Just two months ago in June the most recent issue of the journal New Testament Studies an interesting paper appeared titled Bodies and Souls: The Case for Reading Revelation 18.13 as a Critique of the Slave Trade by the scholar Murray Vaser. Now, this paper isn’t arguing that Revelation or the Bible condemns slavery as a concept, it’s clear that the Bible considers it possible for slaves to be treated in a way that wouldn’t be immoral. I, myself, will probably write out a fuller post on slavery eventually and its relationship to the Bible (far more complicated than the secularists believe, as everything about religion usually is). At multiple points in past scholarship, many scholars have suggested that this verse (Rev. 18:13) contains a critique of the slave trade, though this paper is the first full defense and articulation of such a position. Vaser quotes earlier scholars who’ve postulated this position, writing;
As Richard Bauckham explains, ‘[John] is pointing out that slaves are not mere animal carcasses to be bought and sold as property but are human beings’. Pierre Prigent adds: ‘Our author obviously sees in this [i.e. the slave trade] the height of the capital’s sinfulness’ (pp. 397-398).
Vaser argues that Revelation 18:13 criticizes the slave trade of Rome (being represented as Babylon in Revelation). Here’s what the text says;
Revelation 18:11-13: “The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her because no one buys their cargoes anymore— 12 cargoes of gold, silver, precious stones and pearls; fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet cloth; every sort of citron wood, and articles of every kind made of ivory, costly wood, bronze, iron and marble; 13 cargoes of cinnamon and spice, of incense, myrrh and frankincense, of wine and olive oil, of fine flour and wheat; cattle and sheep; horses and carriages; and human beings sold as slaves.
The Greek translated as “human beings sold as slaves” (σωμάτων καὶ ψυχὰς ἀνθρώπων) in the Greek reads “bodies and souls” — since these bodies and souls are being sold as cargoes to Babylon, the text is clearly referring to the slave trade (which is why current translations translate it as such). The phrase “bodies and souls”, as Vaser shows, refers to a single item, not two separate items, and was a common idiom at the time for a human being — bodies and souls are a reference to the material and immaterial components of a person (my body, the physical part of me, and my soul, my non-physical part). Revelation is emphasizing the final item on the list with a double-expression, which signifies that Babylon is not only selling bodies but the souls of people (Craig Koester, Roman Slave Trade, pp. 771-2). Vaser notes that the only time that this phrase refers to the slave trade in Greek literature elsewhere is in the context of a criticism of it. Vaser writes;
Consider the only passage in the LCL where the notion of selling the ‘souls of persons’ is entertained. In the biography by Philostratus, Apollonius recounts his ‘noblest’ deed as the captain of a merchant vessel. While docked in port, Apollonius was approached by Phoenician pirates who offered him 10,000 drachmas if he would enable them to take the ship. They promised they would spare his life and the life of any of his friends. Apollonius agreed and even made the pirates swear in a temple to keep their end of the bargain. That night, however, he secretly set sail and escaped to sea. At this point, Apollonius’ interlocutor objects: ‘Why, Apollonius, do you consider those to be acts of justice?’ Apollonius replies: ‘Yes, and of humanity too, for I think it a combination of many virtues not to sell human souls [μὴἀποδόσθαι ψυχὰς ἀνθρώπων], not to barter away merchants’ property and to show yourself above money when you are a sailor’ (Philostratus, Vit. Apoll. 3.21.1–24.3; trans. Jones, LCL). These words, which have been overlooked in the discussion of Rev 18.13, demonstrate that even in ancient times an author could expect his audience to recognise the act of selling ψυχαὶἀνθρώπων as an obvious evil. (pp. 402-404)
Vaser points out that scholars have shown that Babylon in Revelation represents an antithetical and counterbalance to New Jerusalem in Revelation. He notes Gordon Campbell, another scholar that has listed twenty-three antitheticals in Revelation between Babylon and New Jerusalem in almost all of its structures, but Vaser notes that there’s just one more antithetical that Campbell left out — the treatment between slaves in Babylon and New Jerusalem. “In Babylon, slaves are sold alongside sheep and horses (Rev. 18:13); in the New Jerusalem, slaves reign as kings and friends of God” (pp. 405-6).
Vaser takes important note of the critique of Babylon’s extensive luxuries and commerce in Revelation 17-18, such as its abundance of gold and silver, pearls, linen, silk, metals, spices, and food. He notes this in context of the writings of Philo of Alexandria in the mid 1st century AD, a Jewish philosopher, and his description of the Essenes living at Qumran — while describing their rejection of all luxuries of society in favor of a moral natural subsistence and way of life, he mentions that slavery is also rejected as one of the luxuries components. The following is Philo of Alexandria’s description of Essene society in his writing Every Good Man is Free;
They do not hoard gold and silver or acquire great slices of land because they desire the revenues therefrom, but provide what is needed for the necessary requirements of life … They judge frugality with contentment to be, as indeed it is, an abundance of wealth. As for darts, javelins, daggers, or the helmet, breastplate or shield, you could not find a single manufacturer of them, nor, in general, any person making weapons or engines or plying any industry concerned with war, nor, indeed, any of the peaceful kind, which easily lapse into vice, for they have not the vaguest idea of commerce either wholesale or retail or marine, but pack the inducements to covetousness off in disgrace. Not a single slave is to be found among them, but all are free, exchanging services with each other, and they denounce the owners of slaves, not merely for their injustice in outraging the law of equality, but also for their impiety in annulling the statute of Nature, who mother-like has born and reared all men alike, and created them genuine brothers, not in mere name, but in very reality, though this kinship has been put to confusion by the triumph of malignant covetousness, which has wrought estrangement instead of affinity and enmity instead of friendship. (quoted in Vaser, pg. 406)
On pg. 407, Vaser does an excellent job at further highlighting the relationship between luxury and covetousness to slavery in the ancient world, such as, for example, the mythic prehistoric Golden Age described in Greek literature at a time where no commerce or luxury yet existed, but all possessions were held in common and all men were held as equals without slaves or masters, similar to the idealistic state of New Jerusalem where people will no longer be sold as slaves to other humans, and all humans will be treated with eternal dignity of solely belonging to God.
Overall, I found the paper very interesting and convincing as well. Vaser provides a note before beginning his analysis about his biases — he’s a Protestant that would be pleased to see a critique of slavery in the Bible — and rather from detracting from his credibility, I find this is intellectually honest and allows anyone reading the paper to see and evaluate his evidence on its own merits. Definitely a recommended read, and provides an interesting addition to the scholarship and understanding of the biblical conception of slavery.