I have inadvertently found myself in a debate on Twitter about the differences of the term 'slavery' in the biblical sense and the way that we think of it today. Does anybody have any proof that this word has changed definitions over the past 2000 years? 

Views: 1303

Reply to This

Replies to This Discussion

I'll admit I slammed out my response in about a minute, and I'm doing the same now, so no promises for a tidy progression of thoughts. But I still don't see where my points were refuted by your prior post.

I'm actually really big on looking into what words really mean (took classical and Koine Greek in college for a couple years - of course, that was a long time ago). I like investigating all sides and not judging without knowing the story behind the story. In fact, I often find myself explaining to hubby why christian thinking is consistent with their world view, or explaining the subtleties of different theological positions (he never was religious, I grew up in it).

Sometimes, however, it actually is  simple. I am certain that nothing justifies a human owning another human.

We can quibble about indentured vs. permanent. But when you take the cultural relativism stance, that's making excuses for the inexcusable.  It's not about my western sentiments (I lived and worked in China, so I'm somewhat aware of where my views are culturally influenced). When you say "[a] slave that is treated well, is essentially a servant," I call BS.  

You want to finesse it and excuse it. I get your point of view - I just disagree. Yes, sometimes the original text uses a word that can be translated either slave or servant. What that tells me is that they didn't have a strong distinction between the two concepts - which you recognized in your post. Whether it's indentured or full on slave, the general idea was still that there was one person who owned another person who was the possession, temporarily or permanently. Even if it means getting a nice reward eventually, what makes it alright for a person to own another person - to control their every waking and sleeping moment - to be in a position where anything you command, they must obey? Oh, that's right. Nothing! 

I think this is a perfectly acceptable concept to bring up when discussing morality with christians. And I think when christians - and you - focus on extraneous definitions of what slavery may have been like then, you give license to go easy on other reprehensible bible crap. No, I'm not going full-on slippery slope on you. I don't mean that soft-pedaling slavery will inevitably lead one to stand up for, say, raping virgins or stoning unruly children. But I'm just sick to death of people making excuses for god.

Regardless of the servant/slave distinction, let's look at how these people were to be treated. They could be beaten. Severely. They could be passed down from generation to generation. They could be raped.

Jesus wasn't all sweetness and light. He told slaves to obey their masters. There was no caveat in his command, no exception. Just obey.

You're refutation of this is to explain that stoicism was a culturally appropriate philosophy: "Telling slaves to bear hardship is considered a sacrifice for a greater cause, not a condoning of slavery." 

Y'know, this isn't a hardship without a solution. It's not like a farmer bearing the hardship of a drought, or a child bearing the hardship of an illness. It's the action of people which god could have used one of his 600+ laws to condemn. Maybe he didn't outright condone slavery and call it good, but he sure as hell didn't condemn it. And I think it's fair to ask christians why they are more moral than their god.

It's that kind of reasoning - suffering as noble - that kept a woman close to me in a horrible marriage - her view was that she was suffering, but would receive jewels on her crown in heaven. It's reprehensible, and whether it was culturally appropriate at the time is hogwash. This is exactly why I think christians should be asked what their view on slavery is. This supposedly omnipotent, loving, unchanging god could have made it clear that it was wrong, and he didn't.

And no, Jesus wasn't talking archetype or metaphor about not overturning the law. Regardless of Hebrews or Colossians take on the issue, Jesus H. Christ was pretty crystal clear - he was absolutely talking about the regular ol' law. "Do not think I come to abolish the law or the prophets ... not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the law until everything is accomplished ... anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven ..." The law and the prophets - that's the hebrew scriptures, aka the OT. Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something.

My primary point stands - nowhere, but nowhere, does the bible come out and say one human does not get to own another. Religious abolitionists in this country had a challenge in using the bible to support their views. They had to rely on scriptures that did not expressly deal with slavery because the religious slave owners had them dead to rights by claiming slavery to be supported biblically.

It just occurred to me why I'm so hot under the collar about this. Yesterday was Juneteenth. And in honor of that day, I spent some time reading Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass. And the horror that is slavery just cannot be allowed to be watered down. I don't give a good god damn if house slaves were treated nice, given the owners last name, dressed up and fed better than the field slaves. They were not free. I don't care if american slavery was different than what was practiced by those crazy old israelites or greeks.

The myth of the happy slave is just that - a big fat myth. And since it was the folks in power who wrote the history books - not the rank and file servants - I'd be willing to bet my last nickel that the happy indentured servant was a rare thing in bible times, too. 

I'm going to go ahead and post this, even though it's past my bedtime, and I probably had one beer too many. Maybe tomorrow, I can put more thought and less reaction into a reply. But for now, sweet dreams, y'all.

Karen - several things, but since you announced your bedtime, I know it will be tomorrow before you have a chance to respond.

First, I suspect a lot of people here have no idea what "Junteenth" means - you might want to explain if you'd like that part of your post understood.

Secondly, IMO, Jesus - or Yeshua, which was his actual name - was very probably an entirely fictional character and as such, it's really not relevant as to what he did, or did not, fictitiously say. But let's pretend for a moment that he was real. You have to understand the time in which he would have lived. Palestine, as Israel was called at the time, was a Roman province, with a Jewish King put in place by Rome to rule on the laws of the land, the Sanhedrin, the early equivalent of the Vatican (I'm simplifying) to oversee religious matters, and a Roman Govenor in place to oversee that everything functioned smoothly. Remember the NT statement that said if a man asked you to go a mile with him, go with him two? That originated because any marching Roman soldier (only officers had horses) were allowed, under the occupancy, to demand that any male Jewish citizen carry his pack for him for a mile, and Yeshua was suggesting that if one is so asked, he should voluntarily "go the extra mile." In other words, when it came to the conquering army, don't make waves. "Render unto Caesar --"

The point of the New Testament was a break with traditional Judaism, which some saw as not working. There were several other groups of the same general time era, such as the Gnostics, who also broke away, much as our own Protestant groups broke away from the Catholic Church. So the writers of the NT had to concern themselves with that single task - creating, within the traditional Jewish faith, a new point of view, which meant they were going to have to contend with charges of blasphemy and heresy and maybe even littering. So they picked their battles. They knew that resisting the Roman occupation was futile, and slavery wasn't mentioned either, because that was not the object upon which their movement was focused. They weren't out to right all of the wrongs in the country, just to nudge the angle of their religion in a somewhat different direction,

I'm as opposed to any form of slavery as you are, and I agree entirely that no one should own another person. But indentured servitude is not slavery, in that the servant literally rented him/herself out for a specified period of time voluntarily. Think of it, not as ownership, but as a lease agreement.

Didn't get a chance to add this before my 15-minute window closed:

There's no real difference between an indentured servant and a live-in maid, housekeeper, or butler, except that the former has a contract for a specified time period for which they've been paid in advance, while the others serve at the whim of their employer.

It's still a common practice in Mexico, for someone from a more affluent area to go into a less affluent area and hire a housekeeper on the basis of a 1-year contract. Both are legally bound to the terms of the contract, yet no one is considered a slave.

I do think your reply was long and well-thought out.  I am going to try to bring in a good enough explanation to convince you, so I will be referring to a lot of things here.  What I am noticing however, is you are insistent on the southern slavery vantage point.  We aren't talking southern slavery.  We are talking about what the NT text says or doesn't say about slavery across the board.  We are actually taking on whether your premise that "it is morally wrong to own people under any circumstance" is valid.

In the era these documents were written, slavery was fine.  And I don't share your sentiment that it is wrong to temporarily own people if they are compensated in a way that makes it worth it.  Any job trades hours of free-will for pay.  However, even the USA doesn't think that indentured servitude is wrong.  Military service is clear and unquestionable indentured servitude.  It is necessary, and it isn't wrong.  Military service is a history-wide example of why sometimes, indentured servitude is necessary, and why it is an overreach to just write it off as always bad.  It was even more necessary in the first century in other areas of life.

One of the governors of Judea, either Felix or Festus who is featured in the book of Acts gained his position because of his indentured servitude.  There were plenty of people who got to extremely high ranks in Roman society because this made it possible.  It was hope for parents to help their children have a better life. It was a means to climb the social ladder when the social ladder was much more important than it is these days.   It wasn't peaches and cream, but station mattered more to these people, just as it has in other times of human history.  I could go into the things that made it bad, but I don't want to stray off topic.  Suffice to say, the NT addresses those problem issues.

But for Christianity, they were to suffer for the cause of Christ.  They were to endure torture, beatings, and even death.  That is martyria.  It is not a condoning of slavery to tell people who are to expect to suffer for the cause of Christ to suffer from being mistreated by a slave-master in order to exemplify that the cause is noble.   But the order for slaves to obey their masters came from other sources than Jesus, but they were marturia-based orders.

With the law and the prophets passage, Jesus was talking archetype.  Jesus said plenty of cryptic things, and states that he does so that people wouldn't know what he was talking about just to confuse them.  Just because he says "the law and the prophets" a typical reference to the non-Sadducee canon, doesn't mean he isn't talking about what the law and the prophets are by nature.  It is an archetype.  It matches ancient near eastern understandings that their temples were types of the archetype  It wasn't just an observation in the book of Hebrews, it was rampant in Cannaanite and surrounding cultural religions. 

This passage is a retroactive explanation of why Christians reject the laws in the eyes of the Jews, yet follow the law in it's entirety, just as the writings of Justin Martyr in the Dialogue with Trypho also try to explain why the text of the OT is followed to the letter, but the literal meaning of the text is explicitly ignored.  

Not only that, but reading the dead sea scrolls as they provide the pesher according to the Teacher of Righteousness on passages from the OT, Origen, when he talks about how he was taught to interpret scripture by "The Hebrew", and the Talmud itself, you will discover that it was common for 2nd temple Jews to consider the non-literal meaning of passages to be the dominant and essential reading.  The extreme of this is the Epistle of Barnabas which argues that a literal reading came about because of the misleading of an evil angel. This was not something new or weird for Paul or Christianity.  

The culmination of this is that the literal text of the OT is a shadow.  With divine guidance, it was argued that the image casting the shadow could be understood and then the shadows could be better explained.  Jesus is not referring to the literal text.  He is referring to the whole thing, the archetype.

These ancient documents can't be just taken and given slipshod interpretations.  But with the slave owners in the South using the bible, if you look at their interpretations, they are bizarre and ridiculous.  The mark of Cain, and others are just bizarre.  They made the Bible say what it wanted to say.  The text does not reasonably read in the manner they tried to get it to read.

But the big thing is you can't hop back and forth between a higher-critical interpretation of the text, and an evangelical one.  If you are debating an Evangelical, there is no distinction between the writings of Paul and Jesus.  A good evangelical would just say, "God covered it later on in his inspired word."

They can't do that with Jericho.  They can't do that with Judas dying twice and having bought a field with the money he threw in the temple.  They can't do that with the contradictory nature of the atonement.  It is a terrible tack.

The decent evangelical/Catholic counterargument is that while it does not condemn slavery, there is nothing wrong with indentured servitude.  The bible clearly condemns mistreating a slave in the New Testament.  The only reason why it does not condemn it in the Old, is that like Jesus and God both say people were obstinate.   

I see plenty wrong with the argument that indentured servitude is wrong, and it is a clear waste of time, when you could be avoiding these philosophical arguments that actually bring in a lot of history and decent explanation when you could be pointing out how God has to have something wrong with him if he desires something less than perfect, (such as the salvation of those who deserve hell).

@Arch and @John – Thank you both for keeping on point with me. I’ve calmed down a bit and want to continue. I’ll be off to work shortly, so don’t have time to give a full response to either of you. So just a couple of notes for now …

First – I thought about explaining Juneteenth – but figured I’d already written too much and hoped that folks would use the google if they didn’t know what it was. But the quick version is that when the Emancipation Proclamation was given freeing the Slaves in September 1862, the good people of Texas neglected to inform their slaves. Eventually (9 months later), federal troops arrived in Texas to make sure the slaves got the news. That was June 18-19 or so – which is what the portmanteau of Juneteeth refers to.

Second, I do make the error of arguing as though the bible were true because so often I have been in discussions with Christians and I find it more effective to go with that hypothetical. But I should be more clear when that’s what I’m doing. Reading both of your comments, I realize I’ve gotten lazy about that and should save that tactic for discussions with believers. @Cody’s original question was about the changing definition of the words translated as slave or servant, and you both are answering that question better and more directly than I am. But in the broader context of his question, the situation is about arguing the morality of the bible. In that case, I do think it’s worth treating the text as though it were literally true, and talking about whether slavery/servitude is moral.

We’re definitely going to have to agree to disagree about whether it’s ever appropriate for someone to own someone else, even by agreement and even temporarily. I will say that I’m not looking at it primarily from the American experience with slavery.

I gotta run … looking forward to engaging with you both more on this later.

Oh – and yes, John, I do appreciate your comment about “ pointing out how God has to have something wrong with him if he desires something less than perfect, (such as the salvation of those who deserve hell).” And I have taken that tactic before as well – usually to be told “la-la-la I’m not listening!” Sigh.

@Karen - Entirely off-topic - RE: "portmanteau" - you're the first person I've yet encountered who has ever used that word (I lead a very sheltered life) - so after I determined that it was NOT a rare French wine, nor a word poorly chosen to end a couplet in a poem about Nepal, I investigated further - are you aware that it was coined by Lewis G. Carrol in Through the Looking Glass in 1871?
It's a sad day when you don't learn something.

That is entirely awesome. I was not aware that it was from Lewis Carrol. Although that may have been where I learned it, as I read Through the Looking Glass as a child. It was a copy of the manuscript, and I remember puzzling over the handwriting to read the story. I also had to memorize The Jabberwocky.

Anyway, I have to say I'm honored to have been able to introduce something new to you.

Also - back on-topic - I was out this evening sharing beers with my former boss - an outstanding woman who was recently fired. (The only reason I can figure out is because she was too smart and hardworking - intimidated the yahoos in charge.) Anyway - the reason this relates to the topic by way of excusing myself from carrying on a thoughtful discussion on slavery this evening. I've had to re-type every single word of this post as is. You know what they say - don't drink and type. Sorry fellas. Maybe over the weekend?

@Karen - RE: "don't drink and type"

Is that even POSSIBLE?!! What would I do with my other hand?

From dictionary.com:

[pawrt-man-toh, pohrt-; pawrt-man-toh, pohrt-] Show IPA
noun, plural port·man·teaus, port·man·teaux  [-tohz, -toh, -tohz, -toh] Show IPA. Chiefly British .
a case or bag to carry clothing in while traveling, especially a leather trunk or suitcase that opens into two halves.
1575–85;  < French portemanteau  literally, (it) carries (the) cloak; see port5 , mantle

A little research on Wikipedia tells me that Lewis Carroll is responsible for a certain usage of the word, a term which was coined well before his time.

Portmanteau Words

"The standard linguistic term for this type of word is a blend. It was Lewis Carroll in Through The Looking Glass who coined the word portmanteau to describe them. In the book Humpty Dumpty explains that: "Well, 'slithy' means 'lithe and slimy'. 'Lithe' is the same word as 'active'. You see, it's like a portmanteau - there are two meanings packed into one word." Among several other words Carroll created chortle (a combination of 'chuckle' and 'snort') and galumph( a combination of 'gallop' and 'triumph').

"So, a portmanteau or blend word is one derived by combining portions of two or more separate words. Interestingly, portmanteau itself is a blend word, originating from the French portemanteau, a compound formed from porter (to carry) and manteau (cloak)."


There were a couple of differences between a slave and an indentured servant. One - an indentured servant was a son or daughter sold by parent, namely the father.  The second was that the indentured servant knew (if they had a scrupulous owner) they'd eventually be free.

In both cases you're property. And as property you could be inherited or even sold. That being the case the new owner could decide not to honor the original contract which would make the indentured servant a true slave. So really there's a tenuous fine line between the two.... 

With that being the case, I wouldn't say there was "nothing wrong with indentured servitude". 

In Greece, they kept slaves. Often, they were men who had been captured in a battle. The Greeks had a choice to make: 1) let them go and possibly face them another day in battle; 2) execute them to make sure they couldn't return; 3) take them as slaves. Greek slaves were often slaves as an act of charity. They were treated well and often became family members for all practical purposes. So, slavery has changed since then.


© 2019   Created by Rebel.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service