A Case of Religious Amnesia?

Our citing of Biblical authority can sometimes be truly selective.

Slaves on the West Coast of Africa, c.1833 (oil on canvas)

“The Slave Trade,” by Auguste François Biard, 1840

On a recent Sunday, I was sitting in church waiting for the service to begin. To kill time, I picked up a pew Bible. I opened to the book of 1 Timothy and began reading.

You don’t get far into Timothy before you run into these words:

Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it legitimately. This means understanding that the law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, fornicators, sodomites, slave traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me. (1 Timothy 1:8-11 NRSV)

 In this passage, the author (ostensibly Paul) lists examples of those who are lawless, godless, and sinful. They include the ones we usually expect: murderers, fornicators, liars, and perjurers. He also includes sodomites. This makes this verse then one that opponents of homosexuality customarily cite as Scriptural authority against this practice.

But what captured my attention this time was the inclusion of two words I had never noticed before: slave traders. They hit me like a new revelation. I was perplexed. How could I have missed them ever before?

I decided to check out a couple of other translations. The King James Bible reads menstealers. The Revised Standard Version and the New English Bible (two translations I often use) read kidnappers.

I was curious what the Greek word was behind these English translations. It is andrapodistes. Curious what this word meant, I checked my Greek-English dictionary. The first meaning listed was slave traders, the second kidnappers. The same was true with other dictionaries I checked. So it appears that the primary meaning is slave traders.

Those two words have a different connotation for most modern people than does the word kidnappers. In our society, we tend to think of kidnappers as seizing people to hold for ransom or for blackmail. We do not think of them seizing people to sell into slavery, because Western society has abolished slavery.

But in the ancient world, the chief reason for kidnapping was to capture human beings to sell in the slave trade. Pirates on the Mediterranean were particularly notorious in this respect. They made sea travel in the Greco-Roman world particularly hazardous until Roman power was able to greatly reduce the danger during the Pax Romana.

Puzzled by a Lack of Citation

 Now I was fascinated that the author of 1 Timothy would include slave traders in his list of notorious sinners. Early Christianity had generally taken a somewhat accommodating stance towards slavery, as we see in references to slavery in the New Testament. The Christian movement welcomed slaves into the church, but raised no public protest against the practice of slavery.

Slavery was accepted as part of the social structure which may be ultimately passing away, but in the meantime, Christians had to live with it. This is reflected in the frequent New Testament counsel to slaves to be obedient to their masters.

But here in 1 Timothy I find a discordant note. The author may not deplore slavery itself, but he certainly deplores the slave trade in the strongest possible terms by including slave traders in his list of notorious sinners. I find it a singular and most unexpected voice to find in the New Testament.

Given all the brouhaha that Christians have given to the fact that the author includes sodomites in his list, I found myself asking why I have never heard anyone in the many classes I have taken on the Bible call attention to the fact that slave traders are also included in the list.

Christian history has certainly never shown much anxiety about this verse when it has come to Christians engaging in the slave trade. Christians just as much as pagan pirates have seemed to practice the trade with no great pangs of conscience. This contrasts so dramatically with Christian obsession about what 1 Timothy says about homosexuality.

I am not familiar with the literature of the Abolitionists in antebellum America. But I wonder if they ever cited this verse in their polemics against slavery, and in particular the business of slave trading. Last summer I read Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin for the first time. It is a fierce denunciation of the evil of slave trading, but nowhere in the novel do I remember Stowe or any of her characters citing this verse.

I am puzzled by why such silence has tended to follow this mention of slave trading in the New Testament. It raises for me the question: Are we dealing with a case of deliberate and selective religious amnesia?