Slavery and the New Testament

A classic example of how different Christians have used the Bible to talk about social justice and ethics is the issue of slavery. Abolitionists in the American nineteenth century insisted that, read correctly, the Bible did not support the institution of slavery. On the other hand, conservative southern Christians read the Bible and especially the New Testament to say that, no the Bible supports the institution of slavery, it supports the treating of slaves with care and with concern and even with love, but still it did not challenge the basic institution of slavery.

Now many scholars have argued in the last several years, and I’m in agreement, that when it comes to the historical, critical reading of the New Testament—that is: what did this text mean in its ancient context?—I believe that the New Testament authors assumed that the institution of slavery was simply part of nature and part of life and they never advocated the abolition of the institution of slavery.  

So, therefore, it was actually the abolitionists in the nineteenth century who had the harder task because a more natural reading of the New Testament would imply that Paul never questioned the very institution of slavery, nor certainly did other disciples writing in his name—that is those disciples who wrote Colossians and Ephesians and First and Second Timothy and Titus. I don’t believe Paul wrote any of those letters; and I believe the disciples who wrote them even went further beyond Paul to strengthen the institution of slavery in the ancient Christian household, just as much as anybody else.

With Paul’s letter to Philemon, historians, scholars, are actually quite divided about what Paul is actually asking from Philemon. Paul never says outright in the letter “I want you to free him.” Paul may be asking that Onesimus be sent back to Paul, that seems to be one thing he’s asking, but that doesn’t tell us that Paul intends to have Onesimus freed. There’s one place that people who believe Paul was hinting that Philemon ought to free Onesimus is when it says, “Receive him no longer as a slave but as a brother.” But, that’s just a hint, if anything. If Paul really wanted Philemon to free Onesimus he could have said so, and he doesn’t say so explicitly. So I think the court is still out about what Paul is asking Philemon to do; I don’t t
think we know from the letter itself whether Paul is urging the freeing of Onesimus or whether he’s simply urging that Philemon accept Onesimus back without punishing him. 

Another place where Paul says confusing things about slavery is in 1Cor 7 when he addresses the slave and he says, “If you are a slave, if you have the opportunity, use it.” and some scholars say this means Paul is suggesting that the slave try to become free if he has the chance. But other scholars just as confidently insist that Paul is saying, “Use your own slavery as a way to glorify God.” The Greek is simply too short and unclear to be certain what Paul is actually saying there, which is precisely why very reputable, well-educated, well-intentioned scholars line up on opposite sides of that question.

There again, that’s a lesson for us, we cannot use simply historical criticism to use the Bible ethically. We have to think about it theologically more than just historically; and then we make the argument from love that we cannot ourselves imagine the institution of slavery being supported by a Christian ethic of love of neighbor.


  • martin-dale

    Professor, Yale University

    Dale Martin is the Woolsey Professor of Religious Studies at Yale University. He specializes in New Testament and Christian origins, including attention to social and cultural history of the Greco-Roman world. His books include: Slavery as Salvation: The Metaphor of Slavery in Pauline Christianity; The Corinthian Body; and Pedagogy of the Bible: an Analysis and Proposal. He currently is working on issues in biblical interpretation, social history and religion in the Greco-Roman world, and sexual ethics. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.