- Research on the New Testament and Early Christian Literature May Assist the Churches in Setting Ethical Priorities
The hashtags #BlackLivesMatter and #SayHerName remind non-African Americans of issues that black communities in the United States have long faced: disproportionate police killings of black persons of all genders, mass incarceration of black and brown persons, economic and educational disadvantages, discrimination in housing, racial and sexual stereotypes that harm both rape complainants and defendants, and so on. I view these issues through a deep lens into history, extending back from Jim and Jane Crow through to religiously sanctioned legal slavery, behind that to the Vatican-approved onset of the Portuguese and Spanish slave trades with West Africa, canon-law sanctioned slavery going back from the Middle Ages to late antiquity, and to the Christian Bible, both testaments of which tolerate slavery. To be sure, Christians were at the forefront of opposing slavery in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and many other factors have played a role in arriving at the current situation. Nevertheless, the Bible and the ancient sources of canon law served as justifications for the slavery whose legacies linger.
My mentor Krister Stendahl’s concept of the “public health” aspect of New Testament studies has inspired me to undertake research that may limit harm caused to marginalized persons through specific uses of the New Testament and further the values of human dignity and equality as these interact with the Bible. To that end, most of my research has consisted of historically grounded, close analysis of New Testament, contemporaneous, and other ancient texts, each of which has some relevance for contemporary public and religious debates. I see my work as part of a broader mosaic of scholarly contributions that, together, can provide solid historical depth and religious literacy in contemporary policy discussions. I am reflecting here on how I, as a biblical scholar, respond to structural racism and other contemporary forms of inequality. [End Page 229]
As I contemplated current racial and gender inequities and considered how I, as a scholar of the New Testament and of Jewish and early church history in the Roman period, could contribute to solving these pressing ethical problems, I determined that collaboration was the best way to observe connections and contrasts, thereby creating a deep historical picture. Within the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project that I direct, a group of outstanding scholars specializing in several religious traditions and periods of history and in ethics, theology, and law, and activists in the areas of US incarceration practices and contemporary slavery made that possible. In addition, artists in dance, music, and poetry, as well as musicologists, helped audiences to shift their vision, to see the world around them in new ways.
Collaborators sought to address the nexus of slavery, religion, and sexuality, especially as it has impacted women and girls. The collaboration resulted in Beyond Slavery: Overcoming Its Religious and Sexual Legacies (2010), as well as an archive of the public conference on the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project’s website.1 The team of scholars, artists, and activists investigated this issue beginning with the Bible and the ancient Near East and extending through to early Christianity; the Talmud; early Islamic jurisprudence; sixteenth-century Valencia; US slavery, including the use of the Bible in antebellum slavery debates; contemporary incarceration practices in the US; welfare reform; reparations for slavery; contemporary cultural depictions of slavery; a reading of the Bible and the Qur’an on slavery by a formerly enslaved woman; and poetry inspired by these themes.
The researchers ascertained that sexual access by masters to enslaved women and girls and, although far less frequently acknowledged, to men, boys, and persons of other genders, has de facto characterized the slavery systems analyzed. While the Qur’an and early Islamic jurisprudence explicitly allowed a master sexual access to his enslaved women and girls, which the jurists then regulated by obligating masters vis-à-vis the slave-woman or slave-girl and the child of such a union, the Jewish and Christian Bibles, the Talmud, and the ancient sources of canon law did not prohibit such sexual access even as they showed awareness that such contact occurred in their own communities...