Revelation 18 Condemns the Slave Trade?

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.

12 thoughts on “Revelation 18 Condemns the Slave Trade?

  1. When we say slavery is not a sin, then neither should viewing humans as just another commodity.

    The sin is, as you say, “stealing a human from the life he knows and placing him into a bondage he does not deserve.”

    I agree that 1 Timothy states that kidnapping a person and selling them as a slave is wrong. It is the kidnapping part though, and not the market where slaves are sold, if you indeed say slavery itself is not a sin.

    The slave market would have both the legal right to sell a commodity, and some may take advantage and use it wrongfully. That is not why Babylon or the world market economy is being destroyed though. There is no longer a need for it. Compare it to the same point in Ezekiel 27:13 when the same act is being said of Tyre.

    If the point was condemnation of being a sin, then the whole act of slavery should be considered sinful.


  2. Pingback: A Critique of Ben Bassett and Polytheism’s Progress | faithful philosophy and the past

  3. I do not see it as a condemnation period. This is the end of the need for economics. I guess one could say economics is a neccessary evil. But one would have to say all economics is evil. One should not say one form is any less evil than another. Nor is economics in itself the source of evil. Economics like the law is supposed to bring fairness to the human condition. Like the law, it can be used in a harmful way, but we cannot blame “tools” for evil means. It is the person using the tool that determines the outcome.

    Of course there are so called commodities that humans use that should have never been used period. Slavery was a common commodity at the time of the writing, and is still going on today. Probably at the time, it was legalized, but for the most part is now illegal today.

    Evidently humans can come up with all kinds of interpretations when it comes to NT passages. Babel was always a reference to human endeavors. Economics is a human endeaver and in it’s earliest form, probably started in Babylon. We know that the Romans were the government of the day, thus babel to the NT writers. However in this passage it is a future that has yet to happen when humans are no longer able to use economics. It would seem to me, the “she” is economics and it’s relationship with humans. And her time has come to an end.


    • “I do not see it as condemnation period”

      But is this relevant, since this is an opinion that contradicts the data? Babylon is guilty of exploiting the nations to amass its luxury, and at the height of the items it is hording, slavery is listed. Babylon is contrasted with the idealistic state of the New Jerusalem, where Babylon mistreats its slaves, New Jerusalem treats them perfectly for eternity.

      “Evidently humans can come up with all kinds of interpretations when it comes to NT passages.”

      No, they really can’t. Anyways, if you want to disagree with this highly detailed post I wrote, you’re going to have to explain why the evidence listed here doesn’t work.


      • While there is an end to the world’s economic system which Babel represents, the passage is not a condemnation as much as we want it to be. The list of items was not even being condemned by the angel, but was being lamented as over by the kings and merchants of the earth.

        While this passage is an antithetical comparing a perfect earth with a less than perfect earth, are we going to condemn every action in life?

        If we are going to take the Words of Jesus seriously, which the writer of this passage would, when the woman taken in adultery was brought before him, he said, “Neither do I condemn thee, go and sin no more.”

        Jesus did acknowledge that sin was a reality, but this was the time where forgiveness and the gospel was front and center. Did humans, at that time, view sin as sin, or was the economical situation like today blurred to the point where morality had been turned upside down? God never included slavery as a sin, but as a result of an imperfect economical system.

        I have a strong belief that economy itself may be an affront to God. That human’s are considered a commodity by some, was no different to God than a manufactured item. The reason we view slavery as wrong is the ability of humans to demand human equality. I just do not see that being as important a factor to God as we assume. It could be pointed out that God had favorite humans who were elevated above other humans. That does not mean slavery is ok. It is tolerated.

        I think economy itself, is a neccessary evil that replaces God in the minds of humans. While supposedly it is a fair arbitrator that humans have used to replace God, it can be very abusive in many ways.


      • Jesus condemned plenty of people, especially the Pharisees. Read the post over, slavery is not being condemned — the way slavery is being practicesed is being condemned. Revelation lists slaves as the final item on the list, and emphasizes it with a double expression (“bodies and souls”). The antithetical is that in Babylon, human beings and their souls are sold alongside animals, whereas in New Jerusalem slaves reign eternally as God’s friends and subjects.

        So *slavery* is not the issue, as I wrote the Bible considers it perfectly possible for slaves to be treated morally. It is the contemporary slave trade that’s immoral, otherwise you’ll have a very difficult time explaining 1 Timothy 1:10 and its blanket condemnation of slave traders.


      • I think that we agree the term slavery or the act of enslaving oneself to another is not sinful. I would extend that to using slaves as a commodity. You point out that New Jerusalem incorporates slaves as residents. The point perhaps you are making is humans forced into slavery is wrong. Because that is what 1 Timothy 1:10 is referring to. Human trafficking would be the modern term. But using humans just as a commodity in the context of having slaves is not a sin. The distinction between body and soul does not distinguish it as a sin either. In the 1st century they viewed the soul differently than we do today, but that is a totally different topic.

        To me, allowing another person to be a slave is wrong. But it is a legal part of some economies. Even in the Torah or Law. I do not think this passage singles out slavery separate from the other acts as something sinful. The whole economic system is being gutted and replaced, not just one aspect.


      • This entire comment is a strawman, since I specifically state in the beginning that the concept of slavery itself is not a sin, rather, it is the way the slave is treated that qualifies as sinful. On this point, 1 Timothy 1:9-10 definitely establishes my point, and Revelation affirms it — in Revelation, the slave is the final list of items traded by Babylon, and emphasized further with a double expression “bodies and souls” (the equivalent of saying “Babylon is selling gold, sheep, and, get this, EVEN HUMANS!”), furthermore, in Babylon slaves are sold alongside animals whereas in New Jerusalem slaves reign eternally as God’s friends with an eternity of happiness ahead of them.

        To claim the entire economy is being characterized, and that there is nothing special about the mention of slaves, you’d have to ignore everything above.


      • Your points are well taken Tim, but I think that what you’re saying needs to be seen in the context of the Mosaic law. These writers all uphold the law just as Christ came to “magnify the law”, and the Mosaic law sets up a hierarchy pointing the way to the kingdom. We are born into bondage; it’s a fact of life, but this doesn’t mean that we need to stay in bondage and God’s law points to the means by which one can proceed along “the way”.

        God’s chosen people are called from bondage, but this doesn’t mean that they can’t be an instrument to free others from bondage as well. One doesn’t enslave one in order to free them, but God doesn’t force people or societies into freedom. So a Jew is to respect the laws of those cultures they find themselves living in or around. They may purchase a slave’s freedom, but the fact remains that they are purchasing a service, and to be purchased by an observant Jew was the best case scenario for a slave. if a slave is not willing to accept the God of Israel, or His laws, then they are “free” to remain a slave. They may also prefer remaining a slave because their lord or master is generous and treats them with dignity and respect. People tend to overlook that ritual in the Mosaic law when condemning slavery. People need to let people live their lives and stop passing judgment on those who WANT to be slaves.

        Those who decide to go free after their term of service is up are free to leave, or be joined to the children of Israel and receive the blessings of the oracles of Israel. This is no different than what is described in Acts with regards to the church when Luke talks about “those lively oracles” that were “given to us” i.e. the church. There is nothing in the new testament excluding any of the Mosaic law except the sacrificial system or that aspect of the law that “was against us” which is the “curse” or the law “that was added because of transgressions”. These are all explicit references to the punishment required for violating God’s laws; not God’s laws themselves. So the punishment for mistreating a slave is done away with while slavery itself is still in tact. The reason for this is that when one stops mistreating slaves, there is no need for a system to deal with mistreating slaves. This is the case for the entire law.

        The merchants of the world are being exploited, but the whole economic system is inherently geared to exploit everyone. Their god is Mammon. They want to be exploited because they’re depraved. They love Babylon. The IMF, BIS, the Fed, etc. are all blatantly fraudulent enterprises. They all admit this and anyone who bothers to check it out will see things like this:

        “When you or I write a check there must be sufficient funds in the account to cover the check, but when the Federal Reserve writes a check there is no bank deposit on which that is drawn. When the Federal Reserve writes a check it is creating money”. -“Putting It Simply” Boston Federal Reserve

        Creating money with nothing but keystrokes on a keyboard. This is blatant fraud, and unlawful for anyone but the select few banking cartels who have taken a page straight from the Old Testament where God instructs the people of Israel to engage in usury against the inhabitants of the Promised Land. It’s an instrument of war to fleece the depraved. This is explicitly why the inhabitants of the Promised Land are being “spewed out”.

        God doesn’t want that which He has made holy(e.g. the holy land) to be defiled so just like Jesus’ analogy of the digestive process in Mark 7, the land digests and extracts what it beneficial, and expels what is polluted. The children of Israel are clean and made holy by God and therefore worthy to enter into the Promised land just as food is brought into the body. This should be enough to point out that the parenthetical comment in vs. 19 is pointless; that, and it is redundant to talk of “clean food”. If it isn’t clean, it isn’t food, but I digress.

        We’re all image bearers of God, but this doesn’t automatically free us from our station in life. Regardless of whether one is born free or enslaved, Jew or gentile, Catholic or Baptist, we’re all one in Christ. Paul points out that some are created to honorable positions in the body while others are created for “unseemly’ purposes.


  4. This isn’t really a condemnation of the slave trade at all, but of an economic system that is Satanic to the core. These merchants are selling wheat, flour, cattle, and cars. What’s so wrong about selling wheat or flour or sheep? The author seems to have a serious reading comprehension problem; here’s yet another gaff: “since these bodies and souls are being sold as cargoes from Babylon” Nope, this cargo is being BOUGHT by Babylon. The merchants are mourning because Babylon no longer buys their wares. There is nothing in the text to indicate that any of these items are immoral. There is nothing to distinguish slaves from any other items being sold.


    • The only thing accurate in this comment is that I should have written the cargo are being sold “to Babylon”, not “from Babylon” — thanks for this, the rest is really just trying to hold onto something that isn’t there. There’s nothing wrong with selling sheep and flour per se, but as explained, the passage is in the context of condemning the luxury of Babylon, the slave trade being a part of that luxury, as Vaser shows by comparing this to what Philo of Alexandria wrote. Condemning the contemporary slave trade also has a parallel in 1 Timothy 1:10, which settles this point.

      1 Timothy 1:10: We realize that law is not enacted for the righteous, but for the lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for killers of father or mother, for murderers, 10for the sexually immoral, for homosexuals, for slave traders and liars and perjurers, and for anyone else who is averse to sound teaching

      And of course, dear shnarkle, you completely have to run around the fact that the presence of slaves in the corruption of Babylon is placed as an antithetical to the absence of slaves in the idealistic state of New Jerusalem in Revelation.


    • Oh, and I seem to have missed the other point you made — that the slaves aren’t distinguished from the other cargo. I should have mentioned this earlier, Vaser shows in the paper that this idea is, in Isbon Beckwith’s words, “without foundation” (scholarly way of saying “sheer nonsense”). Vaser shows on pg. 400 that the phrase “bodies and souls” in the ancient world almost invariably refers to human beings, without any distinction between captive and free, and so there’s no doubt that Revelation understands the slaves to be human beings. That’s why the NIV and other major translations place the text as “human beings sold as slaves”, Revelation invariably preserves the fact that these slaves are in fact human beings.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s