Skip to: Site Menu | Main content

Slavery, Abolitionism and the Ethics of Biblical Scholarship: Reflections about Ethical Deflections

So how is it that most Christian academic biblical scholars never see anything that Jesus does as wrong or evil? The answer, of course, is that most Christian biblical scholars, whether in secular academia or in seminaries, still see Jesus as divine, and not as a human being with faults.

For Further Reading: Slavery, Abolitionism, and the Ethics of Biblical Scholarship (Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2011)

See Also:

In Praise of Biblical Illiteracy

The End of Accreditation? Not So Fast!!

What's Not so Secular about Introductions to the Bible?

By Hector Avalos
Iowa State University
November 2011

There are many reasons why authors write books. In my case, some of the books I write result from growing weary of claims repeated so often that they become accepted as common truths despite their demonstrable falsity. Such is the case with my most recent book, Slavery, Abolitionism, and the Ethics of Biblical Scholarship (Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2011). Therein, I seek to deconstruct the myth that reliance on the Bible was primarily responsible for the abolition of slavery in Western Civilization.

Part of my evidence consists of detailed studies of how abolitionists used and abused scripture to make their case. Equally important is my critique of most of modern biblical scholarship insofar as it still functions as an apology for biblical slavery.

Within a broader philosophical and ethical framework, my basic premise is that if slavery is not regarded as wrong, then little else can be. And if slavery is regarded as inexcusably wrong, then biblical ethics stands or falls on its attitude toward slavery. As such, this book is a critique of the broader idea that the Bible should be the basis of modern ethics.

Jesus, a perfect example of imperfect ethics

My project actually began with a puzzling experience. If one reads almost any book on Christian ethics written by academic biblical scholars, one finds something extremely peculiar: Jesus never does anything wrong. Rudolf Schnackenburg’s The Moral Teaching of the New Testament represents the view one usually encounters:

The Early Church, and with it, Christianity, throughout the centuries was profoundly convinced that the greatest of Jesus’ achievements in the moral sphere was the promulgation of the chief commandment of love of God and one’s neighbour. The message of Christian agape, the model and highest expression of which is the mission of the Son of God to redeem the sinful human race, brought something new into the world, an idea and reality so vast and incomprehensible as to be the highest revelation of God, and quite inconceivable apart from revelation.1

The rest of the book finds nothing but praise for Jesus, and not a whit of criticism.

Perhaps this unrelenting praise of Jesus’ ethics can be expected because Schnackenburg was a Catholic priest with an openly Christian commitment. But if we look at the work of Richard Horsley, who taught at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, a public secular university, there is not much difference. For example, the worst thing about Jesus in Horsley’s Jesus and the Spiral of Violence is this assessment:

It would be difficult to claim that Jesus was a pacifist. But he actively opposed violence, particularly institutionalized oppressive and repressive violence, and its effects on a subject people. Jesus was apparently a revolutionary but not a violent political revolutionary… Jesus preached and catalyzed a social revolution… “Love your enemies” turns out to be not the apolitical pacific stance of one who stands above the turmoil of his day, nor a sober counsel of nonresistance to evil or oppression, but a revolutionary principle. It was a social revolutionary principle insofar as the love of enemies would transform local social-economic relations.2

For Horsley, even when this new revolutionary principle is threatening to the ruling social order, that threat is a good thing because it will help liberate people from oppression. On the other hand, we also are told by Horsley that early Christians could not be too vocal in opposing slavery because that would have been too revolutionary.

This uniformly benign picture of Jesus’ ethics is peculiar because when historians study Alexander the Great or Augustus Caesar, they note the good and the bad aspects of their actions. Even when academic biblical scholars study Moses or David, they might note their flaws.3 From a purely historical viewpoint, Jesus is a man and not a god. He should have flaws.

So how is it that most Christian academic biblical scholars never see anything that Jesus does as wrong or evil? The answer, of course, is that most Christian biblical scholars, whether in secular academia or in seminaries, still see Jesus as divine, and not as a human being with faults.

Such scholars are still studying Jesus through the confessional lenses of Nicea or Chalcedon rather than through a historical approach we would use with other human beings. In fact, Luke Timothy Johnson, a well known New Testament scholar at Emory University, remarks:

We can go further and state that the basic “historical” claims of the Nicene Creed are well supported: “He was born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried”…in essence, what the most universally used Christian creed asserts about the human person Jesus is historically verifiable.4

Although Johnson realizes that many of the supernatural claims about Jesus cannot be validated historically, he adds that “[t]he only real validation for the claim that Christ is what the creed claims him to be, that is, light from light, true God from true God, is to be found in the quality of life demonstrated by those who make this confession.”5

Johnson, of course, assumes that this “quality of life” based on imitating Jesus must be completely good. So, for the most part, Christian biblical scholars may be willing to give up on the historicity of most events reported in the New Testament, but unchaining themselves from the notion of Jesus’ ethical purity seems too revolutionary. Christolatry still reigns in New Testament scholarship.

Slavery by any other name

But if Jesus is a special case, one would not know it from books treating the wider scope of biblical ethics. In general, there are few books by biblical scholars that denounce biblical ethics. Some may denounce specific actions God is portrayed as commanding or allowing, but few denounce the biblical god in general. This is acknowledged by R. Norman Whybray:

The dark side of God is a subject that has received astonishingly little attention from Old Testament scholars. The standard Old Testament theologies, monographs, about the Old Testament doctrine of God, articles about particular passages, even commentaries are almost silent on the matter…even those that make reference to them have tended to play down such passages or sought to explain them away with a variety of arguments.6

It will no longer do to protest that we cannot judge the negative ethical aspects of biblical cultures by modern standards because the same would apply when judging any positive aspects of Jesus and the Bible. What standards are scholars using, after all, when saying that the Bible and Jesus bear ethically positive or superior features?

In a previous book, The End of Biblical Studies, I showed how the main subfields of biblical scholarship are permeated with religionist assumptions that present themselves as objective descriptive scholarship.7 Such fields include archaeology, history, textual criticism, aesthetics, and translation. Examining those fields shows how biblical scholarship is preoccupied with retaining the Bible’s relevance when its own findings paradoxically show the opposite.

The same can be said of the study of biblical ethics, which often represents itself as an academic endeavor that is no less descriptive than the fields I have examined in The End of Biblical Studies. For example, John Barton approves of the leadership of Eckart Otto, a premier biblical ethicist today, “in aiming primarily to present a descriptive, historical account of ethical beliefs and practices in ancient Israel as evidenced in the Old Testament…”8 Similarly, Richard B. Hays, of Duke University, remarks that “[t]he first task of New Testament ethics is to describe the content of the individual writings of the New Testament canon.”9

But despite the thoroughly benign manner in which biblical ethics are often represented, the Bible endorses horrific ideas and practices. One of these horrific practices is slavery, one of the most tragic and vicious institutions ever devised by humanity. For about 1900 of the last 2000 years of Christian history, it was self-described Christians who kept slavery, in some form or another, a viable institution. Yet, many modern historians and biblical scholars still claim that the Bible was a main factor in abolition.

In contrast, the main point of my book is that reliance on biblical authority was instrumental in promoting and maintaining slavery far longer than might have been the case if we had followed many pre-Christian or non-Christian notions of freedom and anti-slavery sentiments.

The obverse side of my argument is that abolition of slavery was mainly the result of abandoning crucial biblical principles and interpretations rather than following them. Briefly, my main argument has the following interrelated elements:

#1 Biblical scholarship generally functions as an apology for biblical views now deemed unethical, and slavery is a primary example.

#2 Reliance on biblical ethics generally has delayed the abolition of slavery and any progress toward freedom in the manner the latter is currently conceived.

#3 Any credit to the Bible for ethical advances concerning freedom is usually the result of arbitrary exegesis of the Bible, reinterpretation, and the abandonment of biblical principles.

As it pertains to element #1, the myth that biblical ethics were the key to explaining the eventual triumph of abolition is now partly sustained by perpetuating the illusion that there are “new developments” that will help us see that the Bible, and especially the New Testament, was not in any way supportive of slavery.

Some of these more recent hermeneutic developments go by the name of “socio-rhetorical criticism.” Its principal practitioners include Ben Witherington and Richard Horsley.10 Richard Horsley even describes rhetorical criticism as being “recently rediscovered.”11

It is not so much that there is no place for socio-rhetorical criticism in our field, but the manner in which some scholars are applying socio-rhetorical criticism is clearly apologetic. Methodologically, Witherington’s socio-rhetorical readings of Philemon and Colossians, in particular, attempt to cut and paste statements about rhetoric from disparate classical sources (e.g., Aristotle, Quintilian, Cicero) in order to create the impression of some unified and parallel socio-rhetorical strategy being applied by Paul.

In any case, socio-rhetorical readings of Philemon, Colossians 3:18-4:1, 1 Corinthians 7:21, among other NT passages, are some of the main subjects of my critique. I show that such socio-rhetorical readings of the New Testament, especially those offered by Witherington and Horsley, not only misrepresent and/or misread many of the classical sources, but their techniques are applied so arbitrarily and idiosyncratically that one can prove almost anything by using the same techniques. Socio-rhetorical criticism thus becomes another form of theological sophistry under the name of historical-critical scholarship.

Insofar as #2 is concerned, most ethical judgments about the past, whether positive or negative, derive from our current standards. In the case of the Bible, we can just as well judge it by the system of ethics that is, for the most part, enshrined in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which has an arguable position as the consensus of most nations today. Article 4 states: “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.”12 Judged by those United Nations standards, Jesus and the entire Bible fail quite consistently on the issue of slavery.

As it pertains to element #3, I critique three principal interpretive strategies used by Christian ethicists:

  1. Representativism
  2. Trajectorialism
  3. Reinterpretation

For my purposes, “representativism” affirms that a particular biblical ethical view is “representative” while others (usually bad ones, like slavery and genocide) are unrepresentative. Thus, we often hear about how the “core” or “true” teachings of Jesus or the Bible are really liberatory.

Trajectorialism grants that certain undesirable biblical practices may exist in the Bible but they are nonetheless a step in the right direction or represent advances. Thus, scholars may admit that the Bible was not very vocal in its fight against slavery, but it had the seeds of liberation that later bore fruit.

By far the most common strategy to explain slavery in the Bible is reinterpretation. Reinterpretation allows the original meaning of the text to be erased or changed to fit a later or modern context.

On a more philosophical level, I devote a major portion of a chapter to showing that reinterpretation is ultimately an unethical practice itself if one values any original authorial intent. Reinterpretation ultimately means disregarding any recoverable “original” meaning, and so it is tantamount to rejection of the Bible itself. The fact that the Bible has to be reinterpreted to make it ethically palatable to modern people is itself a measure of how ethically unpalatable the Bible is to modern sensibilities.

Unshackling ourselves from the Bible

In truth, the main point of my book was expressed, and much more eloquently, in the nineteenth century by Frederick Douglass, who became more of a secular humanist toward the end of his life:

Now that slavery is no more, and the multitude are claiming the credit of its abolition, though but a score of years have passed since the same multitude were claiming an exactly opposite credit, it is difficult to realize that an abolitionist was ever an object of popular scorn and reproach in this country.13

I also don’t think that my book, or any book, can claim to be the last word on the enormous and complex subject of slavery. However, I think this book will make it clear how much modern biblical scholarship is still complicit in mitigating and excusing biblical authors from their endorsement, promotion, or tolerance of one of the most horrific institutions ever devised by human beings.

Judged by the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which expresses the widest consensus available on ethics, the Bible does fail miserably. The Bible is part of a world whose ethics and values are best left in the past. If the modern world values human freedom, then it should completely unshackle itself from using the Bible as any sort of ethical or social authority.


*This essay consists of adapted extracts from my book, Slavery, Abolitionism, and the Ethics of Biblical Scholarship (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2011).

1 Rudolf Schnackenburg, The Moral Teaching of the New Testament (trans. J.Holland-Smith and W.J. O’Hara; London: Burns & Oates, 1975), pp. 90-91.

2 Richard A. Horsley, Jesus and the Spiral of Violence: Popular Jewish Resistance in Roman Palestine (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), p. 326.

3 Baruch Halpern, David’s Secret Demons: Messiah, Murderer, Traitor, King (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001). For moral evaluations of many Old Testament figures, see Mary E. Mills, Biblical Morality: Moral Perspectives in Old Testament Narratives (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2001). For some of the philosophical problems that attend moral evaluations of literature, see Wayne C. Booth, The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988).

4 Luke Timothy Johnson, The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), pp. 126-27.

5 Johnson, The Real Jesus, p. 168.

6 R. Norman Whybray, “‘Shall not the judge of the earth do what is just?’ God’s Oppression of the Innocent in the Old Testament,” in David Penchansky and Paul L. Redditt (eds.), Shall Not the Judge of the Earth do What is Right? Studies in the Nature of God in Tribute to James L. Crenshaw (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2000), pp. 1-19 (2). See also R. Norman Whybray, “The Immorality of God: Reflections on Some Passages in Genesis, Job, Exodus and Numbers,” JSOT 21 (1996), pp. 89-120. For a recent attempt to mitigate these negative images of God, see Eric A. Seibert, Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009). Examples of scholars who do not attempt to mitigate biblical slavery include David P. Wright, God’s Law: How the Covenant Code of the Bible Used and Revised the Code of Hammurabi (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009); Jennifer A. Glancy, Slavery in Early Christianity (repr., Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006 [2002]); Catherine Hezser, Jewish Slavery in Antiquity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006); Sylvester A. Johnson, The Myth of Ham in Nineteenth-Century American Christianity: Race, Heathens, and the People of God, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).

7 Hector Avalos, The End of Biblical Studies (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2007). In Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Viloence (Amherst,NY: Prometheus, 2005) I also explore how modern scholarship has attempted to mitigate violence in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

8 John Barton, Understanding Old Testament Ethics: Approaches and Explorations (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2003), p. 173. See also Eckart Otto, Theologische Ethik des Alten Testaments (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1994); Otto, “Of Aims and Methods in Hebrew Bible Ethics,” in Douglas A. Knight (ed.), Ethics and Politics in the Bible (Semeia, 66; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 1995), pp. 161-71. See also David J.A. Clines, “Ethics as Deconstruction, and, The Ethics of Deconstruction,” in John W. Rogerson, Margaret Davies, and M. Daniel Carroll R. (eds.), The Bible in Ethics: The Second Sheffield Colloquium (JSOTSup, 207; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995), pp. 77-106.

9 Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (New York: HarperOne, 1996), p. 13. Douglas A. Knight (“Old Testament Ethics,” Christian Century 99 [1982], pp. 55-59 [58]) says: “biblical ethics is primarily a descriptive discipline.” Per contra Bruce C. Birch (Let Justice Roll Down: The Old Testament Ethics and Christian Life [Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991], p. 25) says: “…nor do I believe that ethics should be primarily descriptive.”

10 Ben Witherington III, The Indelible Image: The Theological and Ethical Thought World of the New Testament (2 vols.; Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic Press, 2010); The Letters to Philemon, the Colossians, and Ephesians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Captivity Epistles (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007); “Was Paul a Pro-Slavery Chauvinist? Making Sense of Paul’s Seemingly Mixed Moral Messages," Bible Review 20 (April 2004), pp. 8, 44. Richard A. Horsley, 1 Corinthians (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998); Jesus and the Spiral of Violence: Popular Jewish Resistance in Roman Palestine (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993); “The Slave Systems of Classical Antiquity and their Reluctant Recognition by Modern Scholars,” in Allen D. Callahan, Richard A. Horsley, and Abraham Smith (eds.), Slavery in Text and Interpretation (Semeia, 83/84; Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1998), pp. 19-66.

11 Richard Horsley, “Paul and Slavery: A Critical Alternative to Recent Readings,” in Callahan, Horsley, and Smith (eds.), Slavery in Text and Interpretation, p. 157.

12 United Nations, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). Online: See also Amartya Sen, Inequality Reexamined, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992). For a study of inequality in ancient Israel, see the collection of essays in Saul Olyan, Social Inequality in the World of the Text: The Significance of Ritual and Social Distinctions in the Hebrew Bible (Journal of Ancient Judaism Supplements, 4; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011).

13 Frederick Douglass, “Great Britain’s Example is High, Noble, and Grand…6 August, 1885,” in John W. Blassingame, and John R. McKivigan (eds.), The Frederick Douglass Papers: Series One—Speeches, Debates and Interviews (5 vols.; New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979–92), 5:203.