Biblical Slavery as Explained by Dr. J. Harrill

Last night at the Convergence meeting I go to with Christians and atheists such as myself, there was a talk by one of the few New Testament scholars at the university, Dr. J. Albert Harrill, about how interpreters of the Bible in 19th century America tried to argue for or against the institution of slavery based on their preferred hermeneutic. Dr. Harrill has done a lot of research on the topic of slavery and its connections with the Bible and how the Good Book was used when it came to the topic. His talk was primarily taken from his paper about the American experiments in interpreting the Bible and getting either to the anti-slavery position or (in response) the pro-slavery position.

This was a great presentation, showing how the evangelical movement of the time moved away from literalism and more towards a moral intuition approach to avoid taking the Bible to endorse slavery. Of course, he also revealed the flip-side to the use of these hermeneutics and how they could be used with just as much justification against the user or otherwise claim the position is heretical. It was all-around enlightening, seeing how both sides made arguments that everyone could see were major boners (the Golden Rule justifies your father beating you? oh, please!).

I also had a chance to chat with Dr. Harrill for a bit, and I had brought up the book by Hector Avalos on the subject of slavery published last year or so. It looks like a review of that book will be published some time this year from Harrill, so that will be useful considering how much he has been researching this topic. I also chatted with him for a bit about my own interests in biblical studies, and he seemed knowledgeable about the tiny area I looked at, all the more amazing considering he is a scholar of Paul rather than Jesus (because there’s no evidence to work with for the latter he said; I suspect he means no good evidence to work with). Hopefully I get the chance to interact with him more.

If you can, I recommend you read the article I linked to above or his book on the subject. It is a great revelation about how the Bible has been used on the moral issue we think we know the answer to so obviously now yet the holy word just wan’t making that easy a mere 150 years ago. It also helps elucidate some American history. Check it out. And if you are a believer, do use this history to ponder your own approach to scripture; you may find things are not as rosy as you like. Do it, and obey your master (Ephesians 6:5)! 😉


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