Slavery, Abolitionism, and the Ethics of Biblical Scholarship
Hector Avalos

In this immensely wide-ranging and fascinating study, Avalos critiques the common claim that the abolition of slavery was due in large part to the influence of biblical ethics. Such a claim, he argues, is characteristic of a broader phenomenon in biblical scholarship, which focuses on defending, rather than describing, the ethical norms encountered in biblical texts.
The first part of Avalos’s critique explores how modern scholars have praised the supposed superiority of biblical ethics at the cost of diminishing or ignoring many similar features in ancient Near Eastern cultures. These features include manumission, fixed terms of service, familial rights, and egalitarian critiques of slavery. At the same time, modern scholarship has used the standard tools of biblical exegesis in order to minimize the ethically negative implications of many biblical references to slavery.

The second part of the book concentrates on how the Bible has been used throughout Christian history both to maintain and to extend slavery. In particular, Avalos offers detailed studies of papal documents used to defend the Church’s stance on slavery. Discussions of Gregory of Nyssa, Aquinas and Luther, among others, show that they are not such champions of freedom as they are often portrayed.

Avalos’s close readings of the writings of major abolitionists such as Granville Sharp, William Wilberforce and Frederick Douglass show an increasing shift away from using the Bible as a support for abolitionism. Biblical scholars have rarely recognized that pro-slavery advocates could use the Bible just as effectively. According to Avalos, one of the complex mix of factors leading to abolition was the abandonment of the Bible as an ethical authority. The case of the biblical attitude to slavery is just one confirmation of how unsuitable the Bible is as a manual of ethics in the modern world.

Hector Avalos is Professor of Religious Studies in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Iowa State University, Ames, IA.

Series: Bible in the Modern World, 38
978-1-907534-28-7 hardback
Publication November 2011 (not yet published)

1. Introduction
Basic Elements of the Thesis
Defining Slavery
Biblical Scholars and Slavery
The Historiography of Abolition
Ethics and the New Atheism


2. Unethical Hermeneutics
Reinterpretation: Does Original Intent Matter?
Communitarian/Analogical Reinterpretations

3. Near Eastern Ethics and Slavery
Mesopotamian Beginnings
Egypt and Divine Care for Humanity
Hittites and Lex talionis
Greece and the Bonds of Freedom
Rome: Home of Slavery and Freedom
The Imago Dei and Universal Inequality
Reversing Comparative Ethics

4. Slavery in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament
Lexicographers as Apologists
Genesis 1:26: Let Dominion Begin
Genesis 3:16 and Female Subjugation
Genesis 9:19-27 and Noah’s Curse
Genesis 16: Rape of a Slave Woman?
Genesis 17:12 and Genital Mutilation
Genesis 17:23: Abraham, the Blessed Slavemaster
Exodus 1-15: A Liberationist Paradigm?
Exodus 20:10 / Deuteronomy 5:12-15 and the Sabbath
Exodus 21:1-6 and Term Limits
Exodus 21:16 and “Manstealing”
Exodus 21:20: Killing Slaves
Exodus 21:26-27: Beating Manumission
Leviticus 25:42: Who’s your Master?
Leviticus 25:35-43: Jubilee Manumission
Leviticus 25:44-46: Enslaving Outsiders
Deuteronomy 15 and Inner Biblical Progress
Deuteronomy 23:15: Fugitive Slaves
1 Samuel 8: Exclusive Service to Yahweh?
Ezra 2:64-65 and Slave Societies
Job 31:13-15 and Justice for Slaves
Joel 2:28-29: Possessing Slaves

5. Slavery in the New Testament
Matthew 7:12: The Golden Rule
Acts 17:26 and Human Unity
1 Corinthians 7:21: Better to Remain in Slavery?
Galatians 3:28: A Magna Carta of Humanity?
Galatians 4:7: No Longer Slaves?
Ephesians 6:5: Obedience through Terror
Philippians 2:4-6: Slavery as Human Destiny
Colossians 3:18-4:1: The Magic of Socio-Rhetorical Criticism
1 Timothy 1:10: Manstealing
1 Timothy 6: Honoring Christian Slavemasters
Philemon: What Are You Insinuating?
Why Was the New Testament Not More Vocal?

6. Christ as Imperial Slavemaster
Imperial Political Rhetoric 101
Christ as Emperor
Christ as Slavemaster
Jesus and God’s Plantation
Christ and the Least of my Brethren
Christ, the Torture Master
Are Believers Friends of Slaves?


7. Slavery in Late Antiquity
Parabiblical Sanctions
Church Doctrine
Major Theologians
Clerical and Papal Acceptance
Legal Sanction
Gregory of Nyssa
St Bathilde and St Anskar

8. St Thomas Aquinas: A Medieval Abolitionist?

9. Renaissance Popes and Slavery: A Whole Lot of Bulls

10. A Brave New World: Las Casas vs. Sepulveda

11. The Sixteenth Century: Protestants Unbound?
Martin Luther: To Hell with Equality
John Calvin: I Do Mean Slaves
Jean Bodin, the Pragmatist

12. Catholicism, Protestantism, and Louisiana Slavery
The Catholic Codes
Is Baptism a Sign of Humanity?
Was the Spanish Black Code Better?
Sex, Race and Immigration as Factors
Ursuline Nuns

13. British Abolitionists
James Ramsay
Granville Sharp
Thomas Clarkson
Quobnah Ottobah Cugoano
William Wilberforce

14. American White Abolitionists
John Woolman: A Quaker Hero
George Bourne: A Singular Scholar
David Walker: Egypt Was Better
Frederick Douglass: A Secular Humanist?

16. Explaining Abolition
Why Stark’s Thesis is Wrong
Freedom Is Inherent in Slavery
Economics: Money Matters
Non-Christian Abolition: Haiti
Demographic Imbalances
Abolition as a Military Strategy
The Decline of Biblical Authority

17. Conclusion