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Early Christian and Jewish parables legitimized slavery by reference to absolute God

Published: 25th June 2021 Last updated: 28th June 2021

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'My research concerns parables in early rabbinic Judaism and in early Christianity that relate to slavery. This PhD is part of a large research project on parables about meals, family relationships and slavery at the Tilburg School of Catholic Theology and the University of Utrecht.' Interview with Martijn Stoutjesdijk about his dissertation.

'I studied philosophy and theology and have a special interest in political relations and power relations. That's why I chose the research theme of slavery, for texts that have impact and are a current theme that is only growing in importance. In 2013, the Council of Churches made apologies for slavery; I followed that discussion with great interest. Furthermore, I did my own research on the role of pastors in the Dutch history of slavery.' He won an essay prize for it in 2019.

Stoutjesdijk examined the imagery of slave and slavery in the parables. He wanted to know how these stories communicate certain theological and ideological messages. In each case, he found that there is much continuity in imagery in the early rabbinic and early Christian slave parables. Also, many of the stereotypes in the parables recurred in Greco-Roman texts. 
It is notable that slavery in the parables is almost always depicted as a closed system - liberation from slavery is not something the parables are concerned with. Furthermore, the status of slaves in the parables depends on how obedient they are, but also on their gender, their skills and on the status of their master.

God demands unrelenting obedience
'Parables are so fascinating because they can tell us something about the character of God, how people used to see him. In modern eyes, the comparison of God with a slave owner does not offer a positive image: he demands unrelenting obedience, is threatening and punishes with a heavy hand. People are judged primarily by what they do in relation to their master. In those strict hierarchical relationships, the role of divine authority was absolute. This was also a way for Christians and Jews to make theological sense of the events in their lives: just as it was not always clear to slaves why they received punishment, it was not always clear to ancient believers why they became ill, for example.

At the same time, there was also care and security in the relationships between slave and master, and between man and God: masters were responsible for the well-being of their subordinates. Parables thus functioned as theological models for getting a grip on the contradictions of life at that time.'

The references to parables in the context of the transatlantic slave trade often turn out badly for enslaved people. Stoutjesdijk quotes the American advocate against slavery and himself former enslaved Frederick Douglass in the 19th century, who saw a young slave girl being beaten severely by her owner. In doing so, the man cited one of the New Testament slavery parables (Luke 12:47): "The slave who knows what his lord wants, but does not do it, will suffer many blows. "

Christian label
Stoutjesdijk believes it is important to explore and map the connections between ancient and early modern slavery:"so that a historically informed reflection can begin in churches and in society as a whole about the sources from which we still draw inspiration today."
He refers to Paul's letters, among others, in which enslaved people are called to serve their master as they serve Christ. Stoutjesdijk calls that "an explosive mix". 'We now live in a time when freedom is the most important value. I hope I can contribute to a discussion within the churches about their role in slavery and in our culture. Because slavery does have a Christian label of legitimacy attached to it.'

Martijn Stoutjesdijk received his doctorate on June 2 with the thesis, "Not like the Rest of the Slaves? Slavery Parables in Early Rabbinic and Early Christian Literature."

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