Slavery in the New Testament, Part 1: Expect Liberation
The story goes that Martin Luther King Jr. used to carry around a copy of Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited everywhere he went. In that book, Thurman tells a story about his grandmother, who'd been a slave in the American South before the Emancipation. She would often have her young grandson read aloud to her from the Bible, mostly from the Gospels, sometimes from the Prophets, but never, said Thurman, from the New Testament Epistles.
Why? Because the Epistles contain verses that, on their face, suggest a blithe acceptance of slavery. For example, 1 Peter 2:18 states, “Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.” At least four other passages in the Epistles express a similar sentiment: Ephesians 6:5, Colossians 3:22, 1 Timothy 6:1, and Titus 2:9.
While such passages don’t endorse the institution of slavery (rather, they assume the existence of it and direct the behavior of slaves given that assumption), they also don’t condemn it, as any morally-aware person should. My guess is that Thurman’s grandmother once experienced these passages as bludgeons, notoriously used by white preachers and slave masters to keep Black slaves in line.
While most contemporary Christians would like to disown these verses, the hard fact is they remain part of the New Testament, sprinkled there like a virulent sneeze on a birthday cake. For any Christian who understands the New Testament as authoritative scripture, the challenge becomes how to situate them within the only acceptable view of slavery—that it’s a moral abomination.
Crucial Context: The Exodus
In later posts I’ll address more directly how to interpret the problem passages, but first it’s crucial to remember their wider biblical context, beginning with the Hebrew Bible. After all, Jesus, his early disciples, and most of the New Testament writers were Jews, and the Hebrew Bible was their scripture. We cannot read the New Testament apart from it.
On the topic of slavery, the most important story in the Hebrew Bible is, of course, that of the Exodus—God’s liberation of the Israelite people from 400 years of bondage in Egypt. Observant Jews view the Exodus as the event that formed them into a people: God heard their cries, freed them from slavery, and gave them their law (Torah) on Mount Sinai. The annual festival of Passover commemorates this foundational event.
(Incidentally, the Hebrew Bible also contains its own set of problem passages pertaining to slavery. While I won’t focus on them in this series, I will suggest that we can think of them in the same way as we think of the problem passages in the New Testament.)
Jesus: New Moses
The Exodus story is also foundational for Christians. This is so not merely because it is part of the Hebrew Bible—which is also Christian scripture—but because the New Testament portrays Jesus as a “new Moses” effecting a “new Exodus.”
For example, the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) famously portrays Jesus teaching a “new” law (or, more accurately, his interpretation of Torah) from the top of a mountain, just as Moses received Torah on a mountain. Similarly, Jesus miraculously multiplies loaves to feed a crowd in the desert (Matthew 14:13-21 and especially John 6), just as Moses called down manna to feed the Israelites in the desert.
The New Testament portrays the crucifixion as a new Passover in which Jesus is the sacrificial lamb. The Last Supper is, of course, a Passover meal that Jesus celebrates with his disciples. During that meal, Jesus compares the bread and wine his disciples eat to his body and blood (e.g., Luke 22:7-20), implying that he will be for them a kind of Passover sacrifice. In the Gospel of John, John the Baptist calls Jesus “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), again alluding to the Passover lamb.
By identifying Jesus as the new Moses and new Passover lamb, the Gospel writers set up the crucifixion as marking a new Exodus. Paul picks up this idea in Romans 6:3-6:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death...We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin.
The idea, here, is that through baptism followers of Jesus reenact the crucifixion, which liberates them from slavery to sin, just as the sacrifice of the first Passover lambs marked the liberation of Israel from slavery in Egypt. Paul implicitly portrays Jesus’s crucifixion as a new Passover, part of a new Exodus, albeit a “spiritualized” Exodus that frees from slavery to sin.
Jesus’s Programmatic Sermon
In Luke 4:14-21, Jesus picks up a similar theme of liberation in what New Testament scholars often call his “Programmatic Sermon.” According to Luke’s narrative, immediately after his baptism in the Jordan Jesus spends forty days in the desert—yet another allusion to Israel’s Exodus journey and Jesus’s role as new Moses—and returns to Galilee where he begins teaching. In the synagogue at Nazareth, he stands up, all eyes fixed on him, and reads from the prophet Isaiah (61:1-2):
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
After reading, he says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Because of where the event happens in the narrative, at the very beginning of Jesus’s public activity, scholars think Luke’s point is that these verses from Isaiah pinpoint the program of Jesus’s imminent ministry. If so, the liberation of “captive” and “oppressed” people, such as slaves, is the heart of Jesus’s mission. He bills himself as God’s agent, empowered to break chains.
Conclusion: Expect Liberation
The passages I examined here set a tone for Jesus’s ministry. As the new Moses effecting a new Exodus, we should expect liberation from slavery—both physical and spiritual—to be at the top of Jesus’s agenda, and to feature prominently in the remainder of the New Testament. And, in fact, this is what we see, though the emphasis tends to be on liberation from spiritual bondage rather than physical.
When we finally address the problematic passages in the Epistles, it will be important to read them in the context of this overarching theme of liberation. In the next post in this series, I’ll address some passages in the Epistles that show a bent toward freedom from physical slavery, creating tension with the problem passages.