Friday, 16 July 2010


What does the Bible teach, at root, about slavery? The Old Testament sets up a narrative-in-small: Joseph is sold as a slave, but escapes, because he is clever enough to acquire friends in high places -- the highest, Pharaoh himself. This then structures the larger narrative of the first great movement of the Testament: the Israelites endure bondage in Egypt, but escape, because they (through Moses) are connected with the higher powers (The personal, familial relationship with Pharaoh; the 'Let my people go!'). This makes for good storytelling, but it is, at a crucial level, mendacious. After all, billions of humans have endured slavery, and almost none of them have escaped their horrible fate, for very very few slaves have ever formed useful relationships with the men at the top. But this happy-ending myth is then carried through into the New Testament, where Christ (Chrestus, 'slave') is sold, beaten and put a slave's death, but escapes not only slavery but death itself because of his personal (familial) relationship with the man at the very top. Do we take from this the moral: be clever, ingratiate yourself with the powers that be, and you'll escape slavery? That seems very wrong somehow.


Abigail Nussbaum said...

You're leaving out the most definitive Biblical statement about slavery: the Biblical laws governing it, which essentially transform slavery (or, more precisely, Jewish slavery) into indentured servitude with a six year time limit.

Francis S said...

Also, not "chrestos" = slave, but "christos" = the anointed one, someone who's had chrism applied to them; in other words, a direct Greek translation of the Hebrew word "messiah".

Adam Roberts Project said...

Abigail: that's very interesting. I've not previously come across the idea that Jewish slavery is limited to six years.

Francis S. 'Christos' does indeed mean 'the anointed one'. 'Chrestus', on the other hand, is a common Latin slave's name (Cicero had a slave called 'Chrestus'). Anthony Burgess makes a big deal of this in The Kingdom of the Wicked; his thesis is that Latin-speakers misread the unfamiliar Greek title 'Christ' as a slave's name (since Christ died, after all, a slave's death), something early Christians then embraced, theologically speaking.

(This isn't clear in my post, I appreciate: a bad habit I've gotten into of including stuff that's essentially personal shorthand. I've done it because I more-or-less assume nobody reads this blog ... ]

Opal said...

For more background on the sabbatical that Abigail mentions: