Book Reviews

Recent Research on Paul and Slavery

John Byron Sheffield 2008-08-11

Christians and non-Christians have been troubled that Paul never explicitly condemned slavery. This silence has led to a number of divergent conclusions about his view on the subject. These range from approval to rejection of the practice. Paul’s silence has also seemingly been an embarrassment to modern-day Christians, which has contributed to the range of conclusions about Paul’s view. These include a suggestion that Paul’s interest was in the spiritual, so that he was not necessarily concerned with temporary physical emancipation, which could result in false conversions (i.e., slaves converting only to be free). Also some have attempted to draw a distinction between ancient slavery and more modern forms, resulting in a view that ancient slavery was somehow better than modern expressions of it.

The issues are complex and in some cases can be historically tied to events and experiences of a specific time. Byron has surveyed the views on select aspects of the issue over the last two hundred years and has made a welcome contribution to study of this difficult subject.

The book includes an introduction, five chapters, and an epilogue. Byron’s scriptural focus is 1 Corinthians 7:21 and the Epistle to Philemon. He does not include any significant discussion of Ephesians 6:5–9 or Colossians 3:22–4:1 because he does not believe these were written by Paul.

After a brief introduction Byron’s first chapter is a helpful survey of views on the subject. This chapter classifies approaches to Pauline silence in four categories: (a) Paul approved of slavery; (b) Paul taught a Stoic-like inner-freedom approach that was centered on the spiritual, not the physical; (c) ancient slavery was less severe than modern forms of slavery; and (d) others have focused on the practical and violent aspects of slavery. Byron notes that some have viewed Paul’s eschatological focus as a reason for the lack of emphasis on his present social situation.

The second chapter provides an exclusively African-American voice on the issue. Byron acknowledges that a separate chapter may suggest among other things that such scholars are somehow separate from mainstream biblical scholarship. However, Byron is correct to have included a separate chapter on this topic. In light of American history African Americans have a unique perspective that is beneficial when heard on its own. Byron’s concerns about his approach are helpful and they put the chapter in context. As with other scholars, there is diversity among African American voices. This chapter highlights the tension between Paul and the African American community.

In chapter 3 Byron surveys opinions on the vast majority of Pauline slavery references, which are metaphors. As in previous chapters a history of interpretation is presented with an emphasis on recent interpreters.

In chapter 4, which discusses 1 Corinthians 7:21, Byron believes this is the only Pauline passage where slaves are actually addressed. The interpretation of this passage is highly disputed, in part because an ellipsis demands that the interpreter supply the actual instruction. Byron lists seven words and phrases that have been the source of debate (p. 93). Some have suggested that this passage instructed slaves to remain in slavery in order to use slavery to promote the gospel even if offered freedom. Others have suggested that slaves should take freedom if offered. As in the other chapters a history of interpretation with evaluation is included. The “remain-in-slavery” interpretation was dominant for the first 1,500 years of the church. During the Reformation this began to shift. During the middle of the twentieth century, the “use slavery” interpretation was gaining favor again. However, since 1995 in light of some important contributions, it seems that no one has taken this latter option.

In the final chapter, on Philemon, Byron discusses Onesimus’s status. Was he a runaway slave? How and why did he go to Paul? Who was his master?

In the epilogue Byron suggests areas where New Testament scholarship has been changing. These include the use of sources and the questioning of some assumptions: conditions of slavery (now seen as negative), self sale, and upward mobility of slaves (both of which are now generally not accepted as significant). The volume concludes with a bibliography and two indexes (references and authors).

The omission of a discussion of Ephesians and Colossians is a weakness in this volume. Byron mentions on a number of occasions that he does not specifically address Ephesians and Colossians because he does not believe they are Pauline (e.g., p. 92 n. 1). Even though Byron does not believe these books are Pauline, a chapter on these letters as part of the Pauline corpus would have been helpful to many readers. There are at least two reasons for this. First, for those who hold to Pauline authorship, omission of these chapters leaves one thinking the treatment is incomplete. It would have been helpful to see how these books are handled in light of the discussion on 1 Corinthians 7:21 and Philemon. Furthermore most scholars who reject Pauline authorship of Ephesians and/or Colossians maintain that their authors were influenced by Paul. Byron could have discussed development from this perspective. Second, most of the people using the Bible in the debate about slavery in the 1800s would have maintained Pauline authorship for these books. Can the teaching about slavery in Ephesians and Colossians be separated from 1 Corinthians 7:21 and Philemon during this crucial period? These observations should justify treatment of these passages in light of their importance in the debate.

Despite criticism about the omission of significant discussion of Ephesians and Colossians, this is an excellent volume. Many of the observations apply to the entire Pauline corpus. Also although large-scale, officially sanctioned slavery such as that practiced in the United States is now a sad stain on the history of the world, slavery is not gone. Unfortunately slavery of various kinds is still practiced worldwide. Understanding the biblical text can contribute to the extinction of slavery. Although few readers of this review will have had direct personal experience with slavery, one dare not lose sight of the fact that real people were involved as both slaves and masters. And some of these people were part of the church. Byron’s volume helps emphasize the ongoing importance of this issue in biblical interpretation and contemporary experience.

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Joseph D. Fantin
Dr. Fantin believes an accurate understanding of God's Word will enable the believer to grow in his or her relationship with Christ, to love God and others, to bring Christ's love to a lost world, to build up the church, and most importantly, to glorify God. He is committed to teaching exegetical method in order to help students understand, apply, and teach the Bible in order to achieve these goals. His research interests include the prison epistles, the first-century world, Greek, linguistics, and relevance theory. He and his wife, Robin, have two children: Jillian and David.
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