whole thing was the “plan” in God’s providence. God, being omniscient, would know that circumcision wouldn’t exactly go over big in non-Jewish cultures; nor would the extensive dietary and ritualistic requirements of the Mosaic law; so it turned out that they weren’t in fact required. If that change hadn’t occurred among early Christians (most of whom were Jewish at first), arguably, Christianity wouldn’t have spread to become the world’s largest religion and the most culturally transformative one.
There is irony, however, in the fact that circumcision is still widely practiced anyway (one in six males worldwide), often for [controversial] medical and not religious reasons.
Slavery, from all appearances, is like the kosher issue. Slaves were needed in the extremely hierarchical ancient Judea and later throughout the Mediterranean world. If early Christians had demanded that all new Christians must release their slaves, few powerful men would have been attracted to the faith and it would, in all likelihood, resulted in far more persecutions of Christians by the Roman authorities due to how disruptive it (abolitionism) would have been to the economy. Rational explanations, rather than diminish the Bible, help the modern reader to understand why the ancients could justify such repugnant acts in the name of God.
You make valid points here as well. I continue to note that slavery in the Bible and throughout Christian history is a complex issue, and that the ideal was always eventual abolition; but Christianity in its infancy was not completely revolutionary, in terms of every cultural and/or economic factor. Thus, Jesus said “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” and respected the authority of the Pharisees, even when they were being hypocritical (Matthew 23), and Paul respected the Jewish high priest’s authority during his trial and said that the government (then led by persecuting monsters like Nero) was the agent of God, and to be obeyed as such (Romans 13).
If it’s difficult to understand how slavery was so widely tolerated and practiced in the ancient world, I understand that by analogy to how we Americans treated Native Americans: attempting to virtually wipe them out by genocide, and how we maintained slavery till 1865, and continuing abominable treatment of black people until very recently, when our society has finally, for the most part, rejected racism, legally and culturally.
And now, of course, most of the western world has accepted legal abortion. We look down our noses at those who had the gall to believe that one human being could own another and keep them in bondage, while we — in our “enlightened” and “progressive” wisdom — believe that every mother owns the child in her womb and can kill him or her at will. That’s fine and dandy, yet we condemn Christians in past ages for having a blind spot regarding slavery.
Thus, the more things “change” the more they stay the same. It’s easily explained by the Christian doctrine of original sin and the human tendency towards actual sin (concupiscence). The things that human beings do are so irrational and so wicked, that the Christian explanation of their origin makes perfect sense and is entirely in accord with observation. Someone said that original sin is the one doctrine of Christianity that is so utterly obvious, it needs no defense.
Thanks again for your reply.
Hello, Dave. Thank you again for the very detailed response. Of course, I would be thrilled to be included in your blog paper. Now to your points:
1) I was truly shocked to hear that the Bible did not necessarily present the flood as global or universal. Thank you for sharing this. My sons and nephews, like many Millennials, express that their number one reason for rejecting religion (and Christianity in particular) is how so much of the Bible contradicts our modern knowledge of the world achieved via science, and Noah’s ark is always one of the top three unbelievable stories cited. I will pass on your links and see if it alters their understanding a bit.
I think that one of the issues with a literal Adam and Eve is that, if one accepts evolution, a new species doesn’t simply come about with only two new members as a literal reading of Genesis suggests. Knowing what we know of Neanderthals and the incredibly strong evidence that, not only did we interbreed, but they have also been reclassified as a sub-species to Homo sapiens, I wonder how they fit into the whole Adam and Eve story. Do you think that there is some Biblical character who could have been a Neanderthal/Neanderthal hybrid? I’ve heard theories that in the Epic of Gilgamesh, there is a character who is described as being more akin to beasts in nature but to man in form, and this may be an allusion to the Neanderthals.
I suppose my struggle with taking Adam and Eve as more than an allegory revolves around the soul and species issue. The Bible appears to make it clear that only humans have souls, but one wonders whether the earlier hominids did as well. There were beings like the Neanderthal who were so closely related that we almost certainly interbred but were they human enough for a soul? Since evolution is so gradual, did the soul evolve as well or were humans only given souls once God deemed that they had evolved “enough”? I’ve read Francis Collins’ concept of Biologos and it never truly clarifies this issue. I completely understand why some literal Adam and Eve story is so important to the Bible: without their misdeed, there is no Original Sin, and no reason for Jesus to die on the cross. It just is incredibly difficult reconciling our understanding of how species come into existence with the story of Genesis.
As to Adam and Eve, we believe that God supernaturally put rational souls into them (as we believe He does with every new conceived human being), and made them in His image. That is the crucial dividing line, but it wasn’t biological; it was supernatural / immaterial. Thus, Adam and Eve could have come from preexisting hominid stock. Here are two articles (one in two parts) by Catholic philosophers that discuss this genetic aspect [one / two / three].
2) I can completely understand why a total symbolic approach to the Bible (a large Jordan Peterson or Joseph Campbell) essentially neuters its importance as a religious document, especially as one that acts as a guide to salvation. Years ago, a professor had recommended the works of Bishop Shelby Spong to me, and I found it bizarre that anyone would embrace Spong’s message. Essentially, he ascribed to the same philosophy as Jefferson and gutted the Gospels of any Divinity claims, virgin birth, and literal resurrection. I have to agree with St Paul: without the resurrection, there is truly no point to the faith. I fully agree with you that there are certain points in the Bible and Christianity which define one’s belief as Christian, the aforementioned chief amongst them. Allegories are fascinating, but no one is going to dedicate his life or possibly die for belief in them. That’s the downside to the Spong/Peterson/Campbell school of Biblical reading.
To be honest, I think that both sides (the Christian and the atheist) have much to learn in debates with each other. For example, I don’t believe that most atheists truly give the cosmological argument a fair hearing. In the days of Bertrand Russell, it made sense to debates whether the universe had always existed and had no beginning, hence no need for a creator. We now know it certainly did beginning and once there was no matter in our universe. The force which created/formed time and space must be, by its very nature, outside of time and space, hence the concept of God. To argue as many do, “Well, what created God?” seems to miss the entire notion of this being existing outside of time and space, therefore needing no creation.
Bible interpretation comes down to each text, its context, the literary genre used, the cultural milieu, linguistic aspects, and the author’s intent (as best we can determine it). The Bible has all sorts of literature. The liberal theological impulse is to spiritualize away or make symbolic everything they are inclined to reject as supposedly “antiquated.” That’s wrong, because it is arbitrary and (I would contend) doesn’t take the Bible seriously as inspired revelation.
Likewise, the opposite fundamentalist error is to interpret with a wooden literalism, almost always (except when it comes to John 6 and Jesus talking about His body; i.e., transubstantiation), and without regard to the other factors above.
The orthodox, sensible, “literary” way is to interpret is to examine each passage to determine the genre, cross-reference, and proceed from there. It’s not either/or.
Likewise, I wish that more Christians denounced the obviously disproved young earth theories with their “museums” featuring Adam riding on a dinosaur. I appreciate that you do and wish that more people would read Christian rebuttals to this nonsense, but Ken Ham and company are usually the first people used to cast all religion as the purview of the ignorant and the foolish.
I have not noticed any particular love among most of the people I know (several thousand people online) for young-earth creationism. That view is confined to a small minority of (mostly) fundamentalist, sectarian-type Protestants and a few reactionary Catholics (some of whom espouse geocentrism also). Even if the number is larger than what has been my impression, these folks are marginalized in larger Christianity and easily able to be dismissed.
3) I know I’ve already taken quite a bit of your time, so I’ll attempt to be briefer here. I found your concept that perhaps God Himself influenced Paul into rethinking the adherence to the Jewish law in order to achieve the end goal of converting the Gentiles to be fascinating to say the least. That is something to consider. However, that begs the question of why require such laws in the first place? Maybe the Philistines and Ammonites would have been more likely to convert to Judaism had it begun as a faith devoted to the Jewish God but without the requirements of circumcision and kosher diets. I’ve heard Bart Ehrman’s take that Paul saw those who pushed such requirements upon Gentile Christians as rejecting the salvation made by Christ’s sacrifice in favor of self-salvation via the Law and harshly condemned them. Either way, it’s a fascinating debate. In addition, Ehrman posits that one of the main reasons why Paul does not condemn slavery and demand that Christians free their slaves is because he is certain that Jesus is due to return within Paul’s lifetime. Therefore, one’s status within the community is of no matter since all will be free in the Kingdom of Heaven. This apocalyptic vision colors much of Paul’s message and almost certainly dissuaded him from being more revolutionary in worldly affairs. Understandably, if one truly believes that he only has a brief time to save souls for eternity, he will focus on spiritual matters rather than secular. Still, it is pitiful that these verses have been used to justify such cruelty for centuries.
As for why God required the Mosaic Law, I’m afraid that is above my pay grade. As a generality, Catholics believe that God had to be strict in the early part of salvation history, in order to “get the message across.” As it is, the ancient Jews continually drifted into idolatry and away from God, even given the strictness of their laws (which sort of proves that point, I think).
Paul’s relation to the Law (and Law / grace in general) is another huge issue, and I will have to defer to Pauline scholars and experts on the relation between Judaism and Christianity. I have dealt quite a bit in a more general way with the latter topic, though.
I have three articles critiquing Ehrman listed in one of my papers:
Debate: Is There Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus? (William Lane Craig vs. Bart Ehrman, March 2006)
Disunity and Diversity: The Biblical Theology of Bart Ehrman (Josh Chatraw, 2011)
Review Article of Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman (Daniel B. Wallace, 2006)
Lastly, I do wonder how future generations will view the practice of abortion, especially as it has been presented as a positive thing by the extreme Left. Whatever someone’s views on the matter, science does show that the fetus is alive, is human, and does have separate and distinct DNA from the mother. There is no other medical procedure in which someone is allowed to end the life of someone else without his/her consent. I find the various comedians who jest about it and ghouls like Gloria Steinem who proclaim that “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament” to be truly foul and just demeaning to human life. I honestly don’t know what the solution is to this problem, but it seems that society has become so coarse and just uncaring. Incredibly sad.
I’m very glad to see that we agree about abortion.
Thanks again for reading and sorry to take so much of your time. Please know that I own one of your books (The Catholic Verses: 95 Bible Passages That Confound Protestants [link] ) and regularly use it when arguing why certain Catholic traditions are far more Biblical than most people know. Excellent work.
It’s been a great pleasure dialoguing with you, and I hope you will keep hanging around my site! Thanks so much for buying that book of mine and even mentioning it to others, too!