Does Revelation 18.13 criticize the slave trade?

[WARNING: THIS IS A LONGER ONE] 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 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. At multiple points in past scholarship, many scholars have suggested that this verse contains a critique of the slave trade, though this paper is the first full defense and articulation of such a position. Vaser argues that Revelation 18:11-13 criticizes the slave trade of the contemporary world and is about Rome (represented as Babylon).

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 from 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 – 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). Vaser notes that the only time that this phrase refers to the slave trade in Greek literature elsewhere, it’s 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)

Next, Vaser points out that scholars have shown the representation of Babylon represnts an antithetical and counterbalance to New Jerusalem in Revelation. Gordon Campbell, another scholar, notes 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 he left out – the presence of slaves in Babylon, and their absense in New Jerusalem. Lastly, Vaser finally notes that Revelation 18 is a critique of luxury in and of itself. 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 (the guys who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls). If you know your Jewish history, you know the Essenes excluded themselves from the rest of Jewish society in their apocalyptic expectation, and in Philo’s explanation of them in his Good Persons 76-79, he includes a critique of slavery in the context of his discussions on the Essenes rejection of luxury. Vaser finds that Revelation 13 also contains a critique of Babylon’s luxury, and includes its slavery as a part of it.

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.

Any thoughts?

Many moons ago, during my undergrad days, I took a Koine Greek course on the exegesis of Revelation from Allan Dwight Callahan, an African American Pentecostal scholar. This is one of the few things I remember from his course. He agreed with the conclusions of your article. If I recall correctly, he interpreted the καὶ as an epexegetical καὶ: “slaves — that is to say, people’s souls.”

Unfortunately, most of what he taught us in that course never got to print, I suspect. I’m glad to see this particular interpretation being published in a peer-reviewed journal somewhere!

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Just to add a caveat, though, this isn’t the first time it’s published but rather the first time it receives a full defense. On pp. 397-8, Vaser quotes two scholars (Richard Bauckham and Pierre Prigent) that also briefly advocate this view, before turning to his own full defense.

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1 Tim 1:10 condemns slave traders, or enslavers– although some translations use “kidnappers.”

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YOU’RE RIGHT! It does. Thanks for the verse.

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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