Does the Bible Endorse Slavery?

Paul Copan continues his series on slavery and the Bible in the latest issue of Enrichment (see his earlier discussions of Old Testament slavery in the journal here and here). In this article, he examines slavery in the context of the New Testament and addresses the question of whether Jesus or the New Testament writers condoned slavery.

6 replies
  1. Tom Joad
    Tom Joad says:

    If we imagine ourselves as an objective, non-religious and detached observer seeking metaphysical truth, this post is quite revealing.

    Does the bible endorse slavery? Well it seems that to answer that question, Christians require a reasonably complex and multi-layered theological argument that refers to multiple bible passages.

    The fact the answer to ‘does the bible endorse slavery’ requires such a verbose response from apologists indicates, to our detached observer, that the morality in the bible with respect to how humans should treat other humans is, at best, pretty roundabout.

    If we, as an objective observer, were to start from scratch today and write a ‘religious’ text with a moral framework for how to behave, then pretty close to the beginning we would probably include ‘though shalt not enslave thy fellow human’ Probably above the commandment not to desire our neighbours servants. Or better, above honouring the sabath. Better still, take most of the ten commandments and replace them with meaningful moral imperatives. You could almost just replace the bible with the leading theory of Jainism, if morality is your target. The only question then is probably, is the bible a product of the time it was written, evolved morally, and still the absolute truth? Or are the questionable moral answers held in the bible, that require such complex consideration, a key indicator that the bible is not the word of God or an absolute moral directive?

  2. Stuart
    Stuart says:

    Tom, An objective observer of an argument wouldn’t evaluate its cogency by the length of the argument, but by the content of the ideas therein. Doing so is like me saying to you, “You’re comment above was far too verbose. This is an indication of how seriously I should take it – that is, not seriously at all.” The strategy is utter bunkum.

  3. Lee
    Lee says:

    Tom, I think it is far more likely that an ideal observer would draw conclusions about your ability to follow an argument, rather than Professor Copan’s ability to construct one.

    The fact that Professor Copan’s articles are complex is a reflection of the nature of the issue and his willingness to take the question seriously, nothing else. Can you imagine what would happen if we approached every intellectual problem with your unwillingness to think it over if the answer cannot be reduced to three syllables? I suspect human inquiry would not get too far.

  4. Tom Joad
    Tom Joad says:

    I don’t think it is utter bunkum. I can accept that the statement ‘slavery is morally abhorent’ is one which has evolved through lengthy debate, and so in this historical sense there is space for a ‘length’ in argument. That doesn’t change the fact that its a truism now to say ‘slavery is wrong.’ I suspect you wouldn’t ask for a thesis length explanation from someone who made that statement.

    My understanding is that Christians take the bible to be an indicator of universal and total moral truths. Yet you need to consider questions like ‘does God endorse slavery’, ignoring the fact that if God really was going to impose a book explaining how to live our lives in a moral way, as we each understand morality today, he would not leave this question open to consideration!!

    Sp the idea that the argument against slavery or whether God endorses it ‘are complex’ because of the ‘nature of teh issue’ is demonstration, to the objective observer, that the morality on display in the bible is at best, roundabout, and at the worst, completely off the mark, unable to evolve and requiring lengthy explaining away, therefore not universal, therefore not total morality.

  5. Lee
    Lee says:

    Tom,

    Firstly, the mere fact that there is debate does not falsify the truth of the claim that the Bible does not endorse slavery. Disagreement is a property and feature of humans and their social and cognitive behaviour. It is not a feature of truth claims. Disagreement says something about us and our poor ability to accept truth, not the truth claim itself.

    For example, the statement that “slavery is wrong” does not turn on whether humans agree with it or not. No, if true, it is an objective moral fact. Even today, the fact that there continues to be conflict and debate about the wrongness of slavery in some parts of the world (more slavery actually occurs today than at any time in human history) does not undermine the truth of the claim.

    Secondly, the mere fact that one has to offer a lengthly defense of a truth claim does not undermine its truth either. This is an issue of knowledge and justification, not truth. To illustrate: would you surrender your belief in the wrongness of slavery if you were to encounter someone who denied this (say a moral relativist or a current slave owner in Latin America) and they asked you to justify your position? At the very most, the need to provide such justification or answer objections in the encounter may weaken your confidence in your own knowledge of that truth claim (but really, your ability to provide justification should count for it, not against it).

    So, even if you’re right about what the Bible is – and you’re not – your criticism simply misses the mark. If we followed your method of reasoning we would have to abandon our belief in the external world just because there are solipists.

  6. Stuart
    Stuart says:

    “My understanding is that Christians take the bible to be an indicator of universal and total moral truths. Yet you need to consider questions like ‘does God endorse slavery’, ignoring the fact that if God really was going to impose a book explaining how to live our lives in a moral way, as we each understand morality today, he would not leave this question open to consideration!!”

    Why do you think that God’s explicit condemnation of slavery is necessary for the Bible to be divinely inspired and hence a guide for (“universal and total”?) moral turths? That doesn’t at all seem to follow. Just because a little study and careful attention to context and responsible interpretation regarding the question of whether slavery is endorsed in the Bible doesn’t mean that isn’t both inspired and a good guide for moral principles.

    And on a different tangent – a point of methodology: why must the Bible explain the moral life as we have come to understand morality today? This is backwards thinking. According to the Bible, adulters do something wicked. According to how we understand morality today, adulters do something that is mostly not that bad – good even in certain contexts. Why prefer to judge the Bible’s teaching by today’s standards rather than judging today’s standard by the Bible’s teaching?

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