uno itinere non potest perveniri ad tam grande secretum -- Q. Aurelius Symmachus, 384 C.E.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

This Is How Apologetics Work

During debate on John Shore's blog about a pastor recently fired from his church for merely sharing a link on Facebook about the end of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, an apologetic troll decided to defend the Bible's take on slavery. According to this person, in the ancient world, slavery was only entered into for crimes committed or for indentured servitude, by which I think he's referring to debt slavery.

Slavery came up because, naturally, I question why it is that some Christians who insist on being "Biblical" can take a moral position against slavery despite the clear references in the New Testament epistles admonishing slaves to obey their masters.

"Thomas" had this to say before comments were disabled and I was unable to reply:

"Nowhere does the bible condone slavery. Much of the NT slavery was indentured servitude or as a form of criminal punishment.

"The Greek word doulos meant “slave,” but that it also was used “in a wider sense” to denote “any kind of dependence.” In 2 Corinthians 4:5, the apostles are called the douloi (plural of doulos) of the Christians. Christ took on the form of a doulos, as stated in Philippians 2:7. Paul designates himself as a doulos of Christ in Romans 1:1, Philippians 1:1, Galatians 1:10, and numerous other passages (1967, pp. 205-206). The term can describe a person who is obligated in some way, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, to another person. Due to this broad use, various translations have employed a wide range of words to render the meaning of doulos in English. Using Romans 1:1 as a case in point, the NKJV has “bondservant,” the New Living Translation has “slave,” the KJV and ASV have “servant,” and the Darby Bible has “bondman.”"

Thus spake Thomas. Or rather, thus spake Kyle Butt, M.A., whose article on "Defending The Bible's Position on Slavery" Thomas apparently cut and paste from the Apologetics Press. This article goes into even greater sophistic detail to defend the Bible against slavery, even suggesting that "biblical stance on slavery aligns itself with true justice."

This is, in a word, nonsense, but it is a good example of Christian apologetics: namely, the explaining away of difficult material to uphold a certain ideology. In this case, the New Testament must be talking about something short of inhumane slavery, because otherwise, we have to contend with the fact that its authors are reinforcing an institution that is anathema to modern sensibilities -- that is, quite frankly, morally repugnant.

Slavery in the ancient world was, indeed, different than it was in the antebellum South, primarily because slaves could be freed in large numbers, and in the Roman context, even go on to become citizens who could vote. They also could, as Thomas pointed out earlier in our debate, hold positions of prominence in their masters'  households, like clerking and tutoring children. But they did not have what the Romans called sui iuris, that is, they did not have a legal right of their own person. They were, of course, subject to their masters, including often sexually, and were subject to some cruel and seemingly arbitrary rules: when Greek slaves testified in court, for example, their testimony was not admissible unless gained under torture.

The Oxford Classical Dictionary, the English-language handbook on all matters from classical antiquity, begins its entry on slavery thus: "From Homer's claim that a man loses half his selfhood when 'the day of slavery' comes upon him (Il. 6.463) to Aristotle's doctrine of 'natural slavery' (Pol. bk. 1), Greek life and thought were inextricably bound up with the ideology and practice of human servitude ... and the language of slavery in the Greek New Testament was by no means a dead metaphor."

Just because Paul may speak of being a servant of Christ using this hierarchical metaphor does not change the nature of slavery in the ancient world nor those instances where actual slaves and actual masters are addressed in the New Testament. When the authors of Ephesians, Colossians, 1 Peter, and 1 Timothy wrote to Christians in the first and second centuries CE, they were writing to Gentile communities living in Greek cities in the Roman Empire. In this period, slavery is most definitely not confined merely to criminals or debtors. They could be captives from war, bought, sold, resold; they could be the children of slaves (who incidentally were legally the children only of their mothers -- the inversion of the typical patriarchal model is only one way their status was set apart and below that of free citizens). They were often "barbarians" in both the Greek and Roman periods, as both societies developed a preference for outsiders as slaves.

In the New Testament epistles, the writers clearly instruct slaves to obey their masters. In Ephesians, they are told to do so "with fear and trembling" (μετὰ φόβου καὶ τρόμου). In 1 Peter 2:18, the author addresses them as οἱ οἰκέται, another term that clearly means slaves, here household slaves, and here the author even goes so far as to say slaves should be obedient not only to those masters "who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh" (οὐ μόνον ἀγαθοῖς καὶ ἐπιεικέσιν ἀλλ ὰ καὶ τοῖς σκολιοῖς). 1 Timothy, meanwhile, makes it exceedingly explicit that we're talking about chattel slaves, using the typical ancient terminology for being made a slave, reminiscent of pack animals: those who are "under the yoke" (Ὅσοι εἰσὶν ὑπὸ ζυγὸν δοῦλοι).

As the OCD concludes: "At no time was there any serious questioning of the structural role of slavery in Graeco-Roman society," some mitigating attitudes in Stoicism and yes, the Apostle Paul, notwithstanding. In fact, "Christianity likewise displayed no interest in social change from which slaves might benefit, and the result of the Christian attitude symbolized by the repeated injunction that slaves should obey their masters 'with fear and trembling' (e.g. Eph. 6:5; Didache 4:11) -- a vigorous reaffirmation that slavery was an institution based essentially on violence -- was to make slavery even harsher in late antiquity than in earlier eras."

So you can try to come up with sophistic rationalizations non sola scriptura for why these verses in the Bible are telling slaves to obey their masters (obedience being the central aspect, after all, of the institution of slavery), and why the authors seem to not only condone slavery, but to go out of their way to ensure its place in a proper, hierarchical home. You can do all this even while telling the rest of us that we should not look outside the Bible when confronting issues like gender and sexuality but should instead rely only on the plain and straightforward meaning of the text. You can try to do that, but it's nakedly, intellectually dishonest.

Thomas' remarks illustrate the lengths to which, and the falsehoods to which, Christian apologists will often go to make the Bible say what they want it to say, or not say what they don't want it to say. They will turn the institution of slavery in the ancient world into something completely foreign to any textbook on antiquity in order to excuse the approval of slavery explicit in much of the New Testament.

And they will do this because the house of cards that is their ideological structure, the notion of Biblical "inerrancy" that demands adherence to whatever we might find in the Bible, crumbles if subjected to honest, historical scrutiny.


  1. Hi Don! Guess what? I'm stalking youuu! ;)

    They don't even recognize the harm they do to their own religion. This is very similar to the trendy VBS programs that promote "science," misusing scientific terms to "prove" that the Bible is factual. Only the ignorant buy into it; is that what they want, only stupid people for followers?

    It's no wonder that faith is often perceived as irrational. Such manifestations of faith ARE irrational, and they undermine the credibility of religion as a whole. Eventually, most Christians are exposed to rational thought, and in all too often it takes root. These pseudo-intellectual fundies are drawing unnecessary lines in the sand and forcing intelligent Christians to take sides. In far too many cases, the result is that the church loses some of its best minds.

    Christianity will become a very small cult if it continues to insist that its followers deny reality. Fortunately, in spite of The Church's best efforts to shoot itself in the foot, Christ's words keep finding new ears.

  2. Thanks for reading and commenting, Suz!
    I agree wholeheartedly. So many people I know have opted to simply leave the church because of this kind of nonsense. And I can't really blame them.

  3. It seems to me that many Christians have elevated the bible to a sort of idol. They mistakenly interpret John's statement about the word (logos) made flesh to mean that the bible is Jesus in print form. Then they feel free to push their interpretation of scripture as the "right belief", as discussed by Peter Rollins.

    Unfortunately, the many apologists who disregard scholarship in favor of their biblical ideology do so with a sense of "fear and trembling", afraid that any step outside their neatly defined dogma will render them unworthy in the day of judgement. To them, God is an angry deity ready to punish sin.

    In my last reading of the old testament, I finished many chapters with the question, "Did you really tell them to do that, or is this a case similar to Rick Perry's statement that you told him to run for president?"

    Biblical interpretation turned into "right belief" becomes law. The Law kills. Jesus gives life.

  4. "It seems to me that many Christians have elevated the bible to a sort of idol. "
    This. Exactly. They're worshiping the word as seen a typeset page, rather than The Word as seen through the stories on that page.

  5. Thank you for the great article, Don. Do you have a Facebook page for this blog?

  6. I do! Thanks for reading!