Slavery and Bible

The Problem of Hearsay Hermeneutics

The history of biblical interpretation spans well over 2,000 years. Some theologians begin their accounting of said history in the second century BC with pre-rabbinic Jewish interpretation, while others mark the production of the Septuagint—the Greek translation of the Hebrew bible—as the starting point of biblical interpretation. As important as these historical markers may be, perhaps the earliest instances of biblical interpretation are to be found within the pages of Scripture itself. For example, the book of Nehemiah records Ezra the scribe in the fifth century BC, along with several other levitical priests, interpreting and explaining the book of the Law (Torah) to the previously exiled Israelites (see Neh. 8:1-12).[1] The process was an arduous one, lasting, according to the text, “from morning until midday.” Nevertheless, the Word of God, and its correct interpretation, was central to both the communal and individual lives of God’s people.

Just as it was then, so it is now—particularly for evangelicals. Today, millions of sincere, Bible-believing Christians undertake the task of biblical interpretation as requisite for a faithful, God-glorifying life.

However, interpretation of the Scriptures is not without its challenges. One set of authors on biblical interpretation parse these challenges in terms of distance. Firstly, there is the distance of time between the ancient text and the modern world. Secondly, there is a cultural distance where the foreignness of ancient customs proves, at times, mind-boggling if not outright mystifying. Thirdly, there is geographical distance as the actual locations of biblical events more often than not lie outside the firsthand geographical experience of many Bible readers. And fourthly, there is the distance of language as the biblical authors composed the original autographs in the languages of their day—Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.[2]

While such obstacles may prove challenging, they are not insurmountable. To face these challenges, Christians turn to hermeneutics, the art and science of interpretation. For evangelicals, the concept of biblical hermeneutics is grounded in a certain set of convictions about the Bible, namely, that the Bible is the authoritative Word of God, and that it ought to be interpreted literally, in its historical and grammatical context. Noteworthy, hermeneutics is not new or foreign to the human experience. People practice principles of hermeneutics every day. As a matter of fact, we’ve all been students and practitioners of hermeneutical principles all of our lives.

Still, Christians are not left to themselves in silos of individuality to attempt biblical interpretation. Arguably, the normative practice prescribed in the New Testament, as seen in the first few centuries of the Christian church and certainly concretized in the Reformation, envisions Christians in regularly gathering communities with other Christians of like conviction. In such communities, a right interpretation of the Bible is committed to in both word and deed. This is the context where, for millions of Christians, the practice of biblical hermeneutics takes place.

Today, however, there is another hermeneutic on the rise. Its place of practice is the public square, where its conclusions are popularized, politicized, and wielded to influence public opinion about both the Bible in particular, and the aforementioned evangelical communities in general. I am not referring to the interpretive methodologies of historical criticism or any other paradigm of hermeneutics germane to the school of higher criticism (though the question of their validity is worth an ongoing conversation). Instead, what I am referring to is a hermeneutic which I have come to call hearsay.

By hearsay hermeneutics I mean a secondhand interpretation of the Bible that feigns an actual, legitimate interpretive process and, instead, moves to proffer an erroneous conclusion—all for the purpose of undermining the tenability of biblical authority. It is secondhand in the sense that, usually, the one making the claim has merely adopted said claim from the mouth of another. The claim is asserted in such a way that suggests the completion of an actual interpretive process, though no such process has been undertaken.[3] Regarding erroneous conclusions, let me offer an example:

“We all know that the Bible promotes slavery, therefore…”

By now, we all have heard someone either on a news network or in conversation in the public square make this statement—presuming both veracity and universality. The statement is made in order to relegate the Bible to antiquated irrelevance. But, is it actually true? The answer is more complex than the sound bite level assertion suggests.

First, it is important to recognize that this conclusion plays on the history of race relations in the Americas. Meaning, when someone hears this statement the immediate mental referent that is conjured is the horrid, transatlantic slave trade of the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries. However, the Bible did not support the transatlantic slave trade. It is a known fact, however, that the Bible was unconscionably used in support of the slave trade. It is also often noted—and rightly so—that the supporters of the slave trade held to the same convictions about the Bible that I previously argued for. The argument against biblical authority, therefore, usually contends that to yet hold to the authority of the Bible is to align oneself with the racist, hegemonic, and oppressive European tradition that initiated the institution of slavery. As Anthony Bradley notes, this argument does not follow: “The objection, rather, should fall on individual abusers or traditions rather than on the hermeneutical principles as a whole. The principles themselves [inerrancy, infallibility, and authority of the Bible] were not responsible for odious misuses of scripture.”[4] Interestingly, neither I nor Bradley can claim to be the first to make this assessment. In 1859, Frederick Douglass employed the same argumentation:

What do you do when you are told by the slaveholders of America that the Bible sanctions slavery? Do you go and throw your Bible into the fire? Do you sing out, “No Union with the Bible!”? Do you declare that a thing is bad because it has been misused, abused, and a made a bad use of? Do you throw it away on that account? No! You press it to your bosom all the more closely; you read it all the more diligently; and prove from its pages that it is on the side of liberty—and not on the side of slavery.[5]

In light of Douglass’s charge, persons desirous of investigating this subject must give serious attention to what the Bible actually teaches. The claim of the Bible’s disapproval of the transatlantic slave trade and chattel slavery can be substantiated on biblical grounds. For starters, chattel slaves had no rights, not even a claim to personhood. Chattel slaves were mere property, and the owners were not accountable in any way for their treatment of slaves. When we turn to the biblical data we find the death penalty enacted under the Mosaic Law for the capture of individuals with the intention of selling or enslaving them (see Exod. 21:16, Deut. 24:7). The same practice of enslaving is also condemned as sin in the New Testament (see 1 Tim. 1:9). Moreover, murdering a slave under the Mosaic Law incurred the death penalty (see (Exod. 21:20).[6] Any foreign slave who escaped was not to be forced to return to his or her master, and a Hebrew slave was to be set free after six years and given material support (see Deut. 23:15-26, Exod. 21:2, and Deut. 15:14).[7]

God did allow different types of slavery in the Bible, but not without much provision and protection for the slaves. One might object to this notion of protection by stating that the Bible (Exod. 21:20-21) condoned the beating of slaves. However, the particular verses referenced do not condone the beating of slaves, but rather state the punishment for beating slaves to death. If the slave is beaten to death, as stated above, the death penalty would be incurred by the slave owner. If the slave was beaten, but soon recovered, the actual loss incurred during the recovery was the slave owner’s punishment. In other words, the owner stupidly punished himself. To suggest that these verses condone the beating of slaves is an argument from silence as the text does not address the beating of slaves in general. Moreover, it could be argued that the implication of the text actually suggests that the beating of slaves ought not take place, and that slaves were not to be treated cruelly.

In the ancient Near East, nations warred one with the other, and, unlike our welfare system today, the socioeconomic realities did not contain much provision for the poor.[8] Thus, foreigners of defeated nations were allowed to be taken as slaves. And, yes, the women also could be taken as wives. The historical context is undoubtedly important, but a proper understanding necessitates that we also give attention to the overarching theological context in which God at that time, by way of theocratic agency, used the nation of Israel as his agent of divine judgment.

Though perhaps inconceivable today, under the Law of Moses a poor man could voluntarily sell himself into slavery in order to guarantee provisions for himself and his family. Moreover, a debtor could sell himself into slavery to the one he owed, or to a person with means who agreed to cover the debt. In other words, Hebrews would indenture themselves in the servitude of another Hebrew.

In the New Testament, grounded in the person and work of Christ and expanding upon Christ’s use of slavery as a metaphor, Paul’s gospel language—in the words of one theologian—was like a time bomb set down beside the institution of slavery (see Eph. 6:9, Philem. v. 8-10, 14-17, and especially 21). His command that slaves obey their masters (Eph. 6:5) must be understood within the aforementioned gospel framework. If the slave owners—who were presumably Christians—were truly obedient to the charge given them (Eph. 6:9), the slave/slave owner relationship would have become a reflection of what we call an employee/employer relationship.[9]

Lastly, to the objection that the Bible, and specifically Christ himself, does not overtly condemn slavery, a major biblical theme should be noted—redemption. The eternal Son of God condemned slavery in all of its manifestations by becoming a slave and bearing the weight and guilt of the bondage of sin, so that all of those who would ever believe might be set free and become sons of God.

Why This Matters

There is much conversation going on in the public square about Christianity, and for this I am thankful. Christians have been called not to disengage from the public square, but to engage with intentionality, always prepared to give a defense for the hope that is in Jesus Christ.

However, in order for a truly constructive conversation to take place, it must be had on fair terms. In this instance, given that God’s Word often serves as the central interlocutor in said conversations, the task of biblical hermeneutics becomes paramount.

This is the humble admonishment offered to both the non-Christian and professed Christian alike who might disagree on a variety of biblical interpretations: hearsay hermeneutics must not be allowed to be the reigning hermeneutical paradigm of the day. Unfortunately, we see its prevalence in the public square among those intent on undermining either the notion of biblical authority altogether, or particular interpretations held by evangelical Christians. Its rise is due, in part, to the forfeiting of substantive dialogue in favor of sound bites and slogans. More causal, however, is the increasing cultural commitment to a worldview in conflict with biblical standards.

Here are a few observations about those who subscribe to a hermeneutic of hearsay:

    • They tend to presume that the Bible is errant and untrustworthy.

    • They tend to deny the divine inspiration and perspicuity of the Bible.

    • They tend to take Bible passages out of context.

    • They tend to be disinterested in biblical interpretation.

    • They tend to misunderstand the gospel message.

When in conversation about the Bible we must strive to do the sometimes difficult work of prefacing our statements with thought, and our thoughts with substantive, well-researched information. In short, we must give biblical interpretation its due.

In the history of this country, perhaps now more than ever, too much is at stake—above all being the answer to the question asked long ago by the secular state in the person of Pontius Pilate, still being asked today: “What is truth?”

Steven Harris

[1] Interestingly, preceding the interpretation and explanation of the Law may have been translation for Aramaic speakers.

[2] William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard, Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1993), 13-17.

[3] Grant Osborne suggests that a sufficient process of interpretation consists of ten stages. See, Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006). Andreas Kostenberger and Richard Patterson distill these stages into a triad of history, literature and theology. See, Andreas J. Kostenberger and Richard D. Patterson, Invitation to Biblical Interpretation: Exploring the Hermeneutical Triad of History, Literature, and Theology (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic & Professional, 2011).

[4] Anthony Bradley, Liberating Black Theology: The Bible and the Black Experience in America (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 129.

[5] Frederick Douglass, Speech in New York, New York, 12 May 1859, in Blassingame, Frederick Douglass Papers, 258. Quoted in J. Albert Harrill, Slaves in the New Testament: Literary, Social, and Moral Dimensions (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), 177-178.

[6] The Hebrew word here is the verb naqam meaning “to avenge.” This word signifies the lex talionis law of retribution of equivalence. No other ANE society possessed such a law regarding slaves.

[7] For more on such laws relating to the legal rights of slaves in the Old Testament, read Exodus 21 and Leviticus 25 in their entirety.

[8] Admittedly, a critique of the current U.S. welfare state could be made here, but such is not the purpose of this essay.

[9] The fact that this was left unrealized for so long in this country is to the shame of those who advanced the institution of slavery under the banner of biblical Christianity.