Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Biblical Anti-Fugitive Slave Act

Some southerners before the Civil War famously cited the Bible’s apparent acceptance of the institution of slavery to support their contention that the peculiar institution was morally acceptable.

I was interested, therefore, to stumble across the following passage from Deuteronomy prohibiting the return of fugitive slaves:
You shall not turn over to his master a slave who seeks refuge with you from his master. He shall live with you in any place he may choose among the settlements in your midst, wherever he pleases; you must not ill-treat him.
Deuteronomy 23:16-17.

The commentary to the passage in The Jewish Study Bible (OUP 2004) emphasizes how extraordinary the Biblical prohibition was at that time and place:
The law rejects the almost universal stipulation within ancient Near Eastern law that escaped slaves must be returned to their owner, usually under penalty of death, and that rewards bounty hunters for their return (Laws of Hammurabi secs. 16-20; Hittite Laws secs. 22-24). . . . The extraordinary fivefold repetition of phrases designating the location of residence emphasizes that the entire community must be open to them.
I have never heard that northerners cited or quoted this passage, in or out of Congress, in connection with the debates over the Fugitive Slave Act.  Does anyone have different information?

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

The Hebrew Scriptures in Judaism and Christianity

As I've mentioned before, I drive most days and spend much of that time listening to history-related podcasts and similar materials.  I've posted recommendations several times before, and I'm writing to add one now.

Harvard Prof Shaye Cohen's The Hebrew Scriptures in Judaism and Christianity is an entertaining educational delight. Since I'm sure I would have flunked the course if I'd taken it, I won't venture to try to summarize it myself, contenting myself rather with quoting the prepackaged course description:
In 70CE the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem. Second Temple Judaism, whose worship consisted of animal sacrifice permitted by biblical command only at the Temple, would have to reinvent itself as Rabbinic Judaism. Contemporaneously, the authors of the New Testament Gospels were writing about the Jewish apocalyptic prophet whom they believed was the awaited messiah. For both the rabbis and the gospel writers, for both ancient Jews and ancient Christians, the central authoritative text was the Torah and the other books we now call the Hebrew Scriptures. This course surveys how the interpretation (and reinterpretation) of these books spawned two rival cultural systems, Judaism and Christianity. The issues addressed are: 1) What are the truth claims of Judaism and Christianity? 2) In the first centuries of our era, how did Jewish biblical interpretation differ from Christian? 3) What differences resulted in "the parting of the ways" between Judaism and Christianity? 4) How does each culture deal with the biblical passages concerning: circumcision, the food laws, the Sabbath, Passover, the manifestations of the deity (e.g., Logos), the messiah, atonement/redemption, and the concept of Israel as the chosen of God?
Parts history of the Israelites, the Torah (make that "tor-AH"), the Jews, Jesus, the Romans, the New Testament, early Christians and their interpretative methods and arguments, with Maimonides as a bonus, the course amounts to a fascinating and thought-provoking discussion.  Although I've inked the Academic Earth cite, the course is also available on iTunes, from which I downloaded it from

Having praised the course to the skies, I have only two gripes and an observation (or is it one gripe and two observations?):

1.  Poor Prof. Cohen needs to get some new shirts that weren't previously worn by Rodney Dangerfield in Caddyshack.

2.  Has anyone told Prof. Cohen that he sometimes sounds like Lenny Bruce (the delivery! not the vocabulary!)?

3.  Harvard still SUCKS!  Boola Boola.
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