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Rare ‘Slave Bible’ exhibition offers glimpse of Christianity’s role in slavery

By Adelle M. Banks | 11/29/2018, 6 a.m.
On display on the ground floor of the Museum of the Bible is a lone volume that stands out from ...
The Slave Bible exhibit at the Museum of the Bible in Washington features a version of the holy book that excluded major portions of the Old and New Testaments. Left, this Slave Bible, one of three known in existence worldwide, was published in the early 1800s and is on loan to the museum from Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn. Adelle M. Banks/Religion News Service

Absent from that Bible were all of the Psalms, which express hopes for God’s delivery from oppression, and the entire Book of Revelation.

“That’s where you really have the story of the overcomer, and where God makes all things right and retribution,” Mr. Pollinger said of the final book found in traditional versions of the Christian Bible.

The Slave Bible’s Book of Exodus excludes the story of the rescue of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, the liberation that gives the biblical book its title.

“It’s conspicuous that they have Chapter 19 and 20 in there, which is where you got God’s appearance at Mount Sinai and he gives his law,” said Mr. Pollinger. “The Ten Commandments would be Exodus 20, but missing is all of the exodus from Egypt.”

Scholars acknowledge that the little-known Bible can be a shocking discovery for students and museum visitors alike.

“When they first encounter the Slave Bible, it’s pretty emotional for them,” said Holly Hamby, an associate professor at Fisk who uses the artifact to teach a class on the Bible as literature. Many of the students at the historically black university are Christian and African-American, most of whom are descendants of slaves, including those in the West Indian colonies.

“It’s very disruptive to their belief system,” said Dr. Hamby, who currently is teaching from a digitized version of the Slave Bible.

Some students wonder how they could have come to the Christian faith with this kind of Bible possibly in their past. Others dive deeper into the complete Bible, including the Exodus story.

“It does lead them to question a lot, but I also think it leads them to a powerful connection with the text,” she said. “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.”

The museum has plans for conferences and panel discussions to further explore the unusual artifact and its complex meanings.

Mr. Pollinger hopes the exhibit will offer a chance for a more diverse range of visitors, African-American and Caucasian, to join in discussions, just as white and black scholars have worked in recent months on the exhibit.

“This exhibit is going to destabilize people. It’s going to disturb people and it’s not necessarily one group rather than the other,” said Mr. Pollinger, who hopes that learning about this piece of Bible history will foster greater understanding.

In a quotation displayed in the exhibit, Brad Braxton, director of the NMAAHC’s Center for the Study of African American Religious Life, states: “This religious relic compels us to grapple with a timeless question: In our interpretations of the Bible, is the end result domination or liberation?”

Dr. Hamby suggested that the exhibit should feature current Fisk students’ voices, so it also includes a video of them discussing questions surrounding the controversial take on the Bible.

“My favorite question is the last question on the list that we asked them, which is: Do you think that this Bible is still the good book?” she said of questions the students were asked and that the public will have an opportunity to answer for themselves.

For her part, Dr. Hamby, a member of the United Methodist Church, said, “It’s a good book. I still believe in the Bible on the whole, but not this version of it.”