Paul, Slavery, and the African American Experience: A Recent Episode of New Testament Review

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling,
in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ”
– Ephesians 6:5 NRSV

Slavery was an integral part of Greco-Roman society. According to one estimate, in Rome itself nearly one in five residents was a slave.[1] And despite the insistence of some apologists, slavery in the first century CE was not a benign institution. Slavery meant exploitation, often sexual exploitation with all its horrific degradation.[2] It is therefore somewhat alarming to discover that the apostle Paul was hardly what one might consider an abolitionist. Despite his claim to the Galatians that in the community “[t]here is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female” (Galatians 3:28, NRSV), Paul elsewhere discourages slaves from being concerned with their status as slaves: “In whatever condition you were called, brothers and sisters, there remain with God” (1 Corinthians 7:24, NRSV; cf. 7:21-23). In fact, in his letter to Philemon Paul seems to be gently nudging the owner of the recently converted Onesimus to offer the slave as a gift to him (Philemon 1:13-14).[3] Without a doubt, Paul condoned the practice of slavery. And even if one could argue that he didn’t, Paul’s heirs certainly did (e.g., Ephesians 6:5-9).

It is therefore unsurprising that we find Pauline texts among the battery of passages put to work in defense of slavery in antebellum America. In a book historian Mark Noll describes as “one of the first modern defenses” of slavery,[4] Thomas Thompson argued in the 1770s that Paul in his letter to Philemon sanctioned the institution of slavery and, since this was the case, Thompson questioned how “genuine Christians [could] attack modern slavery, or even the slave trade, as an evil.”[5] Similarly, on the eve of the Civil War, a Presbyterian minister in Georgia employed in a sermon the words of Deutero-Paul in Ephesians 6, concluding in his homily that it was through the institution of slavery that “a lower race” was saved “from the destruction of heathenism.”[6]

Allen Dwight Callahan (St. Louis Jewish Light)

It is also surprising that among African slaves and their heirs we find Paul employed to argue quite the opposite as these slave holders, a subject Allen Dwight Callahan discusses in his 1998 piece “’Brother Saul’: An Ambivalent Witness to Freedom.”[7] Callahan, noting that for slave owners “Paul became…the patron saint of the master class” (p. 235), offers what amounts to a reception history of the apostle’s words in the works of African slaves and their descendants. “It is remarkable,” he writes, “that very few African American intellectual have openly rejected the apostolic witness as hopelessly anti-emancipatory” (p. 235). Callahan’s piece is also the subject of a recent episode of the New Testament Review podcast.[8] There the ever-capable duo of Ian Mills and Laura Robinson offer an overview of Callahan’s fascinating piece, interjecting with insights from other scholarship and summarizing Callahan’s work nicely. In discussing it, however, Mills and Robinson break their rule of only reviewing pieces that have been around for twenty or more years. But, as they make clear, Callahan’s piece is worth the rule breaking. 

Have a listen to the episode and, if you can, read Callahan’s piece for yourself!

[1] Everett Ferguson, Background of Early Christianity, third edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2003), 59.

[2] See Scot McKnight, The Letter to Philemon, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2017), 19-20; David J. Mattingly, Imperialism, Power, and Identity: Experiencing the Roman Empire (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011), 114-117.

[3] Paul tells Philemon that though he desired Onesimus to continue on with him, he nevertheless felt it out of place to require it without receiving the consent of Philemon. This is because Onesimus is first and foremost property, even to the apostle Paul. Thus, his returning of Onesimus to Philemon is out of a concern for managing property that has been in some sense lost to the slave owner. For a brief but enlightening examination of this issue, see καταπέτασμα’s recent post “Paul the slave-master: how early Christians leveraged slaves and their households” (12.18.20).

[4] Mark A. Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 33.

[5] Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, 33.

[6] Joseph R. Wilson, “Mutual Relations of Masters and Slaves as Taught in the Bible: A Discourse Preached in the First Presbyterian Church, Augusta Georgia, on Sabbath Morning, Jan 6, 1861.”

[7] Allen Dwight Callahan, “’Brother Saul’: An Ambivalent Witness to Freedom,” Slavery in Text and InterpretationSemeia 83/84, Allen Dwight Callahan, Richard A. Horsley, and Abraham Smith, editors (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 1998), 235-250. 

[8] The version of Callahan’s piece discussed in the episode appears in Onesimus Our Brother: Reading Religion, Race, and Culture in Philemon, Matthew V. Johnson, James A. Noel, and Demetrius K. Williams, editors (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012), 143-156.

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