Friday, November 04, 2005

Early Christians' Reactions to Slavery

Another interesting press release from Fortress (I've asked other publishers to send me these, but to no avail, so Fortress continues to get the free publicity that others don't):
Early Christians’ Reaction to the Practice of Slavery

MINNEAPOLIS (November 4, 2005)— How did early Christians think about slaves? J. Albert Harrill argues in his new book, Slaves in the New Testament, that they did so using conventional stereotypes familiar from ancient moral philosophy, handbook literature, and the comic stage.

In this significant new analysis of slaves and slavery in the New Testament, Harrill breaks new ground with his extensive use of Greco-Roman evidence, explicit attention to hermeneutics, and treatment of the use of the New Testament in antebellum U.S. slavery debates. He examines in detail Philemon, I Corinthians, Romans, Luke-Acts, and the household codes.

While scholars have often treated references to slaves in the New Testament as evidence of the “liberating” participation of enslaved people in early Christianity, Harrill shows that many of the figures appearing in the New Testament are literary representations drawing on ancient ideologies that supported slavery. This finding then leads to an investigation of the ideological use of the New Testament to justify, and use to condemn, slavery in the United States.

This study as a whole offers a hermeneutical challenge to the noble dream that biblical criticism can settle Christian moral debate.

"Harrill combines wide-ranging knowledge of ancient sources with a sharp eye for the jugular of a text. The result is that rare thing in biblical scholarship, genuinely fresh insights into an old question. A book both delightful and disturbing, Slaves in the New Testament demolishes a card house of wishful thinking about early Christian views on slavery. Everyone who believes that the Bible has something to say about moral issues needs to pay attention."
Wayne A. Meeks, Woolsey Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies Department of Religious Studies, Yale University

"Far more than a historical study of slavery in early Christianity, Harrill's remarkable book raises profound moral questions for the field of Biblical Studies and for the Christian churches. Nineteenth-century debates over whether the Bible supports slavery forged the schools of thought that shape today's debates over lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered rights; the full emancipation of women; or capital punishment. Harrill deftly analyzes a range of New Testament and other Christian sources, demonstrating how frequently they echo Roman society's slave-holding values and anxieties about living with people forcibly held in bondage."
Bernadette Brooten, Robert and Myra Kraft and Jacob Hiatt Professor of Christian Studies, Brandeis University

J. Albert Harrill is Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Adjunct Associate Professor of History and Jewish Studies, and Director of the Ancient Studies Program at Indiana University. He is author of The Manumission of Slaves in Early Christianity (Mohr [Siebeck], 1995).

Slaves in the New Testament: Literary, Social, and Moral Dimensions

Format: Hardcover with jacket, 6” x 9”, 360 pp

ISBN: 0-8006-3772-0

Price: $45.00

Format: Paperback, 6” x 9”, 360 pp

ISBN: 0-8006-3781-X

Price: $25.00

Publisher: Fortress Press

To order Slaves in the New Testament please call Fortress Press at 1-800-328-4648 or visit the Web site at To request review copies or exam copies, or to discuss speaking engagements or interviews, please call 1-800-426-0115 ext. 234 or email


Whit said...

Sounds interesting! We read a book called Slavery, Sabbath, War and Women by Willard M. Swartley in seminary that how in each case the Bible was used to argue both sides of the issues. It concluded with some ideas on how then the Biblical texts might be used in such debates.

Matt Page said...

It's interesting that Moses in popular culture is now seen as a great anti-slavery figure (due in no small part to DeMille's film The Ten Commandments), yet the biblical figure, other than freeing his own people from Egyptian masters, still retains and regulates slavery within the Law.