Thursday, March 29, 2012

Did St. Paul Endorse Slavery?

(Author's note: This post is in response to an entry on CNN's Belief Blog by John Blake, entitled "How religion has been used to promote slavery." -E.A.)

In the Wednesday evening Bible study last night (you should attend! Really! /end shameless plug), we discussed a great many issues around Scripture, but one that I distinctly remembering is making the argument that all of us, if we are Bible-believing Christians, still pick and choose, whether consciously or unconsciously--or, as it is more elegantly termed, creating a canon within a canon. In other words, we cling to some messages of the Bible instead of others.

I personally believe that a great deal of the New Testament's richness lies in its theological diversity (indeed, the same can be said for the entire Bible). Each of the four Gospel writers frames Jesus in a slightly (or, the case of John, dramatically) different way. Paul's theology is distinct from James, whose theology is distinct from John, whose theology is distinct from whoever wrote Hebrews. And if that isn't enough for you, there's always everyone's favorite apocalypse, Revelation.

But there are questions within the New Testament that seem to receive conflicting answers:

For instance, New Testament, how do I get judged as righteous by God?

"Because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." -Romans 10:9 (all Scripture quotes in this post are New Revised Standard)

"And the sea gave up the dead that were in it, Death and Hell gave up the dead that were in them, and all were judged according to what they had done." -Revelation 20:13

Or...New Testament, can women be leaders in the church?

"Women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says." -1 Corinthians 14:34

"I commend you to our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well." -Romans 16:1-2

I truly believe that it isn't enough to approach Scripture with a "The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it" mentality. We must struggle and wrestle with our faith for it to authentically become our own. And part of that is approaching Scripture with a reverent sense of discernment towards the inspired Word of God.

(For the record, I believe that women can be church leaders, and that we are judged on our deeds in addition to our faith. The latter is due in part to Roman Catholicism's influence on me in college and seminary, the former is a belief I have held for as long as I have been a Christian.)

Another such topic is slavery, and its role in Scripture. To be clear--the Belief Blog post I am referencing also tackles the issue in Jewish and Muslim tradition as well, and I do not make any claims of being qualified to dissect the issue of slavery in either tradition. I will be focusing here largely on Christian Scripture.

In any event, this is Mr. Blake's leadoff line:

"Which revered religious figure – Moses, Jesus, or the Prophet Muhammad – spoke out boldly and unambiguously against slavery?

Answer: None of them.

One of these men owned slaves, another created laws to regulate - but not ban - slavery. The third’s chief spokesman even ordered slaves to obey their masters, religious scholars say."

That last bit--"the third's chief spokesman" is referring to the Apostle Paul.

However, the consensus of many New Testament scholars (not a unanimous consensus, certainly, but a majority) agree that Paul likely did not himself write the four letters attributed to him that most explicitly condone slavery--Ephesians, Colossians, 1 Timothy, and Titus. Indeed, Mr. Blake later cites J.D. Crossan, a Bible scholar whom I, too, hold in high regard:

"Crossan, along with some other biblical scholars, says there are actually two versions of Paul in the New Testament: the authentic, “radical” Paul who opposed slavery and a “Pseudo-Paul” inserted into the texts by early church leaders who were afraid of antagonizing Rome"

This hypothesis is fully explored in Crossan's collaboration with fellow Jesus scholar Marcus Borg in their joint work The First Paul. In any case, though, at least the part about pseudo-Paul (or deutero-Paul), an anonymous author who wrote in Paul's name, is widely accepted today. I can't speak as to the motives of why pseudo-Paul was included, but I do agree with Crossan that the letters authentically written by Paul are actually fairly anti-slavery. The universally undisputed authentic Paul letters are generally believed to be:

-1 and 2 Corinthians
-1 Thessalonians (some folks include 2 Thessalonians; I personally am not sure either way.)

Colossians, Ephesians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus all are, to some degree or another, believed to have been written anonymously and attributed to Paul. Not coincidentally, that is where the bulk of the New Testament's pro-slavery sentiments are located (Colossians 3:22-24, Ephesians 5:5-9, 1 Timothy 6:1-2, and Titus 2:9-10, though it is worth noting that 1 Timothy 1:10 condemns slave trading--but not slavery itself). Indeed, the ONLY letter in that group that contains no pro-slavery sentiment is 2 Timothy.

Compare this record with these verses from authentic Paul-written texts:

"Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother--especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord." -Philemon 15-17

"You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of human masters." -1 Corinthians 7:23 (in fairness, 1 Cor 7:21, two verses earlier, is much more complicated--it tells slaves to make use of their present condition more than ever, but it also says to not be concerned about being enslaved. On balance, I think the passage is more anti-slavery than pro-slavery.)

"For in the one Spirit we are all baptized into one body--Jews or Greeks, slaves or free--and we were all made to drink of one Spirit." -1 Corinthians 12:13

"There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." -Galatians 3:28

I think, on balance, it is safe to say that Paul himself believed that his faith in Christ called him to an anti-slavery interpretation of life, but I certainly have had to pick and choose because of the many other letters attributed to Paul that endorse slavery. The basis for that picking and choosing was whether I believed the letters were actually written by Paul, or by an anonymous author writing in his name (a practice which may seem dishonorable to us today, but would not have seemed dishonorable back then).

Mr. Blake does make one other point that requires some treatment here--he writes:

"Jesus’ apparent silence on slavery and Paul’s ambiguous statements on the issue had dreadful historical consequences. It helped ensure that slavery would survive well into the 19th century in the U.S., some scholars say." (emphasis mine)

First and foremost, while I believe the authentic texts pertaining to Jesus and Paul (the Gospels and Paul's authentic letters) to be very pro-liberation and anti-slavery, it is important to recognize, with humility, that as much pride as I take in swaths of the American church being vehicles for the abolitionist movement of the 19th century and the civil rights movement of the 20th century, there were also segments of the American church that opposed both movements, and that this opposition did indeed create dreadful historical consequences.

However--I do not believe Jesus was entirely silent on the issue of slavery. In Luke 4, He chooses, for His inaugural sermon, a text from Isaiah 61 that reads, "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." (Luke 4:18-19)

Here, I think the overlaps are pretty obvious--release to the captives and the oppressed going free, both would apply directly to a state of slavery. And this is to say nothing of Jesus' numerous teachings against the accumulation of economic wealth, which, when you consider that the ancient Roman economy was a slave economy, was a condemnation of wealth gathered on the backs of slaves.

I realize that this was a more wonky, Bible-geek post than you may be used to from me, but it was one I think was well worth composing. I adamantly believe in Christianity as a vehicle and a source for equality, and that belief is rooted in what I believe are the authentic, Godly teachings of Jesus and Paul.

Yours in Christ,

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