Question: Why Did the Bible Accept Slavery?

Question: Why Did the Bible Accept Slavery? September 8, 2023

Humans have been owned as property since the dawn of civilization / orythys via


There’s been intense discussion of this never-ending issue in 2023, as we’ll see.

In essence, defenders of the Bible explain that slave-holding was a fundamental aspect of society as far back as the earliest written annals we have, well before biblical times. Due to the existence of that powerful reality, the Bible did not and could not attempt to overthrow the sinful system but worked against its evils. Fact is, slavery was so ingrained that it was not outlawed till recent times, nearly 3,000 years after the Old Testament laws were written and 2,000 years after the New Testament dealt with the problem.

However, skeptics question the moral stature of the Jewish and Christian heritage because the Bible is outwardly neutral toward the practice of owning fellow human beings as property. After all, today slavery is considered a contemptible blight, as in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights from the United Nations: “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.”

Contentious history

Recent events show how contentious the interpretation of slave history can be. Witness the July furor when a sentence in new Florida public school history guidelines said American slaves “developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”

Catholics’ debate over their history has been revived this year. Some background: The pioneering 4th Century Bishop Gregory of Nyssa (in present-day Turkey) preached against slavery in the Roman Empire, but his was a lonely voice. The influential 13th Century theologian Thomas Aquinas taught that “nothing is so repugnant to human nature as slavery,” which amounts to “civil death.” And yet some people have “eminence of reason” that makes them “by nature masters” over those who have “deficiency.”

In the 1434 decree Creator Omnium, Pope Eugenius IV ordered excommunication for Canary Islands slave-owners, as noted in an article posted by the conservative EWTN network, with further anti-slavery pronouncements by popes in 1537, 1591, 1639, 1741, and 1839. The culmination was Pope Leo XIII’s 1888 encyclical In Plurimis, addressed to the bishops of Brazil. (“. . . the condition of slavery, in which a considerable part of the great human family has been sunk in squalor and affliction now for many centuries, is deeply to be deplored; for the system is one which is wholly opposed to that which was originally ordained by God and by nature.”)

Yet last February Jesuit Christopher Kellerman stated in America magazine that Leo was “the first pope to condemn slavery” because his papal predecessors only denounced the slave trade, not the institution as such. Kellerman believes the church must confess that it “once embraced slavery in theory and in practice.”

The latest on the Bible

In the latest round of the Bible debate, Chance Bonar, a postdoctoral researcher at Tufts University, wrote in August on that three “myths” are used to claim that slavery as known in biblical times “wasn’t that bad.” First, that there was only one kind of slavery. Second, that this kind was not as cruel as the version in American plantations, whereas in the Roman Empire it often involved whipping, branding, disfigurement, torture, prison, or sexual assault. Third, that it didn’t discriminate by race, which was not always the case.

The Bible obviously cannot be portrayed as pro-slavery, considering its account of Joseph sent into servitude by his brothers and the great Exodus narrative of God’s liberation of his people from bondage in Egypt.

By ancient standards, Old Testament slavery law was relatively humane. It typically functioned as a form of welfare, letting poor people without means or property sell their labor for survival, regarding them as indentured servants rather than slaves (e.g. Leviticus 25:39-41). Importantly, bondage was only temporary, with manumission prescribed after six years (Exodus 21:1-2), with masters providing gifts to help newly freed slaves get on their feet again (Deuteronomy 15:13-15). The law granted freedom in cases of cruelty (Exodus 21:26-7) and forbade harshness (Leviticus 25:53-55).

New Testament Christianity lacked any governing power to overturn Roman slavery, but believers were admonished to love their neighbors without distinction in society and as spiritual equals within the church (e.g. Galatians 3:27-29). Though slaves were taught to be obedient, masters were admonished to be fair and avoid threats (Ephesians 6:5j-9; Colossians 4:1). Paul’s epistle to Philemon asks him not to punish a runaway slave and perhaps implies he should be freed, but without doubt honors him as “no longer a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother” in the Lord.

That’s a mere sampling of the Bible’s elaborate and complex material. For those who want fuller detail, The Guy points out this online survey by the staff theologian at a New Jersey evangelical church:

Abolition victorious

Some landmarks in abolition: Not long after Pope Eugenius’s decree, New World exploration began laying conditions for the vast and brutal Atlantic Slave Trade by purportedly Christian nations, with its malicious racial aspect. Though the simultaneous Arab Slave Trade to the East is less-discussed, Tidiane N’Diaye, an anthropologist in Senegal, writes that it enslaved many more Africans.

The 1815 Congress of Vienna effectively abolished slave-holding within Europe. A 46-year campaign spearheaded by William Wilberforce and fellow evangelicals won abolition in Britain’s colonies in 1833. America’s bloody Civil War saw churches deeply split over biblical teaching on slavery and culminated in abolition with the 13th Amendment, ratified on December 6, 1865. (The new federal holiday of Juneteenth instead marks the prior date when the Army notified Texans of President Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation.)

In some Muslim nations, abolition did not occur till 1929 (Iran), 1962-70 (Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States) and Mauritania in western Africa (1981). Even today, slavery persists in spots of some countries, alongside the equivalents in forced labor and sex trafficking. Just this past Sunday, The Guy’s own Protestant church prayed for currently “enslaved” peoples.

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