By In Culture, Politics

Slavery and New Testament Household Codes

Slavery is an ignominious fact of history.

Historically it was also well-nigh universal. I know you’ve heard otherwise, but its universality is simply another fact. Western civilization didn’t invent slavery. In fact, civilization itself didn’t invent slavery. Some of the most degrading forms slavery has taken developed within hunter-gatherer communities.

I learned these things years ago when I read the best treatment of the subject that I have come across,  Orlando Patterson’s, Freedom in the Making of Western Culture. (It won the National Book Award in 1991.)

Patterson is a social historian at Harvard University. He is also a descendant of slaves. (He was born in Jamaica.)

Based upon what I learned from Patterson I think its safe to say we’re all the descended from slaves. Somewhere, at some point in the dim past, your ancestors were slaves.

Early on in the book Patterson recounts his dismay when he learned that slavery was a universal institution, while freedom has a very particular and surprising provenance. What we know as freedom today arose in the West, in the very civilization that many people making a good living love to denigrate.

But here’s another surprising thing that Patterson reveals: it is the experience of slavery that served as a midwife for freedom. That shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with the Bible. It was bondage in Egypt that was the womb for the nation of Israel. Exodus is the story of their liberation.

How odd then that the Israelites should have permitted slavery. Or so it seems to us. And I think it is the same apparent inconsistency that bothers many people today when they read the household codes of the New Testament. Those codes made room for slavery. Why didn’t Christians simply free their slaves? Why didn’t Paul command them to? What’s all this about obey your masters?

While I’m sure that many Christian slave owners continued holding slaves for bad reasons, and while it is true that over time the emphasis on spiritual freedom in Christianity provided a theological basis for challenging the institution, still here in the New Testament we have codes telling slaves to obey their masters.

What do we do with that? No one says we should bring slavery back–no one we should listen to anyway. But more important for me is the claim that the codes as a whole are defunct because they provided for slavery. Ipso facto, wife, don’t bother respecting your husband, after all the code that calls for that also told slaves to obey.

I think defenders of the codes are familiar with that line of argument. But rather than address the role of wives, or children for that matter, I’d like to spend the rest of my time looking at slavery.

I think the place to begin is with the fact that I noted above: historically slavery was nearly universal. And something doesn’t get to be universal unless it solves certain problems.

I think we all know what one of those problems is: the problem of cheap labor.

But is that all there is to it? That addresses the demand side of things, but what about the supply? Sure, people could be born into slavery and you can wage war to acquire slaves. But there is something deeper to consider.

“Slavery is the permanent, violent, and personal domination of natally alienated and generally dishonored persons. …(A slave) does not belong to the legitimate social or moral community.” pp. 9-10

Social displacement can happen in many ways: warfare (as I’ve already noted), natural disasters, economic insolvency, and so it goes, ad infinitum. When people are displaced, the problem for a society is the problem of re-placement. Where do you put these people? There are relatives, of course. But what if they’re lost, or overwhelmed, or just unwilling?

Most people don’t think along these lines today. Individualism blinds us to a plain fact Aristotle noted: we’re social animals. We truly do need other people. Furthermore, many of the social institutions we take for granted could only have come into being in an advanced industrial civilization like ours. (Think of where all those charities and government social services we rely upon would be without fractional banking or taxes levied on the capital of highly productive corporations. They just wouldn’t exist.)

The cultures of antiquity in the near east and in Europe didn’t have those things. They were made up largely of hardscrabble households. When displaced persons needed somewhere to go, it was houses that took them in.

Some slave holding households could be quite large. The houses of the Patricians in Rome for example, or the house of Pharaoh in Egypt. But you see the point.

And once they’re brought into a household there’s the whole problem of where these people go in the hierarchy. You don’t suppose the folks who are already there are keen on being displaced themselves? And what about inheritance? How do these newcomers fit into the household’s long term prospects?

So you see, taking people into households solved the displacement problem. But it created new problems. and the answer to those problems was slavery. A slave was a person who contributed to the economic livelihood of a household without enjoying ownership or inheritance rights.

Hopefully this is beginning to make a little sense. Abolishing slavery is a little more complicated than just legislating it away. Slavery solved problems. To abolish slavery for good you must find new solutions for solving those problems.

And this is what western civilization has done. After many fits and starts and a lot of bloodshed over many centuries, we’ve managed to do it. But I suspect that the only way to keep slavery abolished is by keeping the institutions that have replaced it healthy. Lose those and slavery will be back.

But functional households don’t need slaves to function. And a wife is not a slave, neither are children. They are members of a house and enjoy the full benefits of membership. They are not property, they help to work property and derive a living from it. And this is one of the reasons why members of a household submit to its governing authority–the head of the house. Ideally it is in their interest to do so, because a household is a commonwealth and its members must work together to realize that wealth. And wherever people work together someone must serve as the head of the enterprise.

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