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Bodies and Souls: The Case for Reading Revelation 18.13 as a Critique of the Slave Trade

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  06 June 2018

Murray Vasser*
1100 Kinghorn Drive, Wilmore, Kentucky 40390, USA. Email:


Though commentators often claim that Rev 18.13 entails a critique of the slave trade, a robust defence of this assertion has not been offered. In this article, I first analyse the use of the terms σώματα and ψυχαὶ ἀνθρώπων in the extant Greek literature and demonstrate that the peculiar conjunction of these terms in Rev 18.13 is best understood as a critique of the slave trade. I then demonstrate that such an interpretation accords with the literary context of Rev 18.13. This article thus offers an important contribution to the ongoing debate concerning the early Christian view of slavery.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2018 

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1 So Boesak, A. A., Comfort and Protest: The Apocalypse from a South African Perspective (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1987) 120–1Google Scholar; Bauckham, R., The Climax of Prophecy: Studies on the Book of Revelation (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1993) 370Google Scholar; Callahan, A. D., ‘Apocalypse as Critique of Political Economy: Some Notes on Revelation 18’, HBT 21.1 (1999) 4665Google Scholar, at 60; Prigent, P., Commentary on the Apocalypse of St. John (trans. Pradels, W.; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2004) 508Google Scholar; Martin, C. J., ‘Polishing the Unclouded Mirror: A Womanist Reading of Revelation 18:13’, From Every People and Nation: The Book of Revelation in Intercultural Perspective (ed. Rhoads, D. M.; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005) 100Google Scholar; Perry, P. S., ‘Critiquing the Excess of Empire: A Synkrisis of John of Patmos and Dio of Prusa’, JSNT 29 (2007) 473–96Google Scholar, at 489; Koester, C. R., ‘Roman Slave Trade and the Critique of Babylon in Revelation 18’, CBQ 70 (2008) 766–86Google Scholar, at 771–2; Resseguie, J. L., The Revelation of John: A Narrative Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009) 230–1Google Scholar.

2 Bauckham, Climax, 370.

3 Prigent, Apocalypse, 508.

4 So Ladd, G. E., A Commentary on the Revelation of John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972) 240Google Scholar; Brighton, L. A., Revelation (Concordia; St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 1999) 473–4Google Scholar; Glancy, J. A., Slavery in Early Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006) 11Google Scholar.

5 Ladd, Revelation, 240.

6 Brighton, Revelation, 473.

7 So Meeks, W. A., ‘The “Haustafeln” and American Slavery: A Hermeneutical Challenge’, Theology and Ethics in Paul and his Interpreters: Essays in Honor of Victor Paul Furnish (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1996) 232–53Google Scholar, at 249–50; Harrill, J. A., Slaves in the New Testament: Literary, Social, and Moral Dimensions (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006) 85–6Google Scholar; Avalos, H., Slavery, Abolitionism, and the Ethics of Biblical Scholarship (The Bible in the Modern World 38; Sheffield: Sheffield, 2011) 96138Google Scholar.

8 For a concise summary of this debate over the past 200 years, see Byron, J., Recent Research on Paul and Slavery (Recent Research in Biblical Studies 3; Sheffield: Sheffield, 2008) 135Google Scholar.

9 Harrill identifies it as the most controversial. Harrill, J. A., The Manumission of Slaves in Early Christianity (HUT 32; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1995) 195Google Scholar.

10 Bradley, K. R., Slaves and Masters in the Roman Empire: A Study in Social Control (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987) 19Google Scholar.

11 McKeown, N., The Invention of Ancient Slavery? (London: Duckworth, 2007) 96Google Scholar.

12 Avalos states: ‘Biblical scholarship generally functions as an apology for biblical views now deemed unethical, and slavery is a primary example’ (Avalos, Slavery, 4).

13 Harrill, J. A., Review of Hector Avalos, ‘Slavery, Abolitionism, and the Ethics of Biblical Scholarship’, BibInt 21.4–5 (2013) 547–9Google Scholar, at 547.

14 Beckwith, I. T., The Apocalypse of John: Studies in Introduction with a Critical and Exegetical Commentary (New York: Macmillan, 1919Google Scholar; reprinted Grand Rapids: Baker, 1967) 717. See also Giesen, H., Die Offenbarung des Johannes (RNT; Regensburg: Pustet, 1997) 398Google Scholar.

15 See Mounce, R. H., The Book of Revelation (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998) 334Google Scholar; Brighton, Revelation, 474. For σώματα as a reference to slaves, see Tob 10.10; 2 Macc 8.11.

16 Glonner, G., Zur Bildersprache des Johannes von Patmos: Untersuchung der Johannesapokalypse anhand einer um Elemente der Bildinterpretation erweiterten historisch-kritischen Methode (NTAbh N.F. 34; Münster: Aschendorff, 1999) 72Google Scholar.

17 This list was compiled by identifying every occurrence of the plural genitive ἀνθρώπων which modified any plural form of ψυχή: Num 31.35, 40, 46; Ezek 27.13; 1 Macc 2.38; 9.2; Sir 21.2; Wis 14.11; 1 En. 9.3; 22.3; T. Sol. 20.12; T. Ab. B 4.13; Sib. Or. 2.203, 217; 3.558, 678, 724; 8.350; Diodorus Siculus, Library of History 5.28.6; 18.1.1; 32.27.2; Procopius, History of the Wars 8.20.48; Eusebius, Hier. 4.2; Hist. eccl. 1.2.21; Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers 3.45; John Damascene, Barlaam and Ioasaph 362; Philostratus, Vit. Apoll. 3.24.3; Xenophon, Oec. 1.23; 21.3; Ps.-Lucian, Greek Anthology 10.29; Plato, [Min.] 318a; Phaed. 70c; Phileb. 40c; Symp. 186a; 195e; Leg. 933b; Basil, Letters 47; 85; Aristotle, Pol. 1333b.39; Philo, Drunkenness 26; Spec. Laws 1.89; Plutarch, Is. Os. 363b; 382f; Sera 564e; Libanius, Orations 30.53; Cassius Dio, Roman History 52.35.3; Simonides, Epigrams 7.515 (LCL, 70); Isocrates, Antid. 214; Polybius, Histories 13.5.6; Plotinus, Enn. 4.3.12.

18 So D. E. Aune, Revelation, vol. iii (WBC 52C; Dallas: Word, 1998) 979; Beale, G. K., The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text (NIGTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999) 896Google Scholar; Giesen, H., ‘Das Römische Reich im Spiegel der Johannes-Apokalypse’, Studien zur Johannesapokalypse (SBAB 29; Stuttgart: Katholisches Bibelwerk, 2000) 210Google Scholar.

19 The following are the commodities listed in Ezekiel (LXX) which are also found in Rev 18.12–13: χρυσίον (27.12, 22; cf. χρυσός), ἀργύριον (27.12; cf. ἄργυρος), λίθος χρηστός (27.22; cf. λίθος τίμιος), βύσσος (27.7; cf. βύσσινος), πορφύρα (27.7), ἐλεφάντινος (27.15), σκεῦος χαλκοῦς (27.13; cf.  σκεῦος ἐκ χαλκοῦ), σίδηρος (27.12), μύρον (27.17), οἶνος (27.18–19), ἔλαιον (27.17), σῖτος (27.17), κτῆνος (27.20), ἵππος (27.14) and ψυχαὶ ἀνθρώπων (27.13). Furthermore, Ezekiel 27 contains twelve of the nineteen occurrences of ἔμπορος in the OT (27.12, 15, 17, 18, 20, 21, 22 (bis), 23 (bis), 25, 36; cf. Rev 18.3, 11, 15, 23), as well as three of the four occurrences of κυβερνήτης (27.8, 27, 28; cf. Rev 18.17). Ezekiel also states that the ἔθνη and the βασιλεῖς τῆς γῆς were enriched by Tyre (27.33; cf. Rev 18.3). Finally, Ezekiel states that in the destruction of Tyre, the μουσικοί were silenced (26.13; cf. Rev 18.22).

20 Aune, Revelation, iii.1002; Beale, Revelation, 909–10; Prigent, Apocalypse, 508.

21 Bauckham, Climax, 30–1 (italics original). I am grateful to my colleague, Garrett Best, for pointing me to Bauckham's research.

22 Gundry, R. H., Sōma in Biblical Theology: With Emphasis on Pauline Anthropology (SNTSMS 29; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976) 15CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

23 Glancy, Slavery, 11.

24 Aune, Revelation, iii.1002.

25 Koester, ‘Roman Slave Trade’, 771.

26 In all of the ninety-three occurrences of the phrase σῶμα καὶ [ἡ] ψυχή or ψυχὴ καὶ [τὸ] σῶμα in the LXX, Josephus, Philo, the Greek pseudepigrapha, the NT (excluding Rev 18.13) and the Apostolic Fathers, σῶμα refers to the physical body (Philo, Cherubim 113; Sacrifices 108, 126; Agriculture 163; Flight 146; Decalogue 33, 93, 157, 173; Hypothetica 11.7, 11; Creation 134, 140, 164; Alleg. Interp. 2.2; 3.62, 80; Worse 7, 19, 88; Giants 33; Planting 160, 162; Drunkenness 69, 101, 130, 171, 178, 180; Confusion 62; Heir 154, 155; Dreams 1.192; 2.12, 83, 219; Abraham 96; Moses 1.301, 318; 2.68, 288; Spec. Laws 1.82, 102, 174, 211, 257; 2.6, 64, 214, 229, 240, 260; 3.23, 37; 4.170; Virtues 27, 103, 138, 173; Contempl. Life 61; Eternity 73; Embassy 14, 55, 111, 112; Rewards 146, 156; Matt 10.28; 1 Thess 5.23; 2 Macc 7.37; 14.38; 15.30; 4 Macc 1.28; Josephus, Ant. 4.153, 298; 15.158, 190, 251; 17.238; J.W. 2.136, 357; 2.476, 580, 588; 3.212, 362; 5.368; 6.46, 81; 7.345; Apocr. Ezek. 1.3; Gk. Apoc. Ezra 7.15; 2 Clem. 5.4).

27 A. D. Callahan argues that the inconsistencies in case arose from confused scribes and were not present in the original text (‘Apocalypse’, 59–60). However, the Center for New Testament Textual Studies (CNTTS) NT Critical Apparatus contains no manuscripts attesting the accusative of σῶμα, and only one fourteenth-century miniscule attesting the genitive of ψυχή (2494). Thus the evidence does not support Callahan's reconstruction.

28 Moț, L. F., Morphological and Syntactical Irregularities in the Book of Revelation: A Greek Hypothesis (Linguistic Biblical Studies 11; Leiden: Brill, 2015) 140Google Scholar.

29 Mounce, Revelation, 334 (italics original). Here Mounce is building upon a suggestion made by Bengel, J. A., Bengel's New Testament Commentary (trans. Lewis, C. T. and Vincent, M. R.; 2 vols.; Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1981)Google Scholar ii.916.

30 After surveying various explanations for the solecisms in Revelation, Beale concedes: ‘Some of the clear solecisms are difficult to account for in any theory’ (Revelation, 100–3).

31 So Beale, Revelation, 910.

32 Campbell, G., ‘Antithetical Feminine-Urban Imagery and a Tale of Two Women-Cities in the Book of Revelation’, TynBul 55.1 (2004) 81108Google Scholar, at 93.

33 Campbell, ‘Imagery’, 95–106. See also Beale, Revelation, 1117–19; Giesen, ‘Das Römische Reich’, 193–4.

34 The stark contrast between the depiction of slaves in Rev 18.13 and in 22.3–5 is noted by Koester, ‘Roman Slave Trade’, 769.

35 I have followed the RSV translation, but substituted the word ‘slave’ for ‘servant’ to render the Greek δοῦλος.

36 In this focus on luxury and commerce, Bauckham and Callahan find a critique of Rome's economic exploitation of the poor (Bauckham, Climax, 338–83; Callahan, ‘Apocalypse’).

37 Philo makes similar comments concerning the absence of slavery among the Therapeutai (Contempl. Life 70). See also Philo's statements concerning the equality of master and slave in Spec. Laws 2.68–9 and Decalogue 167.

38 Mealand, D. L., ‘Community of Goods and Utopian Allusions in Acts ii–iv’, JTS 28 (1977) 96–9CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 98–9.

39 See also Macrobius, Saturnalia 1.7.26; Philo, Embassy 13; Lucian, Sat. 5; Seneca, Ep. 47.10–16. The fundamental equality between master and slave was sometimes appealed to as a basis for the humane treatment of slaves (Seneca, Ep. 47; Epictetus, Diatr. 1.13; Philo, Spec. Laws 2.68–9).

40 See also Ps.-Seneca, Octavia 397–434; Lucian, Sat. 19–24; Ovid, Metam. 1.89–150; Am. 3.8.35–56; Macrobius, Sat. 1.8.3; Hesiod, Works and Days, 109–26. For a less idyllic depiction of mankind's primitive origin, see Lucretius, De rerum natura 925–1062, 1091–1150. (Note that even the harsh conditions described by Lucretius are presented as superior to the luxury and violence of the present age (see esp. 999–1010).) For a summary of Greco-Roman utopianism, see Gilchrest, E. J., Revelation 21–22 in Light of Jewish and Greco-Roman Utopianism (Biblical Interpretation Series 118; Leiden: Brill, 2013) 1282CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On the connection between greed and injustice outside of the context of utopianism, see Musonius Rufus, Lectures 20.6.

41 Utopian/dystopian motifs often feature prominently in political encomium and critique. See Ps.-Seneca, Octavia 400–36; Einsiedeln Eclogues 2.23–34; Calpurnius Siculus, Eclogue 1.42; Suetonius, Tib. 59; Plutarch, Cim. 10; Philo, Embassy 11–13. Note that in sharp contrast to John, Pliny presents Rome's maritime commerce as restoring the conditions of the Golden Age by making the abundance of the earth available to all men in common (Pan. 32.1–3). For a thorough treatment of utopian motifs in Revelation 21–2, see Gilchrest, Revelation 21–22, 201–75.

42 Bradley, K. R., Slavery and Society at Rome (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994) 2CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On the negative view of slave traders in antiquity, see Harrill, Slaves in the New Testament, 119–44; Joshel, S. R., Slavery in the Roman World (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010) 92Google Scholar. On the sexual and physical abuse of slaves, see Bradley, Slaves and Masters, 113–37; Glancy, Slavery, 12–29; Joshel, Slavery, 95–107, 119–29; Hezser, C., Jewish Slavery in Antiquity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005) 179211CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

43 Harrill, Slaves in the New Testament, 6. So also Davies, M., ‘Work and Slavery in the New Testament: Impoverishments of Traditions’, The Bible in Ethics: The Second Sheffield Colloquium (ed. Rogerson, J. W., Carroll R., M. D. and Davies, M. (JSOTSup 207; Sheffield: Sheffield, 1995) 315–47Google Scholar, at 338–47; Avalos, Slavery, 96–138. For studies which suggest some degree of Christian unease with slavery, see Barclay, J. M. G., ‘Paul, Philemon and the Dilemma of Christian Slave-Ownership’, NTS 37 (1991) 161–86CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Witherington, B. III, ‘The Letters to Philemon, the Colossians, and the Ephesians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Captivity Epistles (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007) 183–90Google Scholar; Vasser, M., ‘Grant Slaves Equality: Re-examining the Translation of Colossians 4:1’, TynBul 68.1 (2017) 5971Google Scholar.

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