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Jesus the slave beater?

November 24, 2014

The topic of slavery and the Bible brings out very robust criticisms from atheists. Many atheists point to the passages in the Bible which provide instructions on the treatment of slaves. Some go so far as to suggest that Jesus approved of slavery and the beating of slaves.

Victor Stenger in his book The New Atheism quotes Dan Barker where  he says that ‘Jesus encouraged the beating of slaves’ (p.110). I debated an atheist who claimed this and one of our regular (and much valued) commenters wrote a post on this topic where she said,

Jesus said not a word against slavery and implicitly approved it by using it in a parable in which he sanctions the beating of slaves, more harshly or less, according to their culpable failure to follow their master’s wishes (Luke 12:45-48)

There seems to be a widespread view amongst atheists that Jesus himself not only advocated slavery, but also the beating of slaves!

Scholarship of the poorest quality – Jesus says exactly the opposite

Yet this claim is groundless and involves the most appalling exegesis. To claim that Jesus sanctioned the beating of slaves is scholarship of the poorest quality. Luke 12 does talk about beating slaves, but it would be completely incorrect to use this passage to justify beating slaves or to suggest that Jesus sanctioned the beating of slaves – in fact Jesus said exactly the opposite.

This is the passage in question:

 The Lord answered, “Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom the master puts in charge of his servants to give them their food allowance at the proper time? 43 It will be good for that servant whom the master finds doing so when he returns. 44 Truly I tell you, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. 45 But suppose the servant says to himself, ‘My master is taking a long time in coming,’ and he then begins to beat the other servants, both men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk. 46 The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the unbelievers. 47 “The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. 48 But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” (Luke 12:42-48 NIV)

The context in which Jesus says these things is where Jesus adds comments to the previous parable (Ch 12:35-40) which is about being ready for the final judgement and the coming of the Son of Man. So the immediate context of this ‘slave beating’ in verses 45-48 is ‘eschatological’ i.e. it’s about the final judgement.

The main idea of the parable in verses 42-48 is about faithfulness to what has been entrusted. Jesus delegates authority to a manager ( a servant) who manages his affairs in the master’s absence. The manager is to be faithful to the master’s requests until the master (Jesus) returns. Yet the manager (described as the master’s servant in v.45) is impatient and begins abusing his fellow servants by beating them (v.45). Jesus is savagely  critical of this servant to the extent that the manager is judged (final judgement) upon the return of the master (Jesus) and cut to pieces – a pretty scary judgement!

So what Jesus is speaking about in verses 47-48 is the final judgement where the servant who knows the masters (i.e. Jesus’) will and doesn’t act on it will be judged more severely than the man who is ignorant of the master’s will. It speaks nothing of justifying the beating of slaves in fact it says the very opposite! The man who abuses his fellow servants and beats them will be judged . This passage cannot be used to justify the beating of slaves.

Identity of the master

Confusion may surrounds the identity (and hence actions of) the ‘master’. The master in the parable is Jesus. The servant in the story acted as a form of master in that he has delegated authority i,e, manager. Jesus is critical of this particular servant who beats his fellow servants. I have indicated in this section with whom the pronouns refer to (which may be confusing to some)…

“But suppose the servant [alleged Christian] says to himself [servant], ‘My master  [Jesus] is taking a long time in coming,’ and he [servant] then begins to beat the other servants [other slaves], both men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk.46 The master of that servant [Jesus] will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He [Jesus] will cut him [servant] to pieces and assign him a place with the unbelievers.” (Luke 12:45-46 NIV).

I want to again reiterate, that Jesus says the opposite of what is being claimed – the man who beats his servants is judged at the final judgement and treated as an unbeliever!

An analogy to demonstrate the shoddy ‘scholarship’ that this claim entails

In this passage context is crucially important. An analogy which demonstrates this would be to suggest that Richard Dawkins preaches the Christian gospel! Yes, he says so on page 252 of the God Delusion, ‘‘God incarnated himself as a man, Jesus, in order that he should be tortured and executed in atonement for the hereditary sin of Adam….Jesus has been worshipped as the redeemer of all our sins’

Dawkins is saying that Jesus is the redeemer of our sins!

Yet, we know that Dawkins doesn’t really preach the Christian Gospel and any sensible reading of the context would yield an alternative reading. However to take these sentences out of context and claim the contrary would do violation to Dawkins’ intention. And this is exactly what the atheists above have done. They have twisted a passage where Jesus says  that the one who beats his slaves will be judged, to say that Jesus sanctions the beating of slaves!!

Therefore to reiterate and conclude, this parable gives no imperative nor justification for beating slaves, it speaks about the final judgement where Jesus will punish those who mistreat (and beat) other believers and ignore the message. It says exactly the opposite of what is insinuated.

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From → Bible, Jesus, Slavery

8 Comments
  1. Rob,

    The first thing you to understand about this passage is that the word you have translated as “servant” is the Greek word “doulos” which generally agreed to mean “slave”. Let me say at once that I do not speak Greek but I think you will find almost universal agreement that “slave” not “servant” is the most accurate translation of the word.

    So what you have here is a slave who was left in charge of his master’s property. That property included other slaves. Then the slave-overseer got a bit above himself in his role and started behaving as if he were the owner rather than merely the steward of the property. He got drunk and beat his fellow slaves, which was reprehensible, not because it was cruel to the other slaves, but because he was drinking the master’s and damaging the master’s human property. Beating his fellow slaves is put on a par with eating and drinking to excess. Jesus no more saw the beatings as an offence against the slaves than he saw the eating and drinking as an offence against the food and alcohol consumed.

    When the master returns, he cuts the the slave to pieces for his lack of diligence in caring for the master’s property. Translations do differ as to the punishment meted out but what Jesus says next makes it pretty clear:

    World English Bible
    12:47 “That servant, who knew his lord’s will, and didn’t prepare, nor do what he wanted, will be beaten with many stripes”

    It is that beating to which I referred when I spoke of Jesus sanctioning the beating of slaves. Undoubtedly, Jesus identifies as a returning master who beats his slaves “with many stripes.” There is no suggestion that Jesus thinks there is anything wrong with a master beating a disobedient slave, his only point being that some slaves should expect to be beaten harder than others!

    • Frances. Thanks for the comment. I agree that ‘slave’ is a correct rendering of ‘doulos’ (I do understand Greek). But semantic range in a translation allows for alternative renderings, but that is a minor issue. I’ll update my post wrt your other point, because this is causing confusion and eschatological judgement is on view here again. I will let you know when I’ve updated the post. Thanks again. Rob

  2. Ed Atkinson permalink

    Rob, I too was confused by your reply, the beating part is just from Verse 47. The rest is needed for context, as in your God Delusion point. The basic simple observation, in context, is as follows:

    1) Jesus is making a point about the final judgement and reaches for an analogy/parable, he uses something familiar in his culture: master-slave relationships
    2) Jesus picks out a feature in the master-slave relationship which is commonly agreed in the culture and so can be applied to his point
    3) That feature is major slave beating for disobedience and minor slave beating for honest mistakes, Jesus is saying ‘we all agree this is justified, so the final judgement application is justified too’
    4) So we understand that Jesus condoned beating slaves.

    This observation may be incorrect, but it is the simplest way of looking at the issue.

    Cheers, Ed

    • Ed. Do you know anyone academic sources which support your view here?

      • Ed Atkinson permalink

        Rob, I’m no help on academic sources, just take it as me reading the passage and assuming Jesus is using the master-slave as an analogy. As orators like explaining things today using analogies. Eg M L King’s famous speech where he uses a cheque analogy, if the culture he spoke to did not value the importance of honouring your cheques, then he would not have used the analogy. It also shows that he agreed that honouring cheques is important. Sorry I can’t be more helpful. Cheers, Ed

  3. kennethjwest permalink

    Rob,

    the apostle Paul clearly didn’t get the memo from his “I endorse slave beating” boss. In Ephesians 6.9 he writes “And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favouritism with him.”

    Ken

    • Kenneth,

      Not knowing anything about you, what you believe and why you believe it, I am struggling to work out what point you are making.

      An atheist would agree that Paul didn’t get any memos from Jesus because Paul never met Jesus or spoke to him (although he imagined he did both). So is your (atheistic) point that Christianity was always all over the place on the subject of slavery because its leaders had no real boss at all, and were largely reduced to making stuff up? If so, I agree with you in general but I think that on the particular issue of slaves, there was a good deal of overlap. Paul and Jesus both took it for granted that slaves should obey their masters. Of course, that was a result of their both being children of the age into which they were born and no exchange of memos required!

      Or is your (Christian) point that the if Paul believed that even disobedient slaves should not be beaten (and I’m not at all sure that he does believe that) we must assume that Jesus didn’t believe it either, because if he had disagreed, then he would have let Paul know? If that is your point, then it begs several questions.

  4. Steven Carr permalink

    Jesus states very clearly that ‘The master in the parable is Jesus.’

    And the parable states clearly that the master will mistreat people in the way the worst slave-owners mistreat people.

    ‘Jesus is savagely critical of this servant to the extent that the manager is judged (final judgement) upon the return of the master (Jesus) and cut to pieces – a pretty scary judgement!’

    You know, atheists are not totally stupid. They can read the Bible. Stop treating atheists like idiots.

    They can see that your Jesus is behaving just like the people he condemns. This is simply hypocrisy.

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