Many of the texts people find offensive can be cleared up with a decent commentary that puts the issue into historical context. Take the text "slaves obey your masters." The average reader today immediately and understandably thinks of the African slave trade of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, or of the human trafficking and sexual slavery practiced in many places today. We then interpret the texts to teach that such slavery is permissible, even desirable.
This is a classic case of ignoring the cultural and historical distance between us and the writer and readers of the original text. In the first-century Roman empire, when the New Testament was written, there was not a great difference between slaves and the average free person. Slaves were not distinguishable from others by race, speech, or clothing. They looked and lived like most everyone else, and were not segregated from the rest of society in any way. From a financial viewpoint, slaves made the same wages as free laborers, and therefore were not usually poor. Also, slaves could accrue enough personal capital to buy themselves out. Most important of all, very few slaves were slaves for life. Most could reasonably hope to be manumitted within ten or fifteen years, or by their late thirties at the least.
By contrast, New World slavery was much more systematically and homogeneously brutal. It was "chattel" slavery, in which the slave's whole person was the property of the master -- he or she could be raped or maimed or killed at the will of the owner. In the older bond-service or indentured servant hood, only slaves' productivity -- their time and skills -- were owned by the master, and only temporarily. African slavery, however, was race-based, and its default mode was slavery for life. Also, the African slave trade was begun and resourced through kidnapped. The Bible unconditionally condemns kidnapping and trafficking of slaves (1 Timothy 1:9-11; cf. Deuteronomy 24:7). Therefore, while the early Christians did not go on a campaign to abolish first-century slavery completely, later Christians did so when faced with New World-style slavery, which could not be squared in any way with Biblical teaching."
The Reason for God by Tim Keller.
What's bothering me about this particular section of the book is that I don't see any declaration that slavery is immoral. The whole defense started because Mr. Keller was approached by a young person who was infuriated by the particular Bible verse of slaves should obey their masters. Rather than be able to respond that of course the Bible doesn't support slavery, or of course slavery is wrong, the response seems more focused on "Of course the Bible holds no support for the New World slavery."
But where is the defense that owning another person, regardless of the circumstances, is immoral? Why do we suddenly have to apply a sense of relativism to when slavery is and is not bad? The author flat-out states that the Bible condemns kidnapping and trafficking slaves. Why can't we get just as vocal of a response to the idea of slavery itself?**
Not only that, but look what happens when I contrast this section of the book with what the PBS website says on slavery in Roman times:
Slavery in ancient Rome differed from its modern forms in that it was not based on race.
But like modern slavery, it was an abusive and degrading institution. Cruelty was commonplace.
A common practice
Slavery had a long history in the ancient world and was practiced in Ancient Egypt and Greece, as well as Rome. Most slaves during the Roman Empire were foreigners and, unlike in modern times, Roman slavery was not based on race.
Slaves in Rome might include prisoners of war, sailors captured and sold by pirates, or slaves bought outside Roman territory. In hard times, it was not uncommon for desperate Roman citizens to raise money by selling their children into slavery.
Life as a slave
All slaves and their families were the property of their owners, who could sell or rent them out at any time. Their lives were harsh. Slaves were often whipped, branded or cruelly mistreated. Their owners could also kill them for any reason, and would face no punishment.
Although Romans accepted slavery as the norm, some people – like the poet and philosopher, Seneca – argued that slaves should at least be treated fairly.
Slaves worked everywhere – in private households, in mines and factories, and on farms. They also worked for city governments on engineering projects such as roads, aqueducts and buildings. As a result, they merged easily into the population.
In fact, slaves looked so similar to Roman citizens that the Senate once considered a plan to make them wear special clothing so that they could be identified at a glance. The idea was rejected because the Senate feared that, if slaves saw how many of them were working in Rome, they might be tempted to join forces and rebel.
Another difference between Roman slavery and its more modern variety was manumission – the ability of slaves to be freed. Roman owners freed their slaves in considerable numbers: some freed them outright, while others allowed them to buy their own freedom. The prospect of possible freedom through manumission encouraged most slaves to be obedient and hard working.
Formal manumission was performed by a magistrate and gave freed men full Roman citizenship. The one exception was that they were not allowed to hold office. However, the law gave any children born to freedmen, after formal manumission, full rights of citizenship, including the right to hold office.
Informal manumission gave fewer rights. Slaves freed informally did not become citizens and any property or wealth they accumulated reverted to their former owners when they died.
Free at last?
Once freed, former slaves could work in the same jobs as plebeians – as craftsmen, midwives or traders. Some even became wealthy. However, Rome’s rigid society attached importance to social status and even successful freedmen usually found the stigma of slavery hard to overcome – the degradation lasted well beyond the slavery itself.
According to PBS, slavery was still abusive and degrading. Owners were perfectly entitled to sell their slaves as a whole, not just limited to time and skills. They were whipped, branded, and cruelly mistreated. If killed, there was no retribution. I'm pretty sure that's a big difference between a slave and an average free person (unless this could also happen to an average free person as well?) Yes, slaves looked like everyone else, but that's because the Romans feared a revolt if slaves knew just how many slaves there truly were. And once free, there was still the whole degradation factor of being slaves in the first place.
Now, I do happen to think that there are a lot of great things in the Bible. There are a lot of comforting things, as well. Given that I don't take everything in the Bible as literally true or directly communicated through God, I don't have to defend these verses.
What bothers me is the fact that these verses are defended to this degree at all. That we have to draw the lines between the particular types of slavery, and can't just say, "No, of course the Bible teaches that all slavery is absolutely wrong." Especially given the fact that all those Biblical verses were used as justification for the New World slavery.
**The author does note that there are people familiar with the cultural and historical aspects of the Bible who still get outraged by these texts. I'll touch on that point in my next post.