Jesus the slave beater?
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.