‘What Are Biblical Values?’ by John Collins – A Brief Review

Author: John J. Collins

Title: What Are Biblical Values? What the Bible Says on Key Ethical Issues

Publisher: Yale University Press

Year: 2019

Pages: 296

Price: $20.00

Acknowledgement: I want to thank @AlchemistNon for reading this book alongside me last year. We went chapter-by-chapter through it on a weekly basis. Though his schtick is typically philosophy of religion, his insights about the Bible are always helpful and I’m sure that they have undoubtedly seeped into this review.


During my evangelical days, I was often in line with what the larger, American evangelical subculture thought about social issues like capital punishment, crime, abortion, and so on. If you asked me my views on homosexuality, I would quote to you from the end of Romans 1 or from Leviticus 18:22.[1] Abortion? What part of “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13, NRSV) don’t you understand? Federal food assistance? “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10).[2] For just about any issue I could come up with a seemingly relevant text from the Bible that informed my opinion, or as was more often the case, was a justification for a view I already had. The Bible is useful in this way: it can be conformed to whatever position – conservative or liberal – to which we are already predisposed. Evangelicals for their part love to talk about how their values are Bible-based. But are they? What exactly are so-called “biblical values”?

 That question is the subject of John Collins’s book What Are Biblical Values? What the Bible Says on Key Ethical Issues.[3] Collins, a professor at Yale Divinity School and a respected scholar of the Hebrew Bible, considers a number of particularly relevant social issues including abortion (ch. 2), gender (ch. 3), marriage and family (ch. 4), the environment (ch. 5), slavery (ch. 6), violence and zealousness (ch. 7), and the concept of social justice (chs. 8-9). Chapter-by-chapter, he surveys the relevant biblical texts and notes frequently the complexities involved. Far from being straightforward on issues modern readers wish it would be, the Bible tends to offer its audience views with which we may agree as well as those with which we may not. To speak of “biblical values” is often somewhat of a misnomer. 

The Importance of “Conceptual Frameworks”

Context is key, and this is especially true when reading ancient texts like those found in the Bible. In ch. 1 of What Are Biblical Values? Collins probes the context of the biblical corpus, zeroing in on what he calls “conceptual frameworks”: creation, covenant, and eschatology. He writes, “Each of these frameworks entails presuppositions about the world and the human condition that are quite different from those that prevail in modern society” (p. 20). Creation, for example, entails an ancient understanding of the cosmos and its structuring. Collins observes that in the Hebrew Bible there are multiple accounts of creation: a combat myth found in Job 26:7-13, the side-by-side work of Yahweh and Wisdom in Proverbs 8, the Priestly narrative of the opening chapter of Genesis, and so on. These versions of creation have a lot to tell readers. In the Priestly narrative, for example, the world is orderly and humanity stands “at the apex of creation and is made in the image of God” (p. 29). The Yahwist’s version of creation in Genesis 2-3 takes a different approach. The status quo as such is explained by Adam and Eve’s failure to appreciate, well, the status quo. “People were expected to accept their station in society and not try to rise above it,” Collins writes (p. 32). What else is their desire to eat from the forbidden tree of the knowledge of good and evil but an attempt to rise above their station? 

The second conceptual framework Collins discusses is covenant. Arguably, the most important covenant in the Hebrew Bible is the so-called Mosaic Covenant. As Collins notes, this covenant had as its paradigm the various treaties found in the ancient Near East. Mario Liverani writes of such treaties, 

The leaders of the regional states conceived political relations as based on a hierarchy of “great kings” (the regional powers) and “small kings” (the local city-states), the latter being servants of the former, their “masters.” In some cases, especially under Mitanni and Hittite rule, formal treaties were required in order to define clearly the duties of the two parties, basically a duty of loyalty from the vassal king toward his master, and of protection from the master toward the vassal.[4]

This is exactly what we find in the covenant between Israel and Yahweh. Collins draws a line between the book of Deuteronomy with its blessings and curses and a treaty drawn up by the Assyrian king Esar-haddon, the self-styled “king of the world.”[5] Esar-haddon was concerned that his vassals show to his son Ashurbanipal the same respect they had shown him, particularly in the event that Esar-haddon dies. As Collins observes, their failure to love his son would result in a number of curses enacted by various gods: 

May Ashur, king of the gods, who decrees the fates, decree an evil and unpleasant fate for you. May he not grant you long-lasting old age and the attainment of extreme old age…. May Sin, the brightness of heaven and earth, clothe you with leprosy and forbid your entering into the presence of the gods or king. Roam the desert like the wild ass and the gazelle!… May Belet-ili, the lady of creation, cut off birth from your land; may she deprive your nurses of the cries of little children in the streets and squares.[6]

God after god is invoked to bring down curses upon those who fail to properly love and respect Ashurbanipal. In Deuteronomy, Collins writes, Yahweh “takes the place of the Assyrian king” (p. 34). He also notes that in the context of such treaties, “[l]ove…is not a matter of feeling or emotion, but rather of loyalty and obedience” A line is drawn to the words of Jesus in John 14:15 – “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”

At this juncture, Collins introduces an important term: covenantal nomism. In an endnote, he references the seminal work of the late E.P. Sanders entitled Paul and Palestinian Judaism.[7] There Sanders defines covenantal nomism as “the view that one’s place in God’s plan is established on the basis of the covenant and that the covenant requires as the proper response of man his obedience to its commandments, while providing means of atonement for transgression.”[8] Why is covenantal nomism such an important idea? Because it stands in stark contrast with the notion, made popular by Protestant polemic, that the Jews kept Torah to earn their salvation.[9] Later in Paul and Palestinian Judaism, Sanders lays out the “’pattern’ or ‘structure’ of covenantal nomism.”[10]

  • God chose Israel. 
  • God gave to Israel the Torah.
  • The Torah “implies…God’s promise to maintain the election” of Israel. 
  • It also implies Israel’s requirement to obey Torah. 
  • In the event of transgression, it allows for atonement. 
  • This atonement maintains the relationship between God and Israel.
  • Those who maintain this covenant by keeping Torah, obtaining atonement when they sin, and receive the mercy of God will be part of the group that will be saved.

“An important interpretation of the first and last points,” Sanders writes, “is that election and ultimately salvation are considered to be by God’s mercy rather than human achievement.”[11]

The importance of covenant cannot be overstated. Since “[b]iblical laws presuppose a relationship both with God and with a human community” (p. 34), what happens when we reach the New Testament? “Do the specifically Israelite laws apply to Christians, who are not part of historical Israel?” (p. 35) For Paul, the answer seems to have been, “It depends on who you are.” Collins correctly observes that Paul “dispensed Gentile converts from the ritual requirements of the Law (such as circumcision and the food laws)” (p. 35). But Jewish followers of Jesus were not gentiles, and so it seems they continued to keep Torah as any good Jew would. This included Paul.[12]

The final conceptual frame Collins mentions is the duo of eschatology and apocalypticism. During the Second Temple period, a growing number of texts were produced reflecting the idea that the status quo would soon come to an end and God would inaugurate a new kingdom. The dead would be raised and Israel would be restored to its former glory. “In the New Testament…the apocalyptic worldview is pervasive,” writes Collins (p. 37). This is an understatement. The letters of Paul are saturated in apocalyptic expectation. Even Martin Luther’s “epistle of straw,” the letter of James, sets the ill-begotten wealth of greedy rich people in the frame of eschatological judgment (James 5:3; cf. 5:7). 

The apocalyptic outlook entailed eschatological reward, but, as Collins writes, “the eschatological perspective of the New Testament poses questions for biblical values that need to be addressed” (p. 38). How many times have we encountered people for whom it could be said that they were “so heavenly minded that they were of no earthly good”? Here in the United States, specific views about eschatology, in particular dispensational understandings of it, have informed foreign policy for conservative administrations.[13] What people think about the future shape how they behave in the present, for good or for ill. As Collins observes, some topics are informed by particular views about creation (e.g., right to life issues and gender) while others “such as the environment and social justice, are profoundly affected by the way we understand the future of the world” (p. 39) 

The Issue of Slavery

With these frameworks in mind, Collins tackles chapter-by-chapter various ethical issues raised by biblical texts that are relevant to us today. In this review, I would like to zero in on one in particular that frequently comes up in the Christian vs. atheist debate: slavery. In modern times, slavery seems like an institution of the past, though its invisibility to us does not entail its non-existence. Indeed, the trafficking of adults and children for labor and sex as well as the phenomenon of debt slavery continues to be a problem for which the solutions are not simple nor easy.[14] Our modern sensibilities decry the institution altogether and we often read the ancient biblical texts through that lens. But this is not the only way to read them. For many Christians, the Bible represents the inerrant word of God and the unwavering moral authority of its Author. Perhaps, then, the Bible speaks of slavery but nothing like what transpired in the antebellum South. J. Warner Wallace, the popular apologist known for his book Cold Case Christianity, responds to the idea that the Bible condones slavery with the following: 

The slavery described in the Bible is nothing like the kind of slavery known to the modern world. In most cases it was far closer to ‘indentured servitude,’ and involved people who were either accused of a crime or were working to pay off a debt. Despite this reality, many modern-era Christians misinterpreted biblical descriptions of ‘slavery’ to advance their own selfish subjugation of American and European slaves. This doesn’t mean they were properly interpreting what the Bible says about slaves, however. In fact, the abolition movement in America and abroad was formed (and eventually implemented) by Christians like William Wilberforce, Charles Spurgeon, John Wesley and the entire Quaker movement. They cited the authority of the Bible when arguing against American and European slavery. How could such a movement refer to the Bible to make its case if the Bible condones slavery?[15]

As popular as this understanding may have been, just how accurate is it? Was the slavery described in the Bible that dissimilar from the modern variety?

Collins devotes ch. 6 (pp. 126-146) of What Are Biblical Values? to the subject of slavery. He begins with the “paradigmatic” case of Israel’s slavery in Egypt and its release, a story from which arose Liberation Theology. Critics, he notes, have at times objected to Liberation Theology, asserting that the Exodus narrative is about freedom to serve Yahweh and not socio-economic burdens placed upon the people. “But it is specious,” he writes, “to deny that the Exodus is also a story of social, economic, and political liberation” (p. 127). Collins cites Exodus 3:7-8 wherein Yahweh is said to have heard the cry of his people, was aware of their suffering, and decided to liberate them so that they can go freely to a land of abundance, “a land flowing with milk and honey” which, he writes, “is not just a place of worship. It is also a place where the liberated slaves can enjoy material well-being.” 

In the narrative world of the Torah, the perspective of the Israelites as former slaves in Egypt shaped in many ways laws regarding the foreigner. As strangers in the land of Egypt, they were abused; this was not to be so when they reached Canaan. In Exodus 22, Yahweh instructs Israel, “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (v. 21). It is not only their memory of oppression that was to shape their standards but, Collins observes, the common humanity all people shared. Quoting Job 31:15 wherein Job declares that he and his slaves both were made by God, Collins writes, “The basic reason for appreciating the common humanity of all, regardless of status, is creation, and that reason is reinforced by the founding experiencing of Israel in the Exodus” (p. 129). We see, then, the two frameworks of creation and covenant come together. 

But neither common humanity nor memory of Egyptian oppression warranted slavery’s prohibition in Israel. Collins notes that there were three basic ways one might become a slave: born into slavery, prisoner of war or victim of kidnapping, and the inability to pay off one’s debt. Each of these is represented in biblical texts, though Collins asserts that “discussions of slavery in the Hebrew Bible are primarily concerned with debt slavery” (p. 130). 

The first example Collins brings up is Exodus 21:2-6 which he sets in contrast to section 117 of the Law of Hammurabi. In the latter, a debt-slave who worked for three years was to be freed upon the fourth. In the former, the debt-slave must work six years and be freed upon the seventh. Collins allows for the possibility that Hammurabi’s rule “may have been exceptional in the ancient Near East” and that the numbers six and seven in the biblical texts have significance attached to the Sabbath. Additionally, this ordinance in Exodus comes at the beginning of the Book of the Covenant (i.e., Exodus 20:22-23:33) and therefore “may indicate that the issue was considered especially important.” Finally, and arguably of most importance in the debate on biblical slavery, Collins points out that this law from Exodus 21 is specific to Israelite slaves: “Slaves who were not Israelite could presumably be held in perpetuity” (p. 131). 

That seems too soft. Arguably, the text of Exodus 21:2-6 exhibits two kinds of slavery: debt-slavery and chattel-slavery. Note that if the debt-slave comes in with a wife and children, then upon completion of his service they too are be freed with him (v. 3). But things are different if he becomes married and has children while being enslaved: “If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s and he shall go out alone” (v. 4). In other words, they are chattel. Joshua Bowen in his excellent book on biblical slavery writes, “If the male slave was given a wife by the master, she would have almost certainly have been a female slave. Her release was not required, nor the children’s, as they would have been considered houseborn slaves.”[16] Collins agrees: “If the enslaved man is given a wife and has children, these remain the property of the master” (p. 131). If the debt-slave wishes to remain with his wife and children, chattel he becomes (vv. 5-6). 

This is certainly offensive. Why couldn’t the owner release the debt-slave, his recently acquired wife, and children? What possible justification could there be for retaining them? The answer is to be found in economic power structures: the woman and her children are of no value to the owner when they are no longer in his possession. This is key in understanding this text. Collins writes, “The law is tilted to the advantage of the slave owner by making it difficult for the slave to go free” (p. 132). He finds a “similar tilt” just a few verses later in vv. 20-21 wherein a slave owner is only punished if a slave he has struck with a rod dies immediately. “But if the slave survives a day or two,” v. 21 reports, “there is no punishment; for the slave is the owner’s property.” It is the owner who holds the reins of power, lording it over slaves. 

After looking at a few other texts from the Hebrew Bible, Collins moves on to slavery in the Second Temple period. Of interest here is the varied views on slavery: the Samaria Papyri, on the one hand, “consists largely of slave contracts” (and likely that of Judeans and Samaritans); on the other hand, certain sects like the Essenes, per both Philo and Josephus, rejected slavery altogether (although textual evidence from Qumran may argue against this). Collins writes that even if Philo and Josephus were wrong about them, “they still show that it was not inconceivable that a Jewish community should reject slavery, however unusual such rejection may have been” (p. 136). 

What about Jesus of Nazareth, a Second Temple Jew? Collins devotes a single paragraph to the subject, opening with this salient line: “Jesus often refers to slaves in his parables without ever questioning the morality of the institution” (p. 136). The first text he mentions is illustrative: Matthew 24:45-51, the so-called parable of the unfaithful slave. The story itself is deeply troubling. If the slave does well, he is rewarded by the master; if the slave does poorly, the master “will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (v. 51). While it is clear from context that this particular pericope has eschatological overtones, it nevertheless functions to normalize slavery and its inherent violence. In their commentary on the text, W. D. Davies and Dale Allison write that the sin of the slave was to usurp his master by doing all that v. 49 reports: “From a slave’s point of view, masters were precisely those who ate and drank and beat their servants.”[17] In response, the master punishes the slave in the harshest terms possible. Does Jesus object to this? Not in the least. The parable works in the context of Matthew’s Olivet Discourse precisely because of slavery’s violence. The Matthean Jesus never condemns it because he naturally assumes its legitimacy and the right of slave owners to do as they wish with their property. 

Next, Collins looks at the Pauline corpus, noting places wherein slavery is mentioned. Per Collins, “Paul’s views on slavery are spelled out most explicitly in 1 Corinthians 7:21-24” (p. 137). The last verse – “In whatever condition you were called, brothers and sisters, there remain with God” – is key. Paul thinks the current age is about to come to a close. Why bother with pursuing manumission? The problem is that the end didn’t come. What to do about slavery then? One answer is reflected in the Deutero-Pauline texts of Ephesians, Colossians, and the Pastoral Epistles. The “Household Codes” represent ways of structuring Christian communities in light of the delayed Parousia.[18] In Ephesians 6, for example, slaves are called upon to show their masters respect and to serve them enthusiastically (vv. 5-8) while masters are told to stop threatening their slaves in light of the fact that both slave and slave owner have a singular “Master in heaven” (v. 9). It is almost comical the lopsidedness here. Like the law in Exodus 21, the Household Code here “tilts” toward the slave owner. And as Collins observes, “The New Testament does not demand that Christians manumit slaves” (p. 143). 

To close his chapter on slavery, Collins turns first to the ways in which the language of slavery is used commendably in the New Testament before looking at the relationship of abolition. Not only is Christ said to take upon himself “the form of a slave” in Philippians 2:7, various New Testament writers describe themselves as slaves including Paul (e.g., Philippians 1:1), the author of the epistle of James (James 1:1), the author of 2 Peter (2 Peter 1:1), and others. For modern readers, this might imply humility on the part of these authors. But Collins notes that by referring to themselves as slaves, they are in fact giving themselves an air of authority. “Indeed,” he writes, “in the biblical and Near Eastern tradition, high-ranking officials were often called ‘ebed, ‘slave or servant,’ of the king” (p. 144). In his commentary on the letter of James, Dale Allison considers James’s use of doulos in the very first verse and concludes, “We do not, then, have here self-abnegation but high station: the author is like those fortunate slaves in the Graeco-Roman world who had powerful masters and, accordingly status. He speaks with authority.”[19]

The language of slavery used in this way only served to cement the institution’s hold. In later centuries, particularly in the antebellum South, the Bible’s rhetoric on slavery could at once embolden the abolitionist and inflame the slave owner. This was especially true of the epistles of Paul. Writing on the letter of Philemon, Allen Dwight Callahan writes, 

Though touted as the apostle of freedom, Paul’s letters were used to legitimate American slavery. Antebellum proslavery apologists called the epistle to Philemon, supposedly a cover letter attending the return of a runaway slave to his angry master, “the Pauline Mandate.” The letter was their biblical sanction for the return of fugitive slaves. Pauline exhortations to servile obedience in the Pauline epistles became the raw material for the catechesis of slaves in the early nineteenth-century plantation missions. Thus Paul became, in the minds of slave and master alike, the patron saint of the master class.[20]

Such application of a text like Paul’s letter to Philemon is commentary on the problem with the claim that one espouses “biblical values.” One can find within these ancient documents both support for abolition and support for slavery. How does one adjudicate between these options? The “final authority” is our own interpretive preferences and not the texts themselves. Collins concludes along similar lines, though he is far more optimistic: 

Slavery is no longer a matter of public debate. No one would now argue that because it is accepted in the Bible it should be accepted in modern society. But for that very reason it provides an illuminating test case in biblical values. In this case, at least, it is indisputable that positions endorsed in the Bible are morally unacceptable. We may still look to more general principles in the Bible for moral guidance. Freedom remains a biblical value, proclaimed ringingly in the story of the Exodus and in the baptismal formula of in Galatians 3:28. But we must also acknowledge that the implementation of these principles in the Bible often falls short, even by the Bible’s own standards. (p. 146)


“The Bible is not a book: it is a library.”[21] That line from historian Paula Fredriksen is as salient as it is memorable. We do well to remind ourselves that “the Bible” is a construct, one that hasn’t always existed. Consequently, searching for what “the Bible” says on a given topic is fraught with difficulty. The value of so-called “biblical values” is person dependent. Collins, commenting on how critics of those who defend the apparent barbarism found in the Hebrew Bible decry it as cherry-picking, notes that such cherry-picking is far from arbitrary: “It is based on priorities that are affirmed within the Bible itself and that also accord with humanistic principles” (p. 220). That is, the lens through which we view the world – its people, mores, ethics, and so on – informs our interpretation of these ancient texts just as much or perhaps more than those ancient texts inform our view of the world. Good people will find good things in the Bible to emulate and defend; bad people will find bad things in the Bible to emulate and defend. We come to the texts heavy laden with interpretive baggage. How could this not color our understanding of those texts? 

But this is true of virtually any text, and Collins finishes his book with what I find to be cause for hope: “The Bible is important as a reminder that our history, and indeed our present, is flawed, even as it also reminds us of the higher ideals to which we should aspire” (p. 220). The Bible is like us: messy, complicated, double-minded, and, at times, dangerous. It is, after all, a human production. But humans also have the capacity for greatness and in the pages of the Bible one may find the rhetorical resources to fight for the poor or assist widows and orphans or speak truth to power. The Bible can inspire the best in us, regardless of whether a deity inspired it in the first place. 

[1] However, during my Reformed days I had no issue with gay marriage since I believed that even if homosexuality was a sin, gay marriage had no bearing on my own. The state could grant marriage to whomever it wished without in any way affecting God’s design for it.

[2] Unless otherwise noted, all citations of biblical texts are from the New Revised Standard Version.

[3] John J. Collins, What Are Biblical Values? What the Bible Says on Key Ethical Issues (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019).

[4] Mario Liverani, “Historical Overview,” in A Companion to the Ancient Near East, edited by Daniel Snell (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005), 11.

[5] To read in English translation the content of treaties made by Esar-haddon, see Michael D. Coogan, A Reader of Ancient Near Eastern Texts: Sources for the Study of the Old Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 105-108. 

[6] Translation taken from Coogan, A Reader of Ancient Near Eastern Texts, 107.

[7] E.P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2017). Sanders’s work was originally published in 1977. 

[8] Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, 75. 

[9] Pamela Eisenbaum, Paul Was Not a Christian: The Original Message of a Misunderstood Apostle (New York: HarperOne, 2009), 63.

[10] Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, 422.

[11] Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, 422.

[12] On this, see Paula Fredriksen, Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017), 94-130.

[13] On this, see Malcolm Magee, “US Foreign Policy and Religion” (12.19.17), Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion

[14] See “What Is Modern Slavery?” state.gov.

[15] J. Warner Wallace, “Quick Shot: ‘The Bible Condones Slavery’” (6.17.19), coldcasechristianity.com.

[16] Joshua Bowen, Did the Old Testament Endorse Slavery? (Mechanicsville, MD: Digital Hammurabi Press, 2020), 82.

[17] W. D. Davies and D. C. Allison, Matthew 19-28 (London: Bloomsbury, 1997), 389. 

[18] Cf. Fredriksen, Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle, 169.

[19] Dale Allison, Jr., James: A Critical and Exegetical Commentary, International Critical Commentary Series (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013), 124.

[20] Allen Dwight Callahan, “’Brother Saul’ – An Ambivalent Witness to Freedom,” in Onesimus Our Brother: Reading Religion, Race, and Culture in Philemon, edited by Matthew V. Johnson, James A. Noel, and Demetrius K. Williams (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012), 143.

[21] Paula Fredriksen, Paul: The Pagan’s Apostle, 8.

1 thought on “‘What Are Biblical Values?’ by John Collins – A Brief Review

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close