The photo appended to this post is of an ancient Roman slave collar. It would have been worn by a slave and identified, among other things, who was their master. This particular collar follows that formula and has written on it the following: “I have run away; hold me. When you have brought me back to my master Zoninus, you will received a gold coin.”

This collar provides a historical introduction to a new series of blog posts looking at slavery in the New Testament as well as some of the consequences on latter-day Christian thought the the New Testament’s teaching pertaining to slavery has had. This particular picture does another thing, it is a visual representation that slavery in the time of the New Testament is both similar and distinct from our contextual understanding of slavery as practiced by colonial European powers and in the Americas. Thus, in today’s introductory post we will set the aim of the next couple of weeks as we look to examine the ancient world’s understanding of slavery and the New Testament’s teaching on the topic.

Frederick Douglas, the American social reformer and writer, was born a slave in 1817. Douglas escaped from slavery in 1838 and would become a towering figure in the abolitionist movement by traveling and giving speeches on his experiences as a slave. Speech-writing and oratory eventually developed into an autobiography, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas, an American Slave.” One early passage from Douglas’s narrative exemplifies the violence of the slave system—the whipping of Aunt Hester. Douglas recorded what he witnessed: “No words, no tears, no prayers, from his gory victim, seemed to move his iron heart from its bloody purpose. The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped; and where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped longest. He would whip her to make her scream and whip her to make her hush.”[1] Thus, Douglas invites his readers through the same “blood-stained gate” that ushered him as a young child into the realities of slave life.[2]

Though the cruelty of the slave system—especially as practiced in North America—is clear, it is equally evident that some self-professed Christians claimed slavery as just and warranted by the Bible. The charge from critics of Christianity has been that proof-texts from the Bible, as well as the historical record of Christianity on slavery, provided the fuel for slave owners to continue to uphold the slave system. One such critic, Dr. Forrest Wood, is clear about the record, “English North Americans embraced slavery because they were Christians, not in spite of it.”[3] The next series of blog posts will argue, contrary to the critics, that only within Christian theism is there an appropriately dignified view of human beings to justify the abolition of the ownership of other human beings, and that the historical record—though with some aberrations—shows that contention to be true. That is, only Christian theism supplies the intellectual resources necessary to bring about an ethos of abolition.

That may seem a strong claim and I would love to hear what you think about it before we dive in. What other system of belief or ethic do you think provides a necessary grounding for the abolition of slavery?

Footnotes:

            [1] Frederick Douglass, Deborah E. McDowell, and John Charles, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 18

            [2] Douglas, 18.

            [3] Forrest Wood, The Arrogance of Faith: Christianity and Race in America from the Colonial Era to the Twentieth Century (Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press, 1991), 38.