Brief Answers to Common Questions & Objections

Does the Bible Condone Slavery?

This is one of the most common allegations made against Christianity in our own day so it is important that believers know how to give an apologetic response to it.

The first likely mention of slavery is in Gen 9:24-27 where Noah reproaches his youngest son Ham for mockery of his father’s drunken nudity.  Noah then declares Ham’s son Canaan as cursed to be a “slave of slaves”(it may be that Canaan had played some role in the mockery upon which the text does not elaborate). The whole incident demonstrates how seriously God takes a sin which is dismissed as trivial in our own society- that of failing to respect parents (Exo 20:12; Mal 4:6; Eph 6:1-2; 2 Tim 3:2).

 Later the Torah would outline instructions for the regulation of slavery with the code acknowledging that a slave was the property of his master (Ex. 21:21) . In the New Testament Paul in his short epistle to Philemon tackles the problem of a slave who has run away from his Christian master. Elsewhere Paul also exhorts Christian slaves to obey their masters (Eph 6:5) & not even to be concerned about  their status as slaves (1 Cor 7:20-21).

 The complaint arises that in all of this interaction with slavery the Bible never actually denounces slavery as morally wrong. And some have suggested that instead the examples given above even appear to re-enforce the institution in some ways. However this accusation ignores Paul’s mention of “enslavers” in 1 Tim 1:10. This is a likely reference to men who participated in the slave trade and the apostle ranks them amongst those who are said to be lawless and disobedient. The apostle who exhorts the Corinthians not to become the slaves of men (1 Cor 7:23) can scarcely be construed as an endorser of slavery! 

Nevertheless it remains true that the Word never encourages God’s people to actively work towards the abolition of the practice.

 So how valid is this modern criticism?

This is a multifaceted issue which requires a thoughtful and careful evaluation. Unfortunately the approach taken by the critics is invariably naïve and simplistic.

The first point to be made is that it is pointless and foolish to seek to impose modern Western standards of thinking upon ancient peoples. As L P Hartley observed, “The past is another country, they do things differently there.” It is anachronistic to seek to impose our own value systems upon situations that were very different from our own.

 Moreover there have been many forms of slavery that have operated in human history. The word conjures up in our modern minds the brutal West African slavery of our own country’s colonial era. This, of course, is the imagery that is meant to be provoked by those who accuse the Bible on this subject.But it must never be forgotten that it was Christians who played a pivotal role in abolishing that most heinous example of the practice! Here we should note an important truth: wherever the Gospel has taken root in a nation it has always brought tremendous social improvements such as this.

 It is important to see that this colonial form of slavery was of a very different kind from that of Israelite society in Old Testament times. Graeco-Roman slavery of the 1st Century was different again. Moreover all of these ancient societies were subsistence economies where food was rarely plentiful and ordinary people often struggled to eke out a living for themselves. Slavery in these contexts essentially served as a kind of social security system for those who had fallen on hard times. Often the alternative would have been grinding poverty and even starvation.

The ancient world was heavily dependent upon slavery as a part of the economic system.  To have halted the practice would have been almost as calamitous as halting paid employment would be in the 21st Century. Without slavery much commercial activity would have ceased overnight and great suffering would have ensued, perhaps even the collapse of entire economies. We may wish to ask the accusers if that is what they would have wished to have seen happen.  

 Whilst slavery existed as a virtual economic necessity in all nations it was regulated in Israelite society to an extent unknown elsewhere e.g.

-the Bible restricted the master's power over the slave protecting the subordinate from violence (Ex. 21:20).
-the servitude of a Hebrew debt-slave was limited to six years (Ex. 21:2; Deut. 15:12).
-the slave was enabled, indeed required to rest on the Sabbath (Exodus 20:10).
--the slave was a member of the master's household (Lev. 22:11).

 This last point is key. For an Israelite slave the conditions of his life would be rather closer to that of an English domestic servant in a great 19th Century house than to the awful brutality of colonial slavery. Whilst we can regret the practice of slavery in all societies it is perverse to single out for especial criticism the one society where it operated the most humanely of all.

 Finally, a brief word in defence of those 1st Century Christians who lived under the system of their day & did not seek to change it. We must note that the majority of early Christians were themselves slaves so they were scarcely in a position to challenge the status quo.  But in any event those early believers were not social revolutionaries in the conventional sense. Instead their energies were focused upon a far greater form of slavery: that of the bondage to sin & death. This is the worst kind of slavery and the one which the early Church sought to overthrow in men's lives through the liberating power of the Gospel. May we do likewise, for that form of slavery is still very much with us.

Did the Church Alter the New Testament Manuscripts?

“We could go on nearly forever talking about specific places in which the texts of the New Testament came to be changed, either accidentally, or intentionally…”

So wrote scholar Bart Ehrman in his popular book Misquoting Jesus

 Ehrman’s thesis is that the hand-copying of the text of the New Testament over time has produced so many changes, both accidental or deliberate that it is imposible for us to have any confidence in our modern bibles. His accusation has been championed by Muslim apologists who must seek to find a way to reconcile our present New Testament with its clear Trinitarian & Christological emphases with what they purport to be the original Gospel given to Jesus.

 But we know that it is absolutely impossible for any corruption of the New Testament text over time to have altered it to the extent that we can no longer recover the original reading.

Unquestionably there are very many textual variants (places where one manuscript differs from another) in the documents which we have available to us.  Some of the changes scribes made were deliberate but they were never malicious. 

One common alteration was the so-called “expansion of piety” where the copying scribe would add fuller titles for Jesus such as “Lord” or Lord Jesus Christ” which were not actually contained in the examplar he was copying from. This was done out of reverence rather than with evil intent.

Sometimes an over-zealous scribe might seek to iron out a supposed difficulty. One classic candidate for this  (an example used by Ehrman himself) is in Mark 1:41 where, dependent on the reading, Jesus was either “moved with pity” or “angry” over the plight of a leper. Many would say that an alteration was made here because the scribe was not comfortable with the notion of Jesus being angry and so sought to tone down the language of the text.

 For this reason a sound principle adopted by modern textual scholarship where manuscripts differ is to prefer the more difficult reading, since it is more likely that a problem would be ironed out by a scribe rather than a new problem deliberately created by him.

 The vast majority of textual variants though are the natural errors produced by the hand-copying process where scribes often worked in conditions scarcely conducive to the task: employing difficult-to-read materials, an Uncial type text which even a person fluent in Koine Greek today struggles to make sense of, inadequate lighting etc. To say nothing of the fact that there was no Specsavers down the road!

Given the difficulties these scribes faced they actually did an amazing job for which we owe them an incalculable debt of gratitude.

What is vital to note is that the only reason we are able to see these variants and scholars are able to have discussions about them is due to the fact that we have such a vast number of manuscripts available to us from a diversity of locations.    

 We have many thousands of fragmentary manuscripts dating as far back as the early 2nd Century AD. We also have the New Testament quoted prolifically within the writings of the early “Church Fathers”. These are important for filling out our knowledge even in a vast MS tradition as even Ehrman concedes,

“If all other sources for our knowledge of the text of the New Testament text were destroyed, (these) would be sufficient alone for the reconstruction of practically the entre New Testament.”
        Bruce Metzger & Bart Ehrman The Text of the New Testament: Its  Transmission,Corruption and Restoration  

 Finally in the mid 4th Century we have two largely complete manuscripts of the whole New Testament called Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus. These documents are in essential agreement with the earlier fragments and manifest no evidence of the wholesale changes which would render the original text irrecoverable.

  Moreover wide scale interference with documents would have been impossible given the state of the churches in the early centuries. The Church at that time consisted of scattered communities of believers with minimal contact with one another, often undergoing persecution. There was no central Church authority that could have given an order to change manuscripts nor was there any way to enforce such an order throughout the vast Roman Empire if it had.

The theory that some shadowy central authority in Rome or anywhere else could have altered the manuscripts is anachronistic and is to read a mediaeval concept into the life of those first Christians. Only after the “Peace of the Church” in 313 AD could the practice of widespread manipulation of the text have become even remotely possible, but we know the state of the New Testament text by that time. Any later changes would therefore be easily apparent to us today.

 Prior to that the copying and recopying of documents in isolated communities- a process termed independent lines of transmission- served to safeguard the text from any manipulation. This guards our modern text from the effects of both deliberate and accidental copying errors as a particular variant in one area would not be repeated in the other copying centres. A comparison of manuscripts produced in the different locations is sufficient to  ensure we have retained the original reading.

 This means we can have tremendous confidence in our New Testament text today- incomparably greater than that for any other documents of the time.  

                  Where Did Cain Find His Wife? 

"Then Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden. And Cain had relations with his wife and she conceived, and gave birth to Enoch; and he built a city, and called the name of the city Enoch, after the name of his son," (Gen. 4:16-17)  .

 Genesis 4 describes the first murder in history and its aftermath where Cain as punishment for the murder of his brother is sent into exile.
 Given this exile, and the fact that Cain is stated to have started his own community there, the question is often asked by critics: where did Cain find his wife? He was after all cut off from the presence of our first father’s family-in the beginning the only family on earth.

Some have wondered if there might have been other groups of human beings unrelated to Adam that the exiled Cain could have linked up with.We must say immediately that this is not a viable theory for a Bible-believing Christian. If we allow for the existence of other branches of mankind unrelated to Adam & Eve then we are left with a situation where not all people alive today are descendants of Adam.This contradicts the doctrine of Federal Headship which insists that Adam serve as representative head of all humanity. This in turn would make the Romans 5 explanation of the human condition meaningless and renders the Gospel redundant. Our relationship to our Federal Head Adam is critical to the understanding of Original Sin and the need for redemption and so this theory is not tenable.  

To begin answering the question posed, let us point out that, in fact, Cain’s wife is not stated by the text to be “found” in exile at all. It is most likely that Cain was already married at the point of his transgression, and that his wife simply shared his exile with him.  

 Of course, the broader point the challenging critic wishes to make is to say that if the only family group from which Cain could have drawn a wife was Adam’s, then Cain must have married one of his sisters, of which he probably had many *

“The days of Adam after he fathered Seth were 800 years; and he had other sons and daughters.”  
                                                                                                                    (Gen 5:4)

 Unquestionably this is the case.  It is at this point in a conversation with your sceptical friend that he will let out a gasp of horror, and expect you to collapse in a heap, morally shamed, at being found to be a defender of such shockingly incestuous practices.

Well, before you do just that, you ought to ask some questions of your sceptical friend.

What law existed in the time of Cain to prevent such a family liaison for, “Where there is no law there is no transgression” (Rom 4:15)? The first reference in scripture indicating cultural prohibition on brother-sister relations is Gen 20:12 where Abraham identifies Sarah as his sister, perhaps indicating that she could not therefore be his wife.

In the beginning what need was there for such a law?
The much later Levitical code would state that marital relations between close family members were indeed forbidden,

No one is to approach any close relative to have sexual relations. I am the LORD," (Lev 18:6)
The purpose of such laws today is clear to us as we know that procreating within narrow genetic limits is known to cause birth abnormalities. However in Cain’s day, humanity was only a short distance from Adam & Eve’s perfect and deathless life in the Garden . The genetic lineage of their immediate offspring was still close enough to that perfection that marrying a sister would not cause such defects. Hence there was no immediate requirement for the restriction.

 Incidentally, in whatever scenario we envisage for human origins, this situation would surely have arisen in the beginning. So perhaps you could at this point invite your sceptical friend to acquaint you with the other options that would have been available…

   * Dr Hugh Ross has an interesting discussion of the dramatic rate at which  the human population could have grown given mens’ longevity at the time, in his book. The Genesis Question (Navpress) Ch 4 p101-103.

                                          Further Questions


Was The Gospel Borrowed From The Pagan World? (link

The "West Wing" Question (link)