Using the Bible to justify slavery.
Slavery in the Bible and early Christianity.
How the Bible was used to justify slavery:
The Christian church's main justification of the concept of slavery is based on Genesis 9:25-27. According to the Bible, the worldwide
flood had concluded and there were only 8 humans alive on earth: Noah, his wife, their six sons and daughters in law. Noah's son Ham had
seen "the nakedness of his father." So, Noah laid a curse -- not on Ham, who was guilty of some type of indiscretion.
The sin was transferred to Noah's grandson Canaan. Such transference of sin from a guilty to an innocent person or persons is
unusual in the world's religious and secular moral codes. It is normally
considered highly unethical. However, it appears in many biblical passages. The curse extended to all of Canaan's descendants:
||Genesis 9:25-27: "Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers. He also said, 'Blessed be the Lord,
the God of Shem! May Canaan be the slave of Shem. May God extend the territory of Japheth; may Japeth
live in the tents of Shem and may Canaan be his slave'. "
Christians traditionally believed that Canaan had settled in Africa. The
dark skin of Africans became associated with this "curse of Ham." Thus
slavery of Africans became religiously justifiable. Author Anthony Pagden wrote:
"This reading of the Book of Genesis merged easily into a
medieval iconographic tradition in which devils were always depicted as
black. Later pseudo-scientific theories would be built around African
skull shapes, dental structure, and body postures, in an attempt to find
an unassailable argument--rooted in whatever the most persuasive
contemporary idiom happened to be: law, theology, genealogy, or natural
science -- why one part of the human race should live in perpetual
indebtedness to another." 1
By today's secular and religious standards:
||slavery is immoral.
||cursing all of an individual's descendents into perpetual slavery because of an inappropriate act
by an ancestor is immoral.
||laying a curse on the son of the person who committed the act is immoral.
But in ancient times, cursing a whole race into slavery was
considered acceptable because it was in the Bible. The American slave
owner felt that he was carrying out God's plan by buying and using
Slavery was also condoned and regulated in many passages of the in the
Bible. There is no record of Jesus having commented on it. Paul had every
opportunity to condemn slavery, particularly in his Epistle to Philemon.
But he remained silent, except to urge slaves to be content with their lot
and to obey their owners. More on slavery in the Bible.
Slavery was sanctioned and carefully regulated by many
passages in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) largely in the Pentateuch - its first 5 books. Although slavery was widespread in
Palestine during Jesus' ministry, he is not recorded as having expressed any opinion on
it. Slavery was casually mentioned without criticism in the various books of the Christian Scriptures (New Testament). The authors
appeared to accept slavery as a natural condition -- as a universal institution
that was not particularly immoral.
Slavery in the early Christian movement:
Many of the early Christians were slaves. They were treated as equals
within the church. Perhaps because of their close contacts with slaves, the early Christian movement appears to have
slavery as an immoral institution:
||30 to 330 CE: Many of the early Church
fathers promoted the abolition of slavery:
||The Christians in Asia Minor "decried the lawfulness of it,
denounced slaveholding as a sin, a violation of the law of nature and
religion. They gave fugitive slaves asylum, and openly offered them
||According to a 19th century author Edward C. Rodgers: 3
||Maximum preached and wrote against it. 4
||Those who entered upon a religious life gave freedom to their
||Theodorus Studita gave particular directions, "not to employ
those beings, created in the image of God, as slaves." 6
||Polycarp [69 - 155 CE] and Ignatius of Antioch [circa 50 - circa
10 CE] manumitted their slaves on realizing the equality of the Christian law.
||Emperor Constantine [306 - 337 CE] gave authority to the bishops to manumit slaves, and, as Emperor, granted Roman citizenship
to many of those set free. 7
||Another 19th century author, August Neander wrote that the
early oriental Christians
"...declared themselves opposed to the whole relation
of slavery as repugnant to the dignity of the image of God in
all men." 8
||Circa 340 CE: Manichean Christians had been inciting slaves of the
Roman Empire to take charge of their destiny and emancipate themselves. (Manichaeism was a
widespread Christian heresy based upon the teachings of a 3rd century Persian philosopher, Mani.) In
response, the Christian Council of Gangra issued a statement supporting slavery:
"If anyone, on the pretext of religion, teaches another man's slave to despise
his master and to withdraw from his service, and not serve his master with good will and
all respect, let him be anathema." 9
resolution became part of the Catholic church's canon law concerning
slavery and was quoted as an authoritative source until the middle of the
||4th Century CE: Gregory of Nyssa (circa 335 to after 394)
was the Christian bishop of Nyssa in Cappadocia -- now part of Turkey.
He was also a theologian, and argued in favor of the Trinity and the
infinity of God. He is recognized as a saint. In his Commentary on
Ecclesiastes he criticized slavery:
"As for the person who
appropriates to himself ... what belongs to God and
attributes to himself power over the human race as if he were its
lord, what other arrogant statement transgressing human nature makes
this person regard himself as different from those over whom he
rules? 'I obtained servants and maidens.' What are you saying? You
condemn man who is free and autonomous to servitude, and you
contradict God by perverting the natural law. Man, who was created
as lord over the earth, you have put under the yoke of servitude as
a transgressor and rebel against the divine precept. You have
forgotten the limit of your authority which consists in jurisdiction
over brutish animals. Scripture says that man shall rule birds,
beasts, fish, four-footed animals and reptiles [Genesis 1.26]. How
can you transgress the servitude bestowed upon you and raise
yourself against man's freedom by stripping yourself of the
servitude proper to beasts? 'You have subjected all things to man,'
the psalmist prophetically cries out [Pslams 8.7-8], referring to
those subject to reason as 'sheep, oxen, and cattle'."
"Do sheep and oxen beget men for you? Irrational beasts have only
one kind of servitude. Do these form a paltry sum for you? 'He makes
grass grow for the cattle and green herbs for the service of men'
[Psalms 103.14]. But once you have freed yourself from servitude and
bondage, you desire to have others serve you. 'I have obtained
servants and maidens.' What value is this, I ask? What merit do you
see in their nature? What small worth have you bestowed upon them?
What payment do you exchange for your nature which God has
fashioned? God has said, 'Let us make man according to our image and
likeness' [Gen 1.26]. Since we are made according to God's likeness
and are appointed to rule over the entire earth, tell me, who is the
person who sells and buys? Only God can do this; however, it does
not pertain to him at all 'for the gifts of God are irrevocable'
[Romans 11.29]. Because God called human nature to freedom which had
become addicted to sin, he would not subject it to servitude again.
If God did not subject freedom to slavery, who can deny his
lordship? How does the ruler of the entire earth obtain dominion ... since every possession requires payment? How
can we properly estimate the earth in its entirety as well as its
contents? If these things are inestimable, tell me, how much greater
is man's value who is over them? If you mention the entire world you
discover nothing equivalent to man's honor. He who knows human
nature says that the world is not an adequate exchange for man's
Related essays on this site:
- Anthony Pagden, "The Slave Trade, Review of Hugh Thomas' Story of
the Atlantic Slave Trade," The New Republic, 1997-DEC-22, as quoted
in Ref. 21.
- John Fletcher, "Lessons on Slavery," J. Warner, (1852).
- Edward C. Rogers, "Slavery illegality in all ages and nations,"
(1955). Online at: http://medicolegal.tripod.com/
- Maximus Exposit Dom. I., f. 356. Reprinted in August Neander, "The History
of the Christian Religion and Church During the Three First Centuries," Rivington, (1841).
- Actis Sanct. Apr. T. I, append, f. 47, § 8.
- Ibid. L. I., ep. 10. See Leander.
- Sozomen, l. 1, c. 9.—Cod. Theod., 1. 1., c. De nis qui in eccl. manumit
- Neander, "History of the Christian Religion and Church," V. 3, Page
- M. Fiedler & L. Rabben, Ed., "Rome has spoken...A guide to forgotten Papal
statements and how they have changed through the centuries," Crossroad, (1998)
- Gregory of Nyssa, "Commentary on Ecclesiastes," The Gregory of Nyssa
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Latest update: 2007-AUG-24
Author: B.A. Robinson