Jesus was a great reformer. In an age of extreme class division and status-consciousness, he identified with the poor and urged us to do the same. During a time when the Holy Land was occupied by a foreign power, he taught his countrymen how to maintain their dignity. When the religious leaders were corrupt, he called them to account.
So I find it puzzling that he never spoke a word against slavery, as far as we know.
If he was divine, he knew it would be nearly 2,000 years until most of the world would realize how immoral slavery is. He also knew that slave-owners would use the Old Testament to justify the practice. One clear word from him could have prevented the misery of millions. Why did he not speak it? (And it’s hard to believe that if the Bible is inspired, God would not have inspired at least one of the four gospel-writers to record Jesus’ words on so important a topic.)
It’s not as if there was no slavery around to speak against. Jesus often illustrated his points with stories about slaves and masters. Everybody was all too familiar with the concept, and it was as brutal as ever.
Slavery Was Brutal, and Jesus Knew It
Since Jesus never condemned slavery, we might hope that he thought of slavery in the relatively benign forms that are sometimes found in the Old Testament. Not so. When he spoke about the relationship between slaves and masters, he assumed that violence and abuse were the order of the day. Typical is Luke 12:47-48, where even a servant who doesn’t know what he ought to do gets beaten.
The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows.
That passage is part of a larger parable that is supposed to scare us into submission to God. Like a slave or servant, we will be physically harmed if we’re not good enough.
There are several parables like this in the gospels. Matthew 18:23-35 says we will be jailed and tortured. Matthew 25:14-30 says we will be cast into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Matthew 24:45-51 says we will be cut in pieces. All of these indicate how Jesus pictured masters treating their slaves.
Jesus held no illusions about slavery, yet did not decry the practice. In fact, in his parables, he cast God as a slave-owner!
[20-Nov-2016: Prompted by commenter Ray, I wish to add that even though Jesus did use the harsh master-slave language above, and even though the passages certainly refer to the relationship between God and humans, Jesus also described his relationship with his disciples in more tender terms. In John 15:15, he said, “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” The friendship seems to be a complicated one, however: Jesus is still in charge and there are dire-sounding consequences for disobedience (verse 6 of the same passage). Paul said that believers are adopted children, not slaves, and do not need to live in fear (Romans 8:15). I leave it to the reader to piece all this together. In the meantime, the passages I cited in this section do tell us that Jesus’ conception of slavery was one of brutality.]
The Golden Rule Evidently Did Not Apply to Slaves
[This section was revised on 14-Nov-2015 after an exchange with commenter “anonymous”. I encourage you to read anonymous’s comments starting here and here. Although he and I disagree, he is intelligent and well-versed (excuse the pun) in the scriptures, and the seeker of truth should consider all sides.]
One might say that when Jesus gave the Golden Rule (“love your neighbor as yourself,” or “do to others what you would have them do to you“) he implied that slavery was wrong. If we should treat others as we want them to treat us, that means we shouldn’t enslave them, right?
This is obvious to us in the 21st century, and had even become obvious to abolitionists by the 19th century, but let us remember that it wasn’t obvious to large swaths of “Founded as a Christian Nation” America for over 200 years. And it certainly wasn’t obvious in Bible times — the context of Jesus’ address.
To see why, remember that Jesus did not invent the Golden Rule. He was quoting it from verse 18 of the passage Leviticus 19:11-18, where the same principle, “love your neighbor as yourself” sums up the other commands in the passage, just as Jesus said that the Golden Rule sums up the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 7:12 and Matthew 22:36-40).
Jesus’ audience, well-versed in their scriptures, would have known that he was quoting from Leviticus, one of the “Five Books of Moses.” They would also have known that these books include Deuteronomy, which commands Israel to invade and enslave distant cities, and Exodus, which says that slaves are just “property” and may be beaten so severely that they can’t even get up for just shy of two days. Unless we are prepared to say that one book of the Pentateuch contradicts another, it’s hard to see how the Golden Rule in Leviticus overrides the slavery passages Deuteronomy and Exodus — at least not for Jesus’ audience.
For that matter, Leviticus itself grants Israel permission to buy foreign slaves. Would Jesus’ audience have thought Leviticus could contradict itself? Would Jesus? Would today’s Bible-believing Christians? I think not.
So, in the minds of Jesus’ audience, and possibly for Jesus himself, it would have been far from obvious that the Golden Rule outlawed slavery. In their minds, the two concepts had coexisted in the scriptures, presumably without contradiction, for centuries.
If Jesus had intended his statement of Leviticus 19:18 to override the slavery commands and regulations also found in the Five Books of Moses, surely he would have made that more obvious to an audience for whom those books were a central feature of spiritual life.
But in fact, Jesus’ explicit statements about the Hebrew scriptures were overwhelmingly supportive, as when he said, “…anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands [of the Law] and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:19).
At a minimum, we can say that if Jesus meant the Golden Rule as a command to abolish slavery, then millions of slaves in the next 1800 years would wish he had made his intent far more obvious.
Jesus Was a Reformer, But Not with Slavery
Might Jesus have thought it was not yet the time to speak against slavery? Was he afraid of upsetting the social order and bringing persecution on his followers?
On the contrary, Jesus did not hesitate to turn society upside-down. Sometimes he did so literally, as when he upset the tables of the money-changers in the temple (John 2:13-17). At other times, he made radical demands such as giving away all one’s money (Matthew 19:16-24). He did not hesitate to speak boldly to those in power (Matthew 23:13-36). Nor was he afraid of persecution, calling it a blessing (Matthew 5:10-12).
Jesus did not hesitate to speak his mind, yet he never condemned slavery. Clearly he either thought it was just fine or he didn’t care much about it one way or the other. Maybe he just took it for granted.
I am tempted to leave it at that. Even Jesus might have been a man of his times to a certain extent. He was a moral revolutionary, but abolishing slavery didn’t quite make it into his manifesto. If you are a Bible-believing Christian, however, I think you are forced into a much darker position.
An Even Darker Take
According to John 10:30, Jesus and God the Father are one. John 1:1-3, with verse 14 says that Jesus was with God from the beginning. In John 5:19, Jesus says that he does whatever God the Father does. Someone who takes these verses as Gospel Truth must believe some disturbing things:
- Jesus was present and nodding in approval when God gave the command to take 32,000 virgins as plunder in Numbers 31 (discussed in the last part of this post).
- Jesus was present and gave a hearty “Amen” when God commanded Moses to enslave distant cities.
- Jesus was present and gave his blessing for Moses’ soldiers to force their most beautiful captives into rape-marriages (discussed here).
No wonder he never spoke against slavery or its brutality in the New Testament. He had already encouraged it in the Old!
Eternally present and of one mind with his Father, he approved every genocide; every stoning of man, woman, child and animal; every burning-alive; every death sentence for a trivial offense; and, yes, every enslavement that God himself commanded. That may seem far-fetched. I don’t believe it myself. But I don’t see how a Bible-believer can deny it.
[Postscript on December 9, 2012] In the year+ since I published this post, it has proven to be one of the most-read on my blog. I suspect many readers are interested in the topic of slavery and the Bible generally, and land here through a search engine because what’s uppermost in their minds is what Jesus said about it. Although he didn’t say much, the Bible says quite a lot — most of it disturbing. Evangelical apologists, in turn, offer many rationales. To get the lay of the land, I invite you to begin with the Introduction to this series. There, I summarize all the arguments I’ve heard and provide links to my responses.