WASHINGTON — To Jews, a Bible without the story of the Exodus from Egypt is unthinkable: No plagues, no bondage, no liberation — no Passover. To Christians, a New Testament without the Book of Revelation is equally preposterous, as the apocalyptic text occupies a central place in Christian theology.
But English missionaries seeking to convert enslaved Africans toiling in Britain’s Caribbean colonies around the beginning of the 19th century preached from Bibles that conveniently removed portions of the canonical text. They thought these sections, such as Exodus, the Book of Psalms, and the Book of Revelation, could instill in slaves a dangerous hope for freedom and dreams of equality.
Now, one of three so-called “Slave Bibles” known to exist — the only one in North America — is on display at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC. The artifact is on loan from Fisk University, a private historically black university in Nashville, Tennessee.
Printed in London in 1807, the Slave Bible excludes 90 percent of the Hebrew Bible and 50% of the New Testament. Of the 1,189 chapters in a standard Protestant Bible, the Slave Bible contains only 232.
“A volume like this would have been used for manipulative and oppressive purposes,” said Seth Pollinger, the curatorial director of the Museum of the Bible. He told The Times of Israel that his staff recently located two early 19th century letters talking about these Bibles being distributed in the British West Indies.
“So not only do we now have evidence they distributed these volumes along with other literature, but we also notice from the letters that there was a purpose attached to it: teaching those who were enslaved how to be obedient to their masters and what their duties to their masters were,” Pollinger said.
In an 1808 missive discussing the printing of these Bibles, Anglican Bishop of London Beilby Porteus wrote, “Prepare a short form of public prayers for them… together with select portions of Scripture… particularly those which relate to the duties of slaves towards their masters.”
Missionaries were exhorted by farmers in the British West Indies (modern-day Jamaica, Barbados, and Antigua) to steer clear of any text with revolutionary implications. At stake was Britain’s massive overseas empire, powered by millions of enslaved Africans forced to work on sugar plantations.
Examples of the excluded passages in the Slave Bible include:
“He who kidnaps a man — whether he has sold him or is still holding him — shall be put to death.” (Ex. 21:16)
“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.” (Deut. 23:16-17)
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye all are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)
Pollinger told The Times of Israel that omitted portions of the Bible such as the Book of Psalms, the first 19 chapters of Exodus, and the Book of Revelation share the common theme of a hopeful future.
“In the Book of Revelation, for example, it’s a story about the Overcomer,” Pollinger said. “You have vivid language about God’s presence coming to dwell again with his people and the end of darkness, the end of pain, and many of these different longings and hopes of what this prophetic restoration looks like.”
On the other hand, the Slave Bible emphatically includes those passages which stress a servant’s obligations to his master:
“Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ.” (Ephesians 6:5)
“But the seventh day is Sabbath of the LORD your God: you shall not do any work — you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave…” (Ex. 20:10)
“Exhort servants to be obedient unto their own masters, and to please them well in all things.” (Titus 2:9)
Many of the students at the historically black Fisk University are Christian and African-American. Holly Hamby, an associate professor at Fisk who teaches a class on the Bible as literature, said “it’s pretty emotional” for students who first encounter the Slave Bible.
“It’s very disruptive to their belief system,” she said. “It does lead them to question a lot but I also think it leads them to a powerful connection with the text… Very naturally, seeing the parts that were left out of the Bible that was given to a lot of their ancestors makes them concentrate more on those parts.”
Rena Opert, the Museum of the Bible’s director of exhibitions, told The Times of Israel, “The exhibit shows the power people think the Exodus story has.”
As a practicing Jew, Opert says she can’t imagine her tradition without Passover.
“In fact, we’re actually going to have a haggadah exhibit next year and I’ve been thinking about how we have an entire holiday completely dedicated to something that isn’t even in the Slave Bible,” Opert said.
“The Slave Bible: Let the Story Be Told,” is presented by the Museum of the Bible with the cooperation of Fisk University and the Center for the Study of African American Religious Life at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The exhibit runs through August 31, 2019.