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The Legacy of the Bible in Justifying Slavery


Does the Bible justify slavery?

Slavery in the ancient world was a part of everyday life, and, unfortunately, the Bible accepts this tragic reality as a given. Indeed, the Bible not only does not unequivocally condemn slavery, but at points it endorses it. For example, in the Hebrew Bible, Moses tells the Israelites on the way to the Promised Land how they should acquire and keep slaves (Lev 25:44-46). His successor, Joshua, explains that “some of you shall always be slaves” (Josh 9:23). Similarly, in the New Testament, Paul admonishes, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling” (Eph 6:5-6). Interpreters commonly invoked these and other passages to argue that slavery is a divinely sanctioned practice.

For much of North American history from the 1600s to the end of the US Civil War, biblical passages were commonly used to affirm the institution of slavery. In colonial Boston, Cotton Mather, the celebrated American intellectual and Puritan minister, frequently turned to the Bible to affirm the enslavement of Africans. He justified his position by exhorting white slavers to “use” the practice to “Christianize” those whom they enslaved. In the antebellum South, well-respected ministers such as Thornton Stringfellow (1788–1869) wrote influential and widely read treatises to demonstrate the Bible’s support for slavery. Scholars of religion such as Charles C. Jones (1804–1863), who was educated at Princeton Theological Seminary, spent much time using Ephesians to exhort enslaved people in Liberty County, GA to be obedient to their “masters.” 

Translation is itself interpretive work and translators of the KJV, the commonly used Bible of this era, also participated in the politics of enslavement. Even their translations of passages that have been read as advocating for more “humane” treatment of enslaved persons reveal their bias: “When you buy a male Hebrew slave [’ebed], he shall serve six years, but in the seventh he shall go out a free person, without debt” (Exod 21:2 NRSV). Here, the KJV uses “servant” instead of “slave.” Of the hundreds of times the word ‘ebed appears in the Hebrew Bible, the KJV translates it as “slave” only once, in Jer 2:14. In the New Testament, the KJV never translates the word doulos as “slave.” Only the plural, “slaves,” [sōmatōn] appears once in Rev 18:14. Given the widespread enslavement of African people in the seventeenth century, as well as the understanding of their slavery as racially determined by their Blackness and the association of their Blackness with evil, perhaps translators could not imagine reading Paul or themselves as a “slave [doulos] of Christ” (Gal 1:10; Col 4:12)—they preferred, instead, the language of “servant of Christ.” In fact, the NRSV translators follow this practice.

Since modern Western slave regimes saw Africans as chattel with no relationship to the enslaved in the biblical text, even practices such as those described in Exod 21:2, which limited slavery, would have been unthinkable with respect to the enslaved persons in their midst. Ultimately, such translations supported Western slave regimes by ensuring that people of African descent would not find themselves in the text, not even as the enslaved.

How did people of African descent respond to these passages?

During the same period, African Americans responded to a world shaped by white supremacy by honing a sophisticated and self-reflective hermeneutics that refused to accept arguments for biblical affirmations of slavery. Confronted with endless exhortations from Ephesians and the commonly held notion that they were enslaved because they were despised by God, interpreters such as Absalom Jones, Maria Stewart, David Walker, Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and Sojourner Truth among others nonetheless took up the Bible, particularly the book of Exodus, and summoned courage, vision, and hermeneutical creativity to arrive at a different truth: because they were enslaved, God would rescue them. Their interpretations were driven by a belief in God’s ultimate advocacy of liberation. So, while the Bible could not speak unequivocally about slavery, they did—because their faith resided in a God who unequivocally affirmed their humanity.

  • Marbury-Herbert

    Herbert R. Marbury is associate professor of Hebrew Bible at Vanderbilt Divinity School. His research centers on how biblical texts come to meaning both in the ancient world and in modern US communities. His first book Imperial Dominion and Priestly Genius(Sopher Press, 2012) focuses on Judah under Persian and Hellenistic imperial domination. His recent book, Pillars of Cloud and Fire: The Politics of Exodus in African American Biblical Interpretation (New York University Press, 2015), recovers trajectories of counter-history in African American biblical interpretation.