The Bible and Slavery (#BustingBiblicalMyths)

The bible doesn't support human slavery

“When the Missionaries arrived, the Africans had the Land and the Missionaries had the Bible. They taught us how to pray with our eyes closed. When we opened them, they had the land and we had the Bible.” This witty quote very much encapsulates the perception people have about the role of Christianity in the Transatlantic Slave trade. The Transatlantic slave trade alone, saw some 10 million Africans transported to the Americas between the 1400s and 1800s. According to many, the Bible motivated the slave masters to brutally rob Africa of its vital and vibrant human resource. How true is this?

We must first establish the fact that the issue of slavery is quite complex. The characteristics of slavery is so complicated that it is almost impossible (and largely erroneous) to provide a generalized definition of the term. That makes perfect sense considering the fact that child labor, indentured service, chattel slavery, forced labour, sex trafficking, apprenticeship-internship etc. were all commonly referred to as ‘slavery’ during biblical times. Since the mention of slavery brings to the table several forms of servitude, this discussion will employ terminologies to help identify the form of servitude being spoken of at each point in time.

It is very sad that people blame the New World chattel slavery (slaves were treated as actual property, had no legal protection and no means to attain liberty) on Christianity when the traditional leaders of the land exchanged their own people for manufactured goods, weapons, sugar, mirrors,whiskey etc. How do you bypass this fact to blame the Transatlantic Slave trade on the supposed ‘tool’ the oppressor used? Slavery is against the human rights of human beings. The world has come a long way in the fight for human rights. Is it not ironic that Christianity played a major role in the abolishment of the New World chattel slavery especially in the U.S? Even long after the New World chattel slavery was abolished, the black civil rights movement was also spearheaded by people like Dr. Martin Luther King. And although many forget this fact, he was a reverend minister. A house divided against itself shall not stand. If the bible indeed promotes such form of brutality, how come Christians made major contributions to its abolishment all over the world?

The Old Testament alone contains many alarming instances of slavery that open our eyes to how widespread and lucrative it was in those days. Remember the story of Elisha and the wife of the prophet… the prophet who left his wife at the mercy of his creditor when he died? One of the things the creditor told her was that, either she paid up all the money her husband owed him before his death or risk having her sons sold into slavery. This compelled the widow to contact the prophet Elisha for help. Again, this scenario tells us that slavery was very widespread and lucrative then. It was perhaps very common too; it appears one could easily have contact with slavers. I made this inference from the manner in which Joseph’s brothers sold him to slave-merchants who later sold him into slavery in Egypt. Speaking of Egypt, I can tell that Egypt was probably one of the ancient hubs of the slave trade. Remember how the Egyptians enslaved the children of Israel for about 430 years? The unfortunate thing is, many people tend to disassociate Egypt from Africa. No, Egypt is very much an African country. And historical accounts show that some other African countries had slaves from other continents too.

Indeed some of the most heinous crimes ever reported in human history are said to have been motivated by some approval culprits discovered in the bible. This includes the New World chattel slavery. It is very alarming, considering the level of damage the Slave Trade has done to Africa as a continent. But none of it is true. The bible doesn’t tell Christians to go about enslaving anybody they can overpower. Enslaving defeated foes was almost like the winning prize of a war. Considering the number of wars in the bible, I believe that gives you a fair idea of how many instances of slavery there are in the bible. Slavery was a form of punishment in the bible too. Anytime the Israelites rebelled against God or reverted to idol worship, God allowed their enemies to defeat them in a war and capture them. This scenario recurs so many times in the Old Testament that one would wonder if the Israelites didn’t ever learn from their past mistakes and that of their forefathers.

Obviously the Israelites must have had slaves too. As stated already, slaves are amongst the ‘spoils’ soldiers brought back home from wars. The issue here is what the bible says about how the children of God should treat slaves. One of Paul’s unconventional epistles in the bible is the book of Philemon. We see Paul use a more soft and apologetic tone in this epistle. This is even more stunning considering the fact that Paul was talking to someone he has authority over. He states it clearly that he could compel Philemon to do as he says, but out of love he would rather appeal to his conscience to do the right thing. All this was in connection with Philemon’s slave,Onesimus. Onesimus had wronged Philemon and had left to be with Paul. It appears his departure is what caused the rift between him and his master as it must have been that he ran away. Paul had worked closely with Onesimus and had great love for him. The former slave was now a staunch Christian. Paul was sending him back to his former master and required Philemon to treat him like a brother in Christ and not a slave. He could have imposed this initiative on Philemon but chose to make an appeal out of love. Here, we see Paul making a great contribution to the liberation of a slave.

In the New Testament, Christian ‘slave masters’ are admonished to treat their slaves like brothers and Christian slaves are admonished to honour their masters no matter how mean they are to them. This is where the contention is. It appears by admonishing slave masters to deal with their slaves kindly, the issue of slavery hasn’t been dealt with at its roots. As stated earlier, several forms of slavery did occur in biblical times. In Timothy 6 for instance, Paul made reference to economic-based slavery (known as ‘indentured service’) where people offered themselves as slaves to work for other families in order to survive or pay off a debt. God regulated this form of servitude by establishing a set of strict laws to protect men and women (be it Hebrew or Gentile) from any form of cruel treatment by their masters. God’s Law for example:

  • Forbade masters from running big interest charges on servant’s loans (Leviticus 25:35-38)
  • Provided marriage rights (Exodus 21:4,10-11)
  • Physical protection rights ( Deuteronomy 10:19; 24:14, Leviticus 19:34, Exodus 21:26-27, Leviticus 25:39-41)
  • Provided freedom rights (Deuteronomy 15:1;12, 23:15)

NB: Most of the laws of the Ancient Near East gave room for chattel slavery as the laws provided very little or no protection at all for the slaves. God’s Law on the other hand offered protection for slaves in Israel at that time amidst harsh conditions faced by their counterparts elsewhere.

It’s of no surprise then that some slaves rather preferred to stay behind looking at the great benefits that came along with working in their master’s home. Most of them for instance had access to formal education and also had the opportunity to learn a trade like carpentry and medicine. There was the sense of belonging to a family unlike chattel slavery that equated one to nothing more than a piece of furniture. ‘To fire a bullet into a slave was like firing a bullet into a pumpkin, not like firing a bullet into a human.’, as one researcher described the plight of chattel slaves. It’s sad that many feel God’s Law made provisions for chattel slavery when in the actual fact, God’s laws prohibited any form of servant mistreatment (check scriptural references above). In the Bible, kidnapping people and making them slaves against their will was very clear: it was a crime punishable by death! (Exodus 21:16). Paul actually emphasized God’s disapproval of this kind of slave trading in his letter here. What Paul is doing over here is harking to Old Testament ethic and condemning chattel slavery alongside heinous acts like lying, murder and sodomy. Several forms of master-servant relationship existed under God’s Law BUT nowhere in scripture did it ever endorse a dehumanizing relationship such as New World chattel slavery. Yet skeptics will somehow manage to read a portion of scripture and criticize it for supporting such brutality while the entire Bible, in its rightful context, makes plain God’s disapproval of any deplorable acts of cruelty and injustice.

Anyway, with respect to warning Christian slave masters to treat their slaves kindly, there’s a potential problem we need to bring to light over here. There’s almost always the tendency for one to abuse his or her newfound freedom. This is nothing new. Just as many of the women at that time misunderstood their newfound freedom in Christ (referring to gender equality), it was very likely some slaves had also began to overstep their boundaries by disobeying their masters. Some probably got complacent, seeing no need to either work hard or show respect to their masters–someone they were now equal with. Well, too bad because Christianity came not to extinguish social positions BUT rather to make them completely irrelevant to accepting the new life in Christ. This is how Christianity differed from the Greco-Roman culture in that the latter placed much emphasis on one’s status based on one’s family or wealth. In God’s family, both the Jew and Greek, Circumcised and Uncircumcised, Male and Female, Barbarian and Scythian, as well as the slave and free are all in a common relationship with Christ Jesus. One group has absolutely no basis to undervalue another group because there’s no such thing as superiority/inferiority. The slave master in this case isn’t better than his servant because he himself is also a slave to the True Master in Heaven! This is why Slave masters were being admonished to treat their servants with utmost respect and dignity as a means to exemplify the approved relationship between those who were in a similar position. After all, each servant bore the image of Christ and as such deserved to be treated as God’s beloved.

Though the Bible is against practices that abuse and dehumanize a human being, many still feel the New Testament writers should have outlawed all forms of slavery altogether. If you’ve been following closely, you’ll agree that annulling the morally permissible, economic-based slavery would’ve done more harm than good to impoverished families. In the sense that this was the only means by which they could fend for themselves. Moreover, about 40% of the Roman population comprised slaves; most of which were young children but some were adults. Paul really understood the times he was living in knowing very well the social catastrophe he would have caused had he managed to persuade the Roman government to free all slaves. This is not to say that Paul had no future plans of instructing the church to move away from the general slave system. We already know that Paul opposed slave-trading (1 Timothy 1:9-10) and in addition to that, advised people to pursue freedom (1 Corinthians 7:21-23). Until a much better social welfare program had been established, tearing down the only ‘welfare program’ that existed at that time would have exposed many to the harsh environment out there.

Written by Elvis Sampson and Elikplim Sabblah

References: 1 Timothy 6, Exodus 21, Leviticus 25, Deuteronomy 15, Galatians 3:28, 1 Corinthians 12:13, Colossians 3:11, Philemon, Does God Approve of slavery according to the bible?, The Atlantic slave trade: what few textbooks told you – Anthony Hazard, Does God condone slavery in the Bible? – Glenn Miller.

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Feminism and Misogyny in the Bible (#BustingBiblicalMyths)

Does the Bible hate women?

Some people are of the view that Christianity is misogynistic: it expresses a certain level of hatred towards women. But is this really the case? First of all, people really need to improve their skills in Textual Analysis before they make a supposed informed opinion of a text. The presence of a particular event in a text does not define it or represent the major thematic concern of the text. There is murder, genocide, homosexuality, polygamy, alcoholism etc in the bible but none of these are approved practices for Christians. There is a bevy of misogynistic acts in the bible. Does this in any way indicate that Christians are supposed to express a certain level of hatred and disrespect towards women? No! The Titanic is a love story. You cannot merely say it is a story about death because of the number of people who died at the end. So yes, there are so many stories in the bible that demonstrate humanity at its misogynistic best, but is Christianity misogynistic?

The reality is, it is not Christianity that is misogynistic, IT IS THE JEWISH CULTURE THEN THAT WAS MISOGYNISTIC. But Christ came to introduce us to a new life which he exemplified by showing the highest form of respect to women. We will delve into this later on. I would like to state this blatantly, one of the oldest acts of feminism is recorded in the bible. The fight for the rights of women started thousands of years ago. It was a very successful one seeing that the laws of Israel had to be amended because a bunch of young ladies who knew their rights, stood up to fight for it. I speak of the daughters of Zelophehad – all five of them. There are a lot of lessons in their story that present-day feminists can learn. These young girls, upon realizing that they were being denied access to their father’s property after his death (because of their sex) rose up and went straight to the highest authority of Israel – Moses – to demand what was duly theirs. Moses took the matter to God and God said “What the daughters of Zelophehad are saying is right”. Hence, they received properties amongst the relatives of their father and a new law was established. The point is, they didn’t go accusing Moses of being sexist – seeing that the law was above Moses himself. These ladies didn’t challenge Moses’ authority. They simply made an appeal, yet their actions yielded overwhelming results for them and the many other women like them. This is indeed feminism.

Nevertheless, throughout the bible we see so many instances where women are treated unfairly because of their sex. But let’s not go cherry-picking in the bible. The issue is, it is a wrong academic exercise to pinpoint the misfortunes of women in the bible and use it as the foundation to argue out the fact that the bible is misogynistic. That is wrong.

Christianity derives its essence from the life and teachings of Christ. So to determine whether the Christian doctrine in itself is misogynistic, we need to look at the life of Christ and how he treated women. Jesus indeed made a deliberate attempt to go against the status quo set for someone of his status in his relations with women. First and foremost, he allowed his feet to be washed by Mary (a known whore). This is such a big deal considering who Jesus was and his purpose on this earth. Undoubtedly one of the most outstanding events fueled by patriarchy in the bible is the story of the woman who was about to be stoned by an irate mob. Apparently, she was caught committing adultery ‘alone’… all by herself. This is how patriarchal the people were. They didn’t think the man she was in bed with was as guilty as she was so they let him go and decided to stone only her. But Jesus stood up for the rights of this woman and turned the law against the mob. Being convicted by their own conscience and knowledge of the law, they left her alone. Even on the cross, Jesus displayed his love and respect for women. While hanging there, Jesus told his mother ‘woman, behold thy son’ and to John he said ‘behold your mother’. This little gesture implies that Jesus entrusted His mother into the caring arms of John before he died. As a Christian gentleman I am supposed to emulate this lifestyle in every way possible. The gospel of Jesus Christ compels me to respect women and fight for their rights.

One of the most controversial chapters in the bible, so far as sexism and misogyny is concerned is 1 Timothy 2. Militant critics are of the view that Paul’s pastoral letter to Timothy expresses some level of contempt towards women when he commanded them to remain silent and also forbid them to usurp spiritual authority over the men in church. I find people’s assumption that Paul promotes misogyny in this chapter to be very inconsistent with other pauline writings. The apostle was a leading advocate of gender equality within a culture that was popularly known for its heightened hatred towards women. In Galatians 3, Paul makes it crystal clear that there’s no such thing as male or female in Christ’s family. That is, men and women are of equal importance in the eyes of God. A chunk of the New Testament informs us that Paul actually team-taught alongside various women, commending them with the highest form of respect for breaking their backs for the sake of the Gospel. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul stated that a husband had NO authority over his own body, but his wife DID and vice-versa. Now, that’s a very heavy pronouncement. This is Paul championing gender equality again by demanding mutual respect between both sexes in marital homes – especially concerning sexual activities. Just in case you missed it, the ‘so-called’ chauvinist, in Romans 16, makes a unique reference to Phoebe a sister in Christ, as a deacon. It was such a big deal in those days, that a woman could be a deacon just like Paul, Timothy and Apollos – who had presiding authorities over churches. Seems like the ‘sexist apostle’ is digging his own grave, right? Be reminded that we are examining these facts in the 1st century context where women were heavily despised!

We see time and time again that Paul’s teachings were in sharp contrast with the promotion of sexism. What then do we make of Paul’s admonition to Timothy concerning women? 2 Timothy 3:6-7 and 1 Timothy 5:11-13 give us a clue as to what Paul intended to communicate to the people. The women of Ephesus then were deeply associated with paganism before they got converted to Christianity. As a result, they were probably spiritually immature. It then makes sense if Paul wasn’t going to risk anything by putting them on the forefront to promote the Gospel. Moreover, there were false teachers around who were ever ready to pounce on any of these women to teach them false doctrines—the very thing Paul was trying to avoid. In summary, I believe Paul was addressing a specific problem that plagued a specific church (the Church of Ephesus). He wasn’t making a general rule, nevertheless, any other church going through the same problem can apply this solution in their case. So if you should ask me, this ideology that Paul was sexist falls flat because the arguments to support such fallacious ideas do not in any way fit the teachings of the Bible. Proper exegesis reveals to every reader that NO passage in the Bible encourages people to oppress women. Rather the bible encourages wives even to strive hard in economic ventures. The woman in Proverbs 31 is a superhero; she has a stable job and still has her family at heart. This appears impossible in today’s world, but the bible encourages women to work hard in their careers while caring for their families.

I would like to say this quickly. More often than not people call out religious leaders for propagating sexist ideologies in their sermons and opinions expressed on other platforms. But why doesn’t anybody question evolutionism for its sexist ideologies? I honestly want to know how a woman can be a feminist and an evolutionist at the same. Especially because Charles Darwin claims that “… males are more evolutionarily advanced than females”. Which means by nature, men are ahead of their female counterparts intellectually and physically.

While it may seem like a greater portion of scripture records several masculine accomplishments, the Bible does extremely well in capturing equally significant events involving women. God appointed powerful women like Deborah and Esther to lead the Jews during Israel’s dark and spiritually-barren period. Jesus (God in flesh) revealed His true identity as the Savior of the world to the woman at the well, much to his disciple’s chagrin. The most important historical event of this world (the Resurrection of Christ) was revealed FIRST to a group of women. The prophet Isaiah, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, alluded God’s tender love towards His people to that of a MOTHER who comforts HER children. What a powerful positive feminine image! Time and space wouldn’t allow me to prove to you more that the Bible doesn’t oppress women but rather celebrates them. Sexism has never been God-orchestrated because in the beginning, He [God] created human being—male and female—in His own image to reflect His nature. The Bible, God’s Word, will forever respect the intrinsic worth of both men and women. It is a word that is settled forever.

Written by: Elvis Sampson and Elikplim Sabblah

References: Galatians 3:28, 1 Corinthians 7:4, John 4, Isaiah 66:13, Numbers 27 (Daughters of Zelophehad), 1 Timothy 2.

Is The Bible Historically Accurate? (#BustingBiblicalMyths)

 Can we trust the Bible?

Over the years, many skeptics and nontheists have discredited the Bible as being unreliable. Sometimes it appears they have staggering evidence to back their claims. One fact we must establish before moving on with this topic is: there is barely an ancient writing that hasn’t come under attack concerning its authenticity and accuracy. Nevertheless, there are some tests an ancient text must pass to be accorded some respect in academic circles. Some of these will be discussed as follows and it is my sincerest prayer that every reader weighs the evidence presented with unprejudiced views.

When I was young, I used to play this game popularly known by Americans as “telephone”. The rules were very simple: a friend whispered a phrase/sentence into the ears of another friend quickly and this circulated among us until the last person revealed what was said to him to the hearing of everyone. If you’ve ever played this game before, you can tell how easily the message – more often in an amusing manner- gets distorted during the retelling process. “Life must be lived as play” can easily turn into something else like “He bites snails” (This actually happened during a Global Gossip Game contest in 2012). Just like any other game, the goal is to have fun and as such does not require anyone to be strict with their speech and listening skills. As a matter of fact, it needs all the necessary elements to make it exciting—even if it means distorting the messages on purpose!

Could it also be that the Bible is a product of nothing but nonsense arising from this whisper-down-the-lane child’s play? Well, let’s find out, shall we?

Back in those days, the art of memorization (a common cultural practice in ancient times) was the means by which information was transmitted. There was nothing like photocopiers, printers or scanners. To be frank with you, I got uneasy the first time I learned that the Rabbis memorized the whole Old Testament text. How could they have possibly done that let alone be confident to reproduce them in their purest form? And even if they did so, wouldn’t they have made some errors such as misspellings, inclusions, omissions or repetition of words during the recounting of any of the stories? Now, don’t be too quick to draw conclusions. First of all, what we fail to realise is we make a big categorical error when we judge their art of memorization by our modern standards. Just like any other work that has come down to us from antiquity, there was much flexibility in terms of writing and storytelling back in those days. Nevertheless, certain ‘landmarks’ during storytelling were very crucial and couldn’t be altered in any way. If say a Rabbi erred along an untouchable point in the process of recounting an event, his listeners would prompt him of those mistakes and make sure they were corrected immediately. This was done to maintain the integrity of messages passed down to others. Take the Old Testament for example. The Masoretes—Jewish scribes who took great care in copying the Hebrew Bible—discarded an entire manuscript if they found any error after counting the number of letters, words and lines as well as determining the middle letters of the Pentateuch and the Old Testament.

Because of the strict measures Scribes put in place to ensure the preservation of these materials, the variations (or ‘variants’) found in the Old Testament are very few. The New Testament however has 400,000 variations as we speak. Four hundred thousand sounds scary but let’s find out what variations or ‘variants’ are and how they are counted briefly. Daniel Wallace, Senior Professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, defines a variant as ‘the difference in wording found in a single manuscript or a group of manuscripts that disagrees with a base text.’ So that if for instance a Scribe omits the word ‘Lord’ while the standard text he’s copying from reads as ‘Lord Jesus’, that omission of the word ‘Lord’ is counted as one variant (check the ‘footnotes’ section of your Bible to learn more about these variants). With that said, many scholars have argued out so strongly that NONE of the Christian doctrines have been affected by any of these variants located in both the OT and NT. Let me quickly add that though no credible scholar confirms that the copies we have today are a 100% reflection of what the original says, they do attest to the fact that these copies are 99.5% pure. In addition to this figure, the New Testament alone has over 24,000 existing manuscripts. If you are interested in knowing the significance of this figure, allow me to match this value up against another popular ancient writing—Plato’s ‘Tetralogies’. There are currently only 7 surviving copies! Yet Plato is held in high esteem by so many people (especially in academia). If you can confidently declare a less preserved ancient material like Plato’s as historically trustworthy, how much more the New Testament with 24,000 existing copies? Also the biographies of Alexander the great were also written 400 years after his death – but they are accepted as credible even in academia. Meanwhile the last gospel – the gospel of John – was written 70 years after Jesus’ death. You just have to admit that the Bible is unrivaled for its accuracy and number of existing copies when compared to other classical, historically trustworthy manuscripts.

Most of the arguments leveled against the bible concerning its accuracy probably stem from the problem of translating from one language to another. This is a huge Linguistic problem all over the world. There is no language on earth that can be translated into another one perfectly. It just doesn’t happen. While you are devising an argument against this fact, try translating ‘Photosynthesis’ directly into Twi or your local dialect. You will find that it is impossible to find a word that perfectly describes the reality of photosynthesis in Twi, so then you would have to resort to the use of a sentence or a phrase to achieve the purpose of translation. This happened in the translation of the bible and those who did it did a great job considering the herculean task it is. It is true that the translations do not match verbatim with the original text in its original language. Nevertheless, it does not affect the Bible’s message in any way because authentic manuscripts are still in existence. Now let’s go back to the whisper-down-the-lane game; is it acceptable to question the credibility of the original message because it has been distorted by the method of transmission… especially when the original message is still in existence and people know it? Certainly not! Between 1946 and 1956 a bunch of scrolls were discovered in caves that overlooked the dead sea; thus they were called the Dead Sea Scrolls. They were 981 in all and some of them were of the apocryphal stock. The book of Isaiah was discovered amongst them too. NEWS FLASH, when the Isaiah Scroll was compared to the one we have in our bibles now, there wasn’t much of a difference. This is exactly the point I have been making all this while: there may be some petty errors here and there because of the the problem of translation, but this doesn’t discredit the bible in anyway.

Some of the errors are petty; some aren’t… too… petty. There are some seemingly major errors and obvious interpolations in the bible. For example, the story of Jesus Christ and the adulterous woman. Apparently, from the oldest and most revered manuscripts, the story was not found in John’s Gospel. It is believed to have been inserted in there at a later time by someone – probably a scribe. Also in 1John 5:7 there is an obvious interpolation there. Older manuscripts do not contain any reference to the reality of the trinity in that verse. It must have been added at a later time. So even in the Amplified Bible, that portion is in italics and the footnotes make it clear to the reader that it wasn’t part of earlier manuscripts. These are faith-shaking findings because they sort of question the credibility of the entire bible as the inspired Word of God. But is that the case? Certainly not! Concerning the story of the adulterous woman, scholars believe that the purpose for which it was inserted in some portions of the bible was to make some emphasis. People thought Jesus’ reaction was rather too mild because he asked the woman to go and sin no more. They didn’t know that The Messiah was introducing all of us to his mind-boggling Grace. So people didn’t like that story; they would rather Jesus had judged the woman harshly. Therefore it is believed that later manuscripts included the story just to reiterate the significance of the story to the new era of Grace. The presence or absence of these two interpolations (and another one at the ending of Mark) does not cause any damage to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, some are of the view that they should be relegated to the margins or omitted completely from the bible. This sounds reasonable enough.

The bottom line is, none of these interpolations are false; they are both true and consistent with Christian doctrine but have been inserted in those portions of scripture. So they don’t in anyway alter the original message of the bible. Inspiration doesn’t come with language, it comes with the message. It is the writer who chooses how to put it across. So far as the message is consistent with the full counsel of scripture, it is still God-inspired writing. However, the gospel isn’t bound by language barriers, because the inspiration came with the message and not a language.

Written By: Elvis Sampson and Elikplim Sabblah

References: Seeking Allah; Finding Jesus, Nabeel Qureshi. Can We Still Believe The Bible?, Craig L. Blomberg. The New Testament Documents:Are They Reliable?, F.F Bruce.