Christianity on the Offense

Responding to the Beliefs of Spiritual Seekers


by Dan Story

Grand Rapids, MI 49501

Christianity on the Offense: Responding to the Beliefs and Assumptions of Spiritual Seekers

Copyright © 1998 by Dan Story

Published in 1998 by Kregel Publications, a division of Kregel, Inc., P.O. Box 2607, Grand Rapids, MI 49501. Kregel Publications provides trusted, biblical publications for Christian growth and service. Your comments and suggestions are valued.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means—electronic, mechanical, photocopy, recording, or otherwise—without written permission of the publisher, except for brief quotations in printed reviews.

For more information about Kregel Publications, visit our web site at

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible: New International Version © 1978 by the International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House.

Cover design: PAZ Design Group
Book design: Frank Gutbrod

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Story, Dan.

Christianity on the offense: responding to the beliefs and assumptions of spiritual seekers / by Dan Story.

p. cm.

Includes bibliographical references.

1. Apologetics. I. Title.

BT1102.S75 1998 239—dc21 98–10291


ISBN 0–8254-3676–1

To my children and grandchildren.

Behold, children are a gift of the Lord;
The fruit of the womb is a reward.
Like arrows in the hand of a warrior,
So are the children of one’s youth.
How blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them.

Psalm 127:3–5


Part 1. “What is truth?”—John 18:38


    1.     The World We Live In

    2.     Firming the Foundation of Truth

    3.     Is Truth Relatively True or Absolutely True?

    4.     A World of My Own

    5.     Testing Truth-Claims for Truth

    6.     The Whole Truth and Nothing but the Truth

Part 2. “You shall know the truth, and the truth
shall make you free”—John 8:32


    7.     Christianity: God Is God

    8.     Pantheism: All Is God

    9.     What About Other Religions?

    10.     Naturalism: There Is No God

    11.     Secular Humanism: Man Is God

    12.     Postmodernism: God Is Whoever

    13.     “Death May Be Worse than Life”

Part One

Introduction to Part One

“What is truth?”
John 18:38

An acquaintance recently gave me a computer printout containing a debate among two dozen employees at his workplace. The debate was carried on entirely through computers over a two-week period. The printout consisted of ninety-five comments and rebuttals—some of them rather lengthy—concerning the participants’ views on religion, in particular Christianity. Judging by their remarks, the majority of the participants were unbelievers. The following are a few of their comments (most of them portions of fuller statements):

Unfortunately, most religions are hopelessly corrupted by ORGANIZED religion. Most organized religions … exist to further their own gains in power, influence, and money.

Hypocrisy abounds in an organized religion [sic] structure. The basic concepts of a religion may allow an uneducated person to come to terms with the universe, to provide answers to “unanswerable” questions of existence.

If you’re a good person, then you should be fine with God.

Religion is a man-made invention and therefore not subject to God’s beliefs.

As you are most likely aware, the teachings of Christ and the Buddha are more similar than not. The Dalai Lama, for one, suggests we celebrate the commonality of religious teachings rather than getting hung up on the differences.

Religion is the point in man’s evolution where he begins to realize that there is a higher power [than himself] in the universe and then starts to worship it. He personalizes it and projects his own traits upon it.

Good and evil are extremely relative terms and are defined by man. Usually the results are the determining factor, but two different people will judge the results differently as well.

I know that this is a touchy subject, and nothing is harder to argue against than BELIEF, since it is not based on logic and facts.

I believe there is no god. If I’m wrong, it will be proven when and only when I die and meet god face-to-face.
Until then, I will be no fool.

The person who gave me the printout is an engineer, and he prefaced the document by claiming that the people involved in the debate represent the “top five percent in intelligence.”

Be this as it may, most of the comments were merely assumptions. Many of the ideas were logically inconsistent and subjective. They expressed personal opinions without objective verification. Comments about Christianity showed a high degree of biblical and theological illiteracy.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not trying to belittle these people, nor am I attempting to dismiss their views as empty-headed. Rather, I want to point out that most of the arguments against Christianity—even those made by the “top five percent in intelligence”—are not all that sophisticated and can be dealt with by ordinary Christians with a little training. Certainly, there are sophisticated and technical arguments against our faith, and they must be dealt with by those qualified to do so. But it has been my experience that the majority of the arguments hurled against Christianity are relatively easy to respond to.

Most arguments against Christianity are based on faulty assumptions. They are poorly thought out. Few people seriously investigate Christian truth-claims and draw their own critical conclusions. Rather they simply pass on hearsay. For example, many people who claim that “the Bible is full of contradictions” usually admit that they have never read the Bible, nor can they point to a single contradiction in it. Their source of authority for this “truth-claim” is reduced to, “Well, everyone knows the Bible’s full of contradictions!” Arguments such as these can be refuted by ordinary Christians who have been trained in apologetic techniques.

There are two ways to respond to arguments against Christianity, and the route taken will depend on the kind of objections raised. Some objections take the form of genuine questions: How do you know God exists? Doesn’t evolution disprove creation? How do you know the Bible is true?

Such questions are obstacles to faith in Jesus Christ, and the goal is simply to remove them. The proper response is to provide a biblical answer supported by concrete, verifiable evidence. Hopefully, this will encourage the unbeliever to reconsider Christianity. This approach is “evidential” apologetics, and it has been a vital tool in evangelism since the beginnings of the Christian church.

However, as the computer debate illustrates, there are other types of objections raised by unbelievers. They are more philosophical and are part and parcel of broader, well-entrenched belief systems (worldviews). In the computer debate, the statements “If you’re a good person, you should be fine with God,” “Good and evil are extremely relative terms and are defined by man,” and “Belief … is not based on logic and facts” represent beliefs that flow directly from modern, anti-Christian worldviews.

These kinds of objections require a different kind of response. They are neither simple misconceptions nor well-defined, clearly articulated questions.

The proper response to these kinds of objections is to deal with the presuppositions or assumptions on which they depend. If one’s presuppositions are in error, all truth-claims flowing from them are equally false. A house built on a foundation of sand will crumble with the first rain regardless of how sound the rest of the house is built.

My earlier book, Defending Your Faith: Reliable Answers for a New Generation of Seekers and Skeptics, provides answers to the majority of the questions and misconceptions raised against Christianity. The purpose of this second book is to deal with the other variety of objections—those that are more philosophical, that arise directly from incorrect assumptions. This will be done in two parts.

In part 1, we will see why people think as they do: What role does one’s worldview play in religious and ethical matters? Why are there so many contradicting worldviews, and how can we determine which one—if any—is true? Why does modern society expect us to accept all religions as equally valid? Are there rules for rational argumentation and discussion? What are they? Is there such a thing as absolute (final and perfect) truth? If there is, can it be discovered? Is there a standard outside of personal opinion by which religious truth can be judged? What is it? Can it prove that Christianity is the one true religion?

These and other topics are discussed in order to give a clear understanding of how unbelievers perceive reality and how religious truth can be established and tested.

In part 2, we will see how people think. We’ll examine the major religious and secular worldviews that are seeking dominance in modern society—all with the expressed goal of usurping the authority and influence of Christianity. This section of the book will give insights into Christianity’s major competitors, allowing the material in part 1 to be used effectively in apologetic evangelism.

Christians are confronted by dozens of religions and secular philosophies. We are told that all of them are equally legitimate—or equally fraudulent, depending on the critic. This book provides powerful evidence for the uniqueness of Christianity. Our faith is not a mindless religion. It has a firm foundation of objective facts that can be tested and verified.

If nothing else, this book will clearly demonstrate that Christianity, alone among the world’s many religions and secular worldviews, is internally and externally consistent, rationally justifiable, objectively verifiable, and confirmed by human experience in a way that is completely in harmony with reality as almost all people understand it and live it out.

Chapter One

The World We Live In

The United States in the late 1990s is not unlike the Roman Empire when Christianity exploded on the scene nearly two thousand years ago. Scholar David Wells described it this way:

While religious pluralism may be a novel experience for us, it is putting us in touch with the world that surrounded the biblical authors probably more directly than any other. The pluralism and the paganism of Our Time were the common experiences of the prophets and apostles. In Mesopotamia, there were thousands of gods and goddesses, many of which were known to the Israelites—indeed, sometimes known too well. In Christ’s time, there were hundreds of sects of one kind or another along the Mediterranean rim. Moreover, there was the official Roman religion that blended politics and religion through a deification of the Caesars, in due course becoming a formidable enemy to Christian faith. And there was Greek philosophy as well, much of it also functioning as a set of competing religions. Pluralism was the stuff of everyday life in biblical times.

This religious diversity was characterized by tolerance. In spite of their differences, the numerous religions more or less accepted one another. It was generally agreed that all religions possessed a measure of intrinsic value. Conflict was rare.

Of course then, as now, Christians refused to acknowledge the merits of other religions and sought to convert the pagans to Christianity. This eventually contributed to widespread persecution, which continued until the time of Constantine in the early fourth century. Christianity later became the state religion of Rome and the dominant worldview in Western culture. Meanwhile, pagan religions moved off center stage and into the wings.

Modern Christianity competes with a similar smorgasbord of religious ideologies and practices. The only difference between the Roman world and today is that the menu has changed somewhat. Christianity in the United States coexists “with Mormonism, … Buddhism, Islam, and much more—a total of about 1200 separate religious bodies.”

In addition to competing with twelve hundred religions, Christianity also faces a variety of atheistic ideologies, all of which contribute to the philosophical milieu of modern secular humanism.

Secular Humanism

Secular humanists believe that all religions were created by people. They consider people, rather than God, supreme in the universe. Their worldview seeks to push religious thought and life to the outer perimeter of human concerns—if not eliminate them altogether.

Secular humanism has usurped Christianity as the guiding social force in Western culture. It determines what is true in the areas of ethics, religious practices, social behavior, and modern science and psychology. Contributing secular humanist philosophies include the following.

Evolution. The belief that life came into existence accidentally through natural, random processes over immense periods of time without the aid of a Higher Being. There is no God.

Materialism. The belief that all of reality is material (matter). Nothing spiritual or nonmaterial exists. Immortal souls or spirits do not exist; no mind exists independent of the brain. Even our thoughts can be reduced to chemical and neurological processes. There is no God.

Naturalism. This philosophy asserts that the universe is all there is and ever was and that all within it operate according to eternal, universal, unchanging natural laws. All of reality can be understood in terms of natural processes. There are no supernatural beings or supernatural events such as miracles and answered prayer. There is no God.

Postmodernism. The traditional form of secular humanism is rapidly evolving—especially in academia—into a new worldview that rejects objective truth and reason. In postmodernism, absolute truth is non-existent. “Truth” is subjective in that it is directly related to one’s cultural beliefs and experiences. Pluralism and relativism are the foundational presuppositions of postmodernism.

Tolerance Untolerated

In light of the multitude of religions and philosophies permeating modern society, historians often refer to today’s world as “pluralistic,” “relativistic,” and “global.” Civilization is comprised of many worldviews, all of which are considered to represent truth (pluralism). Moreover, religious and ethical beliefs are dependent upon the circumstances that define them. Truth flows from one’s personal beliefs or from one’s culture and can vary under different situations (relativism).

Furthermore, individual worldviews do not exist in isolation. They can and do have great influence on each other, interacting and assimilating the beliefs and practices of numerous peoples, cultures, and religions throughout the world (globalism).

Pluralism is extremely dangerous to Christianity because it is such a powerful force undermining the discovery of religious truth. Pluralism not only extends the hand of fellowship to hundreds of religions, but it also congratulates them for being expressions of religious truth. All religions are equally valid.

Proponents of religious pluralism believe that all religions possess a common core of beliefs and experiences. All religions more or less talk about the same “God.” Alister McGrath explained it this way:

This naturally leads to the idea that dialogue between religions can lead to an enhancement of truth, in that the limited perspectives of one religion can be complemented by the differing perspectives of another. As all religions are held to relate to the same reality, dialogue thus constitutes a privileged mode of access to truth.

Religious pluralism loudly condemns any form of “narrow-minded bigotry” that seeks to elevate one religion as supreme over any other. Professor D. A. Carson explained it with these words:

In the religious field, this means that few people will be offended by the multiplying new religions. No matter how wacky, no matter how flimsy their intellectual credentials, no matter how subjective and uncontrolled, no matter how blatantly self-centered, no matter how obviously their gods have been manufactured to foster human self-promotion, the media will treat them with fascination and even a degree of respect. But if any religion claims that in some measure other religions are wrong, a line has been crossed and resentment is immediately stirred up: pluralism … has been challenged. Exclusiveness is the one religious idea that cannot be tolerated.

The significance of this in the religious marketplace cannot be overstated. Carson continued:

Pluralism has managed to set in place certain “rules” for playing the game of religion—rules that transcend any single religion. These rules are judged to be axiomatic. They include the following: religiously based exclusive claims must be false; what is old or traditional in religion is suspect and should probably be superseded; “sin” is a concept steeped in intolerance. The list could easily be expanded.

There is obvious irony here. One would expect a pluralistic, relativistic, and global world to have an open forum for discussing and evaluating religious truth. Nothing is further from the truth. If any cardinal doctrine characterizes religious pluralism, it is an unwillingness to critically discuss and compare religious beliefs. This is especially true if the purpose is to discover truth, that is to determine which religion, if any, can sustain its truth-claims. Again, Carson made a valuable comment:

Those who are committed to the proposition that all views are equally valid have eliminated the possibility that one or more of those opinions has a special claim to being true or valid. They have foreclosed on open-mindedness in the same breath by which they extol the virtues of open-mindedness; they are dogmatic about pluralism.…

Both the irony and the tragedy of this fierce intolerance stem from the fact that it is done in the name of tolerance. It is not “liberal education” in the best sense; it is not pluralism in the best sense. It is fundamentalistic dogmatism in the worse sense.…

… Small wonder, then, that Stanley S. Harakas can affirm that the prevailing world view in America is not pluralistic … but atomistic and anti-religious.

In sum, religious pluralism strives mightily to prevent one from ever discovering absolute truth—what is really true as opposed to what is personal opinion or mere belief. It does this under the guise of tolerance and political correctness. If religious truth is to be found at all, it will not come from the religious pluralism that characterizes the modern scene.

Religions Resurrected

In the last few decades, religious practices that vanished as dominant beliefs centuries ago have reemerged. This phenomenon is paradoxical, considering the modern world’s steady shift toward secular humanism. It illustrates the fact that people seek to maintain a religious relevance to their lives. This is done in spite of an evolving secular worldview that is rapidly moving Westerners away from their Christian roots. The modern world may be rejecting Christianity, but it still clings tenaciously to humanity’s innate need to come to terms with spiritual realities.

Both the Bible and secular studies attest to the fact that people everywhere and in every culture and period of history instinctively recognize the existence of God. They seek to understand Him, and they seek to relate to Him. True atheism is an anomaly. It is a deviation from the norm. Even thoroughly secularized people seek after God. Let me cite two examples of these resurrected religious worldviews.

Polytheism Proliferated

Polytheism is an ancient religious practice that believes in the existence of numerous personal gods and goddesses. These beings are finite, in the sense that they arose from sexual relationships or from the life forces of nature itself, and generally they rule over specific domains. For example, Poseidon (Neptune) rules the sea, Hades (Pluto) rules the underworld, while Zeus (Jupiter) is the “Lord of the Sky, the Rain-god and the Cloud-gatherer, who wielded the awful thunderbolt.”

Polytheism began to fade as a dominant religious force in Western culture with the breakdown of the Greek and Roman Empires. Centuries later, however, it is making new inroads into Western culture and is becoming an acceptable religious worldview. Geisler and Watkins made this report:

Polytheism has a long history in both the West and the East. Many Eastern religions and philosophies have been and still are polytheistic. Among these are some forms of Hinduism, Confucianism, Shinto, Taoism, and Jainism. In the West, the belief in many gods appears in several of the ancient Greek writers, like Hesiod and Homer (eighth century b.c.), and throughout the ancient culture of the Roman Empire. There are several distinct manifestations of polytheism in contemporary Western society, including Mormonism, the Divine Light Mission, Scientology, the Unification Church.… In addition, there are the occult forms of polytheism, including the UFO religions and the extraterrestrial types.

To this list can be added a growing interest in witchcraft and ancient pagan religions and cults.

Why are polytheistic religions being resurrected? Because, as Geisler and Watkins put it, they need “to help man deal with his pluralistic experience.… because life and meaning are pluralistic, man must be polytheistic in order to think and speak about it.” In a society that accepts numerous contradicting beliefs as truth, polytheism is a religion that fits. It endorses the pluralistic worldview prevalent today. People today believe in “God” but see Him differently in His essential nature (pluralism). Polytheism promotes a form of religious syncretism that people think is necessary to avoid religious confrontation and bigotry.

Deism Dispersed

The second example of a resurrected worldview is Deism. This religious worldview flourished in the United States and Europe from the late seventeenth century through the eighteenth century, but it more or less vanished in the nineteenth century. Like Christians, Deists believed in an infinite, personal God who created the world and the natural laws that sustain it. Deists taught, however, that after this initial creative act, God withdrew to allow the universe to operate unaided by further divine interference. Thus supernatural actions, such as miracles, never occur. Revelation is limited to “general revelation,” and all that can be known about God and morality can be discovered through nature and human reasoning.

Today, although largely unrecognized, a form of neo-deism is prevalent throughout the West. Its adherents are people who claim to be Christian, who still profess to believe in the God of Scripture, and who identify culturally with Christianity, but these people live lives as if God does not exist. George Barna’s annual survey of religious views in America confirms this:

In studying the spiritual perspectives of Americans, confusing or contradictory findings sometimes emerge. Although millions of Americans can describe or affirm various religious beliefs, they do not take these perspectives so seriously as to integrate them into the fabric of their lives.… The average American … is neither a deep theological thinker nor worries about the importance of developing life-shaping religious convictions.… Large majorities of people now claim that the Bible and religion are very important in their lives, but there is little evidence that this change in attitude has influenced the way they live.

Neo-deists are individuals who do not want to reject the Christian idea of a personal God in favor of a pagan or pantheistic view of God (as in polytheism and the New Age), but they want to preserve their sovereignty and independence from God. They do not outright reject God, but neither do they know Him or follow Him. They think of God as somehow remotely involved in human affairs but not actively so. They are more secular than Christian. The Bible, understandably, condemns this kind of “Christianity” in Titus 1:16 and elsewhere.

The Problem at Hand

In light of the pluralistic world in which we live, it is no wonder that skeptics and critics are cynical when Christians claim that they alone possess religious truth. In a pluralistic society that accepts all worldviews, such a claim sounds intellectually arrogant and theologically naive.

Christians, however, are not alone in making this claim. Although our society is largely pluralistic and although some religions accept the view that God is revealed in all religions, many religions claim to possess the final and absolute word in the area of religious truth. Even religions that do not openly claim such knowledge still make absolute statements about religious truth. To say that all religions are divine expressions of truth is an absolute statement about religious truth.

Most people—including many Christians—are so conditioned by pluralism that they fail to recognize the blatant and irreconcilable contradictions that exist among the world’s many religions and philosophies. Even when they do, our pluralistic society expects them to keep quiet about it. The person who criticizes another person’s beliefs—whether religious, moral, sexual, or otherwise—is ridiculed as intolerant and bigoted. The only exception, of course, is when the person being criticized is a Christian. It is always open season on Christians, and it’s perfectly acceptable to criticize “narrow-minded fundamentalists.” But here’s the problem. When contradicting views claim to be ultimate truth, only one view can logically be true.

Consider the nature of God. It is fundamental to a religion’s other doctrines. Salvation, for example, is directly tied in to a religion’s view of God and how He relates to people. Portraying the true nature of God is critical if a religion is to represent absolute truth in the area of salvation. The same is true for any other doctrine. The nature of God as portrayed in any religion will necessarily reflect that religion’s concept of sin, evil, morality, and human nature.

But all major religions disagree on the nature of God. Pantheists, for example, claim that God is an impersonal, all-encompassing “It” that permeates the universe. For a pantheist, God and nature are one and the same.

Polytheists believe in many personal gods and goddesses. Each god is identified with some aspect of life or part of the created universe.

Christianity teaches that there is only one God. Unlike pantheism, Christianity teaches that God is personal. He is distinct from creation by virtue of being the Creator.

If logic has any meaning at all, it is impossible for all such contradictory views of God to be true. Only one view can reveal the true nature of God.

It’s like mathematics. There can only be one correct answer to any equation. Four plus four is eight. Seven is almost eight, but it still isn’t eight. It doesn’t matter how close to the number eight you may be: any other answer is wrong. Likewise if two different religions claim that their view of God is the only correct view, then one or both groups are not worshiping the true God. Both religions may be wrong in their view of God, but they cannot both be right.

At first blush, polytheism may appear to solve this dilemma because it accepts all gods. But this solution won’t hold up to closer scrutiny. Why? Both Christianity and pantheism reject a multiplicity of gods, so we are back to the same dilemma. If Christianity or pantheism reveal the true nature of God, then polytheism must be incorrect. In either case, only one of the three—or none—can ultimately portray religious truth.

A Matter of Life and Death

If you are a believer in religious pluralism, you may be thinking, So what! Yet these issues are important. If logically only one religion can depict the true nature of God, then only that religion can reveal God’s plan of salvation.

Pluralism removes the urgency to search for religious truth because it accepts all religions as “paths to the same mountain top” (i.e., to God and salvation). But this is an impossibility. All paths but one lead away from God. It is critical to understand this so that we will be motivated to seek after the true God. Unless He is found, we will never discover religious truth, we will never discover the true path to salvation, and we will never discover how to live a more abundant life in the here and now. Everyone’s eternal destiny rests on the outcome of this quest.

The challenge to Christian evangelists is to learn how to convince unbelievers of this logically necessary truth: Only one religion can be true; all others must be frauds. Of course, there is a second problem facing evangelists. If we convince unbelievers that only one religion can reveal spiritual truth, how do we convince them that Christianity is that religion?

We will discover the answer to this question by exploring the nature of truth, how it is determined, and how it can be confirmed. This will be the focus of the remaining chapters of part 1.

Chapter Two

Firming the Foundation of Truth

There is no greater threat facing the true Church of Christ at this moment than the irrationalism that now controls our entire church. Communism, guilty of tens of millions of murders, including those of millions of Christians, is to be feared, but not nearly so much as the idea that we do not and cannot know truth. Hedonism, the popular philosophy of America, is not to be feared so much as the belief that logic—that “mere human logic,” to use the religious irrationalists’ own phrase—is futile. The attack on truth, on revelation, on the intellect, and on logic are renewed daily. But note well: The misologists—the haters of logic—use logic to demonstrate the futility of using logic. The anti-intellectuals construct intricate intellectual arguments to prove the insufficiency of the intellect.

We do well to heed this warning from Gordon H. Clark about irrationalism. Anybody can claim anything, but claiming doesn’t make it true. Anybody can believe anything, but believing doesn’t make it true. One can sincerely believe in something and be sincerely wrong. There has to be some criteria for determining religious truth if religious truth is to be known at all.

There are such criteria, and we will spend considerable time examining them in the following chapters. But first there are two fundamental concepts that must be understood in order for this criteria to be meaningful. Together, they form the basis of all truth and knowledge.

Truth Corresponds to Reality

Truth is a fact that, by its very nature, is immutable—it cannot change. As James Sire put it, truth is “propositional: a statement is true if what it says is so is so, or if what it says is not so is not so.” This means that whatever is true must be in agreement with and conform to reality. What is reality? It’s what’s real—”the way things really are.”4 It is what exists independent of people’s personal opinions and beliefs. Let me illustrate this.

Let’s say I misplaced my dictionary. I think it’s on my desk (what I believe is truth), but actually it’s on the kitchen table (reality). So the truth of the situation is that the dictionary is on the table independent of my belief that it’s on the desk. Thus, truth (the location of my dictionary) corresponds to reality (where it actually is). It doesn’t matter what I believe; it’s a matter of what is true.

The “correspondence theory of truth” holds that what one thinks is true is true when it matches what is real. We possess true knowledge about something when what we think is true agrees with what exists outside our minds. If I think my dictionary is on my desk and it is on my desk, then what I hold to be true matches reality—my knowledge of the location of my dictionary corresponds to reality.

Truth, then, must correspond to reality. The alternative is that actual truth is non-existent. What people perceive as truth would depend upon their personal feelings or their particular worldview. In either case, whatever seems to be true relative to one’s particular beliefs or opinions becomes truth, and whatever does not fit with one’s beliefs is non-truth.

Obviously, if truth is bound to one’s private beliefs, it may differ from person to person or from culture to culture. This means that universal and unchanging truth is impossible to discover because it does not exist. This in turn means that statements of universal fact are also nonexistent and ultimate reality is unknowable. In short, all truth, if it exists, must correspond to reality. You may find comfort in knowing that most of science operates according to the correspondence theory of truth.

Truth Depends on First Principles

There is a second concept that needs to be understood before we examine criteria for determining truth. There exist universal “first principles” (or “universal givens,” or “fundamental laws of human belief”) which govern how all people in every culture throughout all of history reason. (Some religions and philosophies deny the existence of these universal principles, but they live and behave as if these principles do exist.)

Examples include such concepts as I exist, other people exist, what I see exists, the past existed, there is a real, material world outside my mind, what I hear are real sounds, and the laws of nature are real and will endure. Also included are the “laws of logic,” which we will look at more closely in a moment.

It is because of these first principles that we can determine that truth does correspond to reality and that it is universally applicable. These principles are foundational to all thought and knowledge. They need no confirmation because they are necessarily true—that is, they are undeniable and self-evident. They must exist. Their veracity rests on their own premises rather than on external evidences—although they are certainly confirmed by our everyday experiences. If they needed any proof, they would not be first principles. They stand alone.

Here is an analogy that may help you to see this clearly. Everything in the universe is contingent; it depends on something else for its existence. A tree depends on minerals, water, and sunshine. Canyons depend on erosion. Living things depend on other living things from which they are born. This implies that there must be a first cause—something from which all else springs. Christians claim that this first cause, on which the entire universe rests and has it being, is God. He is, if you will, the first principle. While everything has a cause for its existence, God is self-existing. He had no cause. He has no justification for His existence because He always existed and is the source of everything else.

In like manner, universal first principles are necessarily self-existing and self-justifying. They are the “first cause” of all contingent thought and knowledge. Just as God is the ultimate source of the universe, so are self-evident first principles the foundation of all truth-claims. No truth can violate them because all truth depends upon them. If a truth-claim violates these first principles, by definition it is false.

Actually, if you think about it, I am not saying anything remarkable or anything you do not already know. We instinctively use these first principles all the time without realizing it. We just take them for granted. They are the necessary principles that govern all human reasoning and communication, and without them we would be unable not only to discern truth but also even to think.

The Laws of Logic

The most fundamental of these first principles are the laws of logic, in particular the “law of non-contradiction.” It states that something cannot be two different things at the same time and in the same sense (“A” cannot be both “A” and “non-A” at the same time and in the same relationship). For example, it can’t be both raining and sunny outside at the same time in the same spot. My dog can’t be both sleeping under a shrub and chewing a sprinkler head on the lawn at the same time. If it were possible for contradictions to mutually exist, there would be no difference between true and false, black and white, up or down, and so on. Truth would be impossible to discuss, and facts would forever elude us.

The law of non-contradiction is particularly important in determining religious truth. Simply put, it prevents two contradicting religions from both being true. I will illustrate this in just a moment.

Other foundational laws of logic include the “law of identity” (“A” is “A”—my dog is a dog), the law of excluded middle (either “A” or “non-A”—if I declare I’m petting my dog, I’m either doing it or not), and the law of rational inference (assuming my premises are correct, I can derive logical or true conclusions).

Besides these basic laws of logic, there are also self-evident propositions (statements of truth) that are equally foundational to all thought and knowledge. (These propositions are also first principles.) They include: something can be known, opposites cannot both be true, everything cannot be false, something exists, nothing cannot produce something, everything that comes to be is caused, as well as self-defining tautologies such as all husbands are married and all triangles have three sides.

Without these universal laws of logic, it would be impossible to make heads or tails out of the world, let alone discover truth. To deny them would be to sacrifice a rational world and to prevent any meaningful communication. Indeed, it is because of these universal laws of logic that people from different cultures and with different languages can communicate with one another and come to an agreement on what constitutes truth and reality—religious and otherwise.

For Example

Let’s look at the person who rejects the correspondence theory of truth and claims that reality is relative to one’s worldview.

Christian Scientists fall into this category. Their religious worldview teaches that sickness and pain are an illusion; they do not exist. But this belief is valid only by rejecting the fact that truth corresponds to reality. Is their belief borne out in practice? Hardly!

When Christian Scientists fall and break an arm, they feel pain. They may claim the pain is an illusion, but they go to a doctor anyway. Even if the broken arm is an illusion, the illusion itself is so real that it hurts. There is no difference between illusion or reality so far as the reactions to the broken arm are concerned.

If we live in a world where illusion is seen and treated as reality, what is the point in calling it an illusion? The claim that the broken arm is an illusion may be consistent with the Christian Scientists’ worldview, but it is not consistent with reality (what is real) as people universally live it out. That the arm is broken is more real than the illusion that it is not.

Admitting pain and going to a doctor invalidates the Christian Scientists’ worldview because it is logically inconsistent with how they interface with reality. The reality of their pain and their reaction of going to the doctor corresponds to the truth that the broken arm is not an illusion.

You see, it is not a matter of what is real to me may not be real to you. It is a matter of what really is real. I may “sincerely believe” it’s not raining outside, but if I go outside and it is raining, I’ll get wet in spite of my beliefs.

As an example of how the laws of logic can be violated, let’s return to the subject of pluralism. Pluralism assumes that all religions reflect divine truth in spite of their obvious contradictions. Such a claim flies in the face of the operating laws of logic by which people live and think. It disputes the very means by which we are able to understand reality in all areas of human life. People who expect us to accept religious pluralism are asking us to reject the law of non-contradiction. They are asking us to believe the absurd.

For example, it is logically impossible for contradicting religions to all represent truth. The true nature of God is either monotheistic, pantheistic, or something else. God cannot be both monotheistic and pantheistic. Likewise, the resurrection of Jesus. The New Testament clearly teaches that Jesus rose from the grave. The Koran denies it. Both cannot be right.

Here is one more example. Many Eastern religions and their New Age clones tell us that to see truth we must get “beyond” logic. This is utter nonsense. Whatever getting beyond logic entails, it would require logical thinking to accomplish it. Thus the idea of “getting beyond logic” is a self-destroying proposition. As Mark Hanna put it, “There is no way to escape the horns of this dilemma. The employment of logic in the attempt to refute logic is an implicit acknowledgment of the certainty and absoluteness of logic.”

To move beyond logic is to move into rational chaos and a total breakdown of our ability to understand and reason. To move beyond logic would not lead to truth but would make truth impossible to discover.


God has placed in human beings, by virtue of being created in His image, the ability to reason and to think logically. This is what separates humanity from the beasts. God created a rational world that subscribes to the laws of logic and other first principles. When we are encouraged to accept religious beliefs that fly in the face of these laws and self-evident truths, doubts occur. And rightly they should!

If we are to proceed any further in our search for religious truth, we must agree that truth corresponds to reality and that it never violates universal, absolute principles of logic. Only by strictly adhering to these laws can we determine truth from error among conflicting religious worldviews. If you reject these laws, you may as well close this book right now (as well as your mind) because truth will forever elude you.

Chapter Three

Is Truth Relatively True or Absolutely True?

Have you ever heard comments like these?

Homosexuality? It’s just another lifestyle. It’s not for me, of course, but if someone wants that kind of relationship, why shouldn’t he? It’s a free country, isn’t it?

Pornography? I think it’s terrible. But we can’t close down the peep shows and adult bookstores just because it’s smut. We have to protect everyone’s constitutional right of free speech.

Abortion? I don’t agree with it personally, but a woman has a right to do whatever she wants with her own body.

Christians? They’re so narrow-minded and exclusive. Why should they have a monopoly on God? God can reveal Himself in any religion. I believe that all religions are paths to the same mountain top.

These comments have one thing in common. They reflect an increasingly popular belief in Western culture, especially in the area of ethics and religion. It is the claim that truth is relative; it flows from individual beliefs, cultural worldviews, or circumstances rather than from an objective standard (such as God) that exists beyond human subjectivity (beyond personal opinion). In such a system, if beliefs, worldviews, and circumstances vary depending on geography and period of history, then truth must vary as well because it depends on these entities to give it meaning. Truth, then, is not universal and unchanging. Rather it is enslaved to a variety of interpretations.

The philosophy of relativism springs from two foundational presuppositions (assumptions). First, what was once true may not be true anymore. Adultery was immoral in the 1950s but may not be in the 1990s. Homosexuality was a sin in the past but is an acceptable lifestyle today. Second, what is true for me may not be true for you. Abortion may be evil to me but not to you. God may reveal Himself to me in Christianity, but He may reveal Himself to you in Hinduism.

Relativism is widely accepted because these two presuppositions are part and parcel of modern pluralism. Take, for example, religious pluralism—the belief that all religions reflect truth. Religious pluralism can only be sustained if truth is relative. Why? Because the world’s major religions contradict one another in their essential doctrines. Only the claim that truth is relative prevents religious pluralism from crumbling.

If religious relativism is true, it follows that ethical relativism is also true. Aren’t ethics generally a product of religion? Thus, just as there are no religious absolutes, there are no moral absolutes. Moral truths change with time and circumstances and are determined by culture or personal opinion, not God.

The philosophy of relativism teaches that absolute truth, truth that is applicable to all people at all times, is non-existent. Over the past few decades, this philosophy has become widely accepted and represents one of the most significant worldview changes in modern Western society. More and more people believe that truth and ethical behavior are neither determined by God nor revealed as absolute principles through the Judeo-Christian religion. Rather they are a result of personal beliefs and experiences as interpreted by one’s culture.

A recent survey by the Barna Research Group asked the question, Is there absolute truth? The survey revealed that the majority of American adults believe that there is no such thing as absolute truth and that different people can define truth in contradictory ways and all be correct. Says George Barna:

Last year’s study [1991] discovered that the vast majority of Americans do not believe in absolute truth. If you combine that insight with the prevailing perceptions about sin, you might conclude that although Americans believe in the idea of sin, they reject the notion of an absolute definition of sin. Thus, an act that is a sin in my eyes may not be something you would consider sinful. To most adults, this conflict in perspective is perfectly permissible. When all truth is deemed relative, so is the evaluation of our actions.

This surprising (and alarming) fact becomes paradoxical when we consider that 88 percent of American adults say they are Christians, and that two-thirds of the nation’s adults claim to have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ. Add this to the fact that 56 percent of all adults “strongly” agree that the Bible is the “written Word of God and is totally accurate in all that it teaches” (and another 18 percent agree with this statement “somewhat”4), and you are forced to conclude that most Americans do not understand what being a Christian is. They fail to recognize that biblical truth-claims are absolute statements about reality and not open to personal opinion. Relativism has infiltrated their thinking.

Relativism and Christianity Are Mutually Exclusive

Relativism is diametrically opposed to the clear teachings of Scripture. The Bible specifically states that God is the sovereign, absolute authority in the universe (1 Sam. 2:6; Pss. 24:1; 50:10; 135:6). It logically follows that all truth and moral principles revealed in Scripture (God’s recorded revelation) are likewise absolute. Accordingly in the Christian worldview, truth and ethics are unchanging, universal, and applicable to all cultures regardless of circumstances or period of history (Rom. 2:13; Exod. 20). This means that what is true in the past is true today, and what is true for me is true for you. This also means that ethics are prescriptive—they tell us how we should act (whether we do so or not) because ethics represent truth independent of personal or cultural opinion.

In the Christian worldview, ultimate reality is God. Truth is universal and unchanging because God is universal (Deut. 33:27; Isa. 57:15; Rev. 4:10) and unchanging (1 Sam. 15:29; Mal. 3:6; Heb. 6:17). Adultery and homosexuality are just as wrong in the 1990s as they were in the 1950s. Abortion is wrong for everyone. People change, worldviews change—either moving toward or away from truth—but truth itself is unchanging because it corresponds to ultimate reality: God.

Why Relativism Fails

The case against relativism is not just a matter of philosophical differences between relativists and Christians. There are other issues to consider. Let’s look at a few other ways in which relativism fails to correspond to reality.

Relativism is immoral. Followed to its logical conclusion, relativism will ultimately lead to moral anarchy and the disintegration of civilization. Think about this for a moment. If we were free to determine our own standard of morality (moral truth), laws would be meaningless and human rights could not exist.

Laws are standards that govern behavior—more accurately, standards that restrict behavior. Laws are byproducts of absolutism. They apply to everyone equally and are not open to private interpretation. They tell people how to act whether they want to or not.

Relativism, on the other hand, if it is consistent and true to itself, teaches that we determine our own ethical behavior. Thus law, in the sense of absolute standards for conduct, and relativism are mutually exclusive. They are opposite concepts. There can be no absolute law in a relative society where individuals, or even whole cultures, determine their own moral truth and ethical conduct.

What does this mean? In a society practicing relativism, if someone disagrees with a particular law, they would be free to ignore it. It means that when people with opposing views collide, the physically or politically stronger parties are free to impose their opinions on the weaker. “You can believe what you want, but you’ll do things my way because I’m tougher than you!” For instance, if I need a car, I’ll just steal yours. Stealing is not a sin to me, as long as I’m doing the stealing. But you’d better not try to steal my car because if you steal my car, it is a sin.

In short, if a society’s moral structure is based on a relativism that flows from individual opinion—as some people promote—”survival of the fittest” ultimately determines ethical behavior and morality. Laws are philosophically defined out of existence.

One may argue that in reality it does not work that way. Relativism does not leave individuals free to act as they choose. Rather relativism plays itself out on a cultural level. In other words, society, rather than individuals, sets the standards, and people obey the “laws of the land” as dictated by that culture. But each culture is free to set its own standards—thus relativism still works.

Sorry, no cigar.

Relativism, carried to its logical conclusion, leads to moral anarchy on a broad, cultural scale just as readily is it does on an individual scale. This is especially evident in the modern world where cultures bump up against one another. In a relativistic world, international peace is impossible. If standards of right and wrong were culturally controlled, one nation could never condemn the actions of another nation.

Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait a few years ago would have been perfectly acceptable because the Iraqis agreed it was correct behavior. It wouldn’t have mattered what Kuwait or the rest of the world believed.

Likewise, one nation could never condemn the actions that another nation takes even against its own people. The systematic slaughter of six million Jews during the Holocaust of World War II would have been permissible because it was not “against the law” in Nazi Germany. The Nazis believed the Jews were vermin to be exterminated.

I am sure you see my point. In the real world, no nation can live consistently with the philosophy of relative ethics and still maintain a civilized society. Someone outside and above corporate humanity and personal preference (i.e., God) must be the source of ethics and must motivate people to be obedient to those ethics. Without such a moral absolute, ethics become relative and subject to human greed and capriciousness.

Relativism is illogical. A second way in which relativism fails to correspond to reality is that it flies in the face of the laws of logic. For example, the law of non-contradiction is foundational to all rational thought and communication. All truth depends on this necessary first principle. But relativism violates the law of non-contradiction. Like pluralism as a whole, it takes blatantly contradictory truth-claims and states that both are correct. This is logically impossible. Christianity and pantheism cannot both reveal the true nature of God because their respective Gods are conspicuously different. Indeed, they are mutually exclusive. Likewise, if a man justifies adultery and his wife condemns it as sin, both opinions can’t be correct. It’s either sin or it’s acceptable behavior: it can’t be both at the same time. Logically, relativism does not make sense.

Relativism is inconsistent. No one lives the philosophy of relativism consistently. In daily life, all people live and behave according to the same understanding of what constitutes reality. One of the clearest examples of this is in the area of ethical behavior.

Comparative studies in anthropology, sociology, and religion have revealed a universal, worldwide moral code governing the behavior of all peoples, regardless of their culture, religion, or the period of history in which they existed. Not only Western culture, but also Eastern societies of Hindus, Buddhists, and Egyptians have had a similar concept of right and wrong. Even primitive cultures have exhibited this universal awareness of what is evil. This innate sense of right and wrong helps people everywhere judge the injustice of others and themselves. (This doesn’t sound like relativism, does it?)

The generic moral code is manifested in worldwide prohibitions against murder, stealing, lying, rape, and cheating. A culture may differ on how these ethical mandates are played out, but the prohibitions themselves are universal. As Francis Beckwith pointed out, “It does not follow from different practices that people have different values.”6

For example, adultery may be acceptable in some societies, but no society allows a man to just take any woman he wants. Stealing may not be a sin if carried out against another tribe, but you do not steal from your neighbor. Lying may be acceptable in certain situations. Killing may be permitted in warfare. But all people agree that it is wrong to steal from, lie to, or murder just anyone. The concepts of stealing, lying, and killing are universally recognized as evil, and such acts are strictly controlled in every culture. People may claim ethics are relative, but all people enforce a universal moral code.

Now let’s look at this same principle more specifically. Do individual people who tout relativism live consistently with it? The answer is no.

Many Americans believe that truth is relative and that people should be free to behave pretty much as they believe. However, people who preach relativism practice absolutism. For example, if someone steals a car, the victims (relativists) immediately recognize that theft as a sin and call the police. If a man commits adultery, his wife experiences profound hurt even if she believes that ethics are relative. These reactions and feelings demonstrate that relativism is inconsistent with the real world. Relativists simply do not practice what they preach.

If ethics were relative, there would be no moral or philosophical grounds for condemning the thief who thinks stealing a car is acceptable or for being upset when one’s spouse commits adultery. As Beckwith wrote, “In order to remain consistent the ethical relativist cannot criticize intolerable moral practices, believe in real moral progress, or acknowledge the existence of real moral reformers. For these three forms of moral judgment presupposes the existence of real transcultural nonrelative objective values” [i.e., the kind of absolute moral standards we receive from God].

By appealing to the police, relativists admit to a universal code of behavior that applies to both them and the thief (remember, laws point to absolutism, not relativism). By feeling pain, the woman is acknowledging that adultery is wrong even if she accepts moral relativity. In both cases, they are admitting to a standard of right and wrong that applies to other people. This is absolutism.

People talk the talk of relativism but live the life of absolutism. Relativism is a philosophy, a worldview. To be valid, it must work in any and all situations. Otherwise it cannot represent truth. You can’t pick and choose where relativism applies and where is doesn’t. You either live with it or reject it. If you think stealing and adultery are wrong for all people, you are an absolutist.

Relativism is self-destructive. The fourth reason relativism fails to correspond to reality is because it is self-destructive. It denies itself. Remember, truth must correspond to reality, the actual state of things. Relativism, however, means that something is dependent upon something else to give it meaning. But if something is dependent upon something else to give it meaning, it cannot be true standing alone. This means that relativism cannot make absolute statements about reality (i.e., truth) because, standing alone, it does not reflect the actual state of the matter.

This may sound confusing, so let me try to illustrate what I’m saying. If some people say that adultery is wrong in some situations but not in others, they are saying that adultery is relative to (determined by) the situation. That means that the concept of adultery, standing alone, has no absolute meaning. It carries no moral value independently, only in the context of a situation.

Now, what happens when a situation actually arises? If some people say that adultery is wrong in situation “A” but right in situation “B”, they are making an absolute statement about adultery in each particular situation. So they are contradicting themselves because they previously claimed adultery was relative.

You see, people can claim ethics are relative, but when they get to an actual situation, they still make absolute statements about ethics. The concept of relativism is self-destructive.

Perhaps a simpler way to look at it is this: Relativists say “there are no absolute truths.” But think about this a moment. If I say, “There are no absolute truths,” what kind of statement am I making? Obviously I am making an absolute statement about truth (i.e., that “there are no absolute truths”). But if truth is relative, then no absolute statements can be made. You see, if relativism is true, it is impossible to make any kind of absolute statement about truth—even the statement that relativism is true.

Absolutism: The Way God Intended It

Christianity opposes relativism at every turn because to surrender to relativism is to admit that truth does not have its source in God. It is determined by people and is wholly subjective in nature. According to relativism, there is no such thing as objective truth. Truth is wholly subjective—it is relative to individual or cultural interpretation.

The Bible, on the other hand, teaches that truth is absolute. It flows from a standard outside human reasoning and experience. Truth is complete, final, unchanging, and applies to everyone equally. Truth is not capricious nor is it relative and determined by individuals or cultures.

Absolutism teaches that there exists an absolute standard for judging moral behavior and spiritual truth. This absolute standard is God, and He is revealed in Scripture (revelation). Hence God is the source of all truth, the ultimate reality, and the standard by which all truth-claims are measured. As Geisler observed, “Since God’s moral character does not change, … whatever is traceable to God’s unchanging moral character is a moral absolute.” In sum, if truth-claims do not measure up to God’s revelation as recorded in the Bible, they are untruths and must be rejected.


Let’s tie this all together. For something to be true, it must reflect the facts as they really exist. It is not enough to say that such-and-such is true because it agrees with the facts as I
understand them to be. Rather it must agree with facts as they really are. It must correspond to reality. Truth does not change. As Geisler and Watkins put it:

Truth, like ethical laws, is universal and corresponds to reality. Truth does not spring into existence, neither is it dependent on individuals, on cultures, or on what works. If a statement accurately describes or explains a state of affairs, then its meaning is true for all people, at all places, and in all time periods independently of anyone’s knowledge or verification of the statement. Truth is timeless and absolute, and it corresponds to what is, not to what is not.

Truth, then, is synonymous with reality. If you have truth, you have reality. This implies that if something was true in the past, it is true today whether I recognize it or not. Likewise, if something was false in the past, it is false today because truth is not affected by the passage of time or by personal opinion. It exists outside human beliefs, worldviews, cultures, or circumstances.

This is borne out in everyday experience. Occasionally, we discover that something we thought was true in the past turns out to be false. For example, a few decades ago it was believed that tomatoes were poisonous. Now we know tomatoes are not poisonous, and we recognize that this has always been true—even when we didn’t know it. The truth that tomatoes are healthy food has nothing to do with time or one’s beliefs.

What’s Up Next?

Some readers will probably have noticed that although I have solved one problem (the fallacious nature of relativism), I have illuminated another problem. If truth is absolute and if the law of non-contradiction demands that only one religion can reveal the true nature of God and His relationship with humanity, why do people differ so drastically in their religious views?

The answer to this lies in understanding the difference between reality (what is really real—the actual state of the matter) and how people interpret reality, that is, what governs the way people perceive reality. This issue concerns worldviews, and it leads us to our next discussion.

Chapter Four

A World of My Own

Let’s take a moment to review what we have learned so far. First, the modern world, not unlike the Roman Empire at the time of Christ, embodies a myriad of religious worldviews that all claim to represent truth. This pluralism is widely accepted among non-Christians. Consequently, because Christians claim that Christianity is the only true religion, many unbelievers not only reject Christianity, but they also view Christians as narrow-minded and exclusive.

Second, there are logical first principles which are the starting point of all truth and knowledge. Without them, it would be impossible to think and communicate rationally, to make sense out of the world, or to ever discover truth. It is because of these first principles, and in particular the laws of logic, that truth can be known.

Third, although we live in a world that increasingly holds to the philosophy of pluralism, nevertheless, truth is not relative but absolute. Truth corresponds to a reality that exists beyond and above human opinion and preference.

Fourth, since we know that truth is not relative and that there exist universal laws of logic that prohibit contradictory truth-claims from both being true, we can conclude that only one religion out of all contenders can reflect divine truth. God cannot exist in two or more contradictory natures. Just as you and I are unique individuals and can be identified only as ourselves, so too is God unique in His essential nature and can be identified only as He actually exists. God is either monotheistic or pantheistic or some other nature. There is only one God as Christians claim, or many gods as polytheists claim. God cannot be one and many at the same time. Thus, only one religion can reflect the true nature of God.

Someone may respond to this statement by asking, “Can’t God be whatever He wants to be?” The answer is no. To say that God is sovereign and all-powerful does not mean that He can violate His essential nature. If God is good in His essential nature, He can’t be the source of evil. If God is just in His essential nature, He can’t judge unfairly. Likewise, the Bible teaches that God “does not lie or change His mind” (1 Sam. 15:29). Thus God cannot reveal Himself in contradictory ways in different religions. God is limited by His own nature.

With these facts established, the question becomes, Which religion is correct? Is God the God of the Muslims, the Hindus, the Polytheists, the Deists, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Mormons, the New Age, the Christians—or is He the God of some other religion?

If God is ultimate reality and the source of absolute truth, then only God can answer this question. If we are to know truth about God at all, God Himself must reveal it to us.

Christians believe that the Bible is God’s only written communication of revelational truth. Thus, the true nature of God is revealed only in the Christian religion. This being the case, all non-Christian religions are spurious, and absolute truth—religious, ethical, psychological, scientific—has its source only in the God of Scripture (Col. 2:3–4, 8).

But just claiming this does not automatically make it true. Most religions make similar truth-claims. My present task, then, is to establish a coherent system for determining truth that verifies Christianity and falsifies other religions. Christians cannot expect unbelievers to convert to Christianity unless they are convinced that Christianity reflects reality. As Francis Schaeffer put it: “Before a man is ready to become a Christian, he must have a proper understanding of truth, whether he has fully analyzed his concept of truth or not.… Our concept of truth will radically affect our understanding of what it means to become a Christian.”

This brings us to the topic at hand: worldviews. What people individually and culturally perceive as reality and believe to be true is largely determined by their particular worldview. Thus, if a worldview distorts reality, truth is likewise distorted.

This is nowhere more true than in the area of religion. If we are to successfully discover religious truth and if in particular I am to successfully prove the authenticity of Christianity, it is vital that we understand what a worldview is and the role it plays in influencing how people determine truth and interpret reality. Ronald Nash observed:

While all mature, thinking persons have a worldview, many of them are unaware of the fact.… One of the important tasks for philosophers, theologians, and, indeed, anyone interested in helping people in this important matter, is first to get people to realize that they do have a conceptual system. The second step is to help people get a clearer fix on the content of their worldview. What do they believe about the existence and nature of God, about humankind, morality, knowledge, and ultimate reality. The third step is to help people evaluate their worldview and either improve it (by removing inconsistencies and filling in gaps) or replace it with a better world view.

What Is a Worldview?

Everyone has a worldview whether they realize it or not. What is a worldview? In the broadest sense, a worldview is the standard by which an individual, consciously and unconsciously, interprets all data so as to maintain a consistent and coherent understanding of the whole of reality.

A worldview acts like a filter in that it screens and analyzes and categorizes all information so that we can make sense out of the world. It is the frame of reference from which we discern truth from falsehood, make rational decisions, and formulate ethical and religious values.

Worldviews are made up of certain presuppositions or assumptions that an individual believes to be true. These presuppositions form the infrastructure of all worldviews. For example, Christians hold to the presuppositions that the supernatural world exists, that God is knowable, that Jesus is fully God and fully human, that heaven awaits us, and a host of other beliefs that are foundational and determinative to how Christians view religious, ethical, and other truths.

An opposite worldview is naturalism. Naturalism rejects the supernatural. Its presuppositions include the belief that the universe is eternal, that life evolved through random processes (evolution), and that the Bible is a book of religious experiences and creative writing—not divine revelation.

The key to understanding the role of presuppositions in worldviews is they are taken for granted. They are rarely defended, discussed, or analyzed because everyone who accepts them thinks they are necessarily true. And indeed, they must be true if a worldview is to accurately reveal truth as it really exists.

In one sense, it can be said that a worldview determines what is reality to an individual or culture. I need to be careful here. I am not saying that what we think is true via our worldview filter actually is true. I am saying that supposed truth is largely determined by our worldview presuppositions. This is why, given the same data, people with different worldviews reach different conclusions. Geisler and Watkins explained it this way:

A world view is like a set of colored glasses. If one looks at the same object through green-colored glasses he will see it as green, while another looking at the same object through red glasses will see it as red. This is why people with different world views will often see the same facts in a very different way.

A Moral Example

About thirty years ago a teenager in my extended family got pregnant out of wedlock. It was decided that she should have an abortion. At the time the family breathed a corporate sigh of relief. So did I. It seemed the easiest and most logical way to solve a messy situation.

Back then I didn’t have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and I adhered to the world’s values. I didn’t see anything wrong with having an abortion. Today, however, I would do anything in my power to fight that decision (as would the person who had an abortion because she, too, is now a Christian).

What is different? The difference is that I have experienced a worldview shift. I now see the abortion issue through the filter of the Christian worldview rather than the secular worldview. So my opinion of abortion has made a complete reversal. The following chart helps explain this.


Views on Abortion

Christian worldview filter:

Atheistic worldview filter:

Assumes fetus fully human, has soul.

Assumes fetus pre-human, has no soul.





Abortion is murder.

Abortion like removing an appendix.


You can see that a worldview filter determines how an individual (as well as whole cultures) interprets data and makes truth decisions. But there’s a problem here, and it’s the key to understanding and confronting contradicting worldviews—and why it is wrong to claim that truth is exclusively the result of cultural worldview presuppositions.

The problem is this: What one perceives to be true through his worldview filter may or may not be true. In other words, to continue Geisler and Watkins’s metaphor, a worldview acts like the lenses on glasses. The correct prescription makes things vivid and sharp. It reveals what’s really there. But what if one’s worldview filter is out of focus? An erroneous worldview filter will distort reality just as an incorrect prescription on glasses will prevent one from seeing clearly. In other words, if the worldview is in error, then what one thinks is true may be false.

Because people and cultures tend to judge reality only through the filter of their own particular worldview, they could be believing truth-claims (religious or otherwise) that are far removed from where truth really lies. Let me illustrate this with a fitting parallel that shows how a worldview can promote a false understanding of reality.

Counselors and therapists frequently deal with distorted worldviews, and they are very much aware of how these misperceptions can give their patients perverted views of reality. People whose childhoods were traumatized by physical or emotional abuse or who grew up in an environment lacking love and affection often become adults who carry around a suitcase full of misbeliefs about themselves and other people. These misbeliefs (analogous to distorted worldviews) prevent them from enjoying normal human relationships. It is the task of therapists to help their clients recognize this baggage, show how it prevents them from enjoying normal relationships, and then lead them through a healing process that results in a new worldview of themselves and others.

In a similar fashion, one of the tasks of Christian apologetics is to help unbelievers identify fallacious misbeliefs in the area of religious truth and then show how such erroneous beliefs garble reality. If it can be shown that the foundational presuppositions of a worldview are false, then the door is open for people to see that beliefs dependent upon that worldview are equally false. Doing this is a two-step process.

Truth Is Objective, Not Subjective

First, we must help unbelievers recognize when their existing worldview filter is interpreting truth subjectively rather than objectively. This happens when truth-claims are based on personal opinion and experience rather than on objective facts. Many people hold beliefs because of emotional commitment that has little or no bearing on reality.

Let me add quickly that subjective truth exists. But all subjective truth-claims must be qualified. We will look at this more closely in the following chapter when we examine religious experiences.

How do you determine if beliefs are grounded on emotional feelings or experiences rather than on objective facts? By examining the core presuppositions on which beliefs depend. A worldview often misconstrues reality (and hence truth) because it fosters truth-claims that rely on unsubstantiated presuppositions rather than on objective criteria that can be verified.

Here’s the bottom line. Worldview presuppositions can be judged for truth only to the degree that they can be verified by objective evidence. If they can’t, then there is no compelling reason to accept one worldview over another. To determine truth among competing religious worldviews, we must base our decision on which worldview best verifies its truth-claims.

The job of apologetics is to help non-Christians identify the erroneous presuppositions on which their religious or philosophical beliefs rest. If we can show that these assumptions are in error, hopefully the unbeliever will be willing to consider alternative views. This is a key tactic in offensive apologetics.

Take, for instance, the claim that Jesus rose from the dead. One can reject this truth-claim because it doesn’t fit an anti-supernatural worldview that rejects the miraculous (naturalism). Or one can examine this claim according to the accepted canons of historical investigation and draw conclusions as to its truthfulness based on the evidence. Most readers will agree that only in the latter case can the truth of the Resurrection be ascertained.

Helping unbelievers determine the veracity and credibility of their own worldview is the assignment of the present chapter. To do this, we will examine negative and positive factors that influence worldviews. On the negative side, we will see the various ways in which a worldview can distort reality and lead away from truth. On the positive side, we will identify the ingredients that must be present before any worldview can accurately reveal truth.

Truth Can Be Tested

The second step in the two-step process of exposing erroneous worldview assumptions, especially in the area of religious truth, is to develop a standard for determining truth that is acceptable and applicable for all people regardless of their existing beliefs. This standard must appeal to our innate sense of reasoning so that we clearly see the difference between truth as it corresponds to reality and error as it flows from a worldview that creates its own false reality. This standard will provide a needed measuring stick for verifying or falsifying all religious truth-claims. This second step will be the job of the following two chapters. So let’s return to our present task and examine the role worldviews play in determining truth.

Negative Factors Leading Away from Truth

It is possible for people to change worldviews. If it wasn’t, evangelism would be a waste of time. Every religious convert experiences a change of worldview. Likewise, entire civilizations have changed worldviews. The Roman world in the early fourth century officially accepted Christianity as the state religion, ending centuries of pagan worship. As a result Christianity eventually became the dominant worldview throughout the Roman Empire and eventually all of Western civilization. Today, the Christian worldview has largely been replaced by secular humanism. Social, ethical, and religious practices are determined by people rather than God. Western civilization, then, has changed worldviews twice since the birth of Christ.

Similarly, the scientific community experiences worldview changes. Prior to Darwin, nature was seen as a textbook of God’s general revelation, and divine creation was considered scientific fact. Today, science is firmly rooted in the philosophy of naturalism, and God has been removed as the creator and sustainer of the universe. Thus, since Darwin’s time, science has made a complete worldview turnaround at a presuppositional level.

However, worldviews do not ordinarily change easily or gracefully. People are secure and comfortable in their worldviews (especially religious worldviews) and feel threatened when their beliefs are challenged. This should not be surprising, considering that one’s worldview shapes and determines reality and what is perceived as truth (whether such truth is accurate or not). To question our worldview is to cast doubt on reality as we understand it.

But worldviews can distort reality and lead away from religious truth rather than reveal it. So if truth is to be discovered, it is important to recognize the negative elements that are characteristic in erroneous worldviews. There are four ways in which worldviews can lead away from religious truth.

The presupposition error. Although “a worldview provides an overall picture of reality into which one can fit all the pieces of life and the world,” it is not necessarily an accurate picture of reality. A worldview rests on a foundation of specific presuppositions that may be absolutely true, partially true, or absolutely false.5

Because a worldview can pervert truth, some objective criteria is needed in order to test the veracity of its presuppositions. This is especially true when different worldviews have diametrically opposite views, as is the case of religious truth-claims.

Worldviews can be in error with regard to the subjective nature of their basic presuppositions. Therefore, they can lead away from truth. The historical truth of the Resurrection cannot be brushed aside simply because one’s anti-supernatural presupposition assumes that miracles are impossible. Similarly, there must be an objective criteria for determining the veracity of all religious truth-claims. Worldview presuppositions need to be carefully examined in the light of objective, verifiable evidence that supports or condemns them.

The inconsistency error. The second factor that can lead away from truth is inconsistency. As pointed out, a worldview typically interprets data according to its own presuppositions. This is necessary in order to maintain internal harmony and consistency. For example, if a religious view claims that God is personal, to be consistent, God’s role in creation, His relationship with human beings, the means to salvation … all such relevant doctrine must be in harmony with the nature of a personal God. If not, major inconsistences will flourish.

The danger here lies in the fact that a worldview can appear to be internally consistent but still be in error because it is externally inconsistent. Internal consistency alone is an inadequate test for truth. Here is an example of this.

New Age followers claim that humans are divine in their essential nature. This is internally consistent with the pantheistic concept of God endorsed by New Age religions. Pantheism teaches that all of reality is part of God’s essence. Humans exist, so they, too, are part of God’s essence. Thus humans are divine in their essential nature. But externally, this assumption falls apart. The claim that man is divine is not consistent with reality. No one can demonstrate objectively that he or she is divine. New Age followers can claim it, but they can’t prove it. They can’t even give concrete examples of it. So why should it be accepted as truth? We might just as well claim that we are Martians in disguise or that we can turn into a werewolf when the moon is full and no one is looking.

Christianity passes the internal consistency test. As Alister McGrath noted, “The Christian doctrines of God, the person and work of Christ, and of human nature, interact in such a manner as to give a consistent whole. If ‘truth’ is defined in terms of internal consistency, traditional Christian theology scores highly.”

Here is another inconsistency error. While attempting to maintain internal consistency, a worldview often creates truths from within its framework that may have no bearing on reality at all. This is an example of how a worldview actually creates a false reality.

Part of the problem here lies in the fact that all worldviews have a propensity to fit external data into their interpretive framework when that data may actually fit better in another worldview. Examples of this are legion, but let me share a common one from science.

Adhering to the philosophy of naturalism, science sees the origin of life as a process of time and chance independent of a creator God. Consequently, scientific discoveries in the area of origins are automatically made to fit within this evolutionary framework—even if they fit within a creationist model better. When this happens, and it does, the scientific worldview is not only inconsistent, but also it is guilty of foisting a false view of reality that is contradictory to truth.

Dr. John Warwick Montgomery gave a humorous anecdote illustrating people’s penchant to make contrary objective data fit into their existing worldview presuppositions:

Once upon a time there was a man who thought he was dead. His concerned wife and friends sent him to the friendly neighborhood psychiatrist. The psychiatrist determined to cure him by convincing him of one fact that contradicted his belief that he was dead. The psychiatrist decided to use the simple truth that dead men do not bleed. He put his patient to work reading medical texts, observing autopsies, etc. After weeks of effort, the patient finally said, “All right, all right! You’ve convinced me. Dead men do not bleed.” Whereupon the psychiatrist stuck him in the arm with a needle, and the blood flowed. The man looked down with a contorted, ashen face and cried: “Good Lord! Dead men bleed after all!”

This parable illustrates that if you hold unsound presuppositions with sufficient tenacity, facts will make no difference at all, and you will be able to create a world of your own, totally unrelated to reality and totally incapable of being touched by reality.

The lifestyle error. The third way in which a worldview can lead away from truth concerns the lifestyle it promotes. An erroneous worldview can endorse moral and social standards that cause us to live lives that are not in our own best interest. Geisler and Watkins pointed out:

One not only reads [interprets] through his worldview glasses, but also he lives by means of them. For a world view is really a world and life view. It includes within it value indicators or principles by which one makes value judgments.

People’s actions are largely controlled by their worldviews. What you and I consider morally and socially acceptable, what we crave materially, and the criteria for emotional and spiritual happiness are all dictated by our worldviews. Here are a few examples.

Westerners are programmed through their worldview to expect certain legal rights (such as religious freedom), to desire material possession (cars, a private home), and to have an unbridled opportunity to move upward on the social/economic ladder. However, cultures operating under different worldviews may see things differently. For example, under a communist worldview, religious freedom is a hindrance to the welfare of the state. For a Buddhist, material possessions interfere with spiritual growth. Historic Hinduism promotes strict rules (the caste system) that prevent one from advancing economically or socially.

But there is a problem with this pluralism of lifestyles. We have already seen that truth-claims that contradict each other cannot both be right. This means that a worldview promoting religious values and other beliefs that are inconsistent with what it really takes to promote human happiness and well-being is counterfeit and will ultimately fail to meet real human needs.

In the Christian worldview ultimate happiness and peace of mind are grounded in one’s relationship with Jesus Christ. If this is true, nothing that happens in this world can remove this spiritual contentment (Rom. 8:37–39). On the other hand, if one’s worldview erroneously teaches that happiness and peace of mind are in direct proportion to the quantity of one’s material possessions or one’s status in society, obviously such happiness will vanish if possessions or status are lost.

A worldview that endorses moral, social, economic, psychological, or other values and practices that are inconsistent with real human needs can only lead away from truth. To see this, look at practices in some non-Christian religions and ask yourself whether or not they further human welfare and peace of mind:

Are religions that reject medical aid for children contributing to human welfare? Are religions that ignore human suffering meeting human needs? Are religions that condemn and ostracize individuals for failure to perform rituals or for stumbling into sin really encouraging spiritual growth? Are human sacrifice, self-mutilation, neurotic submission to human authority, cutting family ties, confiscating one’s personal wealth, degrading women, or promoting unattainable physical or economic goals (“health and wealth”) really contributing to human happiness and well-being?

All of these are religious practices found in non-Christian worldviews. Clearly, none of them are in harmony with people’s best interests.

The false-god error. The final way in which erroneous worldviews lead their adherents away from truth is the most important of all to identify. It centers on their view of God. As mentioned previously, all major religions entertain widely different opinions concerning the nature of God and how He relates to people. Because a worldview’s concept of God is foundational to all other beliefs, it dictates not only religious practices, but it also influences social, economic, and ethical practices. Here are a few examples.

In the Christian worldview, absolute standards of right and wrong originate in the divine mind and are not open to personal choice. A Christian’s social, economic, and ethical behavior is strictly controlled by God’s moral standards. Moreover, in God’s eyes, men and women are equal (Gal. 3:28) and both possess intrinsic value. All people are worthy of care and compassion, and all are free to make personal decisions that affect their lives so long as the decisions do not hurt others and are not prohibited in Scripture (Rom. 14; 1 Cor. 8).

In historic Hinduism the caste system limits one’s economic and social freedom and individual worth. This social structure is a direct result of Hinduism’s pantheistic concept of God and how this belief plays itself out in karma and the transmigration of souls. Likewise, in the Arab world, social, ethical, and even international relationships cannot be fully understood apart from the Islamic view of God.

What about a worldview that denies God’s existence, such as secular humanism? Again, social, economic, and ethical behavior is directly related to its view of God (in this case, the belief that God doesn’t exist). Here ethics are derived from the mind of people rather than from God. Without God there is no standard of right and wrong independent of human thoughts and experiences. Thus, as we’ve seen, ethics are relative, people have different views on what is right and wrong, and no one can logically claim that another person’s moral principles are immoral. This means that the social, economic, and ethical practices advanced in Communism, Nazism, or democracy are equally credible.

Only God can be the absolute source of absolute truth. All truth must ultimately come from Him. If the true nature of God is distorted as it passes though the interpretative framework of a worldview, all other “truths” which are influenced or controlled by religious presuppositions are equally erroneous. It is inevitable that a worldview that distorts the nature of God will invariably pervert economic, social, moral, and all other practices.

It goes without saying that a worldview promoting an erroneous concept of God cannot lead to eternal salvation. A false God cannot redeem sinners or open the door to heaven.

Positive Factors Leading Toward Truth

There are three essential ingredients that must be present in any worldview before truth can be revealed. A worldview that lacks any of these characteristics must be seen as fraudulent and incapable of leading to truth, including religious truth. All worldviews must (1) be consistent, both internally and externally—their truth-claims can’t contradict each other; (2) answer crucial questions about life and the cosmos that correspond to reality and human experience as universally understood and lived out; and (3) be emotionally and spiritually satisfying.

Is it consistent? For a worldview to accurately reveal reality and thereby point to absolute truth, it must be internally and externally consistent (coherent). By internally consistent, I mean that it must be obedient to the laws of logic that are innate to human consciousness and reasoning. For example, it cannot make contradictory statements such as, “people are ‘little gods’ ” (i.e., both human and divine), or “ethics are relative” (an absolute statement about ethics). Unless a worldview adheres to the laws of logic, it will be irrational and unable to project truth.

By external consistency, I mean that a worldview must be true to the facts of history and science. As said, for example, a worldview can’t simply reject the Resurrection in spite of historical testimony or reject Creation in spite of scientific evidence simply because they don’t fit anti-supernatural assumptions. On the other hand, the facts of history and science must be understandable in context of the worldview. The Christian worldview must explain why the Resurrection fits the facts of history and how scientific evidence endorses Creation.

A worldview consistent with external reality will not fly in the face of what people universally experience and intuitively recognize as reality. I am not saying that truth is dependent on experience, but I am saying that a worldview will account for human experiences and not be contradicted by them. Let me return to a previous example to illustrate this.

Some pantheistic religions claim that pain and evil are illusions. However, all people respond to pain and evil as if they are real. For most people, this is adequate evidence to prove that pain and evil are real. They personally experience it. But for the sake of argument, let’s pretend that pain and evil are illusions. Does this mean that pantheism adequately explains human suffering and evil? Absolutely not. Even if pain and evil are illusions, the illusions of pain and evil themselves are real. Thus, real or imagined, to be consistent with reality as universally understood and lived out, a pantheist must explain the presence of pain and evil. Pantheism is externally inconsistent with reality if it simply says that pain and evil are illusions and leaves it at that. People still hurt and suffer.

Does it answer crucial questions? All worldviews must consistently answer life’s most perplexing questions and explain basic human traits. Many of these questions fall beyond the scope of science or philosophy: Where did I come from? Why am I here? Where will I go when I die? Why do people tend to sin? Why are people proud? Why do people seek power? Why do people covet what they cannot have? Or, on a more positive note, Why do people have the ability to reason? Why are people creative? Why do people crave love and sympathy?

More importantly, a worldview must explain about God: if He exists, the worldview must explain something of His nature; His relationship with people, both in this life and beyond; and His control (or lack of control) over history, creation, morality, and eternity. If God doesn’t exist, a worldview must explain why people still believe in God and seek Him.

Answers to these questions have been eagerly sought throughout human history. Their universal appeal demonstrates the need for a universal answer. If a worldview flows from reality, it will satisfactorily and coherently answer all of these questions and more.

Is it emotionally and spiritually satisfying? The third necessary ingredient before a worldview can reflect reality and subsequently reveal truth is that it must be emotionally and spiritually satisfying. This means that it must answer the above questions in a way that is not only rational and in harmony with the facts of history and science (point one), but in a way that is subjectively true. For want of a better way to say it, a worldview will “feel” right. It will not leave one with nagging doubts as to truth.

How people feel about themselves, other people, and their status in society are directly related to their worldviews. Psychologically, then, a worldview is a filter through which people experience and express their innermost needs, such as love, acceptance, and a feeling of self-worth. Emotional needs are built into the human psyche, and an authentic worldview will provide for the fulfillment of these needs. A worldview that degrades humanity—such as Communism, Nazism, Hinduism, occultism, and countless other cults and religions—disqualifies itself as an authentic worldview because it fails to meet instinctive human needs.

Finally, and most importantly, a worldview will provide a medium to satisfy people’s innate craving for spiritual fulfillment. God has placed within the consciousness of all people an intuitive awareness of His existence. An authentic worldview will provide a point of contact between God and His creation.

What’s Ahead

As I have repeatedly emphasized, contradicting worldviews cannot all be true; only one can be true. If the Christian worldview is true, it alone reflects absolute reality—what is real about God, people, and life—and all other religions are false.

But how do we determine this? We have just examined the first step. A valid worldview must (1) avoid the pitfalls, the negative factors, that lead away from truth and (2) possess the positive factors that lead to truth: it must be internally and externally consistent; it must answer life’s great and mysterious questions in a way that corresponds to reality; and it must be emotionally and spiritually satisfying. If you dig deeply enough, you will discover that only the Christian worldview fulfills all of these requirements. All other worldviews can be eliminated. This will become increasing apparent as you continue through this book.

If only one worldview can accurately reveal truth, there must be a way to determine this. Furthermore, this standard must be able to test all worldviews. Unless there is a measurement for truth that separates the one true worldview from all erroneous ones, the true worldview could not be identified and set apart. If Christianity is the one true worldview, it will not only possess all the requirements of an authentic worldview, but it will also verify its truth-claims in a way that other religions can’t. It will pass the same truth tests that other religions fail.

This brings us to the second step in the two-step process of exposing erroneous worldviews. I have shown the requirements of a valid worldview, which Christianity possesses. Now I will present a standard for determining truth that will apply to all worldviews equally. To work, this standard must be (1) objective and verifiable, (2) precise enough so as to be unarguable in its conclusions, and (3) universal enough to appeal to the rational minds of all people, regardless of their presently held beliefs. This is the task of the next two chapters.

Chapter Five

Testing Truth-Claims for Truth

Most of us have heard the old fable about the five blind men who attempt to identify an elephant by touching different portions of its body. The first blind man feels the trunk and concludes the elephant is a snake. The second examines a leg and declares the elephant is a tree. The third touches the tail and claims the elephant is a rope. The fourth probes the elephant’s side and believes it to be a house. Finally the fifth blind man handles the elephant’s ear and asserts that the elephant is a fan.

Two aspects of this story parallel the problems we encounter when searching for religious truth. First, the five blind men’s physical handicap can be likened to the blindness many people have due to erroneous worldviews. The five men thought they had discovered truth (identified accurately what they were feeling), but each man interpreted reality (the elephant) differently because their worldview filter (blindness) prevented reality from being known. If the elephant represents religious truth (i.e., Christianity), then what the five blind men thought the elephant was (tree, rope, etc.) represents false religious views. A worldview filters reality according to its own presuppositions, and if the presuppositions are false, truth—religious or otherwise—will be distorted. This problem was dealt with in the previous chapter, so let’s look at the second aspect: the blind men’s methods for determining truth.

The five blind men were limited in their search for truth to just feeling. Lacking a more accurate test for truth (such as sight) or some other means to verify their conclusions, it would have been virtually impossible for any of the blind men to have actually discovered that they were touching an elephant rather than a snake, tree, rope, house, or fan.

Like the elusive elephant, religious truth-claims are not readily subject to verification. In order to discover religious truth, it is vital that we identify and utilize the best truth-tests available. Because some methods for determining truth are not applicable to religious truth, we must also seek ways to confirm religious truth-claims through rational and objective methods. Without such methods, there would be no way to ascertain which religion, among all contenders, possesses absolute truth.

What methods for acquiring truth (truth-tests), if any, are applicable to religious truth and which, if any, are subject to objective verification? Many truth-tests are relied upon by non-Christian religions as the basis for their truth-claims. If it can be shown that these tests are not applicable in the area of religious truth, it follows that the truth-claims resting upon them will likely be erroneous. Demonstrating the inadequacy of these tests, as they relate to religious truth, is a powerful argument against non-Christian worldviews. If a religion’s source of truth is unreliable, its truth-claims crumble.

Ultimately, religious truth must be revelational. God can’t be known by human reasoning alone. Indeed, God can’t be known at all unless He chooses to reveal Himself. Religions may claim divine revelation, but they must be verified by using the following truth-tests. So in order to determine whether or not a particular religion’s truth-claims are divine revelation requires that we analyze their means for acquiring truth.

Custom and Traditions

Customs are distinct behaviors that unite members within a group or culture and set them apart from other groups or cultures. When customs dictate behavior to the point that they become normative as unwritten “laws” passed down to succeeding generations, they become traditions. As an avenue of truth, it is assumed that because so many people adhere to a custom or a tradition for a long period of time, that custom or tradition represents right thinking and right behavior (truth). Millions of people can’t all be wrong. I’m reminded of a bumper sticker I saw years ago: “Eat more lamb. A million coyotes can’t be wrong!”

To some degree, customs and traditions play an important role in all religions. Most liturgical practices are part of religious traditions. Likewise worship services in most churches follow traditional patterns. In Roman Catholicism tradition has been formally recognized as an integral part of church authority.

The problem inherent in this view, however, is that customs and traditions, religious or otherwise, may not lead to right thinking or right behavior in spite of their acceptance. There have been many religious practices that were acceptable to “primitive” peoples that we find abominable today. No one in the civilized world, for example, believes that human sacrifices or self-mutilation or temple prostitution, as once practiced in some ancient pagan religions, are worthy of preservation or that such behavior reflects religious truth.

Generally speaking, however, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with religious customs or traditions if they serve the purpose of uniting or identifying practitioners—so long as they are in harmony with divine revelation. In other words, customs and traditions must flow from truth, not determine truth; customs and traditions are never a source of truth.


Closely related to customs and traditions is authority. Unlike customs and traditions, which we normally take for granted because that is the way things have always been, authority is a conscious surrendering of one’s freedom to another individual or to a governmental or religious institution.

The problem with authority is that there is no guarantee that the person or structure in authority is presenting truth. A characteristic of all cults, for example, is the willingness of their followers to vest complete and autonomous authority on individuals whom they believe are the source of final and complete truth and whom they believe derive their wisdom from God. This is done independently (and often in spite) of any criteria by which to demonstrate that this person warrants such devotion. The result is always the exaltation of the authoritarian figure and the degradation of the follower.

Cult leaders invariably seek whatever means necessary to preserve their authority, and independent thinking or disagreement is always suppressed. As a result, many bizarre beliefs and religious practices are common among today’s cults—and many tragic happenings. Nearly a thousand followers of Jim Jones committed suicide because his authority became synonymous with religious truth. More recently, millions of TV viewers witnessed the tragic end of the Branch Davidians barricaded in Waco, Texas, because followers submitted to the sociopathic impulses of David Koresh.

To protect ourselves against authoritarianism, we must ask the same questions James Sire asked:

Is there any reason to think that some religious figures have an insight into who God is and what he wants? Or any reason to trust what a Zen master says about the way to peace? Here each teacher must be examined individually. Some may have far more likelihood of knowing what they are talking about then others. The fact that a teacher has followers points first to popularity, not to reliability. Is there any reason to think that any one or more of them really do have special knowledge?… Truth is the issue, not the source of truth.

Humans (and human institutions) are fallible. Something beyond and outside human authority must be the criterion by which human authority is measured. Without such a standard, authority rests on the strongest, the smartest, the meanest, or the most politically powerful. Truth becomes relegated to personal opinion, not to an absolute that transcends human feelings and capriciousness.

Feelings, Intuition, and Common Sense

Although we can distinguish between feeling, intuition, and common sense, they are similar in their basic presuppositions. In all three cases, truth is apprehended subjectively by one’s personal impressions or opinions. Of course, personal opinions are often in error. For example, common sense may dictate that the old adage “going around the mountain is faster than going over the mountain” is true, when in many cases it’s false. You can hardly drive around the Rocky Mountains faster than you can drive over them. Maxims derived from individual experiences and touted as self-evident are not necessarily indicative of truth.

The problem with these methods of acquiring truth lies in their essential subjectivity. This results in many contradictory proclamations among religions.

One may feel that an inspiring thought is a direct revelation from God when the very thought may contradict the Bible or a host of other religious books. Some people believe intuitively that the better they are—the more good that they do—the better chance they have of getting into heaven. Yet the Bible teaches that it is not through our goodness that we are saved but through God’s grace (Eph. 2:8–9). A Hare Krishna feels strongly that abstaining from meat and sexual activity (except for the purpose of having children) is necessary for a disciplined life. Some Christians will agree with this. Yet other Christians feel just as strongly that sexual activity and all foods are God’s gracious gifts. Whose feelings are correct?

Nineteenth-century romantic John Muir once commented that “John the Baptist was not more eager to get all his fellow sinners into the Jordan than I to baptize all of mine in the beauty of God’s mountains.” Apparently, Muir believed that people can feel closer to God in the mountains than in church. Other religions disagree. The Mormons hold their temples so sacred that non-Mormons are not even allowed inside.

In a similar way, feelings and intuition are an essential means of verifying truth in New Age religions. Many New Age followers claim that particular spots in Sedona, Arizona, possess powerful mystical energies that are conducive to meditation and to bringing one closer to the god-force (whatever that is). At such locales, they claim, one is much more likely to apprehend religious truth than elsewhere. But the reality may be that the only unique thing about these spots is that the devotee is standing over sandstone.

The problem is that feelings, intuition, and common sense are not self-authenticating; that is, because they neither encourage objective verification nor detect false impressions, they can just as easily lead to untruth as to truth. Once again, as with authority, there must be some verifiable criteria by which feelings, intuition, and common sense can be judged for their truth value.


Instinct can be thought of as “programmed information.” For instance, babies know instinctively to hold their breath when suddenly submerged in water. People know instinctively to drink when dehydrated rather than to eat. Kids (and tree-climbing animals) seem to naturally know from how far up a tree they can jump down without breaking a leg.

This kind of survival information is not truth in the sense that we are dealing with here. By programmed information I mean more than this: There are instinctive truths relevant to God and morality that are innate to all people.

The Bible teaches that there are spiritual and moral truths instinctive to the human race, and this is confirmed by secular studies. Like the Bible, anthropology and comparative religious studies teach that we instinctively recognize the existence of God and certain moral standards of behavior that are mandatory in human relationships. In at least these two ways, absolute truth is revealed in human instinct.

There are problems, however, with accurately applying these instinctive truths. Because of humanity’s fallen state and because people are so easily persuaded by emotions and feelings, we have a proclivity to distort these two instincts and frequently end up worshiping false gods and endorsing immoral acts (Rom. 1:18–32).

Another problem is that instinct is incapable of revealing truth beyond its own limitations. Like information programmed into a computer, human instinct cannot offer truth beyond the purpose of its creation. Thus instinct may inform us that God exists and that He demands specific ethical behavior, but it does not give us information about the essential nature of God or clear information that leads to a saving relationship with God. This kind of information can only come from special revelation: objective, propositional statements from God that are recorded in Scripture and made alive in the person of Jesus Christ.


The pragmatic approach to acquiring truth centers on a kind of utilitarianism. Something is true only so far as it is practical and serves a useful function. In particular, truth is determined by how well it meets human needs—not whether it flows from reality. Therefore, human experience becomes the testing ground for truth.

Actually, the pragmatic approach to truth is of some value in the religious arena. It highlights the value of religious experiences as confirming evidence for the existence of God. Nevertheless, pragmatism has serious drawbacks. Let’s look at a few of them.

Norman Geisler offered a good summation of the merits and criticism of pragmatism. Geisler pointed out that truth, as proclaimed by the pragmatist, may not be truth at all because it simply describes what works rather than what actually may be right. Amputating a finger to eliminate an infection, for example, may work in that it solves the infection problem, but a better (truer) way to solve the infection may be less costly (and painful). Likewise, stealing may provide one with an early retirement, but that does not make stealing right.

Geisler further explained that “truth may be unrelated to results. The results may have been accidental, in which case there would be no more relation to truth than accidentally discovering a million dollars proves one is the rightful owner of it.”

The most serious flaw of pragmatism in the religious arena lies in its inability to discern real truth from among contradicting truth-claims. A religion may appear to work because it meets the spiritual needs of its constituents, yet this does not automatically mean it reflects divine truth. Wrote Geisler, “Of course all truth must work, but not everything that works is necessarily true.” A counterfeit twenty dollar bill may buy a new hat, but possessing the hat doesn’t make the twenty dollar bill real. It’s still bogus, and eventually this will be discovered no matter how many people spend it.

Let me apply this to the problem at hand. Mormonism, Islam, and all other religions appear to satisfy practitioners’ spiritual hunger. But if these religions are not from God, sooner or later it will become evident. The tragedy is that this discovery may not come until it’s too late (Heb. 9:27). It is better to discover religious truth in this life and to be assured of eternal salvation in the next than to be content with just feeling spiritually satisfied now.

Actually a false religion is not spiritually satisfying; it is emotionally satisfying. It can’t be spiritually satisfying if it’s not from God—even if it feels right. Simply because Mormonism is family orientated and supportive of its members does not make the cult any more God’s revelation of divine truth than a pain killer becomes a cure for cancer because it makes the pain go away.

The apostle Paul warned that even Satan can disguise himself as an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14). The apostle John instructed us to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). This testing must rest on confirming objective evidence, not on apparent results.


This approach to acquiring truth has had a powerful influence in Western thought since René Descartes in the seventeenth century. Its basic premise is that human reasoning, and human reasoning alone, is sufficient for acquiring truth.

It is important to understand the difference between reason and rationalism. Alister McGrath explained: “Reason is the basic human faculty of thinking, based on argument and evidence. It is theologically neutral and poses no threat to faith—unless it is regarded as the only source of knowledge about God. It then becomes rationalism, which is an exclusive reliance on human reason alone and a refusal to allow any weight to be given to divine revelation.”

Rationalists believe that ultimate truth is deduced from self-evident axioms that are innate to the human mind. Because these axioms are inescapably true, the conclusions deduced from them must also be true. Thus, truth is not derived from traditions, authority, intuition, instinct, experience, apparent results, or even empirical data, but rather from human logic reasoning from first principles.

There are two weaknesses with rationalism when applied to religious truth. First, rationalists put all their eggs in one basket. They stress that from self-evident axioms flow all truth. But what if these so-called self-evident axioms are false? The result, of course, is false conclusions.

There are logical first principles that are the cornerstone of human reasoning and that are necessary for coherent thinking. As we saw in chapter two, these first principles, which include the laws of logic, cannot be denied. They are part of universal human experience. But to go beyond them is to risk using a false system for determining truth that may not be true at all.

Rationalists offer no evidence to substantiate their first principles. If empirical or experiential evidence contradicts their axioms, this data is assumed to be incorrect because, to rationalists, human reasoning supersedes all other avenues of truth. Rationalists don’t want to be bothered with the facts.

This obviously puts serious limits on discovering truth. If the so-called axioms cannot be verified, how do we determine whether they are true or not? We can’t.

This brings up the second problem with rationalism. Professor Geisler pointed out: “Not only did the rationalists offer no demonstration of their axioms, but they differed in their conception of them and even drew differing conclusions from them.” Let me illustrate this.

It is in harmony with the concept of rationalism (although not all rationalists would agree with this) that God has placed in all human beings an innate knowledge of His existence and of certain of His attributes (Romans 1). This would be analogous to a universal axiom. But having this information a priori (existing in the mind at birth) does not mean that absolute truth about God will flow from it. Thus, as Geisler stated elsewhere, some rationalists “end up in pantheism, some in theism, [and] some with finite gods.”

As a test for determining truth, especially religious truth, rationalism fails. Its basic premises are assumptions, and these assumptions cannot be substantiated. Even when they are true, fallen humanity, more often than not, distorts them into erroneous conclusions. Thus rationalism is unable to demonstrate absolute religious truth. We can’t reason ourselves to God. Somehow, religious assumptions must be tested by objective means if they are to accepted as divine truth.

Sense Perception

This method for procuring truth depends on assimilating data through our five senses (taste, touch, hearing, sight, and smell). Sense perception is vital to everyday living. For example, it is indispensable when it comes to protecting us from harm, such as tasting spoiled food before swallowing it or hearing a car’s horn in time to jump out of the way. It also plays an important role in knowledge acquisition—your sense of sight is necessary in order for you to read this book and (hopefully) learn something new. The Bible also teaches that sense perception is important to learning (Matt. 12:3; 21:16; Mark 12:10; Rom. 10:14).

As a reliable interpreter of truth or as a means to test truth-claims, however, sense perception is limited and relativistic. It is limited because there is more to reality and human experience than what can be apprehended through our five senses. For example, sense perception is unable to verify ethical, psychological, or religious concepts. Likewise, sense perception is relativistic. People interpret the same phenomena differently. For example, our senses tell us that the air temperature is hot or cold. But hot to me may be comfortable to a Navaho, or cold to me may be invigorating to an Eskimo.

Likewise millions of people claim to have seen flying saucers—some even attach religious significance to them. But upon investigation, it has been proven in many cases that the observer mistook an aircraft or some natural phenomena for the alleged UFO.

When my son was about eleven years old, he ran into the house one evening insisting that some kind of monster was lurking in a creek bed near our house. I got a flashlight, and we went out to investigate. The monster turned out to be the moon reflecting off a tree trunk.

And of course there are the hundreds of accounts of people “hearing” God or “seeing” Jesus—but never with a shred of evidence to prove that what they saw or heard was actually from God. In short, sense perception, standing alone, cannot be relied upon to give consistently reliable truth. Our senses can weave strange tales.


In his landmark book on religious experiences, philosopher and psychologist William James asked the question, “Is the sense of divine presence a sense of anything objectively true?” In other words, are emotional or subjective encounters with God real? Can people experience God, or are all religious experiences psychological in nature and void of objective reality? And if real, do religious experiences “point to truth” or are they mere “pointers of truth”—do they reveal truth or confirm truth?

The answers to these questions make or break many religions. Why? Because personal religious experiences are the sacred cows of numerous religions, the entire basis of their truth-claims. Most cults have as their source of truth the religious experiences of alleged prophets. Similarly, personal religious experiences are the guiding force in many New Age religions and the so-called “Word Faith Movement.” Even well-established religions such as Islam and Mormonism rely on religious experiences as their cornerstone of truth. Concerning Islam, one author explained:

The Koran … doesn’t even attempt to give any reason for belief in its religion-ethical system (i.e., any solid evidence strong enough to rationally support its command/reward structure). Rather, it claims, essentially, one will know it is true if one’s heart is in the right place. Evidently there are people who can be successfully programmed, by just such a simple statement, to “experience” the required feelings.

Now before going any further, I need to say this. Just because numerous false religions rely on religious experiences as their source of truth does not mean that all religious experiences are bogus. Nothing can be farther from the truth.

Many religious experiences are counterfeit (they must be if they endorse a false god or false religious system), but some are genuine personal encounters between people and God. It is undeniable that some religious experiences are real. They can’t be brushed aside as mere psychological phenomenon, as some skeptics are prone to do. J. P. Moreland pointed out, “Such experiences are common to an overwhelming number of people and they’re often life-transforming in a number of ways.”

What are these encounters like? As Moreland further explained, they may take various forms, but for most theists a religious experience includes “some sort of direct apprehension of a personal Being who is holy, good, awesome, separate from the subject, and One upon whom the subject depends in some way for life and care.”

Notice that this encounter does not include actually seeing God or hearing His voice. Nevertheless, a religious experience moves one beyond mere intellectual acknowledgment. It triggers an emotional or mystical response rather than a cognitive one. It confirms God’s existence, His love and concern for His people, and His desire to have us walk with Him and to trust Him. Religious experiences, then, reveal truth subjectively rather than objectively. However, since I have previously expressed a concern for relying too heavily on subjectivism as a source of truth, we need to look at religious experiences critically—even Christian religious experiences.

Religious Experience and Christianity

No religion in the world would survive without confirming religious experiences. There must be more than intellectual dogma for a religion to be relevant and for it to inspire belief and acceptance. Even religions that do not emphasize a personal relationship with deity, such as many pantheistic religions, still maintain a subjective element to belief in which their god satisfies spiritual needs. This may occur in the here and now, as in Christianity, or only in some future state of bliss. But all religions answer life’s great mysteries: Why am I here? Where did I come from? What happens to me after death? This is nowhere more important and evident than in Christianity.

Christianity rests on a solid foundation of history and can be verified by all the canons of historical investigation. But our faith also touches the heart as well as the mind. Religious experiences that reflect a true encounter with the living God are a vital ingredient of Christianity. More than any other religion in the world, Christianity confirms its truth-claims through profound, life-changing religious experiences. Jesus’ disciples set the example for countless millions of Christians to follow.

Before Jesus was crucified, His followers abandoned Him, fled to their homes, and locked themselves inside from fear of the Jewish and Roman authorities (Matt. 26:56; John 20:19). Yet a few weeks later, these same men were bolding proclaiming the Christian message in the very city and before the very authorities who crucified Jesus. What caused this dramatic turnaround? What caused them to forfeit the comforts of life, their family and friends, and their traditional religious beliefs to embrace a religious movement that resulted in persecution and death? They encountered the living and risen Christ, and their lives were changed forever.

Over the past twenty centuries, millions upon millions of Christians claim to have experienced similar dramatic, life-changing, personal encounters with Jesus Christ. Not visible encounters, but spiritual encounters every bit as real and profound. Atheists and skeptics have become believers. Alcoholics and drug addicts have been set free from their dependencies. Marriages have been healed. Damaged relationships have been restored. Love, compassion, tolerance, and patience have blossomed where hate, greed, jealousy, and anger once flourished. It would be foolish to sweep aside such a magnitude of personal testimony as insignificant. Religious experience is powerful affirmation for the authenticity of the Christian worldview.

Unfortunately there are some misconceptions and misapplications of religious experiences among Christians. Generally, religious experiences confirm revelation (spiritual truths) not reveal it. David Wells noted:

In any genuine knowledge of God, there is an experience of his grace and power, informed by the written Scriptures, mediated by the Holy Spirit, and based upon the work of Christ on the Cross. What is not so clear from the New Testament is that this experience should itself become the source of our knowledge of God or that it should be used to commend that knowledge to others.

He later elaborated:

Biblical faith is about truth. God has described himself and his works to us in the language of the Bible, and it is quite presumptuous for us to say that we have found a better way to hear him (through our own experience) and a better way to find reality (by constructing it within the self).

The Dangers of Religious Experiences

Although religious experiences can be genuine encounters between people and God, it is dangerous to accept all religious experiences as valid. Both Shirley McLaine and Augustine had religious experiences, but obviously both can’t reflect true encounters with God. This would require God to contradict Himself—a theological and logical impossibility. C. S. Lewis observed, “Religious experience can be made to yield almost any sort of God.” There are several reasons for critically examining all religious experiences, including Christian.

Counterfeit experiences. First, as indicated above, religious experiences are not restricted to Christians. Where there are counterfeit religions, there are counterfeit religious experiences. So having a religious experience does not automatically mean that it was a true encounter with God. Many religious experiences may be psychological in nature. Some people want to experience God so intensely that they actually imagine such an encounter. Worse yet, a supposed religious experience may be phoney. Many so-called prophets are no more than the worst kind of charlatan—outright frauds. Claiming to be speaking for God, they pretend to have had religious experiences in order to give authenticity to their teachings while, in fact, their goal is to bilk people out of their money and to promote their own selfish ambitions for power and control over people’s lives.

Worse still, a religious experience may be the work of demons. Satan is described in the Bible as creating an image of himself as “an angle of light” (2 Cor. 11:14) while in reality he is the “father of lies” (John 8:44). It is not beyond his power to manufacture a phoney religious environment that promotes a false religious experience. In short, a supposed religious experience may be an encounter with the devil rather than with God!

Counter-conversions. A second danger inherent to religious experiences is what William James referred to as ” ‘counter-conversions’ … the transition from orthodoxy to infidelity.” Wrote James:

The new birth may be away from religion into incredulity; or it may be from moral scrupulosity into freedom and license; or it may be produced by the irruption into the individual’s life of some new stimulus or passion, such as love, ambition, cupidity, revenge, or patriotic devotion.

James is saying that a so-called religious experience may not be religion at all in the sense of an encounter with God or being morally righteous. The same psychological transformation (“new birth”) one observes in genuine religious experiences may result in totally irreligious behavior. What psychologically may qualify as a religious experience may lead away from truth rather than toward truth. It may lead to non-Christian religions or even to flagrantly immoral lifestyles. Again this illustrates the need for an objective criterion to judge the authenticity and truthfulness of all religious experience.

Contrary to logic. There is a third danger inherent to religious experiences that needs to be recognized. James pointed out that religious experiences can be so powerful and so compelling that they can cause us to disregard logic. The experience itself becomes reality:

They [religious experiences] are as convincing to those who have them as any direct sensible experience can be, and they are, as a rule, much more convincing than results established by mere logic.… If you do have them, and have them at all strongly, the probability is that you cannot help regarding them as genuine perceptions of truth, as revelations of a kind of reality which no adverse argument, however unanswerable by you in words, can expel from your belief.

The danger here is obvious. If a religious experience does not have its source in God (truth), then its source is from something other than God. We saw previously that there are only two other possibilities: the experience is either wholly psychological in nature and has no bearing on reality at all, or it is demonic in origin. In either case, a religious experience can feel so real that we do not want to be “bothered with the facts,” that is we refuse to judge the truth of the experience against common sense logic or contrary objective evidences (such as Scripture). This clearly leaves us wide open to any manner of bizarre and perverted beliefs.

Although religious experiences can be, and often are, direct means for apprehending insights into truth, they should never be considered the source of truth. Experiences affirm truth; they give powerful supporting evidence for truth. Yet in and of themselves they do not give truth. Religious experiences should correspond to reality but not create reality (which, incidentally, is exactly what some religions claim they do).

Christians claim that Jesus changes lives. If this is true, we should see innumerable examples of changed lives in those who have met the living Christ—which is exactly what we do see. But the historicity of Jesus and His claim to deity do not rest on personal experience alone but on concrete historical facts. This is quite different from what is found in other religions.

If the Bible is God’s Word, it will be the qualifier of religious experiences—the standard or framework by which all religious experiences can be measured for truth. If a so-called religious experience is not in harmony with Scriptures, it must be rejected. God’s subjective revelation through the Holy Spirit will never contradict His objective written and recorded revelation in Scripture.

Religious Experience and Other Religions

This brings up an important question. Can religious experiences outside of Christianity reveal the true God? J. P. Moreland gave an excellent response, so I’ll let him answer for me:

It may well be that God is experienced in some cases of numinous [spiritual] experience in different world religions.… This does not mean that such airiness is vertical and it certainly does not mean that they would bring salvation. Christianity teaches that salvation comes only through faith in Christ. But just as a red table is being experienced by a person even though he is color blind and describes the table as a brown ellipse, so God may be the real object of some numinous experiences (one could not rule out other spiritual beings such as demons as appropriate objects in these cases) even though the descriptions are not completely accurate. At some point, a line would be crossed where we would no longer say that God is being perceived. If one ascribes barking and a tail to the table we would say that the subject is hallucinating. Similarly, if one ascribes contradictory or monistic properties to God, we would not say that God is not being attended to accurately in these cases but rather that he is not being attended to at all.

God will never allow Himself to be identified with a false religion or reveal Himself in a fashion that is contrary to His essential nature as revealed in Scripture. Nor will He reveal spiritual truths contrary to His revelation in Scripture.

Religious Experiences and Evangelism

As we have seen, religious experiences are personal, and it does not logically follow that they are always expressions of divine truth. Thus it is impossible to argue, on a purely subjective level, that one’s personal religious experiences are valid or invalid. We are dealing with feelings, not facts. Experience only proves that you had an experience.

This has a direct bearing on evangelism. If Christians cannot rely on religious experience as their sole source of absolute truth or to verify their truth-claims, neither can they rely on religious experience as their only tool for evangelism. It is difficult for many unbelievers to accept religious experiences as evidence of religious truth. This is why personal testimony based on past religious experiences—although an important ingredient in evangelism—often fails to convict unbelievers.

Christians are on the same wave length with other Christians. When we claim to experience, for example, the “peace of Jesus” or the “filling of the Holy Spirit,” other Christians know precisely what we mean. They acknowledge the truthfulness of this experience because it fits in their worldview and they too have experienced it. But atheists can’t identify with this experience. They will interpret this “religious experience” as a response to natural phenomenon. To them, a religious experience is no more than a psychological episode created out of an emotional need. Likewise, deliverance from alcoholism or a healed marriage can be accounted for naturally, that is, in a non-spiritual way. Atheists will always vie for a nonsupernatural explanation.

Religious experiences are always subject to a variety of possible interpretations, and these interpretations are largely determined by our worldview. We can’t expect unbelievers to feel the same convincing emotions we feel when they do not have the indwelling Spirit of God (1 Cor. 2:14).

Changed lives provide compelling and powerful evidence for the truthfulness of Christianity. However, personal testimony is not the only tool for evangelism, and sometimes it is not even the best. Of course it will be effective for individuals whom God chooses to convict in that fashion. But many unbelievers need supporting evidence to confirm religious experiences. They can’t emotionally relate with the experiences of others, no matter how amazing and spiritual such experiences are. Call them tough-minded or left-brained, they simply need more evidence than the accounts of personal religious experiences to convince them of the truthfulness of Christianity. Effective evangelism requires going the extra mile with such tough-minded individuals by providing them with the objective evidence they demand (i.e., apologetics).

This brings us back to the need for an objective method to substantiate religious experiences. It is up to the Holy Spirit to touch unbelievers’ hearts with truth. It is up to us to carefully examine these experiences to see if they are of God. It is not axiomatic that all religious experiences have their source in God. Psychological need, demonic deception, or something else may be the source of some so-called religious experiences. Hence it is vital that we seek and employ some means of discerning whether our religious experiences flow from God or from some other source.

The Scientific Method

Truth, if it is to be acknowledged and accepted by all people as universal truth, must stand up to critical scrutiny; it must be able to be tested. We have seen that truth doesn’t flow exclusively from customs and traditions; authority figures and institutions; feelings, intuitions, and common sense; instinct; pragmatism; rationalism; sense perception; or religious experience. These truth-tests serve only to confirm truth, not reveal it. We are left with only one remaining truth-test. It is the only valid and reliable way to determine truth: the scientific method.

Let me say at the outset that I am not endorsing the philosophy of science or the naturalistic conclusions of science. The scientific worldview is subject to many distortions that evolve out of its erroneous presuppositions. But I am suggesting that the scientific method for discovering truth is the most reliable method because it alone can be tested. The scientific method, although encompassing some difficulties, is overall the most reliable method for acquiring truth. John Warwick Montgomery affirmed this position:

Empirical or scientific method is the truly valid way of approaching truth because it alone can accomplish to the satisfaction of all what the other methods … cannot; not only do its results not need to be tested for error independently, but is in itself capable of determining what authority to follow and what common sense beliefs and presuppositions to hold.

I am going to postpone a full discussion of this truth-test until the following chapter because it needs to be examined in more detail than the other tests. For now, I will highlight its main tenants.

The scientific approach to acquiring and testing truth comprises two important principles that we will discuss in the following chapter: evidence and probability. As a system, the scientific method involves inductive reasoning, that is, accumulating reliable evidence that points to a general conclusion based on the highest degree of probability attainable.

Although probability leaves the door open for error, it is the closest we can come to absolute truth outside of self-evident or self-defining first principles. Probability conclusions, derived from objective evidence, are the most trustworthy method there is for acquiring and testing truth. They reveal the clearest and most logical choices between conflicting alternatives.

Almost all decisions in life are based on probability, whether they involve scientific matters (all scientific laws are based on probable results); legal matters (we send people to prison based on the preponderance of evidence—probability); historical matters (we evaluate historical evidence and draw conclusions based on the probable accuracy of documentation); or personal matters (we determine our chances of crossing the street safely).

We live in a world in which scientific proof is the accepted model for truth verification. As one observer put it, we look upon science with a sort of uncritical reverence. Because scientific thought has become the paradigm through which truth is sought, it behooves us to use this model whenever possible to increase our chances of gaining a hearing with unbelievers. If non-Christians believe that the scientific method is the only path to truth, let’s walk that path with them and show that it too leads to Christ.

Most of the unbelievers who ordinary Christians encounter in the workplace, among family and friends, or while participating in evangelistic outreaches are non-religious, secularized people programmed to believe whatever dogma science touts. These individuals may not accept our presuppositions (rationalism), our arguments that Christianity works (pragmatism), or our religious experiences (“I’ve heard them all before and they mean nothing to me”), but they may listen if we point out that Christianity is supported by facts and that these facts can be verified using the scientific method of investigation.

Hence, the scientific approach is the most effective way to gain the ear of an unbeliever. It is trustworthy both in defending the Christian worldview and in testing worldviews promulgated by non-Christian religions.

Is More Better?

Before examining the scientific truth-test in detail, I want to address a question that may have occurred to some of you: If we combine all the above methods for discovering and testing truth-claims, will we not discover the most comprehensive method of all?

This idea sounds reasonable and is endorsed by some apologists. However, it does not logically follow that if one method for acquiring truth is inadequate standing on its own it becomes useful if used in conjunction with other systems. If I have shown sufficiently that the various methods for acquiring and testing truth are individually inadequate, then it follows that any combination of them will be equally inadequate. A multitude of little wrongs only adds up to one big wrong, not a right.

A worldview that depends largely on any of the above truth-tests (other than the scientific), such as authority or experience, should not be trusted. All non-Christian religions rely on one or more of these inadequate methods for acquiring and testing truth. Hence, all non-Christian religions must be in error so far as the source of absolute religious truth. Let me put this as a syllogism:

Premise one:    All worldviews that rely on inadequate truth-tests are in error.

Premise two:    All non-Christian religions rely on inadequate truth-tests.

Conclusion:    All non-Christian religions are in error.

There is some merit in appropriating the better features of some of the above truth tests, but only so far as they contribute to a coherent worldview and can be tested using the scientific method—and so long as they are used to confirm truth, not act as a source of truth. Religious experiences give an existential verification that the Christian worldview is true. They show that Christianity meets human needs at the deepest level. Likewise the use of deductive logic, as endorsed by the rationalists, is helpful in showing the coherence and logical nature of the Christian worldview. And as any Christian will verify, Christianity works; it’s pragmatic.

But false religions also boast of religious experiences, profess to be logically coherent, and claim to work—and their beliefs contradict Christianity. Since only one religion can represent truth, more than experience, rationalism, and pragmatism is needed to demonstrate absolute truth. There must also be objective, verifiable evidence.

If truth were subjective and without verification, there would be no way to determine religious truth at all. We might as well throw up our arms in despair and reject all religions. The alternative is to arbitrarily sample several options and choose the one we like best. But this smacks of pragmatism, and truth would be abandoned in favor of personal preference. The process of discovering truth cannot move forward unless it steps on the firm ground of objective, verifiable evidence.

If you and I are to bet our eternity on a particular religion, we had better have reasons for why we believe as we do. The only way to confirm religious truth is to examine the qualifications of the various contenders to determine which religion can validate its claims. I believe that the way to do this is through the scientific method. It is trustworthy both in defending the Christian worldview as well as in testing worldviews promulgated by non-Christian religions and secular philosophies.

Chapter Six

The Whole Truth and Nothing but the Truth

Like many new believers before me, I became interested in apologetics in part because of my inability to respond to challenges critical of Christianity. I remember two comments particularly well. One came from a relative who had studied world religions for many years. He made this comment with all the authority of a Bible scholar: “Jesus never really claimed to be God. Nowhere in the Bible does He say, ‘I’m God.’ ” Although I was certain that Jesus did claim to be God (if not in those exact words), I was nevertheless taken aback. And I was unable to prove him wrong.

The second comment that helped spur me into a study of apologetics expresses a common attitude among many unbelievers, especially those who look to science as the ultimate purveyor of truth. I was on vacation with an old friend, and we were eating dinner at a restaurant overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Fort Bragg, California. I was a new Christian, and after hearing me share my faith my friend responded, “I wish I could believe … if I only had proof.”

Well, I had no proof either. I only had faith. To him, this amounted to no more than personal opinion. He needed more than a testimony to convince him of the authenticity of Christianity.

Because of these and other questions—which I knew Christianity had answers to, but to which I personally couldn’t respond (and I admit because of my own need to confirm that Christianity was rational and not a leap of blind faith)—I began to study apologetics. People wanted proof, and I was determined to give it to them. I looked to apologetics as proof of Christianity.

One of the first lessons I learned after beginning my studies was that proof, in the sense that my friend wanted it, was considered by many Christians as impossible to give. Apologetics, I was taught, doesn’t prove anything, in the sense of absolute proof; it doesn’t give irrefutable proof with no possibility of error. It can’t prove with absolute certainty, for example, that Jesus Christ is God or that Christianity is the only true religion.

Religious truth-claims are not true by definition, as in mathematics (five times five can only be twenty-five) or tautologies (all husbands are married). Nor can religious truths be proven scientifically through observation and experimentation. Religious truths fall outside the category of absolute certainty. Thus apologetics, most apologists agree, consists of giving evidence supporting Christian truth-claims, not proof positive. This is why many apologists use the phrase “evidences for Christianity” to describe apologetic conclusions rather than claiming “proof of Christianity.”

But after many years of apologetic studies, I disagree with this position. Apologetics can prove the authenticity of Christianity! I am not saying that Christian truth-claims are self-evident like mathematics or tautologies. But I am saying that apologetics can prove Christian truth-claims if we use the word proof in the same sense that we use it in all other areas of knowledge that do not entail mathematics or formal logic. It is perfectly legitimate for Christians to claim that they can prove Jesus is God and that Christianity is the only true religion. This is no semantics game I’m playing. I’m not equivocating—I’m not redefining the meaning of proof. I intend to use it exactly as it is used in other areas of truth and knowledge.

What Is Proof?

There are different levels of proof, or certainty, that are relevant to specific areas of knowledge and not to others. When we attain the highest level of certainty possible in any one particular area of knowledge, we have realistically reached truth because we cannot demonstrate a higher level of certainty. For all practical purposes, in that we accept this same level of truth in everyday matters and make decisions accordingly, we have reached absolute certainty.

If this sounds confusing, look at it like this. We can’t expect one level of certainty (i.e., mathematical certainty) to apply to all areas of knowledge. There are areas of knowledge in which mathematical and logical inferences play no part and are not even applicable. What we accept as historically true, legally true, and scientifically true do not and cannot depend on absolute proof in the form of logical and mathematical certainty.

Yet we accept historical, legal, and scientific truths without question. Why? Because the preponderance of evidence and our personal experiences have confirmed their dependability (truthfulness) beyond reasonable doubt. Almost all matters of fact rely on probability confirmation. We accept data that flows out of these three categories of truth in spite of the lack of absolute certainty. Let me cite a few examples.

No one rejects the truth that George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and most other historical figures lived, although no one alive today has ever seen them. No one argues that a man can’t be found guilty of a crime that wasn’t witnessed if sufficient evidence demonstrates his guilt. No one denies the scientific fact that the sun is ninety-three millions miles away from earth although no one has paced it off with a yard stick. None of these facts are certain in the absolute sense of the word. People accept them as true because the weight of the evidence is so overwhelmingly convincing—highly probable. Granted these facts may not be true, but to deny them—or similar truth-claims—because they are not mathematically certain would be tantamount to denying virtually everything we believe. We couldn’t function in the real world with such skepticism. We couldn’t even eat a hamburger because we couldn’t be absolutely certain it wasn’t poisonous.

Let me put this another way. Let’s say someone claims that he once owned a red Ford truck, and we challenge him to prove it. The ex-Ford truck owner provides evidence of such overwhelming reliability that there appears to be absolutely no chance that he is lying. He produces a color photograph with himself standing next to a red Ford truck dangling the keys. He provides a sales contract with the vehicle identification number, a physical description, and his signature as purchaser. He shows us insurance papers and eyewitness affidavits vouching to his ownership. Most people would consider such evidence proof equivalent to “absolute certainty” because they could not imagine that so much evidence could be in error. But does all this evidence constitute absolute proof? Not at all!

I don’t want to get silly in my illustration, but consider this. There is always the chance that the ex-Ford owner has fostered a clever scam. Maybe the photograph is of someone else’s red Ford truck with his picture taken by it. Perhaps his legal documents were forged, and he bribed the eyewitnesses. Maybe all the eyewitnesses were hallucinating and just thought they were seeing a red Ford truck when it was really a green Chevy van. Maybe the ex-Ford truck owner is an invader from a parallel universe and doesn’t exist in our reality at all!

The point is this. Regardless of how remote, there is always the possibility that what we believe is factual is actually in error. But if we lived with such skepticism and accept truth-claims only to the degree that they are mathematically or logically certain, we would never believe anything in history, accept any scientific theories, or convict anyone of a crime. As Ronald Nash put it, “Once one leaves the arena of purely formal reasoning for the world of blood, sweat, and tears, one is required to abandon logical certainty for probability.”

Let me tie this to religious truth-claims. Christianity can provide the same degree of proof—that is, the highest level of certainty possible—for the deity of Jesus Christ, the reliability and authenticity of the Bible, and other Christian truth-claims that are used to prove beyond doubt most other facts that we take for granted in our everyday lives. Furthermore, no other religion in the world offers this same level of certainty.

The Whole Proof and Nothing but the Proof

This brings us to two very important points. First, people can make such a powerful emotional commitment to a belief that no amount of rational argumentation or contrary evidence will change their minds. They literally “don’t want to be bothered with the facts.” In such cases, lack of conviction is not due to lack of evidence but to dogged devotion to a personal belief. As Geisler wrote:

Lack of persuasion is not necessarily a fault of rational proofs as such; it is a result of persons’ own choice. In order for proof to be persuasive there must be a cooperation of the will with the mind. If one is unwilling to look at a proof, unwilling to accept any proof, unwilling to accept the validity of a proof as applied to God, or unwilling to accept the God the proof concludes, then one will not be persuaded by theistic arguments. On the other hand, persons of good will who are seeking the truth will be persuaded by good reasoning.

The second point is that when people demand proof of Christian truth-claims, without realizing it they switch from accepting the kinds of proof they accept in other matters to demanding absolute certainty. Thus, when a non-Christian wants proof that the Bible is authentic or proof that Jesus is God, what he really wants is mathematical certainty. But as we saw, this is impossible to obtain because mathematical certainty is an entirely different category of proof than what is used to establish historic, legal, scientific, and religious truths. Mathematical proof does not pertain to these areas of knowledge. This does not mean proof is impossible, only that it is not proof in a mathematical sense.

In light of all this, the first task in witnessing to unbelievers may be to help them to see that absolute certainty is not available as proof for any religious truth-claims—including Christian—but it is likewise not available as proof for most other truths we take for granted. Nevertheless, religious truth-claims can be proven, and to a level of certainty that is just as valuable and applicable in the area of religion as absolute certainty is in mathematics and pure logic. This same degree of certainty—and not more—is used to prove practically all historical, scientific, and legal truths that we believe and take for granted. It is in this sense that we can honestly and legitimately assert that we can prove Christian truth-claims.

The kind of proof I’m talking about depends on accumulated evidences, and its conclusions are based on probability—the highest level of certainty possible in the area of history, law, science, and religion. From the start, however, it needs to be understood that probability is only as good as the soundness of the evidence on which is depends. This leads us to our next topic: What constitutes sound evidence and probability conclusions?


Nineteenth-century Harvard law professor Simon Greenleaf, considered one of the greatest American authorities on the use of evidence in legal procedures, stated that “a proposition of fact is proved, when its truth is established by competent and satisfactory evidence” [emphasis his]. He then went on to define what constitutes competent and satisfactory evidence:

By competent evidence, is meant such as the nature of the thing to be proved requires; and by satisfactory evidence, is meant that amount of proof, which ordinarily satisfies an unprejudiced mind, beyond any reasonable doubt. The circumstances which will amount to this degree of proof can never be previously defined; the only legal test to which they can be subjected is, their sufficiency to satisfy the mind and conscience of a man of common prudence and discretion, and so to convince him, that he would venture to act upon the conviction in matter of the highest concern and importance to his own interest. If, therefore, the subject is a problem in mathematics, its truth is to be shown by the certainty of demonstrative evidence. But if it is a question of fact in human affairs, nothing more than moral evidence [probability] can be required, for this is the best evidence which, from the nature of the case, is attainable.… When we have this degree of evidence, it is unreasonable to require more.

In other words, the nature of proof required in religious matters is not mathematical certainty but confirming evidence. And the amount of evidence required is that which leads to a conclusion beyond reasonable doubt. Now what would constitute this kind of evidence? More than anything else, sound evidence would include eyewitness testimony, reliable documentation, and scientific and historical confirmation. It would also be philosophically and logically consistent with human experience (blaming a murder on an alien, for example, would not be in harmony with human experience). This is precisely the kind of evidence on which we make our daily decisions and on which truth is determined in most areas of human activity. As Greenleaf put it, evidence convinces us to take action “in matters of the highest concern and importance to [our] own interest.”


Simon Greenleaf had this to say about probability:

In all human transactions, the highest degree of assurance to which we can arrive, short of the evidence of our own senses, is that of probability. The most that can be asserted is, that the narrative [i.e., the Bible] is more likely to be truth than false; and it may be in the highest degree more likely, but still be short of absolute mathematical certainly. Yet this very probability may be so great as to satisfy the mind of the most cautious, and enforce the assent of the most reluctant and unbelieving. If it is such as usually satisfies reasonable men, in matters of ordinary transaction, it is all which the greatest skeptic has a right to require; for it is by such evidence alone that our rights are determined, in the civil tribunals; and on no other evidence do they proceed, even in capital cases.

Greenleaf reminded us that people do not have infinite and absolute knowledge and therefore must accept or reject truth based on the evidence available. Furthermore, the probability of truth is based on the volume of evidence amassed for or against it. This is nowhere more evident than in religious truth. As Carnell put it, “Proof for the Christian faith, as proof for any worldview that is worth talking about, cannot rise above rational probability.… The more the evidence increases, the more the strength of probability increases.”

To put it another way, the power of probability lies in its cumulative testimony. Here is a helpful illustration used by Ronald Nash, quoting from Richard Swinburne’s Existence of God:

That Smith has blood on his hands hardly makes it probable that Smith murdered Mrs. Jones, nor (by itself) does the fact that Smith stood to gain from Mrs. Jones’ death, nor (by itself) does the fact that Smith was near the scene of the murder at the time of its being committed, but all these phenomena taken together (perhaps with other phenomena as well) may well indeed make the conclusion probable.

The fact is, probability controls human actions in almost every area of life. Response to probability is so intrinsic to our human psyche that we take if for granted and seldom think about it. We automatically and subconsciously make decisions according to their probable outcome. The examples of this are endless. When we get into an automobile, we do not calculate our chance of having an accident—although we know that possibility is real. We do not turn on a light switch wondering if the power is on—although it may not be. We eat in restaurants trusting in the probability that what we eat is not poisonous. We drink water from the tap trusting that it is probably safe to drink. We marry on the probability that we will be compatible for life. Doctors prescribe medicine based on the probable outcome of their diagnoses. In no case can any of these decisions be based on absolute certainty. A hundred times a day we make decisions based on their probable outcome, all the while acting as if these decisions were at the level of absolute certainty.

In sum, most of the actions we take and the decisions we make in our lives are grounded in our belief that the probable results are reliable and predictable. In our normal activities and decision making, we accept the probable just as readily and completely as we accept mathematical certainties. We rely on probability as absolute proof in the sense that we trust it and think of it as the highest level of certainty available to whatever truth question is at hand. This concept is so important to apologetic evangelism that I want to drive it home with two more illustrations.

Making Decisions

There are three criteria by which we can make decisions: (1) absolute certainty, (2) possibility, or (3) probability. Let’s look at absolute certainty first.

We have already seen that nothing except the conclusions of mathematics and formal logic—where the outcome is axiomatic or self-evident in holding with the premises—results in absolute certainty. In every other area, truth is based on information short of absolute certainty. So if we set out to make everyday decisions based solely on absolute certainty, we would never make any decisions other than, for example, balancing our checkbook, concluding that all husbands are married, triangles are three-sided, and right cannot also be wrong.

If I refuse to buy a car unless I’m absolutely certain it will not break down the moment I drive it off the lot, I would never buy a car. Unless everyone in the jury witnessed a crime, no one would ever be convicted. Likewise in the spiritual arena, if I refused to believe in God unless I saw Him, I would never believe in God. Absolute certainty must be ruled out as a means for making life’s decisions—including religious ones.

Now let’s look at possibility. Do we normally make decisions—especially ones of grave importance such as religious matters—based on their possibility? If I pick up a rattlesnake, there is a possibility it won’t bite me. But just knowing this is possible does not encourage me to play with rattlesnakes. It’s possible that bloodletting may cure a potentially terminal disease, but wise people seek medical attention. It’s possible the Greek god Zeus exists even though there is no evidence for it. I think you get the message. We don’t make life’s decisions based on their possible outcome.

We seek truth based on the third alternative: probability. We make the majority of life’s decisions based on their probable outcome.

Let’s say you are driving on the freeway through downtown Los Angeles at five o’clock Friday afternoon. Everyone is rushing to get home, and the freeway is packed. Suddenly you run out of gas and are forced to pull over to the center divide. Across the freeway is an off-ramp leading to a service station. You think to yourself, If I get down in a sprinter’s stance, close my eyes, and go for it, I may make it across the four lanes of freeway and survive to get gas!

There is that possibility, but would you attempt it? Not if you’re in your right mind.

Let’s change the scene. This time you are in a country village with only one main road. It’s three in the morning and not a single car is in sight. You run out of gas and see a twenty-four-hour service station across the street. But you are an unusually cautious person (more accurately, an unusual person) and will not make any decision unless you have absolute certainty of the outcome. In this case, you want to be absolutely certain that you will not be killed crossing the empty street. Would you cross? The answer has to be no! Why? Because there is always the possibility that at the very moment you step into the street, a meteorite plunging to earth will crash in the exact spot you are crossing.

This may sound far-fetched, but I’m sure you see my point. Regardless of how unlikely it is that a meteorite will strike you, nevertheless, there is the remote possibility that it may. (Believe it or not, there is at least one documented case of this actually happening.)

In both of these scenarios, there is an overwhelming probability of the outcome of your choices. In the first case, you will probably be flattened if you blindly dash across an L.A. freeway at five o’clock on a Friday afternoon. On the other hand, it is extremely unlikely that a meteorite will strike you anywhere on earth at any time.

By necessity, we make everyday decisions based on probability, not on absolute certainty nor on possibility. In the real world, probability guides us to truth in most areas of knowledge.

If we apply this principle to religious truth and use the same criteria for determining religious truth that we use to determine truth in non-religious areas, we can prove the authenticity of Christianity. To demonstrate this, we will examine three areas in which we depend entirely on probability in order to determine truth and then apply them to the question of religious truth.

Scientific Proof

If we ask the question, By what criteria do rational people determine what is factual and what is false? the most common response is whether or not it can be proven scientifically. We are a generation taught to respect the “assured results” of science, and in Western culture people tend to think that truth should be established according to the canons of scientific verification. Science is looked upon as the absolute authority.

Does science offer proof in the sense of absolute certainty? Exactly what can science prove? The fact is, science does not offer absolute certainty at all. It only gives evidence that points to absolute certainty.

Science is normally trustworthy with regard to data that can be tested through observation and experimentation—things that can be repeated. As we saw in the previous chapter, the scientific method is the most reliable means for determining truth in matters that are not logically or mathematically self-evident. But the scientific method does not reach conclusions on a level of certainty equal to mathematical proof.

The scientific method entails the idea of accumulating and testing data in order to reach the highest degree of probability. This method can be applied to practically every area of knowledge, not just to science (history, law, psychology, religion, etc.). But again, the scientific method does not lead to absolute certainty even in the area of science. Why? Because the conclusions of science are probable and can change as new scientific evidence surfaces. Let me give an example of this.

For three hundred years, from the time of Isaac Newton (1642–1727) to the twentieth century, science taught that nature adhered to unchanging natural laws. Nature was seen as orderly, predictable, and as functioning much like a machine. Due to new findings in quantum physics, however, nature is no longer viewed as orderly and predictable, at least in the subatomic realm. Science recognizes that today’s laws and theories may not be applicable in the future. Natural laws are seen as descriptions of how phenomena function rather than predictions of how they will function. An experiment may yield the same results a thousand times in a row, but on the next test, an anomaly may appear. Montgomery observed:

In the case of every theory involving statements of fact, proof is impossible, for new information may always turn up to disprove previous findings. Since this is so, all science and history—indeed all intelligent decisions between alternative theories, beliefs, ideologies, must rest squarely upon probability.

Notice that Montgomery used the word probability to describe the category of proof that validates science (and history). We do not casually reject scientific claims because they lack absolute certainty, rather we accept them because of the probability of their certainty.

This brings us to the question of whether or not the scientific method for acquiring and confirming truth can be applied to religious truth. The answer is yes. Although we cannot prove religious claims scientifically in the same way that we can prove that water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit at sea level (observation and experimentation), we can apply the scientific method to religious truth-claims. In other words, we can accumulate and analyze evidence in order to reach the highest level of certainty possible.

When we apply this method to religious truth, we have valid criteria for determining the truth of the existence of God, the deity of Christ, and the reliability of Scripture. We also have valid criteria for comparing the contradictory claims of various religions. That belief system that provides verifiable, objective evidence has the highest probability of being spiritual truth. Admittedly this does not result in absolute truth in a mathematical sense, but there is no better objective way to determine religious truth.

Do you see how this works? A single evidence supporting the deity of Jesus Christ or the historical reliability of the Bible may not be convincing. But on the strength of accumulated evidence, we reach a compelling level of probability that equals the same degree of proof that we have in scientific matters. We can be just as sure that Jesus is God in light of the overwhelming evidence confirming this as we can that eating fatty foods and smoking cause heart disease. Both are probable conclusions, and both can be tested for accuracy by examining the evidence. The difference is that one is tested through observation and experimentation, and the other is tested by historical, legal, and other criteria. In both cases, however, the highest level of certainty available is used to prove truth-claims. Because no higher level of proof can be applied, the conclusion must be accepted as absolute—if truth is to be settled at all. The alternative is to never have religious or scientific truth.

Have I Left God Behind?

This approach to religious truth will offend some people. At first blush, it may appear that I have removed completely the work of the Holy Spirit as the agent of conviction. I do not mean to imply this. I fully understand and agree with the fundamental Christian truth that no one becomes a Christian independent of the work of the Spirit of God (Luke 24:45; Acts 16:14). Moreover I am not saying that faith is unnecessary in receiving Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Faith is always present when we make decisions based on probability because the possibility factor is always present. In a contingent universe, anything is possible. Because probability is not mathematical certainty, faith is the bridge one must cross to go from probability to belief. The Bible clearly teaches that a step of faith is empowered only by God (1 Cor. 12:3). But the Bible also teaches that faith comes through knowledge (Rom. 10:14–17).

The goal of apologetics is to identify and remove obstacles to faith. To achieve this, we must frequently meet non-Christians on their own turf. This means, among other things, communicating at a level and in a manner they will listen to and understand. The scientific method to discovering religious truth is designed to do exactly that.

The Spirit of God can and does work in many ways—even in ways that do not always include a specific gospel message or traditional Bible language or personal testimony. We put God in a box and limit the work of the Holy Spirit when we insist that God is unable to work in the lives of unbelievers except through personal testimony and The Four Spiritual Laws. God works through a variety of messages and circumstances.

The job of apologetic evangelists, then, is to be an instrument of the Holy Spirit. This means that we strive to create an environment in which God is set free to work. Like the apostle Paul, we must become “all things to all men, that [we] may by all means save some” (1 Cor. 9:22).

Legal Proofs

Another example of the kind of proof I am talking about is found in our legal system. Law professor John Warwick Montgomery observed: “Legal reasoning operates on Probabilities, not possibilities: preponderance of evidence in most civil actions; evidence beyond reasonable (not beyond all) doubt in criminal matters.”

Here’s how probability determines truth in legal reasoning. Beginning with the unbiased assumption that defendants are innocent until proven guilty, our courts set out to determine the fate of the accused based on the evidence marshaled against them. For example, a civil case is won or lost based entirely on the “preponderance” of evidence. If 51 percent of the evidence is against the defendant, that person loses.

An even higher standard of proof (but still based on probability) is required in criminal cases. Suppose a murder has been committed and a suspect apprehended. The case goes to trial. Now to have absolute certainty that the suspect is guilty, the jury would have had to witness the crime. Obviously this is impossible; otherwise, the jury would be witnesses rather than a jury (and this still would not amount to absolute certainty—it is always possible the witnesses might be mistaken).

What criterion does our court system use to determine the guilt or innocence of a defendant? The term is “proof to a moral certainty beyond reasonable doubt.” This means that there must be no other reasonable explanation for the crime other than that the accused did it. The prosecutor builds a case by presenting such an impressive and compelling amount of evidence that all other possibilities are eliminated. In short, the accused is sent to prison or even executed, not according to absolute certainty, but according to the preponderance of evidence. Moral certainty is not absolute certainty—there is always the remote possibility that the defendant may be innocent. But it is the highest level of certainty attainable in the area of legal truth. If the courts tried for a higher level of proof (i.e., mathematical proof), truth would be unattainable.

Legal reasoning as a means to determine religious truth is of tremendous value in two ways. First, Christianity is the only religion in the world in which truth-claims can be tested by legal reasoning, that is, by evidence. All other religions require us to accept their tenets based either on the testimony of their founders and leaders (authoritarianism or rationalism) or on our own personal experience. However, in all such cases, “testimony” is incapable of validating truth. Religious authoritarians rarely, if ever, try to verify or defend their authority. Rationalists promote contradictory conclusions that flow from fallible human beings. And religious experiences may endorse religious truths, but in and of themselves, they are unable to give religious truth.

The second value of legal reasoning in the area of religious truth is that it provides a way to show unbelievers that absolute proof, in the mathematical sense, is not the criterion for ascertaining religious truth. Most unbelievers think they should be given 100 percent proof (absolute mathematical certainty) for the authenticity of Christianity. Yet this kind of proof is not available or even expected in our legal system. Legal decisions, like our day-to-day decisions, are always based on probability.

Let’s apply this to Christianity. A person demands absolute proof that Jesus rose from the dead. We point out that the Resurrection was a historical event and can’t be repeated. Thus it can’t be proven in a mathematical sense (by experimentation and observation). However, we continue, we can prove the Resurrection in a legal sense. We do this by presenting all the evidence that supports the Resurrection and refuting all the so-called evidence that argues against it. In other words, we show that the biblical explanation of the Resurrection is the paradigm that best explains all the facts (the empty tomb, the changed lives of the apostles, the beginning of the Christian church, and so on). If the preponderance of evidence supports the biblical claim that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, we are justified to accept this as absolute truth in the same way that we accept that people are guilty of crimes based on the preponderance of evidence marshaled against them. In both cases, we have the highest level of certainty available in the area of legal truth. For all practicable purposes, we have “absolute” proof. If we reject the evidence for the Resurrection, to be consistent, no criminal should ever be convicted of a crime.

Eyewitness Testimony

In a court case, what kind of evidence is most condemning so far as establishing the probability of guilt? Although circumstantial evidence can play a significant role, by far the most important evidence a prosecutor can muster is eyewitness testimony. Now note this. The most compelling and irrefutable evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ comes from recorded eyewitnesses (legal testimony). The major events in Jesus’ life—His miracles, teachings, trial, death, and post-resurrection appearances—are recorded either by eyewitnesses to the events or by the companions of eyewitnesses. In a court case, the New Testament Gospels are primary source material, not second- or third-hand information and not oral tradition.

The authors of the New Testament were careful to note this eyewitness testimony in order to validate the authenticity of their writings. The apostle Peter wrote, “For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty” (2 Peter 1:16). The apostle John is even more specific: “What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we beheld and our hands handled, concerning the Word of Life … what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also” (1 John 1:1–3, emphasis mine).

Simon Greenleaf, in his work The Testimony of the Evangelists: The Gospels Examined by the Rules of Evidence, wrote of the apostles’ integrity. Greenleaf concluded:

They had every possible motive to review carefully the grounds of their faith, and the evidence of the great facts and truths which they asserted; and these motives were pressed upon their attention with the most melancholy and terrific frequency. It was therefore impossible that they could have persisted in affirming the truths they have narrated, had not Jesus actually risen from the dead and had they not know of this fact as certainly as they knew any other fact.… And their writings show them to have been men of vigorous understandings. If then their testimony was not true, there was no possible motive for its fabrication.

If the case for Christianity were to go through the rigors of our court system and all the evidence available were presented, there is little doubt that the resurrection of Jesus Christ (the absolute proof of His deity—Romans 1:4) would be considered proven “to a moral certainty beyond reasonable doubt.” The historicity of Jesus’ resurrection is proven to the highest level of certainty possible.

On the basis of legal evidence alone, it is clear that Jesus Christ is who He claims to be: God incarnate, the risen Messiah, our Lord and Savior.

Historical Proofs

The third area in which probability plays a crucial role in determining and sustaining truth concerns historical facts. How do we know Abraham Lincoln, Napoleon Bonaparte, Julius Caesar, Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha), Jesus Christ, or any other historical figure ever lived? How do we know the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620? How do we know Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431? None of these events can be confirmed by science because they are not repeatable and observable events. Yet we believe all to be historical facts. Why? Because they are substantiated by probability evidence.

Once again, as in science and law, historical conclusions are not dependent on absolute certainty as in mathematics or formal logic. However, as Habermas and Miethe have stated:

The concept of probability does not preclude our achieving certainty in matters of well-established historical findings [e.g., the testimony of Scriptures]. Events that are validated by careful historical research (and especially those established for long periods of time) in the absence of contrary findings are proven facts.

As in science and law, historical investigation is carried forth by employing the same sort of verification techniques used in almost all the affairs of life. Christianity demands nothing more than what is applied to other areas of human knowledge; it needs no greater test to authenticate it than what is used to authenticate scientific, legal, and now historical matters.

How do responsible historians work? They adhere to two important rules. First, they are unbiased in their approach. They do not allow their own presuppositions to influence their investigation or their conclusions. They hold to the conviction that the truthfulness of any historical event depends on the preponderance of evidence supporting it. So they investigate and analyze all pertinent evidence.

Second, in order to determine fact from fiction, historians seek the best evidence available to support or disavow a particular event. What kind of evidence is best? There is only one kind that is reliable enough to determine beyond reasonable doubt the factuality of any historical event: primary source evidence (firsthand testimony). This entails recorded documentation by qualified and honest eyewitnesses to the event. If observers are psychologically sound and do not disqualify themselves by contradictions, inaccuracies, opposing evidence, or obvious bias, their testimony is considered valid to substantiate truth. The most convincing and irrefutable historical incidents rely on this kind of documentation.

Can this be applied to Christianity? Absolutely. I will illustrate this with an example.

All Christian truth-claims ultimately rest with the reliability of the Bible. What we know about the nature of God, deity of Christ, work of the Holy Spirit, means to salvation, answered prayer, and all other Christian truths rests squarely on the authenticity of Scripture. If we cannot sustain the Bible’s authority and reliability, Christianity crumbles. Its truth-claims would then rest on the subjective religious experiences or the personal interpretation of people—which, we saw, cannot be tested independently for truth. It is the reliability of the Bible that sets Christianity apart from all other religions.

The Bible is a historical document that Christians claim is the revelation of God. Its authors are dead and much of its contents are not only fantastic, but impossible to prove with mathematical certainty (e.g., miracles, deity of Christ, and creation). How does historical evidence prove the reliability and authenticity of the Bible? It does so in two ways.

First, it reveals positive evidence. The same methods of historical investigation used to determine the authenticity of any ancient document can be applied to the Bible. The results of this investigation demonstrate beyond doubt that the Bible is completely accurate and trustworthy with regard to its textual composition, its historical, scientific, and prophetic claims, and its geographical and cultural descriptions. Here are a few examples.

Archaeology has verified almost all the historical events, peoples, nations, cities, and customs portrayed in Scripture. Many of these facts were once rejected by skeptics because, for centuries, their existence was mentioned only in the Bible. Likewise, hundreds of Old Testament prophecies have been borne out by history. Most noteworthy are the dozens of prophecies that predict the coming, life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.18 All together, these and other historical evidences are powerful and compelling proof of the historicity of the Bible.

What conclusion can we draw? In every area in which it can be checked out, the Bible is proven to be totally reliable. If its verifiable contents are proven to be accurate and reliable, it is logical to assume that its subjective truth-claims (i.e., its spiritual contents) are equally trustworthy. There is no logical reason to reject this. The key here is that the Bible’s subjective truths do not attempt to stand alone. They rest squarely and firmly on a foundation of verifiable facts.

Second, historical investigation provides negative evidence. When the same techniques of historical investigation used to verify the Bible are applied to other religious documents, the non-Christian documents are found to be spurious. Much of their historical, scientific, and prophetic claims are false. Indeed, all non-Christian religions are conspicuous by the absence of historical evidence. Ultimately, non-Christian religions fall back on personal experiences and the unverified so-called “revelations” of their religious leaders.

No other religious book in the world passes the test of objective historical investigation that the Bible does. As such, Christianity attains the highest level of certainty available in the area of historical proof.

Closing Thought

The job of apologetic evangelism is to encourage unbelievers to consider the evidence for Christianity and to make faith decisions for Christ based on the assurance (the highest probability) that Christianity is true. On the flip side, we also encourage unbelievers to see that other religions are false because they lack the scientific, legal, and historical evidence that supports Christianity.

Evidence alone will not lead one to make a faith commitment to Christ. No one makes such a decision unaided by the Spirit of God. Nor can a person who doesn’t have the indwelling Holy Spirit experience the subjective confirmation that a Christian can (Rom. 8:16; 1 Cor. 2:14; 1 John 4:13).

Nevertheless, on a purely intellectual level, unbelievers can recognize the truth of Christianity and can conclude that if divine revelation exists at all, Christianity is it. They can do this because all human beings have a God-given capacity to reason by virtue of being created in His image. God designed us to love and accept Him with our minds as well as our hearts (Mark 12:30). By applying this reasoning capacity to religious matters, people searching for truth can check the facts and verify or falsify Christian truth-claims before ever committing themselves to becoming Christians. This doesn’t mean that they will then choose to become Christians, but it does show that their decision will not be a leap of blind faith. The decision rests on facts.

The job of apologetics is completed when intellectual obstacles (real or imagined) to faith are removed, thereby creating an environment in which the Holy Spirit is free to work. But it is always the job of the Holy Spirit to convict and convince the unbeliever of saving truth.

Part Two

Introduction to Part Two

“You shall know the truth, and the truth
shall make you free.”
John 8:32

We have reached a point in our study where it’s time to apply what we have learned. Truth, as we’ve seen, is absolute—it’s perfect and complete. It’s not relative in the sense that it flows from human or cultural bias or depends on individual situations. Moreover, truth can be known. It corresponds to reality. It is unchanging and universal in application. And it never violates the laws of logic. Except in the areas of mathematics and formal logic, truth is the highest level of certainty attainable in any area of knowledge under investigation. This is probability. Finally, truth can be tested. It is verifiable through objective evidences via the scientific method.

This concept of truth fits perfectly with the Christian worldview. So the issue we turn to now is whether or not other worldviews are equally coherent and consistent with objective reality. If they are not, we have demonstrated that the Christian worldview is reality and non-Christian worldviews are erroneous.

In the next chapter, we will examine the main tenets of the Christian worldview. Then in the following five chapters we will examine the most prevalent and influential worldviews competing with Christianity in modern society: pantheism (especially the New Age Movement); Christian cults; naturalism (the philosophical basis of modern science); secular humanism (the prevailing “religious” faith in Western society); and postmodernism (an evolving form of secular humanism supported by the presuppositions of pluralism and relativism).

My intention in part 2 of this book is to demonstrate that if we follow the criteria for determining religious truth as outlined in part 1, we will see that none of these worldviews reveal religious truth. In order to establish this, we will examine six key issues that must be addressed in any worldview that wishes to be considered a candidate for truth: (1) the nature of God (if they believe in His existence—if they don’t, why not); (2) the nature of humanity; (3) the origin of life and the cosmos; (4) the source of evil and suffering; (5) the eternal destiny of humanity (extinction or afterlife); and (6) a verifiable source of truth.

These six issues are addressed in most worldviews, and together they answer life’s most important and perplexing questions: Who am I? What is my status in relation to the rest of life and the cosmos? Where did I come from (what is the origin of my existence)? Why am I here (what purpose do I have for my existence)? What happens to me when I die (is there life after death, and if so, how do I obtain it)?

Does Beating Opponents Make Christianity True?

Before getting started, I need to make an important clarification. I am not trying to verify the authenticity of Christianity by merely demonstrating the fallacious nature of opposing worldviews. There is an inherent weakness in this approach.

In a contingent universe, a continuous flow of competing and contradictory religious worldviews can exist. Christians may adequately demonstrate the erroneous nature of every known non-Christian worldview, but there is always the possibility that yet another will surface out of the matrix of human imagination and claim to be ultimate reality. It’s impossible, therefore, to demonstrate the authenticity of Christianity just by attempting to refute every spurious religion and philosophy that comes down the pike.

The Christian worldview, like any other worldview, stands or falls according to its own internal and external consistency—not on the fallacious nature of other worldviews. Consequently, the ideal way to defeat conflicting worldviews is not to strike them down one by one but to show the veracity of Christianity with regard to how it corresponds to reality and passes the truth-tests outlined in the previous chapters.

In the following chapters, I will compare Christianity with its chief competitors, not just to show the bogus nature of the non-Christian views, but to verify the Christian position by demonstrating that it alone is internally and externally consistent and corresponds to reality as universally understood and lived out.

Don’t Make Me Mad!

From the perspective of evangelism, this approach has an important psychological advantage. None of us likes to hear negative things about our beliefs. Hammering on unbelievers about the inconsistencies of their worldview may close the door to dialogue rather than open it. When we are put on the defensive, we are often more concerned with not looking foolish than with listening to truth. On the other hand, establishing the veracity of Christianity by showing its consistency with reality and by sharing its rational explanations to life’s crucial questions not only confirms Christianity, but it does so in an inoffensive way. Still, it is virtually impossible to share the positive elements of Christianity without contrasting them with the negative elements of non-Christian worldviews. Error is more clearly seen when contrasted with truth. Thus it’s essential, to be effective in apologetic evangelism, that individual Christians become familiar with the non-Christian worldviews they daily confront and learn how they differ from Christianity. The following chapters will enable you to understand and to respond to how most unbelievers view reality—what is real to them—especially in the area of religious truth.

Chapter Seven

Christianity: God Is God

Religion is more than information about the nature of God or how to receive eternal life. A religion is a world-and-life view. It must integrate and explain the entire fabric of reality. This is why, if a religion truly reflects divine revelation, its essential doctrines (its objective truth-claims) will generate subjective responses in the forms of emotional, psychological, and spiritual fulfillment. If they don’t, we have compelling reasons to reject that religion for promoting beliefs and practices not in harmony with reality or human nature.

For example, if a religious worldview is true, its concept of worship must lead one closer experientially to the living God. Its moral mandates must lead to a more fruitful, joyful life. Its perceptions of evil must reflect actions that lead away from God and toward both earthly and eternal suffering.

Both the objective and subjective truth-claims in the Christian religion are in perfect harmony with human needs and with reality as most people understand it. We want to determine whether other worldviews (both religious and secular) reveal objective and subjective truths with equal or greater veracity. To answer this, we will examine six essential ingredients found in all worldviews, starting with Christianity.

The Nature of God

Christians are monotheists who recognize (through divine revelation) the Trinitarian nature of God. There is one God in essence, power, and authority who eternally exists as three distinct, coequal personalities: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This does not mean that Christians believe in three gods (polytheism). Rather, the doctrine of the Trinity reveals that there is only one God who exists in three distinct persons, and that all three share the same divine nature. All three persons are the one God.

How do we know this? Because the Bible clearly states that God is “one” (monotheism—Deut. 6:4), yet the attributes of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are identical. All three are self-existent, eternal, omnipresent (present everywhere at once), omniscient (have all knowledge), omnipotent (all-powerful), and sovereign—attributes exhibited only by God. The only explanation for this is that the one God eternally exists as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Let me put this as a syllogism to make it clear:

Premise one:    Only God is omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent.

Premise two:    The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent.

Conclusion:    God is triune.

The triune nature of God is just one revealing characteristic of the Christian God. He is also distinct from other so-called “gods” by virtue of being both transcendent (He is creator of the universe and thus distinct from His creation—Gen. 1:1; Isa. 55:8–9; Rom. 11:33–34) and immanent (He actively upholds and maintains the universe—Col. 1:17; Ps. 139:7–8; Luke 12:6–7). His transcendence and immanency are reflections of His self-existence, eternality, omnipotence, omnipresence, omniscience, and sovereignty.

God is also holy (Lev. 19:2; 1 Peter 1:15). Thus He is morally perfect in truth and goodness and separated from all evil. God is righteous (Ps. 11:7; 119:137; 145:17). Thus He is just and fair and not capricious. God is the essence of love and long-suffering (1 John 4:16; 2 Peter 3:9). Thus all people have the opportunity for forgiveness. Yet God can tolerate no sin (Rom. 1:32; 6:23). Thus unrepentant sinners will ultimately be punished. God is personal, and we can have a personal relationship with Him (Matt. 6:9; Rom. 8:15; 1 Cor. 6:19). Thus He acts on His own incentive, sovereignly and purposefully working in the lives of people, calling them and revealing Himself to them. Yet He also responds to their individual needs (John 14:13–14; James 5:16). Thus He answers prayer and performs miracles.

Nowhere is our personal relationship with God more wonderfully revealed than in the person and work of Jesus Christ. In the Son, God entered history by taking on the body of a man (Phil. 2:6–7). Thus Jesus Christ is God in human flesh (John 1:1, 14; Col. 2:9; Heb. 1:3), fully God and fully human. In Christ, God is revealed explicitly, directly, and visibly. If we want to know God, if we want to understand what God is like, if we want to grasp how God wishes us to live, if we want to fathom God’s plan for salvation, if we want to enjoy a personal, active relationship with God, we need look no further than Jesus Christ.

Jesus separates Christianity from all other religions in the world. No religion but Christianity reveals the real Jesus, and no religion but Christianity worships Him as the eternal God.

The Nature of Humanity

Humans are created in God’s image (Gen. 1:26). This means several things. For one, we are unique and of more value to God than other created things (Ps. 8:5; Luke 12:24). Moreover, we are distinct from the rest of creation in that we possess the “communicable” attributes of God. Unlike animals, for example, we have a moral conscience (Rom. 2:13–15), a free will (Gen. 2:16–17; Rom. 1:18; Eph. 4:18), the capacity to think and reason (self-awareness—2 Peter 2:12; Jude 10), and the ability to love (1 John 4:7–8, 19) and strive for holiness (1 Peter 1:15).

Unlike God, we possess a natural tendency to sin. We can hate, lie, and perform other acts out of character with the nature of God. Moreover, unlike God, we are not sovereign over our own lives. We aren’t immortal or divine: God is creator, we are created. We don’t possess a single attribute that distinguishes God as God (e.g., omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, sinlessness, holiness, eternality). Indeed, with regard to purely physical creation, we are no different from the rest of animal life (Eccl. 3:19–20). That we live at all is only by the power of God (Acts 17:25). That we have “dominion” (i.e., stewardship responsibilities) over nature is because we were given such authority and responsibility by God (Gen. 2:15; Ps. 8:6).

Origin of the Cosmos

The world is not eternal. It had a specific beginning and it will have a specific end. God is the creator and sustainer of nature and of all life (Col. 1:16–17). This means that God not only created the universe ex nihilo (out of nothing that preexisted—Heb. 11:3), but He also created the natural laws that hold the universe together and allow the earth to function in ecological harmony. In short, God is the source of all that is (Acts 17:25).

Suffering and Evil

The question of why there is evil and suffering in the world is of such importance that I want to allocate more space to explaining the Christian view of it than I have to other doctrines.

When God created the earth and life, He said that it was “very good” (Gen. 1:31). The earth was a place free from sin, evil, and human (and animal) suffering. Yet today, we all suffer emotional and physical pain, are subject to diseases and natural disasters, and are victims of evil and perpetrators of sin. What caused God’s perfect creation to turn sour?

The historic entrance of evil and suffering into the world is explained in the biblical account of the Fall. Rather than quote Bible verses, let me tell this gripping story in narrative form (primary texts are Gen. 2:4–3:24; Isa. 14:12–15; Rom. 5:12–19).

God created Adam and Eve—the first human couple. God did not create them because He was lonely, for He is perfect in the Godhead as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God created humanity so He could love us and be loved by us.

The man and woman were perfect. They were sinless and knew nothing of evil, sickness, pain, heartache, or even death. God placed this couple in a perfect environment. It was weed-free and pest-free and immune to natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, and famine. There were no predators in this environment, and all the man and woman had to do was to care and tend the Garden—to harvest the unlimited and bountiful supply of food. Because of His deep and abiding love, God provided them with everything they needed to live full and happy lives. In return, God only desired their love and wanted this love to be shown through worship and obedience.

For love to be genuine, God created this first couple and all subsequent people with a free will—the ability to love or not to love, the ability to choose to do good or not to do good, the ability to obey God or not to obey God. God could have created people to love and to obey Him automatically, but then he would have created a race of robots, and people would not be capable of loving and worshiping God from their hearts. God gave this man and woman unconditional love, and love given freely in return is what He desires from all of us.

The only restriction God placed on this first couple was that they not eat the fruit of a certain tree. The tree was a test. By obeying God and not eating that fruit, they demonstrated their obedience to God.

Although this first couple was created without sin, evil had already entered the universe through the rebellion of the angel Lucifer. Lucifer was the most beautiful of God’s creation. But Lucifer wanted more than anything else to usurp God, to become like the Most High. With a band of followers, he rebelled and was cast out of heaven. At that point in history, Lucifer became Satan (the Devil). It is important to realize that God did not create evil through Lucifer. Lucifer created evil by rebelling.

At an opportune time, Satan tempted the first couple with the same sin he himself had fallen victim to—a desire to be like God. With this promise, “You will be like God,” Satan encouraged the first man and woman to disobey God by tasting of the forbidden fruit. Adam and Eve fell to this temptation.

As any parent knows, when children disobey, there must be consequences. Without consequences for wrong choices, especially when a warning was given in advance, free will loses its significance. The decision to sin loses it moral character, and there is no reason for children—or any of us—to stop sinning.

The consequences for Adam and Eve’s sin was separation from God. Their banishment from the Garden of Eden is symbolic of this. They could no longer live in a protected environment free from weeds, predators, and natural disasters. Moreover, they had to toil for a living, and nature fought back with thorn and tooth and claw. Pain, suffering, and hardship became Adam and Eve’s lot. Physical death would end their stay on earth. But worst of all, Adam and Eve lost their close fellowship with God; they became spiritually estranged from their Creator and in desperate need of a Savior to reconcile that relationship.

Adam was the corporate head of the human race. What does this mean? Simply that when Adam sinned, he represented all of us. Just as the decisions made by the ruler of a nation affect all the people subject to him, so Adam’s decision to rebel against God affected all humanity. Like Adam, we too rebel against God and deserve punishment. In this sense we all share Adam’s guilt.

Because Adam was representative of humanity, the Fall opened the door for Satan to have direct and powerful influence in this world system, including our individual lives. Satan effectively became the ruler of this present world, and humanity inherited a sin nature—a natural tendency to sin. Just as some diseases are passed on from generation to generation, so too sin is an inherited disease.

While Adam was created with a free will and could choose not to sin, today because of this sin nature, we are incapable of living sinless lives. As a result, sin is pervasive in every person, and it is out of this sin nature that we commit sinful acts. In short, the presence of evil in the world today can be laid upon Satan and humanity, not God.

Now, the idea that humanity is guilty because of something Adam did offends many people. They complain, Why should I be punished for something Adam did? But that’s not the point. We are guilty for our own sins. People today, like Adam, are sinners, and we sin enough to deserve punishment on our own merits. Sin is real, and humanity sins corporately. The biblical account of the Fall is simply the historical explanation of how our tendency to sin came about and why there is suffering and evil in the world. No other religion or philosophy offers a better explanation.

But this is not the end of the story. The good news is, even before Adam rebelled, God, who knew that sin would enter the world, began to prepare a way for people to be healed from the effects of sin and to become reconciled to their Creator. God never loved Adam any less because of the Fall. And in spite of our sins, God never loves us any less. To demonstrate His love, God sent His Son to die on the cross to destroy the work and power of sin and to restore eternal fellowship with His creation.

The suffering and evil we see in the world today, then, is the direct consequences of our rejection of God. God wants us to love Him of our own free will, so He gave us the ability to choose to obey or to reject Him. Corporate humanity chose rebellion. Like any moral choice, there are consequences. God cannot tolerate sin in any form and had to respond with punishment. If He didn’t, sin would lose its moral character, and there would be no reason for people not to sin. The consequences of sin play themselves out in evil and in suffering.

For Christians, the choices between good and evil are unambiguous. Sin is not relative, it is not dependent on human subjectivity, culture, or situations. Rather God has revealed very precise ethical practices and prohibitions in the Bible that are not open to human capriciousness or opinion. In this sense, ethics are absolute, and God is the absolute standard by which they are determined. Ethics are also unchanging and prescriptive; God expects people to behave according to His moral principles whether they wish to or not. Moreover, ethics are universal. They are applicable to all people and every culture, and they are the sole means by which one can judge and condemn evil.

In sum, the presence of evil and human suffering is in character with human nature and our sinful actions. God did not cause sin, but He does allow its natural consequences to follow human choices. This brings us to God’s solution to the problem of evil.

Salvation and Eternal Life

In humanity’s “fallen state,” that is, in our rebellion against God, we are totally unable to reach out to God (Rom. 7:15–25; 8:7). This is understandable in part because our sin nature prevents us from measuring up to God’s perfect and holy standard. No matter how hard we try, we always submit to sin (Rom. 3:23; 7:19), thereby continually breaking fellowship with God. It is impossible for people to earn salvation through their own efforts and good behavior.

In order for us to become reconciled with God, God Himself must take the initial step to achieve this reconciliation (and subsequently to open the door to salvation). God has done this in only one way. Out of His immeasurable love for people, God Himself came to earth as the incarnate Son, Jesus Christ, to reconcile humanity to Himself.

The Bible teaches that God wants everyone to enjoy eternity in heaven (1 Tim. 2:3–4; 2 Peter 3:9). Since people on their own initiative are unable to choose God and obey Him, God has provided us with a choice we are capable of making: accepting by faith Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.

The work of Christ here on earth is called the Atonement. Literally, the word means to cover. It involves the removal or covering of our sins by the substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross (Rom. 5:8). Instead of guilty human beings making payment (redemption) for their sins, Jesus—God Himself—did it for us (Mark 10:45; 1 Cor. 6:20). This opens the door to reconciliation between God and humanity. Through Christ, we stand before God justified. On the basis of Christ’s work, we are accounted righteous in God eyes (Rom. 3:23–24). Just as sin was charged to our account through Adam, so righteousness before God becomes ours when we accept this work of Christ in faith (Rom. 5:12–21). We are forgiven for our sins and our rebellion, and our relationship with God is restored.

A key point in this doctrine is that this forgiveness is not based on anything we do. We could never do enough good works to earn God’s favor. Salvation is a free gift from God based solely on our acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior (John 3:16; Acts 4:12; Eph. 2:8–9; Titus 3:5). To receive this free gift and the eternal benefits that go with it, we only have to invite Jesus into our lives, accepting Him and His work by faith (Rom. 10:9). The Christian message and hope are that simple.

By accepting Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior, we immediately receive the blessings of three promises.

First, we receive eternal life (John 3:16; 14:1–4). This is the great hope of Christianity. Our earthly lives are temporary. We have a future life that will be free of pain and sorrow and where no evil will exist. Christians are pilgrims on this earth. With this promise and assurance from God, we face the daily sorrows and hardships of life. We even experience joy in spite of our sufferings. No other religion in the world can promise this hope and then back it up by the power of God’s Spirit.

Second, God immediately begins to dwell with us (John 14:16–17). God does not promise He’ll remove our hardships or make our lives more prosperous, but He does promise to lighten our loads (Matt. 11:28–30). And Jesus promises to dwell with us, even in this earthly life (28:20). Christians have the joy of daily communion with Christ and the prospect of continuous spiritual renewal and growth. We have a strength from outside ourselves that helps us endure our sufferings. No other religion in the world offers this.

Third, we are set free from the bondage of sin (Rom. 6:5–7). This is not to say that we will live sinless lives or live lives that are always pleasing to God (Rom. 3:23), but it does mean that we are no longer slaves to sin. Sin and evil can no longer have mastery over us, and we can draw closer to God and experience Him more fully as a result (Rom. 6:11–14).

The good news of Christianity is that Jesus died for our sins. Because of this, Christians enjoy restored fellowship with God. Rather than blame God for the evil and pain we experience, we rejoice in what He has done to remedy the problem of evil through His Son, Jesus Christ.

The Source of Truth

The legitimacy of any worldview is dependent upon its source of authority (and all worldviews, whether stated or not, have a source of authority, an explanation for why they believe as they do). If the source of authority is demonstrated to be unreliable, then the truth-claims arising out of that worldview have no standing. Without some form of verification, a religion’s teachings on the nature of God and humanity, the origin of the cosmos, the source and remedy for human suffering and evil, and the path to salvation become groundless speculation—the words and thoughts of people, not God.

So if we wish to demonstrate that a religious worldview is erroneous, it is often more effective to attack its source of authority rather than its doctrines. Doctrines automatically crumble if the source of authority is proven to be inaccurate, contradictory, or contrived.

Verification of truth-claims must be relevant to the claims being made. For example, philosophical or other subjective claims must be internally and externally consistent and in harmony with reality as universally experienced. Factual claims must be verified by concrete evidence. In all cases, the source of truth must stand the test of objective scrutiny. Without a reliable and verifiable source of truth, there is no reason to accept any particular worldview over another—religious or secular.

The Christian Source of Truth

The basic presupposition of Christianity is the existence not only of a natural world but also of a supernatural world. The center of this supernatural world is God. He created us, and He created us for a purpose: to love us and to have us love, worship, and have fellowship with Him. This requires communication from God to His people—hence, revelation. Revelation is divine disclosure; it is God imparting information to people that could not be attained in any other way. For this revelation to be meaningful, that is, if it is to clearly reveal God and His plan and desires for humanity, it must be true. Thus to a Christian, divine revelation is the source of all truth.

Jesus is the clearest and most important revelation from God. He is truth (John 14:6). Jesus is God Himself. When on earth, He walked among people and He talked directly to them. But Jesus is not God’s only revelation, nor, during the three short years of His ministry on earth, did He communicate everything God wants us to know. So God sent apostles to grant us additional revelation. However, like Jesus, the apostles walked this earth for a short time. Thus it is was necessary for both Jesus’ and the apostles’ teachings to be recorded and preserved. This is the purpose of the Bible.

The Bible, as the record of God’s revelation, is the absolute source of truth on which the entire fabric of the Christian worldview rests. The Old and New Testaments, as originally inspired by the Holy Spirit and recorded by God’s chosen writers, is seen as the complete, final, and inerrant revelation from God concerning Himself, the nature of humanity, the origin of the cosmos, the cause and cure of evil and human suffering, our eternal destiny, as well as all other matters concerning moral, social, and spiritual issues.

But How Do We Know It’s True?

The evidence for the authenticity, reliability, and authority of the Bible is overwhelming. In fact, the Bible alone among the world’s religious documents can verify its truth-claims with concrete, verifiable evidence. Demonstrating this, however, is an apologetic task that is beyond the scope of this book. Moreover, I have dealt with this subject elsewhere. Nevertheless, I think it is important that I give a brief summary of the kinds of evidence available for study that clearly and specifically support the veracity of Scripture.

The first kind of evidence is bibliographic. This has to do with the question of whether the Bible we have today is close enough to the original writings to be equally reliable. The answer is yes. Scholars possess thousands of ancient manuscripts of the Bible, particularly of the New Testament. Some Old Testament manuscripts date back to the second century b.c. Scholars also possess New Testament manuscripts that date to within a few decades of their original writing. What does this prove? It conclusively demonstrates that existing copies of the Bible are almost word-for-word identical to the first manuscripts. Textual critics claim that today’s Bible is 99.5 percent accurate to its original writings. This means that the Bible has not been corrupted, altered, or added to over the centuries of transmission. What God originally inspired is accurately recorded.

The second kind of evidence is internal. This evidence is particularly important to the historicity of Jesus Christ. The four Gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth, life, ministry, death, and post-resurrection appearances were written by eyewitnesses to the events or by people who knew and interviewed the eyewitnesses. This is primary source evidence; it presents the highest level of validation available to historical events. What was recorded was actually witnessed by those who recorded it. New Testament historicity does not rest on oral tradition, hearsay, or circumstantial evidence.

The third kind of evidence is external. This is evidence from non-biblical sources. Other writers verify the historical accuracy of the Old and New Testaments by relating similar data. There is corroborating evidence from both Christians and non-Christians who lived close to the time the New Testament was written. These authors confirm, among other things, the authorship of the Gospels, the person of Christ, the birth of the Christian church, and other relevant facts recorded in the New Testament.

The fourth kind of evidence is historical accuracy. In every area in which the Bible can be checked out, it has been verified by non-biblical sources to be historically accurate. Its references to extinct nations and cultures, to ethical behavior and customs, to tools, weapons, and foods, to religious beliefs and practices, and to ancient kings and laws have been verified by archaeology. Nelson Glueck, a scholar who specialized in studying ancient documents remarked, “It can be stated categorically that no archaeological discovery has ever controverted a Biblical reference.”

The fifth kind of evidence is prophetic accuracy. Prophecy is an ingredient in many religions, including modern ones such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormonism. Yet every non-Christian religion that touts prophecy has a long list of prophecies that have failed to come to pass as predicted. This is not the case with the Bible. Hundreds of biblical prophecies have come true. Every biblical prophecy concerning events up to the present time has come to pass.

The sixth kind of evidence is scientific. The Bible abounds in geological, biological, astronomical, meteorological, nutritional, and other data—most of the scientific processes for which were not understood at the time they were written (cf. Job 26:7; Isa. 40:22; Eccl. 1:6–7). All these descriptions are in total agreement with modern research.

In sum, the more the Bible is studied, the more the evidence mounts supporting its authenticity and reliability. Two facts surface relevant to this evidence.

First, if the Bible is truthful in areas where investigation can be applied, it is legitimate to believe that in areas of religious (spiritual) truth it is equally truthful and reliable.

Second, no other religious document in existence can offer the kinds of evidence used to verify the authenticity of the Bible. Other religions’ truth-claims fall under one of three categories: (1) The babbling of false prophets who sometimes claim to have historical verification but cannot demonstrate it (human authority); (2) The fanciful philosophical writings and/or teachings of long dead (or living) religious “sages” with no credentials or confirmation at all for their authenticity (human reasoning); or (3) The subjective opinions of self-appointed gurus and other religious leaders who don’t even try to verify their claims beyond private mystical experiences (human experiences). Only the Christian worldview has a source of authority (revelation) that stands the tests of historical, legal, and scientific verification.

If we are searching for religious truth, we are compelled by rational and objective evidence to consider as factual—absolute truth—the claims of Scripture. This will become even more apparent when we examine other major worldviews in the next five chapters.

Chapter Eight

Pantheism: All Is God

Every generation of Christians has had to confront heresies within the church—attempts to revise or change essential biblical doctrines from orthodoxy. Likewise, Christians of every generation have had to defend their faith against the attacks of fraudulent religions from outside the church. Our generation is no exception.

The church today is battling one of its most powerful adversaries since the first century. This foe is particularly cunning because it not only attacks the church from without, but also from within. Most disciples of this movement practice their religion outside the church. However, others think of themselves as enlightened Christians and bring their beliefs into the church. In either case, the historic understanding of essential Christian doctrine is reshaped and redefined to meld with their radical presuppositions.

For example, this view claims that Jesus is not the unique Son of God, but a mere man who somehow achieved “Christhood” by discovering his innate divinity. As a matter of fact, all people are divine—most just don’t realize it. Moreover, sin is illusion or ignorance, not rebellion against a holy God. Spiritual truth is gained through mystical experiences or mediums rather than from divine revelation. The Bible is one of many “holy” books, not the unique, inerrant Word of God. Salvation can be earned by good works and progressive enlightenment, it’s not a free gift from God through faith in Christ. Eternal life is unity with the god-essence, not spending eternity with God in a resurrected body.

You may have already guessed that I am referring here to the New Age Movement. Although the New Age Movement cannot be identified as a distinct religion because it entertains a variety of beliefs and practices (thus it’s a movement rather than a sect), there is a central unifying motif. The theological point of reference for all followers of the New Age Movement is a pantheistic concept of God.

Pantheism is an Eastern philosophy that has been around for centuries. It is the theological mainstay of Hinduism, Taoism, some forms of Buddhism, and many Western religions, including Christian Science, Unity, Scientology, and theosophy.

In our pluralistic society, traditionally Eastern religions are well-established faiths in the United States. However, many pantheists in this country do not identify themselves with a particular Eastern religion. Many probably don’t even realize they’re pantheists. Rather they belong to a loose coalition of religions, cults, and philosophical views that comprise a westernized form of pantheism tailored specifically to a secular worldview.

It is this ideology that we refer to as the New Age Movement, and its influence is widespread and rapidly growing throughout the United States. Most large secular bookstores dedicate whole sections solely to New Age books. Its philosophical presuppositions are common ingredients in movies, TV, cartoons, games, exercise programs, business and education seminars, health guides, martial arts programs, and the environmental movement. New Age philosophy is also tightly bound to postmodern thought.

Because of the immense influence of Eastern religious philosophy, it is worth noting how it became so popular in what has historically been a Christian country.

The Eastern Invasion

For more than a century, Eastern religious philosophy has been infiltrating the United States. This escalated dramatically about thirty years ago. During the 1960s, the “counter-culture” movement began to reject traditional Western values, and America experienced major sociological upheavals. Secular humanism (which has been growing in influence since the eighteenth-century Enlightenment) moved onto center stage as the dominant worldview, and Christianity was shoved into the wings.

With Christianity losing its relevancy, Western culture began to experience a God-vacuum. People’s intrinsic need for communion with deity was not being fulfilled by secular humanism. The time was ripe for a new religious movement, one that would embrace materialism and maintain the human-centered principles of secular humanism, while at the same time provide a “god” to fill the spiritual vacuum created by secular humanism.

For many Americans, Eastern pantheism molded to Western values became the answer. It provides a god to meet people’s innate craving for a relationship with deity, but one who is non-threatening. This allows people to continue to focus on themselves, while God becomes an abstract and impersonal idea. This in turn means that sin is not rebellion against God, as Christians believe, and people are free to develop their own ethical standards. Amazing as it may seem, according to this religious view people themselves are divine, and everyone eventually will realize this. When this “truth” becomes well-known and accepted, the result will be heaven on earth: a “new age” of peace, prosperity, and global happiness.

There are three questions relevant to pantheism that need to be answered in this chapter: Can pantheists verify their truth claims? Does pantheism correspond to reality as universally understood and lived out? Does pantheism usurp Christianity as a more feasible worldview?

The answers to these questions will become clear as we compare Christianity’s six worldview essentials outlined in chapter seven with their counterparts in pantheism.

Although there are several varieties of pantheism, basic tenets can be identified as distinctive to its worldview. What follows is characteristic of the form of pantheism most popular in the West: pantheistic monism. This understanding of deity forms the basis of Transcendental Meditation, Zen Buddhism, much of Hinduism, and New Age ideologies. Together, these four religious practices encompass the majority of pantheists in the West.


The most distinguishing feature of pantheism is its understanding of the nature of God. All other doctrines revolve around it and flow from it.

“Monism” is the concept that all reality consists of a single, impersonal substance or principle. In pantheistic monism, this impersonal substance or principle is God. God, then, is everything, and everything consists of God. He is all that exists, and nothing else exists but God. All of reality (the universe and everything within it) is God, and if something appears to exist that is not God, it is maya (an illusion) and really doesn’t exist.

While Christians recognize that God is transcendent (He is separate from creation) and immanent (He is everywhere present and the sustaining force within creation), He is not identified as part of creation. Christians also understand that God is personal (we can have a one-on-one relationship with Him). Pantheists, on the other hand, identify God as part of creation and without personality. He is not a He, but more accurately an It. God is not a being to identify and worship as God. Everything is God.

One of the significance results of this view, and one that forever separates pantheism from Christianity, is that God is not sovereign over the lives of people. He does not intervene in human affairs through miracles and answered prayer. We are left alone to deal with the struggles of life and to work out our own salvation.


What does this concept of God tell us about ourselves? For one thing, it tells us that we too are God. As the Hindus say, Atman (our true essence or soul) is Brahman (the essence or soul of the one Ultimate Reality—God). In other words, if God is all there is to reality, then we too are part and parcel of God. Atman (our essence) is impersonal too. If we see ourselves as distinct personalities, it is maya—illusion. We are really one with God.

The goal of humanity is to recognize this. Our lives should be spent focusing on becoming united with God, not on the joys of living and serving God in the here and now. This is done by meditation and purging the body of all earthly cravings. We do not need to be concerned about our own welfare or, for that matter, the welfare of other people. After all, pain and suffering and material things are maya.

Here is an example of where the westernized form of pantheism parts company with Eastern pantheism. Westerners are concerned with pain, suffering, and material things. Hence, in the West, New Age pantheism does not necessarily stress an ascetic lifestyle.


If all is God, including the physical universe, then God is not a creator who exists apart from the universe He created. In pantheism, there is no separation of creator and created. While Christianity teaches that God created ex nihilo, that is, out of nothing (He spoke creation into existence), pantheists identify creation with God. Rather than ex nihilo, creation is ex Deo (out of God). Explained Geisler, “Creation springs out of God’s being either by manifestation, emanation, or some kind of unfolding.” Some forms of pantheism see the physical universe as maya, and thus the created universe itself is nonexistent—it’s illusion because only God exists. But pantheism in all forms maintains that the physical world is inseparable from God, and there is no creation as Christians understand it.

Suffering and Evil

If all is God, including both the spiritual and physical realm, then it follows that what appears to be human and animal suffering, as well as sin and evil, must arise from God’s nature. This is exactly what pantheism teaches. However, to a pantheist God is not a moral being, and there is no distinction between good and evil in an absolute sense. The concept of oneness—that all is God—prevents this.

It is frequently stated that sin and evil are maya (illusion), and that for one to grasp that Atman is Brahman is to pass beyond good and evil. How can this be? Since Brahman is beyond good and evil, when people achieve oneness with God, when they unite with Him, they too move beyond good and evil. For most pantheists, sin and evil are illusions, the product of a lower level of existence that is dealt with through the law of karma (below).

Generally, pantheists stress the need to live moral lives. However, you can see that philosophically (and theologically) they have no basis for this teaching. Ethical behavior is reduced to relativism, and one’s actions are amoral, that is they have no moral significance. One can be indifferent to moral standards and principles as well as to past, present, and future events.

Salvation and Eternal Life

Although the goal of all pantheists is to become united with God (Ultimate Reality or Brahman), there is no single way to achieve this: “There are many paths from maya to reality.” This means, of course, that salvation is not through Jesus Christ. Two processes are involved as one moves from the illusion of this life to oneness with Ultimate Reality: (1) the need to raise one’s level of consciousness, and (2) the effects of the law of karma.

Consciousness. Mediation, chanting a mantra (sacred words repeated as an incantation), using hallucinatory drugs, and other techniques may be used to bring one to a higher (“altered”) state of consciousness. This in turn brings one closer to unity with the Universal Reality (God). This process frequently involves rejecting (or denying) all material and physical cravings, or anything else that prevents one from progressing inwardly to unity with God.

It also involves a sacrifice of common sense. Accepting the God of pantheism is a step of faith that, unlike Christianity, moves us beyond the laws of logic and a rational understanding of reality. A Christian step of faith is always grounded on the objective truth of God’s Word and most importantly on the historic resurrection of Jesus Christ. A pantheistic step of faith, on the other hand, requires that we reject the world of our senses. It’s believing that what appears to be real is an illusion. Faith is emotionally accepting the premise that what looks and feels like reality is not real at all.

Law of karma. Until we reach oneness with God (or more accurately realize our oneness), our eternal souls are trapped in a seemingly endless cycle of illusionary births, lives, deaths, and rebirths as dictated by the law of karma. Karma is the principle of cause and effect that controls our destiny in reincarnation. It involves the retribution in later lives for sins committed in earlier lives. Depending on the sins committed, souls may be reborn into other human bodies or into insects or some other creatures. If our karma is steadily good, we will eventually free ourselves from the cycle of life and death and attain the higher level of consciousness that unites us with the all-encompassing God.

Ultimately, pantheists believe, everyone will reach oneness with God. However, this oneness is not a continuation of life in the Christian sense. There is no heaven populated by resurrected people. Rather heaven, if it can be called such, is absorption of the impersonal, eternal soul (Atman) into the Ultimate Reality (Brahman). Individual identity and personhood (which are really illusions anyway) vanish like a drop of water in the ocean. Existence as we know it (more accurately, imagined it) ceases—no one survives death in a resurrected physical body.

Source of Truth

While Christianity is a historic religion grounded in historic events, pantheism is wholly subjective. Unlike Christianity, there is no historical basis for belief. Ancient writings preserved in the Vedas are merely a record of the experiences and thoughts of Hindu sages with little insight into who wrote them or when. As a religious worldview, pantheism cannot be affirmed; its truth-claims cannot be verified.

To go a step further, pantheism is logically inconsistent because it violates the law of non-contradiction. To a pantheist, reality (what is real about the world) is beyond human knowledge and logic. As Geisler pointed out, “God is understood in the highest and most significant sense not by sensible observation nor by rational inference but by mystical intuition that goes beyond the law of noncontradiction.”

Let me share what Dennis McCallum observed about the illogical nature of pantheism (and other Eastern religions) in his recent book on postmodernism:

Observers of religion are aware of a relativism that is part and parcel of Eastern mystical traditions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism. These religions teach that everything is part of one essence, a belief system know as “monism” (“one”-ism). In Hinduism, the one divine essence is Brahman. In China it’s the Tao, the Way. All these traditions reject reason as a tool for discovering truth. The central proposition of monism, that “everything is one,” is no more rational than saying 1=1,000,000. They even utilize contradiction to drive learners to a deeper or higher plane of understanding. Zen Buddhism, for instance, offers koans such as “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” The Hindu Brahman is “always and never.” With its rejection of rationality, such paradoxical thinking is naturally compatible with postmodernism.

A good example of this is the law of karma. On the one hand, pantheists claim that there is no such thing as sin, sin is maya or illusion. On the other hand, because of the law of karma, people are held accountable for their actions and punished for their sins. But if sins are illusions, why are people punished for them? To make matters worse, since these sins occurred in past lives, people are punished for sins beyond their control. It is hard to imagine a more unjust and illogical system.


Pantheism offers no verification for its truth-claims other than philosophical subjectivism—personal opinion. Pantheists themselves claim that God is unknowable and that one must go beyond human logic (whatever that means) in order to achieve oneness with God. We are expected to accept God based on human authority and personal feelings, not on divine revelation. Unlike Christianity, where faith is grounded in the objective truths of the Bible, pantheism requires a leap of faith that is carried to the ridiculous.

New Age Pantheism

In the beginning of this chapter, I noted that pantheism affronts the Christian church in two ways. First, externally, in the form of Eastern religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism. These religions are well-established in the West and openly compete with the Christian worldview as distinct religions.

Second, pantheism affronts the church internally. I identified the vehicle of this incursion as the New Age Movement. It is not so much a religion, in the traditional sense of a group of people united by their commitment to specific doctrines and beliefs, as it is a philosophical ideal.

The New Age Movement is composed of numerous individuals and groups, often with diverse and even contradicting beliefs. They are united primarily by their adherence to pantheism—although a form of pantheism that is leavened with other religious and secular ideologies. Since this particular form of pantheism is the most active and influential variety here in the West, we will examine it more closely in the next few pages.

The New Age Movement is attracting both Christians and non-Christians by the tens of thousands and is rapidly infiltrating many churches and homes. Because followers of the New Age use words like Christ consciousness and traditional Christian symbols like the rainbow, and because they promote worthy activities such as environmental conservation and global peace, many Christians are fooled into believing that the New Age Movement is a Christian-like crusade that endorses Christian values. This is hardly the case.

New Age thinking aligns itself with pantheism by stressing the oneness of God, the divinity of humanity, relative ethics, an evolutionary concept of creation, and the belief that spiritual truth is subjective and experiential rather than objective and historical.

New Age pantheism, however, also maintains marked differences from its Eastern counterparts. In order for Christian evangelists to confront the New Age, these differences should be recognized. James W. Sire did an excellent job illuminating these differences. Let’s see what he had to say:

The New Age world view is highly syncretistic and eclectic. It borrows from every major world view. Though its weirder ramifications and its stranger dimensions come from Eastern pantheism and ancient animism, its connection with naturalism gives it a better chance to win converts [in the West] than purer Eastern mysticism.

For example, unlike Eastern pantheism, but like naturalism (or secular humanism), the New Age Movement places greater emphasis on the value of people. Rather than seeing themselves as an insignificant part of the whole (a drop of water in the ocean of Brahman), followers of the New Age see individuals as important. As in Eastern pantheism, New Age believers seek to attain a higher level of consciousness in which they and the cosmos are one. But in the here and now, people are of value and are evolving to greater and greater heights of humanness. This will eventually result in a tremendous evolutionary transformation within humanity that will usher in a new age of prosperity, peace, and world order—a form of heaven on earth.

Second, New Age followers, like other pantheists, believe that reality consists of an immaterial (non-physical) universe accessible through altered states of consciousness. They also believe like naturalists (and secular humanists) that the physical universe is real and that it is accessible through ordinary consciousness. This visible reality is under people’s control, and people can create their own reality. This is not to say that the physical universe is an illusion.

Followers of the New Age, then, recognize two levels of reality rather than one: the immaterial reality entered into through altered states of conscious and the physical or visible reality controlled and created by the Self.

Third, New Age pantheism entertains a strong animistic bent. Animism is the original religion of primitive people worldwide. It is the belief that both good and bad spirits indwell organic and inorganic nature (trees, animals, rocks, lakes, lightning, mountains, and so on). Because the physical and spiritual worlds are inseparably bound together, these spirits are revered, feared, and manipulated to benefit people.

In a similar fashion, New Age adherents entertain a myriad of helpers (guides, guardians, or demigods) from the spirit world who instruct them and guide them into a deeper understanding of truth and reality.

Sire made this comment:

They haunt the New Age and must be placated by rituals or controlled by incantations. The New Age has reopened a door closed since Christianity drove out the demons from the woods, desacralized the natural world and generally took a dim view of excessive interest in the affairs of Satan’s kingdom of fallen angels. Now they are back, knocking on university dorm-rooms doors, sneaking around psychology laboratories and chilling the spines of Ouija players. Modern folk have fled from grandfather’s clockwork universe to great-great-grandfather’s chambers of gothic horrors.

The New Age Movement is not new. It is simply the resurgence of ancient occultic practices and animistic religions mixed with humanism and Eastern pantheism (in particular, Hinduism) to form a religious recipe blended specifically to feed the spiritual hunger of Western secular people. In short, it is secular humanism with a cosmic ingredient. It maintains the humanist motto that “man is the measure of all things” and the humanist goals of global peace, prosperity, and unity, but to make humanism more spiritually palatable, it sugars it with “God.”

Space prevents a complete rebuttal to all the doctrines outlined above, but a few observations will sound the death knell of both Eastern pantheism and its New Age counterpart.

Where’s the Proof?

The most obvious problem with pantheism, especially when contrasted with Christianity, is its lack of historicity. It can’t be validated. For example, Eastern and New Age religions claim that God is an impersonal force in the universe. But this is a meaningless statement. It cannot be affirmed or falsified by either self-evident propositions or by verifiable evidence. It’s a truth-claim that cannot be checked out, so there is no way to demonstrate if it is true or false.

Pantheists try to skirt this problem by claiming that God is unknowable because He is above and beyond human logic. We can’t intellectually comprehend God, they say. But this is nonsensical and self-defeating. Why? Because the very act of claiming that God is beyond logic is a logical statement about God. How can one make a logical statement about God if God is beyond logic?

Whether pantheism is true depends on whether you like what you hear. Contrast this position with Christianity.

Christians claim that Jesus “died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3–4). This claim can be examined. We can test it by investigating historical documents written by eye-witnesses (i.e., the Bible). We can research the authenticity and accuracy of the documents themselves to see if they stand up to critical scrutiny. Christianity encourages people to confirm its truth-claims (Acts 17:11).

An Illusive Illusion

The second major problem facing pantheism is more philosophical than historical. One of the essential truth-claims of Eastern pantheism is that there is no reality except the all-encompassing God. Everything else is illusion. But again, this is a nonsensical statement that is logically self-defeating. If everything is illusion, then those making that statement are themselves illusions. There’s a real problem here. As Geisler pointed out, “One must exist in order to affirm that he does not exist.” When we claim that there is no reality except the all-encompassing God, we are proving just the opposite. The fact that we exist to make the claim demonstrates that there is a reality distinct from God, which makes this key doctrine of pantheism a self-defeating proposition. It is an untruth by definition.

Here’s another way to see the same thing. It may be possible that nothing exists. However, it is impossible to demonstrate that nothing exists because to do so would be to deny our own existence. We must exist in order to affirm that reality doesn’t exist. To claim that reality is an illusion is logically impossible because it also requires claiming that the claim itself is unreal—a self-defeating statement. If reality is an illusion, how do we know that pantheism isn’t an illusion too?

In pantheism, people always behave as if they are dealing with reality—even if reality is illusion. If they break an arm, they hurt. If they get a fatal disease, they die. If they want food on the table, they work. So what’s the point (or proof) of claiming everything is an illusion when we must live and act as if everything were reality? It doesn’t make sense. Pantheists may pawn this inane philosophy, but no one can live it out consistently.

Pain and Evil Won’t Go Away

Here is a third problem with pantheism. It is unable to account for human suffering and evil. Whereas Christians see the source of evil outside of God, they nevertheless recognize that God is sovereign and offers the solution to the problem of evil both in this life and in the life to come.

However, in pantheism God is not only unable to solve the problem of evil, He is the cause of it (remember, all is God). Pantheism and the New Age may try to ignore this problem by claiming that sin and suffering is illusion. But let’s bring this philosophy down to the real world. Try to convince a man dying of cancer or a parent who has just lost a child that evil and suffering are illusion. Even if evil is an illusion, the illusion itself is real. In either case, evil exists. As Geisler asked, “If evil is not real, what is the origin of the illusion? Why has it been so persistent and why does it seem so real?… How can evil arise from God who is absolutely and necessarily good?” The answer must be, if pantheism is true, God cannot be good, and He must be the source evil. There is no other way out of it.

Sin Is Sin by Any Other Name

This issue relates to a fourth problem inherent to pantheism. Because sin to many pantheists is an illusion, any attempt to distinguish between right and wrong is meaningless. If both good and evil flow from God, there is no criteria for ethical behavior. Ethics in pantheism must be relative; there is no absolute standard of right and wrong. Where does this take us? Carried to its logical conclusion, it results in moral anarchy because we are free to decide for ourselves what is morally right and wrong.

Some New Age followers try to outmaneuver this problem by claiming that sin is “an absence of knowledge.” It is actions that occur out of ignorance. Once people realize their divine potential and get in tune with God’s essence, and thereby achieve right information, the so-called sin issue will be remedied. To put it another way, since people are divine and thus innately good, once they recognize the severity of a problem, once they understand and become educated as to what is right and moral, they will make right decisions to correct that problem.

Here again we see the New Age pervasive denial of reality as everyone experiences it. We saw in chapter seven that humanity possesses a sin nature, a natural tendency to sin in spite of a desire not to do so. History and the real world confirm this. People smoke when they know smoking causes cancer. People steal when they know it’s wrong. People eat fatty foods in spite of chronic heart problems. We have to teach our children to be good: by nature they lie, steal, cheat, and hit other children. The examples of our sin nature are endless. In the real world, it’s obvious that people are not innately good. If they were, then our jails are so full of good people that there isn’t enough room to hold them all!

Where Did I Come From?

Fifth, pantheism offers no explanation for the existence of life and the universe. In Christianity God transcends creation and thus is qualified to be the Creator. In pantheism, however, God can’t be the creator because He is one in essence with creation—”It” is part of nature. Thus pantheism fails to answer one of humanity’s most perplexing questions: the origin of life and the cosmos.

The Little God Who Can’t Create

Finally there are tremendous difficulties facing the New Age doctrine that our essential nature is divine. As Sire pointed out, “We are confronted by indications of the opposite at every turn.”

Take, for example, the claim of many New Age followers that we can create our own reality. This should be possible if we are truly divine or part of God. Who has ever done it? Who has ever created a significant new reality that actually alters the status quo? I don’t mean simply thinking oneself into a new job or curing a headache through so-called positive thinking. I mean creating a radically new reality. It’s easy for New Age followers to claim this is possible, but if someone has ever done it, please step forward.

Look at it like this. If you could create reality, what would you create? Let me guess: growing younger rather than older; imagining an enemy out of existence; becoming rich on a five-dollar-an-hour job; having your favorite movie star fall head-over-heels in love with you; growing hair on a bald head; flying instead of walking; retiring tomorrow on Social Security; eliminating war; clearing out hospitals and orphanages; ending famine. I think you get my point. If you or I or anyone else could create reality, I suspect we would do more than just think ourselves into a fancy car or a better job or less arthritis. We would make significant and dramatic changes.

The whole idea that we can create our own reality just doesn’t measure up to what we observe in the real world and how we live it out. We can claim that sickness is an illusion, but a broken arm still hurts, and people still die of diseases. We can say that morality is relative and that there is no distinction between right and wrong, but who really lives that way? I’m sure a New Age adherent will call the police as quickly as a Christian if a crook decides that his personal moral code allows him to rob the New Age adherent’s home.

Will the Real Religion Please Stand Up?

Examples of our non-divinity are endless. This brings us back to the fact that it is one thing to make truth-claims, it is still another thing to prove them. All truth-claims are meaningless if they (1) do not adhere to the laws of logic, (2) do not correspond to reality and corporate human experience, and (3) cannot demonstrate their truthfulness to the highest level of certainty possible. Pantheism, then, is nonsensical because it (1) violates the laws of logic, (2) violates corporate human experience of what constitutes reality, and (3) cannot demonstrate that it’s truth-claims are true.

Chapter Nine

What About Other Religions?

No book is exhaustive enough to cover every subject related to its field of inquiry. This is certainly true in the area of religion. I can’t begin to analyze every religion and philosophy competing with Christianity. There are at least twelve hundred organized religions in America alone. What I hope to adequately cover in this book are the religious and philosophical worldviews that the majority of Christians encounter at work, in the neighborhood, and among family and friends. But there are many others we could examine—some representing millions of devotees. Islam, for example, embraces many millions of devout followers worldwide. Between three- and four-million Muslims reside right here in the United States. Animism, the tribal religion of all primitive people, is still practiced in many parts of the world. There are also numerous cults vying for acceptance as purveyors of religious truth: Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Science, The Children of God (The Family of Love), and Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church, just to name a few. Finally there is the occult: Satanism and witchcraft.

Even though space prevents an examination of these and other religions, the material presented in this book can still be useful as a guide for analyzing and testing their truth-claims. It can be applied equally well to all non-Christian worldviews.

Non-Christian religions simply do not have the kinds of objective evidence that supports Christian truth-claims. Most other religions do not even attempt to defend their beliefs. Let’s return to Islam for a moment as an example. Although there are Islamic apologists, apparently many—if not most—Muslims do not engage in a rational defense of the Koran as Christians do the Bible. Their claim that the Koran is fully reliable as divine revelation is not based on “a critical examination of its veracity and historicity. They accept its truth by blind faith. They assume that neither God nor Muhammad would lie.”

Likewise tribal religions. Animists, such as the Native Americans in their pristine state, have no interest in rationally examining their truth-claims. Rather “faith in these systems is blind faith—reason cannot condemn or deny any aspect of their spirituality, according to adherents. Most tribal religious views are accepted from early childhood as part of what it means to be a member of the tribe.”

There is one issue relevant to the cults, however, that needs to be mentioned and briefly examined. It is the tendency of some cults to associate themselves with Christianity and, therefore, to claim that they reflect a more accurate revelation of the Christian worldview.

These cults promote a counterfeit Christian worldview. We must not confuse the cults with Christianity simply because cults use Christian terminology and claim to be Christian. Think of all the cults as representing a single, distinct worldview—even though individual beliefs and practices vary from cult to cult. This can be done because all cults exhibit certain characteristics that set them apart from Christianity. We’ll look at the most important.

What Is a Cult?

First, let’s define what is meant by the word cult. According to Dr. Charles S. Braden, “A cult … is any religious group which differs significantly in some one or more respects as to belief or practice from those religious groups which are regarded as the normative expressions of religion in our total culture.” Historically in Western civilization, the “normative expression of religion” has been Christianity. Thus Christians identify a cult more precisely as a group “which surrounds a leader or a group of teachings which either denies or misinterprets essential biblical doctrine.”6 James Sire added this observation:

Totally non-Christian movements like the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (Hare Krishna) and Transcendental Meditation (TM) are often not thought of as cults because they originate in another religious tradition. Still, their leaders often quote the Christian Scriptures as if they supported their own doctrine. So for this reason, I will not emphasize their distinction from the Christian-oriented cults.

To Christians, a cult can be defined as a perversion of biblical Christianity.

A characteristic of many cults is their claim to be Christian or a fuller revelation of Christianity. This is what makes them so dangerous and why I’m mentioning them in this book at all. Many Christians are seduced into a cult by mistakenly believing that they represent just another Christian denomination. And many non-Christians join a cult thinking they are becoming Christians. This confusion is made more hazardous because cults frequently use Christian words and terminology, redefined to convey an altogether different meaning than the Christian understanding. Thus a cult member can speak of Christ, the Holy Spirit, faith, and sin but mean something entirely different from the orthodox Christian understanding.9 This is nowhere more evident than in Christian Science.

In her book Science and Health With Key to the Scriptures, founder Mary Baker Eddy included a glossary of more than a hundred biblical words whose meanings she presumptuously and unjustifiably altered. These new definitions took on “spiritual” rather than literal meanings, which Eddy declared better reflected their “original meaning.” For example, Angels: “God’s thoughts passing to man”; Baptism: “Purification by Spirit; submergence in Spirit”; Death: “An illusion, the lie of life in matter; the unreal and untrue”; Father: “Eternal Life; the one Mind; the divine Principle, commonly called God”; Jesus: “The highest human corporeal concept of the divine idea”; Mother: “God; divine and eternal Principle; Life, Truth, and Love.”

Logic demands that only one among competing religions can reflect divine revelation. They may all be false (including Christianity), but no more than one can be right. This same logic applies to the cults. Regardless of whether a particular cult claims to be Christian or even agrees with many Christian beliefs, if it does not adhere to essential Christian doctrines, it can’t be Christian. This is exactly what all cults do. Here are a few examples.


The most significant departure from Christianity that all cults are guilty of is rejecting Jesus Christ as God. No cult confesses Jesus as the Son of God, the second person in the triune Godhead, eternally coequal in essence, power, and authority with the Father and the Holy Spirit. The Jesus of the cults is far removed from the holy Son of God revealed in Scripture. Members of the Unification Church, for example, view Jesus as a man whom people not only can equal, but also can surpass. The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Jesus is a unique, but still created, lesser god. To the Mormons, Jesus is the spirit brother of Lucifer. Christian Science speaks of Jesus as a human being who demonstrated “Christness” or the “divine idea,” but He is not the resurrected Son of God.

Any person or religious organization that denies Jesus as the Son of God as revealed in the Bible is forever separated from Christianity (2 Cor. 11:4, 13; Gal. 1:8). All cults reject the Jesus of Scripture. On this evidence alone, no cult belongs in the Christian family. If Jesus is who He claims to be (fully God and fully human—1 John 2:22), the cults are wrong and are not Christian.

The Bible

Another area in which the cults deviate from Christianity concerns their view of Scripture. Most Christian cults claim to accept the Bible as authoritative, but not exclusively so, and only in accordance with their own interpretation. Observed Sire:

Many cults claim to have a high regard for [Scripture]. Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, claim the Bible as their sole authority. The Mormons place it first in their list of Scriptures. The Unification Church of Sun Myung Moon also gives it an authoritative position, as does Mary Baker Eddy and Christian Science. Even the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, founder of Transcendental Meditation, and other writers in the Eastern traditions quote favorably from the Bible.

Their interpretations, of course, are based on their own presuppositions and religious views. Also, the major cults, such as Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Christian Scientists, have other “holy” books or writings that serve as an interpretive framework for the Bible. The cults reject both the inerrancy of Scripture as well as its singular and absolute authority.

Source of Authority

A third significant way in which the cults deviate from orthodox Christianity is their tendency to unite around and focus upon an individual or organization that becomes the ultimate source of authority. The authority and power held by these individuals is said to be supernatural in origin. Thus Mary Baker Eddy can claim that her interpretations of Scripture are the “absolute conclusions … [of] divine revelation, reason, and demonstration.”

Cult members are often fanatical in their loyalty—sometimes giving all of their money to the organization and even forsaking family and friends. The cults in turn demand complete obedience and submission, with the threat of damnation for failure to comply. Thus devotees frequently come under the complete control of their leaders in all areas of life.

Changes in Doctrine

A fourth characteristic of the cults that is quite different from Christianity is this. Doctrinal issues are frequently capricious and subject to change. Unlike Christianity, whose essential teachings are universal and absolute and have not been subject to modification among orthodox Christians through two millenniums, cultic doctrines change according to the need of the moment. New revelation freely supersedes old revelation. The Book of Mormon, for example, has “required almost four thousand alterations from its original publication in 1830.” Some of these alterations have been significant. Mormonism’s rejection of polygamy and their more recent dispensation of religious equality to African Americans reflect major and far-reaching doctrinal changes.20 Apparently, the gods of Mormonism (there are many of them) have a hard time making up their minds!

I have barely touched the surface concerning the heretical nature and teachings of the cults. Fortunately, there are hundreds of books and numerous counter-cult organizations that can supply an abundance of documented evidences refuting all aspects of cultic teachings.

Having made this important detour, we can now return to the primary concerns of this book.

Chapter Ten

Naturalism: There Is No God

We are moving into new territory. Christianity, pantheism, and the cults, although clearly disputing each other with regard to fundamental beliefs and practices and especially in their understanding of the nature of God, nevertheless agree that deity exists. They acknowledge that there is more to reality than what we can see, hear, touch, taste, and feel—although their concepts of the supernatural vary widely.

But in the next two chapters, we will examine worldviews that reject the notion that any kind of God exists. Reality stops with the material universe; nature is all there is to reality; there is no truth beyond the five senses. Moreover, people are capable—at least potentially—of knowing all there is to know about reality.

It’s important to understand that in spite of the fundamental difference between a theist and a non-theist, that is between one who accepts the existence of deity versus one who rejects the existence of deity, both crave answers to the same questions. People are people regardless of their worldviews, and all seek answers to life’s great and perplexing questions: Who am I? Where did I come from? Why am I here? What happens after death?

When we approach the question of truth, we can use the same criteria for both a theist and non-theist. Atheists have the same questions about life and the cosmos as Christians; they just seek answers to them in the absence of God. To them, ultimate reality—what is real about the universe—is natural not supernatural.

This brings us to the worldview at hand: naturalism. Naturalism is the philosophical foundation of atheism. It’s an attempt to satisfy the same deep psychological need for answers to life’s perplexing questions that religion does. In this chapter, we will determine whether or not naturalism is any closer to truth than pantheism, the New Age, or the cults.

What Is Naturalism?

As a philosophical worldview, naturalism is Christianity’s major competitor in the Western world. Naturalism is a highly influential and widely accepted philosophical system—and it is the antithesis of Christianity. In a world drifting from its religious moorings, the influence of naturalism on modern thought—even among theists—cannot be underestimated.

Naturalism is clearly the guiding light, the presupposition, underlying science, education, social structures, modern psychology, and just about every other field of human endeavor.

If Christians are to successfully share the Gospel in modern society, they must understand this prevailing mind-set, and they must be able to demonstrate the errors of its assumptions and conclusions. The following major tenets of naturalism are the same worldview ingredients we discussed both in Christianity and pantheism.


At a foundational level, naturalism is the direct opposite of theism in one fundamental way. For a theist, God dominates; for a naturalist, any concept of God is vigorously denied. Reality is composed only of matter—there is nothing but nature, and everything has a natural explanation. The universe itself is a closed system that has always existed—it’s eternal. It operates like a gigantic machine according to unchanging natural laws. Nothing outside this closed system (the physical universe) exists.

Reality is what we can see, hear, touch, taste, and smell, and at least potentially all of reality can be understood by the human mind. There is no God who can interrupt natural laws or change the course of nature. There are no miracles, angels, providence, immortality, heaven, sin, salvation, and answered prayer. All such things are incompatible with naturalism’s worldview. Astronomer Carl Sagan summed it well: “The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.”2


Since all of reality can be reduced to matter, humans are only physical beings. We are not created in the image of God, but are the products of mindless evolution. We are not body, soul, and spirit, as taught in the Bible (1 Thess. 5:23), but just body. Moreover, like the universe, we function like a machine—the laws of nature apply to us the same as they do to all other things. In fact, everything about us can be reduced to chemical and physical processes. Even our thoughts (our minds) are a product of chemical and neurological impulses.

In spite of viewing us as nothing more than atoms and molecules, most naturalists agree that human beings are distinct from other creatures. The fact that we can engage in conceptual thought and communicate these thoughts, maintain a sense of historical, cultural, and social connectedness, and possess a moral conscience indicates an elevated level of existence. Be this as it may, however, all naturalists still see Homo sapiens as the product of random evolution and think that all human traits can be accounted for through purely natural processes.


There is no creation. Matter is all there is, reality is the physical universe and its natural laws, and both have always existed.

Suffering and Evil

Suffering and evil, in the Christian sense of being the inevitable result of the Fall, are a myth. Ethics are relative and are not seen as absolute standards of right and wrong. Ethics are simply a projection of our subjective feelings and experiences—sometimes referred to as “corporate human consciousness.” There is nothing outside of people by which to judge good and evil. Sin is synonymous with survival of the fittest: people seeking dominance over each other by whatever means possible. Only our sense of social order allows sin to be seen as sin at all. There is no theological basis for defining sin or for normative ethical behavior. If people instinctively know that murder is wrong, it is because this information was programmed into them through evolution for the sake of maintaining the human race, not because it is right or wrong according to God.

Salvation and Eternal Life

If people are only matter, without spirit or soul, and are governed by the same natural laws that govern all other entities in the universe, it follows that death is the end of existence. We neither arise after death in a new resurrected body (Christianity) nor merge with the great Absolute (pantheism). We simply cease to exist.

This is probably the most difficult doctrine for committed naturalists to accept. It is more than coincidental that the same period that witnessed the demise of the Christian worldview, due primarily to the acceptance of secular humanism (fueled by naturalism), also witnessed an unparalleled rise in Christian cults and New Age religions.

People instinctively recognize that there is more to life than the here and now and throughout history have believed in some form of afterlife (and hence God). Naturalism may reject the notion of the existence of God, but people haven’t. As the influence of Christianity fades, people seek other gods to fill the spiritual vacuum created by naturalism. People haven’t lost their craving for spiritual truth: they have just wandered from revelation to self-deception.

Source of Truth

Whether or not a particular worldview is an accurate expression of reality is determined by its source of truth. On what does a worldview base its truth-claims and assumptions? Is that source of truth verifiable? Verification, as we’ve seen, is the only objective and adequate test for the reliability of a worldview. The greater the quantity of and more varied the evidence supporting a particular worldview, the more trustworthy are its truth-claims and the more probable they are to reflect reality.

Naturalism has two primary sources of truth: philosophy and science. We’ll look at both of them and see why they are not adequate sources of truth for confirming naturalism.


The philosophical argument supporting naturalism relates specifically to the question of God’s existence. Does He exist or not? If God does not exist, then naturalism is reality. But if God does exist (I’m speaking here of the Christian concept of God), then all theistic beliefs (creation, miracles, answered prayer, providence, angels, afterlife) are logically justified. Why? Because if God exists, nothing is logically impossible for God so long as it doesn’t violate His essential nature (e.g., God can’t lie because He is by nature Truth). Philosophically if you are arguing for or against naturalism, you are actually arguing for or against the existence of God.

However, to sustain itself, naturalism must present confirming evidences, not talk philosophy (although there are philosophical arguments supporting the existence of God). Naturalism makes specific claims about reality that must be verified if it is to be accepted. The foundation of naturalism may be a philosophical issue, that is, it begins with the question of whether or not God exists, but the proof of naturalism itself does not stem from philosophy. The argument of whether or not naturalism corresponds to reality must be solved by evidence. This evidence is scientific in nature.

Having said this, however, I need to point out that you cannot entirely separate science and philosophy. Much of science is motivated by and operates according to particular philosophical presuppositions that may or may not be correct. So although our concern here is whether or not science per se can adequately verify naturalism—whether or not it can sustain its truth-claims through evidence—we will nevertheless be dealing to a large degree with the philosophy of science.


A word is appearing in books and journals with increasing frequency. This word is scientism, and it is used to convey the idea that ultimate truth comes from science. It logically follows that if the foundational motif of naturalism is true—God does not exist and all of reality is matter—science is the foremost dispenser of truth.

Philosopher of science J. P. Moreland defined scientism this way: it is the assumption that “only what can be known by science or quantified and tested empirically is true and rational.” In other words, he explained:

Science is the very paradigm of truth and rationality. If something does not square with currently well-established scientific beliefs, if it is not within the domain of entities appropriate for scientific investigation, or if it is not amenable to scientific methodology, then it is not true or rational. Everything outside of science is a matter of mere belief and subjective opinion, of which rational assessment is impossible.

This concept effectively equates reality with scientific truth. But notice something: The root of scientism is philosophy, not science. Observed Moreland: “The statement itself [‘Only what can be know by science or quantified and tested empirically is true and rational’] is not a statement of science, but a second-order philosophical statement about science.” In fact, Moreland pointed out, it is a self-refuting statement because the “statement [itself] cannot be tested empirically, quantified, and so on.”7 In other words, at its very core, the essential claim of scientism is not scientific because it cannot be tested. It is a philosophical statement about science, not science itself.

This is why we cannot entirely separate science from philosophy. Science operates according to presuppositions that are philosophical in nature.

But let’s look at claims of scientism more closely. Is there evidence to support its essential presupposition that science is the ultimate purveyor of truth? Naturalists think so, and if they are correct, theism is in big trouble.

Is All Truth Scientific?

Because we live in modern Western society, all of us are inadvertent victims of the philosophical assumption that science is the ultimate purveyor of truth. This claim is preached as a matter of fact by educators, in text books, in the media, and of course in all the sciences. We are programmed to accept scientific proof as the ultimate truth-test in whatever area it pronounces judgment—including religion (i.e., God does not exist). But as Philip Johnson pointed out:

If the atheists make the rules, the atheists are surely going to win the game, regardless of what is true. The rules limit science to naturalistic theories and provide that the best available naturalistic theory can be considered successful even when it rests on unverifiable assumptions and conflicts with some of the evidence.

The view that science provides the ultimate truth-test is a myth. To begin with, science is limited in what it can investigate, where it is applicable, and what truths it can discover. Let me explain.

There are many avenues of truth that lie outside the scope of science. According to the Oxford Dictionary, science “must involve proof and certainty, must not depart from what can be generated rigorously from immediate observation, and must not speculate beyond presently observable processes” [emphasis added].

Science has no bearing on historical, legal, philosophical, theological, or aesthetic issues and should not even speculate in these fields. When it does, it is dabbling in areas of truth for which it is not qualified to investigate or to pronounce judgment. Can science prove or disprove that George Washington was our first president (historical truth)? Can science prove or disprove that a murder was premeditated (legal truth)? Can science prove or disprove the validity of the presuppositions people bring to ethical issues (philosophical truth)? Can science prove or disprove the existence of God (theological truth)? Can science tell us if a book was good or a piece of art beautiful (aesthetic truth)?

In all these cases, science has nothing to say (or shouldn’t, if it wishes to maintain its integrity). Why? Because science derives its knowledge through observation (if not directly at least indirectly) and experimentation—the world of sense perception. Scientific laws and theories are verified by their repeatability and dependability, and this is determined by continued research, experimentation, and observation. There are many areas of knowledge not subject to scientific investigation and verification.

Let me add quickly that I am not talking here about the scientific method or the scientific approach to acquiring truth as described in chapters five and six. I’m speaking specifically about applying the conclusions of science or extrapolating the philosophy of science (naturalism) to other fields of knowledge. As we saw, the scientific approach to discovering truth is valid in other areas of knowledge besides science. But taking the findings of science or applying the presuppositions of science to non-scientific issues in order to determine truth in other fields of knowledge is both irrational and erroneous. You cannot use a philosophy which by definition denies the existence of God (naturalism) to prove God does not exist. This is stepping beyond the bounds of rational argumentation and employing circular reasoning. Other evidence that is not prejudiced by naturalism must be considered.

To be fair, the same can be said about theism. One cannot rely entirely on theistic presuppositions to demonstrate that God exists—not if you wish to be effective in evangelism. This too would be begging the question. This is why apologetic evangelism encourages the use of nonbiblical evidences and the scientific method of inquiry in order to get a fair hearing on theological issues.

Most unbelievers will walk away shaking their heads if we try to prove God’s existence simply by reading Genesis chapter one. If they have already rejected the Bible as Hebrew mythology and creation as religious dogma, why should they believe in a God whose existence is demonstrated only in Scripture? To get a fair hearing, we either have to confirm the authenticity and reliability of the Bible, therefore proving it’s an accurate revelation of God, or we must present other, nonbiblical, evidences for His existence.

Science and Christianity

What I’m moving toward is this: Science is not the Great Absolute, the ultimate source of truth and knowledge. This is so for two reasons: (1) science is limited in its field of inquiry and cannot pass judgment in any non-scientific area of truth, and (2) science operates within its own philosophical worldview, its own biases, and it depends on philosophical presuppositions that may or may not be accurate—like any other worldview. If these assumptions are inaccurate, then the truth-claims that arise out of them and depend upon them are erroneous.

This brings us to the conflict between science and religion, in particular, between naturalism and the Christian worldview.

Contrary to the claims of naturalists—who flat out deny any religious truth—when an apparent contradiction arises between science and Christianity, it does not always result in victory for science and defeat for Christianity. Science has nothing to say about theological issues. Science can’t disprove the existence of God any more than it can disprove any other theological truth-claim. Science can’t refute the reality of answered prayer, the existence of angels, or the absolute nature of Christian ethics.

But how about the opposite? Can theological truth refute scientific truth? Yes. Christian truth-claims, if adequately substantiated, can modify or even refute scientific truth-claims. This may be a shocking statement, immersed as we are in the philosophy of scientism, so let me carefully explain what I mean.

Consider the well-known fact that many so-called scientific theories have ultimately, with the passage of time and with additional research and evidence, been proven to be incorrect. The history of science abounds with examples of discarded theories. On the other hand, biblical truths are absolute and final. Which should be the most trustworthy?

Look at it like this. Science cannot alter or change history because historical facts are past events and unalterable. So whatever actually happened in history must be true. On the other hand, science is in a constant state of flux because it deals with the here and now and is dependent upon continuing research, observation, and experimentation. Its truth-claims, by their very nature, are less reliable than historical facts because new evidence can always surface to alter existing concepts. In sum, if the two kinds of evidences confront each other, the strongest will always be historical because it is unchanging while scientific evidence is subject to modification.

This may seem like comparing apples with oranges. You may think that comparing historical evidence with scientific evidence is meaningless because they are concerned with entirely different kinds of truth. Not necessarily so. There are times when science forces us to make this comparison and to decide which evidence is most valid.

Scientific claims are sometimes used by naturalists to discredit biblical truths when the evidence supporting the biblical view presents a stronger argument than the evidence supporting the scientific view. When this happens, one is forced to go with the best evidence—that which can better verify its claims—even if the evidence is religious or historical rather than scientific. Let me illustrate this with two examples: naturalism’s rejection of miracles and creation.

Miracles. Naturalism rejects the notion of miracles—supernatural events outside the domain of natural laws. It rejects them on philosophical grounds—miracles fly in the face of naturalism’s anti-supernatural bias. The Bible, on the other hand, is replete with miracles. Who’s right? Since naturalism states that all miracles are impossible, it only takes one miracle to disprove naturalism in this area. So let’s take the Bible’s most celebrated miracle, the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Almost everyone today, including atheistic scholars, agree that Jesus is a historical person. The primary (but not the only) source of information about Jesus is the Bible. On the basis of accepted principles of textual and historical analysis, the biblical accounts of Jesus’ life (the Gospels) are found to be trustworthy historical documents—primary source evidence for the life of Christ. In these records, Jesus claimed to be God in human flesh and predicted that He would die and rise again on the third day to prove this claim (Matt. 16:21; Mark 8:31; Luke 9:22; John 2:19–21). His death and post-resurrection appearances are confirmed by eyewitnesses and recorded in historical documents (the Gospels).

Jesus’ resurrection, then, is a historical event confirmed by overwhelming historical testimony, the same kind of testimony used to validate other historical events. Moreover, the resurrection of Jesus Christ is irrefutable by science. Why? Because science operates in the here and now and can’t disprove any historical event—such events are beyond scientific inquiry. The truthfulness of all miracles must be determined by avenues of evidence other than science, namely historical evidence.

So what can we conclude? Since the resurrection of Jesus Christ is clearly demonstrated as factual by all the canons of historical investigation, and since science’s claim that it is a non-event is supported only by its anti-supernatural presupposition, we must go with the best (the historical) evidence. The conclusion is that the Resurrection (and thus at least one miracle) occurred.

Here we have a case—and one of dozens we could examine—where a claim of naturalism is overshadowed evidentially by a claim of Christianity. The honest inquirer will concede that miracles are a fact of history, and naturalism is unable, evidentially, to dispute that fact. In short, the naturalist’s denial of the Resurrection is based solely on their commitment to philosophical naturalism—at the expense of “irresponsible handling of the historical evidence of Jesus.”

Creation. Let me offer an example straight from science. Naturalists zealously adhere to an evolutionary origin of life. Indeed, naturalism stands or falls on whether or not life and the cosmos arose from random natural process rather than from God. On the other hand, the Bible says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). What should we believe?

We have the same scenario as we did with the issue of miracles. We have a document (the Bible) of proven reliability. In every area in which it can be checked out—including scientific claims—the Bible has been verified as accurate and truthful. Does evolution have this same track record? Not at all. In fact, no one has ever presented a workable, let alone provable, evolutionary model that all scientists agree with or that can be substantiated by reliable scientific evidence. And remember, science can only work in the here and now. The origin of life was a historical event. Many evolutionists admit that old-fashioned Darwinian evolution is no longer a viable model of origins.

If the Bible says that creation is a fact (and if there is overwhelming evidence that the Bible is a truthful document), and if naturalism says evolution is a fact, but fails to present adequate evidence to support this claim, who are we to believe? Which view has the preponderance of evidence to support its view? Unquestionably, it is the Bible. The evidence supporting the Bible is much greater than the evidence supporting naturalistic evolution. We are therefore justified in trusting the Bible over unsubstantiated scientific claims—especially when these claims deal with areas outside the realm of science and stem from anti-supernatural presuppositions.

More than Scripture. The evidence for creation is not dependent on just the historical reliability and veracity of Scripture. Creationism stands the test of critical scrutiny on scientific grounds as well. Creationism—the premise that God was actively involved throughout the creation process—is consistent not only with Scripture but with the very data evolution has a difficult time accounting for. Here are a few examples.

The various evolutionary theories are unable to explain (though they try) why there is no fossil evidence of transitional species (“missing links” between two kinds of animals, such as amphibians and reptiles). Creationists point out that there are no transitional fossils between groups of animals because God created living creatures “after their kind” (Gen. 1:24). In other words, God created amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals as specific animal types, and it is from these original “kinds” of animals that the great varieties of extinct and existing animals arose. But these creatures did not evolve from one species into another—there is no concrete evidence for this.

A second obstacle for evolutionists that is not a problem to creationists concerns mutations. Evolutionists argue that the mechanism by which one species evolves into another is through genetic mutations. There are two problems with this. First, in practically every known case, a mutation is not beneficial but harmful to an animal and usually kills it. A deformity lessens the survival potential of an animal—it does not strengthen it. Second, even if the earth is five and a half billion years old, as evolutionists claim, there is still not enough time for even a simple organism to evolve into a more complex organism through random mutational changes. The time needed is many billions of years longer than the age of the universe itself, even if the universe is as old as science estimates.

Other problems with evolution include the Laws of Thermodynamics, which imply that the universe is both finite and had a Creator. The First Law states that matter and energy are neither being created nor destroyed. In other words, matter and energy do not have within themselves the ability to create. This implies that matter must have been created. The Second Law states that entropy (which is the measurement of disorganization) always increases in an isolated system (a system which does not have an external influence that can sustain or increase its available energy, such as the universe). Now, what does this mean? Simply that the natural tendency of things is to wear out and grow old (old automobiles rust away; you and I grow old and die). But if the universe is running down, it must have had a beginning. It is not eternal; it had a Creator.

There are numerous other problems inherent in the theory of evolution that are perfectly explained in a creation model of origins.

We are justified to reject evolution on biblical grounds alone: the Bible is demonstrated to be reliable, and evolution is fraught with difficulties. But we also have scientific evidence that clearly supports Creation. The case for Creation is twofold: the testimony of Scripture and the testimony of science.

The Real Problem

I cannot emphasize enough that when contrary opinions surface between science and Christianity, it is usually because science has moved beyond its field of inquiry and into the philosophical or religious arena. Consequently, it is not only legitimate but wise, when analyzing scientific claims that attempt to thwart the Christian worldview, to consider all the evidence, including nonscientific evidence.

Remember, scientism rigorously adheres to the philosophy that data must meet scientific standards of inquiry and validation or it can’t represent truth. But this is a presupposition—an assumption flowing out of naturalism’s anti-supernatural worldview. Assumptions don’t automatically equal truth. They may or may not be correct. It is very unscientific for science to ignore valid evidence just because it is non-scientific in nature. Science can’t brush aside appeals to other avenues of truth just because they don’t fit in the scientific paradigm of how truth should be determined.

This is not to say that Christians can ignore scientific evidence, but it is to say that nonscientific evidences can be brought to bear on many issues. Scientism errs both philosophically and logically when it attempts to belittle such evidence by off-handedly claiming it cannot represent truth simply because it is religious and not scientific.

J. P. Moreland explained this concept well and is worth quoting at length:

Larry Laudan [in his book Progress
and Its Problems] has argued that the history of science illustrates that conceptual difficulties from philosophy, theology, logic and mathematics, political theory, and general worldview considerations provide negative evidence for the rational acceptance of scientific theories in the form of external conceptual problems. “Thus,” he says, “contrary to common belief, it can be rational to raise philosophical and religious objections against a particular theory or research tradition, if the latter runs counter to a well-established part of our general Weltbild—even if that Weltbild is not ‘scientific’ (in the usual sense of the word).”

This observation makes sense. If science really is not an isolated discipline tucked away in an airtight compartment, if one has good arguments or reasons for holding to some proposition, and if a scientific theory conflicts with that proposition and is not merely complementary to it, then the proposition itself provides some evidence against the scientific theory. This is so even when the proposition in question is theological, philosophical, or related to some other discipline outside science. The real issue is not what kind of proposition it is, but how strong the evidence is for it.

Anyone wanting an integrated world view will see that nonscientific problems, if they are rationally supportable, will count against conflicting (though not complementary) scientific claims; thus, such external problems should be used in assessing those scientific claims. Put another way, by its very nature, science interacts and sometimes conflicts with other rational fields of study. Thus, it’s not inappropriate to the nature of science or to the way science has been practiced through history to raise theological or philosophical considerations as part of the assessment of a scientific theory, if those considerations are rationally justifiable on their own grounds.

A Word of Caution

This too needs to be said. Christians should not make every issue a theological one, nor should they seek to justify every issue according to whether or not it conforms with Scripture. Doing this will frequently result in a failure to get a fair hearing from the scientific and non-Christian communities.

In the Creation versus evolution debate, for instance, even if Christians are justified in rejecting evolution on the weight of Scripture alone (because the Bible sustains more and wider verification than the theory of evolution), it is a grave mistake to point to Genesis as the sole evidence for creationism—not when there is a wealth of scientific evidence supporting creationism that can be brought to bear on the discussion. This is why I pointed out that creationism can be sustained by scientific evidence as well as biblical evidence.

Christian apologists must be sensitive to where unbelievers are coming from and seek a point of contact from which unbelievers will listen. If an unbeliever enters into a discussion on evolution already convinced that the biblical account of creation is Hebrew mythology, then Christians should present scientific evidence to support the Christian view. As the apostle Paul said, we must become “all things to all men, that [we] may by all means save some” (1 Cor. 9:22).

What Have We Seen So Far?

Scientism is the source of truth for naturalism. Or to put it another way, for a naturalist, truth comes only from science. It should be clear by now, however, that this attitude is narrow-minded, prejudiced, and designed to preclude any source of truth that does not pass through naturalism’s anti-supernatural grid.

We have seen repeatedly that in order for a worldview to be acceptable, it must be both internally and externally consistent and it must correspond to reality as is universally understood and lived out. Naturalism not only fails to recognize the value of spiritual truth, but it refuses to consider its existence. It does this for a very good reason—survival. If God exists, naturalism as a worldview crumbles.

The Christian worldview recognizes the existence of both a natural and a supernatural realm. It understands that spiritual truth is a product of the supernatural realm. This conviction is internally consistent (obedient to the laws of logic), externally consistent (as evidences for creation and miracles illustrate), and it corresponds to reality as universally understood and lived out (lives are changed through the Christian experience).

On the other hand, naturalism exhibits insurmountable difficulties. Internally, it refuses to recognize the logical possibility of the supernatural because it builds its worldview on an unyielding anti-supernatural presupposition. Externally, it fails to account for (or admit to) the overwhelming objective evidences confirming supernatural realities, such as historical evidence for miracles and fulfilled prophecy. Finally naturalism fails to correspond to reality as universally understood and lived out because it refuses to acknowledge as real the world-wide phenomenon of spiritual fulfillment and the role such fulfillment plays in subjective human experiences. To naturalists, spiritual fulfillment is psychological, a product of the human imagination. To Christians, spiritual fulfillment is a profound peace of mind and a dramatic change in worldview flowing from a personal relationship with the living God.

What can we conclude from this? If the foundation of an edifice is knocked down, the structure resting on it is destroyed. This is the case with naturalism. Naturalism is not only unable to disprove the existence of God and other spiritual realities, it doesn’t even have the resources to attempt to disprove them. Spiritual truth lies beyond the scope of science. Scientism is not, and cannot be, the source of all truth.

Chapter Eleven

Secular Humanism: Man Is God

We have examined two ways in which the Christian worldview is under attack in modern Western society: pantheism and naturalism. In the first instance, God is an impersonal entity that permeates all things and encompasses all things. Some pantheists believe that people by virtue of their “oneness” with God are innately divine. This popular form of pantheism is the trademark of the New Age Movement. It’s a view adapted to a secular worldview and distinct in several ways from its Eastern progenitor.

The second avenue through which Christianity comes under attack is naturalism. This particular view of reality is even more influential in the West than pantheism. Naturalism teaches that there is no God and that the material universe and its natural laws are all there is to reality.

The philosophy of naturalism is expressed as a distinct worldview in secular humanism. It is the philosophical foundation of secular humanism—it’s what makes secular humanism work. As James Sire put it, secular humanism is “naturalism in practice.”

Like all worldviews, secular humanism is the filter through which its adherents interpret data, determine truth, and set values. In modern Western society, secular humanism, flowing from the philosophy of naturalism, is the prevailing worldview. It’s the force shaping modern society. Even people who do not accept the anti-God presupposition of naturalism live lives that reflect this particular worldview.

Of course this doesn’t automatically mean that secular humanism represents truth. So we pose the same questions to secular humanism that we did to pantheism, the New Age, the cults, and naturalism: Is secular humanism closer to the truth than any other worldview? Does it correspond to reality more accurately than Christianity? We will begin to answer these questions by clearly defining what secular humanism is.

What Is Secular Humanism?

The concept of humanism is not necessarily bad. It’s simply a philosophy that puts special emphasis on the value of human beings. This is not unbiblical. People are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27), and as such we are of value. The Bible clearly teaches that people are of much greater value than the rest of creation (Ps. 8; Luke 12:6–7).

Christians, while recognizing the value of corporate humanity and individual worth, do so in the full knowledge that this is due to our being created in the image of God and our being loved by God. Whatever value we possess comes from God and can’t exist independent of Him. God is the ultimate good in the universe—not people. He is sovereign Lord over humanity, and people are accountable and responsible to Him.

The key ingredient of secular humanism, however, is naturalism, and naturalism is atheistic because it denies the existence of God. Thus secular humanism, by definition, is also atheistic. As professor Harold Berry pointed out, “A vast difference exists between humanism that is theistic and secular humanism that is nontheistic or atheistic.” It is one thing to recognize our worth as the crown of God’s creation, and quite another to adhere to a philosophy that elevates humanity above God or denies that God exists—as in the case of secular humanism. In this chapter, when I use the word humanism, I’m referring specifically to atheistic secular humanism.

Secular humanists, by virtue of adhering to the evolutionary philosophy of naturalism, see human beings as the ultimate value in the universe. There is no sovereign, creator God who upholds and governs all things according to His will. Human beings are the pinnacle of evolution. We alone are self-aware and capable of ethical behavior. The human mind is master of the universe, or at least potentially so, and all knowledge is within our grasp. With this power, we control our destiny; we create our ethics; we write our laws; we determine all social and cultural behavior; we are autonomous and self-sufficient. In short: “Man is the measure of all things.”

A State Religion

Secular humanism is the prevailing religious belief in Western culture. You may wonder why I refer to secular humanism as a religion. Technically that’s precisely what it is. Webster’s dictionary defines religion as “(1) a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe … often containing a moral code for the conduct of human affairs. (2) A specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects.” The secular-humanist worldview provides its own answers to the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe as well as distinct moral codes. It is a set of beliefs and practices followed by the majority of people in the West. Hence, secular humanism is a religion.

There are other reasons for identifying secular humanism as a religion. Humanism’s holy writ, the Humanist Manifesto I, refers to itself as “religious humanism.” Even the U.S. Supreme Court recognizes this definition. In the 1961 case Torcaso v. Watkins, the Supreme Court declared that “among religions in this country which do not teach what would generally be consider a belief in God are Buddhism, Taoism, Ethical Culture, secular humanism, and others.”

For all practical purposes, secular humanism is the state religion of the United States. It is fully endorsed and promulgated by the United States government and our judicial system. Francis Schaeffer observed:

The humanist world view includes many thousands of adherents and today controls the consensus in society, much of the media, much of what is taught in our schools, and much of the arbitrary law being produced by the various departments of government.

Examples of this are innumerable. Federal funds are given to secular humanist activities that are diametrically opposed to Christian values: grants to universities that promote naturalistic concepts of education, science, psychology, and sociology; Planned Parenthood, which promotes abortion; the National Endowment to the Arts, which awards grants worth thousands of dollars to what many Christians consider pornographic and blasphemous art projects; and public school systems, where humanistic values are taught through sex education, value clarification, and naturalistic evolution.

Furthermore, laws are enacted on federal and state levels that mandate the acceptance of abortion, homosexuality, and other anti-Christian—but humanistic—values and behaviors. Schaeffer also noted:

Law in this country has become situational law.… That is, a small group of people decide arbitrarily what, from their viewpoint, is for the good of society at that precise moment and they make it law, binding the whole society by their personal arbitrary decisions.…

The law, and especially the courts, is the vehicle to force this total humanistic way of thinking upon the entire population. This is what has happened. The abortion law is a perfect example. The Supreme Court abortion ruling invalidated abortion laws in all fifty states, even though it seems clear that in 1973 the majority of Americans were against abortion. It did not matter. The Supreme Court arbitrarily ruled that abortion was legal, and overnight they overthrew the state laws and forced onto American thinking not only that abortion was legal, but that it was ethical.

This same kind of governmental endorsement is being sought by the gay community. Homosexuals not only want the right to practice their sexual behavior in private and to be free from persecution for their lifestyles, but they want legislative endorsements that “fully legitimize homosexuality as an acceptable and sanctioned alternative lifestyle.” They want the world to believe that “gay is as acceptable as straight.”7 The gay agenda seeks “to codify their behavior as acceptable and good, to force their lifestyle on the rest of society, and to influence those too young to understand the moral implications of this issue.

A Brave New World?

Is the world better off today under this prevailing religious climate? Let me again quote Francis Schaeffer:

The humanists push for “freedom,” but having no Christian consensus to contain it, that “freedom” leads to chaos or to slavery under the state (or under an elite). Humanism, with its lack of any final base for values or law, always leads to chaos. It then naturally leads to some form of authoritarianism to control the chaos. Having produced the sickness, humanism gives more of the same kind of medicine for a cure. With its mistaken concept of final reality [naturalism], it has no intrinsic reason to be interested in the individual, the human being. Its natural interest is the two collectives: the state and society.

Let me sum this up. The ethics and lifestyle promoted by secular humanism are being foisted upon all of us through our court system, through federal and state legislatures, through special interest groups, and through our educational system. Leading scientists and educators are the priests of “religious” humanism, and virtually the entire country is their congregation. Furthermore, because secular humanism (like many religions) is intolerant of competing religions, it ardently opposes Christianity. As Professor Harvey Cox wrote, “Secular humanism actively rejects, excludes and attempts to eliminate traditional theism from meaningful participation in the American culture.”

Because its chief supporters are the educational elite and those in control of the media, secularism human continually imposes its ideology on the American public. Wrote Steve Hallman, former vice president of the American Family Association:

The rapid spread of humanist ethics owes much to positive, sympathetic treatment by the entertainment media in recent years. Television has shaped and molded many of our ideas [“By the time a child finishes high school, he has spent some 15,000 hours in front of T.V.—more time than in school”]. And since television appeals mainly to the emotional rather than the rational, it can be a tremendous instrument of Change. Humanists have found that television makes a wonderful pulpit for the preaching of humanist ethics.12

Thus, Carl Sagan can declare as scientific fact on national television before 140 million viewers that “the cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be,” and his poison is swallowed hook, line, and sinker by the unaware and uninformed. Reality is only what we can see, hear, feel, smell, and taste. Reality is naturalism, and flowing directly from it, secular humanism is truth.

How did we get to the point where an undeclared state religion dictates governmental policy and funding? The answer begins with the rejection of the Christian worldview.

In the Beginning

The story of how atheistic secular humanism came to replace Christianity as the principal worldview in Western society after fifteen centuries of Christian dominance is a story worth hearing. It not only explains the present state of affairs (the dominance of secular humanism), but it is a narrative analogous to the fall of humanity itself. It is the tale told afresh of Satan’s age-old temptation to Eve that “you shall be like God”; it is the story of humanity turning from God and placing itself upon His throne of sovereignty, autonomy, and authority.

The Renaissance

The Christian worldview went generally unchallenged from the early fourth century through the Middle Ages. However, beginning in the Renaissance (the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries), a growing interest in Greek philosophy and science began to draw people’s attention away from religious matters toward people and human interests. Church historian Harold Lindsell described it:

[The Renaissance] taught man an opposite view of the world from that which had prevailed in antiquity and the Middle Ages. In place of a world looked at through the eyeglasses of a spiritual, religious, and poetic view it substituted a scientific, realistic, economic view. Abruptly humanity rejected that which it had hitherto allowed to guide it.

Human reasoning began to dominate divine revelation. Renaissance philosophers such as Baruch Spinoza (1632–77) introduced the seeds of biblical criticism and rationalism, while Nicolas Copernicus (1473–1543), Galileo Galilei (1564–1642), and other Renaissance scientists stressed the absoluteness of natural laws.

Surprisingly, even the sixteenth-century Reformers contributed to the rise of humanism. Their success in stripping away Roman Catholic dogma and reviving apostolic theology, with its commitment to personal growth and renewal rather than to the “church,” paved the way for questioning all religion and “won elbow room for both skeptics and secularists” by giving birth to the idea of toleration.

Let me add that at this point in history, Renaissance philosophers and scientists were not seeking to overthrow Christianity. Peter Gay, in his classic book on the Enlightenment, stated:

With few exceptions the Humanists remain within the Christian fold; the affection for pagan works did not make them pagans.… The central intellectual problem of the Renaissance was to find … a compromise formula … that would enable man to live comfortably with classical forms and Christian convictions, trust in man and trust in God, vigorous secular energies and a tenacious ascetic ideal.

Gay went on to say:

Classicism seems to have caused no religious turmoil within them. The sacred remained a central theme for Renaissance sculptors, architects, and painters.… Donatello, Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo—the greatest of them, who had all absorbed the lessons of antiquity and the teachings of nature, lavished their genius on Madonnas, on Davids, on scenes from the Passion of Christ.

By the time of the late Renaissance, although many churchmen could not be considered totally orthodox, they nevertheless were still some distance from the Enlightenment view of Christianity. Gay commented further:

While [seventeenth-century] Christianity was no longer quite the Christianity of the [earlier] Renaissance, its worldliness was not yet the secularism of the Enlightenment.… Even the revolutionary discoveries of seventeenth-century scientists were not in general regarded as subversive: many warm supporters of the “new learning” greeted the writing of Galileo, and later those of Newton, as evidence for the faith rather than a threat to it.

The Enlightenment

The Renaissance and the Reformation planted the seeds that later sprouted and matured into well-developed secular humanism during the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. Spearheaded by a loose, informal group of religious skeptics, political reformers, and philosophers, such as Voltaire (1694–1778), David Hume (1711–1776), Denis Diderot (1713–1784), and Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), Enlightenment thinkers rejected the authority of the Christian church and opened the door for the acceptance of humanism.

The eighteenth-century philosophers differed among themselves, but they had one thing in common: all of them rejected religion in general and Christianity in particular. Their attacks against Christianity were relentless and unmerciful. To eighteenth-century philosophers, “faith in the power of reason to improve the lot of mankind was religion; whatever hindered the spread of enlightenment was an obstacle to be destroyed, an idol to be shattered.” Enlightenment scholar Ernest Cassirer noted: “If we were to look for a general characteristic of the age of enlightenment, the traditional answer would be that its fundamental feature is obviously a critical and skeptical attitude toward religions.”20

In short, the Enlightenment witnessed a turning away from Christian orthodoxy. It broke the back of the Christian worldview prevalent in Western culture, especially among the philosophers, intellectuals, educators, scholars, and even many theologians. Scholar James Livingston summed it up well:

The Enlightenment represents the loosening of the state and society from ecclesiastical control and the emergence of a culture largely secular in character. The theories and sanctions of modern social and political life are no longer derived from biblical revelation or Church authority but independently arrived at by natural reason and social experience. An essential feature of the Enlightenment and of our modern culture since the eighteenth century is the growing separation of Western civilization from the authority of Church and theological dogma.

The Rise of Scientism

The only ingredient left to finish the recipe of fully developed secular humanism was some bonafide source of knowledge. (As we’ve seen, a source of truth is one of the six necessary ingredients of a worldview.) The philosophical assumptions were thoroughly articulated during the Enlightenment, but objective verification was needed to give secular humanism respectability. This last ingredient was added in the nineteenth century with the rise and acceptance of scientism.

Prior to Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1859), science was considered among theologians as a handmaid rather than as an enemy of Christianity. Dr. Langdon Gilkey of the University of Chicago Divinity School pointed out: “Most intelligent men, and so most 18th century scientists [as well as theologians], held that divine revelation could tell us what had happened in the beginning, how the Creator had, so to speak, set the stage of the world which their science was now newly investigating.”23

However, after Darwin, all that changed. The theory of evolution offered an appealing and rational alternate explanation for the origin of life and the cosmos—including man. It introduced objective “proof” that the eighteenth-century philosophers were correct in their assessment that human beings were not the product of God. Human beings were the product of nature, and as such, they were masters of themselves.

The hypothesis that humans gradually developed from primitive life forms into highly intelligent and capable animals denied biblical teachings on Creation and the Fall. If we are not created, there is no God. If we are not fallen sinners, we have no need of a Savior. Quite the contrary, evolution shows that humanity is steadily improving. The future is bright. With a little more work and a little more knowledge, heaven and earth will become synonymous. We hold the key to a dazzling future, not God, and science is the tool to achieve it.

Let me sum this up. Evolution denies creation. A denial of creation is a denial of God. A denial of God elevates humanity to the status of supreme beings. People, not God, are sovereign, autonomous, and authoritative. People, not God, are the measure of all things. The result? The birth of a new religion grounded in naturalism: atheistic secular humanism.

The Consummation

It was not until the middle of the twentieth century that the combined forces of eighteenth-century philosophy and nineteenth-century scientism reached their full flowering. Secular humanism has enjoyed its most rapid growth, greatest influence, and widest acceptance in just the last fifty years.

The full moral impact of secular humanism, then, was not felt until after World War II. In fact, the radical and widely accepted ethical changes prevalent in Western culture today—changes away from traditional Christian ethics—did not greatly affect the average person until the 1960s. Society’s move from the Christian worldview to secularism has been a slow jog over the past two centuries, suddenly bursting into a sprint in the last thirty years.

After fifteen centuries of dominance, Christianity is no longer the guiding force in Western culture. Secular humanism is now the dominant worldview. It’s the filter through which modern people judge reality and the frame of reference by which they make decisions in all areas of life. Accordingly, here in the West, secular humanism defines social norms and practices and determines truth in ethical, religious, and other areas.

This is true even for people who claim to be theists, that is, for people who believe in God. In spite of their beliefs, most westerners, including many Christians, live lives more in sync with secular humanism than with theism.

The sad fact is, humanist assumptions have infiltrated many churches. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many theologians attempted to accommodate Christian theology with naturalistic philosophy and evolution. Liberal theology crept into the church. Today, liberalism is well-entrenched in most mainline denominations. In these churches, the deity of Jesus Christ, the inerrancy and authority of Scripture, humanity’s sin nature, the virgin birth, and a host of other cardinal beliefs are openly questioned and in some cases thrown out because they do not pass through secular humanism’s worldview filter.

More than any other religion or philosophy, including the New Age Movement, secular humanism is Christianity’s chief adversary. The question remains, however, does secular humanism correspond to reality? In spite of its dominant position in Western society, is it truth?

Doctrines of a “State” Religion

Like other religions, secular humanism is a belief accepted by faith. And like other religions, it possesses sacred writings: the Humanist Manifesto I (published in 1933) and the Humanist Manifesto II (published in 1973). They were written, to use their own words:

In order that religious humanism … be better understood.… Today man’s larger understanding of the universe, his scientific achievements, and his deeper appreciation of brotherhood, have created a situation which required a new statement of the means and purposes of religion.… To establish such a religion is a major necessity of the present. It is a responsibility which rests upon this generation. (Humanist Manifesto I)

Both Manifestos were signed by many of the leading educators, scientists, and philosophers of this century. Dr. Benjamin Spock, educator John Dewey, philosopher Antony Flew, prominent scientist Francis Crick, psychologist B. F. Skinner, ethicist Joseph Fletcher, and many others working in strategically powerful areas in public view. Because of their prominence, these pacesetters were able to influence public opinion far beyond their numerical strength.

Here’s what the Humanist Manifesto I and II affirm about the six key features of a worldview that we have been examining. I will quote passages directly from Humanist Manifesto I and II.


“As in 1933, humanists still believe that traditional theism, especially faith in the prayer-hearing God, assumed to love and care for persons, to hear and understand their prayers, and to be able to do something about them, is an unproved and outmoded faith” (Humanist Manifesto II).

“We find insufficient evidence for belief in the existence of a supernatural” (Humanist Manifesto II).


“Humanism believes that man is a part of nature and that he has emerged as the result of a continuous process” (Humanist Manifesto I).

“As nontheists, we begin with humans not God, nature not deity” (Humanist Manifesto II).

“Modern science discredits such historic concepts as the ‘ghost in the machine’ and the ‘separable soul.’ Rather, science affirms that the human species is an emergence from natural evolutionary forces” (Humanist Manifesto II).

“The preciousness and dignity of the individual person is a central humanist value.” “We are responsible for what we are or will be.… At the present juncture of history, commitment to all humankind is the highest commitment of which we are capable; it transcends the narrow allegiances of church, state, party, class, or race in moving toward a wider vision of human potential” (Humanist Manifesto II).

In sum, we are self-sufficient. We don’t need God; we can do it on our own.


“The universe is self-existing and not created” (Humanist Manifesto I).

Evolution, which flows directly from naturalistic philosophy, permits humanists to explain our origins without God. It removes the desire or need to seek a theistic explanation for the origin of the universe or ourselves. It follows from this that if human beings have no creator they are indeed the “measure of all things.” They are fully autonomous (self-governing and free to determine their own destiny), independent (not dependent on God), the creators of social and moral behavior (ethics are relative), and without accountability to God for their actions.

Suffering and Evil

Secular humanists reject the Christian understanding of sin, its origin, its historical significance, and its role in human actions. Because of their atheistic presuppositions, humanists reject any moral absolute by which ethical guidelines are universal in application.

“We are responsible for what we are or will be” (Humanist Manifesto II).

“We affirm that moral values derive their source from human experience. Ethics is autonomous and situational, needing no theological or ideological sanction. Ethics stem from human need and interest” (i.e., ethics are relative; Humanist Manifesto II).

“In the area of sexuality, we believe that intolerant attitudes, often cultivated by orthodox religious and puritanical cultures, unduly repress sexual conduct. The right to birth control, abortion, and divorce should be recognized.… The many varieties of sexual exploration should not in themselves be considered ‘evil.’ … Short of harming others or compelling them to do likewise, individuals should be permitted to express their sexual proclivities and pursue their lifestyles as they desire” (Humanist Manifesto II).

Thus, prostitution, homosexuality, and pornography are acceptable if one wishes to engage in them. Humanists also recognize “an individual’s right to die with dignity, euthanasia, and the right to suicide” (Humanist Manifesto II).

Salvation and Eternal Life

“Religious humanism considers the complete realization of human personality to be the end of man’s life” (Humanist Manifesto I).

“Promises of immortal salvation or fear of eternal damnation are both illusory and harmful. They distract humans from present concerns, from self-actualization, and from rectifying social injustices.… There is no credible evidence that life survives the death of the body. We continue to exist in our progeny and in the way that our lives have influenced others in our culture” (Humanist Manifesto II).

Source of Truth

“The way to determine the existence and value of any and all realities is by means of intelligent inquiry and by the assessment of their relation to human needs [thus truth, like ethics, is relative]. Religion must formulate its shapes and plans in light of the scientific spirit and method [scientism]” (Humanist Manifesto I).

“Any account of nature should pass the tests of scientific evidence; in our judgment, the dogmas and myths of traditional religions do not do so” (Humanist Manifesto II).

“Reason and intelligence are the most effective instruments that humankind possesses. There is no substitute: neither faith nor passion suffices in itself. The controlled use of scientific methods, which have transformed the natural and social sciences since the Renaissance, must be extended further in the solution of human problems” (Humanist Manifesto II).

Is There a Problem Here?

What’s wrong with all this? Many things, but we only need to examine three problems with secular humanism to prove that it is not a viable worldview. In spite of the powerful and influential names endorsing the Humanist Manifesto I and II, and in spite of its “scientific” orientation, secular humanism does not explain many things which most people see as elements of reality.

First, secular humanism is both internally and externally inconsistent. Many of its truth-claims do not correspond to objective reality. Second, secular humanism fails to answer crucial questions about God and humanity in a way that is in harmony with reality as universally understood and lived out. Third, it is not subjectively satisfying—that is, it is does not meet people’s spiritual needs. We will look at each of these briefly. Together, they will demonstrate that secular humanism is unable to sustain its truth-claims. As a worldview, it is not a contender for religious truth. It fails the worldview truth tests at which we have been looking.

Secular Humanism Is Inconsistent with Supernatural Reality

The most obvious way in which secular humanism is inconsistent with reality is its view of the supernatural. Humanists deny the existence of God and reject all things supernatural. Of course, this is a philosophical assumption that can’t be proven.

So the question needs to be rephrased: Is there compelling evidence for the existence of God? If there is, can that evidence be tested? If so, and if atheists are unable to disprove the evidence, humanism’s anti-supernatural presupposition crumbles.

Providing evidence for the existence of God is a foundational apologetic task that needs more space than what is available here. However, I have dealt with this subject elsewhere, and I encourage readers to investigate that material. There is overwhelming empirical and philosophical evidence for God’s existence. And if God exists, atheistic secular humanism can’t reflect truth. The two positions are mutually exclusive, and for both to exist would violate the law of non-contradiction.

Humanism Fails to Answer Questions About God and Humanity

Humanism not only fails to refute the evidence confirming God’s existence, but it also fails to answer other crucial questions about God and humanity. Here are two examples.

First, secular humanism not only fails to demonstrate that God doesn’t exist, but it also fails to account for why people instinctively believe He does exist. This is a world-wide phenomenon. As we’ve seen, people everywhere and at all times have felt that God exists and have sought to understand Him and to have a relationship with Him.

Humanists claim that belief in God is either a psychological crutch stemming from people’s inability to cope with life’s disappointments, or it arises from primitive people’s inability to understand physical phenomena and to explain the permanence of death. In either case, there is insufficient evidence to sustain these claims.

Belief in God is a natural response to an innate awareness of God that God Himself placed in the human psyche (Romans 1:19–20). C. S. Lewis and others have pointed out that every natural desire exhibited by human beings is a manifestation of a real and necessary human need. We crave spiritual fulfillment because God has placed this desire in us, just as we crave love and affection because it is in our nature to receive it. It is logical to assume that if we possess a natural desire for something in which the world offers no fulfillment, there is something outside the world that will fulfill it. We will have no longings that are unfulfillable, including spiritual longing.

The short of it is, secular humanism is out of touch with reality because it leaves a God-vacuum and because it can’t account for God’s persistence in the human psyche.

Second, secular humanism fails to account for our fallen nature, our natural tendency to sin. Why, after thousands of years of civilization, do people still interact negatively? Why don’t we get along any better today than in the ancient past? If humanism reflects reality, this shouldn’t be the case. Here’s the reason why.

If human beings are the product of naturalistic evolution, then we should be improving—ethically, socially, and morally as well as physically. But if anything, we are worse off in these categories than ever before. Indeed, the torture and murder that occurred in the twentieth century alone under the atheistic political systems of Nazi Germany and Soviet Marxism is many millions more than throughout all the centuries of the Christian church combined. As Dr. Robert Morey stated, “Over one hundred and fifty million people in the last forty years have been killed by atheistic governments.”

Even the Humanist Manifesto II, written in 1973, concedes this:

Events since then [Humanist Manifesto I] make earlier statements seem far to optimistic. Nazism has shown the depths of brutality of which humanity is capable. Other totalitarian regimes have suppressed human rights without ending poverty. Science has sometimes brought evil as well as good. Recent decades have shown that inhuman wars can be made in the name of peace. The beginning of police states, even in democratic societies, widespread government espionage, and other abuses of power by military, political, and industrial elites, and the continuance of unyielding racism, all present a different and difficult social outlook. In learning to apply the scientific method to nature and human life, we have opened the door to ecological damage, overpopulation, dehumanizing institutions, totalitarian repression, and nuclear and biochemical disaster.

It’s now been twenty-five years since the Humanist Manifesto II was written. The humanists’ goal to use “technology wisely” in order to “control our environment, conquer poverty, markedly reduce disease, extend our life span, significantly modify our behavior, alter the course of human evolution and cultural development, unlock vast new powers, and provide humankind with unparalleled opportunity for achieving an abundant and meaningful life” is no closer today than it was in 1973 or 1933—or 1933 b.c., for that matter.

Sir Fred Catherwood, a member of the European Parliament for Cambridge and North Bedfordshire, made a timely comment:

What we do know is that after a full generation the social experiments of the secular humanists are ripping society apart. They cannot produce a stable replacement moral order, and society cannot afford to allow the experiment to run any longer. If Christianity is only one point of view, then so is secular humanism.… The humanists have no agreed moral order and no organization through which they can deliver broad assent among a majority, and their track record of application to the social order is both brief and destructive.

Humanism Is Not Spiritually Satisfying

A third way in which secular humanism fails the worldview test is that it is not spiritually satisfying. To fill the God-void created by secular humanism, people are reaching beyond the humanist worldview to embrace the religious teachings of other worldviews. This creates a problem for humanists. A consistent worldview must be spiritually satisfying. Otherwise, it’s not corresponding to reality (in this case, the real human need for spiritual fulfillment).

When we examined the New Age Movement, we saw that it is essentially a religious movement in which people are attempting to synthesize their innate belief in God with their desire for human autonomy.

Philosophically, New Age followers accept most, if not all, of the propositions of secular humanists—except their rejection of God. They agree with humanists that we are the master of our own destiny, the universe is eternal, sin is the absence of right information, there are no moral absolutes (ethics are relative), there is no afterlife in the sense of physical existence, and truth flows from human judgments and experiences.

In light of our understanding of secular humanism, it is now clear that the New Age Movement entails a rebellion against God-sterile secular humanism. The New Age is not a rebellion against humanism itself, but rather against the God-vacuum created by secular humanism.

Secular humanism is not spiritually satisfying because it removes God. But if secular humanism fails in one of the most essential components of a worldview—the need to satisfy people’s spiritual hunger—it must not reflect reality as it really exists. Humanism is not a viable worldview if it is not spiritually satisfying.

Why Can’t Humanists and Christians Get Along?

Christians do not condemn the goals of humanists so long as they are in harmony with God’s Word. Christians agree with humanists that “discrimination based upon race, religion, sex, age, or national origin” should be eliminated. We also “believe in the right to universal education” and that “everyone has a right to cultural opportunity to fulfill his or her unique capacities and talents.” We also “deplore racial, religious, ethnic, or class antagonisms” and are “critical of sexism or sexual chauvinism—male or female. We believe in equal rights for both women and men to fulfill their unique careers and potentialities as they see fit, free of individual discrimination” (Humanist Manifesto II).

Many of humanism’s goals Christians can accept. But we can’t accept the philosophy of naturalism that powers secular humanism. We condemn naturalism’s unscientific, unrealistic, and anti-supernatural assumptions that reject God as well as attempts to foist this view on society. We reject humanism’s notion that “at the present juncture of history, commitment to all humankind is the highest commitment of which we are capable; it transcends the narrow allegiances of church, state, party, class, or race in moving toward a wider vision of human potentiality” (Humanist Manifesto II).

Secular humanism is a clear case of the means not justifying the ends. Rather the alleviating the woes of humanity, secular humanism has facilitated them. Sacrificing God at the altar of human ambition and self-exaltation is not only wrong, it doesn’t work. Substituting ethical relativity for the moral absolutes of Scripture has resulted in millions of murdered unborn babies, the moral decadence of pornography and homosexuality, and the rapid depreciation and deterioration of the American family—the latter being the very backbone of Western society. Catherwood drove this point home:

Humanism will fail because it is, like Marxism, an intellectual creed that does not correspond to the experience of ordinary people and does not give any answers that satisfy them to the great questions of good and evil, health and sickness, life and death. It can dissolve the bonds that hold society together, but it cannot put them together again. It tells people outraged by crime that it is a psychological sickness that can be healed. It tells those who have no hope in this life that there is no hope after it; it tells those who live in dread of death that there is no life beyond death. It tells those who see design in nature that there is no designer, that, contrary to all human experience, order arose out of chaos. Above all, it teaches men and women, who were born to worship, that there is no God. So it cleans the house of the old, long-accepted religion, but leaves it open for the first new religion that comes along to enter and take possession (cf. Matt. 12:43–45).

Over the past thirty years, as secular humanism moved dramatically onto center stage while Christianity shuffled meekly off into the wings, we have witnessed an unparalleled rise in sexual promiscuity—with resultant diseases and teenage pregnancies and suicides—divorce, all manners of crime, and burgeoning numbers of welfare recipients. David Wells noted:

The American way of life may be the envy of the world, its gadgets and accoutrements sought after and emulated, but the American version of happiness, it turns out, it quite lethal. America is a violent and disturbed country. Its teenagers have the highest suicide rate in the world (in 1991, more teenage boys died from gunshot wounds than from all natural causes combined); it leads the world in the consumption of drugs, legal and illegal, in addictions of various kinds, in divorce, in the incidence of depressive illness, and in the marketing of a vast range of therapies to counteract these problems.…

Traditional American families have become endangered, and our legal system is a mockery of the original intent of our country’s founding fathers, who, incidentally, took it for granted that God was the source of all law.

Anyone who says that the world is better off practicing humanists’ values and living humanists’ lifestyles is either grossly naive, or they must stay indoors all day, everyday, and never read a newspaper, watch TV, or listen to the radio.

What Can We Do?

The expressed goal of secular humanism is the destruction of Christianity. In achieving this goal, it has infiltrated and influenced every area of American life. Who would have guessed forty years ago that Americans in the 1990s would be free to kill their unborn; would be prohibited from bringing their religious principles and values into public schools and government agencies; that their religious symbols, such as crosses and nativity scenes, would be banned from public places; that their children would be taught that homosexuality and sex outside of marriage are not only acceptable but encouraged; and that the theater would be dominated by movies that graphically portray violence, nudity, and blasphemy?

Secular humanism is leading the entire globe down the primrose path to moral anarchy. Yet people seem determined to plunge off the cliff of sensible conduct into the ocean of ethical insanity. We have become like mindless lemmings, like stupid rodents following a satanic Pied Piper.

If Christians don’t resist, Christianity as a social influence will vanish from the American scene. Rather than the guiding light of Western society, it will become a dim candle struggling to stay lit in a hurricane of humanist values. It’s easy to despair.

Today’s world has become so immersed in secular humanism that it seems an impossible task to lead society back to its Christian roots. But Christians are not called to be successful; we are called to be faithful. Our job is to be a light before the secular world (Matt. 5:16); God’s job is to convict and convince (John 16:8–11). Our job is to serve the Master; God’s job is to move history forward to achieve His ultimate plan of redemption.

There have been many other times in human history when society seemed beyond repentance, yet God has worked great miracles. This should be encouraging for Christians today.

A good example of this is England in the early part of the eighteenth century. Historian Williston Walker wrote:

The condition of the lower classes was one of spiritual destitution. Popular amusements were coarse, illiteracy widespread, law savage in its enforcement, jails sinks of disease and iniquity. Drunkenness was more prevalent than at any other period in English history.

Historian Earle Cairns noted:

In the first half of the [eighteenth] century the death rate went up as cheap gin killed many and sent others to the “asylum.” Gambling was rampant.… Bull-, bear-, fox-, and cock-baiting were regular pastimes, and a series of executions by hanging on Tyburn Hill was a gala occasion for the whole family. It was indeed a “sick century,” suspicious of theology and lacking fervor.

Into this maelstrom of depravity and gross immorality stepped John Wesley (1703–91) and a handful of other faithful evangelists, and “there came such a religious revival that in a few years the whole character of English society … changed, and there came a period of great spiritual life and activity in the church.”

The history of the Christian church is full of revivals. God is sovereign, and He can make dramatic and speedy changes when His people unite in prayer and move boldly into action under the power and leading of the Holy Spirit. Here are a few essentials as we put on the full armor of God to battle secular humanism.

First, pray for revival, locally and worldwide. Pray for a softening of the hardness of heart and rebellion of secular humanists. Pray for our government, leadership, and schools. In particular, pray for wisdom and for the specific needs of those in authority. Pray for your continued commitment to God, for your discipline and obedience to His teachings, and that you will be a light to the humanists about you.

Second, get involved. This is done through the power of our vote as well as through becoming active in civic affairs—local, state, and national. As Catherwood said, “It is the job of Christian leaders in society in both church and state to expose the rhetoric of humanism for the fraud on society that it is.” At the very least, all Christians should initiate contact with their governmental representatives through phone calls and letters whenever an issue of moral or religious significance is being confronted.

Third, rescind the humanist indoctrination your children receive in public schools and television by instructing them in biblical principles and truths. Help them to see why contemporary morality and naturalism, especially atheistic evolution, leads to spiritual and social degradation. Equip them to stand firm and to resist the bright lights and flashy dress of secular humanism; teach them how to respond to the aggressive attacks of secular humanists (1 Peter 3:15). This teaching should be done both at home and in church. The idea is not isolation—that never works—but education. We are instructed by Jesus Himself to live in the world but not be a part of it (John 17:14–19). To live in the world is to contend for the faith (Jude 3).

Let me add one other thought. Although we are instructed in Scripture to obey the laws of the land and to be obedient to governmental authorities (Rom. 13:1–7; 1 Peter 2:13–14), nowhere does God command us to do anything that is contrary to His higher law (Acts 5:29). If human governments violate God’s higher law, we are not only free to resist them, but we are obligated to so (Acts 4:18–20; 5:27–29).

Government is an institution created by God (Rom. 13:1b) to protect us and to punish evil doers (v. 4). When it sets itself up autonomous from God, when it begins to act as the source of truth and authority independent of and in opposition to God, it is no longer fulfilling the purpose for its creation. In this case, the state itself is in rebellion against God and must be stopped. When, for example, the state endorses and funds abortion, it is in direct violation of God’s explicit laws against murder (Exod. 20:13). We are justified to resist and to change godless human laws and to bring them into conformity with God’s higher law. Francis Schaeffer said it bluntly: “If a law is wrong, you must disobey it.”

I want to close with the words of Steve Hallman. They sum up the conclusions of this chapter:

Law and government must be based on principles outlined in the Scriptures, the Word of God rather than the word of man. Man is accountable to his Creator. The laws he makes and governments he established are to be based on higher laws deriving from his Maker.

Where has been the Christian voice as we have moved swiftly toward an almost totally secular humanistic system of law? Where was the Christian witness as humanists successfully argued a doctrine of separation of church and state which excluded Christians from meaningful participation in the state? Maybe we had accepted the role assigned to us by the secular humanists—one in which we sit as quiet, harmless, passive observers while society moves toward total hedonism. But what is at stake here is whether we will remain a country accepting the Judeo-Christian concept of right and wrong, or turn our backs on centuries of progress to embrace practical atheism. Our nation will reap what we sow.

We can base our law and justice, our determination of right and wrong, on Holy Scripture—especially on the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount—or we can base our law and justice, our determination of right and wrong, on the humanist values of our day. But we cannot have both. They are diametrically opposed to each other.

Chapter Twelve

Postmodernism: God Is Whoever

My apologetics library is not large, just under two hundred books, but it is current and varied. Out of curiosity I recently scanned these books to see how many authors referred to postmodernism. I also looked in the subject index and the table of contents of every book that I thought might mention one or more of three related concepts: postmodernism, relativism, and pluralism. What I found was not surprising.

Only twenty-two books listed at least one of these topics (relativism being the most common by a wide margin). Of these, eleven were published in the 1990s, nine in the 1980s, and two in the 1970s. Only five of the books actually included the term postmodernism in their indexes, and all of those were written in the 1990s.

A few years ago, postmodernism as a distinct apologetic issue was not included in any apologetic book. It wasn’t even included in the first draft of this book. But I’ve come to realize that it is probably the most important and timely topic that I am covering.

Why do I feel this way? Because postmodernism is the newest, most aggressive, and most urgent issue facing the church in modern times. Every Christian has come in contact with—and has been adversely affected by—this belief system.

It’s not just the church that is in jeopardy. This flourishing and persuasive belief system is launching a worldview shift of such magnitude that it is literally changing the fundamental presuppositions that have governed Western thought for three centuries. It is influencing every area of knowledge: science, education, sociology, psychology, history, law, and even entertainment and the media.

In order to set the stage for this topic, we must return briefly to secular humanism.

Secular Humanism

We saw in the previous chapter that from the fourth to the eighteenth century, Christianity was the dominant worldview in Western culture. Beginning during the Enlightenment, however, secular humanism began to exert increasing influence. Today, it has emerged as the dominant worldview in the West.

We also saw that one of the defining attributes of secular humanism is that it rests on the philosophical foundation of naturalism. Among other things, secular humanism adheres to the philosophy that human reasoning alone can discover absolute truth—everything there is to know about science, morality, and human behavior. This view is often referred to as modernism.

In terms of religion, modernism teaches that “religious beliefs are rational if and only if one has evidence on which those beliefs are based.” However, since most secular humanists believe that there is no valid evidence for the existence of God, religious belief is effectively defined out of existence. Hence, secular humanism is essentially a godless worldview.

In the past, when Christians challenged this assumption, they fought it out with secularists on a level playing field. Both sides mustered evidence to support their particular view. They applied the laws of logic, employed human reasoning, and debated the issue in books, articles, lectures, seminars, college classrooms, and other public formats.

Although Christians and secularists disagreed on what is truth, both agreed that ultimate truth existed in every area of knowledge and that it could be discovered and understood. They also agreed that truth was absolute and objective—it existed independent of people’s personal beliefs or experiences. To secular humanists, truth was learned through human reasoning. To Christians, ultimate truth was a product of divine revelation. But both Christians and secularists agreed that truth was rational, accessible, and adhered to fundamental laws of logic. Neither objected to evidence or reasoning.


In recent years a new worldview has emerged that is aggressively challenging and forcefully changing traditional secular humanism. It is a movement away from modernism because it rejects human reasoning as an invincible avenue to truth. This new approach to reality assumes that the human mind is incapable of apprehending truth in any absolute sense. Why is this? According to this view, there is no absolute truth to apprehend! And even if there was, it could not be known. Thus truth is subjective rather than objective, inaccessible by human reasoning rather than accessible.

This evolving worldview is referred to as postmodernism because it has emerged out of and moves beyond modernism. It is an entirely different way of viewing reality, and it is an increasingly major obstacle to Christian evangelism. Indeed, it is becoming a serious issue within the church. Thousands of Christians are unwittingly assimilating postmodern philosophy into their thinking, causing them to compromise ethical behavior (moral relativism), reject the uniqueness of Christianity (religious pluralism), and dismiss the Bible in favor of religious experiences (religious subjectivism).

The Danger of Postmodernism

Many Christian apologists fear that this growing movement is fast becoming the most dangerous adversary Christianity has ever faced, primarily because postmodernism endorses religious pluralism. It teaches that all religious truth-claims are equally legitimate—even when they blatantly contradiction one another. Moreover, postmodernists fiercely condemn anyone who challenges this assumption. The door to religious analysis and appraisal is tightly locked. It is simply politically incorrect for one religion to claim ultimate truth at the exclusion of all others.

I want to begin this discussion of postmodernism with a lengthy quote from Dennis McCallum’s recent book The Death of Truth. It sets the stage by describing what could happen if the present generation of Christian apologists do not respond to this aggressive and dangerous attack:

Within the months after Charles Darwin released his Origin of the Species in 1859, a revolution in thinking gripped the scientific world. Although at the time most Christians had no idea anything was happening, no one today doubts the far-reaching results of that revolution. During the decades after Darwin, the notion of a natural world with no place for God became a new, nearly unanimous understanding among intellectuals, eventually reshaping every academic discipline, as well as education, government, and even the church. Now, by the close of the twentieth century, even popular culture accepts Darwin’s theory of naturalistic evolution as settled fact.

The Christian church wasn’t ready for Darwin.… Early Christian apologists in this field often showed a lack of understanding of what natural selection was, not to mention the reasons people believed in it. Christians couldn’t respond in a convincing way to a doctrine they understood only dimly, and when we look back at some of the arguments Christians first advanced against the doctrine of naturalistic evolution, we can only grimace in embarrassment.

Most Christians today can answer evolutionists effectively, but their ability to change minds on this issue is minimal. Why? Too much time passed without a coherent, credible Christian voice to counteract Darwin’s theory. Darwinism managed to distance God from creation and the natural world—with the effect that even people who hold a dim belief that God exists regard him as irrelevant to their daily lives. We can only wonder what would have happened if some of the current sophisticated, convincing Christian arguments were at hand when Darwin first wrote.

Unfortunately, Christian leadership wasn’t ready for the intellectual challenges of the late nineteenth century, with devastating results.

Now, in the late twentieth century, we are caught up in a revolution that will likely dwarf Darwinism in its impact on every aspect of thought and culture: postmodernism. Unlike Darwinism, postmodernism isn’t a distinct set of doctrines or truth claims. It is a mood—a view of the world characterized by a deep distrust of reason, not to mention a disdain for knowledge Christians believe the Bible proves.…

Just as Darwinism wasn’t easy to understand 150 years ago, postmodernism and its impact isn’t immediately easy to grasp.

So what precipitated this revolutionary move away from the modernist view that truth is objective and attainable through reason to the postmodernist view that truth is subjective and inaccessible through reason? Theologian Alister McGrath explained the change with these words:

The rise of the movement which is now generally known as “postmodernism” throughout the Western world is a direct result of the collapse of this confidence in reason, and a more general disillusionment with the so-called “modern” world. Postmodernism is the intellectual movement which proclaims, in the first place, that the Enlightenment rested on fraudulent intellectual foundations (such as the belief in the omni-competence of human reason), and in the second, that it ushered in some of the most horrific events in human history—such as the Stalinist purges and the Nazi extermination camps.

Today, postmodernism is well-entrenched. Yet it is a relatively new philosophy—at least in terms of influencing culture. There is time to formulate and initiate an apologetics to postmodernism. We dare not wait, lest postmodern philosophy becomes as ingrained in our thinking as Darwinism.

In the following pages we will give a basic introduction to this significant worldview and offer a few suggestions on how Christian apologists may formulate a defense. I hope the discussion will also stimulate further research into this rapidly expanding and highly contagious worldview.

What Postmodernists Believe

Postmodernism promotes an entirely different worldview with entirely different presuppositions than traditional, naturalistic secular humanism (modernism). Modernists see reality as possessing universal and absolute truths. Human reasoning is the key to apprehending these truths, and it depends on the laws of logic. Hence, logical inferences are valid, legitimate, and trustworthy; truth is objective and attainable.

Postmodernists, on the other hand, see truth as wholly pluralistic and relativistic. They reject the concept of a universe where reality can be apprehended entirely through rational processes—human reasoning. There is no universal or absolute truth in any area of knowledge, including science, history, psychology, sociology, ethics, and religion.

Postmodernists believe that truth has its source in human ideas and experiences, as interpreted through individual cultures, rather than in a source outside human thoughts and feelings—such as God. They assume that contradicting beliefs can be true at the same time—as they must, if truth depends on people, and people have different opinions on what is truth.

The following chart may help you see the difference between postmodernism and modernism.


Postmodernism vs. Modernism














Truth universal

Truth non-universal


People primarily

People primarily


physical beings

social beings

Foundational Presuppositions:


Pluralism and Relativism


Why Postmodernists Believe As They Do

Postmodernists believe that people are so dynamically bound to their culture and to their social structures that reality and culture are inseparable. People are a product of what their culture makes them; cultures determine—create—people’s thoughts and attitudes. Thus, people think only in terms of what they assimilate and interpret through their culture.

For example, Americans see themselves as individualistic and self-sufficient. This is likely the result of the American frontier experience, where centuries of westward movement encouraged the development of independent thinking, cultural mobility, and the myth that all people have an equal opportunity to be successful if they don’t give up.

The reason postmodernists believe there is no objective or absolute or universal truth is because they see all truth as relative and a product of cultural beliefs. People are totally incapable of separating what they think is objectively true from their cultural bias. Thus, wrote McGrath, “All interpretations are … equally valid, or equally meaningless (depending upon your point of view).”

To a postmodernist, truth is wholly subjective. It flows from personal opinions and experiences as it passes through and is interpreted by one’s cultural worldview. Since all cultures differ, there is no single truth applicable to everyone. As apologist Jim Leffel put it, “Truth isn’t discovered, but manufactured.”

The result is that we cannot judge other cultures in terms of their social, religious, and ethical behavior because our reality is simply different from theirs. All systems of belief are equally true.

The Role of Language

One of the key presuppositions of postmodernism is that truth is tightly bound to language. Because language varies from culture to culture, so does truth. Let me explain.

Postmodernists point out that people communicate and think through language. Different cultures have words with entirely different meanings. Some culture have specific words with specific meanings that are completely absent in other cultures. For example, Eskimos may have a dozen words for ice, each with a different meaning depending on conditions. This is a result of cultural needs—living with ice and communicating icy conditions is essential for Eskimo survival.

Because people think in words, and these words vary from culture to culture, people see reality differently. This further precludes the existence of universal truths that are applicable to all cultures. In other words, “Different language systems lead to different ways of thinking [so] we lose the ability to judge the ideas of other cultures. To do so would be to impose our own language and thought patterns on their way of thinking.”

A Hidden Agenda

In spite of this relativistic and pluralistic view of human autonomy, postmodernists have a political agenda. They, too, want to effect change on society.

Most postmodernists see Western culture as repressive to minorities and other socially restricted groups. They claim that Western culture (American and European) dominates the world scene and thus exerts its power (its truths) over oppressed cultures (including subcultures within the larger Western culture—such as minorities, women, and homosexuals). The result is that Western culture promotes its privileged position in world society at the expense of the oppressed. This needs to be changed, post-modernists claim, so that all people are truly equal in terms of opportunities and freedom.

Although a worthy goal in and of itself, and one with which most Christians would agree, nevertheless many postmodernists’ goals—and certainly the methods for achieving them—are diametrically opposed to Christian principles and truths.

A good example of this is the well-known (but misunderstood) concept of politically correct speech. Contrary to what many people think, the goal of politically correct speech is not to teach sensitivity to people’s feelings. Rather, its purpose is to change society. “The Political-correctness movement isn’t just an attempt to keep from hurting people’s feelings, but an attempt to create different kinds of people by changing the cultural environment.”

According to postmodernists, since people communicate ideas through language, if you want to change society you change the way people talk. This in turn will change the way they think and behave: “Language is not neutral but a tool by which those in power or in control of the media can manipulate and construct reality.” To put it another way, words don’t allow us to apprehend truth—they change truth. Changing languages actually creates new reality: “In the end, language cannot authoritatively communicate reality ‘as it is’; rather, it fabricates what ‘really is.’ “11

The danger of the so-called politically correct movement is the sacrifice of truth in order to preserve a social-political agenda. McGrath pointed out:

To allow criteria such as “tolerance” and “openness” to be given greater weight than “truth” is, quite simply, a mark of intellectual shallowness and moral irresponsibility. The first, and most fundamental, of all questions must be: is it true? Is this worthy of belief and trust? Truth is certainly no guarantee of relevance—but no one can build his or her personal life around a lie. A belief system, however consoling and reassuring, may prove to be false in itself, or rest upon utterly spurious foundations.… It will be a sad day when a claim to be telling the truth is met with the reply that there is no truth to tell, or that telling the truth is tantamount to oppression.”

You see, some truth simply cannot be allow to pass unchallenged. If it flies in the face of universal human experience, reason, and judgment, and of what people normally recognize and condemn as unacceptable behavior, it’s not truth at all. McGrath continued:

There must be some criteria, some standards of judgment, which allow one to exclude certain viewpoints as unacceptable. Otherwise, postmodernism will be seen to be uncritical and naive, a breeding ground of the political and moral complacency which allowed the rise of the Third Reich back in the 1930s.

Postmodernism in the Future

Postmodernism is widely accepted by the pacesetters in our colleges and universities. Academicians in growing numbers are rejecting modernism and embracing postmodernism. These are the people whose thoughts and ideas eventually trickle down to the average person on the street, shaping and reshaping worldviews on religion, law, politics, morality, education, and practically everything else.

As Leffel noted, “Lest we think that postmodernists are academics or activists ‘out there’ somewhere, we need to note that today we are fast becoming a postmodern culture. Our culture widely accepts the basic tenants of postmodernism.”

Unless Christians formulate a compelling and aggressive apologetics to postmodernism, we will see major social changes far more influential and dangerous in terms of their impact on Christianity than the results of the Darwinian revolution in the nineteenth century have already been.

Summary of Postmodernism

Jim Leffel summarized the main tenants of postmodernism with these five points:

•    Reality is in the mind of the beholder. Reality is what’s real to me, and I construct my own reality in my mind.

•    People are not able to think independently because they are defined—”scripted,” molded—by their culture.

•    We cannot judge things in another culture or in another person’s life, because our reality may be different from theirs. There is no possibility of “transculture objectivity.”

•    We are moving in the direction of progress, but are arrogantly dominating nature and threatening our future.

•    Nothing is ever proven, either by science, history, or any other discipline.

So now that we understand the basics of postmodernism, how do we defend against it? Let me suggest some approaches that would work well in pointing out the flaws underlying the main tenants of postmodernism.

Reasoning Unreasonably

Leffel pointed out that “of all the questions raised by postmodern thought, the most fundamental is its critique of reason.… If postmodern skeptics are right, there can be no basis for knowledge of any kind. In postmodern culture, truth as we know it is dead.”

Postmodernists reject all objective truth: truth that exists independent of human thoughts or human experiences, and truth that is true whether one believes it or not. This foundational presupposition of postmodernism, then, is where our apologetics should begin. Must we totally reject human reasoning as an avenue to truth? No.

We saw in chapter five that human reasoning (rationalism) and human experience are not valid avenues to discovering religious truth. Christians believe that ultimate truth lies with God and is knowable primarily through divine revelation.

Nevertheless, Christians also recognize that human beings, by virtue of being created in the image of God, do possess the ability to think rationally. If we couldn’t, we would be unable to either apprehend or to comprehend divine revelation. As Leffel pointed out, the achievements of modern science and technology—sophisticated computers, powerful machines, advances in medicine—all point to “an essentially reliable correspondence between our ideas of reality and reality itself.”

Human reasoning, although not an avenue to religious truth, is valid and reliable in the realm of science, technology, and other fields of inquiry. It is by our God-given ability to reason that we can investigate, experiment, and discover universal truths that are applicable to every culture.

Postmodernists’ position on human reasoning is actually a self-defeating proposition. The only way they can deny the validity of reason is to employ reason. The postmodern claim that reason can’t lead to absolute truth is an absolute statement about truth and reasoning! As McCallum pointed out, “Postmodern preachers declare that if we find anyone claiming to know truth, that person we should ignore. By their own test they should be ignored!”

Inconsistencies Equal Untruths

One of the qualifying ingredients in any valid worldview is that people live consistently with its presuppositions. Their moral values and how they behave must be in harmony with what they believe—not contradict it. This raises yet another major flaw in postmodernism. Postmodernism promotes relativism and pluralism, but its disciples fail to live consistently with these philosophies. McGrath illustrated this:

Even the most tolerant pluralist has difficulties with that aspect of Hinduism which justifies the inequalities of Indian society by its insistence upon a fixed social order, or forcibly burning alive a widow on her late husband’s funeral pyre.

Here’s the problem, as William Watkins pointed out so clearly in his book The New Absolutes. Americans talk the talk of relativism, but walk the walk of absolutism. They expect all people to adhere to certain standards of behavior whether they want to or not. This is absolutism. People claim to be relativistic, but “what we see is the opposite of what we would rightly expect to find [if this were true]. The behavior of Americans betray their real commitments, and relativism is not one of them. We can see this in a variety of areas.”

Watkins offered this example: “After all, criminals are only living according to their code of conduct. What could be wrong with that? Nothing, if relativism is true.… In 1989 alone, 18 million lawsuits were filed in state and federal courts.… Does this sound like a people committed to the live-and-let-live attitude of relativism?”

If our society were truly relativistic, our educational system would encourage people to examine all sides of an issue, such as evolution versus creation. But it doesn’t. Teaching creation is forbidden in public schools. In a relativistic society, people would shun promoting their particular views on moral issues. Yet “homosexual advocates … write books, articles, editorials, and movie scripts to convince others of their viewpoint.” Likewise, in a relativistic world, countries would be free to deal with each other as they see fit. If this were true, “under the rule of relativism, the Nuremberg trials for Nazi war crimes could not have taken place. Neither would we be able to judge Croatians, Serbs, or Bosnians for acts of atrocity they committed against one another.”23

In short, relativism, followed to its logical conclusion, inevitably leads to moral anarchy. No one wants that. Relativism and its bedfellow pluralism are philosophies that no sane person lives with consistently. When postmodernists are forced to bring their philosophical assumptions out of their ivory tower and live with them in the real world of blood, sweat, and tears, postmodernism is clearly seen as inconsistent and damaging.

Setting the Prisoners Free

A third erroneous assumption of postmodernism is its claim that people are prisoners of culture and language. Again, McCallum has provided the proper response:

People are influenced by their culture, but examples abound of individuals who have turned against the views of their own culture, thus demonstrating a love of individual freedom.

McCallum recognized that people make major worldview shifts all the time. Every religious conversion is a change in worldview. Historically, immigrants who come to America and become American citizens set aside their former cultural worldview to embrace American culture and language. Indeed, it is postmodern thinking—the separatist attitude of preserving one’s cultural traditions in spite of their relevance—that encourages minorities and immigrants to adhere to their cultural roots at the expense of assimilating themselves into American culture.

Unethical Ethics

As in pluralism and relativism in general, postmodernism is unable to establish or to enforce ethical standards. To go a step further, if there are no moral absolutes—if all supposed “truths” are culturally relative—maintaining world-wide ethical standards is impossible. The Hitlers and Saddam Husseins of the world will have free reign.

But most of the world’s people believe that moral standards are absolute and should apply to all nations. The alternative is moral anarchy. (Because the response to postmodernism in the area of ethics is the same as the response to moral relativism, refer to chapter three for a longer discussion of this topic.)

The Problem That Won’t Go Away

The greatest challenge historically to Christianity is the problem of evil: How can an all-powerful, all-loving God tolerate evil and suffering? He must not be able to stop it, or if He can, He doesn’t want to. In either case, it proves He doesn’t exist as Christians believe.

This particular attack against Christianity is still the most frequently used by atheists to disprove the existence of God. But it is precisely here, in the reality of suffering and evil, that postmodernism as a worldview fails most miserably.

Postmodernists reject universal moral absolutes—any ethical guidelines that transcend human beings and that are applicable to all people. In terms of the problem of evil, this means three things.

First, postmodernists are unable to identify what is evil. Postmodernism teaches that evil is relative to individuals or to circumstances. But circumstances and people’s views of evil vary. Thus it’s impossible to say that anything is actually evil. In other words, if there is no absolute standard of right and wrong (i.e., God), there is no criteria by which to determine what is evil.

Second, postmodernists are unable to issue judgments against evil. Again, if there is no moral absolute outside of human capriciousness and if evil can’t be identified as evil, it’s impossible judge, condemn, or punish evil. As Miethe and Habermas observed, “In the absence of ethical absolutes … the real presence of profound suffering is not actually something that is objectively wrong. So while pain would still be real (not an illusion) it is simply a reality devoid of any ethical consequences.”

Third, postmodernists cannot offer a solution to the problem of evil. In a postmodern world, evil and suffering are reduced to either products of evolution—a natural way to weed out physically and emotionally inferior people—or simply the “personal dissatisfaction of certain aspects of reality.” In either case, postmodernism offers no solution to the problem of evil. People are condemned to live out their lives in a universe where pain and suffering can surface unexpectedly and dramatically at any moment, and there is no hope of comfort or solution—now or in the future.

The Subjective Approach

Postmodernism has a built-in safeguard against truth-testing. If all cultural (or individual) truths are accepted a priori as equally valid, there is no way to prove that what one perceives to be true may in fact be false. For example, people who insist that Christianity and Hinduism are “different paths to the same mountaintop” (i.e., God) have rejected the law of non-contradiction, and no amount of rational argumentation will change their minds. Their thinking goes along these lines:

What’s true for me is just as true as what’s true for you. So we’re both right. God is both monotheistic and pantheistic! I have no problem with that. If you do, it’s because you’re stuck in the rut of eighteenth-century rationalism and are unable to see that we create our own truths.

These individuals are unwilling to consider rational apologetic arguments. And for very good reason. Such arguments are meaningless in a pluralistic, relativistic world that denies absolute truths. In such cases our apologetic tactics will have to be subjective instead of objective. We must appeal to the heart since the mind is already made up.

Many apologists believe that evidence and rational argumentation are ineffective with postmodernists. As one author put it:

Christian apologetics in the modern world … assumed that a human being standing alone could be convinced by rational argumentation of the validity of Christian truth. It fit well with the Enlightenment assumptions about human beings and the priority of rationalism as a method of epistemology. While it may have worked … for that period of history, such an apologetic does not appear to be working for a world in which pure rationality is suspect and in which pluralism only exacerbates claims to truth.

How do we apply a subjective approach to apologetics? By engaging “our contemporaries in their own social world by speaking to their plight of angst, despair, meaninglessness and spiritual hopelessness.… Christian apologetics must address the sociological as well as the intellectual realities of our contemporary culture.”

The subjective approach to apologetics attempts to convince unbelievers that Christianity offers solutions to the very issues postmodernism can’t solve, such as the heart-wrenching problems of human suffering and evil. But rather than relying on evidence and argumentation, subjective apologists try to demonstrate the feasibility of Christianity through emotive avenues. Here are a few examples:

“Reading maketh a full man” (Francis Bacon). Christian apologists can encourage postmodernists to read Christian fiction that addresses particular social issues, such as Charles Colson’s Gideon’s Torch. Or they may suggest books that reveal Christian concepts and principles through fantasy and modern myths. C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia and J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings are contemporary examples. True-life accounts, such as Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place, show the power of Christian faith and perseverance through God’s grace.

Philosophical and moral speculation. Another subjective approach is to engage postmodernists in philosophical and moral speculation:

Why should anyone believe anything at all?

What is the solution to the problem of evil if God doesn’t exist?

Is the degradation of women as promoted in some cultures equally true as Christianity’s teaching on the equally of women?

Is the Hindu lack of compassion for human life on the lower rungs of the social ladder as true as the Christian worldview that seeks to help the poor and downtrodden?

Is perverse and harmful sexual behavior as true as God-created norms for sexual conduct?

Lifestyle evangelism. Building relationships with unbelievers is a crucial part of any witnessing, but it can be especially meaningful to postmodernists. If our lives demonstrate that Christianity offers an inner peace and contentment that postmodernism fails to produce, Christianity can be extremely appealing to people who have never been responsive to apologetic evidence.

When we become involved in people’s lives, when we reach out to share in people’s suffering, when we come alongside in times of tragedy to comfort and encourage—when we simply do what Jesus instructs us to do—we create an environment that sets the Holy Spirit free to soften people’s hearts and to open their minds to Christ.

Personal testimonies. Personal testimonies can make the objective side of our faith subjectively real. Telling postmodernists that Jesus can heal emotional wounds or deliver them from the bondage of drugs and alcohol may not illicit a response. They may not doubt such claims, but other religions say the same thing. Aren’t they equally true? But when we share our personal experiences in these areas, truth becomes more than mere propositional statements. Christianity becomes emotionally and spiritually real.

The Spiritual Side of Postmodernism

Postmodernism is not a religious movement. Nevertheless, its disciples can actually be more open to the Christian message than modernists. Whereas secular humanism is atheistic by definition, postmodernism is not “stridently antispiritual or antisupernatural, as is evidenced by the growing popularity of New Age thinking.”

Postmodernists often have an openness to spiritual truth and are actively seeking spiritual fulfillment. This is why many postmodernists endorse New Age philosophy. In fact, the New Age Movement can be considered the spiritual side of postmodernism. Both rose out of the ashes of the Christian worldview. Both share essential doctrines: the divinity of humanity (people can create their own reality), moral relativity, and a subjective approach to truth. New Age religions make postmodernism spiritually palatable.

A Final Thought

Having acknowledged the value of subjective apologetics in the postmodern world, let me close with this. Certainly the subjective approach to apologetics is of great value—and it may become increasingly so if modern culture continues along its pluralistic, relativistic path.

Nevertheless, many so-called postmodernists are open to a rational, objective approach to truth. This is because they have not fully divorced themselves from modernism and still believe in the dependability of rational thought.

What has been said should not be construed to diminish or weaken the overall thrust of this book: The traditional, rational, evidential approach to apologetics is the key apologetic tactic in confronting contemporary people. The majority of people on the street still view the world through modernist eyes. Even people who openly endorse postmodernism and argue for relativism do not live consistently with this philosophy—especially when it conflicts with their self-interests.

Although religious pluralism and moral relativism are quickly becoming ingrained in modern culture, the majority of people still think in terms of absolutes and accept the reality of logic and reason. These people need their intellectual obstacles to faith removed.

Chapter Thirteen

“Death May Be Worse than Life”

The saying goes that there are two absolutes in life: death and taxes. I’m not so sure about the second one—some people have a talent for out-maneuvering the IRS—but there’s no doubt about the first: No one gets out of this life alive. As philosopher William James put it, “Old age has the last word.”

In saying this, James wasn’t just making a lighthearted comment on the inevitability of death. He wanted his readers to see that eventually we all face the fear, reality, and drama of ultimate death. He continued with these sobering words:

The purely naturalistic look at life, however enthusiastically it may begin, is sure to end in sadness.… The old man, sick with an insidious internal disease, may laugh and quaff his wine at first as well as ever, but he knows his fate now, for the doctors have revealed it; and the knowledge knocks the satisfaction out of all these functions. They are partners of death and the worm is their brother, and they turn to a mere flatness.

Some full-blooded atheists are so committed to naturalism that they deny any form of life after death. I suspect they are few and far between. Even those who cling to secular humanism as a worldview generally believe in some kind of deity and draw the line at absolute atheism. They call themselves agnostics, skeptics, or whatever, but in the deepest recesses of their hearts, they believe (or at least hope) that they will somehow outfox the Grim Reaper by moving into another dimension of conscious existence after death.

The late Edward John Carnell said it well:

Something inside cries out against the conclusion that a purpose-seeking man has been hatched by a purposeless universe. The urge may be ill founded; it may have to be disqualified. Yet, there it is: Our heart tells us that there are destinies at stake in this life. We cannot eradicate this voice. Wisdom dictates, therefore, that before one decides whether or not this witness is trustworthy, a thorough investigation be conducted; lest through either oversight or default an everlasting loss in the soul be sustained.

This innate yearning for the transcendent is exposed even in the lives of some of the most notorious atheists. Friedrich Nietzsche “found his atheism unbearable. Sartre, too, complained of the seeming unlivability of his position, declaring that ‘atheism is a cruel and long-range affair.’ ”

The traditional way to seek an answer to the question, “What happens to me after death?” has been through religion, particularly here in the West through the Christian religion. However, Western culture is now dominated by a secular worldview, and atheistic naturalism is the favored source of ultimate truth. Many people no longer accept Christianity as an avenue to truth and instead seek answers to life’s great mysteries through science or nontraditional religions such as the cults and the New Age Movement.

But out of the myriad of religions and secular worldviews, only one can actually reflect truth. People who claim that they are being open-minded by accepting all religions as gateways to truth are actually being empty-headed. It’s logically impossible for religious worldviews that contradict to both be right. And when we reject logic, it doesn’t make everything true; it makes nothing true. God either exists or He doesn’t exist. He is either the God of Christianity or some other God, but He can’t be two different kinds of Gods at the same time. Logic, experience, and science don’t operate in contradiction and neither can religion. If we are to make heads-or-tails out of reality and if religious truth is to be known at all, we must adhere to the rudimentary rules of logic that govern all other areas of knowledge.

We have demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that only Christianity is internally and externally consistent, logical in its approach to reality, and in harmony with human experience as universally understood and lived out. Moreover, only the Christian worldview is confirmed by applying the scientific method to discovering truth; that is, only Christianity is verified to the highest level of certainty possible by historical, legal, scientific, and rational evidence.

In these last pages, I want to review a couple points and further emphasize the urgency of considering “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).

Christianity Is Objectively True

Christianity is the only religion that is grounded on historical facts—facts that can be checked out. It alone among the world’s religions can verify its truth-claims with concrete, objective, nonbiblical evidence. All other religions lack the precise and explicit historical, scientific, legal, rational, textual, archaeological, and prophetic testimonies that verify Christian truth-claims.

For example, how do we know Jesus Christ is God? Because He demonstrated it through His resurrection, and His resurrection is confirmed by historical evidence (Rom. 1:4). Jesus’ birth, life, ministry, death, and post-resurrection appearances were observed by eyewitnesses and recorded in the Bible. Can we trust the Bible? We certainly can. By all the canons of acceptable historical investigation, its reliability and authenticity have been confirmed. No other religious document, ancient or modern, comes close to the Bible’s verifiability.

But there are other ways to approach the objective reality of the Christian worldview. The Bible teaches that God created us for a purpose: to love us, to have a relationship with us, and for us to love, worship, and obey Him in return. God also presented us with a plan of salvation through Jesus Christ.

If all this is true and if God wants us to understand it, we can expect Him to reveal this information in a way that is easily understood by everyone. This means that revelation would be clear. It would not be esoteric or violate the laws of logic. We would not have to rely on priests or gurus or spirit guides to interpret it. Revelation would be complete and final. It would flow through prophets who didn’t make mistakes—all their prophecies would come to pass exactly as described. This revelation would be recorded so that we would have an inerrant written record available to all generations of believers. This would allow it to be the absolute and authoritative standard from which all truth could be measured. This record would contain no inaccuracies or contradictions with regard to historical, scientific, geographical, cultural, or other information. In fact, we would expect these facts to be verified by evidence that could be tested.

I have just described Christian revelation.

Now, compare this with other religions. To begin with, many counterfeit revelations are esoteric and require a priest, guru, or prophet to interpret them. The ordinary believer is set apart from the priestly class. This should be expected if so-called revelation comes from humans rather than God. Non-Christian religions that tout prophecy, such as Mormonism and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, have a long list of unfilled and inaccurate prophecies. Sacred writings in other religions are full of fanciful tales and historical and scientific inaccuracies. They are fraught with additions and deletions made as religious leaders sought to accommodate their teachings to changing values and goals. Finally all non-Christian religious books are unsupported by objective, verifiable evidence. They can’t be checked out for truthfulness.

Which revelation—Christian or non-Christian—is objectively true? The answer is obvious.

The Christian worldview is also objectively true because it confirms reality as we understand it and live it out. Take, for example, the undeniable presence of sin and evil. Many Eastern religions and the New Age claim that people are innately divine, naturally good, and that evil and human suffering are illusions. Eventually, they say, good will prevail and heaven on earth will arrive.

The Bible, on the other hand, teaches that evil and the consequences of evil are real. People sin regardless of how hard they try not to. This fact is self-evident. All societies have laws to curb people’s natural tendency to put self first. Jealousy, lying, revenge, bitterness, hate, and malice are inescapable human traits present to some degree in everyone.

Centuries of effort have failed to curb humanities proclivity to sin. The twentieth century has experienced as much, if not more, human suffering, disease, famine, major war, and threat of war, as any other time in history. Modern society is marked by the disintegration of the family, moral depravity, violent crimes, political corruption, self-centeredness, greed, and pride.

Which view of reality—Christian or New Age—is in harmony with human nature and the world as we observe it? In Geisler’s words, “As man comes to know more about the true nature of reality, he discovers that the view of reality portrayed in biblical theism is remarkably similar to the nature of reality as observed.”

What can we conclude from all this with regard to the objective authenticity of the Christian worldview? Just this. If Christian truth-claims can be demonstrated to be factual in every area in which they can be checked out—including its analysis and description of human nature and the human condition—then we can logically and safely conclude that its spiritual truth-claims—and its answers to life’s problems—are equally true. The Christian religion is God’s chosen medium of revelation and the Bible its inerrant record.

Christianity Is Subjectively True

Christianity is subjectively true in three broad ways. First, it promises eternal life (1 John 5:11–13). Of course, if Christianity is true, then it is only through Jesus Christ that eternal life in heaven is attained.

Second, Christianity offers peace of mind by answering life’s most perplexing questions in a relevant and believable way that corresponds to reality. It gives answers to precisely the same questions that the non-Christian world cannot answer: Who am I? Where did I come from? Why am I here? What happens to me when I die?

These questions are unanswerable by secular philosophies such as naturalism and humanism because they involve issues those worldviews don’t address. Nor are they answerable by non-Christian religions because those religions do not have religious truth—they are not divine revelation. These questions can be answered only by an all-powerful, all-wise God who knows our deepest needs because He is our creator.

Finally Christianity is subjectively true because it meets human needs at their deepest level by providing something no other religion or secular worldview can provide. Being a Christian is not always easy, and God never promised that our pilgrimage though this life would be pain free. Nevertheless, Jesus takes our old sinful nature, our broken and beaten self, and replaces it with a new, spirit-filled nature that is empowered by God to resist sin and to live in obedience to Him (Rom. 6:6–7; 2 Tim. 1:7).

Jesus makes changes in the inner person. While other religions have rules and regulations to follow, Christianity has a risen Savior who promises a born-again life if we trust in Him (John 3:3). Jesus assures us that He “came that [we] might have life, and might have it abundantly” (John 10:10; see Phil. 4:5–7, 19).

Twenty centuries have passed since the resurrection of Jesus Christ. During that time, countless millions of men, women, and children have had dramatic, life-changing encounters with the risen Lord. Atheists and skeptics have become believers, marriages have been restored, life-controlling drug and alcohol addictions have been cured, damaged emotions have been healed, and broken relationships mended. As one author described it: “Christian faith displaces irrationality with meaning, anxiety with courage, hate with love, guilt with forgiveness, alienation with fellowship, impotence with dynamic, despair with hope, and pride with humility. If truth about reality includes truth about man’s psychological well-being, then Christianity is true.”

This is powerful subjective testimony to the reality of Christianity.

Truth or Consequences

Christian apologist Edward John Carnell suggested that “death may be worse than life.” If Christianity is God’s only avenue of divine revelation, if it is only through Jesus Christ that we receive eternal life in heaven, then it follows that rejecting Christianity results in eternal separation from God outside of heaven. This conclusion is not a matter of what we believe or disbelieve, understand or don’t understand, or whether the statement is arrogant and exclusive or humble and compelling. Christians are making a truth-claim that is a matter of fact, not opinion. If the claim is true, common sense dictates that all other religious and secular worldviews must point away from truth.

If you are an unbeliever, I hope this book has challenged you to compare your existing religious or secular worldview with Christianity. I have tried to demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that only Christianity can sustain its truth-claims by rational, objective evidence.

People constantly make excuses for not opening their hearts and minds to Christ: I don’t want to be bothered by God right now—maybe later. I’m basically a good person; God will forgive me of my small sins and take me into heaven. All religions lead to God, so what difference does it make what I choose to believe?

I have repeatedly pointed out that truth is not dictated by personal opinion. Scripture teaches that we are accountable for what we do with the information about God we have (Luke 12:47–48; John 15:22; 2 Peter 2:21). Lame excuses will be seen in their true colors when we stand before Almighty God to give account of ourselves (Rev. 20:11–12; cf. Matt. 7:21–23).

The Bible clearly teaches that God does not want anyone to suffer eternal damnation (1 Tim. 2:4; 1 Peter 3:9). Yet it also teaches that people can reject God’s offer of salvation only so long. We can reach a point when we step over the line, where we are alive physically but dead spiritually. Just as we can build callouses on our hands so that we no longer feel tenderness when using a pick and shovel, so we can form callouses around our hearts so that we no longer feel God’s tender call. When we reach this point, there is virtually no hope of salvation.

This is a hard saying, but it’s true. We can harden ourselves to God’s gift of salvation to the point where we are unable to respond. In 2 Chronicles 36, King Zedekiah and the priests “continually mocked the messages of God, despised His words and scoffed at His prophets, until the wrath of the Lord arose against His people, until there was no remedy” (v. 16). In their rebellion, in their rejection of God, the king and the priests had reached a point of no return (cf. Jer. 11:11; 14:11–12; 15:1–2). We can do the same thing in our own rebellion against God.

Think about this a moment. Can you imagine anything worse than being eternally separated from God? Imagine an eternity of suffering and rejection away from the love and grace and joy and bliss of heaven. What tragedy is worse than rejecting forever the opportunity to live in a pain-free, tear-free environment where all past mistakes and sins are forgiven (Rev. 21:1–5)?

It’s important that we realize that God doesn’t “send” anyone to hell. We choose hell over heaven by willfully rejecting God’s offer of salvation through Jesus Christ. Since Jesus is one in essence with God the Father, part of the triune Godhead, rejecting the Son is tantamount to rejecting the Father—a willful rejection of Jesus is the same thing as a willful rejection of God. Such an act results in eternal separation from God. Thus people enter a Christless eternity by slapping away God’s extended hand of forgiveness, love, and fellowship.

In Ephesians 4:17–19 (niv), the apostle Paul wrote:

So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles [unbelievers] do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. [emphasis mine]

Notice that the ignorance in them is not a lack of information about God, but a volitional hardening of their hearts against God.

Romans 1:18 helps to clarify this: “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness” (emphasis mine). We can’t suppress truth unless we possess it or have been offered it.

What are the consequences of suppressing God’s truth? The text in Romans continues: “Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind.… Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death” (vv. 28, 32, emphasis mine).

People reach a point where no amount of evidence can penetrate their hardened shell of disbelief. As Jesus Himself said in the story of Lazarus, “If [people] do not listen to Moses and the Prophets [i.e., the testimony of Scripture], they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31). Isn’t this what Jesus did to prove that He is Lord and Savior, the holy Son of God (Rom. 1:4)? When such powerful evidence is continually rejected, as the apostle Peter said, the Lord “hold[s] the unrighteous for the day of judgment” (2 Peter 2:9).

Beware of Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing

Many unbelievers think that they have attained religious truth in spite of rejecting Jesus. But again, believing in something doesn’t automatically make it true. Satan perpetuates just such a deception. We are warned in Scripture that “many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). These counterfeit religious leaders can sound genuine and appear to possess great spiritual knowledge, even to the point that they can “show great signs and wonders” (Matt. 24:24). But Paul warned us that “even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:14, also see 2 Cor. 4:4) and cautioned us to “see to it that no one takes [us] captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ” (Col. 2:8).

How do we discern the false prophet from the genuine? God provides a simple test: He “who denies that Jesus is the Christ [the divine Messiah, fully God and fully man].… is the antichrist [because] he denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also” (1 John 2:22–23). John continued: “This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist” (4:2–3).

Without exception, every religion in the world except Christianity rejects the biblical revelation that Jesus is the incarnate Son of God—fully God and fully human, yet one in essence with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

We are further cautioned by the apostle Paul to reject any concept of Jesus that is not taught by the apostles or any spirit not from Christ or any gospel different than Scripture (2 Cor. 11:4; 13–15). Paul writes elsewhere that, “even though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:8). In short, we are to reject as demonic any counterfeit concept of Jesus or any teaching about Him that is contrary to Scripture.

The Challenge

Christianity is truth; it’s reality. Yet many people won’t investigate it. Why? Most unbelievers do not understand what Christianity is about. They hear that it’s exclusive and narrow-minded—as if this somehow invalidates truth. But whether or not Christianity is exclusive and narrow-minded has nothing to do with whether or not it’s true. The issue is truth.

In a sense, Christians are exclusive and narrow-minded. Can you see why? Christians possess the truth, and they want to share this good news with everyone. Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). If God sets such a standard, is it exclusive and narrow-minded to condemn other worldviews and to try to get people to turn their lives over to Jesus Christ? Indeed, it would be unjust to do otherwise.

The human race is clearly in rebellion against God. The apostle Paul recorded in Scripture nearly two thousand years ago what to expect as the final chapter of life on earth comes to a close. Judge for yourself if this is not an apt description of modern society living under the umbrellas of secular humanism and postmodernism:

But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God—having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with them.… For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. (2 Tim. 3:1–5; 4:3–4, niv)

It is precisely because Christianity so accurately describes and understands the human condition that it can prescribe the medicine needed for a cure. This “medicine” is Jesus Christ.

You see, Christianity is not a religion, not in the sense of people seeking God through rituals, meditations, incantations, and good works. Rather Christianity is a relationship. It is a relationship of love with God made possible because Jesus Christ died on the cross to be the Savior of the world (1 John 2:2). Salvation is a free gift from God (Eph. 2:8–9). Our only responsibility is to accept it on God’s terms.

If Jesus is who He claims to be and who His disciples say He is—God incarnate, the Savior of the world—this is not merely an academic matter. It is not a question of intellectual choice or preference. Rather the decision to receive or reject Jesus is the most important decision in the world. It’s literally a matter of life and death.

If you are an unbeliever, won’t you honestly investigate Christianity? Eternity is forever. Why take a chance? Check out the facts. Pray to God that He will open your heart and mind to the truth of Jesus Christ. A new and exciting life waits to be discovered. As Jesus said, “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).

Published: February 4, 2015, 11:03 | Comments Off on Christianity on the Offense – presented by ArchBishop Uwe AE. Rosenkranz
Category: ArchBishop, bibleresearch, ROSARY 4 z Bishop

Slavery in Text and Interpretation

Allen Dwight Callahan, et al., eds.

Copyright © 1998 [2001] by Society of Biblical Literature.

Published in Atlanta, GA.


Contributors to This Issue

Introduction: The Slavery of New Testament Studies

Allen Dwight Callahan

Richard A. Horsley

Abraham Smith

Part I: “Filled with Bitterness”

The Slave Systems of Classical Antiquity and Their Reluctant Recognition by Modern Scholars

Richard A. Horsley

Servants of God(s) and Servants of Kings in Israel and the Ancient Near East

Dexter E. Callender, Jr.

˓Ebed/doulos: Terms and Social Status in the Meeting of Hebrew Biblical and Hellenistic Roman Culture

Benjamin G. Wright, III

The Depiction of Slavery in the Ancient Novel

Lawrence M. Wills

Slave Resistance in Classical Antiquity

Allen Dwight Callahan

Paul and Slavery: A Critical Alternative to Recent Readings

Richard A. Horsley

Part II: “The Darkest Days of the World”

“Somebody Done Hoodoo’D the Hoodoo Man”: Language, Power, Resistance, and the Effective History of Pauline Texts in American Slavery

Clarice J. Martin

“Brother Saul”: An Ambivalent Witness to Freedom

Allen Dwight Callahan

Putting “Paul” Back Together Again: William Wells Brown’s Clotel And Black Abolitionist Approaches to Paul

Abraham Smith

Paul, Slavery and Freedom: Personal and Socio-Historical Reflections

Orlando Patterson


Reading Our Heritage: A Response

Antoinette Clark Wire

Paul and Slavery: A Response

Stanley K. Stowers

Contributors to This Issue

Allen Callahan

Harvard University 45 Francis Ave.

Cambridge, MA 02138

Dexter E. Callender, Jr.

Department of Religious Studies

University of Miami

P.O. Box 248264

Coral Gables, FL 33124–4672

Richard A. Horsley

University of Massachusetts, Boston

19 Park Lane

Jamaica Plain, MA 02130

Clarice Martin

Philosophy and Religion Department

Colgate University

103 Hascall Hall

13 Oak Drive

Hamilton, NY 13346

Orlando Patterson

Department of Social Studies

Harvard University

William James Hall

33 Kirkland St.

Cambridge, MA 02138

Abraham Smith

Andover Newton Theological School

210 Herrick Rd.

Newton Centre, MA 02459

Stanley K. Stowers

Department of Religious Studies

Brown University

Box 1927

Providence, RI 02912

Lawrence M. Wills

Episcopal Divinity School

12 Fairview Ave.

Cambridge, MA 02138

Antoinette C. Wire

San Francisco Theological Seminary

2617 Le Conte

Berkeley, CA 94709

Benjamin G. Wright, III

Department of Religious Studies

Lehigh University

Maginnes Hall

9 W Packer Ave.

Bethlehem, PA 18015

Introduction: The Slavery of New Testament Studies

Allen Dwight Callahan

Harvard University

Richard A. Horsley

University of Massachusetts Boston

Abraham Smith

Andover Newton Theological School

It was slavery that first made possible the division of labor between agriculture and industry on a considerable scale.… Without slavery, no Greek state, no Greek art and science; without slavery, no Roman Empire. Without Hellenism and the Roman Empire as the base, also no modern Europe.…

—Friedrich Engels

Them days was hell without fire.

—Former American slave

Slavery is a species of social murder. It reduces human life to a travesty of itself, sacrifices human beings on the altar of violent desire. And slavery teaches us what freedom really is. We have never known freedom without it. The paradigmatic magnalium Dei in the Bible is the liberation of slaves. The rupture of the Egyptian slave regime by a rag-tag Hebrew underclass, that ancient huddled mass yearning to be free, was the beginning of freedom. The freedom of that mixed multitude was the beginning of peoplehood. And the interdictions delivered to this delivered people, the revelation of the Law at Sinai, the beginning of an alternative political-economic-religious order, inclusive of human rights. Freedom, peoplehood, human rights: all defined by the previous experience of slavery.

In a critically acclaimed comparative historical study published in 1982, Orlando Patterson defined slavery as the permanent, violent domination of natally alienated and generally dishonored persons (Patterson: 13). Slavery is the exercise of a malevolent alien will against a person in a position of humiliation to the exclusion of all other claims and relations. The slave is a walking social atrocity living in the shadow of another’s will without respect and without choice in any respect. Patterson was broadening the standard understanding of slavery. He insisted that the heinous human relation of slavery could not be reduced to “the simple reality” of property, as in M. I. Finley’s earlier attempt to place the study of ancient Greek and Roman slavery on a more adequate footing. Patterson argued that slavery must be understood as a relation of persons, not property. It is the unique relation between the master and the slave that distinguishes slavery from other forms of compulsory, degraded labor.

What … are the real differences between slaves and non-slaves who are nonetheless salable even against their will? The first difference is the relative power of the parties concerned and the origins of their relationship. The proprietor’s power is limited by the fact that nonslaves always possess some claims and powers themselves vis-à-vis their proprietor. This power has its source not only in central authorities (where they exist) but in a person’s claims on other individuals … the slavemaster’s power over his slave was total. Furthermore with nonslaves, the proprietor’s powers, however great, were usually confined to a specific range of activities; with slaves, the master had power over all aspects of the slave’s life. (Patterson: 26)

In ancient Greece and Rome, as in the United States, the property relation of slavery was a relation between persons. One person, the master, possessed absolute power over the other, the slave. This power alienated the slave from his own will. This absolute power also alienated the slave from any semblance of dignity. Thus, we must recognize the perennial dishonor of the slave if we are to read rightly the stories of life in bondage under the Roman empire.

Before and after Patterson’s study, New Testament studies depended on the very different picture of Greek and Roman slavery constructed by a classics scholarship enamored of classical humanism. Before Patterson’s study appeared, New Testament scholars followed classics scholars in arguing that the slavery of antiquity was somehow better, more humane, than the institution in its modern forms. In contrast with how inhuman slavery is depicted in modern terms, slavery in the ancient world was characterized by “a somewhat loftier humaneness” (Stuhlmacher). Yet ancient Greek and Roman slavery, like modern slavery in the United States, applied the sanction of law and custom to kidnapping, rape, torture, and murder. The slave-holding ancient elite agreed with all master classes in all slave regimes that the use of the ruthless physical violence of torture, along with the psychological violence of terror, was more than a prerogative of dominical power. “There is no known slaveholding society where the whip was not considered an indispensable instrument” (Patterson: 4). Masters could and did crucify their slaves, and the excruciating death of crucifixion was recognized as capital punishment especially suited for their dishonored status (see Hengel: 51–63).

Even though Patterson’s comparative historical study received awards in fields such as sociology and political science soon after its publication, New Testament studies of slavery either ignored it (Petersen; Bartchy, 1992; Martin) or attempted to blunt its implications (Harrill; Combes). Scholarly assumptions and practices in the field continue to construct slavery so that its natal alienation and brutality are so obscured as to be invisible. (References and citations in the following discussion are intended as illustrations of the New Testament field, not as criticisms of particular scholars; the latter are working on the basis of standard assumptions in the field, mostly derived from older classics scholarship.)

In an apparent return to modern humanism’s justification of the ancient Greeks and Romans we are counseled not to make moral judgments.

We must avoid a kind of ethnocentrism that does not recognize the diversity of forms, attitudes, and circumstances surrounding human chattel bondage in ancient and modern times. It is both methodologically anachronistic and intellectually inappropriate to hold ancient people to modern standards of morality, although the modern person can and should reject certain features of ancient morality, including slavery. (Harrill)

But terror, mutilation, sadism, unchecked perversity and homicidal rage, the “circumstances surrounding chattel bondage,” are no less reprehensible because they took place in antiquity. Men were castrated and humiliated, women raped and prostituted, children molested and exploited. As Patterson has shown, these execrations are perpetrated under slavery in all ages. Ancient Greek and Roman social critics saw these as reprehensible and did not wait for modern liberal sensibilities to denounce the rampant sexual exploitation of slaves: Musonius Rufus (12), Seneca (Epist. 47.7), Dio Chrysostom (1.37), Justin Martyr (First Apology 27), Clement of Alexandria (Paed.

New Testament scholarship that gives short shrift to Patterson’s insights, however, does so to its own peril. Failure to recognize the perennial dishonor of the slave leads to misreading of evidence such as Greco-Roman romances. “Even with their upper-class prejudices, however, they [the Greco-Roman romances] provide bits of social history” (Martin: 35). The plot structure of romances supposedly “appropriates and abets the popular theme of the successful slave. In most cases, the hero or heroine is of noble stock and becomes a slave in a tragic twist of fate or divine anger” (Martin: 35). But the “popular theme” in these romances is precisely that the hero or heroine is not a slave at all, but someone noble. The “plot structure” thus underscores the assumption that nobility and slavery are antithetical, that enslavement is a misfortune and an affront to the freeborn, and that slaves, as such, are not successful unless and until they are no longer slaves. Supposedly “Lucian of Samosata offers many insights into how he and other ancients from the propertied classes understood slavery in their society.… In his Fugitivi, Lucian brings a comical outlook to the plight of slave runaways” (Harrill: 29). But these unhappy protagonists are the characters of comedy. Their misfortunes are in no way tragic nor, dramatically, can they be. Tragedy, as Chaucer succinctly defined it, is the story of the man who “falls from high degree to misery.” Tragedy is the preserve of nobility. We may weep with kings, but we may only laugh at slaves because, as Patterson has shown, they are “quintessentially … without honor” (96).

The failure to acknowledge the quintessential dishonor of slaves and all those with a servile past also leads to a misreading of the humor of Petronius’ Satyricon in its mercilessly ridiculous depiction of the arriviste freedman Trimalchio.

Later in the supper, after Trimalchio is quite drunk, he proudly tells his story himself. In his eyes, his low beginnings only emphasize his virtues, sound sense (corcillum), and business acumen … by which he rose to wealth. He came from Asia as a slave boy. For fourteen years he was his master’s sexual pet and entertained his mistress as well. He gained power in the household—by the will of the gods, naturally. He pursued business, overcame hardships, inherited his own master’s wealth, and became a powerful and immensely wealthy man in his own right: a first century rags-to-riches success story and all thanks to a well-connected and well-used slavery. Or, as Trimalchio says, “Who was a frog is now a king.” (Martin: 36–37)

The point of Petronius’ satire, however, is that Trimalchio, for all his newfound wealth and opulence, is nevertheless still a “frog.” Wine is required to loosen the freedman’s tongue and allow his lips the history of his “success” that he seeks to repress by his ostentation. And though Trimalchio’s wall paintings depict his humble origins at the auction block, it remains for Trimalchio himself to inform his guests of the salacious details of his early life as the toyboy of his former master and mistress. Petronius purchases our laughter at the expense of Trimalchio’s honor. Indeed this is Petronius’ point and the comfort of all nobility discomforted by the precipitous rise of the parvenu freedmen: they may achieve wealth and influence, but they can never acquire honor.

In New Testament scholarship, on the other hand, Trimalchio is the comic figure of the slave as the Roman imperial version of Horatio Alger. Slavery, properly negotiated, is a way of moving up the rungs of imperial society and escaping the poverty and degradation of those who fail to exploit an exploitative system to their own advantage.

In Roman society, slaves occupied positions not simply as slaves, but as slaves within particular households, which we might imagine as different ladders. Different households (ladders) themselves had different statuses … slaves did not seem to desire manumission simply because it brought individual liberty or because slavery was perceived unambiguously as an evil but because manumission was a step higher on the slave’s particular social ladder. It is likely, however, that many slaves of Caesar would rather have remained slaves of Caesar than become freedpersons of some nobody. (Martin: 67).

We have no evidence—anecdotal, epigraphic, literary—that slaves desired to improve their situation by “trading up” to a master of higher status. There was no “social ladder” in Roman imperial society. Between the two classes of the Empire, the wealthy honestiores and the impoverished humiliores lay not a ladder but a chasm. Non-elites constituted roughly 99% of the imperial population. For this latter class, the overwhelming mass of all pre-industrial societies, scarcity was the rule. There was no mid-range economic group within the Empire of any importance, for the structure of the economy simply did not allow it (Meggitt: 49). The imperial Roman economy had no significant intermediate registers between the wealthy and the wretched. Due to the absence of market mechanisms, there was no autonomous or semi-autonomous mercantile class that could amass wealth by its own initiative. Profit-making was in the hands of the elites and effected by their exclusive use of “political capital.” “Upward mobility” is a myth of modern capitalism; wealthy merchants of the Empire cannot be read as ancient Horatio Algers. Indeed the captains of commerce—managers of shops, overseers of absentee estates, business agents, ship captains and merchants marine—were often slaves because this occasionally lucrative but socially and economically marginal activity was appropriate to their socially marginal status.

When slaves of antiquity lamented their lot they did not do so with reference to the social status of their masters. The extant testimonies express aversion to enslavement as such without qualification. We have no indication that slaves had a preference for well-to-do masters. Nor is there any evidence that the lot of the slaves of the wealthy was any better than that of slaves owned by masters of modest means. Artisans, soldiers, peasants, even other slaves owned slaves (Meggitt: 130–31), but there is no suggestion anywhere that these slaves rued their servile lot due to the humble estate of their masters. Our sources suggest that the wealth of Roman elites might be exceeded only by their cruelty toward their slaves. No less than the emperor Augustus prevented the nobleman Vedius Pollio from throwing his slave into a pool of man-eating lampreys (Seneca, De ira 3.40.2; De clementia 1.18.2; Dio Chrysostom, 54.23.1–4). It is the slave of the wealthy, well-born Roman prefect Pedanius Secundus who in 61 CE rose up and murdered him (Tacitus, Annales 14.42.1), and it was Roman elites who were slaughtered by their slaves during the political instability of 70 CE (Tacitus, Annales 4.1).

More important and more obvious, however, is the brute fact that elective “upward mobility” was impossible for slaves precisely because slavery meant by definition that the slave had no control whatsoever over the ownership and disposition of his person. The claim that “many slaves of Caesar would rather have remained slaves of Caesar than become freedpersons of some nobody” is inconsequential because what slaves would “rather” do was inconsequential. Slaves have no preferences, no predilections, and to speak of them as exercising prerogatives is to profoundly misunderstand the elementary realities of slavery.

Patterson has explained the function of servile subordinates in the imperial household through the analysis of what he has called “palatine slavery” (Patterson: 14; see 302–306), the servitude of powerful elite registers in imperial and royal administrations. These slaves, though wielding great power and exercising wide-ranging prerogatives on behalf of their masters, were serviceable precisely because they were slaves, mere tools of the sovereign with no will of their own. They could be compelled to go where the emperor needed them; cheap, flexible, indeed disposable. Patterson reminds us that their performance and compliance was also readily forthcoming because “They could literally be whipped into shape” (Patterson: 303). The true precariousness of the power of imperial slaves is clear from their fate attending a change of regime. Those most powerful slaves in the previous administration were always marked for destruction: Vespasian crucified Claudius’ favorite Asiaticus, and Icelus, Galba’s chief executive, was crucified in turn by Otho. (Patterson: 307). “If this was power,” writes Patterson, “then we had better recognize it as a very peculiar and perverse form of power indeed and specify its limitations: that its source was wholly influential; that it was completely noninstitutional in origin, practice, and termination; that it had no authority whatsoever; and that it required natal alienation and dishonor” (307).

Under Roman hegemony, slavery was not salvation. Nor was manumission mercy. Roman law suggested that an adult male slave was to be manumitted at age 30 (Bartchy, 1973). The legal evidence, however, shows not that the slave must be manumitted at age thirty, but rather that he should not be manumitted before his thirtieth birthday—not a prerogative but a prohibition with a view to constraining manumission and not liberalizing it. In other words, this piece of legislation was negative in intent and effect: masters were not being ordered to free their slaves but rather not to free them until their life-expectancy had virtually run out. Augustus, the ultimate sponsor of the law, thought that Romans were already too freewheeling in the manumission of their slaves, and wanted to stem the glut of Roman freedmen. Nor did this prerogative of manumission bode well for the slave. Freedman status was accompanied by its own onerous exactions. As a matter of course masters exchanged grants of freedom for money and obligations to future services or operae. A patron could inherit one half of his freedman’s estate (Gaius, Institutes 3.41, in Jones: 16), and substitute his freedman for himself as a debtor to his creditors (Digest, Ulpian, citing Cassius, in Jones: 22). All these and other prerogatives of the patron were in effect in perpetuity, an irksome reminder of the freedman’s servile past.

But perhaps the greatest liability of manumission was inevitable destitution in advanced years. The life expectancy of a male from birth was about thirty years (Meggitt: 67, n. 157). Thus the manumitted slave, perhaps pur chased as a child or even born in servitude, was well past his prime at the age of manumission. He would be forced to struggle not to spend his declining years in penury. Surely the shrewder slave owner was more than happy to dispense with the slave, the ultimate dispensable “tool,” after having obtained from him the best years of his life. Those masters who did not exercise this option were faced with the prospect of supporting slaves in their service past their optimal laboring years. An aging philosopher pathetically describes the situation.

… after garnering all that was most profitable in you, after consuming the most fruitful years of your life and the greatest vigour of your body, after reducing you to a thing of rags and tatters, he [the master] is looking about for a rubbish heap on which to cast you aside unceremoniously, and for another man to engage who can stand the work. (Lucian, De Mercede Conductis, 39)

The slave could become a slave and remain a slave against his will. The master could even force a slave to be free against his will. Even as slavery defines freedom antithetically, it degrades freedom systemically.

Neither ancient nor medieval authors show the interest that has served as impetus for the deluge of modern treatments that has flowed unabated since the latter half of the nineteenth century concerning the question of Paul’s witness on the issue of slavery. For until the modern period, thinkers faced with slave regimes throughout the history of the Western intellectual tradition tacitly agree with Patterson that “there … [was] … nothing … peculiar about the institution of slavery” (vii). Aristotle’s insight, if we may call it that, that the slave was property with a soul (Politics 1253b19), was analysis enought to last the West two millennia. Virtually no one in antiquity made substantive comment on the legitimacy of the institution itself. As Christian exceptions we may cite Augustine, from whose silence all thralldom would have benefited; he has the dubious distinction of being the first in Christendom to propose that slavery is divinely ordained of God and that perpetual bondage has apostolic sanction (Quaest. in Heptat. 11.77).

Yet there is ample evidence that at least some legatees of the heritage of ancient Israel were less than sanguine about slavery. Jubilees 11 attributes the origin of slavery to demons. According to Philo the Therapeutae disavowed slave-holding. Josephus tells us the same of the Essenes. Qumran legislation had no place for slavery. In Rev 18:4 John of Patmos condemns Babylon for the crime of slave-trading as the most egregious of the city’s iniquities. References to the purchase of slaves in 1 Cor 7:23, 1 Clem. 55.2, and Ignatius’ letter to Polycarp (4.3) suggests the practice of Christian corporate manumission (Callahan). Christians used their collective financial resources to buy freedom for their enslaved brethren. Some early Christians had serious reservations about slavery in all its quotidian ignominy, and were willing to put their money where their morals were. By their actions they called into question the norm of violence, dishonor, and alienation that made slavery in their time and for all time what it really was.

The essays in this volume were generated in an attempt to return to Patterson’s insights and to broaden the discussion on slavery and the New Testament. The project originated in a conversation between a graduate student and a visiting professor nearly ten years ago. Both were surprised to find that New Testament scholars treating the issue of Paul and slavery were still depending primarily on older classics scholarship that, in its touting of classical humanism, downplayed the severity of ancient Greek and Roman slavery. The work of M.I. Finley appeared in bibliographies, but did not affect the prevailing understanding of ancient slavery as basically benign. Most problematic was that New Testament scholars dealing with the issue of slavery had simply not paid attention to Patterson’s ground-breaking comparative analysis of slavery. Our first step was to deliver papers questioning recent treatments of Paul and slavery at the Pauline Epistles section at the 1991 SBL Annual Meeting. Robert Jewett, who has done much to bring Paul’s epistles to bear on issues of contemporary social concern, suggested that we think about a proposal for an issue of Semeia along the lines we were exploring. Thus we set about thinking how the scope and approach and perspective of the New Testament on slavery and particularly on Paul and slavery could be broadened appropriately.

One way to broaden the scope was to change the composition—and announce the changing composition—of those observing and analyzing the evidence. Biblical studies in general is witnessing the emergence of multiple voices and a “radical plurality” of methodological positions and directions (Segovia: 4) because of the growth of non-white, non-male and non-Western individuals in the biblical profession who have pushed biblical criticism to consider the “situated and interested nature of all reading and interpretation” (Segovia: 5). On the issue of Paul and slavery, however, many scholars have not widened their background and perspective to appreciate the contributions of the newer voices. For example, in 1984 Amos Jones, Jr., an African American, presented a discussion of 1 Cor 7:21 (a key text on the issue of Paul and slavery) that was sharply critical of the dominant European-American Protestant assumptions and interpretation, but his study does not even appear in the bibliographies of the recent books on slavery in New Testament studies (Martin, 1990; Harrill, 1995; Combes, 1998). One of our goals then was to promulgate the multiple voices at work on Paul and slavery, and, given the effective history of Paul’s witness about slavery in the U.S., to have half or more of the contributors to this volume be African American scholars. In line with this quest for multiple voices, moreover, we have attempted throughout the project to implement a gendered investigation: to find, include, and interpret evidence pertaining to female slaves.

Another effort to broaden our scope and approach was to devise a more adequate critical and comprehensive approach to an issue such as Paul and slavery. We are grateful to the editorial board of this “experimental journal” for allowing us to use its offices and pages to experiment toward a more adequate and comprehensive approach. Our experimentation—our attempt to innovate—will be complex, broadly multidisciplinary and far from neatly defined and packaged. Indeed we find that narrow or uncritical experimentation and innovation on the issue of slavery has become part of the problem. A new approach or even a combination of new approaches can be brought to bear on this and other issues (Petersen, on which see Horsley’s second essay below), but unless more basic assumptions are questioned and new approaches are adapted more critically and the basic conceptual apparatus of the field of New Testament studies are questioned, the result can be mere reinforcement of the same old interpretation, in this case, a modern scholarly projection on Paul. One can bring in previously unexamined written source material such as ancient novels and inscriptions (Martin, on which see Will’s essay below), but unless one is aware of the ancient sociology of knowledge and of writing-and-reading, the source material is easily misunderstood and inappropriately construed.

Broadening the scope of New Testament research entails special attention to the social location both of the extant literary evidence and of the various receptions of Paul. Because New Testament studies, and the classical studies on which it is often dependent, have ordinarily not taken class- or social power-relations into consideration, it has often been unclear or imprecise in assessing evidence, particularly literary evidence. By taking the social location of literary evidence into account, it is possible to determine more closely how it can be used—in this case, in the interpretation of ancient attitudes toward slaves and slavery. For example, since ancient “novels” were not “popular” literature in the sense that ordinary people read them, they cannot be taken as evidence for “popular” attitudes toward slavery in the sense of ordinary people’s attitudes (see Wills below).

By taking into account the ways ancient slavery and Paul’s stance on slavery are treated in a field of study (Paul) heavily determined by the German Lutheran scholars who pioneered the critical scholarship on Paul, one begins to see how important it is to use yet move beyond historical critical analysis of slavery in the ancient world and of Paul’s stance toward slavery. Woven throughout this volume then is an acknowledgment of how the study and interpretation of Paul has been so dominated by Protestant, especially Lutheran, theology, by established academic New Testament studies and by European assumptions and viewpoints. Rather than to take these assumptions and viewpoints as the natural ways of examining Paul and slavery, we determined that it is often necessary to cut through or to by-pass or, better yet, to challenge and confront those assumptions, viewpoints, and conceptual apparatuses.

By taking into account the various receptions of Paul, including the effective history of Paul and slavery, moreover, we seek to explore the power dynamics beyond the text’s historical production. Our attention is not exclusively placed on texts, though serious consideration is given to the dynamics about power in the literary evidence about slavery from Israel’s scriptures, from Paul and his Jewish contemporaries, and from the larger world of Roman and Greek literature of the first century. Our focus also is directed to receptions of Paul and slavery, for academia—sometimes in its failure to transgress disciplinary boundaries, sometimes in its compliance with received tradition, and often in its quest for authority through putative claims of objectivity—has tacitly supported if not outrightly colluded with forms of oppression. We also think much can be learned from the effective history of Paul and slavery in North America, for that history suggests that persons of African descent were vigorous and astute in their interpretations of Paul and in their discernment of the use of Paul by those who wished to control the identifies and the power of blacks and women.

The essays in the volume are grouped into two parts. Those in Part I treat the evidence for slavery in antiquity and attitudes toward it. Those Part in II treat specific receptions of Paul and slavery by persons of African descent in North America. It should be noted that there is a significant discrepancy between the essays in Part I and those in Part II with regard to what “Paul” means. It is standard in the field of New Testament studies to speak of Paul in connection with the “genuine” letters which are by consensus usually attributed to him, with the other letters understood as deutero-Pauline. Ordinary Christian and other readers, however, understood Paul as the author of all the letters, including those in which slaves are instructed in no uncertain terms to be obedient to their masters. Each of the essays below plays a key role in reshaping discussions of ancient slavery and Paul’s stance toward slavery in the direction that Patterson has pioneered.

In New Testament studies, inquiries into slavery in the Greco-Roman as the “background” of Paul’s stance toward slavery have been dependent on the work of classical historians, especially in Germany. But classical philology and history have been closely linked with European humanism, again especially in Germany. Largely unnoticed by NT studies, classical historians influenced by the work of M. I. Finley an Patterson’s more comprehensive theory of slavery have, in the last decade or so, sketched a far more complex and critical view of the Greek and Roman slave systems and of slave experience in these ancient societies. In the first essay of Part I, Horsley sketches a survey of these developments and the difference they make for our understanding of ancient Greek and Roman slavery.

In the Roman empire, however, slavery and the slave system were embedded in a multicultural world empire. Societies such as ancient Judea, that did not have an institutionalized system of slavery similar to that in ancient Greece and Rome, were brought under the political and cultural hegemony of the Roman empire and, in the East, of Hellenistic culture. New Testament literature was produced and shaped in this multi-cultural environment. In particular, Paul and especially the Gospels emanated from ancient Israelite culture recently taken over by the Roman empire. Moreover, we have realized in the last decade or so that even Greek terms for slavery were far from consistent, indeed were complex in having multiple terms and in those terms shifting in their meaning according to context. In his examination of statements pertaining to various forms of servitude in the Hebrew Bible, in ancient Near Eastern context, Callender finds that ancient Israel and other ancient Near Eastern societies had nothing comparable to the institutionalized chattel slavery of ancient Greece and Rome, but only debt-slavery and forced labor. Israel’s origin in liberation from the harsh conditions of oppressive forced labor in Egypt, moreover, became the basis for strong objections to the imposition of forced labor by the Davidic monarchy under Solomon and later kings. Indeed because all Israelites are special “servants” of God, it is judged unacceptable that they be subjected to forced labor as “servants” of human rulers such as kings. The term ˓bd, “servant” is used in a variety of ways, including for chattel slavery, but also simply for the high ranking servants of the kings or special envoys of God. Benjamin Wright then examines what happens when the shift is made between the non-slave society of ancient Israel to the slave society of the Hellenistic world and the translation of ˓bd by doulos and other terms. The result is a bewildering range of meanings in which doulos often has clear connotations of chattel slave status, but can often indicate other relations, including that of an officer commissioned by a king or God.

In discovering the intriguing stories narrated in Hellenistic novels, New Testament scholars were under the impression that this literature that seems far less sophisticated than the standard “classics” of classical Greece and Rome was somehow a “popular literature,” giving access to the non-elite of the Hellenistic-Roman world. Informed by recent studies of the very limited literacy of the ancient Mediterranean world, Wills argues that we need to examine the social location of this literature more critically. Pointing to the often unrecognized chasm of wealth and culture that separated the literate elite from the rest of the Hellenistic Roman world, he explains that the Hellenistic novels not only presuppose and address the literate elite, but articulate the social-cultural viewpoint of the elite, including their juxtaposition of their own honor with the degradation of the slaves who make their life of leisure possible.

The paucity of slave revolts in classical antiquity has been used as evidence that slaves were relatively content with their situation. In an ex amination of slave resistance, however, Callahan and Horsley point out not only that the forms of slave resistance were many and often subtle, but also that a shift to a more critical assessment of historical sources opens up recognition of just how persistent and prevalent those forms of resistance must have been in any slave society. Comparison with slave resistance and revolts in the New World enables historians to read more sensitively the evidence for widespread and sustained slave resistance in the ancient world.

New Testament scholars eager to broaden their horizons to the “social world” of Paul and his contemporaries borrowed what had been almost coextensive with sociology, especially in the United States, in the 1960s. Ironically, the fields of sociology and anthropology had moved past structural-functionalism as being too abstract and concerned with preserving the established order of the large-scale modern industrial societies it was developed to understand. In another essay, Horsley argues that the social science developed to understand the coherence and continuity of a whole modern social system such as the United States may be singularly inappropriate to an upstart movement that was challenging or providing an alternative to the established imperial Roman order. Presupposing the more critical and comprehensive understanding of slavery sketched in his initial essay, Horsley then presents a critical review of recent treatments of Paul’s use of slave/slavery imagery and his attitude toward slavery. He attempts to understand the former in the context of Paul’s overall arguments in Galatians 3–6 and Romans 6–8 in particular, and the latter in the context of Paul’s overall agenda in his mission. He argues that read critically the Pauline textual bases of the standard view that Paul was a “conservative” on slavery and other social issues disappear and that a view of Paul that takes his overall anti-imperial agenda seriously could easily discern that he advocated the transcendence of slavery in the dawning new social order underway in the formation of his ekklēsiai as communities of an alternative society to the imperial order. While the better known Pauline disciples who produced the deutero-Pauline literature reverted to the dominant imperial social order based on the slave-holding household, some Pauline communities apparently engaged in the practice of “ecclesial manu-mission” of members who were slaves, by purchasing their freedom with common funds.

In Part II, Clarice Martin’s essay, an examination of the effective history of Pauline texts about slavery, explains how the same texts could be used to create diametrically opposed discourses—a discourse of domination for the proslavers, and a discourse of dignity for enslaved Africans. On the one hand, proslavery apologists approached these texts under the influence of a long tradition of European ethnocentrism and white supremacist thinking and with the presumption that ancient and modern institutions of slavery were relatively benign. On the other hand, enslaved Africans approached these texts under the influence of traditional African moral virtues. These virtues promoted the universal parenthood of God, the dignity of all persons, and the preservation of freedom and justice.

Callahan presents the sheer variety of approaches to Paul by African Americans from the days of United States slavery to now. In this sense, he allows the subaltern voices to speak for themselves rather than essentialize interpretations of Paul into one perspective. The evidence reveals that Paul was sometimes challenged because of his use of scripture or because he was perceived as a generator of a certain type of Christianity, but there is overwhelming evidence to suggest that Paul was viewed as someone whose words critiqued slavery and proffered wise counsel. At times, moreover, Paul’s hard sayings were placed in a framework that would maintain Paul’s liberative ethos, e.g., the framework of his other more liberative sayings; or in the framework of better, more liberative and less biased interpretations of Paul.

Studies of colonial cultural politics suggest that regimes of representation exert a powerful force in the formation of subjectivity. Certain metanarratives about blackness and whiteness in the 19th century United States discourse were intended to essentialize blackness and thus control the images of African descendants for the benefit of the West in general and the status quo in the United States in particular. Smith’s essay examines William Wells Brown’s novel Clotel for Brown’s refusal to allow others to dictate the exclusive terms on which Pauline hermeneutics could be managed. Rather, Brown’s novel gives voice to a tradition that was often shunted in the 19th century and that often goes unexamined even today in assessing 19th century black subjectivity in the United States. Smith explores that tradition, the black abolitionist tradition, for its multiple contributions to Brown’s re-construction of Paul. Patterson reminds us of the need to evaluate Paul’s social morality and political orientation in light of the moral judgments available to him in his own time. Patterson also notes the fundamental contribution of Paul to the concept of freedom carried by post-biblical Christianity into later Western civilization.

The editors are deeply indebted to all the contributors. We are also deeply grateful to the two respondents: Antoinette Clark Wire and Stanley Stowers. Wire reminds us of the importance of attending to evidence for female slaves and reveals in a personal way how importantly the legacy of slavery in North America is still with us. Stowers reminds us of the varying stances which interpreters may take in assessing Paul and of the larger question on the authority of the bible in general and Paul in particular at the dawn of the twenty-first century. Because of the contingencies of academic commitments, not all of the essays were available to both reviewers. We are grateful for the contributions of the respondents as they helped us toward our goal of broadening the scope, approach and perspective of New Testament research on the question of slavery.

Works Consulted

Bartchy, S. Scott

1973    ΜΑΛΛΩΝ ΧΡΗΣΑΙ:First Century Slavery and the Interpretation of 1 Corinthians 7:21. SBLDS 11. Missoula, MT: Scholars Press.

1992    “Slavery (Greco-Roman).” ABD 6:65–73.

Callahan, Allen Dwight

1997    Embassy of Onesimus. Valley Forge: Trinity Press International.

Combes, I. A. H.

1998    The Metaphor of Slavery in the Writings of the Early Church: From the New Testament to Beginning of the Fifth Century. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.

Finley, Moses I.

1968    “Slavery.” Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences 14:307–13.

Garnsey, Peter

1996    Ideas of Slavery from Aristotle to Augustine. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Harrill, J. Albert

1995    The Manumissions of Slaves in Early Christianity. Tübingen: Mohr (Siebeck).

Hengel, Martin

1977    Crucifixion. Trans. John Bowden; Philadelphia: Fortress.

Jones, A.H.M.

1964    The Later Roman Empire, 284–602. 3 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jones, Amos, Jr.

1984    Paul’s Message of Freedom: What Does It Mean to the Black Church? Valley Forge: Judson.

Martin, Dale

1990    Slavery as Salvation: The Metaphor of Slavery Christianity. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Meggitt, Justin J.

1998    Paul, Poverty and Survival. Edinburgh: T&T Clark.

Patterson, Orlando

1982    Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Petersen, Norman R.

1985    Rediscovering Paul: Philemon and the Sociology of Paul’s Narrative World. Philadelphia: Fortress

Robert, J., and L. Robert

1983    Fouilles d’Amyzon en Carie. Paris: de Boccard.

Segovia, Fernando

1995    “Cultural Studies and Contemporary Biblical Criticism as a Mode of Discourse.” Pp. 1–17 in Reading from this Place, Vol. 2, Social Location and Biblical Interpretation in Global Perspective. Ed. Fernando Segovia and Mary Ann Tolbert. Minneapolis: Fortress.

Stuhlmacher, Peter

1981    Der Brief an Philemon. Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag.

The Slave Systems of Classical Antiquity and Their Reluctant Recognition by Modern Scholars

Richard A. Horsley

University of Massachusetts Boston


As the background for their interpretation of Paul and other New Testament literature on slaves and slavery, New Testament scholars have been dependent on portrayals of ancient slavery by classical historians. Since M. I. Finley’s trenchant criticism of how Western classics scholars’ treatment of ancient Greek and Roman slavery has been determined by the distinctive ideology of classical humanism and anti-communism, and particularly since the appearance of Orlando Patterson’s incisive comparative sociological analysis of slavery as “Social Death,” more comprehensive and critical investigations into ancient slavery have emerged. Recent studies of slavery as a larger political-economic-domestic system deeply entrenched in ancient society and culture, more sensitive to the lives of the slaves themselves, present a far different picture of the social world addressed by Paul, suggesting serious reconsideration of standard interpretations of Paul and slavery.

In the modern academic division of labor, the history and culture of ancient Greece and Rome have been the jealously guarded turf of “classics” scholars. New Testament scholars of the last several generations have thus depended heavily on classical studies for their knowledge of the Greco-Roman “background” of early Christian and early Jewish literature and history. Nowhere is this more apparent than with regard to slavery.

For the field of classics, however, ancient Greek and Roman slavery was an embarrassment to be downplayed, hedged about with sophisticated apologies, or, if possible, explained away. In the late 1960s, when Scott Bartchy attempted a systematic investigation of ancient Greek and Roman slavery in connection with his dissertation on 1 Cor 7:21, there was no “serious, full-scale history of slavery in the Greco-Roman world” in English or German on which he could draw (1973:30)—and the great surveys by the French scholars Wallon (1847) and Allard (1876) had been largely ignored. The flurry of scholarly investigation into ancient slavery—accompanied by heated debate connected with the Cold War—during the late 1950s and 1960s, moreover, did little to alter the portrayal of slavery available from classics scholars. About the only critical approach available at the time was offered by M. I. Finley in a few then very recent articles, which pointed out the different types of servile labor in antiquity and emphasized the utter powerlessness and social isolation of the vast majority of ancient slaves.

Otherwise Bartchy was dependent on the portrayal of ancient slavery in standard German, British, and American classics scholarship as a relatively benign situation (“much better than modern men are inclined to think”). That there was an “astonishing fluidity of status” between slavery and freedom, including “little difference between a slave and a son” in the Roman household with respect to the legal power of the father, Bartchy (1973:40–44) found in Westermann (1955) and Crook. That the lot of slaves underwent a “definite improvement in the first century (CE) due to a combination of ethical teachings of philosophers and the increasing numbers of slaves born in their owner’s house (Bartchy, 1973:67–68) came from Joseph Vogt’s Tübingen Rektoratsrede, “Wege zur Menschlichkeit in der antiken Sklaverei,” and the work of his collaborators such as Lauffer. The “advantages of being a slave” (Bartchy, 1973:71, n250) has been discussed a generation earlier by Barrow (1928, repr. 1968). Since “most slaves were treated well,” therefore, it is not surprising that “the vast majority of slaves in the first century accepted their lot and were satisfied with it,” partly because of the bright prospect of manu-mission (Bartchy, 1973:72, 84), as explained by Lauffer and others. The relatively recent West German classicists’ ideological attack on the “ideological interests” of recent Marxist scholarship on ancient slavery was the direct source of the sense that the absence of revolutionary impulses among ancient slaves was due to their degree of contentment (Bartchy, 1973:87; Vittinghoff, 1962). It is all the more noteworthy that twenty years later, when Bartchy wrote the ADB article on “Slavery” in the New Testament period, the dominant views in classics scholarship on ancient Greek and Roman slavery had not changed all that much, judging from citations in the text (Alfoeldy; MacMullen; Wiedemann, 1981).

The situation is not much different for the few major treatments of Paul and slavery since Bartchy’s investigation, which became the standard, widely read treatment of ancient slavery in New Testament studies. Petersen, whose focus is really “the sociology of Paul’s narrative world,” not concrete historical situations, relies only on Bartchy himself for “the institution of slavery in first-century Greece” (83, n56) and cites only Wiedemann (1981) and Lohse, along with Bartchy, on slave law (73, n11). Martin, emphasizing in passing the complexity of Greek and Roman slavery in general, moves quickly into the opportunities for social mobility that slavery offered. In that connection he depends upon classics scholars such as Barrow, Flory, and Rawson (1966, 1986) for the “unbroken family life” securely counted on by some slaves, and Barrow and Wiedemann for slavery (supposedly) as a method of integrating outsiders into Roman society. Not until the very recent studies of Harrill (1995) and Callahan (1997) did New Testament scholars move beyond the standard portrayals of Western classical scholars and allow the more extensive critical studies of Finley (see esp. 1980; 1982; 1985) and the highly regarded historical sociological study by Patterson (1982) to figure prominently in analysis of ancient slavery as a background for reading Paul and other New Testament texts.

In the same decades that classics scholarship was reprinting old studies of Greek and Roman slavery and generating detailed new ones that reinforced the same picture, two parallel historical dramas were unfolding that one might have thought would have some effect on the study of slavery in the New Testament field, at least in the United States. Outside the academy—and often with some interaction with universities and theological schools—the Civil Rights Movement was growing in scope and intensity, challenging the “second-class citizenship” of African-Americans that remained as a legacy of slavery in the United States. Demonstrations of non-violent “civil disobedience” were rooted in New Testament teachings such as “love your enemies” and “bless those who persecute you.” Meanwhile extensive and intensive academic studies of slavery in the United States (and the Caribbean and Brazil) had brought public as well as academic debate over the realities and effects of slavery to a fever pitch. Classical historians, busy defending the “classics” in the curricula of elite colleges and universities in the 1960s, may have seen no immediate significance of ancient slavery, which supposedly was not linked with racial difference. The New Testament, however, particularly the “Pauline” letters, had been quoted for centuries as the divine sanction on slavery, and then cited by slaves themselves and abolitionists in opposition to slavery. It would seem, therefore, that professional students of the New Testament, however belatedly, would be interested in probing somewhat critically the portrayal of Greek and Roman slavery in the classics field, a leading spokesperson of which could still argue in a 1974 publication that “slavery and its attendant loss of humanity were part of the sacrifice which had to be paid” for the remarkable spiritual achievements of Western humanism (Vogt: 25). The following survey is not simply looking for the speck in a neighboring discipline’s eye. It is rather an attempt to recognize one of the apologetic logs obscuring our own vision. It may also be of some help in re-examining how New Testament literature legitimated slavery and helped make it work.

Modern Ideology and Ancient Slavery

Vogt, Finley (1980), and Garlan have offered surveys of modern treatments of ancient slavery that may help orient biblical scholars to the classical studies on which we are so dependent. Oversimplifying Finley’s more extensive and pointedly critical survey, we will trace the interaction of three strands of interpretation. First we will look at the defense of Christianity as having worked to mitigate the dehumanizing effects of slavery in the Roman world and finally to end it. Then we will consider the strange lack of interaction between (second) the classical humanist apology for ancient slavery and (third) the more fully historical explanation of slavery in ancient Greece and Rome as a product of and fundamental basis for the development of ancient Greek and Roman society. We will afterwards examine the important critical and comparative study by Patterson, and attend briefly to the more critical recent studies by classics scholars that have taken a far more circumspect and holistic approach, under the influence of Patterson and Finley.

In Defense of Christianity

The first great extensive treatment of ancient slavery was also an explanation of how Christianity had worked to end it. Working on the same assumption of the separation of religion and social structures, of personal faith and the established political-economic order, Henri Wallon’s massive 1847 treatise, published at the end of a successful campaign for France finally to abolish slavery in the colonies, explained why the ancient Christian opposition to slavery had taken so long to effect any significant change. Accepting the political disposition of society as a condition to which it must submit, Christianity had acquiesced in slavery as a fact of life. Indeed, since the social edifice was already crumbling, it was important to maintain public tranquility and to effect improvement in the lot of the slave progressively through improvement of the master. Tending to its own proper mission, it directed its efforts only to personal morality. But it worked steadily against slavery, which is utterly incompatible with Christian beliefs and values (Finley, 1980:32–33). As further explained by Allard in an 1876 book that won not only the admiring approval of the Holy See but an award from the French Academy, the idea of human equality inherent in Christianity from the start began effectively to influence moral standards only after ancient Roman society became Christianized (Vogt: 175). Such an interpretation of the demise of ancient slavery was not difficult to demolish, as did John Millar in 1771, Franz Overbeck in 1875, and Westermann again in 1935 (Finley, 1980:14–15). Ernst Troeltsch summarized the stance of early Christianity toward ancient slavery: the church accepted it as part of property law and the political order and, indeed, by teaching inward freedom, actually strengthened concrete slave relations in late antiquity (1960:1.132). Vogt (145) nevertheless persists in the belief that Christianity opposed slavery with a fundamentally new view of property and power.

Classical Humanist Apology Vs. Historical Explanation

To begin to comprehend the apologetic treatment of ancient slavery in Western classics scholarship, we must remind ourselves of the unique status and authority that classical culture has occupied in “Western civilization.” With the Renaissance, of course, came the exciting discovery of ancient Greek and Roman culture. From the Renaissance through the Enlightenment to more recent ceremonial academic occasions, Greek and Roman writers have been cited as paradigms of excellence in style, logic, education, and morals. Athens and Rome were understood as the sources and paradigms of democratic and republican government. The French Revolution draped itself alternatively as the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire. In the United States, public architecture in national and state capitals imitated classical temples, memorializing and celebrating the glories of Athens and Rome.

More directly related to the development of the field of classical studies, the “Great Books” have formed the core curriculum in school and university education for the social elite in Britain and the United States. In Germany the tone for the Gymnasium curriculum was set by the New Humanism under the leadership of Wilhelm von Humboldt. The same Spirit (Geist) that had inspired the highest development of man’s personality and versatility by the ancient Greeks was now to inspire the corresponding development among German youth through a thorough absorption in the classics (Vogt: 171). In the German development of the university with its strict division of labor by academic departments, “classical antiquity became the virtual monopoly of classical philology or Altertumswissenschaft, whose goal was to apprehend the high culture, the Geist, the very essence of those incomparable models of spiritual achievement, the Greeks and Romans” (Finley, 1980:38).

The departmentalization of intellectual inquiry, however, inhibited communication across disciplines. Classics scholars certainly proved unreceptive to political economists and historians exploring the role of slaves in the development of Greek and Roman civilization. Certainly classical philologists were put off by treatises on slavery in ancient Greece such as that by Johann Friedrich Reitemeier (1789), arguing that “universal human equality appears to be incompatible with civil society,” and discerning in ancient slavery the oldest expression in a civil society of the domination-submission relation. Reitemeier anticipated by generations the concept of the household-economy of Greco-Roman society and Marx’s and Weber’s later view that slavery played a central role in the historical development of ancient society (Finley, 1980:38). Marx, of course, was instrumental in breaking with “the ethnocentricity of prevailing political economics, which applied modern categories to all the systems of the past, thereby masking the unique features of capitalism itself,” and obscuring any differences between antiquity and modernity (Garlan: 4). In his “Notebooks” (Grundrisse, 1957–58) written in preparation for writing Capital, Marx made an important further distinction between the “ancient” mode of production, dependent on chattel slavery, and the “Asiatic” mode of production (which appeared as slavery or serfdom only from the modern European point of view) in which all producers appeared as servants or slaves of the king or god who embodied the unity of the whole society (Garlan: 5–6). This distinction (made again, in effect, in Finley, 1960) might well have become helpful in historical investigation of biblical and classical societies. This was blocked, however, by a combination of intervening historical factors: the unavailability of the Grundrisse until recently, virulent anti-Marxism among key German and British classicists and biblical scholars who dominated those fields, and in the former “Eastern Block,” a rigid Stalinist historiographical orthodoxy that boxed all societies into a four-stage scheme of development, omitting the Asiatic mode altogether and heightening the importance of the slavery stage.

Although Marx did exercise some indirect influence on the study of Western antiquity through the sociologists Karl Buecher and Max Weber, he had virtually no influence—or rather a negative influence—upon classical historians. Such influence was most effectively blocked at the end of the nineteenth century by the prestige of Eduard Meyer, who perpetuated precisely the “modernism” that Marx’s insights would have undermined in laying the foundation “of our contemporary understanding of slavery in Greek and Roman history” (the opening statement in Westermann, 1935). In The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the first modern history of any period of Western antiquity, Gibbon had relegated slavery to a few paragraphs in chapter two. Other historians of antiquity virtually ignored it, except for a few sentences on the helots in Sparta (Finley 1980:22–23). Similarly, the most prestigious German ancient historian, Eduard Meyer, devoted only a three-page section (along with a few other references) to slavery in the fourth and fifth volumes of his monumental Geschichte des Altertums (1901–02), on fifth-fourth century Greece.

What became decisive for the understanding of slavery among classical historians, however, were two lectures, on “The Economic Development of Antiquity” (1924b) and “Slavery in Antiquity” (1924a), which “quickly acquired the rank of a binding synthesis” (Christ: 293; cf. 308–11). Meyer insisted that the state, not the economy or culture, is the decisive organism in history and found in antiquity a mirror image of the modern world. Nevertheless, says Meyer, fifth-fourth century BCE Athens stood “under the banner of capitalism” and ancient democracy, like its modern counterpart, derived from the capitalist “spirit.” Slavery was a mere interlude and historical irrelevance, a by-product of the peculiar political development of the city-state. It was the corollary, the obverse of liberty, the product of a democracy that was it-self born from the development of commerce and artisan trades (Finley, 1980:44–46; Garlan: 8). Under favorable conditions, moreover, ancient slaves, like modern industrial workers, had opportunities to achieve wealth and upward mobility (Meyer, 1924a). In Finley’s judgment, Meyer presents not an argument, but a succession of ex cathedra assertions, in highly rhetorical dress, without either evidence or a discussion of the views under attack. In forty pages he makes only eleven references to Greek and Roman sources (1980:47). “In sum, Meyer’s lecture on ancient slavery is not only as close to nonsense as anything I can remember written by a historian of such eminence, but violates the basic canons of historical scholarship in general and of German historical scholarship in particular.… What Meyer provided was authoritative support and comfort for already generally accepted views, for the ideology of professional ancient historians” (Finley 1980:48). Meyer’s hostility to socialism and intellectual inquiry that might be associated with it “were generally shared in the conservative German academic world.” His admirers among classics scholars, moreover, simply “isolated themselves from their colleagues in economics, social science, economic history, and even modern history” (Finley, 1980:49).

Meanwhile, in the estimation of Finley and Garlan, at least, no significant inquiry into ancient slavery was being conducted in Italy, France, England or the United States, including Tenney Frank’s Economic History of Rome (1919, 1927). Vogt, on the other hand, finds R. H. Barrow’s 1928 portrayal of Slavery in the Roman Empire “particularly successful, because it avoids … value judgments” (Vogt: 180). Ironically, Barrow was clearly writing from the lofty perspective of British imperialism: “two centuries of experiment and experience in the ruling of subject peoples, of firmness not untempered by tact and sympathy” (xii). In his preface Barrow explains further that slavery played a role in “the spade-work in the task of civilising the world, which is Rome’s legacy to later generations,” quoting Lord Acton’s comment that “it is scarcely an hyperbole to say that slavery itself is a stage on the road to freedom” (xv). Nor does Vogt catch the irony of his positive valuation of A. M. Duff’s 1928 book on Freedmen in the Early Roman Empire, which in good “orientalist” fashion views “the population mixture brought about by the presence of slaves and freedmen” as “one of the causes of Roman decline” (180). In the Pauly encyclopedia article of 1935, expanded somewhat in his 1955 book, Westermann, a student and admirer of Meyer, produced simply another antiquarian exercise the mistakes and limitations of which have received ample attention in critical reviews (Vogt: 181–82; Finley, 1980:53–55; Garlan: 8). Vogt’s own history of the Roman Republic (second edition, 1951), finally, “displays more than normal disinterest in slavery” (Finley 1980:58).

In 1951 came an announcement that the Mainz Academy was about to embark on a massive program of research into ancient slavery, under direction of Joseph Vogt. In retrospect, Wiedemann, Vogt’s translator, detects an attempt at atonement after the Holocaust, “a kind of ‘intellectual reparations’ to a dispossessed and exploited class to make up for his failure, as a committed Catholic, to stand up publicly against Nazism” (1987:8).

Finley notes that two broader political-cultural currents exercised the decisive influence on the research program spearheaded by Vogt in the 1950s. The first was the “third humanism,” a revival of “classical humanism.” For Werner Jaeger, one of its leaders, whose stature as one of the greatest philological scholars of the day strengthened his impact, classical humanism was the work of “the German-Protestant Geist” (Jaeger). The earlier humanism of Humboldt, of course, had accepted slavery as a necessary condition of “that liberal spirit which has not reappeared to a similar extent among any other people, that is to say, the spiritual role of noble and great attitudes truly worthy of a free man.” The third humanism simply “turned its head.” “Slave/slavery” “does not appear in the detailed indices” of Jaeger’s highly regarded three-volume Paideia (Finley, 1980:56–57).

In his new research program on ancient slavery, Vogt on the one hand returns to older humanist apology, now for humanism as well as for slavery. At the conclusion of his 1953 essay “Slavery and Humanity” he wrote

We can appreciate Greek slavery as due both to that vitality which demanded that a man have a complete and active life even at the expense of others, and also to that way of thinking which looks on power not as the aimless discharge of brute force but rather as a rational instrument to bring about order. Slavery was essential to the existence both of this basic will to live and of the devotion to spiritual considerations.… Slavery and its attendant loss of humanity were part of the sacrifice which had to be paid for this achievement. (Reprinted in Vogt: 25)

On the other hand, Vogt claims and requires an ominous responsibility for classics scholars, not only to uphold the glorious humanistic standards, but to acknowledge the negative aspects of slavery as well. “Perhaps it has been left to the Classics to uphold the existence of intellectual standards in all areas of knowledge and skill, under conditions of general equality and universal freedom.” If “the Humanism of classical studies is to survive in our world,” however, we must abandon the old humanist “tolerance of the inhumanity that enabled the Greeks and Romans to secure their development as human beings”; we “must portray human society as it really was without concealing or extenuating its negative aspects” (1974:208–10). Finley (1980:60) suggests that the sudden new interest in slavery by Vogt (and his students) constituted “a kind of ‘saving phenomena,’ rescuing ‘classical humanism’ by certain concessions.” In any case, “human society as it really was” turns out to have been not all that bad, as Vogt found that “humanity” was “constantly cropping up in the practice of slavery itself” (Finley 1980:60; cf. Stuhlmacher). As Garlan (14) points out, Vogt and his collaborators emphasized that slaves were assimilated and integrated into ancient society and that the elite whose progress benefitted from slavery responded by improving the lot of the slaves—somewhat in line with the paternalistic tradition particularly strong during the nineteenth century, in slaveholding America, and in Fustel de Coulanges’s The Ancient City. Not surprisingly, Wiedemann (Vogt’s translator) assembled his collection of texts (1981) in somewhat the same spirit.

The second political-cultural concern driving Vogt and his co-workers’ programmatic research clearly arose from the Cold War that had divided Germany in particular. It is significant that Vogt and company began to deploy their research offensive even before research by Soviet and Eastern European scholars had begun to be published. As Finley (1980:60–64) and Garlan (13–14) both explain, however, the West German Altphilologen provoked a major confrontation at the 1960 International Historical Congress and in the journal Saeculum in preparation for it. In publications connected with that Congress and in the decades following, Vittinghoff (1960, 1962) and others engaged in a blatantly ideological, even defamatory, caricature of Soviet and other Marxist scholarship on ancient slavery, which (then and since) is by no means monolithic. One wonders, however, if Finley’s critique quite captures what may have been driving the West German humanistic Altphilologen such as Vogt. If slavery was as important in the beginnings of Western civilization as indicated in Marxist analysis, then portraying ancient slavery “as it really was without concealing its negative aspects” might not be sufficient to vindicate the enduring eternal value of the classics. In such an ideologically charged academic atmosphere, Western classics scholars were unlikely to include the broader social, economic, and political issues involved in ancient slavery that were being explored, however schematically, by Marxist scholars. As Wiedemann comments on the sociology of modern knowledge of antiquity, given “the career structure of German universities, in which young scholars are well advised not to write anything controversial,” it is not surprising that the intensive new research agenda led by Vogt resulted largely in a series of detailed empirical studies of particular problems. “Disappointingly [they] fail to relate these to a wider picture of ancient slavery” (1987:8). After all, as Vittinghoff (1960:94, n 36) noted, “Everything essential was already said by Eduard Meyer in his foundational lecture of 1898.”

By far the most significant development in classics scholarship on ancient slavery was the series of studies by M. I. Finley between 1959 and 1965 (most republished in Finley, 1982), followed by the set of essays on Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology in 1980—partly because he brought historical explanation together with classical philology in the study of ancient Greek and Roman slavery. Trained as an historian, influenced by Marx, Weber, and the medieval historians Marc Bloch and Henri Pirenne and German critical theorists (of the “Frankfurt school”) who had fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s, Finley recognized in all of his work that ancient Greek or Roman society must be viewed as an interrelated whole, that the various facets of ancient life, economic, political, intellectual, religious, could not be studied in isolation. Even during the heyday of “objectivity” among historians, he recognized that the historian cannot be a disinterested observer. In his reviews of others’ work “Finley sought to strip away the facade of objectivity by pointing out the connection between current ‘politics’ and the fundamental premises of the works under review” (Shaw and Saller, in Finley, 1982:xvi). He believed the intellectual should be engaged critically in the political issues of his own society.

In his early work on ancient Greek slavery, Finley recognized the diversity of vocabulary in various sources and, particularly importantly, the different types of servitude operative at different times and places in Greek antiquity. Rejecting the Marxist concept of class, he adapted the Weberian sociological categories of order and status, partly because the vagueness of the latter allowed recognition of the psychological dimension involved for the slaves themselves. In what may have become a subsequently misunderstood concept, he delineated a “spectrum” of different servile “statuses” among the particular political-economic patterns prevailing in different societies, times, and locations, including those that were “between slavery and freedom” (articles from 1959, 1960, 1964, and 1965 republished in Finley, 1982). Ironically, some of the historical variations of “servile status” he was painstakingly differentiating had been discerned by Marx in the Grundrisse which had been unavailable to him and to the Marxists whose concept of class he had rejected (until the mid 1960s). Finley’s second major contribution to the construction and interpretation of slavery in the context of ancient Greek and Roman society has been to expose the conflictual power relations, including use of violence, and to induce ancient historians to think more critically about the interests and agenda of their sources. He does this in an often almost polemical way that makes unavoidable the difference between his own critical view and alternatives. Given the historical roots and continuing agenda of classical studies discussed above, his blunt challenges have been instrumental in clearing some intellectual-academic space for more critical and holistic approaches to ancient Greek society and the Roman imperial order and the important role of slavery in maintaining them.

The Historical Sociological Interpretation of Patterson

In 1982 Orlando Patterson published a monumental comparative historical sociological study, Slavery and Social Death, which won prominent awards from both the American Sociological Association and the American Political Science Association. Patterson’s research is comprehensive, drawing on virtually everything available at the time in studies of ancient Greek and Roman history, literature, law, social structure, religion, etc. pertinent to ancient Western slavery, as well as parallel studies of slavery in virtually every known historical case around the world. He also draws on significant social scientific theory pertinent to slavery considered in historical societal context, generating important new insights. His study is unusually strong with respect to ancient Roman slavery and makes important suggestions for the understanding of slavery in the context of Roman imperial culture in particular. Until very recently, however, important studies of slavery, particularly of Paul and slavery, by New Testament scholars made no reference to Patterson’s knowledgeable, critical, and comprehensive work (Petersen; Martin; Bartchy, 1992). Only in the last few years, in the SBL presentations that led to this issue of Semeia (Callahan, 1991; Horsley, 1991) and in the work of Harrill and Callahan (1997) have New Testament specialists recognized that Patterson’s study forms the basis for future work on ancient Greek and Roman slavery and on how slavery in New Testament literature and history can be understood in that context. Since Patterson should be read directly, the following paragraphs attempt only a brief summary of his original and stimulating analysis and interpretation.

Slavery was created and maintained by systematic, overt, institutionalized violence (Patterson: 3). In Greek and Roman antiquity this was practiced primarily by the state, often in acts of imperial conquest or re-conquest. Much of the domestic terminology of Roman slavery was derived from Roman military usage and organization (Weaver, 1964). Slaves’ powerlessness originated (or was conceived as originating) as a substitute for death. For example, in 4 BCE the Romans simply crucified two thousand Judeans who, they thought, were active in rebellion. Usually, however, the Romans enslaved the young and able-bodied inhabitants in a (re-)conquered area of Judea or Galilee, after slaughtering the rebels, the aged, and the infirm, according to many of Josephus’ reports (e.g., B.J. 1.180, 222; 2.68, 75; Ant. 17.289, 295). The enslaved thereafter lived under a conditional commutation: execution was suspended so long as they acquiesced in their slavery. “The slavemaster’s power over his slave was total” (Patterson: 26).

Having been torn violently out of their previous life-situations and removed in chains to a a strange new society, slaves thus lived in a state of natal alienation. They were socially dead persons, without birthright, isolated from the social heritage of their ancestors, “not allowed to inform their understanding of social reality with the inherited meanings of their forebears, or to anchor the living present in any conscious community of memory” (Patterson: 5). As aliens, slaves also lacked a place in the cosmos. Slaves were literally (including linguistically) and forcibly “resocialized.” They had no connection with the larger society except through their master. They were of the lineage but not in it—given an often demeaning name (“Little Greek,” “Lucky”) and regularly addressed as “boy” (Patterson: 63). Older classics scholars, often writing from the perspective of the Greek and Roman slave-owners, had a telling way of describing slavery as “the integration of foreigners” into society. But it was precisely the “alienation of the slave … from any attachment to groups or localities other than those chosen for him by the master that gave the relation of slavery its peculiar value to the master (Patterson: 7). This is what made the slave, as Aristotle articulated, an animate tool or an animate piece of property, imprintable and disposable at the will of the master. It would have been extremely difficult for an enslaved Galilean or Judean, bought by a wealthy and powerful head of household in Rome or Corinth, and forcibly integrated into a slave familia with a Syrian, a Thracian, a Galatian, and others from various subject peoples, to have maintained an identity and the traditions of his/her ancestors when all communication and interaction was taking place in the ethos of a large elite Roman or Corinthian household.

With M. I. Finley (1968:307–13), Patterson emphasized the “outsider” status of slaves as a key aspect for their condition. This has wide-reaching implications for social relations and “symbolic universes” and their interrelation in Greco-Roman society. In “slave society” the marginal position of slaves is essential to its social and cultural forms as well as to its economic survival. To focus on only a few aspects: (a) “The slave, in not belonging, emphasized the significance of belonging” (Patterson: 47). (b) Slaves, in being enslaved (not being free) or not having rights manifested the significance of being free or having rights. To undergird the binary division between those who possessed true humanity and those who were mere property procedures were required that undermined the slaves’ humanity, such as corporal punishment, torture, and availability for the sexual satisfaction of the masters (Finley, 1980:95–96). (c) Those binary distinctions come to appear universal (ius gentium in Roman law) or perhaps even natural (Aristotle), and the (threat of) violent coercion by which slavery was maintained appeared natural, legitimated in the nature of things. Says Callicles in Plato’s Gorgias, “For the suffering of injustice is not the part of a man, but of a slave, who indeed had better die than live; since when he is wronged and trampled upon, he is unable to help himself, or any other about whom he cares” (2.543, trans. Jowett).

Slavery, finally, affirms Patterson, was central and essential in the value of honor that dominated Greek and Roman culture and social relations. In classical Greece, the expanding system of slavery reinforced timocracy’s grip on the society. “The preexisting timocratic value system, along with new economic forces, encouraged the development of large-scale slavery. At the same time, the enormous growth of slavery not only reinforced the timocratic character of the ruling class but stimulated its diffusion among all classes (Patterson: 87). To work for a living was utterly despised. To work for another was utterly shameful and degrading. The master’s honor was thus manifested and augmented by the ownership of slaves, who had no being except as an expression or reflection of the master’s being. Besides doing the work, slaves thus also served the master’s psychological need to dominate—indeed to dominate other human beings absolutely, to the point that they were not really humans in the same sense as the master. Even Vogt (8) admits that “slaves were irrevocably degraded in the eyes of the public.” The Romans had an even more highly developed sense of honor than the Greeks. Perhaps the most striking manifestation was their need to demean the culturally superior Greeks whom they enslaved by public denigration of Greek character flaws or naming a Greek slave “Little Greek.” Other subject peoples, of course, such as Judeans, Syrians, Lydians, Medes, indeed all Asiatics, were viewed as “born to slavery” (Finley, 1980:119). Even for the mass of ordinary Romans and inhabitants of cities around the empire, “the presence of a substantial number of slaves in Roman society defined free-citizens, even if they were poor, as superior” (Hopkins, 1978:112).

Recent Critical Studies of Slavery in Ancient Greece and Rome

Since the early articles of Finley and particularly since the highly suggestive historical sociological interpretation of Patterson, a whole range of studies by classical historians has dramatically widened and deepened the resources available to New Testament scholars on multiple aspects of ancient Greek and Roman slavery and slave systems. The book-length studies mentioned form much of the basis of the summary study of the ancient Greek and Roman slave systems in the next section.

Hopkins (1978) provides a systematic and well-documented analysis of the development of the slave system that provided the economic basis of the Roman imperial elite. He explains and details the integral historical relationship, during the last two centuries of the Republic, between the escalating wars of conquest, the introduction of millions of slaves into Italy, and the impoverishment of the Roman-Italian peasantry, who then joined the urban mobs or became colonists elsewhere in the empire. Not until Ste. Croix did Western classics scholarship finally produce a full-scale “historical materialist” presentation of ancient Greek and Roman societies (including a wealth of documentation). After working through his analysis of the ancient Greek and Roman slave systems, it is difficult again to ignore how important an economic foundation slavery provided for the cultures of the Greek polis and the Roman empire. As Garlan points out, however, one must look elsewhere for serious analysis of “the politico-legal dimension which the exercise of extra-economic constraints invariably confers on relations of production and which affects the corresponding theoretical positions adopted” (12). Garlan himself (1988) presented a critical systematic overview of slavery in ancient Greek society.

Critical approaches have been brought to a number of the key aspects of ancient slavery, some of which had not been examined previously. Bradley’s books focused directly on Roman slavery (1984; 1989; 1994) present well balanced analyses of matters such as the intense conflict inherent in a coercive slave system, the manipulation and abuse of slaves, and slave resistance, and are informed by his other research into matters such as wet-nursing and the slave-trade (1986; 1987). The intense recent social-historical focus on the history of the family (Bradley, 1991; Dixon; Rawson, 1986; Saller, 1994) has necessarily included the roles of slaves in the Roman household, since most inscriptional as well as literary evidence concerns the large households of the elite. Saller in particular has demonstrated the relationship between the regular whipping of slaves and the importance in Roman society of sharply enhancing the honor of the wealthy and powerful by dishonoring and dehumanizing slaves. One still finds apologetic attitudes in classics scholarship, e.g., that despite slavery, which can be “rightly deplored,” nevertheless “let us admire the Romans and the Greeks for themselves” (Starr: 68). Recent classics scholarship on slavery, however, has developed a far more critical and methodologically sophisticated understanding of the slave systems of ancient Greece and Rome and of what they meant for the lives of the millions of subject people who were enslaved. On the sound theoretical and methodological bases established by Finley and especially by Patterson, these more critical recent studies of ancient Greek and Roman slave systems can provide a more secure foundation for New Testament scholars’ attempts to understand the ancient Greek and Roman slavery as the context of early Christian movements and literature.

Slavery and Empire

“In Rome and the Americas, and perhaps in Athens too, mass slavery was a direct consequence of imperial expansion.” Since the Roman economy was far less differentiated and developed than that of modern northwestern Europe and north America, however, Roman slavery “was more directly a product of war: booty capitalism, as Weber called it, instead of industrial capitalism” (Hopkins, 1978:113). We do not need to enter the debate over whether ancient Greece and Rome were “slave societies.” The key historical point is that both classical Athens and especially late Republican and early imperial Rome created an institutionalized system of large-scale dependence on slave labor for the major portion of basic production by a wealthy aristocracy that presided over an empire. Roman intellectuals themselves understood this, as illustrated by a jurist’s etymology which, while surely false, nevertheless reveals the historical awareness that slavery was the direct result of warfare: “Slaves [servi] are so called because commanders generally sell the people they capture and thereby save [servare] them instead of killing them. The word for property in slaves [mancipia] is derived from the fact that they are captured from the enemy by force of arms [manu capiantur]” (Florentinus, Digest–3). Other ancient intellectuals confirm the connection between slavery and warfare (e.g., Dio Chrysostom, 15, 25; Varro, Res Rust. 2.10.4).

In a complex and contingent development, enslaving millions of subject people was an essential condition and instrument for the emergence of the Roman imperical order during the late Republic. Indeed, the conquest and plunder of a massive empire and the enslavement of millions of conquered people transformed the earlier political-economy of the city of Rome in the course of the last several generations of the Republic. Keith Hopkins (1978) has laid out a systematic analysis and explanation of how this transformation took place—with the exception of his occasional projection of a market economy onto late Republican Rome. Through the plunder taken in their “triumphs” the noble Roman warlords gained massive wealth, the only socially acceptable investment for which was land. Meanwhile, the military campaigns in which the nobles could make their fame and fortune forced prolonged military service on tens of thousands of peasants. More than ten percent of the adult male population in Italy was commonly serving in the army during the last two centuries BCE. Such prolonged military service drove peasant families into debt and impoverishment. Hopkins calculates that in the seventy-two years between 80 and 8 BCE, “roughly half of the peasant families of Roman Italy, over one and a half million people, were forced mostly by state intervention to move from their ancestral farms” (1978:7).

The increasingly rich nobles were only too ready to take advantage of the impoverished peasant families. “The rich … acquired the plots of the poor, sometimes by purchase with persuasion, sometimes by force so that in the end they cultivated large estates not farms (Appian, Civil Wars 1.7). This systematic land-grabbing by the elite also required the legal transformation of traditionally inalienable land through new laws that guaranteed secure private ownership of land by the heads of the great households (as Weber saw, 67–76, 119–24). With hundreds of thousands of slaves generated by their conquests, they then reorganized the land into large estates run by gangs of slaves to raise the produce (including fine wine and olive oil) required for their luxurious palaces in Rome, Pompeii, and elsewhere, and their large staff of domestic slaves. The Roman elite knew exactly what they were doing: “After a time the rich men in each neighborhood, by using the names of fictitious tenants, contrived to transfer many of these holdings to themselves, and finally they openly took possession of the greater part of the land under their own names.… The result was a rapid decline of the class of free small-holders all over Italy, their place being taken by gangs of foreign slaves, whom the rich employed to cultivate the estates from which they had driven off the free citizens” (Plutarch, Life of Tiberius Gracchus 8). The Roman peasant-soldiers were thus used to fight the wars of conquest in which they captured the provincials who replaced them farming what were once their own lands but now taken over by their commanders who took advantage of their impoverishment that resulted from their prolonged absence. “The sale of western prisoners took place on a vast scale: the wars in the valley of the Po, Liguria, Corsica, and Sardinia have been described as mere slave hunts” (Gordon: 109). From his glorious conquests of the Gauls the great general Julius Caesar may well have introduced as many as a million slaves into Italy, primarily to be deployed on the expanding estates of wealthy and powerful Roman nobles. Large numbers of slaves also came from Asia Minor and Syria (and Judea) through piracy as well as wars of conquest (Gordon: 94–95).

The result was a massive displacement of Roman and Italian peasants. As the popular tribune and reformer Tiberius Gracchus supposedly told his listeners: “The wild beasts that roam over Italy have their dens and holes to lurk in, but the men who fight and die for our country … [must] wander with their wives and children, houseless and homeless, over the face of the earth” (Plutarch, Life of Tiberius Gracchus 10). Tens of thousands of the displaced peasants migrated into the cities. Others the Roman state removed to colonies. Over a hundred such colonies were established between 45 and 8 BCE, one of the best known of which was that founded at Corinth by Julius Caesar in 44 BCE and settled largely by freed slaves and other “riff-raff” from the city of Rome. Still others joined the increasingly professionalized army, after service in which they too were settled in colonies at strategic points around the Mediterranean. “Between 80 and 8 BC … roughly half the free adult males in Italy left their farms and went to Italian towns or were settled by the state on new farms in Italy or the provinces” (Hopkins 1978:66). In the complementary flow, albeit over a longer period of time, “many more than two million peasants from the conquered provinces became war captives and then slaves in Italy” (Hopkins: 1978:8–9).

Nor, contrary to earlier classical scholarship on slavery, did the wars of conquest and enslavement end with Augustus’ establishment of the imperial “peace.” Forty-four thousand Alpine Salassi were reportedly enslaved in 25 BCE, numbers of the Cantabri and Astures in Spain sold into slavery in 22 BCE, the men of military age in Pannonia enslaved in 12 BCE, and some of the Bessi in Thrace enslaved in 11 BCE (Strabo 4.6.7; Dio 53.25.4; 54.5.2; 31.3; 34.7). The intensity and scope of Rome’s wars of conquest and expansion gradually lessened under the early Empire, yet wars and re-conquests continued as a principle source of slaves on into the second century (Harris, 1980:121–22; Bradley, 1987:48–49), as those familiar with the history of Roman rule in Palestine will readily recognize. It is likely that the first conquests of Judea and Jerusalem by Roman armies poured thousands of slaves into Roman slave-markets (Psalms of Solomon 2:6; 8:21; 17:12; Plutarch, Vita Pomp. 45.1–5). Cassius reportedly enslaved thirty thousand at Tarichaeae in Galilee in 52 BCE, then several years later enslaved four district towns in Judea, including Emmaus (Josephus, B.J. 1.180; 2.222; Ant. 14.275; Josephus probably exaggerates the numbers). In suppression of the revolt in Galilee following the death of Herod the Romans supposedly enslaved the populace in or around Sepphoris (B.J. 2.68; Ant. 17.289). Josephus, who was himself involved in the Roman re-conquest of Galilee and Judea in 67–70 CE, mentions explicitly that Vespasian and Titus, after slaughtering the majority of people besieged in villages and towns such as Japha, Jotapata, and Tarichaeae, enslaved thousands of women and children (B.J. 3.7.31 #304–305; 3.7.36 #337–38). Of the fugitives who had fled into Tarichaeae and then Tiberias, he sent six thousand of the most robust youths to work on Nero’s pet project of cutting a canal through the Isthmus of Corinth, then sold thirty-thousand more into slavery elsewhere (B.J. 3.10.10 #540–42). When Jerusalem finally fell to the prolonged Roman siege,

Caesar issued orders to kill only those who were found in arms and offered resistance, and to make prisoners of the rest. The troops slew the old and feeble; while those in the prime of life and serviceable they drove together into the temple. Caesar’s friend Fronto reserved the tallest and most handsome of the youth for the triumph; of the rest; those over seventeen he sent in chains to the works in Egypt, while multitudes were presented by Titus to the various provinces, to be destroyed in the theatres by the sword or by wild beasts; those under seventeen were sold [into slavery].… The total number of prisoners taken … amounted to ninety-seven thousand. (B.J. 6.9.2 #417–18)

Further tens of thousands of Judeans may well have been enslaved during the prolonged Roman suppression of the Bar Kokhba Revolt in 132–35 C.E. (Fuks: 29). The vast majority of those enslaved by Rome’s wars of conquest probably ended up in the huge gangs of slaves working the estates of the Roman warlords, although some undoubtedly wound up as domestic slaves in Rome itself—and some of those later became freedmen/women (Fuks: 30–31; cf. Harris, 1980:122—”in excess of 100,000″). Thus, although the need for slaves was surely not the sole motive force, it is difficult to understand how Rome’s relentless wars which brought glory to the generals and imperial control of the Mediterranean to the Senate were not also “slave hunts” (Weber; Hobson: 247–48; Harris, 1979:83–85).

Once the Roman slave-system was well-institutionalized there was a constant demand for slaves. And other sources of slaves were developed, primarily slave-breeding. The latter did not begin only with the establishment of empire and the supposed end of wars of conquest, but was well-developed already under the Republic, then became relatively more important under the empire (Harris, 1980:118–21; Bradley, 1987:42–55). The first references to large-scale breeding of slaves come in Cornelius Nepos, Att. 13.3; Horace, Epod. 2.65; Varro, Res Rust. 1.17.5; 2.10.6; Columella, Res Rust. 1.8.5, 19. An other principal source of slaves was the exposure of unwanted infants commonly practiced in ancient Greek and Roman society. It was generally expected that an abandoned baby would be picked up and enslaved. Gender, moreover, was clearly a factor: “Everyone raises a son even if he is poor, but exposes a daughter even if he is rich” (Posidippus, 11E=Stobaeus, Flor. 77.7). The frequency of self-sale into slavery and its importance for maintenance of the system has been blown way out of proportion by previous and even current studies. Here is a good illustration of the limitation of uncritical use of Roman law as a historical source, in this case its simple distinction between “those slaves reduced to our ownership by the civil law if a person more than twenty years old allows himself to be sold” and “those slaves who are ours by the law of nations who are captured from the enemy” (Digest 1.5.1). That formal distinction indicates nothing about numbers (contra Watson, 1985). It is generally agreed, however, that “the self-sale as a mode of enslavement was of negligible importance in the central period of Roman history” (Harris, 1980:124; Bradley, 1988:482).

Enslavement of exposed children and kidnapping and piracy continued as important sources of slaves throughout Western antiquity (Harris, 1980: 123), and kept a steady supply of newly enslaved subjects of empire flowing through the slave-markets in Cos, Corinth, and elsewhere. For students of the New Testament, it is noteworthy not only that Syrians and Judeans were thought to be inferior human beings appropriate for enslavement, but that “the great source” of slaves was Asia Minor. “Over and over again we hear of the typical slave as a Cappadocian or a Phrygian” (Harris, 1980:122). Also, “Galatia, like Phrygia of which it originally formed a part, was an important reservoir of slaves throughout antiquity” (Mitchell: 47). That kidnapping continued to be such an important source for slaves, finally, indicates how the slave system generally depended on the imperial order. For it was the need for slaves among the imperial elite in Rome and other metropolitan centers that drove the demand for slaves and it was the imperial administration that maintained the social-political order in which slave-hunters could conduct their kidnapping in the provinces to supply the burgeoning markets in Italy and key imperial metropoles.

Social Control of Slaves by Masters

The Inherent Conflict in the Slave System and in the Master-Slave Relationship

Both the Greek and the Roman slave-holding elite had a disquieting sense of insecurity with respect to their slaves, upon whose involuntary labor they depended for their positions of wealth and power. Xenophon wrote as if there was a perpetual state of aggressive antagonism between masters and slaves: citizens are “unpaid bodyguards of each other against their slaves,” since “masters have often died violently at the hands of their slaves” (Hiero 4.3; 10.4). Lysias (7.35) and Demosthenes (21.49) speak of a natural enmity between masters and slaves. Plato (Rep. 578d–579a) conjures up the horrifying image of an owner of fifty slaves in mortal danger once he had been carried away with his family “to some desert place where there would be no other free man to help him.” The wealthy and powerful Roman slave-owning class similarly viewed their slaves as essentially criminal (e.g., Columella, Res Rust. 1.1.20; 1.3.5; 1.6.8; 1.7.6; 1.8.1–2, 15, 17, 18; 1.9.1, 4; 7.4.2; 9.5.2; 11.1.12, 14, 16, 19, 21, 23, 25, 27; 12.3.7; Tacitus, Ann. 1.17.1; 2.12.4; 2.39.2; 6.10.3; 12.4.1; 13.46.4; 14.40.1; 15.45.5; Hist. 1.46, 48; 2.59; 3.32; 5.9). In early Latin literature such as the De Agricultura of Cato and the comedies of Plautus, in portrayals for which there are no earlier prototypes, slaves appear as cruel, unruly, pilfering, intransigent, conniving, deceitful (Cato 2.2; 4; 5.1; 67.2; Duckworth: 249–52, 288–92; Bradley 1984:28–30). Columella’s treatise on the management of an agricultural estate (Res Rustica) has an urgent tone about the dangers of slave ownership and the potential for slave revolt. Slaves must be ruled by fear (1.8.17–18; 1.2.1; cf. Cato, De Agr. 5.1–5; Varro, Res Rust. 1.13.1–2), balanced by kind considerations. He writes from a kind of a prison-camp mentality, viewing everything in terms of security and control of the slave laborers (Bradley, 1984:23–24). Slaves must be kept in chains and quartered in an ergastulum at night.

Similar anxieties haunted slave-owners about their own domestic slaves tending to their every need in their urban mansions. One of the reasons Augustus established a city prefecture was to discipline slaves in Rome itself. And the murder of the senator L. Pedanius Secundus by a slave revived concern among the patricians that urban slaves had to be ruled by fear, particularly considering the large foreign element (Tacitus, Ann. 6.11.3; 14.44.5). Slave-masters were anxious not only about the stability of the slave-system as a whole, on which their wealth and positions of power and privilege were dependent, but about their personal vulnerability in households surrounded by their “domestics.” As the younger Pliny commented (Ep. 3.14), on the death in 108 of the senator Larcius Macedo, who had been assaulted by his slaves while bathing, “No master can feel safe because he is kind and considerate.” The Roman proverb, “the number of one’s slaves equals the number of one’s enemies” (quot servi, tot hostes, Seneca, Ep. 47.5; Macrobius, Sat. 1.11.13), articulates succinctly the elite’s fear for their own safety and the antagonism with which masters regarded their slaves.

Slaves, for their part, resisted in whatever ways they could discussed more fully in the article on “Slave Resistance” below. When they saw opportunities, slaves fled, as we know from the lengths their owners went to contain them or, failing that, to recapture them (Bellen). Toward the end of the Peloponesian War 20,000 slaves took the opportunity to flee their servitude in Attica (Thucydides 7.27.5). Drapetēs came to mean specifically a runaway slave, and drapetagōgos a “slave-catcher,” as in a fourth-century comedy by Antiphanes by that title. Among the finds from antiquity are some of the iron collars worn by slaves, containing instructions for their return to their owners if captured. Roman law addresses the problem, and slave-owners could hire professional slavecatchers (fugitivarii) to recapture fugitives (Daube; Bradley, 1984:32). Occasionally they murdered their masters and, albeit rarely, even managed collective revolt. That slave resistance was a regular feature of Roman life is indicated by repeated incidents mentioned by historians such as Tacitus or Appian. The latter, for example, having recounted Cinna’s massacre of slaves who had earlier plundered and murdered, commented: “Thus did the slaves receive fit punishment for their repeated treachery to their masters” (Bellum civile 1.74, Loeb trans.)

The relationship between an involuntary labor force initially forced into slavery by military violence and their masters dependent on their coerced labor was fraught with conflict from the outset. Obviously, maintenance of such an inherently conflictual system required complex means of social control. Ancient Greek and Roman slavery depended upon systematic management and manipulation of the slaves.

Dehumanization, Degradation and the Climate of Fear

Roman literature reveals a consensus among the slave-owning class that it was necessary to create a climate of fear among their slaves. “Severity must be employed by those who keep subjects under control by force—by masters, for example, towards their slaves” (Cicero, Off. 2.24). Following a slave’s murder of a senator it was argued in the Senate that “you will never coerce such a mixture of [strange] humanity except by terror” (Tacitus, Ann. 14.14; cf. 13.2). It was particularly important in the Romans’ mind to inculcate fear among slaves (Tacitus, Ann. 14.44); it produced greater loyalty (Propertius 3.6.6; Bradley 1984:113–14). Early Christian writers reflect this ethos of master-slave relations: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling”—with a mild exhortation to slave-masters to “stop threatening” (Eph 6:9). To instill the fear requisite to maintaining the slave-system, therefore, the Romans employed various forms of dehumanization, degradation, and humiliation.

The slave-trade. The dehumanization entailed in ancient slavery began with the Greek and Roman disposition of subject people they captured in warfare. From accounts by Josephus and other historians, Judean and Galilean and other captives would have experienced the slaughter of many of their neighbors and family, very likely their parents, and their own sale to slave dealers who shipped them across the Mediterranean to cities such as Rome or Corinth. As if the traumas of capture and removal far from home were not enough, the slave trade itself entailed further humiliating practices and slave-dealers were notorious for their abuse of the human “stock” in which they traded. A century and a half ago, Wallon (2.51–60) sketched an illuminating picture of the ancient slave-market, with its total humiliation of the human beings involved, which was simply taken for granted by the Greeks and Romans. If it is permissible to indulge in a little comparative history to illustrate the “natal alienation” involved in the slave-trade, we can listen to the eighteenth-century African Olaudah Equiano describe his own experience:

We were not many days in the merchants’ custody before we were sold after the usual manner, which is this:—On a signal given, such as the beat of a drum, the buyers rush at once into the yard where the slaves are confined, and make choice of that parcel they like best. The noise and clamour with which this is attended, and the eagerness visible in the countenances of the buyers, serve not a little to increase the apprehensions of the terrified Africans, who may well be supposed to consider them the ministers of that destruction to which they think themselves devoted. In this manner, without scruple, are relations and friends separated, most of them never to see each other again. (Gates: 37–38)

Enslaved war-captives were likely sold more than once along the route to their final destination in Italy or elsewhere. Their humiliating journey began with sale to one of the canabae or parasitic “camp follower” slave-traders who followed the army ready to obtain war-captives “wholesale” and then sell them for handsome profits to “retailers” of “speaking tools.” Now utterly isolated socially and culturally (linguistically!), enslaved war-captives were dragged in chains into the unknown, never to return home. On the stele of the Black Sea slave-trader (sōmatemporos) Aulus Kapreilius Timotheus a file of twelve slaves walks along in chains. Others were taken into slavery by kidnappers (cf. 1 Tim 1:10; NSRV = “slave-traders”). A papyrus mentions the ten-year-old girl Abaskantis from Galatia, sold in 142 CE in the Pamphilian coastal city of Side to the slave-dealer Pamphilos from Alexandria in Egypt. Another mentions a seven-year-old boy taken from Mesopotamia purchased in Egypt. Once placed on sale in Roman slave-markets, slaves were obliged to stank naked on a raised platform, with chalk marks on their feet indicating foreign origin. Legally required information about their particular qualities was suspended from their necks. In the case of slaves as well as cattle and beasts of burden, statement of defects was legally required (e.g., “a discrepancy between jaws, eyes, or arms is no ground for rescission if it does not affect the slave’s ability to perform his duties”—Ulpian, Digest of Justinian, Book 21; cf. Plato, Laws 11 916a.). Potential purchasers could poke and prod. “When you buy a horse, you order its blanket removed; so too you pull the garments off slaves” (Seneca, Ep. 80.9).

Nor was the slave-market located in some out of the way place where the degrading display would be inconspicuous. It was rather in the center of public “civilized” life, the Roman Forum itself, the agora of a Greek city, or the shrine of Isis (at Tithorea in Phocis, Pausanius 10.32.15; see further Harris, 1980:126). Major slave-trading centers during the late Republic and Empire, besides the older center Cos, were Byzantium, (Phrygian) Apamea, Tarsus, and especially Ephesus (Harris, 1980:127–28). Although slave-dealers were viewed as disreputable social pariahs in some Latin literature, there is substantial evidence that some were socially well-connected (even with the emperor), respectable authors of public inscriptions (to the Roman magistrate at Ephesus and in honor of the genius of the slave-market; Harris, 1980: 129–30).

For the enslaved, however, their social homicide and/or that of their children may have continued in the humiliations of the slave-trade. Slaves were sold and resold. “Throughout the Mediterranean … slaves were bought and sold from one owner to another as a matter of course … part of what the Roman jurist Papinian once offhandedly termed ‘the regular, daily traffic in slaves’ ” (Bradley, 1992:126). The Roman aediles responsible for supervising markets propounded rulings for the marketing of slaves similar to those for the marketing of cattle. These functioned, in effect, as ancient equivalent of “lemon-laws,” requiring slave-traders to inform potential buyers of defects in their merchandise, such as a slave having had his tongue cut out, a woman whose offspring are still-born every time, or slaves who were suicidal or prone to run away (Crook: 181–84).

We can easily deduce from the frequency of slave sale and from the limited surviving papyri that slaves were further dehumanized by the standard disregard of the intimate friendships and family relations they developed while in slavery. A study of the slave trade estimates an annual sale of 250,000 slaves in the early Empire (Harris, 1980:121). There are a handful of cases of mothers with young children, but no examples have yet been found of a sale of slave partners or of slave parents and child. The overwhelming majority of attested slave sales are of individual slaves. Tabulation of Egyptian papyrological evidence indicates sale of individual women slaves ranging in age from four to thirty-five, of individual male slaves from two to forty. That means not only that children were sold away from their parents, but that there was a brisk traffic in slaves, particularly women, during their prime child-bearing age, from thirteen to thirty-five (Bradley, 1984:53–57). In several known cases, slaves had already been sold three or four times, even before the age of fourteen, and had been sold far from their place of origin in Pontus, Phrygia, or Arabia. “It seems that slave-owners were little troubled about breaking servile family ties when economic considerations made sale of their slaves attractive or necessary” (Bradley, 1984:57–60). The treatment of slaves like other property in inheritance, moreover, resulted in similar break-ups of slaves’ marital and familial relationships. The dehumanizing effect of “market forces” and treatment of humans as property in the slave-trade is illus trated, finally, by Furia Spes’s dedication to her deceased husband: having loved each other since childhood as slaves, she and her beloved had “married,” but after a short time had been involuntarily separated “by an evil hand” (ILS 8006, cited in Bradley, 1984:69).

Degradation by torture, beating, and branding. The rhetorical flourish of a Demosthenes that the greatest difference between the slave and the free man is that the slave “is answerable with his body for all offenses” (22.55), did not attract much attention in modern classics scholarship on slavery. As Finley (1980:94) notes, Westermann wrote three sentences on the subject and Vogt avoided it in his essays focused on slavery and humanity—while the older antiquarian Pignoria (1613) spent two chapters on it. Some classics scholars simply argued that “torture was seldom used” (Barrow:31–35). That torture of slaves was a regular practice among Greeks and Romans could no longer be ignored, however, with the discovery in Puteoli of a Latin inscription dated to the late Republic or early Empire listing one of the duties of the city funeral director as the torture of slaves as requested by magistrates or private individuals, replete with details on the techniques and instruments of the trade. “If a slave is a property with a soul, a nonperson and yet indubitably a biological human being, institutional procedures are to be expected that will degrade and undermine his humanity and so distinguish him from human beings who are not property” (Finley, 1980:95). Torture and beating were the two most important “institutional procedures” of degradation among the Greeks and Romans.

Since they could not trust the testimony of free men in court, the Greeks developed a means of gathering testimony that they believed trustworthy, that extracted by torturing the bodies of slaves (Aristophanes, Frogs ll. 618–25; Pseudo-Aristotle, Rhet. ad Alexandrum; Garlan: 42–43; see now duBois, 1991). This practice was continued by the Romans. Torture of slaves, however, was not confined to court cases. Professional torturers (tortorēs) were available for hire. Administering a brutal beating was an exhausting undertaking (Cicero, Cluentio. 177; Seneca, Ep. 66.18, 21, 29). Petronius portrays Trimalchio as keeping two tortorēs on staff simply to punish his errant cook (Satyricon 49); Juvenal depicts a cruel mistress who kept a tortor on retainer (6:480). “Just like other artisans, the tortor had his place of business, where the variety of the tools of his trade could be counted on to chill his prospective victim to the bone” (Saller, 1994:148, citing Juvenal 6.0.29). It can no longer be pretended that instruments of torture such as spiked whips, racks, and hot irons were seldom used (Cicero, Pro Cluentio 177; Wiseman 1985:5–10; Saller, 1994:134, 147–48).

Roman literature indicates that slaves were regularly subject to beatings, the second principal means of degrading slaves. They were treated “not as if they were men, but beasts of burden,” by masters who were cruel and insulting; a slave would be beaten even for disturbing the master’s dinner by coughing (Seneca, Ep. 47.3, 5, 11, 17–19). Cato, a man of traditional Roman values, flogged his domestic slaves for mistakes in the preparation and serving of dinner (Plutarch Cato maior 5.1; 21.3). The regularity with which Roman slaves were beaten is indicated in Tacitus’ contrast of Roman brutality with the Germans’ restraint in beating their slaves only rarely and not in matters of routine discipline (Germ. 25). In literature the life of the slave was linked unavoidably with the whip. A slighted wife transfers the target of her anger from her husband to her helpless slaves (Juvenal 6.481). In Plautus’ comedies (before 200 BCE), a young man beats his slave, thus literally a “whipping boy,” because he is frustrated in love (Poenulus 146, 410, 819), and apparently the stringing up and beating of elderly female slaves was meant to be funny (Truculentus 775–82 and Aulularia 48; Saller, 1994:148).

The regular subjection of slaves to the whip, however, was far more significant in Roman society than as a mere punishment. It was the principal means and symbol of slaves’ degradation. In the widely read A History of Private Life, influential among those such as biblical scholars dependent on classics scholarship for their understanding of Greco-Roman slavery, Paul Veyne “deliberately minimizes the distinction between filiusfamilias and slave” (Saller, 1996b:144). He pictures the life of children as “a kind of slavery” (29), in comparison with which the life of slaves, in which “the master commanded with love,” appears benign. In his recent study of Roman Slave Law, moreover, Alan Watson (1987:46–47) repeats the standard claim, based on the abstract constructs of Roman Law, that “in many regards the legal position of a slave was very similar to that of a son—of whatever age—in paternal power.” He thus reinforces the belief that Roman slaves “did not fare much worse than the master’s wife and children” in suffering merciless beatings (Genovese: 73). However such relations may have worked in the southern United States, slaves were not assimilated to the position of children in Roman households, certainly not with regard to beatings. Cicero, following Greek philosophers, wrote that “different kinds of domination and subjection must be distinguished.” A father governs his children who follow out of readiness to obey, but a master must “coerce and break his slave” (Rep. 3.37). The primary instrument deployed to “break” slaves in (Roman) antiquity, as in the Southern United States, was the whip. Indeed, the use of the whip was precisely what distinguished slaves from the free children of Roman households—besides the fact that the sons inherited, while of course the natally-alienated slaves did not.

In a critical and probing analysis of Roman social relations Richard Saller (1994; 1996a; 1996b) has recently explained that when Romans regularly and legitimately (in their own eyes) inflicted severe beatings on their slaves that maimed and even killed, more was at stake than raw physical pain. To the Romans whipping was primarily an insult to dignitas. As the grossest form of invasion, whipping was thus a deep humiliation. “The special potency for Romans of the symbolic act of beating hinged on its association with slavery. One of the primary distinctions between the condition of a free man and a slave in the Roman mind was the vulnerability of the latter to corporal punishment, in particular the lashings at another man’s private whim” (Saller, 1994:137). In Roman comedies, slaves are addressed with variations on the word verber, with verbero or “whipping post” being common, and the distinguishing marks of slaves are the scars on their backs from past whippings. Conversely the slave’s metaphor for staying out of trouble was “to protect his back” from the whip (Saller, 1994:137–38, with many references). It is precisely the whip that distinguishes the master-slave relationship, in distinction from the father-child relationship. In his tract on child-rearing, Plutarch insisted that “children ought to be led to honorable practices by means of encouragement and reasoning, and most certainly not by blows nor by ill treatment; for it is surely agreed that these are fitting rather for slaves than for the freeborn (De Lib. Educ. 12). Similarly, Quintilian disapproved of whipping students, “because it is a disgraceful form of punishment and fit only for slaves, and in any case it is an insult” (1.3.13). Formally fathers did indeed hold the power of life and death over their children as well as over their slaves. Other than a famous legend or two, however, no evidence exists that such paternal power over children was ever used. By contrast, masters really did execute slaves, against which legal restraint was finally brought under Hadrian—although Constantine later ruled that a master who beat his slave so severely that the slave died was not to be charged with murder (Saller, 1996a:117–18). The whipping of slaves was a symbolic degradation as well as punishment. “The master’s authority had to be coercive (to ‘break’ the slave), because the master-slave relationship was inherently exploitative. The servile spirit was one motivated by grudging fear, goaded by the lash; the servile back was marked with scars from past whippings” (Saller, 1994:151).

Closely related means of social control were the branding and especially tattooing of many slaves and the temporary or perpetual shackling of slaves (C. P. Jones). Small wonder that one finds in Roman law and literature “a strong suspicion that slavery was detrimental to the slave’s character” (Watson, 1987:39). Law codes make frequent references to the likelihood that slaves had been “chained,” “branded,” even that a slave-master’s will provided that a slave “be kept perpetually in chains” (Digest; Gaius, Inst. 1.13; Justinian, Codex 3.36.5). Slaves bore on their bodies the marks of the institutionalized practices of their humiliation. As Macrobius commented candidly, “At home we become tyrants and want to exercise power over slaves, constrained not by decency but capacity” (cited in Hopkins, 1978:119 n 43). “The hostility of masters to their slaves ran just below the surface of Roman civilization” (Hopkins, 1978:120). Not surprisingly, the Roman state backed up the “terror” that the master attempted to exercise in his familia. By ancient custom, all the slaves in a household of a master killed by one of his own slaves were to be tortured and killed. Sure enough, when one of his household slaves killed the Urban Prefect Pedanius Secundus in 61 CE, all four hundred of the latter’s household slaves were executed, over the protest of the urban poor at such inhumanity (Tacitus, Ann. 14.42–45).

Sexual exploitation. Slaves were habitually subjected to sexual abuse. That slaves’ bodies were available to their masters without restriction is “a commonplace in Graeco-Roman literature from Homer on; only modern writers have managed to ignore it” (Finley, 1980:95–96). Both male and female slaves were sold as prostitutes, available for continuous sexual exploitation at the command of the masters (Henriques, 1962:89ff.; Pomeroy: 201). Martial sought a slave from a patron for sexual purposes, as if it was a common request (Epig. 8.73). Anecdotal evidence, rules on the registration and taxing of prostitutes, and the notoriety of the Subura area in Rome suggest that large numbers of slaves worked in brothels, which were a standard feature of Roman society (references in Bradley, 1984:116–17). Because of the special demand for young boys, owners attempted to delay the onset of puberty by various means, including castration (Pliny, Nat Hist. 30:41; 21.170; Martial, Epig. 9.6; Juvenal 6.373AB).

More common would have been slave-masters’—and probably their families’ and friends’—regular gratification of their sexual desires among the slaves of their own familiae. The elder Seneca stated bluntly the perpetual sexual vulnerability of the slave: “Unchastity is a crime in the freeborn, a necessity for a slave, a duty for the freedman” (Controversies 4, Praef. 10; Veyne, 1978 [from Finley, 1980:170, n 15]). Martial’s poems allude frequently to slave-owners’ casual encounters with their slaves, both heterosexual and homosexual, including young boys and girls purchased specially for sex (Epig. 1.84; 2.33; 3.33; 4.66; 6.39, 71; 11.70; 12.58, 96). The freedman Trimalchio’s comments reflect the vulnerable position of the slave: “For fourteen years I pleasured him; it is no disgrace to do what a master commands. I also gave my mistress satisfaction” (Petronius, Satyricon 75.11). The first-century CE Stoic philosopher Musonius Rufus was unusual in his complaint about anyone “who has relations with his own slave girl, a thing which some people consider quite without blame, since every master is held to have it in his own power to use his slaves as he wishes” (Fragment 12, “On sexual indulgence”). Plutarch counselled a wife to acquiesce in her husband’s sexual exploitation of slave girls because it was “respect for her that led him to practice his debauchery, licentiousness, and wantonness with another woman” (Moralia 140B). Such moralists disapproved of the master’s lack of self-restraint, but voiced no concern about the dignity of slave women (Saller, 1996a:126–27). For Romans as well as Greeks, active and passive sexual roles corresponded symbolically with domination and suburdination. The ancient elite would therefore have been bothered by a matron’s liaison with a male slave. Otherwise the standard values appear to have been expressed by Horace. As Finley (1980:96) says, he “was not being satirical when he recommended his own preference for household slaves, male or female: ‘I like my sex easy and ready to hand’ (Satires 1.2.116–19).” Although Romans refrained from sexual relations with freeborn boys (hence the bulla amulet worn by freeborn youth at the festival of Liberalia), there was nothing disreputable about sex with male slaves (Plutarch, Moralia 288A). And of course since Romans saw nothing wrong with sexual exploitation of slave women, they were perpetually subject to their masters’ advances (Weaver, 1991/96:178; Buckland 1908:76–77).

The degradation of the powerless slave could not help but have been internalized, although here we must speculate on the basis of non-slave witnesses. It is not difficult to imagine the effect on a person of constantly having the threat of violence overhead, or of always being available sexually to satisfy the master’s or his relatives’ desires. One of Plautus’ characters speaks explicitly of the internalized violence, of “a force (she fears) which forces me to do violence to myself” (The Rope and Other Plays, 116–17). This internalization of violence was one of the principal factors that created the “faithful” slave. “Natally alienated” and (as seen in Nazi concentration camps) “brutally deracinated human beings seeking new ties, new psychological attachments, not infrequently turn to those in whose power they find themselves” (Finley, 1980:104).

On the other side of the master-slave relation, however, Finley finds no general evidence for any doubts or guilt-feelings among ancient slave-owners (1980:99). That suggests that Greek and Roman society had developed a powerful legimating cultural ideology in which they felt quite comfortable sexually invading or brutally humiliating the “bodies” that they owned. While Finley emphasizes that slaves were the property of their masters, Patterson includes this aspect in the broader context of power and domination of the slave by the master, which was absolute. Yet this shift of emphasis in the standard point about the slave (as the only human thing) being the property of the master serves only to make the point all the more central and telling. The modern capitalist concept of property has always been problematic when applied to modern political-economic relation and even more so when applied to traditional societies most of which lacked anything close to “private property.” The Romans developed a radically new and unprecedented legal concept, that of absolute ownership of things. Scholars of Roman law suggest that the Roman dominium was not just a certain relation between a person and a thing, but absolute power, power not just to use (usus) or enjoy the fruits, but to use up (ab usus) or alienate or have inner power over a thing (see Patterson’s summary, 1982:31). Patterson ventures the compelling hypothesis that behind the Roman drive to develop this legal fiction was slavery, as illustrated in the early original meaning (third century BCE) of the term dominus not as “owner” generally but as “slavemaster” in particular. In effect, the slave, as the only human thing (res), was the paradigm of the concept of private property developed by the Romans. This development was correlated with the dramatic transformation in the Roman economy in which slaves, along with land, became the most important basis of wealth (Patterson: 29–32).

Inducements and Manipulations

Sexual relations and families. We may presume the desire for sexual relations among slaves. Epigraphic evidence indicates that slaves also valued long-range marital and familial relations when they had a chance (Bradley, 1984:48–49). Slaves’ desires for sexual relations and families were exploited by slave-masters to induce acquiescence and obedience. Because technically, legally, slaves could not marry and produce recognized families, the existence of slave marriages and families presupposes the toleration if not encouragement of the masters. Roman slave-masters state explicitly their manipulation of their slaves in these respects. With regard to herdsmen in mountain valleys Varro commented that “it was advisable to send along women to follow the herds, prepare food for the herdsmen, and make them more diligent” (Res Rust. 2.10.6). Tertullian stated that discipline among slaves is better if they marry within the same household (Ad. Ux. 2.8.1). The manipulation of sexual and marital desires could be particularly important with regard to slave overseers. “The foremen are to be made more zealous by rewards, and care must be taken that they have … mates from among their fellow slaves to bear them children” (Varro, Res Rust. 1.17.5 Loeb). “The overseer … should be given a woman companion to keep him within bounds and yet in certain matters to be a help to him” (Columella, Res Rust. 1.8.5). The satisfaction of having “companions” and children, however, was not the only way in which such “perks” proved manipulative for slaves. Given the frequent sale of slaves away from their loved ones or from their children or parents, anxiety about forced severance from those family members must have plagued slaves, leading to their “good behavior” and “loyalty” to their masters.

Most of the slave marriages and children attested in inscriptions must have been from urban households. Recognition of the living arrangements in large urban households reveals another respect in which masters’ allowing their slaves companions and children would have “domesticated” their household slaves. Living arrangements in such households were at virtually the opposite end of the spectrum from those of the modern Western nuclear family isolated in its separate apartment or three to five bedroom house. Slaves, freedmen/women, their children, and the children of the master all occupied the same physical, domestic space (Bradley, 1991:91–92). Privacy was minimal, confined to the few hours spent sleeping in small cells, if such were available. A slave girl might sleep in the same room with her mistress, slave boy at the feet of his master, the master’s children with their slave nutrix. All lived in close interaction, which left little or no sequestered site for any moments of independent life. Slaves may well have developed close attachments to others in the household, including children of the master. And they were under constant surveillance, either by the master and mistress or by other members of the familia.

The peculium as inducement. Clear evidence indicates that slaves of the Romans were allowed what was in effect property of their own. In the imperial period the term peculium came to refer specifically to resources at the disposal of the slave. Technically it belonged to the slave-owner, and on the death of the slave reverted to the master, who retained almost exclusive proprietary powers over the labor, possessions, progeny, as well as the person of his slaves. Also, in many cases it may not have been in effect a bonus, but the resources from which the slave derived her/his own subsistence living. In practice, however, the slave had use and control of the peculium, whether cash, food, livestock, other slaves, or grazing rights. Use of the peculium thus gave the slave a sense of responsibility and some taste of independence. The assumption that most slaves had such a peculium the easy expansion of which would aid them in buying their manumission, led apologetic interpretations of ancient slavery to argue that it was mild and unoppressive. Far from being primarily a factor mitigating slavery, however, the peculium and the other little perks of “humanity” were precisely what made the system work. Another of the “rewards” that slave foremen, according to Varro, should have, is “a bit of property of their own … for by this means they are made more steady and more attached to the place” (Res Rust. 1.17.5). Xenophon (Oeconomicus 5.16; 9.11–17; 12.6–10; 15.1) exhibits that the Greeks had preceded the Romans in understanding how to use “a bit of property” to control and manipulate their slaves. As Patterson observes, the peculium “was the best means of motivating the slave to perform efficiently on his master’s behalf. It not only allowed the slave the vicarious enjoyment of the capacity he most lacked—that of owning property—but also held out the long-term hope of self-redemption for the most diligent slaves” (1982:185–86).

The use of this device to control slaves, of course, was not universal, perhaps not even extensive. “Very few slaves, relatively speaking, can ever have controlled truly substantial sums of money, and for many the peculium was vital to their material welfare and simple survival” (Bradley, 1988:485). Slaves’ entrepreneurial and industrial use of their masters’ property, however, became very important in the diversification of the Roman imperial economy. Much of the commercial life in Roman society was conducted by slaves exploiting their peculia on behalf of their owners. But such economic rewards for the minority of slaves also served to reinforce the slave system. The diversity of wealth among the minority of relatively well-off slaves, comparable to the diversity of their occupations, helped prevent any sense of corporate identity from developing among them.

Manumission and manipulation. Westermann (1955) and others claimed a high frequency of manumission, even that most slaves were freed after age thirty. After all, Syme (446) had declared that “slaves not only could be emancipated with ease but were emancipated in hordes,” and Jones (133) still wrote of “the massive influx of freed slaves into the citizen body” as a social problem confronting Augustus. Such classics scholars led New Testament scholars to understand that “all [domestic and urban] slaves in the first century could reasonably expect that they would be manumitted after serving their owners for ten to twenty years beyond physical maturity” (Bartchy 1973:118). That manumission was virtually automatic then became the basis for two further claims: it made for relative contentment among slaves, thus relieving any pressures that might have led to slave revolts (cf. Bartchy, 1973:85), and that slavery was a mechanism for the integration of outsiders into Roman society (Wiedemann, 1981)—one of the standard defenses of ancient Roman slavery. Slavery somehow constituted a “transitional state” which, with manumission, led the vast majority, who were freed, into a recognized if not fully equal status as Roman citizens (Alfoeldy). Arguments for widespread manumission were based on two types of evidence: inscriptions from large households in Rome and Augustus’s decrees supposedly placing limits on the large numbers of slaves being freed at the end of the first century BCE.

The inscriptions about slaves and freed slaves, however, 98% of which are from large urban familiae, are highly atypical, representing slaves with easy access to and good relations with their masters (Wiedemann, 1985:163). The familia Caesaris, represented in many of the inscriptions, was utterly atypical. Hence epitaphs that indicate that slaves in the emperor’s household regularly achieved manumission between the ages of 30 and 35 does not support the claim that “manumission was not difficult for an intelligent, energetic and thrifty slave in the early Empire” generally (contra Weaver, 1972:97–104). The Lex Aelia Sentia in 4 CE, moreover, does not provide evidence that most slaves were freed soon after the age of thirty. It was concerned rather to enhance the prospect that slaves freed and granted full Roman citizenship were of good, responsible character. “Not content with making it difficult for slaves to acquire freedom, and still more so for them to attain full rights, by making careful provision as to the number, condition, and status of those who were manumitted, he added the proviso that no one who had ever been put in irons or tortured should acquire citizenship by any grade of freedom” (Suetonius, Augustus 40.4). What the imperial legislation thus did was to give masters an excuse for not freeing slaves who deserved to be freed (Wiedemann 1985:168). An inscription from central Italy illustrates how masters who fully believed in manumission for faithful slaves and who were even fond of their slaves could avoid manumission because of this law.

Debita libertas iuveni mihi lege negata

morte immatura reddita perpetua est. (CIL X, 1.4917)

The frequently cited passage in a Senate speech by Cicero, moreover, is merely a rhetorical analogy; he mentions six years as a sufficiently long time for a captured slave to serve because it had been six years since Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon, during which time the Roman state had been politically enslaved. Cicero himself certainly did not practice manumission after six years. He did not set his “most trusted and versatile” slave Tiro, who had been born into the familia, free until he was forty-nine or fifty (Treggiari, 1969:259)—i.e., virtually useless.

Much of the previous scholarly discussion regarding manumission, furthermore, takes on a tone of unreality once we ask about life-expectancy in the ancient Roman empire. Life-expectancy at birth for the population as a whole has been estimated at 20–30 years (Hopkins 1966–67:263–64; Durand, 1959–60:365–73; Frier, 1982:213–51; 1983:328–44). Thus, “it is hard to believe that in the Roman Empire slaves’ life-expectation at birth exceeded twenty years” (Harris, 1980:118). Even assuming that one-third of children died in infancy, it would still appear that most slaves would hardly have reached 30 or 35, at which age the privileged slaves of the familia Caesaris were being manumitted.

In his reversal of his overly apologetic previous position, Wiedemann argues that regular manumission was an ideal, something the Romans wanted to believe, i.e., that if a slave served faithfully, s/he would be rewarded. As it affected practice, however, it had virtually the opposite effect. The slave-master had no obligation to free a slave whom he did not deem faithful. Law codes contain much evidence that masters displeased with their slaves would include in their wills clauses prohibiting them from ever being freed. The literary evidence adduced to show that Romans practiced regular manumission indicates only that they believed they should do so. The evidence of the jurists suggest that when a Roman slave-owner provided for ultimate manumission in his will or in a contract of sale, he paid scant attention to the ideal that a faithful slave should be manumitted” (Wiedemann, 1985:175). It is impossible to reach anything close to a statistical probability, but it is now believed “that emancipation was a comparatively rare reward,” with perhaps only one out of five slaves having been freed. Such acts of generosity by Roman slave-masters were the exception, not the rule (Bradley, 1984:83–91; 1988:483; contra Watson, 1985:23). “Roman society was not marked by altruism” (Hopkins, 1978:117).

For the slave, manumission brought an improvement in moral, legal and, for slaves of Roman citizens, political position. S/he was no longer com pletely subject to the master’s whim and could gain a degree of self-respect, being less subject to the most extreme forms of regular humiliation that slavery entailed. Many slaves of Roman masters became Roman citizens upon manumission, a practice unusual among slave-holding societies which drew comments from the Greeks, who did not grant citizenship with manumission. Economically and socially, however, not much changed for the freed slaves. The status of a freedman/woman has frequently been compared with that of a client of a Roman patron and the manumission phase of ancient slavery in particular assimilated to the vertical patron-client power relations into which a large proportion of the freeborn were forced during the late Republic and early Empire.

Freedmen/women, however, had far greater obligations to their patrons/former masters and were of distinctively lower status than freeborn clients. The relationship between ex-slave and ex-master was always stronger than that of the usual client and patron and had a distinctively involuntary quality. It cannot be viewed in isolation from the slave relationship it replaced (Patterson: 241). The ex-master could and usually did exercise three kinds of claims on his freedmen/women: obsequium, or the regular demonstration of proper reverence and gratitude to their patron and his kin (e.g., joining in the humiliating daily ritual of the morning salutatio in which clients would line up at the patron’s house hoping for hand-outs); operae obligatory work for the patron a specified number of days a week/year; and a claim to half or all of the freedpersons’ estates on their death, which might also be inheritable by the patron’s heirs (Treggiari, 1969:69–81; Wiedemann 1981:50–60). Many a freedperson must have faced economic hardship (e.g., the wry comments of the former slave Epictetus, Diss. 4.1.35–37). Special conditions were often stated in testamentary manumission. The will of Acusilaus, resident of Oxyrhynchus, specified that five female slaves set free were still subject to the condition that their services and earnings were to remain at the disposal of his wife as long as she survived, while his son was given claim to any children borne by the women in the future. (P. Oxy. 494). The slave woman Arescusa “by last was ordered to be free if she gave birth to three children” (Digest 1.5.15).

For most freedpersons, their post-manumission destitution came after years of struggle and sacrifice to raise the “purchase price” of their freedom. Since the slave’s peculium was really (legally) the property of the master anyhow, what was involved was more like a “gift-exchange,” the slave’s surrender of the peculium for the master’s gift of freedom—except that in receiving the gift of freedom, the ex-slave then came under new obligation to the former master, for operae, etc. In any case, the “exchange” which cost the master nothing (providing the replacement cost for the freed slave) cost the slave dearly in terms of long-term sacrifice and struggle. “The money which slaves have saved up by robbing their own stomachs, they hand over as the price of liberty” (Seneca, Mor. 80.4). Cost of manumission was probably close to or somewhat higher than the market price of slaves. Petronius gives HS4,000 as one figure, but a slave doctor paid HS50,000 (Duncan-Jones: 349–50; HS1,000 could provide basic rations for one person for four to eight years). Purchase prices varied according to the skills and ages of the slaves. It seems unlikely that the vast majority of slaves would ever have had opportunities to acquire such substantial sums (Bradley 1984:107). How long it might take for those who did is illustrated by two cases from Egypt. In the late first century a homeborn slave named Euphrosyne was set free by her owner Aline on payment of a ransom sum (plus tax) at the age of thirty-five; in the late second century a woman named Zosime was manumitted by her owner Tasucharion after payment of ransom at the age of forty-four (P. Oxy. 2843). Many scholars of ancient slavery suggest that prostitution was one of the principal means by which slaves worked at raising the price of their freedom.

Manumission of slaves in Greece during the last two centuries BCE is particularly well-documented by a thousand recorded cases involving 1200 slaves in Delphi (paralleled by others from the island of Calymna, near Cos). Especially interesting among these are the cases of so-called paramonē or suspended release, in which “bodies” (sōmata) formally bought freedom, but bound themselves contractually to remain, just as though they were still slaves, until their masters’ and/or mistresses’ deaths, and perhaps to meet some additional condition (see esp. Hopkins, 1978:chap. III). Of the 83% who were adults, 63% were female. The high average cost of 400 drachmae, enough to feed a poor peasant family for over three years, suggests that these slaves had unusual access to earnings, hence were not typical (Hopkins, 1978:168). That even relatively advantaged slaves would struggle to obtain such an amount of funds for only a conditional release suggests just how onerous and degrading slavery must have been, how intensely slaves desired their own even nominal freedom or that of their children. Such conditionally released slaves basically remained in all the basic conditions of slavery. The contracts emphasize the masters’ right to punish: “If Eisias does not serve or do as she is ordered let Kleomantis have power to punish her in any way he wishes; he may beat her, chain her or sell her” (FD 3.3.329). The savings of conditionally freed slaves, just like those of a slave, were claimed by the master. Most interestingly, many of these conditionally released slaves (men and women) were required to produce one, two or even three (already weaned) children for their masters or their heirs: “Let Epaphro give to my grandson Glaukias three babies, each two years old. And let Epiphanea give to my son Sostratos one three-year-old child after five years, and another three-year-old child to my grandson Glaukias after three years” (FD 3.6.38). In some cases parents were thus placed in situations where they “left children behind in slavery to win freedom for themselves as adults”—perhaps hoping to be able eventually to free their children as well (Hopkins, 1978:166).

In social status the freedman/woman had made the important transition from a non-person, subject to the power of a master, to a human being with (limited) rights, yet remained stigmatized by the shameful previous status as a slave. “The stigma of former slavery meant that the freedman was rarely perceived as an equal. Only time could blot out the memory of the debased condition [of slavery]. Hence, full freedom came only to his descendants” (Patterson, 1982:247). As a marginal person, moreover, the freedman continued to be viewed as something of an anomaly and, like all persons in transitional states, was regarded as potentially dangerous” (249). Custom, law, and prejudice conspired to keep even those who became Roman citizens in a position of second-class citizenship (Treggiari, 1969:36–68). The stigma of slavery, still suffered by the sons of freedmen, disappeared only after two or three generations. Nevertheless, to finally be free of having to constantly yield to the commands and whims of the master brought a sense of self-respect and pride. Slaves coveted freedom, were eager to move to the other side of the institutionalized Greek and Roman division between slave and free that meant having minimal human rights, being treated like a human being (even if of the low status) instead of like a beast, and having familial relationships recognized by the society.

Manumission served the interests of slave-master in several ways. It entailed little if any economic loss. The peculium was his anyhow, and his freedmen/women paid for their freedom. Freeing slaves before his own death added to his train of clients, increasing his prestige in comparison with his patrician peers. Testamentary manumission at his death brought admiration for his generosity and magnanimity. In both cases the actions thus added to his dignitas (Harrill: 171).

Whatever the benefit to a minority of domestic slaves who finally attained their freedom, the basic function of manumission was as an incentive to acquiescence, obedience and productivity among urban domestic slaves. (Agricultural slaves, of course, were apparently hardly affected by the promise, much less the reality, of manumission.) As Tacitus indicates, conferring freedom on a slave was a beneficium, an act of generosity by the master, which followed evidence of servile obsequium. Greek writers (e.g., Pseudo-Aristotle, Oikonomikos 1.5.6) stressed the efficacy of promising slaves their freedom, as an encouragement to co-operation and a disincentive to resistance” (Wiedemann, 1985:175). Columella indicates precisely how Roman slave-masters were thinking about manumission and how they manipulated their slaves with the prospect of freedom: “To women, too, who are unusually prolific, and who ought to be rewarded for the bearing of a certain number of offspring, I have granted exemption from work and sometimes even freedom after they had reared many children. For to a mother of three sons exemption from work was granted; to a mother of more her freedom as well (Res Rust. 1.8.19).

Testamentary manumission was the most popular mode among the Romans because it retained the services of slaves to the very last moment in which their owner could use them; it kept the slaves in a suspense of good conduct to the end (Patterson: 223). The effect of the lex Fufia Caninia of 2 BCE and the lex Aeilia Sentia of 4 CE was to give testamentary manumission “something of the character of a competition, the rules for which had to be compliant behavior, loyalty, and obedience.… [they] made full manumission a reward to the slave who reached a deserving age, or … a slave who displayed conformity to the established values of free society” (Bradley, 1984:91–93). Correspondingly, refusal of manumission could be used as a punishment which, when known to other slaves, would have the same effect of an incentive toward good behavior: The will of Dasumius, of the Roman elite of second century, expressly bans the manumission of certain slaves at any future point in their lives, which was sanctioned by law. “I ask that Menecrates and Paedaros not be manumitted but kept in the same occupation as long as they live … because they have given me great offence by their lack of merit” (FIRA 2ed, III no. 148, ll 80ff). Slaves thus knew that submission to the interests and commands of the master—whatever their true sentiments—was required in order to earn his favor and cultivate the possibility of manumission. Masters could further manipulate their slaves by making known in advance the contents of their wills, thus eliciting continued compliance to their will through a prolonged period of time, since changes could be made. “It was the element of uncertainty which surrounded manumission which made freedom an effective form of social manipulation” (Bradley, 1984:99, 112).

Manumission thus served as an incentive for obedient servitude mainly for domestic slaves, most of whom never attained their freedom. Because slaves were systematically dehumanized on the one hand and thus intensely desired freedom on the other, Greek and Roman slave-masters could use the possibility of manumission to manage and manipulate their household staff. “For the masters, manumission was economically rational, partly because it tempted slaves to increase their productivity and lowered the cost to the master of supervising his slaves at work, and partly because the slave’s purchase of freedom recapitalised his value.… Manumission, for all the benefit it gave to ex-slaves, thus served to strengthen slavery as a system” (Hopkins, 1978:131). “By holding out the promise of redemption, the master provides himself with a motivating force more powerful than any whip” (Patterson: 101).

Some Special Aspects of Roman Slavery


Women, like slaves, have usually been “hidden from history,” and perhaps women slaves most of all. A further important aspect of the experience of many enslaved women in ancient Roman society has been brought to light by recent research. Both classical literature and Roman inscriptions indicate that elite families used wet-nurses and other care-givers to nurture their children (Bradley, 1986; 1991). To a degree they employed poor free-born women (Dio Chrysostom 7.114), but mostly they used slaves (or freedwomen) in their own households. Slave-owners thus exploited their slaves’ own recent delivery to their own benefit. The nutrix inscriptions from Rome, however, also indicate that slave infants were also nursed by women other than their mothers (Bradley, 1986:210). We can imagine various contingencies behind this practice: the death of the mother, separation of child from mother through sale (or inheritance) of mother or infant, or a master’s scheme for efficiency in a certain division of labor within the slave staff, with a mother going back to her assigned work while another slave nursed an additional child. Thus some of the wet-nursing practiced was apparently due to slave-breeding, which became more important in the early Empire (Bradley 1986:211–12)

Roman writers, however, viewed the common practice of having slaves nurse upper class children as threatening the proper socialization as well as physical nurture of the child. Favorinus feared the corrupting moral as well as physical influence on a child from a slave, particularly one of a foreign and barbarous nation, … dishonest, ugly, unchaste and a wine-bibber—partly because the nurse’s milk transmitted her moral characteristics to the child (Aulus Gellius 12.1.8, 11–2; cf. Plutarch, De Liberis Educandis 5). Quintilian (1.1.4–5) and Tacitus (Dialogus 28.4–29.2) were concerned that children would be morally corrupted by the speech, stories, and beliefs of nurses and other disreputable slaves—concerns that may not have been unfounded, as we shall explore below. The slave nurse, who was the living embodiment of imperial power of conquest and control, thus became the symbol of decadence once she was placed in the intimate position of nurturing the heirs-designate of the imperial elite.

The threat of the “bad” nurse was mitigated somewhat by the stereo-type of the “good” nurse, lovingly loyal to her master-nursling and utterly untainted by the resentment or resistance assumed for other slaves. Indeed, the good nurse became a symbolic comforter figure in literature. On the basis of such literature some historians have constructed a romantic view of the parent-child-nurse triangle and have imagined the Roman urban familia as a comfortable world free from the tensions and conflicts inherent in the master-slave relationship (Treggiari, 1975:56; 1976:76–104, esp. 89; Vogt: 105–109; Barrow: 37–38). The relationship between slave nurse and elite child was no doubt often close and affectionate, although in practice the senatorial and equestrian slave-holders knew that it was necessary to exercise the proper control of those charged with care of the children. However, this situation also set up the possibility of conflict, insofar as the nurse entered the child’s familial world through compulsion rather than choice. A decree by Constantine in 326 suggests that there was always another possible scenario, that of subtle subversion by slave nurses: “Since the watchfulness of parents is often frustrated by the stories and wicked persuasions of nurses, punishment shall threaten first such nurses whose care is proved to have been detestable and their discourses bribed, and the penalty shall be that the mouth and throat of those who offered incitement to evil shall be closed by pouring in molten lead” (Theodosian Code Joshel draws on testimony of masters and slaves from the American south to indicate how the nursling’s view of the relationship, which is what is usually represented on Roman nutrix inscriptions, may not correspond to the experience of the slave nurse. “The nurses affection and loyalty were there, but not in the way understood by masters who had difficulty seeing beyond their own feelings and their need for the nurse’s love and trust” (Joshel: 12). For example, after she was liberated from a Georgia plantation, Louisa continued to tend the children left under her care. But when asked why she did not object to the Union soldiers setting fire to her master’s house, she explained. “Cause there has been so much devilment here, whipping niggers most to death to make ’em work to pay for it” (Litwack: 163).

The Familia Caesaris and Other “Managerial Slaves”

That tiny faction of ancient Roman slaves who came into positions of considerable influence and responsibility has recently exercised a particular fascination on classics scholars and others. It has been claimed, for example, that with regard to the ordinary activities of managerial slaves, “it would have been difficult to distinguish them from free or freed people,” except for the fact that they were “representatives of powerful people” and thus appeared “powerful, not weak” (Martin: 22). The first part of that statement is questionable because of the dominant values of Roman society. Not only was it beneath the dignity of honorable Greeks and Romans to work with their hands, but it was shameful to work for another person. That presented a serious problem for a wealthy magnate who needed agents to manage their latifundia and other enterprises and a particularly serious problem for Augustus who, as princeps, suddenly faced the problem of a burgeoning imperial administration.

Because slaves were not only “the ultimate human tool” but also dishonored and “natally alienated” they were available to do any work for another person, available for any assignment, susceptible of being trained for whatever task their master required, moved physically and occupationally at beck and command. Thus the availability of slaves provided a ready-made solution to the social and legal problem of having individuals act as agents for another person. For example, “the slave’s lack of separate legal personality enabled him to handle funds directly on behalf of his master” (Weaver, 1972:205). Similarly, for the problem of administering both the empire and the extensive personal property of the emperor, the slaves of the emperor, the familia Caesaris, were the ideal solution. “As natally alienated persons with no other anchor in Roman society or as freedmen owing their status solely to the emperor, their interests were completely identified with his own and he could use and abuse them as he wished” (Patterson: 304). Such slaves’ influence and standing, however, was always dependent. Even freedmen in such positions were considered people without honor (Garnsey: 122). Such slaves’ position was thus also always insecure at best. Their masters retained the power to torture and kill even the most powerful managerial slave. “Of necessity, the power of freedmen and slaves was utterly precarious; it existed solely at the whim, feeblemindedness, or design of the master. Often carnage ensued as the new emperor cleared the deck and settled scores.… Vespasian crucified Asiaticus, his predecessor’s favorite; Otho executed Galba’s favorite, Icelus, to public rejoicing; and so on” (Patterson: 307).

The wealth they acquired and influence they wielded did not give the “managerial” slave or freedperson any dignity or standing in the society. As literary sources, particularly satire, indicate quite clearly, the more wealthy and powerful the slave or freedperson, the more contemptuous he would be in the eyes of honorable people. “Indeed, to the degree that elite slaves used their master’s power in relation to others, to that degree were they despised. It was precisely because they were without honor that they had risen to their positions in the first place” (Patterson: 331–32).

The Question of Social Mobility

Studies by classical scholars on manumission have been of singular importance recently in New Testament studies well beyond the particular issue of slavery in the sociological analysis of the “first urban Christians” by Wayne Meeks, focused on the “status inconsistency” of upwardly mobile individuals. He makes the sound observation that “the most fundamental change of status for a person of the lower classes was that from slavery to freedom—or vice versa” (20). Focusing on freedmen “because they provide an especially vivid instance of social transitions and the resulting dissonance of status indicators” (21), he draws evidence only from “recent intensive studies of the inscriptional evidence [documenting] the restless upward movement of the imperial slaves” (22), particularly by Weaver (1974; 1972).

Weaver (1974) indeed suggests that inscriptions from members of the familia Caesaris“can be of general significance in Roman society … [to] throw light on the process of social mobility in general” (123), yet offers no other evi dence for social mobility of freed slaves. Two thirds of the males of the familia Caesaris did indeed marry freeborn wives. By the end of the study of “social mobility,” however, Weaver must actually conclude that, for all the high status of the imperial freedmen, the upward mobility of imperial freedmen into the equestrian order “was the merest trickle” (1974:136). In a more recent study (1991/1996) Weaver sharply questions the whole thesis of the upward mobility of freed slaves. He declares that the burial inscriptions from Rome are not typical of Italian towns and are even less relevant to provincial communities. Evidence from Rome itself over-represents the numbers of freedmen and freedwomen and their offspring (1991/96:189). Moreover, “the marriage pattern of the familia Caesaris, as of public slaves, is demonstrably abnormal for slaveborn society in general” (177). Weaver refers rather to “perceptive studies of the lower classes in Roman society [which indicate that] the effects of slavery on family life at those levels cannot be overemphasized—slave breeding, sale of children, forced separation of families, the general imputation of moral inferiority to slaves of all ages. These effects persisted to a considerable degree past the barrier of manumission and left their stigma on the next generation as well, even those fortunate enough to be freeborn.” (1991/96:177; citing Rawson 1966:71ff., 1986a:170ff.) The most we can imagine is that freedmen’s marriage “with freeborn women of citizen status would create the possibility of whole families of freeborn citizen children. This would enable the taint of servile blood to be minimized and enhance the social mobility of their descendants. But, in the absence of conspicuous wealth, this would not necessarily be achieved in the first generation, and not easily in sufficient numbers to produce a social invasion from below” (190). Not only was social mobility of freedmen nowhere near what was previously imagined, but the orientalist anxieties about Roman blood, and the civilization to which it gave rise, having run the risk of contamination from the East was historically unfounded.

Roman imperial society generally consisted of a static pyramid of legally mandated orders and a relatively rigid hierarchy of statuses. For what minimal social mobility there was, slavery, even most “managerial” roles, would not have provided a very promising launching pad, considering the social stigma that still attached to the minority of slaves who became freedmen/women—unless we are thinking of a social mobility that happened over three or four generations. The experience of the vast majority of slaves cannot be mitigated by focusing on the unusual influence or atypical mobility of a “select few.” Nor would it be methodologically sound to juxtapose evidence for the perks available to that “select few” with the generally depressed circumstances of the vast majority of free people in the Roman empire. That some sold themselves into slavery says more about the condition of the masses of free people than it does about “the positive meaning of slavery.” As noted above, for example, the dramatic social changes wrought precisely by the expansion of the slave system in the late Republic brought impoverishment to the majority of Italian peasants in a wide radius around Rome. Not only did slavery not mean “upward mobility” for the vast mass of slaves, but the masses of freeborn people were experiencing a downward slide in both economic circumstances and social-legal status. Finley calls attention to “an important symbol of the changing social structure and accompanying social psychology which [had] set in by the second century CE that so-called humiliores [humble freeborn people] were transferred by law to the ‘slave category’ ” in respect to corporal punishment and torture. The extension of humiliating indignities to “the lower classes among the citizen population … was a qualitative transformation in social values and behavior” (1980:95).

Implications for New Testament Studies

Slavery, as an integral aspect of Roman imperial society, impinges on the New Testament in numerous ways and with profound impact: in the historical condition out of which the Jesus movement and the early mission of Paul and others arose; in the focal symbols of the gospel message; and in the households and individual people who joined the movement(s).

According to Josephus and other sources, as noted above, Roman warlords enslaved tens of thousands of Judeans and Galileans who then ended up in slave markets in Rome and elsewhere in the generations before, during, and after the life of Jesus, Paul, and their associates. Cassius reportedly enslaved 30,000 people at Magdala two generations prior to Mary Magdalen. In retaliation against the popular messianic movement led by Judas son of Hezekiah in 4 BCE, right about the time Jesus was born, the Romans enslaved the people in Sepphoris or its environs near the village of Nazareth. After reconquering Galilee during the Jewish revolt in 67, Vespasian sent six thousand slaves to work on the canal at the Isthmus of Corinth. This meant not only collective trauma within Judean and Galilean society in the aftermath of mass enslavement. It also meant that tens of thousands of Judean and Galilean peasants ended up as slaves in Rome itself or other cities of the empire in which missionaries such as Paul catalyzed communities of a movement rooted in Israelite tradition. A substantial portion of the Jews living in Rome were apparently slaves or freedmen/women (Fuks; Lampe). Other subject peoples to whom Paul and others took their mission had also suffered the trauma of mass-enslavement—e.g., the Galatians, to whom Paul addressed an impassioned message about “freedom” and not falling back into “slavery” (Galatians 3–5).

In the areas of mission to the Gentiles the fundamental gospel message resonated with the experience of slavery. In the context of a recently subjected country such as Judea and Galilee, crucifixion would have been experienced and understood as the form of torturous execution practiced against insurrectionaries fighting to preserve their indigenous culture and way of life. In the context of Greek cities long since “pacified” and assimilated into the Roman imperial order, crucifixion would have been experienced and understood as the form of execution practiced against trouble-making slaves. It may not be surprising therefore to find in an early (pre-Pauline) hymn that “taking the form of a slave” is the key image for the “incarnation,” the lowest of the low in a dehumanized and degraded condition (see further Briggs). As Patterson points out, even a message of freedom, such as Paul’s exhortation to the Galatians (Galatians 3–6), depended on experience in a slave-holding society, for freedom had meaning only in contrast with slavery.

In the synoptic Gospel traditions, particularly the parables, derived from and rooted in Galilean Israelite culture not permeated by typical Greek and Roman slavery, perhaps most of the douloi would have originally been understood as “servants.” Some douloi, however, such as those in the parable of the tenants (Mark 12:1–9 & par.), are clearly the “slaves” who comprised the staff of the large “households” of the ruling elite. Those who heard/read the Gospels with the assumptions shaped by their socialization into the dominant Roman imperial society, however, may well have taken any douloi as slaves.

Slavery, finally, figured prominently in the membership and structure of the “assemblies” that were the local forms of the overall “assembly” (ekklēsia) of the movement. Whenever a “household” is mentioned, as in those of Stephanus, Gaius, and Crispus in Corinth (1 Cor 1:14–16; 16:15–16; cf. Rom 16:10–11, 23), it is possible that a whole household including its slaves (or freedslaves?) was involved in a local “assembly.” Paul even mentions the “saints in the emperor’s household” (i.e., the familia Caesaris, through which the empire was administered), although we have no idea whether such “saints” were menial or “managerial” slaves. Actual or hypothetical slaves also crop up that we may miss, unless we are familiar with the patterns of slavery in antiquity. For example, it is at least likely that the “prostitute” mentioned hypothetically in 1 Cor 6:15–16 would have been a slave. By the third if not the second generation at least some assemblies of the young movement had assimilated to the dominant pattern of Roman imperial society, based in slave-holding households. Thus the deutero-Pauline letters and other early Christian documents include in their standard exhortations to the faithful that “slaves …” (e.g., Eph 6:5–8; Col 3:22–24; 1 Tim 6:1–2; Tit 2:9–10; 1 Pet 2:18–25 [here not douloi but oiketai]).

Finally, over against apologists for Christianity working from liberal individualistic perspectives and assumptions, it must be recognized that taking a stand in favor of abolishing slavery in Greek and Roman antiquity would not have occurred to anyone. Slavery was part and parcel of the whole political-economic-religious structure. The only way even of imagining a society without slavery would have been to imagine a different society.

Works Consulted

Alfoeldy, Geza

1972    “Die Freilassung von Sklaven und die Struktur der Sklaverei in der römischen Kaiserzeit.” Rivista Storica dell’ Antichita 2:97–129.

Allard, Paul

1876    Les esclaves chrétiens. Paris: Lecoffre.

Barrow, R. H.

1928    Slavery in the Roman Empire. London: Methuen.

Bartchy, S. Scott

1973    ΜΑΛΛΩΝ ΧΡΗΣΑΙ: First Century Slavery and the Interpretation of 1 Corinthians 7:21. SBLDS 11. Missoula, MT: Scholars Press.

1992    “Slavery (Greco-Roman).” ABD 6:65–73.

Bellen, Heinz

1971    Studien zur Sklavenflucht im römischen Kaiserraich. Wiesbaden: Steiner.

Bradley, Keith R.

1984    Slaves and Masters in the Roman Empire: A Study in Social Control. Brussels: Latomus.

1986    “Wet-Nursing at Rome: A Study in Social Relations.” Pp. 201–29 in The Family in Ancient Rome: New Perspectives. Ed. B. Rawson. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

1987    “On the Roman Slave Supply and Slave Breeding.” Pp. 42–64 in Classical Slavery: Slavery and Abolition Special Issue 8. Ed. M. I. Finley. London: Frank Cass.

1988    “Roman Slavery and Roman Law.” Historical Reflections 15:477–95.

1989    Slavery and Rebellion in the Roman World: 140 B.C.–70 B.C. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

1991    Discovering the Roman Family. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

1992    “The Regular, Daily Traffic in Slaves’: Roman History and Contemporary History.” Classical Journal 87:125–38.

1994    Slavery and Society at Rome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Briggs, Sheila

1989    “Can an Enslaved God Liberate?: Hermeneutical Reflections on Philippians 2:6–11. Semeia 47:137–53.

Buckland, W. W.

1989    The Roman Law of Slavery. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Callahan, Allen Dwight

1989–90    “A Note on 1 Corinthians 7:21.” JITC 17:110–14.

1991    Paul’s Epistle to Philemon: Toward an Alternative Interpretation. Paper delivered to the Pauline Epistles Section at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature.

1997    Embassy of Onesimus: The Letter of Paul to Philemon. Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International.

Christ, Karl

1972    Von Gibbon zu Rostovtseff. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.

Crook, J. A.

1967    Law and Life of Rome. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Daube, David

1952    “Slave-Catching.” Juridical Review 64:12–28.

Dixon, Suzanne

1992    The Roman Family. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

DuBois, Page

1991    Torture and Truth. London: Routledge.

Duckworth, George, E.

1952    The Nature of Roman Comedy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Duff, A. M.

1928    Freedmen in the Early Roman Empire. Cambridge: Heffer.

Duncan-Jones, Richard

1974    The Economy of the Roman Empire: Quantitative Studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Durand, John D.

1959–60    “Mortality Estimates from Roman Tombstone Inscriptions.” American Journal of Sociology 65:365–73.

Finley, Moses I.

1968    “Slavery.” In Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences 14:307–13.

1980    Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology. New York: Viking.

1982    Economy and Society in Ancient Greece. Ed. B. D. Shaw and R. P. Saller. New York: Viking.

1985    The Ancient Economy. Berkeley: University of California Press.

1960    Slavery in Classical Antiquity: Views and Controversies. Cambridge: Heffer.

1987    Classical Slavery: Slavery and Abolition Special Issue 8. London: Frank Cass.

Flory, Marlene Boudreau

1978    “Family in Familia: Kinship and Community in Slavery.” American Journal of Ancient History 3:78–95.

Frier, Bruce

1982    “Roman Life Expectancy: Ulpian’s Evidence.” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 86:213–51.

1983    “Roman Life Expectancy: the Pannonian Evidence.” Phoenix 37:328–44.

Fuks, Gideon

1985    “Where Have All the Freedmen Gone? On an Anomaly in the Jewish Grave-Inscriptions from Rome.” Journal of Jewish Studies 36:25–32.

Garlan, Yvon

1988    Slavery in Ancient Greece. Ithaca: Cornell.

Garnsey, Peter

1970    Social Status and Legal Privilege in the Roman Empire. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gates, Henry Louis

1987    The Classic Slave Narratives. New York: Penguin.

Genovese, Eugene

1972    In Red and Black: Marxian Explorations in Southern and African American History. New York: Vintage.

Gordon, Mary L.

1924    “The Nationality of Slaves under the Early Roman Empire.” JRS 14:93–111. Reprinted in Finley, 1960:171–89.

Hands, A. R.

1968    Charities and Social Aid in Greece and Rome. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Harrill, J. Albert

1995    The Manumission of Slaves in Early Christianity. Tübingen: Mohr (Siebeck).

Harris, William V.

1979    War and Imperialism in Republican Rome, 327–70 B.C. Oxford: Clarendon.

1980    “Towards a Study of the Roman Slave Trade.” Pp. 117–40 in The Seaborne Commerce of Ancient Rome: Studies in Archaeology and History. Ed. J. H. D’Arms and E. C. Kopff. Rome: American Academy.

Hobson, J. A.

1965    Imperialism: A Study. Revised with new introduction by Philip Siegelman. Ann Arbor: Michigan University Press.

Hopkins, Keith

1966–67    “On the Probable Age Structure of the Roman Population.” Population Studies 20:263–64.

1978    Conquerors and Slaves. New York: Cambridge.

Horsley, Richard A.

1991    Paul and Slavery: A Critical Alternative to Recent Readings. Paper delivered to the Pauline Epistles Section at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature.

Jaeger, Werner

1939–44    Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture. 3 Vols. New York: Oxford University Press.

Jones, A. H. M.

1970    Augustus. London: Chatto and Windus.

Jones, C. P.

1987    “Stigma: Tattooing and Branding in Greco-Roman Antiquity,” JRS 77:139–55.

Joshel, Sandra R.

1986    “Nurturing the Master’s Child: Slavery and the Roman Child-Nurse.” Signs 12:3–22.

Lauffer, Siegfried

1961    “Die Sklaverei in der griechische-roemische Welt.” Gymnasium 68: 370–95.

Lampe, Peter

1999    The Christians of Rome in the First Two Centuries. Tunbridge Wells: Burns and Oates.

Litwack, Leon

1979    Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery. New York: Random House

Lohse, Eduard

1971    A Commentary on the Epistle to the Colossians and Philemon. Ed. Helmut Koester. Philadelphia: Fortress.

MacMullen, Ramsay

1974    Roman Social Relations 50 B.C to A.D. 284. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Martin, Dale B.

1990    Slavery as Salvation: The Metaphor of Slavery in Pauline Christianity. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Meeks, Wayne

1983    The First Urban Christians. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Meyer, Eduard

1924a    “Die Sklaverei im Altertum.” Pp. 169–212 in Kleine Schriften. 2nd ed. Halle: Niemeyer. (Orig. 1898)

1924b    “Die Wirtschaftliche Entwicklung des Altertums.” Pp. 79–168 in Kleine Schriften. 2nd ed. Halle: Niemeyer. (Orig. 1895)

Mitchell, Margaret M.

1995    “John Chrysostom on Philemon: A Second Look.” HTR 88:135–48.

Patterson, Orlando

1982    Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Petersen, Norman

1985    Rediscovering Paul: Philemon and the Sociology of Paul’s Narrative World. Philadelphia: Fortress.

Pomeroy, Sarah B.

1975    Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity. New York: Schocken.

Rawson, Beryl

1966    “Family Life among the Lower Classes at Rome in the First Two Centuries of the Empire.” Classical Philology 61:70–83.

1986    The Family in Ancient Rome: New Perspectives. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

1991/96    Marriage, Divorce, and Children in Ancient Rome. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ste. Croix, G. E. M. de

1981    The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World: From the Archaic Age to the Arab Conquest. London: Duckworth.

Saller, Richard P.

1987    “Slavery and the Roman Family.” Pp. 65–87 in Classical Slavery: Slavery and Abolition Special Issue 8. Ed. M. I. Finley. London: Frank Cass.

1994    Patriarchy, Property, and Death in the Roman Family. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

1996a    “The Hierarchical Household in Roman Society: a Study of Domestic Slavery.” Pp.112–29 in Serfdom and Slavery: Studies in Legal Bondage. Ed. M. L. Bush. London: Longman.

1996b    “Corporal Punishment, Authority, and Obedience in the Roman Household.” Pp.144–65 in Marriage, Divorce, and Children in Ancient Rome. Ed. B. Rawson. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Starr, Chester G.

1987    Past and Future in Ancient History. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

Stuhlmacher, Peter

1981    Der Brief an Philemon. Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchner Verlag.

Syme, Ronald

1939    The Roman Revolution. London: Oxford University Press.

Treggiari, Susan

1969    Roman Freedmen During the Late Republic. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

1975    “Family Life among the Staff of the Volusii.” Transactions of the American Philological Association 105:393–401.

1976    “Jobs for Women.” American Journal of Ancient History 1:76–104.

Troeltsch, Ernst

1960    The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches. 2 vols. New York: Harper. (Orig. 1911)

Veyne, Paul

1987    A History of Private Life. Vol. 1, From Pagan Rome to Byzantium. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Vittinghoff, Friedrich

1960    “Die Theorie des historischen Materialismus über dem antiken ‘Sklavenhalterstaat’: Probleme der alten Geschichte bei den ‘Klassikern’ des Marxismus und in der modernen sowjetischen Forschung.” Saeculum 11: 89–131.

1962    “Die Sklavenfrage in der Forschung der Sowjetunion.” Gymnasium 69:279–86.

Vogt, Joseph

1974    Ancient Slavery and the Ideal of Man. Translated by Thomas Wiedemann. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wallon, Henri

1847    Histoire de l’esclavage dans l’antiquité. 3 volumes. Paris: Hachette.

Watson, Alan

1985    The Evolution of the Law. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

1987    Roman Slave Law. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Weaver, P. R. C.

1964    “Vicarius and Vicarianus in the Familia Caesaris.” Journal of Roman Studies 54:118.

1972    Familia Caesaris: A Social Study of the Emperor’s Freedmen and Slaves. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

1974    “Social Mobility in the Early Roman Empire: The Evidence of the Imperial Freedmen and Slaves.” Pp. 121–40 in Studies in Ancient Society. London: Routledge.

1991/96    “Children of Freedmen (and Freedwomen).” Pp. 166–90 in Marriage, Divorce, and Children in Ancient Rome. Ed. B. Rawson. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Weber, Max

1891    Die Röemische Agrargeschichte. Stuttgart: F. Enke

Westermann, William L.

1935    “Sklaverei.” Pp. 894–1068 in Pauly, Realencyclopedie Suppl. vol. 6.

1955    The Slave Systems of Greek and Roman Antiquity. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society.

Wiedemann, Thomas. E. J.

1981    Greek and Roman Slavery. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

1985    “The Regularity of Manumission at Rome.” Classical Quarterly 35:162–75.

1987    Slavery. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Servants of God (S) and Servants of Kings in Israel and the Ancient Near East

Dexter E. Callender, Jr.

University of Miami


In contrast with ancient Greece and Rome, chattel slavery played a minor role in societies of the ancient Near East, including Israel. Yet the people in general and officers in particular were understood as “servants” of the king and, by analogy, “servants” of the gods. The Hebrew Bible, however, is sharply critical of various forms of human servitude. Its critique is rooted in Israel’s formative memory of having been “redeemed from slavery” in Egypt, on the basis of which Israelites are expected not to enslave fellow Israelites and to care for the destitute.

Pauline letters supplied the principal biblical warrant for slavery in the southern United States. The exodus story in the Hebrew Bible, however, provided the biblical paradigm for emancipation from slavery. Clearly the literature of the Christian Old and New Testaments have different views of slavery. And those are rooted respectively in very different historical experience and societal patterns of power-relations. Paul’s letters were addressed to communities in Roman imperial society in which chattel slavery was integral to patriarchal households in particular and to the economy generally. By contrast the Hebrew Bible refers regularly to the people generally as “servants” (˓bdym) of God, on the one hand, yet attempts to restrict the possibility of chattel slavery, on the other. With regard both to the understanding of people generally as “slaves/servants” of the god(s) and to the limited role of chattel slavery, ancient Israel appears to have been similar to other ancient Near Eastern societies, and very different from classical Greek and imperial Roman societies. Yet the Hebrew Bible also articulates an opposition unusual in antiquity, to various forms of servitude, one that appears rooted in Israel’s formative deliverance from bondage in Egypt, the basis of its own distinctive social identity.

People as Servants of the Gods and Kings in the Ancient Near East

Forging an understanding of the concept “slavery” in the ancient Near East poses an almost intractable problem of definition. At present there is a notable lack of consensus with regard to terminology. The problems attending the use of the term slavery are basic to the very nature of language. The meaning of the term “slavery” is determined not only by the spoken or literary setting, but also by the effective history of a given people. The term “slavery” in the modern western anglophone world has been influenced by the course of the African slave trade and its ultimate manifestation in the American South. For Americans in particular, then, caution must be exercised in discussing slavery in the context of antiquity. What exactly is a slave? A common understanding suggests a person deprived of freedom, who may be purchased or sold and, as such, is the property of another, used in accordance with the will of that owner.

A seminal understanding of the term has been offered by Orlando Patterson, who saw property as merely a small and potentially misleading aspect of a definition of slavery. Slavery is not simply an issue of one having proprietary rights over another. Strictly speaking, property in this sense refers simply to a set of relationships between people. Patterson, instead, is informed by the historical development evident in what he refers to as the Roman “legal fiction” of dominum, i.e., “absolute ownership,” which changed the relation to one between a person and things and the subsequent absolute power of person over thing (31). The legal fiction was created, he argues, to buttress and virtually redefine the burgeoning economic role of slavery, previously devoid of such far-reaching philosophical underpinnings.

The place of slavery in the ancient Near East has been the subject of considerable discussion over the course of the present century particularly in view of its relation to the later and more clearly defined systems of Greece and Rome. Something of a consensus has emerged, but a lack of unambiguous sources has provided the conditions for continued debate. The reigning consensus has been that slavery in the ancient Near East differed markedly from that found in classical Greek and Roman societies (Dandamaev: 67–80). Among the most widely recognized differences is that which pertains to the property aspect of slavery. “In Israel and the neighboring countries, there never existed those enormous gangs of chattel slaves which in Greece and Rome continually threatened the balance of social order.… Nor was the position of the slave ever so low in Israel and the ancient East as in republican Rome, where Varro could define a slave as ‘a sort of talking tool’ ” (de Vaux: 80). Degradation and dishonor of slaves were fundamental features of Greco-Roman society. In his classic treatment of the subject, Isaac Mendelsohn attempted to define the nature of slavery in the ancient Near East. He argued that Near Eastern slave institutions were essentially the same in origin, func tion, and character. In Babylonia, Assyria, and Syria-Palestine, factors such as private ownership of land and intensive agriculture led to a system in which chattel slavery played a relatively minor role. Rather, the basis of Near Eastern society was the free tenant-farmer and share cropper in agriculture and the free artisan and day laborer in industry. True chattel slavery indeed existed, but such slaves were nonetheless regarded as human beings possessing basic inalienable rights, as evidenced in the law codes (1949:121–22).

I. M. Diakonoff approached slavery from the sphere of economics rather than law. He perceptively pointed out that in ancient Near Eastern societies ” ‘slave’ is not an absolute, but a relative, concept. Here one does not contrast ‘slave’ with ‘free’, as in the Greek opposition douloseleutheros” (1987:1–2). He observes that among inhabitants of the ancient Near East “everyone who has a ‘lord’ is automatically a ‘slave’ of that lord. No person is without his or her lord (human or divine), and, thus, as was already noted in antiquity by Herodotus and again by Marx, everybody is someone’s slave. This makes it absolutely clear that a social or legal frame of reference is useless for the economist.” Diakonoff finds that there are three types of relations to production and to property in the means of production in ancient Near Eastern societies. First, those sharing property rights in the means of production but not partaking in any process of production. Second, those sharing property rights in the means of production and who partake in the process of production in their own interests. Third, those who are devoid of property in means of production and who take part in the process of production in the interest of others. These would include chattel slaves, patriarchal slaves (who worked alongside their masters), debt slaves, and other “quasi slaves,” as well as “helots” or “serfs” (the term preferred by Gelb). Diakonoff finds the third category appropriate for the “slave” (1987:3).

It is generally recognized that the numbers of chattel slaves in ancient Mesopotamia was generally small and that for the most part they were privately held (Oppenheim: 74–76). In the Ur III period, chattel slaves were virtually insignificant in number and economic impact. The bulk of the labor force consisted of people referred to by the terms guruš and geme 2. The socio-economic status of these has been variously interpreted. According to Gelb, such were native-born “semi-free serfs,” possessing means of production and perhaps family life, who worked part- or full-time mainly in productive type of labor in the public sector. Slaves, on the other hand would have been foreign-born workers who possessed neither family life nor means of production, and who labored on a full-time basis in large households. Diakonoff, as we have seen, would have considered both of these groups “slaves,” but in economic terms alone, not in a legal sense. In addressing these issues, P. Steinkeller has declared that the question as to whether the position of the serf differed sufficiently from the slave to warrant a socio-economic class distinction has reached an impasse (74). His study on foresters in Umma revealed the difficulty in detecting clear social distinctions between workers.

According to the code of Hammurabi, Babylon at the time of the First Dynasty distinguished three principal groups within society. The awilūm, the muškenūm and the wardūm. The term (w)ardū (m) was the most common designation for what is generally agreed upon as “slave” in Babylonia in the second millennium, and in all periods in Assyria. The neo-Babylonian period witnessed the appearance of a number of terms unattested in earlier texts (as discussed by Dandamaev: 82). In writing about the situation in Babylonia, Driver and Miles noted that a slave in Babylonia preserved his identity and had a family, and his master did not have the power of life or death over him (Dandamaev: 68).

Market conditions played no mean role in the extent of chattel slavery. The average price for a slave in the Old Babylonian period was approximately 20 shekels of silver, sometimes rising to as high as 90. The average wage paid to hired labor was some 10 shekels a year. Because it was far cheaper for a landowner to employ seasonal labor than to own a slave specifically for agricultural work, private slaves were relatively uncommon, and were employed mainly in domestic service (Oates: 70). Oppenheim also attributed the apparent small holdings of slaves in private households “partly to the specific nature of their relationship to their masters and partly to the absence of any interest in industrial production on the home level, a characteristic of the Greek city-dwellers.” Such production, he continues, “was restricted in the ancient Near East to the great organizations, that is, ultimately to the manor-level, the house of the ruler or the god” (76). Otherwise, in addition to the corvée, the most common system of working the land was that of tenant farming, whereby the tenant received seed, animals, and implements, for the most part in the form of non-interest bearing loans, for which the tenant returned a set percentage of the harvest.

Servitude in Ancient Egypt appears to have existed in different forms and degrees. Bakir detects a fundamental classification of free or unfree people, yet those who were “unfree” had various degrees of liberty (8). Attempting to locate an Egyptian concept of “slavery” involves negotiating a variety of terms. The term isww, from isw “price, equivalent” designates people acquired for an equivalent, that is, people who have been purchased. The term b3k derives from a verb, which may describe voluntary or forced labor. The term mr (y)t appears beginning in the Old and Middle Kingdoms to describe people belonging either to individuals or to religious institutions. They are often closely associated with land and cattle, and along with the term mr (t) denote people who are put to work especially on land (Bakir: 27). In the Middle Kingdom, the term ḏt was frequently used to denote people who were owned and could be bequeathed. The work they perform usually pertains to funerary service (37). The term ḥm occurs regularly beginning in the Middle Kingdom, but by Dynasty 18 all evidence suggests it becomes the most popular term for denoting true chattel slaves (Bakir: 34). But it is interesting to note that a ḥm could be a land owner (32). In fact, evidence suggests that from Dynasty 18 onwards, the socio-economic position of the slave was not that of the most wretched poverty and abject misery. One cannot deny the existence of chattel servitude, whereby a person could come under the ownership of another, who would obtain exclusive rights to make use of that person as any other form of movable property. Nonetheless, although the worker was regarded as chattel, the worker was allowed to marry, testify in law courts, and refuse instructions not issued by the owner. Texts also reveal that owners could be beneficent, rewarding good behavior with emancipation (Bakir: 90).

The realities of living in Egypt, the place called by Herodotus “The Gift of the Nile,” with its unusually arid climate and low levels of rainfall, made the maintenance of irrigation systems of paramount importance. This placed a premium on cooperation and authority, which led ultimately to an emphasis on praedial servitude connected to the land. Thus, it was praedial servitude that ensured continued existence in the region. From the period of the Old Kingdom on, and intimately related to the need to work the land, Egypt developed a system of forced labor, which included not only peasants but also people who were not normally involved in agricultural occupations. Even those in positions of stature were not exempted by virtue of their position alone (Bakir: 2). The need for an agricultural workforce led to what Bakir describes as a de facto status of bondage to the land, which ultimately, became manifest in compulsory service. In areas other than agriculture, the available evidence precludes assessing what proportion of men were permanently employed in areas such as quarrying and building. Urk. I, 44, 3–4 tells of a mission that was carried out by “all crews from the residence,” and an expedition of a group of ‘state-people’ pr-˓3, a group of people which may have been regularly connected with the state for service, although their status and functions are unknown” (Eyre: 13). The mass of people needed for basic labor on any project can only have been provided by corvée, but information is sparse and mostly indirect.

Chattel slavery thus played a limited role in the political-economic systems of major ancient Near Eastern societies. The extent to which it and other forms of servitude played a role in the ideological life or symbol systems of these people is a separable question. In the mythological traditions of Mesopotamia, the notion of unpaid servitude on behalf of another plays a prominent role in texts that discuss creation motifs. The notion of humans being created as servants of the gods is one that belongs to the official fabric of Mesopotamian thought. This idea is found in the opening sections of the Atrahasis myth (Old Babylonian version). Before the creation of mankind, the lesser gods carried out the “heavy forced labor” imposed on them by the great gods. Mankind is then created to “bear the yoke … the drudgery” (of canal construction, etc.), the ultimate purpose being the production of provisions for the gods. The same idea of creating humankind to “bear the gods’ burden that they may rest” appears again later in the Babylonian epic of origins, “Enuma Elish.” Once again, the work concerns provisions for the gods (Enuma Elish V.139, where the gods remark, “let them bring us our daily portions”. The notion of mankind being created to bear the burden of the gods is also expressed in a bilingual Sumerian and Akkadian text (Pettinato: 74–77), which presents the work in similar terms, and centers it around the temple.

The work of the gods shall be their work

that they might lay down the border trenches forever,

place the pickaxe and the basket,

for the temple of the great gods, …

That they make flourish the grainfield of Anunna,

to increase the abundance in the land,

to appropriately celebrate the feast of the gods.

Particularly interesting here is that the hard work signified by the pickaxe and pannier and by the digging of borders and dykes has an agricultural orientation and goal, expressed in the growth of “all sorts of plants”, “increase” in grain, and “abundance” in the land. From these texts we may conclude that according to this conception, man was created to work not simply in place of the gods, but on their behalf—to do work of direct benefit to them. This work involves the divine dwelling, the temple, and is agricultural in nature (Lambert: 298). Not only were ordinary humans considered the servants of the gods, but the king as well considered himself an agricultural worker. The conception of the king as gardener is seen most clearly in the epithets of Akkadian and Sumerian rulers: “farmer, landworker,” and “gardener.” In the so-called “Legend of Sargon” Sargon was rescued by a gardener and trained as a gardener. These varied images suggest the extent to which the notion of the servant-lord relationship played a significant role in defining and articulating the relationship between humanity and the divine.

In sum, by contrast with the developed slave-systems of classical Greece and the Roman empire, chattel slavery was not very important in the ancient Near East. The people understood themselves as generally in servitude to gods, entailing agricultural production in order to provide for the gods in the style to which they had become accustomed and forced labor on irrigation works, temple-building, and other “public works.”

Servants of Yhwh Vs Forms of Slavery in Ancient Israel

Variety and Ambiguity in the Term ˓bd

Relations of servitude in ancient Israel were in many respects analogous to what is found in its ancient Near Eastern environment. The situation met with in the traditions of the Hebrew Bible is by no means easy to apprehend. Here, the chief problem is the broad semantic range of the term ˓bd. In a broad sense ˓bd refers to a person who is subject to the will of and serves another. It is used for a wide range of relations, from that of a social inferior to a social superior to chattel slavery.

The word ˓bd is used for the all subjects of the king in general and for his mercenaries, officers and ministers in particular. Subjects routinely refer to the king as “lord” and to themselves as “servants.” This extended even to family members, including the monarch’s wives, sons, and brothers (2 Sam 13:24; 1 Kgs 1:17). The word was also simply a term of courteous address, as some have compared with “the development of its equivalents ‘servant’ in English or ‘serviteur’ in French, both derived from servus, ‘slave’ ” (de Vaux: 80).

By analogy, ˓bdym is also frequently used for the people of Israel in relation to YHWH their God, as can be seen in poetic parallelism such as the very early Song of Moses, Deut 32:43, and later Ps 105:25:

He turned their hearts to hate his people,

to deal craftily with his servants (˓bdym).

This relationship can also be seen clearly in the fact that God of Israel is regularly addressed as “Lord” (˒dwny). Such language reflects a conscious servant-lord relationship that extends beyond the expression of simple politeness or respect. Indeed, the roots of this type of expression must certainly lie in the socio-economic servant-lord relationship. Cultic service is simply another aspect of this relationship, since there was no separation of the religious dimension from political-economic relations in ancient Israel.

“Servant of the Lord” can thus also be a title used in a special sense to denote significant individuals, such as the patriarchal figures Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Likewise, David, Solomon, and other kings are referred to as “servant of YHWH.” David expresses his relationship with YHWH in 2 Samuel 7: “What more can David say to you, for you know your servant (˓bd), O Lord (˒dwny) God.” This special sense is applied to prophets as well, who obediently pronounce the will or carry out the orders of YHWH their lord. Because the will of the deity is communicated in the words and actions of the prophet they are to be heeded.

Chattel Slavery

Besides all Israelites being “servants of YHWH” and, under the monarchy, “servants of the king,” some Israelites were involved in other forms of servitude. Three principal types of servitude can be distinguished, two of which were referred to with the term ˓bd. As in the rest of the ancient Near East, chattel slavery was nowhere near as prevalent and important to the political economy as it was later in classical Greece and late Republican and Imperial Roman society. People were indeed bought and sold, owned and utilized as slaves, usually in domestic capacities. As indicated explicitly in the Holiness Code of Leviticus, “it is from the nations around you that you may acquire male and female slaves” (˓bd w˒mh; Lev 25:44). Covenantal laws and teaching, however, placed severe restrictions on chattel slavery. Israelites were forbidden to force other Israelites to serve them or to sell fellow Israelites abroad as slaves. “If any … become so impoverished that they sell themselves to you, you shall not make them serve as slaves (˓bdt ˓bd). They shall remain with you as hired or bound laborers” (Lev 25:39–40). Similarly, Israelites were not to become or be sold as slaves to non-Israelites, either resident aliens or to foreigners outside Israel. An Israelite sold to a resident alien could be “redeemed” (Lev 25:47–53). Furthermore, not as a chattel slave but rather “as a wage laborer (śkyr) year by year shall be with him; he shall not rule with harshness over him in your sight” (25:53). The very existence of such laws, of course, indicates that Israelites were enslaved and/or sold abroad. Prophets such as Amos deliver sharp indictments against wealthy creditors “because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals” (2:6).

Debt Slavery

The laws of slavery themselves reveal another type of slavery different from chattel slavery. Although the precise relation in a practical sense is unclear, this would appear to be what is often known as debt slavery. Israelites who became heavily indebted could be forced to surrender or sell children or themselves as “men-servants” (˓bd) or “women-servants” (˒mh) to the creditor. In a passage that also exemplifies the different relations that could be indicated by the term ˓bd,

Now the wife of a member of the company of prophets cried to Elisha, “Your servant (˓bdk) my husband is dead; and you know that your servant feared the LORD, but a creditor has come to take my two children as slaves (l˓bdym). (2 Kgs 4:1)

The various legal codes place strict time limits on this type of servitude. The so-called Covenant Code stipulated release after a maximum of six years of service and provided further provisions supposedly protecting the rights of “women-servants” (Exod 21:2–3, 7–11). This is echoed and expanded upon later in the Deuteronomic Code (Deut 15:12–14). The later Holiness Code virtually eliminated such limits on debt-slavery, allowing such a relationship to continue beyond normal life-expectancy to a maximum of 49 years (Lev 25:39–43). If the debt-slave consented, of course, the servitude could become permanent, a relationship that must have been close to chattel slavery (Exod 21:5; Deut 15:17). Clearly debt-slaves were extremely vulnerable to being forced into chattel slavery. The prophets railed against the powerful for selling debt-slaves into chattel slavery (again see Amos 2:6). 1And after the exiled Judean ruling class had returned from exile, exploited Judean peasants complained bitterly to the Persian appointed governor Nehemiah that for their debts (apparently) the “nobles and officials” were “forcing our sons and daughters to be slaves (˓bdym), and some of our daughters have been ravished” (Neh 5:1–13, esp vv. 5–6).

Forced Labor

In contrast with other ancient Near Eastern societies, Israel distinguishes another type of servitude, “forced labor,” from the general service owed to lords such as gods, kings, high priests, and other “lords.” The Davidic monarchy utilized forced labor for state project such as the building of Solomon’s temple. The Hebrew term ms, used for forced labor on behalf of the monarchy, is a word of uncertain etymology (North: 427). Conscripted labor was instituted already under the reign of David himself, then dramatically expanded under Solomon, and apparently continued throughout the Judean monarchy until Jehoiakim, just before the conquest by Babylon. That both David’s and Solomon’s regimes included as one of their principle officers an overseer of “forced labor” (2 Sam 20:24; 1 Kgs 4:6) reveals the extent and relative importance of conscripted labor for the early Israelite monarchy. The institution of forced labor in the Davidic-Solomonic empire may have been based on an Egyptian model (Redford: 369–74).

The Deuteronomic history makes a distinction between forced labor imposed on conquered peoples and forced labor imposed on Israelites themselves. David appears to have required forced labor from the Ammonites after defeating them (2 Sam 12:31, although the text does not explicitly use the term ms). That servitude to a foreign regime was at least one of the fates that a conquered people might expect appears in the later 8th century oracle of Isaiah (31:8), a notion echoed perhaps even in the exilic period literature (Lam 1:1; see also Gelb). Under Solomon, the Davidic monarchy must have developed an elaborate system of forced labor by conquered peoples. The royal palace, the fortification of Jerusalem, Hazor, Megiddo, Gezer and other towns, the establishment of storage cities, chariot cities, and cavalry, all testify to the existence of a system designed to organize and enforce a labor force requisite for the completion of such projects. According to the notice in 1 Kgs 9:15–22 (echoed later in 2 Chron 2:16–17; 8:7–9), the great building projects of Solomon were accomplished by means of a non-Israelite “conscripted … forced labor” (˓bd ms, a term often understood to be a synonym of ms (North: 428). The phrase “and so they are to this day” (9:21) suggests a permanent state of enslavement of the Canaanites conquered by David’s armies.

Although 1 Kgs 9:22 claims otherwise, 1 Kgs 5:13–16 (Heb 5:27–30) makes clear that Israelites also were subjected to forced labor. “King Solomon conscripted forced labor out of all Israel.” The Deuteronomic history connects this with Solomon’s building of the temple, but he also required a vast and consistent labor force for his many building projects, including his own palace and those for the princess of Egypt, etc. It is clear, moreover, that forced labor did not end with Solomon, at least in the kingdom of Judah. The last king noted explicitly by the Deuteronomist to have continued the practice of conscripted labor (from which “none was exempt”) is Asa of Judah, specifically for the fortification of the cities of Mizpah and Geba (1 Kgs 15:22). Finally, the seventh century prophet Jeremiah, who witnessed the demise of the Israelite monarchy, alludes negatively to the practice of forced labor continuing under Jehoiakim, to construct his royal palace (Jer 22:13). By contrast to the forced labor for “public works” under the monarchy, the later book of Nehemiah, in the absence of a strong centralized government, portrays the re-building of the walls of Jerusalem with what amounts to voluntary labor, with some refusing to participate and others scoffing (2:17).

Like chattel slavery and the prolongation of debt-slavery, however, forced labor is unacceptable for Israelites, according to both the Deuteronomic history and prophets such as Jeremiah. In 1 Kgs 12:3–4, a passage reminiscent of the Hebrew foremen’s confrontation with Pharaoh (Exod 5:15), Jeroboam and all the assembly of Israel confront Solomon’s son and presumed successor, Rehoboam: “Your father made our yoke heavy. Now therefore lighten the hard service of your father and his heavy yoke upon us, and we will serve you” (1 Kgs 12:4). Rehoboam’s response, likewise, is reminiscent of Pharaoh’s in the exodus narrative (Exod 5:17–18). Following the advice of his younger colleagues his response is harsh and without mercy, “My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to your yoke; my father chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions” (1 Kgs 12:13–14). Particularly instructive for the close relationship between what Israel viewed as intolerable “forced labor” and the general “servile” (˓bd) relationship between people as “servants” king as “lord” is the diplomatically sage advice of his older advisors (which he immediately disregarded, according to the narrator): “If you will be a servant (˓bd) to this people today and serve them (˓bd), and speak good words to them when you answer them, then they will be your servants (˓bdym) for ever” (12:7). The sage older generation of advisers articulate a view of what would be an acceptable relationship between parties arranged hierarchically in the positions of servant and lord. From the Deuteronomistic viewpoint, the Israelites are willing to compromise on a lightened burden of labor, although forced labor is basically unacceptable. The latter position is more explicitly stated in the so-called anti-monarchic speech of Samuel in 1 Sam 8:11–17, which warns of the dangers of kingship, one of them being the conscription of the people to service. The text is loaded with statements that demonstrate the nature of the problem anticipated, as well as use of the term ˓bdym, for the officers of the king, the addressees “menservants” and “his [the king’s] slaves.”

These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. He will take your menservants and maidservants, and the best of your cattle and your asses, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. (1 Sam 8:11–17)

There is no acceptance of a royal ideology of the king controlling the people’s labor and resources for the common good. The tone is clearly one of objection: “He will take … .” It represents monarchy as an unacceptable slavery: “you shall be his slaves.”

Exodus and Covenant

The event celebrated in the exodus narrative formed the basis of Israel’s socio-cultural identity, which it forged from the memory of harsh servitude, “slavery” in Egypt. Deuteronomy calls Israel’s hard labor in Egypt “slavery,” using ˓bd, the general term for servitude. The concept of forced labor, ms, or corvée is more instructive in addressing this question than that of chattel slavery for at least two reasons. First, it has the potential to be as severe as any form of servitude and therefore as troubling from a human standpoint. Second, it is corvée that forms the real background of the exodus in the Exodus narrative.

In Exod 1:11–14 the Hebrews are set to building Pharaoh’s “store-cities, Pithom and Ra-am’ses … with task-masters set over them to afflict them with heavy burdens; [they] made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field.” The labor involved both agricultural work and large-scale building projects. These two kinds of “service,” of course, were precisely what was required of people in the ancient Near Eastern societies in their existence as the “slaves of the gods,” as noted above—although the text does not employ the term ˓bdym, the term used elsewhere to indicate the people’s general servitude to the human as well as divine rulers. Nor is there any suggestion that the Hebrews were chattel slaves (for which ˓bdym again would have been the usual term). There is no hint of a legal change of status, from free to slave. Rather, the language is strongly suggestive of the corvée system: massive building projects, for which “they set up taskmasters over them.” The term “taskmasters,” “chiefs of missîm” (cf. the “forced labor” under Solomon in 1 Kgs 5:13–15), makes the case explicit.

Yet the issue was even more than that of “forced labor.” Exod 1:8–10 suggests that xenophobia and imperial oppression of a subject people, lest they generate an insurrection, were also involved. In Exod 1:11 the task-masters’ assignment was not simply to organize human resources and expedite the completion of state projects, but to afflict (˓nh) the people of Israel through the socially sanctioned means of labor conscription. The term ˓nh connotes the ideas “to bow down,” “to lower,” or “to humble.” Thus, in the Exodus narrative, at least, the Hebrews’ “slavery” in Egypt was a systematic program of imperial oppression. And indeed, as the Moses-led movement of the Hebrews’ resistance to their oppression emerges, Pharaoh and the task-masters further escalate the severity of the hard labor, with abusive treatment as well as repressive measures, as narrated in Exod 5:4–19. The NRSV translation that the Israelite foremen “saw that they were in trouble” is simply an understatement. The phrase br˓ may be literally rendered “in evil, calamity.” The Israelites/Hebrews here were in a desperate situation. The sense is that the situation was humanly intolerable, outside the bounds of acceptable human relations.

God’s deliverance of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt is often called a “redemption” or “ransom” (pdh) from slavery, particularly in Deuteronomic literature. One is tempted to think of debt slavery redemption expressed in Leviticus 25, but the term pdh is never used in that immediate connection. It is, however, used elsewhere for redemption of slaves, as in the Covenant Code (Exod 21:8) and elsewhere in the Holiness Code (Lev 19:20). There are various aspects of the notion of redemption, and there are different terms used to describe such aspects. One clear observation we may make is that the Deuteronomic literature consistently uses the term (pdh) to describe YHWH’s action on behalf of Israel. Exod 13:11–16 draws the analogy with the redemption of the first-born animals, the meaning of which is precisely that “the LORD brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery” Deut 7:8 and other passages in Deuteronomic literature uses the term “redemption” directly for God deliverance from Egypt: “the LORD has redeemed you from the house of slavery” (see also Deut 9:26; 13:5; 15:15; 21:8; 24:18; 2 Sam 7:23; cf. Isa 35:10; 51:11; Jer 31:11). Many of these passages are explicitly linked with Israel’s (Mosaic) covenant with the LORD. The combination of the exodus re demption from slavery in Egypt and the Mosaic covenant with YHWH as their literal king, to the exclusion of other kings, human as well as divine (e.g., Judg 8:22–23; 1 Sam 8:4–8), brings to clear articulation the sense that Israelites cannot properly serve any other lord. Israelites are “servants” (˓bdym) exclusively to YHWH, and therefore cannot rightfully be “servants” of others, whether another god, a domestic or foreign king, or another Israelite.

Israelite exclusive servitude to God is then precisely the basis for its sharp rejection of all forms of human servitude, whether chattel slavery, the prolongation of debt-slavery, or “forced labor,” as discussed above. If we read the full passages of legal rulings already cited above, the connection is abundantly clear. The debt-slave must be set free in the seventh year and generously supplied by the creditor with resources for a fresh start. Why? “Remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and the LORD your God redeemed you; for this reason I lay this command upon you today” (Deut 15:12–15). An Israelite who becomes a slave to a resident alien must be redeemed by a brother, or at least go free in the jubilee year. Why? “For to me the people of Israel are servants; they are my servants whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God” (Lev 25:55, which probably applies to all of the mechanisms in Leviticus 25 to keep Israelites free on their land).

Redemption from Slavery and Social Justice

Israel’s sense of having been “redeemed from slavery” in Egypt and their being “servants” exclusively to YHWH their sole lord, finally, resulted not only in opposition to or limitation of various forms of human servitude. It also carried over into demands for humane treatment of the poor and destitute generally, those who were vulnerable to becoming slaves or otherwise suffering further abuse and exploitation. Again these concerns are articulated particularly in Deuteronomy.

You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this. (Deut 24:17–18)

The Deuteronomic code continues into other examples of how the redemption from slavery leads to social welfare measures for those who are without the usual protection of a complete household for their economic subsistence: leaving some grain, olives, and grapes for the gleaners (Deut 24:19–22; cf. further, 10:18–19). These statements support humane treatment of those who are destitute, the traditionally vulnerable members of society, the so-journer, the orphan, and the widow. Theirs is a situation broadly analogous to that of the Israelites’ oppression in Egypt. Similarly the “credo” preserved in Deut 26:5–9, which reminds Israelites of their “hard servitude” under the Egyptians and the Lord’s deliverance therefrom, serves as a sanction on the bringing of “first fruits” to the Lord, which is in effect yet another form of social welfare to sustain the destitute. Based on its own bitter experience of “affliction” (˓ny), “toil” (˓ml, violent trouble, devastating anguish), and “oppression” (lḥṣ), therefore, Israel was concerned not only to mitigate actual forms of slavery, but more generally to maintain mechanisms whereby they might mitigate other forms of affliction of the destitute. Israel’s concern is not simply with the formal institutions of servitude, but beyond that with the disadvantaged generally, those who were the most likely to end up in various forms of servitude and be subjected to maltreatment.

The liberation of Israel in its “founding” moment was thus from an utterly abusive institutionalized system of servitude, particularly in the hard forced labor imposed upon them as resident aliens. The exodus was a liberation from oppression as well as a “redemption from slavery.” Egyptian corvée became a symbol of such oppression, including when the Davidic kings instituted oppressive policies such as “forced labor” to carry out the “development” of an imperial monarchy. Further, it reverberated in the legislation regarding other forms of servitude, chattel slavery and debt-slavery. Here we might return to the thinking of Patterson in highlighting human degradation in our definition and use of the term “slavery.” The problem was not simply one of servitude but of slavery. The people of Israel were ˓bdym of their God alone, who had redeemed them and now demanded justice from them in their own social relations.

Works Consulted

Bakir, A.

1952    Slavery in Pharaonic Egypt. Cairo: L’Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale.

Dandamaev, M.

1984    Slavery in Babylonia: From Nabopolassar to Alexander the Great (626–331 BC). DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press.

Diakonoff, I. M.

1969    “Slave-Labor vs. Non-Slave Labor: The Problem of Definition.” Pp. 1–3 in Labor in the Ancient Near East. Ed. M. Powell. New Haven: American Oriental Society.

Diakonoff, I. M., ed.

1987    Ancient Mesopotamia, Socio-Economic History: A Collection of Studies by Soviet Scholars. Moscow: Nauka.

Driver, G. R. and J. C. Miles

1968    The Babylonian Laws. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Evans, D. G.

1963    “The Incidence of Labour-Service in the Old-Babylonian Period.” JAOS 83:20–26.

Eyre, C.

1987    “Work and Organization of Work in the Old Kingdom.” Pp. 5–47 in Labor in the Ancient Near East. Ed. M. Powell. New Haven: American Oriental Society.

Finley, Moses. I.

1980    Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology. New York: Viking Press.

Gelb, I. J.

1973    “Prisoners of War in Early Mesopotamia.” JNES 32:70–98.

Heltzer, Michael

1987    “Labour in Ugarit.” Pp. 237–50 in Labor in the Ancient Near East. Ed. M. Powell. New Haven: American Oriental Society.

Lambert, W. G.

1965    “A New Look at the Babylonian Background of Genesis.” JTS 16: 287–300.

Lohfink, N.

ḥpšy.” TDOT 5:114–18.

Maekawa, K.

1987    “Collective Labor Service in Girsu-Lagash: The Pre-Sargonic and Ur III Periods.” Pp. 49–71 in Labor in the Ancient Near East. Ed. M. Powell. New Haven: American Oriental Society.

Mendelsohn, Isaac

1949    Slavery in the Ancient Near East: A Comparative Study of Slavery in Babylonia, Assyria, Syria, and Palestine from the Middle of the Third Millennium to the End of the First Millennium. New York: Oxford University Press.

1962    “On Corvée Labor in Ancient Canaan and Israel.” BASOR, 167:31–35.

Mieroop, M. V. D.

1997    The Ancient Mesopotamian City. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

North, Robert

1997    “mas.” TDOT 8:427–30.

Oates, J.

1986    Babylon. London: Thames and Hudson.

Oppenheim, Leo

1977    Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Patterson, Orlando

1982    Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Pettinato, G.

1971    Das altorientalische Menschenbild und die sumerischen und akkadischen Schöepfungsmythen. Heidelberg: Carl Winter.

Rainey, Anson

1970    “Compulsory Labour Gangs in Ancient Israel.” IEJ 20:191–202.

Redford, D. B.

1992    Egypt, Canaan, and Israel, in Ancient Times. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Robertson, J. F.

1995    “The Social and Economic Organization of Ancient Mesopotamian Temples.” Pp. 443–54 in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East. Ed. J. M. Sasson. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Steinkeller, P.

1987    “The Foresters of Umma: Toward a Definition of Ur III Labor.” Pp. 73–99 in Labor in the Ancient Near East. Ed. M. Powell. New Haven: American Oriental Society.

1991    “The Administrative and Economic Organization of the Ur III State: The Core and the Periphery.” Pp. 15–33 in The Organization of Power: Aspects of Bureaucracy in the Ancient Near East. Eds. McGuire Gibson and R. Biggs. Chicago: The Oriental Institute.

Trigger, B. G., et al.

1983    Ancient Egypt: A Social History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Vaux, Roland de

1961    Ancient Israel: Social Institutions. New York and Toronto: McGraw-Hill.

Wainwright, J. A.

1979/1980     “Zoser’s Pyramid and Solomon’s Temple.” ExpT 91:137–40.

Westbrook, R.

1985    “Biblical and Cuneiform Law Codes.” Revue Biblique 92:247–64.

Wiedemann, Thomas

1981    Greek and Roman Slavery. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press.

1987    Slavery. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wittfogel, Karl A.

1957    Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Yoffee, N.

1995    “The Economy of Ancient Western Asia.” Pp. 1387–99 in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East. Ed. J. M. Sasson. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

˓Ebed/Doulos: Terms and Social Status in the Meeting of Hebrew Biblical and Hellenistic Roman Culture

Benjamin G. Wright, III

Lehigh University


This article explores the impact of the social experience of slavery in the Greco-Roman world on Jews of the Second Temple period. Initially, the article examines biblical slavery—the use of ˓ebed to connote any form of subservient relationship, the different rights of the Hebrew ˓ebed and the gentile ˓ebed, and the limited use of slaves in Israelite society. Next, the author makes a case for Second Temple Jews’ familiarity with slavery in the Hellenistic-Roman period, which was essentially a system of chattel slavery exploiting huge numbers of persons for work in mines, manufacturing and agriculture. The argument is based not only on a general assessment of the ubiquity of slaves in the period but more specifically on examination of the uses of Greek terms for slaves in the LXX, Josephus, Philo, Apocrypha, and Pseudepigrapha.


Although the Jews of the Second Temple period possessed divinely sanctioned laws that included regulations about servitude and enslavement, of both Hebrews and foreigners, they lived in a world where slavery played a role different from and greater than that of their biblical predecessors. Jews, in Palestine and in the Diaspora, were in contact with and subject to systems of slavery that differed in basic respects from the slave system practiced in “biblical times.” Whereas the world in which the biblical slavery laws developed was apparently not highly dependent on slaves for its economic well being, the Mediterranean world of the Hellenistic-Roman period clearly was. Further, the legal status of the enslaved individual in biblical law was different from that of Greek and Roman slaves who were considered little more than their owners’ chattel. The purpose of this essay is to investigate the extent to which Second Temple Jewish literature uses the language of Hellenistic-Roman slave systems and thus reflects the socio-cultural realities of slavery in the Hellenistic and Roman Mediterranean rather than those of ancient Israel.

The effects of these systems were probably felt by Jews in a number of ways. First, Jews were part of a social world in which slavery was the norm, and they, for various reasons, were undoubtedly part of the system, both as its beneficiaries and its victims. Many were bought and sold as chattel slaves, or perhaps themselves bought and sold slaves (though probably not Jewish ones). They were certainly the beneficiaries of slave labor, whether they lived in Palestine and utilized, for example, the numerous building projects undertaken by Herod, or in iaspora communities where, for instance, public slaves performed important civic duties. In all areas of the Mediterranean Jews had contact with the products of Greek and Roman slave economies.

Jewish involvement in the social world of Hellenistic-Roman slave systems must have had consequences for the ways Jews used words for slaves, and the use of the two major languages of the Mediterranean in this period, Greek and Latin, must have influenced Jewish thought worlds. In appropriating these languages, Jews took over the Greek and Latin vocabulary for slaves and slavery. It is hard to imagine that the lexical content of the Hebrew ˓ebed was simply dumped into the Greek and Latin vocabulary; the idea was socially conditioned as well.

To a great degree, living in the Hellenistic-Roman Mediterranean and speaking (or, at least understanding) Greek or Latin meant transforming the notion of slavery or servanthood from that of the Hebrew Bible to that of the slave systems characteristic of the Mediterranean social world in the Hellenistic-Roman period. Of course, the most critical place in which such a transformation can be found is in the Jewish-Greek biblical translations, and the lexical choices made by the translators to render ˓ebed have the potential to have a dramatic impact on the “biblical” concept of servanthood. The term doulos, one of the two major translations of ˓ebed in the Jewish-Greek Bible, quite simply communicated to the Greek reader in this period something different from what the word ˓ebed did earlier. This consideration most probably applies not only to those instances in which an actual servant or slave is meant, but also to metaphorical uses of the terminology.

A corollary to this issue is whether and to what extent the different words for slaves in this period retained their older connotations and distinctions or were used generally as synonyms for slaves. The degree to which Jewish literature uses slave terms like they are used in the language in general will tell a great deal about whether Hellenistic Jews adopted not only the vocabulary of slavery but the attendant cultural realities/concepts as well.

In what follows, I will look at both of the foregoing problems, because they are connected in important ways. The recognition that Jews in the Second Temple period were not isolated or insulated from Greek and Roman slave practices and that they used the vocabulary of slavery consistently with their larger socio-cultural surroundings helps to build a picture of what slave language meant to Jews when they encountered it or used it in their literature. Or, taken from the other direction, although the Hebrew Bible’s uses of the language of servitude, especially the metaphorical uses of such language, may provide a background for understanding the meaning of slave terms in Jewish-Greek sources, such use is only a partial and incomplete background.

I do not intend a review of slavery as it was practiced in the Hellenistic-Roman world (see Finley, 1960, 1987; Garlan; and Horsley’s survey in this volume). My task is much more circumscribed than that. Two questions will remain the primary focus of this essay. 1) What was the social experience of Jews with slavery in the Greco-Roman world? and 2) How might that experience impact our understanding of the use of language for slavery in Jewish sources? The major effort here will be descriptive. That is, I want to gather as much of the data together as possible in an attempt to provide a basis for answers to the questions just posed. Although it will be primarily descriptive, this essay, given space limitations, cannot be exhaustive. Consequently, in addressing question 2, I will treat mostly Jewish literature in Greek, and I will concentrate on the two major terms used in the Jewish-Greek scriptures to render the Hebrew ˓ebed—doulos and pais. That the translators of the Septuagint, people working at different times and places, preferred these two Greek terms by a large margin over any other Greek words (and there were many for slavery) indicates their potential importance for getting a handle on the conceptual content of the transformation of Hebrew slave language into Greek.

Slavery in the Hebrew Bible—Summary Statement

Although the Hebrew Bible contains many references to ˓ăbādı̂m there is actually a limited corpus of laws concerning them. In its basic biblical meaning someone is called ˓ebed who is in a subservient relationship to another. This relationship does not have to be one of ownership, but can apply to a king and his subjects, a god and those who serve him/her, a social superior and inferior. Uses such as that found in 1 Sam 19:4 where Jonathan says, “The king should not sin against his ˓ebed David,” or in Deut 34:5 where Moses is called the “˓ebed of the Lord,” occur frequently in the Hebrew scriptures. But an ˓ebed can clearly be in a servile relation to another, and these ˓ăbādı̂m are treated primarily in Exodus 21, Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 15.

In ancient Israel the Hebrew ˓ebed was distinguished from the gentile ˓ebed. In many respects, the Hebrew ˓ebed was not really a slave as much as a debt-slave or an indentured servant. A Hebrew could be enslaved/indentured as a result of inability to repay theft (Exod 22:3) or for debt (Lev 25:39?; 2 Kgs 4:1), but the slave/servant worked for six years or until the next jubilee year and then was released (Exod 21:2; Lev 25:40; Deut 15:12). A Hebrew could not be enslaved in perpetuity, unless he voluntarily submitted to permanent slave status. This situation, however, seems to apply to males only, since Exod 21:7–11 says that a daughter who is sold as a slave does not “go out” like a male (probably since she is used as a concubine), but either is redeemed or released a) if her master is not pleased with her, b) if he gives her to his son or c) if he marries another (or takes another concubine) and does not continue to provide for her. Deut 15:12–17, in an apparent updating of the Exodus law, explicitly says that the law applies to the female slave.

The situation of foreign slaves was altogether different. In the case of holding foreigners as slaves, Israelites could, in fact, keep them as they would other chattel. Lev 25:46, for instance, allows the Israelite to will them to his heirs. But, the foreign slave is not treated as chattel exclusively. Gen 17:12–13 requires foreign slaves to be circumcised, and circumcised slaves are permitted to participate in the Passover meal. Circumcised slaves of priests are permitted to eat the priestly rations (Lev 22:11). Thus, the foreign slave is at the same time property and a dependent of the householder (Flesher, chap. 1).

In ancient Israel (and the ancient Near East generally) (debt-)slaves and (indentured) servants were utilized primarily in small numbers in households, not in mass numbers as laborers who worked large agricultural estates or mines. Occasionally large numbers of foreigners might become available as slaves due to military successes, but this was certainly not a frequent or normal occurrence. Those people who were enslaved in ancient Israel had a social and legal status different from that of the chattel slaves who made up the system practiced later in Hellenistic-Roman times.

Jews and Slavery in the Hellenistic-Roman World: General Considerations

Slavery in ancient Greece and Rome was a complex phenomenon, but in general slaves in the Hellenistic-Roman period were their owners’ chattel. The slave owned nothing, generally had no independent legal rights and was obligated to do as his/her master commanded. Failure to obey meant discipline or punishment as the master saw fit. In a papyrus from 225 CE concerning the sale of a slave-girl named Soteris, “(Kephalon agrees) that [Apion therefore is master] and has possession and [controls her] and can deal with her in whatever [manner he chooses]” (SB XIV 11277, Llewellyn: 50–51). The slave had no legal family. Anyone to whom the slave was married by the master belonged to the master and any children born to a slave were the property of the master to keep or dispose of as he/she saw fit.

Some incentives were offered to slaves, however, to make the slave system work. Masters occasionally allowed families to stay together. They sometimes set up educated or talented slaves in businesses in which the slave was permitted to keep some of the proceeds. Such is apparently the case in an Oxyrhynchus papyrus where a brother and sister who have inherited a slave from their parents are petitioning two local officials. The slave evidently works independently of his masters, but is refusing to pay them the required monies they think he owes (Horsley: 4.104–106). Slaves were often allowed to keep a peculium, a fund that might eventually be used to purchase the slave’s freedom. And not all slaves lived difficult lives of backbreaking labor. Some slaves, especially in the Roman imperial households, could be entrusted with significant responsibilities that resulted in that slave accumulating wealth, social prestige and even slaves of his/her own. These slaves also experienced a greater independence from their masters than other slaves.

Enslaved persons were used for a wide variety of tasks at all levels of society. Large number of laborers were used in mines, in manufacturing facilities or on large agricultural estates. They were also used in the household as personal attendants, cooks, bath attendants, etc. As a result, slaves were quite simply ubiquitous in the Hellenistic-Roman Mediterranean.

Because of the general ubiquity of slaves, Jews, no doubt, were familiar with Greek and, subsequently, Roman slave systems from early on. Jewish contacts with the Hellenistic and Roman west were quite extensive already by the turn of the era. These contacts were affected not only by Greek and Roman military and mercantile traffic in the Near East, but by the general spread of Jewish communities into Egypt, Asia Minor, Greece and Rome. Those living as significant minorities in these diaspora communities would likely have had extensive experience with slavery, both with individual slaves and with its larger institutional forms. In many cases, Jews were among those known to have been slaves. For instance, two inscriptions from Delphi, which date to 163/162 and 158/157 BCE, note the manumission of an unknown Jewish slave and a Jewish slave woman and her two daughters.

Although it is not certain when Jews began to settle in Rome, the greatest population expansion of that diaspora community most likely came about beginning in the first century BCE through the importation of Jews as slaves. Pompey undoubtedly brought back captives, who would be sold as slaves, as part of his triumph. Philo, in the first century CE, remarks that most of the inhabitants of the Jewish community in Rome were brought to Rome as slaves and later were manumitted (Legatio and Gaium 155), and certainly many more slaves were brought to Rome to celebrate Titus’s triumph over the Jews in the First Revolt (Fuks).

Several pieces of evidence demonstrate that Palestine also became acquainted with Hellenistic-Roman slave systems at a fairly early period. The Zenon papyri, which give a detailed view of the relationship between Ptolemaic Egypt and Palestine in the third century BCE, provide perhaps the best evidence about early Jewish involvement with Hellenistic slave systems in Palestine. Slaves were but one commodity in an extensive trading network between Egypt and Palestine in this period. One text, CPJ 1, will suffice as an example. This papyrus records the sale of a seven year old slave girl, named Sphragis. She was sold to Zenon by a man named Nikanor “in the service of Tobias” (Tcherikover: 1.118–120). Several other papyri testify to Zenon’s slave acquisitions in the area (Hengel: 41; Urbach: 13). In the period of the Maccabean revolt, 2 Macc 8:11 notes that the Syrian general Nicanor sold captured Jews as slaves, apparently to Phoenicians on the seacoast, in order to make two thousand talents, the amount due to the Seleucid king as tribute.

These several examples do not exhaust the available evidence. What they demonstrate is that Jews, in Palestine and in the diaspora, were well acquainted with Hellenistic-Roman slavery. If they knew the social reality, they were undoubtedly conversant with the vocabulary of slavery in these periods. Several Jewish writers, Philo and Josephus for example, are very familiar with the variegated terminology for slaves. What all this implies, is that when these writers use terms for slaves, whether general or specific, modern interpreters ought to see the thought world of this language reflecting that of Hellenistic Roman chattel slavery, not what might be termed the indentured servitude more characteristic of the biblical laws. That is, when Philo and Josephus speak of slaves, they speak, on the whole, the language of Hellenistic-Roman slavery. The situation is complicated by the fact that both Philo and Josephus comment specifically on the biblical laws, and a major question is the extent to which the terms that they use for biblical slaves reveal their own attitudes towards slavery. I will try to set out some of those complications below.

The Uses of Slave Terms in Hellenistic Greek

In contrast to Hebrew, which had one principal word for male servants/slaves and two for female servants/slaves, Greek had quite a number. Each of these had important distinctions in the classical period, but evidently during the Hellenistic period, the several different terms for slaves began to be used more often as synonyms, the older distinctions being generally abandoned. The place where this synonymity is most noticeable is in the papyri, most of which come from Egypt. In the Hellenistic through the Roman periods the papyri show these Greek words used in identical or similar ways to indicate slaves.

Of all the terms used to designate male slaves, doulos (a general word for slave), pais (a less general and more familiar word) and its diminutives, oiketēs (a domestic or household slave) and therapōn (personal attendant) are found in second-temple Jewish literature. In addition koine Greek often uses the nouns andrapodon (literally “human footed”) and sōma (“body”) and the adjective oikogenēs (“houseborn”). Female slaves are most often designated by paidiskē, doulē, therapaina and korasion (although in the Jewish-Greek biblical translations korasion seems to mean “young girl” rather than “slave”).

In the Hellenistic and Roman periods, these words can be found maintaining their usual distinctions with relative frequency, but all can be used of slaves in general and do not have to retain the earlier classical differentiation (Spicq). In several cases doulos and oiketēs or doulos and pais are used synonymously (Straus 1976:337, 338) a certain Epagathos is called both a doulos and a paidarion (Straus 1976:349). Often these different terms may be modified by oikogenēs or even by each other. A number of papyri, for example, use paidiskē doulē (Straus: 338, 344, n. 40).

Important for the use of these terms in the Greek biblical translations and other Second Temple Jewish literature is J. Modrzejewski’s point that there appears to be two vocabularies for slaves (in Straus 1976:347). One is a juridical/official vocabulary which appears “in public acts, in particular requests that are submitted to authorities …” (Straus 1976:347). The other is a private/daily vocabulary. It is this private/daily vocabulary where the terms for slaves find their most frequent uses as synonyms. Synonymity is possible largely because in such private daily use those involved would know the status of the slave in question. In requests made to authorities, a greater specificity might be expected. What we will see below is that both the Greek biblical translations and other Second Temple Jewish works use those terms that appear most frequently in the papyri as synonyms. Those terms that are used most in Modrzejewski’s public vocabulary, like andrapodon, or those that are most ambiguous, like sōma, occur infrequently.

The LXX and the Translation of Terms for Slaves

Of the close to 800 uses of the Hebrew term ˓ebed in the Jewish scriptures, almost 770 are rendered either by doulos or pais. Of the remaining equivalents for this Hebrew word only therapōn and oiketēs amount to any significant portion. The number of occurrences of these words are relatively meaningless in themselves, however. Only some summary of how and where they are used gives them any meaning for understanding the conceptual transformation, if there is any, between the Hebrew and Greek languages.

The Pentateuch. The most immediately noticeable feature of the renderings of ˓ebed in the earliest of the biblical translations is that doulos almost never occurs. Genesis, Exodus and Numbers do not use doulos at all. Leviticus uses it only twice and Deuteronomy only once. W. Zimmerli (674) understands the translators as reserving doulos for “especially severe bondage.” But this solution is not entirely satisfactory. The difficulties of determining whether any distinction in meaning is to be made between doulos and pais can be seen in the several uses of doulos in the Pentateuch.

Lev 25:39–44 concerns two issues: the treatment of the Israelite who, due to impoverishment, sells himself to another Israelite and the buying of foreign slaves. In these verses neither the Hebrew nor the way the Greek translator understood it is altogether clear. 25:39 says that the Israelite who must sell himself is not to be worked as a slave (l˒ t˓ebed bw ˓bdt ˓ebed), but as a hired or bound laborer. That Israelite shall be released at the next jubilee year, and he can then return to his family. The reason given in v. 42 is that since the Israelites are God’s servants and since he brought them out of Egypt, they should not be sold as slaves are sold (l˒ ymkrw mmkrt ˓ebed). Verse 44 begins the second issue mentioned above. “As for your male and female slaves (w˓bdk w˒mtk) whom you may have, it is from the nations around you that you may acquire male and female slaves (w˓ebed w˒mh).” The servants of the beginning of this verse must be understood as the same as those at the end—non-Israelite slaves who can be bought from the surrounding nations.

How the Greek translator understood this passage is very unclear and for the most part depends on how one thinks he understood who the slaves/servants were in each instance. He translates the end of v. 39 ou doulousei soi douleian oiketou (lit. “you shall not enslave them with the slavery of a household servant”). In v. 42 the Israelites are called the oiketai of God, so they shall not be sold like an oiketēs. In these cases, the translator keeps a consistent rendering of the Hebrew, whether one sees the connotation of the passage as good, bad or neutral. In v. 44, however, the translator begins with the pais and paidiskē who belong to the Israelites, and he finishes the verse with doulon and doulēn. If the translator construed the beginning of the Hebrew of v. 44 as referring to Israelite slaves, connecting it to what came before, and then understood the end of the verse as referring to non-Israelite slaves, Zimmerli’s claim would make sense. If, on the other hand, the translator understood the Hebrew correctly, then pais and paidiskē are synonyms for doulos and doulē, and Zimmerli’s contention would not appear to hold true. Which is the case is very difficult to tell. Further complicating matters is Deut 32:36 where God’s people are not called his oiketai but his douloi.

The other use of doulos in the Pentateuch is Lev 26:13 where God again appeals to his role as deliverer from Egypt, but there is added, “when you were slaves (douloi).” In this case the context makes it clear that the idea of chattel bondage is meant. The latter part of the verse proclaims that God “broke the bonds of your yoke and made you walk upright.” In other places, however, the Israelite bondage in Egypt is looked back on and expressed through the use of oiketēs (Deut 5:15; 15:15). In the passages that narrate that bondage, especially Exod 5:15–16, the Israelites, who do not understand why Pharaoh is being so hard on them, call themselves his oiketai and paides.

Whatever significance one assigns to it, the translators of the Septuagint show a clear predilection for pais as a translation of ˓ebed in all its various uses. Several examples will demonstrate the wide variety of uses to which the Septuagint translators put pais. Although pais can mean “child” with reference to chronological age and so sometimes can refer to a young slave/servant, it does not often have that meaning in the Septuagint. The slave laws in Exodus 21 use the word to refer to the Hebrew slave who is bought and who serves for six years or until the next jubilee. Even the Hebrew slave who renounces his freedom in order to stay with his wife and children (he clearly is no child himself) and voluntarily consents to stay the slave of his master in perpetuity is called pais (21:6). In the Joseph story in Genesis, Joseph is sold as a slave in Egypt to one of Pharaoh’s officers. Potiphar’s wife calls Joseph a Hebrew pais at the same time she is finding him sexually attractive and accusing him of attacking her (Gen 39:17–19). It is this same pais who is subsequently put in charge of administering food supplies in all of Egypt.

As has often been noted about ˓ebed, it is a word that does not have to indicate slave status in the absolute, but subservient status vis-à-vis someone or something else. Frequently, one addressing a king or social superior calls him/herself one’s servant. Several places in the Pentateuch exemplify this use. In Gen 19:19, Lot responds to the messengers of God who have told him to flee, “Your servant (pais) has found favor before you.…” Later in Gen 33:5 when Esau and Jacob reconcile, Jacob calls himself Esau’s servant (pais) as a gesture of humility and reconciliation.

A similar idea is also found in relation to God. In several places in the Pentateuch, people are called servants (˓ebed) of Yahweh. Although different Greek servant/slave terms are used to express this relationship, doulos is not one of them. The most frequently occurring term in this context is therapōn. Moses, for example, is called a therapōn of God in several places (see Exod 14:31; Num 11:11, 12:7–8). Deuteronomy, however, generally prefers oiketēs to therapōn; at Moses’ death, the Deuteronomist calls Moses a servant of God, rendered oiketēs kyriou by the Greek translator. Yet, in Deut 3:24 Moses calls himself a therapōn of God. pais is not left out of this type of usage, either. In Num 14:24, where God singles out Caleb for believing him, he calls him “my servant (ho pais mou).”

Not only individuals, but families and the nation of Israel as corporate entities, are called God’s servants. Here too, no one Greek term characterizes this relationship. In Gen 50:17, for example, Joseph’s brothers ask him to forgive the “crime of the servants (therapontōn) of your father.” Lev 25:42, 55 both refer to the Israelites as the oiketai of God.

Several instances in particular indicate that the translators may have used these words for slaves/servants as relative synonyms, with only minor distinctions. In the curse of Canaan (Gen 9:25–26), he is to be ˓ebed ˓ăbādı̂m, translated “the lowest of slaves” by the NRSV, to his brothers, and in v. 26 God blesses Shem and makes Canaan his slave. The Greek translator renders the first phrase pais oiketēs and the second pais, thus making the two terms synonymous for “slave.” Later, in Gen 44:33, Judah pleads with Joseph to allow Benjamin to return to Canaan with his brothers. In his place Judah offers himself as surety that the brothers will return. “I will remain as a slave (pais) instead of the boy, a slave (oiketēs) of [my] lord/master,” begs Judah. For the translator of Genesis, the two uses of ˓ebed are synonymous, but he uses two different Greek words. pais perhaps connotes a slave in a more general fashion while the following use of oiketēs has more specificity regarding the duties of the slave. The words should nonetheless be regarded as virtually synonymous. Finally, in Deuteronomy, where the Greek translator uses oiketēs to refer to the status of the Israelites as slaves, Moses is called both an oiketēs (34:5) and a therapōn (3:24) of God.

These data, then, indicate that for the translators of the Pentateuch, the several words for slaves used here doulos, pais, oiketēs and perhaps therapōn are roughly synonymous, or at least in some cases interchangeable. Zimmerli’s distinction between doulos and the other terms does not hold in my estimation. Yet, the reason that the translators of the Pentateuch generally avoided doulos is not clear to me. Perhaps these translators considered the term derogatory or insulting in a way that the others were not (even though some contexts might lend themselves to insult).

The social realities behind these uses is also difficult to ascertain. In Hellenistic-Roman Egypt were Jewish slaves/indentured servants and non-Jewish slaves both called pais and/or oiketēs as they are in the Septuagint? On the one hand, those Jews who were enslaved for debt were designated by the same words as foreign slaves, but, on the other hand, the laws in Leviticus, while recognizing the “slave” status of these Jewish servants, also demanded that they be treated as hired workers. At the very least, the Jewish translators are adapting the language of Hellenistic-Roman slavery to a category of Jewish enslavement which has no ready Hellenistic parallel.

Excursus on the Use of a Jewish Form of Greek

This last point raises the issue of whether the Greek of the Septuagint translators reflects a special Jewish Greek spoken by Jews in this period or whether the Septuagint formed the basis for the development of a special Jewish dialect of koiné. That is, did Hellenistic Jews speak a language like that found in the biblical translations? G. H. R. Horsley has, conclusively argued against such a notion.

The issue of Jewish Greek has been brought clearly into focus by the studies which have appeared in the New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity series. The sample of inscriptions and papyri collected in the four previous volumes provides a tangible weight of evidence which has steadily reinforced the impression that to claim any such cleavage between the koine and “Jewish” or “Christian” Greek is quite inapposite. The erroneous belief in Jewish Greek is dependent on

a. the acceptance of over-vague terminology and

b. lack of contact with linguistic research, particularly in the area of bilingualism. (Horsley 5:6)

Recent linguistic theory has shown that the phenomenon of bilingualism is much more complex than those claiming the existence of a Jewish Greek have recognized. The result is that distinctions must be made regarding bilingualism and the question of fluency in the secondary language, the relative status of the primary and secondary languages, which language is the preferred language (not always the primary language), how a secondary language is learned and whether the secondary language is read and perhaps understood, but not spoken (Horsley 5:24–25). The presence of Semiticisms in Greek, moreover, cannot bear the weight of an argument for Jewish Greek (Horsley 5:26–37).

Although certain “Semitic features” do find their way into the Greek used by Jews and Christians it should be regarded as “the expected phenomenon of interference which manifests itself in varying degrees in the speech and writing of bilinguals” (Horsley 5:40). Jews may well have spoken with an accent, but accents do not make dialects. What distinguished the Greek spoken by Jews in antiquity from other peoples’ Greek was the use of technical terms reflecting the particularities of Jewish culture and religion. It was Jewish customs that marked them, not their Greek (Horsley 5:40).

Joshua, Judges, 1–4 Kingdoms. These translations, with the exception of Joshua, restrict the number of terms rendering ˓ebed to pais and doulos.

In Joshua, Moses is at the same time called the pais of God (1:7, 13; 9:24; 11:12, 15; 14:7 and others) and the therapōn of God (1:2). Joshua, at his death, is called doulos kyriou (24:30 [29]). The deceit of the Gibeonites reported in Joshua 9 contains the other major uses of slave language in Joshua. The Gibeonites come pretending to be people from a far away land who want to make a treaty with Joshua. In trying to make the ruse convincing they twice use language of humility claiming to be Israel’s “servants/slaves.” In the first instance, 9:8, they call themselves oiketai, and in the second, 9:9, they use paides. It is unclear whether the translator intends these terms as synonyms, or whether he wants to convey a more subservient status, foreshadowing what is to come a few verses later, because in 9:23, Joshua curses the Gibeonites for deceiving him and says that they shall always be slaves (doulos), wood cutters and water bearers for the “house of my God.” The passage clearly understands being a doulos as an undesirable position in which to be, but it sheds little light on the meanings of the two terms used previously.

Both doulos and pais appear frequently in 1–2 Samuel and 1–2 Kings. About their uses in these books, Zimmerli argues that “[o]ne may discern a careful distinction between them. pais is used only for the freer servants of the king (soldiers, minister, officials) who by their own choice enter his service … doulos, on the other hand is used for slavery proper” (Zimmerli: 674). I confess to being a bit puzzled about this claim, however. A careful look at the use of the two terms in 1 Sam 16:14–17:38 illustrates the difficulty of making such a sharp distinction.

In 1 Sam 16:14 an evil spirit enters Saul and torments him. In 16:15 he calls his paides who diagnose the spirit. They reply, “Let your servants (douloi) speak and let them seek for our master a man.…” Saul then requests that his paides find such a man. In chapter 17, Goliath issues his challenge, that if he defeats an Israelite they will be the slaves of the Philistines and if the Israelite triumphs, the Philistines will be slaves of the Israelites, with the term doulos, clearly indicating enslavement for the vanquished. David then appears on the scene and volunteers to fight the Philistine. He convinces Saul and in his argument uses the term doulos three times (17:32, 34, 38) to describe his relationship to Saul.

In the first passage, the Greek translator actually turns the Hebrew text around a bit. The MT has Saul’s servants reply, “Let our lord say to your ser vants who are before you …” The Greek makes the servants, here called douloi, the subject of the verb, and thus more obviously the same group of servants just called paides. By rearranging the text in this way, the two Greek terms must be synonymous, and thus Zimmerli’s distinction breaks down. In chapter 17, the same Greek term is used to indicate the status of the vanquished people, reflecting Zimmerli’s idea that doulos is reserved for slavery, but David immediately thereafter calls himself doulos in a passage where he is clearly volunteering to enter the service of the king. So, while it is possible that the distinction that Zimmerli claims for these translations might generally apply, it cannot be maintained throughout. I would see these two terms as having an overlap in meaning with the tendency of doulos to indicate slavery and that of pais to refer to voluntary service to the king.

The Later Books. Most of the other books use both doulos and pais to render ˓ebed. Some, like the Minor Prophets and Ecclesiastes, use doulos as the stereotyped rendering of the Hebrew. Most, however, use both to some degree. Psalms is a good example here. While Psalms clearly favors doulos (pais only appears four times in Psalms), both terms designate a servant/slave of God, doulos many times and pais in Pss 85(86):16 and 68 (69):18. The same situation can be found in the Greek of Isaiah. The general conclusion one can reach for these translations is that doulos and pais have become fairly interchangeable as translations of ˓ebed, and the alternatives found most frequently in the earlier books have now fallen out of use.

The one major exception, of those books for which Hebrew is extant, is the Wisdom of ben Sira. Ben Sira uses neither of the two major Greek terms, but he renders ˓ebed by oiketēs in every instance. In this case, the use of oiketēs seems to indicate a foreign slave, who is considered chattel. 7:20–21 encourages a master not to abuse a faithful slave and not to withhold freedom from an intelligent slave. Later in 33:25–33 on the treatment of slaves, ben Sira advises a master to work a slave hard because idleness will cause a slave to “seek liberty.” Thus, a slave is to have “bread and discipline”; for a wicked slave ben Sira recommends “racks and tortures.” If a slave does not obey, he says, “make his fetters heavy.” These do not sound like the recommendations for an Israelite slave who is not to be treated like an oiketēs (see above on Pentateuch), laws ben Sira certainly knows. The only exception to this trend is in the prayer contained in chapter 36. Verse 22 refers to the Israelites as the oiketai of God, a use of the term also found in the Greek translation of the Pentateuch.776 Conclusions. The lack of use of doulos in the Pentateuch would appear to be intentional on the part of the translators. The reasons for that avoidance are not so obvious, however. Perhaps the use of this particular term was not thought to be appropriate for slaves who would have been used primarily in the household while other terms would. Yet, as we saw, the few cases of doulos that do occur in the Septuagint proper serve to blur this distinction. The Pentateuch does contain a broader vocabulary for slavery than do the rest of the Greek translations, which tend to restrict their uses to doulos and pais, both for actual slaves and in figurative uses. This situation may perhaps be attributed to one specific problem facing the Greek translators of the Pentateuch, namely, that the category of Israelite slave represents an in-between category which does not exist in Hellenistic slave systems. Yet even in these instances the translators did not restrict the use of some terms to Israelite slaves and other terms to foreign slaves, further complicating the problem. Later translations narrow the range of possible terms, but they also eliminate distinctions in the meaning of the terms that they use.

What appears to me to be the case is that the translators were struggling to find ways to represent what was a completely different lexical and social world from theirs. Ancient Israelites had a single term for various forms of servitude. An Israelite enslaved to another Israelite, a foreigner enslaved to an Israelite, a free person voluntarily serving a king, a person expressing social deference to another, a person addressing God, all are designated by the same term ˓ebed. Socially, ancient Israel does not seem to have had a slave-dependent economy. Few persons would have held large number of slaves, and most slaves were attendants in a household, in close contact with the master and his family.

This was not the lexical and social world of Jews in the Hellenistic period. Greek was replete with words for slaves. A household slave, a field slave, a house-born slave, a personal attendent, all had different designations in Greek. And, although conditions varied throughout the Mediterranean, it can probably be said that the economy of the Hellenistic-Roman world was much more dependent on slave labor than anything ancient Israel knew.

The translators of the Hebrew Bible lived in the latter world, and their use of terms for slaves in the Jewish-Greek translations reflects their attempts to transform the monolithic slave / servant language of Hebrew to their own. In doing so, these scholars not only lexically translated, but culturally transformed the biblical language of slavery for those who used the texts after them.

Slave Terms in Josephus

In contrast to the Septuagint, Josephus’s usual term for slave is doulos which almost certainly connotes for him a chattel slave. This is most forcefully demonstrated in speeches attributed to Jewish leaders in the Jewish War. To be a doulos is, for Josephus, to lose all of one’s freedoms. This is not the limited servitude of the biblical laws. More than once are slaves contrasted with free persons. In Agrippa’s speech in War 2.356 the doulos stands opposite the phileleutheros, the lover of freedom. In Ant. 3.357 to surrender to the Romans is to become a doulos. Here Josephus is certainly referring to the Roman practice of selling captives of war as slaves. douloi in Josephus’s social world seem to occupy a very low place. In War 4.508 when Simon bar Giora frees slaves, Josephus links them with evildoers (ponēroi). He also remarks that Simon’s army is made up of slaves and brigands (doulōn … lēstōn). In War 5.443 he calls Simon son of John and his supporters “slaves and rabble and the bastard outcasts of the nation” (douloi kai sygklydes kai notha tou ethnous phtharmata).

Josephus also utilizes a broader vocabulary of slavery than do the Greek biblical translations. Of the nouns used to designate a slave several appear in common with the Greek Bible, doulos, oiketēs, therapōn and pais. In addition, several other Greek words refer to, or may refer to, slaves. The most frequently used are aichmalōtos (referring to war captives) and andrapodon (which does not occur in the Greek biblical translations). What John Gibbs and Louis Feldman conclude from the use of these terms is that Josephus did not distinguish very carefully among his words for slaves, generally using them as rough synonyms.27 They cite several pieces of evidence, all of which justify this conclusion. Two seem most convincing to me.

First, in a number of cases where parallel passages exist between the Antiquities and the Jewish War, Josephus changes the term used to designate a slave. For instance, in War 1.233, Herod, as part of a ruse, sends a servant (oiketēs) ahead on the pretext of preparing a meal. When that same incident is narrated in Ant. 14.291, the oiketēs is now a therapōn. In War 1.620 when certain informers are produced for Herod, some come from the oiketai of Antipater’s mother. The same event in Ant. 17.93 finds them called douloi.

The second point made by Gibbs and Feldman is one on which I want to expand. A good way to ascertain how Josephus uses these terms would be to compare them to places where he is treating biblical texts. Gibbs and Feldman look closely at 1–2 Samuel and 1–2 Kings. They note at several places that Josephus has apparently substituted doulos, or some form of it, for another word. They further point out that since Josephus probably had some “proto-Lucianic” form of these books definite conclusions are difficult to make.

One finds a similar trend elsewhere in Josephus where he cites or paraphrases biblical passages. I will examine Josephus’s use of pentateuchal traditions here. At the beginning of Antiquities 2, Josephus tells the story of Joseph. Both in places where he adds to the wording of the biblical narrative and in those passages where slave terms occur already, he primarily uses doulos. In the interpretation of the brothers’ initial dream, Josephus sees the sheaves of his brothers bowing down to his “like douloi before their masters.” This is a clear expansion of the biblical text, but it represents the language Josephus has chosen for this story. When Joseph is sold in Egypt as a slave and he has his encounter with the libidinous wife of Potiphar, she calls him a wicked doulos although the Septuagint uses pais (also in Ant. 2.78). Later, after Joseph sets up Benjamin as a thief, Judah pleads with him to let Benjamin go and to keep him as a slave. Josephus used doulos here whereas the Greek of Gen 44:33 has oiketēs.

In other expansions of the biblical law, Josephus adds slaves (douloi) to the list of those who are to hear the reading of the Law (see Ant. 4.209 and Deut 31:10). Although Deuteronomy 17 and 19 do not specify them, Josephus (Ant. 4.219) also says that douloi cannot be counted as possible witnesses in criminal cases due to the “baseness of their soul” (tēn tēs psychēs ageneian). In the law concerning debt slavery, Exodus 22 does not designate by a noun the Israelite who is sold as a slave. Josephus (Ant. 4.272) calls him a doulos. Finally, regarding the law concerning the ox which kills a male or female slave, Exod 22:24 calls the slaves paida … ē paidiskēn; Josephus (Ant. 4.282) designates them doulon hē therapainan.

While Josephus uses doulos and oiketēs by far and away more times than any other term to designate a slave, the one term that really drops out of use as a primary designator for a slave is pais. The lack of this word’s use to mean slave is especially striking when one remembers how it often far outnumbered uses of doulos in the Greek biblical translations. Of the over 700 occur rences of pais in the works of Josephus only a very few could or do mean slave; the rest refer to children.

In several other cases, pais clearly means child in a context where slavery is discussed, and thus the meaning of the term stands in contrast to slave. In War 7.334 Eleazar exhorts the people on Masada to commit mass suicide by arguing that such an end is more tolerable than surrender to the Romans. He says, “Let our wives thus die undishonored, our children (paides) unacquainted with slavery (douleia).” In Ant. 19.129, Josephus gives a list of people who cannot believe that the emperor Gaius could be killed. He includes women, children (paides) and slaves (douloi). Ant. 12.109 and 217 is probably the most interesting passage of this kind. Hyrcanus, who is several times in this entire section called a boy (pais), is sent by his father to Alexandria to honor Ptolemy’s newborn child. He buys from a slave dealer 100 paidas and 100 virgins (parthenous) as a gift for Ptolemy. He then presents them to Ptolemy and Cleopatra each carrying a single talent. Even though Hyrcanus buys them from a slave dealer, and they are to be considered slaves, the use of pais together with “virgins” indicates that Josephus is interested not in their servile status, but in their ages. These are young boys and girls.

Conclusion: This brief discussion confirms the general conclusion reached by Gibbs and Feldman. Josephus has a varied vocabulary for slaves and generally uses the terms without making hard distinctions between them. Although a few uses of pais mean “slave,” the term means “child” in the vast majority of its occurrences in Josephus’s writings. In this, Josephus is certainly different from the Greek biblical translations which use pais often to designate a slave.

Slave Terms in Philo of Alexandria

Given the large corpus of Philo’s writings, one might expect terms for slaves to occur fairly often; they do. His vocabulary for slaves is even more widely varied than the Greek Bible’s or Josephus’s. The main words that Philo utilizes, however, are the same ones on which Josephus relies: doulos, oiketēs, therapōn and sometimes pais. Philo speaks about actual slaves and slavery, but since his agenda is frequently philosophical, slave language is also employed by him in philosophical arguments and thus serve metaphorically.

His most common philosophical use of slave language is in the relationship of a person to his / her desires or emotions. For Philo, as for many Hellenistic philosophers, one can be enslaved to one’s desires, passions, emotions or appetites. To be a slave (for Philo, primarily doulos) of these desires is to lose one’s freedom completely and to be “owned” and controlled by those desires. The result is that such people cannot exercise reason. Philo contrasts slavery, in good Greek fashion, with freedom. Sometimes he does this for actual situations, but other times the slave / free contrast is metaphorical especially when he speaks about the nature of human beings. Thus, one can be a slave in the body; that is, someone may own / control a person’s physical self, but that person may still be truly free. Philo’s clearest explication of this idea comes in the tractate Every Good Man is Free. Physical slavery, Philo argues, is often simply dependent on bad luck, and “anyone who thinks that people put up for sale by kidnappers thereby become slaves goes utterly astray from the truth” (37). And, Philo continues, just as a lion may be captured, but not tamed, still less can a wise man be a slave (40). He concludes a long argument by saying, “Consequently none of the good is a slave (doulos), but all are free. By the same line of argument it will appear that the fool is a slave (doulos)” (50–51).

In other clearly metaphorical contexts Philo speaks of the statesman as the slave (doulos) of the people, an image evidently drawn on deliberately by orators (Ios. 35, 67, 76). In Abr. 45 Philo reveals his own understanding of social order when he argues, in a discussion about the Flood, that if human beings were destroyed “none of the inferior kinds would be left, since they were made for humanity’s needs, as slaves in a sense, meant to obey their masters’ orders.”

In the course of these discussions, as well as others, Philo reveals his own social understanding of the place and function of slaves, and though he certainly is aware of the biblical laws (as we will see below), his own social attitude towards slaves seems much more conditioned by the practices he sees around him. Slaves occupy the lower rungs of the social order. He makes this clear in De Decal. 165. “Parents belong to the superior class (tē kreittoni … taxei) in which belong elders, rulers, benefactors and masters while children (paides) belong in the lower (tē katadeestera) in which belong juniors, subjects, receivers of benefits and slaves (douloi).” In his discussion of how virtuous people are not usually honored, Philo says that they do not enjoy the privileges of subjects peoples “or even slaves (doulōon)” (Det. 34). Although Philo says, and probably believes, that no good person is a slave, in Spec. 2.123 his aristocratic sensibilities surface in a discussion of the fact that the biblical law allows the buying of foreign slaves. He says that there are two reasons for this allowance. “[F]irst, that a distinction should be made between fellow-countrymen and aliens; secondly that the most indispensible possession, domestic service (therapontas), should not be excluded from his [God’s] commonwealth. For the course of life contains a vast number of circumstances which demand the ministration of slaves (tas ek doulōn hypēresias).” He recognizes that slaves can be and were beaten (Opif. 85; Leg. 3.200), that people can be forcibly enslaved (Somn. 2.136), that “bad” slaves take advantage of the kindness of a master and act as if they had not been slaves (Somn. 2.294), and that even though enslaved, sometimes slaves can be entrusted with great responsibility and can purchase, lend or pursue other relatively free activities (Prob. 35). In general then, the way that Philo describes the position and use of slaves in his writings seems consonant with their place and use in Hellenistic-Roman slave systems.

The terms that Philo uses when speaking of slaves also represent the usual Greek spectrum of terms for enslaved persons. While doulos occurs most often, several other terms appear to be used synonymously with it. One of the best texts in which to see these terms being used without distinction is in Spec. 2.65f. where Philo is discussing the Sabbath law. He is quick to note that the law not only requires free persons to rest, but also servants and animals. In the course of his explanation of the reasons for this requirement, he says that masters must get used to working for themseves without the attendance of their oiketai, and that these oiketai should interpret this Sabbath rest as a taste of freedom. He then recapulates this notion using both oiketēs and doulos in the same sentence as synonyms. He moves on to animals, who are also given a Sabbath rest, because “[f]or servants (therapontes) are free by nature, no man being naturally a slave (doulos), but the unreasoning animals are intended to be ready for the use and service of men and therefore rank as slaves (doulōn).” Not only does this passage reveal Philo’s attitude toward slaves, it also shows the relative ease with which he can substitute one slave word for another. In another place in Special Laws (1.126), Philo comments on the right of priestly slaves to partake of priestly food. In this case Philo refers to the house-born slave (oikegenēs) and the bought slave (argyrōnētos). The subsequent discussion contains doulos, oiketēs and therapōn, all meaning slaves, although oiketēs probably has here the narrower meaning of domestic slave.

While the previous examples show that Philo could use certain slave words interchangeably, his writings also reveal that pais is a special case as it was in Josephus. As in Josephus, pais for Philo seems to have the primary meaning of “child.” Only a few times does it unequivocally mean “slave.” Several passages have pais and slave words together where pais clearly indicates a child. In Det. 13–14 Philo addresses the plausibility of the Joseph narrative. Why, he says, would a father who has slaves and attendants (oiketēn hē hypēretōn) send out his son to find out about his other children (tōn allēn paidōn)? In Fug. 3, he gives reasons that people might flee others, including “children (paides) their parents and slaves (oiketai) their masters.” Finally, the passage mentioned above from Det. 165, where slaves and children occupy the lower classes of society, has the two words in the same context.

The most interesting aspect of Philo’s use of pais is that when it means “slave” he is almost always using the term in dependence on the Greek biblical translations. On the one hand, in sections on the slavery laws from the Bible, he often has doulos where the biblical translations have some other term, frequently pais. In several different places Philo treats the slave laws from Exodus 21, Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 15. His treatment of the laws that distinguish between an Israelite and foreign slave is potentially very revealing. In Spec. 2.79ff. Philo cites Deut 15:12 and speaks about the importance of the text using the word “brother” of the debt servant. He further recognizes the biblical injunction to treat that “brother” as a hired laborer ather than as a slave. He then says, “For people in this position, though we find them called slaves (doulous), are in reality laborers who undertake the service just to procure themselves the necessities of life.” The biblical text does not call these people douloi; Deuteronomy does not use the word slave, and Exodus says, “If you buy a Hebrew paida.” Does Philo’s remark indicate that in his social context the biblical word is not used for these debt slaves, but that the usual Greek word doulos is? That would appear to be the implication here. The apparent change from pais to doulos may indicate that the use of these words by Jews may be following contemporary Hellenistic Greek usage in which pais is found less and less with the meaning “slave.” Several other passages have doulos instead of pais: Leg. 3.198 (Exod 21:5) on the debt slave who chooses to remain a slave (LXX = pais, Philo = doulos), Sobr. 51, a citation of Gen 9:26–27, the curse of Canaan (LXX = pais oiketēs, pais, Philo = pais, oiketēs, doulos), Ios. 228 (Gen 44:33) in which Judah asks to be a slave in return for Benjamin’s freedom (LXX = pais, Philo = doulos), Spec. 3.145 (Exod 21:32) concerning the killing of a slave by an ox (LXX – pais, Philo = doulos), Virt. 124 (Deut 23:16) on the runaway slave (LXX = pais, Philo = doulos).

In other instances where the Greek Bible uses pais to mean “slave,” Philo retains it and its meaning. In some cases Philo cites the text directly, and in others he paraphrases, but retains pais rather than change it. In Det. 30–31 (see also Congr. 111) Philo allegorizes the story of Isaac and Rebecca in Genesis 24. Abraham has sent a servant (pais in both Genesis and Philo) to find a wife for Isaac. The servant finds Rebecca and as Isaac approaches, she asks the servant who it is that is coming. The servant replies, “It is my master,” a clear indication of the servile status of the pais. In a citation of Gen 26:32 (see Plant. 78 and Somn. 1.38), Isaac’s paides report to him about wells they have dug. Philo simply reproduces the word used in the Septuagint, here clearly referring to slaves. In one of the two uses of pais in the curse of Canaan, Philo retains the pais found in the Septuagint (see above). He cites Num 31:49–50 in Ebr. 114 in which Moses’ officers (called paides in the Greek Bible and in Philo) report to him.

There are other instances where it seems as if Philo is deliberately playing on the lexical ambiguity of pais. In a passage on the value of wisdom (Cher. 71–73), he quotes Exod 21:5–6 on the indentured servant who chooses to remain a slave, this time retaining the pais of the Septuagint. He draws the conclusion that the mind that has heard lofty and wise words and rejects them is “a pais in very truth and wholly childish (nēpiou).” Here pais might as well mean “boy” as “slave.” Philo apparently wants the lexical ambiguity at work. Another very interesting passage is Congr. 154 in which Philoi is treating Gen 16:6 where Sarah sends Hagar away. The Greek Genesis calls Hagar paidiskē, and about this title Philo comments, “Indeed in calling her paidiskē he [Abraham] makes a double admission, that she is a slave and that she is childish, for the name suits both of these. At the same time the words involve necessarily and absolutely the acknowledgment of the opposites of these two, of the full grown as opposed to the child, of the mistress as opposed to the slave.” In this passage Philo not only understands, but intentionally plays upon the duality and ambiguity of pais words used for slaves.

Some of this ambiguity may be present in one specialized use of slave language in Philo, the servant / slave of God. To be a slave of God (the Jewish God, that is) is not a bad thing, but is valued positively by Philo. His language of slavery to God is varied, like his other uses of slave terms. Sometimes this service can be described using doulos language. In Det. 56, Philo speaks of loving God by which “we mean some such service as slaves (douloi) render to their masters.…” Philo also deals with God’s concern for the world in Mut. 46. He concludes, “Shall we then his slaves (douloi) follow our Master with profoundest awe and reverence for Him Who is the Cause, yet not forgetting the calls of our common humanity.” The slave of God designated by therapōn is also frequent in Philo and the word is used synonymously with doulos in Her. 6 where Philo is interested in speaking with God. A slave, Philo argues, properly speaks to his master when his words and actions are all for the master’s benefit. Thus, “when else should the slave (doulos) of God open his mouth freely to Him who is the ruler and master both of himself and of the All …, when he feels more joy at being the servant (therapōn) of God than if he had been king of the human race.…”

As with the more usual uses of pais, its lexical ambiguity extends to figurative uses as child/slave of God. It is apparent from the examples given above that Philo does play on that ambiguity. One passage, Conf. 147, shows how that problem extends to figurative uses of pais. Philo cites Gen 42:11 according to the Septuagint, “We are all sons (huioi) of one man.” He then continues, “For if we have not yet become fit to be thought children (paides) of God yet we may be [children] of his invisible image, the most holy word.” Here pais almost certainly means “children,” but what impact does such use have on other places, like Abr. 132 where Philo discusses the singularity of God. He cites Gen 18:3. “Sir, if indeed I have found favor with you, do not pass your pais by.” Is it child or slave/servant, especially since these ambiguities seem to be present when Philo quotes or uses a biblical passage that has pais as the central term?

Conclusion: The uses to which Philo puts nouns for slaves, then, are similar to those found in Josephus and, to a degree, in the Greek biblical translations. doulos, oiketēs and therapōn are used mostly as synonyms. Occasionally, oiketēs may be used to indicate a household servant particularly, but certainly not in every case. pais in Philo’s writings has a clear lexical ambiguity on which Philo plays. Yet, most of Philo’s uses of pais to mean “slave” come in contexts where he is dealing with biblical passages in which the word has that meaning already. In other places, Philo would seem to prefer some other word. This general synonymity would put Philo, like Josephus and the Greek Bible, in agreement with the uses of the terms in other contemporary Hellenistic literature.

Slave Terms in the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha

The situation in the Apocrypha (except ben Sira which I discussed above) and the Pseudepigrapha that are extant in Greek is not too much different from what was the case for the biblical translations, Josephus and Philo. The usual slave terms seem to refer to chattel slaves when actual slaves are the referent. What is somewhat surprising is the frequency with which pais means “servant/slave” in addition to its meaning of “child.” One might not expect this given Josephus’s and Philo’s apparent lack of interest in this meaning of the word. The use in the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha may perhaps be attributed to the frequent occurrence of the word in the Jewish-Greek scriptures with the meaning of slave/servant. The best example of this kind of usage is in the Testament of Abraham where in 7:8 pais refers to Isaac and means “child/son,” but later in 15:5 at the end of Abraham’s life his servants (douloi) gather around him. In 15:6 these servants are called paides. In 20:7 where the scene is reprised, doulos is the term used. In 17:18 and 18:3, 9 Death kills a large number of Abraham’s slaves, called paides. pais also is used to mean “slave” in passages in Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, Joseph and Asenath, the letter of Aristeas, Judith, 1 Maccabees.

The title “servant of God” appears a number of times in these works with both pais and doulos, sometimes in the same work. In the Testament of Levi, for example, the Aramaic Prayer of Levi, extant in Greek in Mount Athos ms e and in Aramaic in 4QAramaic Levi, has ˓ebed in relation to God twice in the text and once as a fairly certain reconstruction. The Greek uses doulos once and pais two times, apparently as synonyms. In Paraleipomena Ieremiou 6:19 Baruch is called the doulos of God and in 6:24 Jeremiah is God’s pais—both apparently meaning “servant/slave.” Psalms of Solomon may witness a distinction between the two Greek words. pais is used twice, in 12:6 and 17:21. In each case Israel is being singled out as the servant of God. The three cases of doulos, 2:37, 10:4 and 18:2, all are used in an indefinite plural to refer to God’s slaves. Israel is the pais of God; individuals are his douloi. All the uses of servant of God in 1–2 Maccabees use doulos.

The one work in which the use of pais of God shows some ambiguity is Wisdom of Solomon. The book does use doulos, and the speaker in 9:5 calls himself God’s doulos “the son (huios) of your serving girl, a man who is weak and short-lived with little understanding of judgment and laws.” 18:11 speaks about the killing of the Egyptian firstborn and remarks that the slave (doulos) was killed along with the master. Both uses of doulos designate a chattel slave, one in relation to God.

The occurrences of pais where the meaning is clear serve to illuminate those places where the meaning is not. In 8:19. the speaker remarks that as a child (pais) he was “naturally gifted” that he had “entered into an undefiled body.” The three occurrences of pais in chap 12 all seem to mean “child/children.” 12:3–11 deals with the sins of the Canaanites and the giving of the land to the Israelites. The author singles out the original people of the land as those who sacrificed their children (teknōn). He returns to this theme in v. 6, refer ring to “parents who murder helpless lives.” As a result, God gave the “land most precious” to him to the Israelites, a “worthy colony of the paidōn of God.” In the context, “children” of God seems to me to make the best sense. 12:20–21 continues the theme with “For if you punished … the enemies of your paidōn … with what strictness have you judged your huious.” The use of huios and pais in parallel suggest that paidōn means “children” here. Finally in vv. 24–25 the Egyptians, who worshipped animals and were deceived like “foolish infants (nēpiōn),” are judged by God as “children (paisin) with no reason.” The parallelism makes the meaning clear. The context of 18:9–10, the killing of the Egyptian children, makes the use of pais in the phrase “holy paides” clearly mean children.

That leaves 2:13, 9:4 and 19:6. 2:13 refers to an individual against whom the ungodly conspire. This righteous man calls himself “paida kyriou.” Both 9:4 and 19:6 refer to the people of God with the plural paides. Since the other plural uses of pais mean children, these probably do as well. 2:13, as the only use of the phrase pais of God in the singular in this book, is more uncertain, but should also probably be rendered “child.”

Conclusion: Generally in the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha slave terms do not seem to have any clear cut distinctions in use, even in their religious contexts. This situation is not very different from the other Jewish literature of the Second Temple period discussed above. The terms seem largely interchangeable. With the exception of Wisdom of Solomon, where pais of God should be translated “child/children of God,” the uses of pais with reference to God probably mean “servant/slave,” especially in these places where it occurs together with doulos.

Concluding Remarks

I think the evidence surveyed above warrants the general conclusion that Jewish writers in the Second Temple period are using words for slaves as they know them to be used in their contemporary socio-cultural environment, that is, that the main terms for slaves can be roughly synonymous even though in individual uses some distinction of function might be intended. I want to emphasize at the beginning of this concluding section that this seems to me to be the best way to construe the use of these terms. On the other hand, several issues stand out as deserving special attention here.

First, Philo and Josephus demonstrate an intimate knowledge of Hellenistic-Roman slave systems. Many passages in their writings point to this fact. Philo certainly can be read in such a way that it appears as if he not only knows about slaves, but that he has personal interractions with slaves and masters; perhaps he even owned slaves. In addition, Philo’s own attitudes towards slaves and slavery surface throughout his works, attitudes which reveal an acceptance on his part of the necessity and place of slaves in society. Josephus, as well, knows these systems from his involvement in the First Jewish Revolt and from his later relocation to Rome. Both of these authors’ uses of slave terms would then seem quite consonant with the social realities that they experienced. Something of this may be what prompts both of these men to use the general word for slave, doulos, instead of the more ambiguous pais in several places where they discuss biblical passages that contain the latter term. Like the papyri from this period and later, pais itself is not used a great deal for slaves, although its diminutives are, both in the papyri and in Philo and Josephus.

The glaring absence of doulos from the Greek Pentateuch remains somewhat of a mystery. The possible reasons that I adduced above for its absence, particularly the idea that the terms other than doulos connote a greater familiarity between slave and master, represent informed speculation, but may represent a different way of articulating what Zimmerli was trying to suggest and yet still account for the ambiguity inherent in the several cases of doulos that do occur. Doulos, of course, appears with great frequency in the later translations where all the major terms for slaves serve broadly as synonyms. Thus, the Jewish translations of the Bible witness the same process evidenced in the koine of the period, the increasing interchangeability of these terms for slaves.

When one looks to the metaphorical uses of the words for slaves, most of them can be seen in other Hellenistic literature. The use of these terms in the language of political subjection is not unique to Jews, and certainly Philo’s utilization of this language to speak about domination by human appetites and desires draws on Hellenistic philosophy as does his notion that the wise person can never be a slave.

The one use that would seem to be drawn specifically from Jewish sources, the Bible in particular, is the notion of the “slave of God.” Although the Greek term for slave can be any of those I have looked at in this essay, to be a “slave of God” is a good thing. Further, it does not seem to have ready sources in Hellenistic literature. One other place where such an idea is prevalent is in the Greek magical papyri. One finds numerous examples like that in PGM XIII.637 where the supplicant says to Sarapis, “I am your slave and petitioner and the one who hymns your name.”49 Unfortunately, most of these papyri date from well after the first century CE, and, as a methodological point, such use may have come to these magical texts via Jewish or Christian sources. It would seem, then, that this idea is unique to Jews, an idea that they drew from their scriptural traditions and their self conception as a nation of people who are “servants of God,” as opposed to servants of human rulers.

Works Consulted

Attridge, H. W.

1984    “Josephus and His Works.” Pp. 185–232 in Jewish Writings of the Second Temple Period. Ed. Michael E. Stone. CRINT 2.II. Philadelphia: Fortress.

Bartchy, S. Scott

1973    First-Century Slavery and the Interpretation of 1 Corinthians 7:21. SBLDS 11. Atlanta: Scholars Press.

1992    “Slavery (NT).” ABD 6:65–73.

Betz, Hans Dieter

1986    The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Dandamayev, Muhammad A.

1992    “Slavery (ANE)” and “Slavery (OT).” ABD 6:58–65.

Finley, M. I., ed.

1960    Slavery in Classical Antiquity. Cambridge: Heffer.

1987    Classical Slavery. Totowa, N.J.: Frank Cass.

Flesher, Paul Virgil McCracken

1988    Oxen, Women, or Citizens? Slaves in the System of the Mishnah. Atlanta: Scholars Press.

Fuks, G.

1985    “Where Have all the Freedmen Gone? On an Anomaly in the Jewish Grave-Inscriptions from Rome.” JJS 36:25–32.

Garlan, Yvon

1988    Slavery in Ancient Greece. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Gibbs, John G. and Louis Feldman

1986    “Josephus’ Vocabulary for Slavery.” JQR 76:281–310.

Hengel, Martin

1974    Judaism and Hellenism. Philadelphia: Fortress.

Horsley, G. H. R.

1981–89    New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity. Vols 1–5. Macquarie University: The Ancient History Documentary Research Centre.

Jeremias, Joachim

1967    “pais theou in Later Judaism in the Period after the LXX.” TDNT 5: 677–717.

Kraemer, Ross S.

1989    “On the Meaning of the Term ‘Jew’ in Greco-Roman Inscriptions.” HTR 81:35–53.

1991    “Jewish Tuna and Christian Fish: Identifying Religious Affiliation in Epigraphic Sources.” HTR 84:141–62.

Kraft, Robert A.

1975    Septuagintal Lexicography. SCS 1. Missoula: Scholars Press.

Kraft, Robert A. and Ann-Elizabeth Purinton

1972    Paraleipomena Jeremiou. Texts and Translations 1, Pseudepigrapha 1. Missoula: Society of Biblical Literature.

Levine, Baruch

1989    The JPS Torah Commentary: Leviticus. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.

Llewelyn, S. R.

1992    New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity. Vol. 6. Macquarie University: The Ancient History Documentary Research Centre.

Martin, Dale B.

1990    Slavery as Salvation: The Metaphor of Slavery in Pauline Christianity. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Mendelsohn, Isaac

1949    Slavery in the Ancient Near East: A Comparative Study of Slavery in Babylonia, Assyria, Syria and Palestine; From the Middle of the Third Millenium to the End of the First Millenium. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Patterson, Orlando

1982    Slavery and Social Death. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Preisendanz, Karl

1928    Papyri Graecae Magicae: Die griechischen Zauberpapyri. Berlin: Teubner.

Rahlfs, Alfred, ed.

1935    Septuaginta. Stuttgart: Württembergische Bibelanstalt.

Rengstorf, Karl

1967    “doulos” TDNT 2: 261–80.

Skehan, Patrick W. and Alexander A. di Lella

1987    The Wisdom of Ben Sira. AB 39. New York: Doubleday.

Spicq, C.

1978    “Le vocabulaire de l’esclavage dans le nouveau testament.” RevBib 85:201–26.

Stern, Menachem

1976–84    Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism. Vols 1–3. Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities.

1992    Studies in the History of Israel in the Second Temple Period. Jerusalem: Yitzchak ben Zvi (Hebrew).

Stone, Michael E. and Jonas C. Greenfield

1993    “The Prayer of Levi.” JBL 112:247–66.

Straus, J.-A.

1976    “La terminologie de l’esclavage dans les papyrus grecs romaines trouvés en Egypte.” Pp. 335–50 in Actes du colloque 1973 sur l’esclavage. Annales Litteraires de l’Université de Besançon, 182. Paris: Les Belles Lettres.

1981    “La terminologie grecque de l’esclavage dans les papyrus de l’Égypte lagide et romaine.” Pp. 385–91 in Scritti in Onore di Orsolina Montevecchi. Ed. Edda Bresciani, Giovanni Geraci, Sergio Pernigotti, Giancarlo Susini. Bologna: Editrice Bologna.

Tcherikover, Victor and G. Fuks

1957–64    Corpus Papyrorum Ioudicarum. Vols 1–3. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Trebilco, Paul

1991    Jewish Communities in Asia Minor. SNTS Monographs 69. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Urbach, E. E.

1964    “The Laws Regarding Slavery as a Source for Social History of the Period of the Second Temple, the Mishnah and Talmud.” Pp. 1–94 in Papers of the Institute of Jewish Studies London. Ed. J. G. Weiss. Jerusalem: Magnes.

Vaux, Roland de

1965    Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions. London: Darton, Longman & Todd.

Vogt, Joseph

1974    Ancient Slavery and the Ideal of Man. Oxford: Blackwell.

Westermann, William L.

1955    The Slave Systems of Greek and Roman Antiquity. Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society.

Wiedemann, Thomas

1981    Greek and Roman Slavery. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Winston, David

1979    The Wisdom of Solomon. AB 43. New York: Doubleday.

Zimmerli, Walther

1975    “pais theou.” TDNT 5: 654–77.

The Depiction of Slavery in the Ancient Novel

Lawrence M. Wills

Episcopal Divinity School


To make a distinction between slavery in the Roman period of antiquity and slavery in the antebellum United States, the article begins with several basic definitions and distinctions ingredient to the complexity of social relations in Roman antiquity: 1) its vertical world view with a metaphysical presumption of inequality among deities, daimons and spirits in heaven and among human beings on earth; 2) its variety of overlapping deference entitlement determinants (such as ordo, class, wealth, gender, citizen, and family) all of which were governed by the aforementioned overarching dyadic hierarchy of relations; and 3) its denial of the slave’s natal identity primarily through acts of deprivation (e.g., war or debt), not through distinctions based on race. Next, the article examines three categories of novels from the Greco-Roman period: 1) the ideal Greek romances 2) the satirical novels; and 3) the Jewish novels. All three novel categories presuppose the dyad and a negative view of slavery. In the case of the first two, the issue of slavery is used to represent the threat of the defilement of aristocratic station; in the case of the third, to represent the threat of destruction for a pious Jew or a whole group of Jews.

The novels of the Greco-Roman period constitute some of our best available evidence for the study of popular culture in antiquity, including prevailing attitudes (among the upper classes, at any rate) regarding slavery. Slavery is, indeed, a central part of the symbolic universe of the novels. I shall not attempt in this article to analyze in detail the depiction of slaves and slavery in the novel of the Greco-Roman period, but merely to make some observations that will constitute prolegomena for a hermeneutics of slavery in the novel genre in the ancient world. My choice of texts, though broad, will not be exhaustive, but will demonstrate the importance of the novels in illuminating our knowledge of the phenomenon of slavery in the ancient world. This, in turn, will contribute to the interpretation of Jewish and Christian texts of the Greco-Roman period.

Before we turn to the novels, however, some basic definitions and distinctions are necessary to indicate more precisely the parameters of what we are looking for and what we are likely to find. A constant theme in past studies of slavery in the Roman period has been the surprising complexity of social relations in this period, relative to the system of slavery in the antebellum United States. The complexity is not simply the result of the sudden expansion of the western world in the Hellenistic period, nor the mixing of cultures east and west. It is also found in the very nature of Roman social relations, which rest upon pillars very different from our own. In the Modern West, capitalism determines the economic sphere, while democracy determines the political. Both of these systems presume isolated, “equivalent” individual agents who exercise their economic rights to earn money and spend it as they choose, and to vote for whomever they want; it is, therefore, in theory a horizontal world view. To be sure, only some individuals are allowed the status of being a “generic agent,” but that did not constitute sufficient reason to bring into question the social theory of horizontal equivalency. In fact, the gradual admission of women, former slaves, or the poor into the marketplace of equivalent agents tends to confirm in people’s minds the essentially horizontal nature of social relations. This is very different from the Greco-Roman world, where a divinely ordained hierarchy pervaded the cosmos, part of a Great Chain of Being consisting of, in the heavens, a range of greater and lesser deities, daimons and spirits, and on earth, human beings arranged in an equally rigid hierarchy. The gradations on earth would also extend to animals, plants, and matter. Just as there is a “graduated divinity” in heaven, there is a “graduated humanity” on earth. All consideration of a social contract theory between individual agents, based on fairness in economic relations, would seem absurd in such a system. Our modern system is based on the metaphysical presumption of individuality and equality in the economic and political spheres, the Roman on the metaphysical presumption of inequality and hierarchy. Even though there can be found countless and persistent individual examples of inequality in our present economic order, and surprising social mobility and escape from these constraints in the Roman world, that does not negate the importance of the theoretical “nature of things” that undergirds each world view. There is an opposite ideological ethos in the two systems.

The surprising failure of philosophers in the ancient world to condemn slavery as an institution should be seen in light of this metaphysical principle of hierarchy. The whole universe, even the gods, were seemingly arranged according to this hierarchy; it would have seemed insane to the elite philosophers to deny it. Only Cynics, who dissolved all social distinctions, could dissolve the hierarchy of class as well, and even here this act of deviance only tended to reify the social distinctions left behind. Thus it is important to invoke as a hermeneutical principle that, whereas the actual social relations “on the ground” in the Roman world might have been irregular and complex, the ideal arrangement of social relations, grounded in fundamental metaphysical beliefs, was simple: the universe is hierarchical.

As far as the legal system was concerned, humanity could be cleanly divided into slave and free: “This is the basic division in the law of persons, that all men are either free or slaves” (Gaius, Institutes 1.9). In a number of important areas, the division carried symbolic and real implications of the greatest significance. Slaves were subject to a different, and much crueler, set of punishments. Masters possessed the rights of nearly unlimited sexual access to slaves (Finley: 95–96; Garnsey: 213–16). Despite the ability of slaves under some circumstances to attain de facto wealth and power, and the delimitation of a freed person in many cases to the status of “client” to the former master, manumission in Rome was considered the greatest possible change of condition, from object to subject in law. Citizenship might be conferred, and the person freed would no longer be kinless (Finley: 97). Thus the use in the New Testament of the term apolytrōsis (the purchasing of a slave for the purposes of manumitting him or her) for “redemption” is quite a potent metaphor. It has suffered from a pietistic and individualistic application, but it could easily be used as a key term for liberation theology. The purchase must be seen on its two levels, however. In practice, a slave thus purchased and manumitted would become a client to the one purchasing, and thus still be subservient; on the symbolic level, however, the change of status is fundamental.

If the principle of a hierarchical cosmos, ruled by dualities, was simple, whence the complexity? The complexity arises from the variety of status distinctions that would determine one’s existence. A grid of overlapping determinants of one’s social location might include ordo or class, wealth, gender, citizenship, and family. In addition, the patronage system created very well demarcated and even ritualized relations of patrons and clients. In addition to these overlapping distinctions, one must also consider the irregularities within them, that is, cases where people in supposedly restricted social categories attain greater power or status, or suffer a loss of status relative to their category (Garnsey: 99–100, 279–80; Weaver; Mohler). The complexity of Roman social relations results from the grid of multiple, overlapping categories on one hand, and the possible irregularities within each category on the other. Slavery could thus be viewed within this network as a social category that was not always restrictive of real gains in wealth or power, and not always marked by unrelieved despair at one’s low social position (Martin). A discussion of slavery in the Greco-Roman world, therefore, must proceed along two lines, the real and the ideal. The real is the world in which people move and act, and the ideal is that set of categories by which they understand themselves and others, and their relation to the world.

The grids and distinctions we are invoking—master/slave, male/female, citizen/non-citizen, rich/poor, patron/client—cut through Roman society in different ways, at different angles, but they are all dyadic, vertical relationships, that is, superior/inferior. Because the Greek word kyrios is used for the superior pole of this dyad in so many contexts—master, husband, sir, patron, and so on—Schüssler Fiorenza (8, 117, 122–25) has quite appropriately coined the term kyriarchy to describe the organization of society by these interrelated dyads. Although a male slave and a female slave may not experience equivalent social realities, the dualities are still operative, even if they involve continual interference and mutual modification. Nevertheless, in any given situation the average Roman probably understood very well what the implications were of being a master versus a slave, male versus female, citizen versus non-citizen, and so on. The hierarchical universe is essentially dyadic, even though there are many vertical levels, and many categories by which one may define relationships. Louis Dumont’s analysis of the Indian caste system posits a similar order for homo hierarchicus: a multitude of vertical levels, governed (in India) by an overarching duality of pure/impure. No matter how complex, varied, and “manipulable” was the lifestyle of the slave in the Roman period, the concept was equally one of homo hierarchicus, and slavery involved an abject loss of identity.

The heights and depths of the perspective on human potential inherent in these dyads is reflected in the art of the Hellenistic and Roman periods, used in many cases to decorate the finer homes. On the one hand, we find the motif of the ladies at leisure: aristocratic, usually young women who are graceful and beautiful, depicted playing games together, gossiping, or riding piggy-back (Uhlenbrock; Fowler: 19, 58, 83; Havelock: #145). This is the ideal of aristocratic feminity that we also see in the heroine of the Greek novel. On the other hand, and contemporary with it, is the depiction of the “grotesque:” dancing dwarfs, hunchbacks, drunken old women, shriveled servants (Fowler: 66–78; Havelock: #105, 134–36). Side-by-side, these decorative sculptures make no sense (the apotropaic explanation for the grotesques seems weak), and yet surely we are to see a visual representation of the two levels of society for the aristocratic viewer: “my class” in the ladies at leisure, and “the other” in the degraded specimens of the poor and grotesque. Nowhere is the symbolic distinction in the dyadic hierarchy presented more graphically.

In 1982 Orlando Patterson attempted to arrive at a cross-cultural definition of slavery that would define its essence more sharply. His conclusions concerning the nature of slavery cross-culturally will be of great value in the present study. Slavery has generally been understood as the ownership of another individual as “property,” which includes near-absolute control over that person, and the produce of that person. Enslavement is seen as the process of “enchattelization.” Patterson, however, presents two criticisms of this definition: First, not all slavery involves the exploitation of the slave’s labor. In some slave systems, slaves are not principally laborers and do not produce excess wealth for the use and dispensation of the master; slaves may instead be status symbols, available only to those who control great wealth and power. From this first criticism there follows a second: the true essence of the master/slave relationship is not so much exploitation, the appropriation of the value of the slave’s labor, but a relation of ritualized humiliation and dishonor, a defining of the slave as less human in order to define the master as more human (Patterson: 11, 17, 23, 77–101). M. I. Finley, in fact, shows how the humanitas of a Seneca or a Pliny the Younger was linked to their ownership of slaves (Finley: 121). The term Patterson uses for this abject degradation of the slave, “natal alienation,” strikes one at first as dry, detached, scientific. However, it gets at the heart of an important aspect of master/slave relations, in fact, to the essence of slavery: slaves are denied all means of natal identity. They are denied rights to kin or a special place, the choice of relationships, or any of the other factors that would define one by birth. They fall into what Patterson calls the “social death” of slavery:

The real sweetness of mastery for the slaveholder lay not immediately in profit, but in the lightening of the soul that comes with the realization that at one’s feet is another human creature who lives and breathes only for one’s self, as a surrogate for one’s power, as a living embodiment of one’s manhood and honor. (78)

An important aspect of this alienation of the slave’s own identity is the necessity for the identity-less slave to be defined by the super-identity of the master, which may include relations to family, to the city, to the gods, and so on.

Patterson’s definition of slavery may seem to partake too much of intellectual categories, unlike the more standard view of slavery as enchattelization and the slave as property. The latter would strike most readers as simple and self-evident. But the “self-evidence” of the property theory may result from several other influences. First, modern capitalism provides very well developed categories of property, specifically private property, that are familiar concepts which may be used to understand what are now the alien concepts of slavery and enslavement.5 We “understand” slavery if we assimi late it to concepts that we use: slaves are people who are like our private possessions, which we have the right to manipulate and exploit for private gain. Second, slavery in the American South was marked by a sense that one race was destined to be slaves and another destined to be masters, not that the slaves had been deprived of their free status through war or debt. This notion of the status of slaves would give rise not to the idea that slaves are people who have been enslaved, but to a category of permanent and inherent chattel. Thus here I shall utilize Patterson’s notion of slavery as a form of ritualized degradation and natal alienation.

The Ideal Novel in the Ancient World

We turn now to the known novels from the Greco-Roman period. A recent and very important development in the study of the ancient novel is the division of this group of texts into those which depict a positive model of bourgeois domestic values—the establishment of the nuclear family and the containment of sexuality—and those which are satirical, often graphically overturning these values (MacQueen: 117–37). The ideal Greek romance promulgates a very strong ethic of domestic virtue, often tied to an identification with an aristocratic Greek versus a “barbarian” social order. In this category we find Chariton, Chaereas and Callirhoe, Xenophon of Ephesus, An Ephesian Tale, and Heliodorus, An Ethiopian Story. Other novels from the Greco-Roman period constitute obvious and deliberate attempts to satirize this genre. They belong to a counter-genre, what Gerald N. Sandy calls “accounts of low life … designed to shock moral sensibilities and conventional notions of decorum” (Sandy: 809). Here we would include the notorious examples of Petronius, Satyricon, and Apuleius, The Golden Ass, but also lesser known works such as the anonymous Life of Aesop (Winkler 1985:276–91; Hopkins), the fragments of Phoenicica and Iolaus, and also Greek novels which are not as ribald and offensive to aristocratic sensibilities as Satyricon and The Golden Ass, but which are now nevertheless considered rightly by some scholars to satirize the ideal genre: Longus, Daphnis and Chloe, and Achilles Tatius, Leucippe and Clitophon (MacQueen; Reardon). The lack of a travel motif in Daphnis and Chloe and its restrained, more pastoral eroticism may reflect a deliberate attempt to underplay ironically the usual presentation of sexuality. Leucippe and Clitophon also challenges the earnestness of the ideal Greek novels. It is not as obviously satirical as The Golden Ass and Satyricon, yet it nevertheless takes an arch view of bourgeois respectability.

This division of novels into ideal and satirical is nothing less than a hermeneutical key to the origin and essence of the novel genre. Bruce Mac Queen suggests that the ancient novel arises as a means of realistically exploring domestic social relations, but from one of two possible perspectives, positively or satirically. The same has been argued in greater detail and in a more theoretical fashion regarding the modern novel as well (McKeon). The question then becomes, Is there a difference in the way slaves and slavery are depicted in each of the two types of ancient novel?

First, we shall consider the ideal novels. Dale Martin describes how, in the world of the Greek novel (and here his comments would refer to the ideal novels), the young, beautiful, and noble hero and heroine are dragged down into a horrifying underworld in which they are subjected to kidnappings, pirates, threats of rape, and most of all, slavery. Unlike the “true” slaves, our noble hero and heroine are by nature free and even superior, merely trapped in the condition of slavery. The protagonists often rise within slavery, however, by ingratiating themselves to their masters (35–36). This perpetuates the slave-to-riches motif, which was often encountered in literature and inscriptions.7 Chariton’s Chaereas and Callirhoe can be considered typical of the ideal novels, where, for instance, we commonly encounter the notion that the protagonists undergo a descent into slavery. (See especially the protagonists’ laments at Chaereas 1.14, 3.10, and 4.3). Chariton presents a common topos that the beauty of the hero and heroine indicates their nobility of birth and their true nature, even if they are by circumstances brought into slavery (1.10; 2.1,3, etc.). Parallel to this division of human nature is the notion also expressed that Greeks are inherently superior to barbarians (2.5, 7.3; cf. Xenophon 3.11). The superhuman nobility and beauty of the protagonists—in fact, they are likened to gods and goddesses—is exaggerated. In the scale of graduated humanity, the semi-divine beauty of the protagonists elevates them further above slaves, which effects the greatest possible distance—and irony—in their temporary fall into slavery.

In addition to these dualities of noble/slave and Greek/barbarian, other dualities operate in tandem. We note the image of the pirates, depicted as wild and threatening, unstable forces of chaos, who are by inference contrasted with citizens (1.9–14; cf. Xenophon 1.13–15; but interestingly, not always negative: Heliodorus 1.3–4). Vulgar and intemperate sex is opposed to the pure love (and sex) of the protagonists (Xenophon 2.1–4, 3.9–12). In Xenophon, in fact, all the indignities that have been heaped upon the heroine are summarized in parallel when she is sold to a brothelkeeper: “Were the tombs, murders, bonds, and pirates’ lairs not enough? But now, will I be made to stand up in a brothel …?” (5.6; cf … Apollonius King of Tyre 33). Thus the horrible sufferings are all listed together, and what they have in common is clear: they are examples of the most degrading aspects of society, threats to the protagonists’ aristocratic world view. A further extension of this, fascinating in its psychological interest, is the combination of two negative values in the notion of “slave to lust” (or the equivalent) in Heliodorus (5.26; 7.2, 21). The hero, it is to be noted by contrast, is, in his restraint when alone with the heroine, a “slave of love but a master of pleasure” (erōtos mēn elattōn, hēdonēs de kreittōn). That is, his pure love, to which he is a slave, forces him to rein in and subordinate, even enslave, his lust. He is master, not slave, of lust.

Slavery, then, the binary opposite of free (or noble), is one of the negative values in the series of dualities mentioned above, but more concretely, how are actual slaves characterized or represented in the novels? In Erich Auerbach’s classic study of the representation of social classes in literature, Mimesis, he presses the question, To what extent are characters of different classes depicted as real, three-dimensional agents, with their own articulated internal life and point of view? His strongly argued thesis is that in the pre-modern world, a view of human nature which is transparent to social class is practically non-existent. Although with the rise of the modern novel it becomes broadly accepted that characters from different social classes can be equally imbued with significant action and substance, this democratizing of “tragic potential” is not to be found elsewhere, according to Auerbach, except in the Christian gospels. In the novels we see that slaves only occasionally take on character (and names) as villains, for example, Kybele in Heliodorus Book 7. They are more often a mere extension of the master’s will, or actively identify their will with their master’s, and remain nameless (especially in Apollonius 25, 30; cf. Iamblichus, Babylonian Story 15). The insubstantiality of slaves in drama, which Joseph Vogt noted (7–19), generally applies here as well. They are socially invisible, not rendered at all as human beings (Pseudo-Lucian, The Ass 7, Apollonius 17). It is often presumed that the master has the right of sexual access to the slave (Apollonius 33, Heliodorus 7.26). This manner of depicting slaves is precisely what we would expect, and probably accords with the actual social relations of the period. The ideal novels do not all depict slavery in the same way, however. Although the dualities mentioned above all operate to the same effect—the threat of degradation for an aristocratic couple—they are like stops on an organ, not all to be pulled out to the same extent in each novel. Chariton holds up to the audience the inherent contrast of the freeborn protagonists and slaves more than do the other novels. Xenophon emphasizes more the threat of barbarians and impure lust. Apollonius King of Tyre objectifies slaves as nameless extensions of the master or even as gifts more than do the others.

The Satirical Novel in the Ancient World

The satirical novels also take slavery as an important aspect of the social order, but everything is refracted through the lens of the satirical perspective. In the Satyricon of Petronius, for example, the ideal Greek novel is systematically inverted, as the hero and heroine of the aristocratic family structure become homosexual lovers, and all values of chastity and honor are reflected ironically in their inability to remain faithful. In the first pages of our fragments are found homosexual relations with a boy, a futile attempt by eunuchs to engage in an orgy, and forced sex between an underage boy and girl. The fragments end with a scene of cannibalism. Every boundary is violated, which should be kept in mind when the depiction of slaves is considered. Slavery is a major, even obsessive preoccupation in the Satyricon; Petronius’s satirical agenda focuses principally on sex and class, as indeed do all the novels, both ideal and satirical. Through the course of the novel, the protagonists move in and out of slave and free personae, disguised constantly, in effect mocking class identity. They are uprooted, unmarked by any social community, unhinged psychologically. There is little for them to respect in the depiction of social mores in general, but we especially note the central episode of the Satyricon, which concerns the magnificent dinner party of the nouveau riche freedman Trimalchio and his freedmen-guests (26–78). The two themes of the long episode are the exaggerated opulence of the food—the economic surplus of Trimalchio’s many estates is translated into the richest foods that can be provided—and the contrasting crassness of Trimalchio’s true character, especially toward his slaves. Far from identifying with the critical perspective of slaves, however, the satire of the novel is directed against them as well. The irony of the scene is not that the slaves are more dignified than the rich guests, but that the wealthy ex-slaves erect such a distance between themselves and the class from which they have risen. Trimalchio’s freedmen are proud of their rise from slavery and of their present attainments, even though Petronius’s own perspective seems contemptuous of their pretense to high social standing. The freedmen lack any semblance of urbanitas. As Patterson notes, the degradation of slaves is a means of affirming the owner’s enhanced status, and this we find highlighted in Petronius’s presentation. The rough and peremptory treatment of slaves by Trimalchio is constant, even to the extent that after urinating, he cleans his fingers by dipping them in water and wiping them on the hair of a slave boy.

Martin addresses the question of the depiction of slavery in Satyricon, pointing out that although the author seems contemptuous of the nouveau riche Trimalchio and freedmen like him, the story does attest to the strength of the motif of the slave-to-riches story. The “myth of the upwardly mobile slave” is used by Petronius to satirize those slaves who became rich and powerful (Martin: 36–37). However, Petronius’s depiction of the disdain with which the freedmen treat their own slaves is actually part of the satire: one step removed from slaves, these wealthy freedmen, utterly lacking in virtue, waste no time in degrading the very class from which they originated. The principle of raising one’s own status by ritually degrading others’ appears to be a second, very vibrant myth that lies behind the text.

The Golden Ass of Apuleius is, like Satyricon, a satirical novel, but accomplishes its satire in a different way. It is not simply a frenzied reversal of all accepted values; it attempts instead to provide a genuine social commentary which is sometimes quite subtle. The idealized values of the romance or epic are subverted by taking the first-person narratival perspective of a man-become-donkey (Winkler, 1985; Millar). Though based on the The Ass of Pseudo-Lucian, The Golden Ass introduces a much more profound theme of descent and ironic perspective. It is his incurable curiosity that gets the narrator, Lucius, into trouble, and it is also his curiosity which guides him throughout, and enlarges his character so that he becomes a truly interested and interesting observer of the parade of human life. The novel concludes with an initiation into the cult of Isis, and it is clear finally that his curiosity, and the adventure which it inaugurates, are metaphors for the life of the convert. Although Lucius does not explicitly compare his condition as a donkey to a form of slavery, it does suggest itself on a metaphorical level, and the connection is drawn in a humorous manner in the source-novel, Pseudo-Lucian’s The Ass (42). As Fergus Millar also points out, Lucius’s curiosity allows him during this sojourn to see people of different classes now from the underside, from the point of view of a donkey:

(I)n narrating the adventures of the ass he is making a fictional journey which descends through all levels of society.… It is thus that Apuleius, looking through the eyes of Lucius transformed into an ass, can give his unique description of the slaves toiling in the mill (9.12), dressed in few rags, their half-naked bodies scarred with the marks of beatings, their foreheads branded, their heads half-shaved, their feet in fetters, all of them covered in a fine dust of flour. It is undeniable that the novel expresses a rare and distinctive level of sympathy with the working lives of the poor. (Millar: 65)

Millar does not go so far as to consider The Golden Ass a political critique of Roman society; rather, its agenda seems to be one of a metaphorical journey of discovery, which nevertheless includes a realistic depiction of society’s lower classes. Auerbach’s assessment of The Golden Ass, on the other hand, is very critical. He does not address the depiction of slaves as such, but condemns the emphasis on the bizarre and the flippant tone toward human relations in general, suggesting that The Golden Ass even borders on the sadistic (Auerbach: 60–63). At first sight, this appears to be too extreme, and one suspects that Auerbach’s own need to force all ancient literature into a binary opposition with the Christian gospels may be in evidence. After all, could it not be that the satire is merely transparent to the inherent tensions and cruelties of Roman society, much as fables had communicated the cruelty of earlier society? However, underlying the “realistic” narrative of The Golden Ass is a continuing cynicism or disregard for the characters other than Lucius, as if to confirm the narrator in a permanent and impregnable egocentrism. Millar, for example, has too quickly seen Dickens in the pages of this novel. The passage Millar summarizes is indeed very moving—to us. But it is not clear at all that the narrator, or the author, or the audience were moved, for Millar does not mention what is narrated next. The narrator does not extrapolate from this pathetic scene of the marks of human misery in the backs of the slaves to the tragic potential of these people. Lucius moves immediately to describe the equally pathetic condition of his fellow animals, but here draws a less than selfless conclusion:

The dreadful condition of these poor beasts, whom I might soon be brought to resemble, so depressed me that I drooped my head like them and grieved for the degradation into which I had fallen since those far-off days when I was Lord Lucius.

What greater wisdom does Lucius gain from his position where he can observe all human and animal suffering?

My only consolation was the unique opportunity I had of observing all that was said and done around me; because nobody showed any reserve in my presence. Homer was quite right to characterize Odysseus, whom he offered as an example of the highest wisdom and prudence, as one who had “visited many cities and come to know many different peoples”.… (M)y many adventures in ass-disguise enormously enlarged my experience, even if they have not taught me wisdom. It was at the mill that I picked up a story which I hope will amuse you as much as it amused me.

Lucius then recounts an uproarious tale of lust and revenge involving his owner’s wife. His curiosity, which has led him on an odyssey of discovery of the human condition, has this as its proximate result: he has learned a good story about a “lady whore.” Is Apuleius making the ironic point here that the grand potential for observation and growth in wisdom is reduced to a good salacious tale? If we are to believe Auerbach, Apuleius and others like him are simply incapable of rising to a critical perspective concerning social strata.

Despite the fact that Leucippe and Clitophon by Achilles Tatius contains broad statements about slaves’ cowardice (7.10; cf. Wiedemann: 62), it includes many characterizations of slaves that are much more even-handed. At 1.12 a slave is a crucial, reliable informant for the other characters. He remains nameless, and the “faithful servant” motif in itself is not unusual (Vogt: 129–45; Havelock: #120), but there are other positive depictions as well. At 1.16 two slave-lovers are introduced, Satyros and Kleio, who become real, almost equal characters to the two noble protagonists. Their roles are quite engaging, but it is the upstairs/downstairs parallelism of the two pairs of lovers which likely elevates the slaves to signifiers. The fact that parallel lovers from different classes are part and parcel of popular culture from Shakespeare to modern films as different as Smiles of a Summer Night and Oklahoma! should alert us to the fact that this construction may have been something of a popular topos then as well. It is interesting, however, that although the female slave in Leucippe and Clitophon runs away, this act is not treated as scandalous (2.25–27). Later, honest concern is also shown for the safety of the slave Satyros (3.5), and he is called a good friend of the protagonist (3.17). Thus the “class-bending” in this novel appears as a consistent theme, and slavery is not on the whole viewed as negatively as in Chariton. As noted above, the various dualities of positive and negative values are not all exploited equally in the different novels. Thus, whereas Achilles Tatius does allow room for the growth of slaves as characters, he portrays pirates and brigands very negatively (3.9–10, 5.7; Winkler, 1980).

The Life of Aesop is a popular novel told from the perspective of Aesop, who is “by chance, a slave.” His experiences in this status are not wholly unlike those of Lucius in The Golden Ass (Winkler 1985: 276–91), told here from a point of view which satirizes the pretensions of Aesop’s philosopher-owner and his class. The book does not, however, take up a true critique of slave-owning society, nor does it directly or indirectly condemn slavery. The true motive-force of the work seems to lie on other levels. Aesop is not simply a slave; he is “truly horrible to behold: worthless, pot-bellied, slant-headed, snub-nosed, hunchbacked, leather-skinned, club-footed, knock-kneed, short-armed, sleepy-eyed, bushy-lipped—in short, an absolute miscreant” (1).

Martin quite reasonably would take this novel to represent more of a slave’s eye view of social relations, and to give a positive treatment of the slave-to-riches myth (Martin: 38–39). In this novel, unlike the others, the slave ascends not by shrewdly garnering the support of the master, but rises in spite of the master’s opposition. To Martin, this novel may present the “hope among those frustrated with low-status positions, especially slaves. In any case, Aesop is a positive role model of the upwardly mobile slave” (39). Here, however, Martin misses a crucial aspect of the function of slavery within the narrative. It is not a critique of rigid class distinctions, nor an affirmation of the possibility of a slave beating the odds. It is important to recall Aesop’s double-characterization as a slave and a miscreant or grotesque (Winkler, 1985: 279–91). This is constantly emphasized, in every possible way, and indicates that the force of this satire comes from the topos of the ugly or misshapen anti-social outsider who critiques the revered, heroic institutions (Nagy: 279–316; Compton). Other examples would be Thersites in the Iliad, or Socrates. Wherever Aesop goes, he is scorned not merely as a slave, but as a miserable specimen of humanity or subhumanity, who nevertheless ironically knows more and is more critically aware than anyone, including his famous philospher-owner. Recalling the powerful thesis of Auerbach that very little literature in the ancient, or indeed in the pre-modern world, could really view people of different classes as fundamentally equal in terms of their “tragic potential,” we may question also whether Life of Aesop breaks frm the typical mold. The appeal of its lampooning is approximately the same as that in the other satirical novels, although it does perhaps rise to a moral-philosophical concern for truth. Aesop carries through a critique of social appearances that would be consistent with Cynicism, but this is a gospel of individual philosophical perfection, not an ancient Grapes of Wrath.

Longus’s Daphnis and Chloe is gentler in its satire than the other novels addressed here, and it may be that “satire” is not the appropriate word. It does, however, convey an alternative world view to the ideal novels, creating a pastoral eroticism that lacks the charged tensions that arise from the containment of sexuality in the ideal novels. For our purposes, it is interesting to note that the alternative world view includes a classless society. Only with the coming of urban dwellers from the outside do we encounter slaves (2.12).

Having surveyed a number of ideal and satirical novels, we must pause to note a very peculiar characteristic of the latter category. Relative to the ideal novels, which presuppose a very rigid hierarchy of classes, the satirical novels press an alternative viewpoint. To one extent or another, they all enter into and take on the perspective of the slave. Satyricon explores the world of slaves and freedmen, confirming, to be sure, the upper-class perspective that the slave and freedmen class is base. The Golden Ass allows the reader, through the eyes of Lucius, to see the entire world through the eyes of a donkey, which levels all social distinctions. Life of Aesop is told through the slave’s eyes, and a clever and successful slave at that. Achilles Tatius recounts the adventures of two sets of lovers, one free—customary in the ideal novel—and one slave—not customary at all. Daphnis and Chloe depicts a classless pastoral society. Although in each case I argued that the “revolution” was incomplete and that the perspective remained class-bound, the correlation of satirical novels with an investigation of life from the slave’s point of view is very strong. It is a generic characteristic of the anti-genre “satirical novel.”

Equally remarkable is the correlation of most of the satirical novels with negative views toward women. In the satirical novels mentioned, women are not a protected species of chaste heroines, but are more often sex-starved vixens. Even Achilles Tatius’s Leucippe and Clitophon, which retains more of the trappings of the ideal novel, descends into a pornographic objectifying of women (and men) as sex objects (2.35–38), and remains the least convincing of the five main Greek novels regarding the central romance plotline. What we see in the satirical novels is not a simplistic exchange of perspectives, affirming slaves while denigrating women, but a more subtle satirical strategy. Class restrictions become muddled or overturned, allowing the fantasy of exploring the world from a slave’s perspective, but at the same time women lose ground as a protected gender because it is chastity which is rejected. The positive values of class and chastity are dashed in this world turned upside down, an entertaining premise indeed for those who are kicking at the goads of a restrictive Roman social order. What ideal novels communicate is the wish-fulfillment of transcendence of all that slavery (or pirates, or prison, or illicit lust) stand for. The satirical novels engage the reader’s blunt realization that we exist in a messy world that cannot be redeemed or transcended. The “sphere” of slavery is generally just as messy, demeaning, and degrading in the satirical novel, but the reader enters into it willingly, through a sort of compulsive fascination.

Slavery in Jewish Novels

A number of Jewish writings from the Greco-Roman period can also be considered novels, although the basic plot complication of the separation of two lovers is lacking. The Jewish novels can be divided into novels proper (Greek Esther, Greek Daniel, Tobit, Judith, and Joseph and Asenath) and historical novels (Tobiad Romance and Royal Family of Adiabene from Josephus’ Antiquities and 3 Maccabees; see Wills, 1994, 1995). The Jewish novels do not utilize slavery itself as a threat to the protagonists, a symbol of abject degradation, as do the Greek novels, but represent individual slaves in much the same way as do the ideal novels: slaves are in general faithful servants of the protagonists. Their will is identified with that of their masters. The Book of Esther in the Hebrew Bible describes the court servants who wait on Esther, but does not individualize them by separating them from the depiction of the court pomp and wealth, nor is there a need to. Esther is in the court, but not of the court, and the slaves pertain to the court as accoutrements. In the Apocryphal Additions to Esther, her maidservants also take on a more specific function: they bear her train and allow Esther a greater refinement as a true lady than is the case in Hebrew Esther. At the moment she enters in before the awesome King Artaxerxes, she faints, and the maidservants are there to catch her. The greater the distance between a lady and the untidiness of the everyday world, the more necessary are slaves to define the dualistic separation.

The same is true in Judith, but more specified. There is one faithful maidservant who accompanies Judith in her descent into threatened sexual improprieties and murder. This loyal servant has, in fact, been seen very positively by some scholars, an evidence of Judith’s greater humanity in reaching beyond her class to create a special women’s relationship. Further, Judith at the end of the book frees this maidservant and all of her other slaves. Still, the slaves are never described as characters; the maidservant is never named, and never acts independently of her mistress (Wills, 1995: 151; Glancy). Like the maidservants in Greek Esther, she serves to enhance Judith’s graciousness. Tobit depicts slaves negatively in the narrative, but to the same end. At 3:7–9 the heroine, Sarah, despondent because each of her fiancés has died on their wedding night, is further humiliated by being reproached by her maidservant. The unusual passage clearly indicates the depth of her fall, since her maidservant can sum up public scorn for her, and make her feel it all the more sharply. Sarah immediately afterward prays for death.

The Jewish novel which most closely approximates the Greek ideal novel is Joseph and Aseneth, where a love-match of Joseph and the Egyptian woman Aseneth supplies the basic premise of the plot developments which follow. Here slaves appear in greater number, functioning much as they do in Greek Esther: to define in relief the greater purity and separation of the heroine. What is new here is the mystical overtone of the identity which they help to define in the lady:

And seven virgins … were waiting on Aseneth, and they were all of the same age, born in one night with Aseneth, and she loved them very much. And they were very beautiful, like the stars of heaven, and no man ever conversed with them, not even a male child. (2.6)

The lady/slave distinction, in its operation, is not unlike the sharper definition of the levels of purity that were introduced into the sacred precincts of the temple in the post-exilic period. Special, unapproachable, almost numinous qualities in the lady are being marked off by increasing the distance from the mundane world by the intermediation of slaves. This pushes to a further extreme Patterson’s observation that owning a slave raises one’s humanity by degrading another’s. The story continues by depicting a split among the brothers of Joseph: those born of the maidservants Bilhah and Zilpah plot his death; those born of the free matriarchs Rachel and Leah remain loyal to him. The distinction in the evaluation of human character could hardly be more sharply drawn.

One Jewish historical novel is very illuminating on the issue of slavery. The so-called Tobiad Romance (preserved only in Josephus, Ant. 12.154–236) is a large fragment of a romanticized history of the Tobiad family, a wealthy dynasty of Jewish entrepreneurs (Wills, 1994, 1995). It probably dates from about 200 BCE. The novel fragment is a series of adventures of two members of that family as they establish themselves as the chief traders between Jerusalem, Samaria, and the Ptolemaic king. Their ability to rise from relative poverty (probably not true—the family was already established) to chief financiers is glorified, and told with a sense of bravado. The perspective of the wealthy class is reflected as a result, but one senses that it is the overcompensation of an entrepreneurial, rather than truly aristocratic class that motivates the narrative. Strongly emphasized is the heroes’ natural eutrapelia (roughly equivalent to Latin urbanitas), contrasted with the rustic boorishness of their kinsmen.

This novel does not share the domestic values of the ideal novels, but contains interesting parallels to Apollonius King of Tyre. They both objectify slaves as a row of marionettes who are extensions, even decorations, of their masters’ will. At one point in the Tobiad Romance, Hyrcanus ceremoniously bestows upon King Ptolemy a hundred male and female slaves, each bearing a talent of gold (Ant. 12.209, 217). The sense of vertical graduation, especially regarding the system of patron/client relationships (cemented through gifts) is very strong in Tobiad Romance, defined here by the degradation of slaves. An interesting parallel can also be drawn with Satyricon, where the same entrepreneurial spirit is portrayed. In Satyricon, or course, this spirit, displayed by social-climbers, is satirized mercilessly in the person of Trimalchio, the rich freedman. There such an act of ostentatious abundance would only reveal the crassness of the person orchestrating it, but in Tobiad Romance, the parade of slaves as gifts is a diplomatic success, proving Hyrcanus’s inherent grace and munificence.


The Greek and Roman novels of antiquity can be divided into two categories, ideal and satirical, depending upon whether they idealize the social relations of the protagonists, or treat them from the more critical perspective of satire. The ideal novels reinforce rigid, hierarchical social categories by the utilization of a series of dualities: free/slave, rich/poor, Greek/barbarian, citizen/pirate, pure love/illicit lust, and so on. The tension and conflict in the narrative derives from the threat of degradation of the romantic protagonists, the threat of being subjected to the inferior element in each dyad. The dyadic, hierarchical relationship of masters and slaves must be seen in this context, but it is significant that the ideal novels generally bring slavery to the fore as one of the two principal obsessions: sex and class. These remain the principal obsessions in the satirical novels as well; the difference between the ideal and satirical novels is not whether these two issues will be central—they are in both cases—but whether they will be introduced in an earnest manner as the rigid hierarchical codes of the author and audience, or from a satirical perspective, to be dissolved and overturned. The satirical novels evidently provided an experience of release for the reader, a repudiation of chastity and heterosexual romantic love on one hand, and a temporary exploration of the world from the perspective of slaves on the other. In the readers’ experience, this exploration did not lead to any fundamental revision of attitudes about the human potential of the lower classes, but merely reinforced the belief that one is fortunate to be stationed above them. In other words, the upper classes are temporarily brought down, the lower classes are not raised up.

The Jewish novels do not posit as the main plot complication the threat of the defilement of the aristocratic couple, but rather, the threat of destruction for a pious Jew or a group of Jews. Slavery still figures, either as a means of defining the heroine’s “ritual separation” from the rest of the world (in the cases of Greek Esther, Judith, and Joseph and Aseneth), as the taint of depravity (the sons of the maidservants in Joseph and Aseneth), or as evidence of the hero’s munificent giving in Tobiad Romance. Despite the differences in plot, the Jewish novels convey some of the same depictions and evaluations of slaves as do the Greek novels. Slavery is not as constant a theme in the Jewish novels, but it still constitutes a crucial element of the symbolic universe here as well, and is introduced in a way that is equally dualistic and negative.

Works Consulted

1.    Ancient Novels

Life of Aesop

1997    “Appendix: English Translation of the Life of Aesop.” Pp. 180–215 in Lawrence M. Wills, The Quest of the Historical Gospel: Mark, John and the Origins of the Gospel Genre. London/New York: Routledge.


1951    The Golden Ass. Trans. Robert Graves. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Joseph and Aseneth

1985    “Joseph and Asenath.” Trans. C. Burchard. OTP 2.177–247.


1959    The Satyricon. Trans. William Arrowsmith. New York: Mentor.

2.    Secondary Literature

Auerbach, Erich

1957    Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Comito, Terry

1975    “Exile and Return in the Greek Romances.” Arion (new series) 2:58–80.

Compton, Todd

1990    “The Trial of the Satirist: Poetic Vitae (Aesop, Archilochus, Homer) as Background for Plato’s Apology.” American Journal of Philology 111:330–47.

Daly, Lloyd

1961    Aesop Without Morals. New York: Yoseloff.

Dumont, Louis

1980    Homo hierarchicus: The Caste System and Its Implications. Rev ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Finley, M. I.

1980    Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Flesher, Paul Virgil McCracken

1988    Oxen, Women, or Citizens? Slaves in the System of the Mishnah. Atlanta: Scholars Press.

Fowler, Barbara Hughes

1989    The Hellenistic Aesthetic. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Garnsey, Peter

1970    Social Status and Legal Privilege in the Roman Empire. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Glancy, Jennifer A.

1996    “The Mistress-Slave Dialectic: Paradoxes of Slavery in Three LXX Narratives.” JSOT 72:71–87.

Havelock, Christine Mitchell

n.d.    Hellenistic Art. Greenwich, Conn.: New York Graphic Society.

Hopkins, Keith

1993    “Novel Evidence for Roman Slavery.” Past and Present 138:3–27.

MacQueen, Bruce D.

1990    Myth, Rhetoric, and Fiction: A Reading of Longus’s “Daphnis and Chloe.” Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Martin, Dale B.

1990    Slavery as Salvation: The Metaphor of Slavery in Pauline Christianity. New Haven: Yale University Press.

McKeon, Michael

1987    The Origins of the English Novel 1600–1740. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Millar, Fergus

1981    “The World of The Golden Ass.” Journal of Roman Studies 71:63–75.

Nagy, Gregory

1979    Best of the Achaeans. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Patterson, Orlando

1982    Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Reardon, B. P.

1994    “Achilles Tatius and Ego-Narrative.” Pp. 80–96 in Greek Fiction: The Greek Novel in Context. Ed. J. R. Morgan and Richard Stoneman. London/New York: Routledge.

Sandy, Gerald N.

1989    “A Phoenician Story.” Pp. 809–12 in Collected Ancient Greek Novels. Ed. B. P. Reardon. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Schüssler Fiorenza, Elisabeth

1992    But She Said: Feminist Practices of Biblical Interpretation. Boston: Beacon.

Tatum, James, and Vernazza, Gail M., eds.

1990    The Ancient Novel: Classical Paradigms and Modern Perspectives. Hanover: International Conference on the Ancient Novel.

Uhlenbrock, Jaimee P.

1990    The Coroplast’s Art: Greek Terracottas of the Hellenistic World. New Paltz: College of New Paltz/New Rochelle: Caratzas.

Vogt, Joseph

1975    Ancient Slavery and the Ideal of Man. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Weaver, R. P. C.

1974    “Social Mobility in the Early Roman Empire: The Evidence of the Imperial Freedmen and Slaves.” Pp. 121–40 in Studies in Ancient Society. Ed. M. I. Finley. London: Routledge.

Wegner, Judith Romney

1988    Chattel or Person? The Status of Women in the Mishnah. New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wiedemann, Thomas

1981    Greek and Roman Slavery. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Wills, Lawrence M.

1994    “The Jewish Novellas.” Pp. 223–38 in Greek Fiction: The Greek Novel in Context. Ed. J. R. Morgan and Richard Stoneman. London/New York: Routledge.

1995    The Jewish Novel in the Ancient World. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

1997    The Quest of the Historical Gospel: Mark, John, and the Origins of the Gospel Genre. London/New York: Routledge.

Winkler, John J.

1980    “Lollianus and the Desperadoes.” Journal of Hellenic Studies 100:155–81.

1985    Auctor & Actor: A Narratological Reading of Apuleius’ Golden Ass. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Zagagi, Netta

1980    Tradition and Originality in Plautus. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

Slave Resistance in Classical Antiquity

Allen Dwight Callahan

Harvard University

Richard A. Horsley

University of Massachusetts Boston


New Testament scholars, following classical historians, have previously cited the relative paucity of slave rebellions in antiquity as reason to conclude that ancient Greek and Roman slavery was benign and the enslaved relatively content with their lot. More recent studies of the evidence from antiquity question such reasoning as wishful thinking. Comparative studies of slavery and slave resistance in the New World, moreover, have led historians of ancient slavery to a far more subtle sense of just how regularly, persistently, and sometimes extensively ancient slaves resisted and rebelled against the system that held them in bondage. This cross-cultural essay, drawing on James C. Scott’s sensitivity to the slaves’ own “hidden transcript,” argues that slave resistance was far more serious and subtle than previously allowed, which has clear implications for how we read statements on slaves in Paul’s letters.

Quot servi, tot hostes.


“If you roast me today, you cannot roast me tomorrow.”

Tony, a slave sentenced to be burned alive for his part in the 1675 slave revolt in Barbados

Slave resistance in Greek and Roman antiquity requires special treatment. It has been underestimated and downplayed by classical historians eager to defend the glorious ancient sources of modern humanism. Underestimated ancient slave resistance has then been used as a basis for arguing that ancient slavery was benign and/or that ancient slaves were content with their lot. Classical literature, which reflects the attitudes of slave-owners rather than slaves, finally, has been indefensibly used to argue for the psychology of those supposedly contented slaves. On the bases of (1) the analogy that Finley pioneered between the resistance of modern American slaves and that of slaves in antiquity, and (2) Patterson’s theory of slavery as natal alienation, supplemented with (3) James C. Scott’s recent reflections on hidden forms of resistance, a rather different picture of ancient slaves’ resistance to their circumstances is now possible.

Developing a More Subtle Approach

Westermann was hardly unique in his argument that the absence of serious slave revolts in classical Greece was “a significant commentary on the generally mild treatment of slaves” (18; cf. Vogt). As noted at the outset of Horsley’s article above (“Slave Systems …”), New Testament scholars picked up the corresponding generalization among classics scholars about slavery in the early Roman empire: the absence of slave revolts and other forms of resistance attests their degree of contentment and the mildness of their condition. Such simplistic historical reasoning has been coupled with, and is made possible by, ignoring the brutality of ancient Greek and Roman slavery and by interpreting facets of ancient Roman slavery such as the peculium and manumission only as mitigating factors rather than also as devices that made the slave system work (again, see Horsley’s “Slave Systems …”). Such classical historiography of ancient slavery also tends to project simplistic psychological and behavioral alternatives onto the slaves themselves, despite the fact that extant ancient literature and inscriptions provide virtually no direct evidence whatever for the mentality of ancient slaves.

As Finley complained, however, “rigid behavioral alternatives have never existed in the history of slavery, and the stress on them [in historiography] stultifies any inquiry” (116). What is necessary, first of all, is to recognize that slaves have been placed into a humanly intolerable situation, one in which serious resistance would be simply suicidal. The vast majority of the enslaved seek some means of survival midst their intolerable dehumanizing situation. And that requires historians to summon some sense of ambiguity, ambivalence, and subtlety. The same masters could be both indulgent and cruel. The same slaves could be both obedient—”faithful”—and (potential) pilferers or fugitives. Both obedience and flight are means of survival. To deal with the ambivalence of the slave situation (and psychology) and to bring some subtlety into classical historiography of slavery, Finley drew analogies from the lively debate focused on slave resistance in modern America: “Brutally deracinated human beings seeking new ties, new psychological attachments, not infrequently turn to those in whose power they find themselves, in the case of slaves to their masters” (Finley, 104; cf. Patterson, 1970: 415). In a flawed and controversial work, Stanley Elkins had drawn an analogy between African-American slaves and Jews incarcerated in Nazi concentration camps. But the slaves were hardly so one-dimensional as Elkins sug gested in their “personality-type.” “Sambos” might also turn out to be rebels (Stampp, 1971:367–92). Slaves’ attitudes have usually been ambivalent in one way or another, and their behavior has ranged from (at least ostensibly) obedient to intransigent to resistant (Frederickson and Lasch). At least a few classics scholars have pursued Finley’s suggestion that historians of ancient Greek and Roman slavery attend to the vigorous debates during the 1960s and 1970s among historians of slave resistance in America (Cartledge; Bradley, 1989).

Orlando Patterson’s theory of slavery as “natal alienation,” which was designed to understand the condition into which slaves were placed, also serves to illuminate slave resistance. Slaves were violently removed from their families and communities of origin and forced into an alien household or familia. The Helots, subject to Sparta, who were kept in their native families and communities, were able to organize revolts; the atomized and more completely deracinated slaves in Athens were not (Garlan: 177–81). In ancient Greece and Rome, as advised in classical literature, slave masters purposely bought slaves of various origins precisely in order to “divide and conquer” once more as they forced their new slaves into a process of “resocialization.”

This trick was used in the slave regimes of the New World to frustrate the solidarity of African slaves. The planters of Barbados, for example, purposely bought slaves from different West African regions and made of them mixed gangs so that tribal and language differences would impede conspiracies (Segal: 128–29). Slaves from Angola revolted against the French in Guadeloupe in 1656; they were not joined by other slaves on the island because the other slaves were not Angolans. After fifteen days of fighting the Angolans were finally subdued, their two leaders quartered, and the rest flogged, hanged, or torn to pieces alive (Segal: 128). The Cuban slave Estéban Montejo testified that masters shuffled slaves between plantations to foil disruptive slave rivalries and conspiracies of escape as well: “Many brawls were avoided because the masters changed the slaves around. They kept them divided among themselves to prevent a rash of escapes. That was why slaves of different plantations never got together” (Montejo: 24).

In his reflection on decades of his own study of peasant and other subordinates’ resistance to the forms of their domination, James C. Scott has recently laid out a theory of “domination and the arts of resistance” that has crucial implications for historical investigation of slavery. Scott’s reflections can be used to supplement Patterson’s theory of slavery and to draw out its implications for understanding slave resistance. His starting point is the recognition that “powerless groups have … a self-interest in conspiring to reinforce hegemonic appearances” (1990:12). Those subject to elaborate and systematic forms of political-economic subordination, such as slaves, must engage in public performance in order to manage the impressions of those with power over them. Since historical sources such as texts, particularly attesting the voices of the powerless themselves, are so scarce, it is not surprising that he takes many of his illustrations from slave narratives from the U.S. South. For example, from the narrative of Lunsford Lane, published in 1848: “In every way I wore as much as possible the aspect of slavery.… I had never appeared to be even so intelligent as I really was. This all colored at the south, free and slaves, find it particularly necessary for their own comfort and safety to observe” (quoted in Scott, 1990:2). For slaves such as Lunsford Lane, it was “not just a question of masking one’s feelings and producing the correct speech acts and gestures in their place. Rather it [was] often a question of controlling what would be a natural impulse to rage, insult, anger, and the violence that such feelings prompt.… The cruelest result of human bondage is that it transforms the assertion of personal dignity into a mortal risk” (Scott, 1990:37). Of course, in the same way as “subordination requires a credible performance of humility and deference, so domination seems to require a credible performance of haughtiness and mastery” (Scott, 1990:11). The latter is abundantly illustrated by ancient Roman writers’ advice to slave-owners on how to appear and behave toward their slaves (some cited in the preceding essay above).

Since the dominant sense that their slaves’ or serfs’ deference and consent seem to be less than sincere, a “performance,” they develop the view that their subordinates are “deceitful, shamming, and lying by nature” (Scott, 1990:3). The master class attributes slave behavior not to the effect of coercive power arbitrarily exercised, but to inborn character (Scott, 1990:35). In Aristotle’s perverse “logic,” some people were slaves by nature. Or in a Roman stereotype, Syrians, Jews, and other Asiatics were particularly well-suited for slavery. Moreover, since the dominant control the power relations, the resulting “public transcript” of their relations with their slaves or serfs effectively “scripts” social relations the way they would have them, including their own self-portrait as a higher type of humanity and their subordinates as a lesser breed or even sub-human. One important effect of this situation over time is that the faces of those obliged by domination to act a mask will grow to fit that mask, as the practice of subordination in effect produces its own legitimacy (Scott, 1990:10). But the antipode of this master-slave dialectic is equally true: the mask of slaveholder ideology grows to fit the face of the slave’s defensive opacity and resignation.

Patterson has shown that the Sambo, and its ancient analogue in the Roman stereotype of the graeculus or Greek slave, is but an ideological projection onto the dishonored person of the slave, “no more realistic a description of how slaves thought and behaved than was the inflated conception of honor and sense of freedom an accurate description of their masters” (Patterson, 1982:96). It is a self-deception on the part of the master class, which slaves themselves played to their advantage.

The slaveholder retaliated ideologically by stereotyping the slave as a lying, cowardly, lazy buffoon devoid of courage and manliness: the slave became, in the holder’s mind, the “Graeculus” of ancient Rome, … the Sambo of the U.S. South.… The slave retaliated not only existentially, by refusing to be among his fellow slaves the degraded creature he was made out to be, but also directly on the battlefront of the political psychology of his retaliatio with the slaveholder. He fed the parasite’s timocratic character with the pretense that he was what he was supposed to be. Still, in his very pretense there was a kind of victory. He served while concealing his soul and fooling the parasite. As the Jamaican slaves put it in their favorite proverb, “Play fool to catch wise” (Patterson, 1982:338).

An effect of slave behavior that artfully reinforced the masters’ stereotyped view of them as lazy or shiftless may well have been lowered expectations for their productivity, and a result of their good “performance” may well have been better treatment by their masters in terms of food allowance and demands (Scott, 1990:34).

The implications for historical investigation are not far to seek. If we rely on the usual sources, particularly ancient texts which, expressing the view of the dominant slave owners, form the “public transcript,” we have only a superficial and one-dimensional view of historical social relations and behavior. Most previous studies of ancient Greek and Roman slavery, for example, as noted above, finding little evidence of slave resistance, take this to means that slaves were basically content with their lot, which must not have been particularly dehumanizing. The “public transcript” of Greek and Roman literature and inscriptions by its very character, however, is both ignorant of the “hidden transcript” of what the slaves were communicating among themselves when “off-stage,” out of the hearing of their masters, and interested in denying, obscuring or distorting indications of resistance among the slaves—although it has expressions of paranoia aplenty about potential and imagined forms of insubordination and resistance.

Recognition that nearly all of our written sources express the “public transcript” and that there must have been also both a “hidden transcript” and hidden forms of resistance complicates the task of the historical investigator. To explain the incidence of publicly overt forms of resistance and why ancient slaves appeared to accept the inevitability of their slavery, we must search more critically for the ways in which slaves were coerced and/so socialized into accepting a view of their interests as propagated from above. In examining the “public transcript” of deference and consent, “how can we estimate the impact of power relations on action when the exercise of power is nearly constant?”—which it was in the conditions of ancient Greek and Roman chattel slavery. As noted in the essay on slave systems, domination took the forms of arbitrary whipping, sexual violation, and regular system atic humiliation and degradation. Those born into slavery would have been “socialized by their parents in the rituals of homage that [would] keep them from harm,” a cruel paradox for slave mothers anxious to keep their children safe and by their side (Scott, 1990:24). Nevertheless, slaves’ performance to please does not necessarily imply internalization of hegemony (Scott, 1990:85). “The goal of slaves … is precisely to escape detection; to the extent that they achieve their goal, such activities do not appear in the archives” (Scott, 1990:87). Compliance extracted under conditions of constant exercise of power and surveillance is unlikely to be a valid guide to slaves’ “offstage” attitudes and actions. Just as subordinates such as slaves are not deceived by their own performance, there is no more reason for historians to take the performance at face value (89).

Scott has thus shown how the Sambo persona is a defensive mask donned by slaves as a matter of psychic and physical survival in the open interaction of dominant and subordinate that Scott calls the “public transcript”: “At the very least, an assessment of power relations read directly off the public transcript between the powerful and the weak may portray a deference and consent that is possibly only a tactic.… Subordinates offer a performance of deference and consent while attempting to discern, to read, the real intentions and mood of the potentially threatening powerholder” (Scott, 1992:57). Therefore we must not read the absence of a great number of slave revolts in the early Empire as a register of slaves’ contentment, even reconciliation to their bondage. All slave regimes hide the authentic sentiments of slaves from the compass of empirical scrutiny. To say that slaves were happy with their lot is to make a statement that may be criminally naïve, mendacious, or idiotic. But it is not and cannot be historical. Dissimulation makes the heart of the slave historically unverifiable until its hidden contents boil over in the heat of open warfare. Sometimes we may feel the heat, as it were, by applying a historical analysis to slavery that does not take the servile mask of the public transcript at face value. Once, in a fit of rage, the emperor Hadrian put out the eye of one of his slaves with a pen. Later the emperor offered the blinded slave anything he wanted. After a long silence, the slave asked for his eye back (Galen, The Diseases of the Mind 4). We do this story a disservice if we read it as illustrative of a slave’s pathetic stupidity.

Given the real situation of the constant exercise of power in these highly effective forms of domination, what needs explanation is not that slave revolts were so infrequent, but that they—and the scores of plots that never came to fruition for every revolt that erupted—ever occurred at all. “How is it that subordinate groups such as [slaves] have so often believed and acted as if their situations were not inevitable when a more judicious historical reading would have concluded that it was?” (Scott, 1990:79). It would appear to be a testimony to slaves’ resilient sense of personal dignity and justice, despite all appearances, and their determination to resist what appears inevitable that they have even plotted a revolt. Furthermore, since the overwhelming majority of slaves historically have had no knowledge of a social order founded on different principles and institutions than those of the dominant system to which they are subordinated, their revolts are unlikely to be revolutionary, but merely atte