By John Blake, CNN
Editor’s note: The CNN documentary 'Slavery's Last Stronghold' airs on CNN International TV March 29, 30, 31 and April 22. Check local listings for times.
(CNN) - Which revered religious figure - Moses, Jesus, or the Prophet Mohammad - spoke out boldly and unambiguously against slavery?
Answer: None of them.
One of these men owned slaves, another created laws to regulate - but not ban - slavery. The third’s chief spokesman even ordered slaves to obey their masters, religious scholars say.
Most modern people of faith see slavery as a great evil. Though the three great Western religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – disagree on many matters, most of their contemporary followers condemn slavery.
Yet there was a time when Jews, Christians and Muslims routinely cited the words and deeds of their founders to justify human bondage, scholars say.
At times, religion was deployed more to promote the spread of slavery than to prevent it.
Read about present-day slavery in Mauritania
“The lesson in all this is we need historical humility,” says Daniel C. Peterson, author of “Muhammad, Prophet of God.” “It’s stunning for us to look back now and say, how can people face themselves in the mirror after doing what they did, but they did.”
But what did the founders of the three great Western religions do? Did they have slaves and did they condemn the practice? Or were they, at least on this issue, squarely men of their times?
The answers to these questions are as murky and contradictory as history itself.
What’s a slave?
Part of the problem is historical context. Most contemporary people think of slaves as people condemned to a lifetime of bondage, working on plantations and being whipped like oxen.
That kind of slavery did exist during the lives of Moses, Jesus and the Prophet Mohammad. Many slaves were prisoners of war; concubines, gladiators, laborers in salt mines. They could be killed, raped and discarded at any moment.
Yet there were layers of slavery in the ancient world. Many slaves would be seen today as indentured servants, or people trying to pay off debts; royal bodyguards and entrepreneurs, historians say.
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Sometimes the slaves became masters. In medieval Egypt, Muslim rulers trained and educated slaves to be their bodyguards. One group of slaves grew so powerful that they overthrew the rulers of Egypt and established their own dynasty, says Ali Asani, a professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic Languages and Culture at Harvard University.
“Slavery meant different things in different cultures,” Asani says. “There wasn’t always this sense of powerlessness and oppression. In certain forms, it became an access to power.”
In other forms, it became access to freedom, says John Dominic Crossan, one of world’s leading scholars on the life and times of Jesus.
That was the case in the world of Jesus. The Roman Empire was the dominant power of Jesus’ day, and it survived on the backs of millions of slaves. Yet there was only one mass slave revolt against Rome, which was led by Spartacus, a gladiatorial slave, Crossan says.
The reason there were so few massive slave rebellions against Rome was because some of its slaves had avenues for advancement, dim though they may seem to modern sensibilities.
Slaves could buy their freedom. They ran businesses for their masters or tutored their children. Greek slaves, in particular, were often valued because of their education and culture, he says.
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Roman slavery was cruel and capricious, but not all Romans saw slaves as subhuman.
“One of the most extraordinary aspects of Roman slavery,” says Crossan, author of “The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus became Fiction about Jesus,” was that the Romans ended up with a huge number of slaves who were smarter than their masters.”
The uncomfortable historical record
It’s been said that great religious figures transcend history. They rise above the peculiar customs of their day to show a new path forward.
It’s a matter of debate if Moses, Jesus and the Prophet Mohammad did that with slavery. All three seemed to either ignore or tolerate some forms of slavery, some scholars say.
The parables of Jesus, for example, were full of references to slaves. Terms like “servants” or “stewards” are what we would call slaves today. Yet Jesus doesn’t seem to make any moral judgments about slavery in his parables, Crossan says.
The subject may have been irrelevant to him or his audience, says Crossan, the Jesus scholar. Jesus didn’t own any slaves. Neither did his disciples or the crowds Jesus addressed. They were all too poor and lived under desperate economic circumstances.
“It may well be that the people he talked to were small farmers who would not have the luxury of slaves,” Crossan says. “He [Jesus] doesn’t say anything for or against it.”
Still, Crossan says that he believes that Jesus would have opposed slavery, given the nature of his teachings. Scholars aren’t so certain about Jesus’ most influential disciple, the Apostle Paul.
The man whose writings make up most of the New Testament had to deal with slavery. As Christianity spread through the Roman Empire, many slaves joined the church.
At various parts of the New Testament, Paul seems to accept slavery. He tells slaves to obey their masters. At other times, Paul seems to challenge the morality of slavery. In one New Testament letter, Paul intercedes on behalf of a runaway slave and chides the master for calling himself a Christian and holding a slave.
Crossan, along with some other biblical scholars, says there are actually two versions of Paul in the New Testament: the authentic, “radical” Paul who opposed slavery and a “Pseudo-Paul” inserted into the texts by early church leaders who were afraid of antagonizing Rome.
“It’s one thing to say that Jesus is Lord,” Crossan says. “Now if you’re saying a Christian can’t have slaves, then something must be wrong with slaves. So now you’re attacking the Roman system, which is a slave economy.”
Jesus’ apparent silence on slavery and Paul’s ambiguous statements on the issue had dreadful historical consequences. It helped ensure that slavery would survive well into the 19th century in the U.S., some scholars say.
American Christians who owned slaves had a simple but powerful defense in the run-up to the Civil War. The Old and New Testament sanctioned slavery and, since the Bible is infallible, slavery is part of God’s order, says Mark Noll, author “The Civil War as a Theological Crisis.”
“The defenders of slavery said Jesus condemned quite a few things that were standard in the Old Testament,” Noll says. “He condemned polygamy, violence, easy divorce, but he never condemned slavery.”
Let my people go, but keep the others
Neither did Moses, the founder of Judaism, say other scholars.
There’s no record of Moses owning slaves, but the Mosaic laws permitted and regulated slavery, says Peterson, the author of “Muhammad, Prophet of God” and a religious scholar at Brigham Young University in Utah.
Still, under Mosaic law, a master was encouraged to free slaves and forgive debts after a certain period of time that was called the year of jubilee, Peterson says.
“They were not trying to create a permanent underclass of slaves that went from parents to child and child and grandchildren,” Peterson says of the ancient Israelites.
But how could ancient Israelites sanction any form of slavery given their exodus from Egyptian captivity? Didn’t their God explicitly condemn slavery when he ordered Moses to tell Pharaoh to “let my people go?”
The text is not clear on that question, says Brannon Wheeler, a religious scholar.
He says the Exodus stories suggest that the God of Israel was angry at Pharaoh not for enslaving a group of people, but for unjustly enslaving the “Chosen People” - the people God had promised to give their own homeland.
“In order to make that promise stick, He [God] has to get them out of Egypt,” says Wheeler, director of the Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies at the United States Naval Academy in Maryland.
“It’s not like He [God] says slavery is bad and I want to abolish it.”
The Prophet Mohammad never explicitly condemned slavery, and actually owned slaves, some scholars say.
Yet he recognized the humanity of slaves, teaching followers that freeing slaves was an act of piety. He allowed slaves to buy their freedom and demanded that they should be treated with love and respect, says Asani, author of “Celebrating Muhammad: Images of the Prophet in Popular Muslim Poetry.”
“He himself did own slaves but he treated them as family,” Asani says. “One called Zayd he treated like an adopted son and one of his wives was a Coptic Christian slave.”
The followers of men like the Prophet Mohammad, though, would take a harsher attitude toward slaves.
By the time of the crusades, Christians and Muslims were enslaving one another by the thousands. They cited their faith as justification, says Robert C. Davis, author of “Holy War and Human Bondage.”
“Religion was the defining principle of slavery—this person is another faith and can be enslaved,” Davis says.
Some church leaders preached that enslaving others was an act of evangelism, Davis says.
“One pope said that the justification for slavery was that it was important for spreading the faith,” Davis says. “Once they were enslaved, they would more readily take to Christianity.”
Those kinds of actions may now seem barbaric, but the texts and stories that were used to justify slavery still exist in the sacred texts of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Few, though, would quote those scriptures today, and many don’t even know they exist.
“We shouldn’t be surprised,” says Jonathan Brockopp, a religion professor at Pennsylvania State University. “Religions redefine themselves and people draw on different stories and underplay other stories. This happens constantly.”
It happened with slavery, and, who knows, perhaps it’s happening again in our time. There may be a religious practice accepted today that future generations will look upon and ask the same question we ask about people who enslaved others in the name of God:
How could they?
This is hate speech. Period. It's gross distortion, and it exists for the purpose of spawning hate.
The words used to describe the various servitudes that existed in some of these past eras may be translated "slave" in English, but the concepts behind the words were not the same at all. The Bible spoke of slavery as a debtor's prison – if you couldn't pay your debts, you became a slave until they were paid off. One could argue that's better than today's "rack up debt, file for bankruptcy, and walk away" situation. No slavery was permanent, nor were people born into it, according to Biblical law. And it had nothing to do with race.
You are as wrong as most other idiots.
Did you ever actually read the book? Or do you just swear to it because daddy beat it into your head?
@William. Did YOU ever read the book or are you just riding the popular wave right now? As JD indicated, perhaps you and many others should do their homework on the meaningS of slavery from biblical times! Perhaps you should consider who you insult because in so doing, it makes you sound completely incompetent.
No, it was a master and a slave. They used OTHER people to pay off their debt, that's a big damn difference. People used their daughters as bartering tools, and not once did Jesus, Moses, Muhammed or Abraham speak up against it. In fact, they tacitly encouraged it. Muhammed being the highest point with his multiple and sometimes child wives. If the truth hurts, bury your head, most religious people do.
So...given that the area where Jesus lived (Supposedly he lived that is) was a Roman province, which freely practiced slavery in the form that we understand, you are saying all those millions of non-Roman citizens that were owned by Patrician families consuls, praetors, etc were simply servants in the sense that you sycophants are servants to god? Hmmm, I'm sure the historica lrecord says otherwise, but what do I know right? I actually question the books of Pliny, Herodetus, etc as they are works written at least 1500 years ago and subject to many interpretations...remind you of any other old books perhaps?
Are you kidding me? The Jews took other races into slavery all the time. That was if they were lucky enough to not have genocide performed on them. Yes, there were different kinds of slavery back then, but to pretend that the Bible condemns the "bad" kind of slavery, is just ignorance.
William, you are so correct. Chances are he hasn't really read the book he bases his life off of. That's one of the quickest ways to lose belief in God though. When you actually sit down and read it and comprehend what is in the Bible. I've read it several times. I was a believer before then. Each time I read it I got more and more doubts until eventually I realized the truth about the Judeo-Christian religion.
This article demonstrates part of the "great undoing" of an individual's belief system. I would encourage the author to do a little more research on the meaning of servants in biblical times as well as the realizations of the Roman system-talk about slavery! The author casts a contemporary moral question and seeks an answer that we simply cannot answer by today's standards. The apostle Paul was referencing servitude to Jesus Christ. I am personally GLAD to be a servant of Jesus Christ and I will continue to stand for my beliefs despite the attempts of the "Bill Mahers'" of the world trying to undo that. If you don't agree with Christianity or other points of view, that's fine...you don't have to! BUT STOP trying to undo our beliefs simply because YOU don't agree with them!! If you want to be an athiest, your choice but it's in your smugness that you forget that ultimately, we ALL have to answer to someone. Willing to take that risk?
A Christian preaching moral relativism.
That is a HOOT and a half.
Your insults are a reflection of you especially since you are probably unaware of what moral relativism is! Considering we live in a post modernic world and everyone can believe what they want to believe, what right do you have to judge my beliefs? There is nothing morally relativistic about my comments but if you insist on this forum for debate, I'm not the only individual here that espouses to these beliefs.
Soooooo, by freedom of religion (or the 1st Amendment) We should all be allowed to enslave others? Hmmmmm, Wonder when we'll have that category on e-Bay? LOL
Scalia, Roberts, Thomas, Alito, and Kennedy would certainly find a way to justify Slavery under the first amendment if the case presented itself.
Wow....it's almost as bad as how American and African tribes used to–and, fortunately, only rarely now–promote slavery and enslavement (oh, and *sacrifice*) of other tribes....
I find it ironic how Republicans, who don't like government because it tells you what to do, sure love shoving the bible down peoples throats. The bible doesn't tell you what to do or how to behave now does it? Hmmmm? DOES IT??
The government is not God, my friend.
Nor is God my government friend.
Atheists throw their beliefs down people's throats far more. Their beliefs are codified into law, while they aggressively resist codification of other beliefs. They are too stupid to see their hypocrisy, though.
Ummmm, it's called the "10 Commandments" So yeah, the bible does tell you how to act...
Agreed. If you're not angry at yourself for not liking God telling you what to do, why are you angry at Repubs for not liking what govt tells them to do?
I think we all need to remember what this article is called. "How religion has been USED to promote slavery." Whether is be religion, political power or office or even war, humans will always try to find a way to promote some evil such as slavery. I feel trying to pull other religion and worldview into this is stupid and can be easily summed up: people suck.
Jesus was wrong, period.
Some people's belief system is not believing in God. Ironically, it's still a belief system.
Many evils had been committed in the name of religion.
Between smashing the heads of "Infidel" children against stones during the Crusades, to handing out small pox infested blankets to North American Indians in the 18th century, and to molesting children and moving pedophiles from parish to parish...I couldn't agree more.
As per 1.5 million Conservative Jews and their rabbis, Moses probably was a myth as was the Book of Exodus:
To wit: (ONLY FOR THE NEWCOMERS)
origin: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F20E1EFE35540C7A8CDDAA0894DA404482 NY Times review and important enough to reiterate.
New Torah For Modern Minds
“Abraham, the Jewish patriarch, probably never existed. Nor did Moses. The entire Exodus story as recounted in the Bible probably never occurred. The same is true of the tumbling of the walls of Jericho. And David, far from being the fearless king who built Jerusalem into a mighty capital, was more likely a provincial leader whose reputation was later magnified to provide a rallying point for a fledgling nation.
Such startling propositions – the product of findings by archaeologists digging in Israel and its environs over the last 25 years – have gained wide acceptance among non-Orthodox rabbis. But there has been no attempt to disseminate these ideas or to discuss them with the laity – until now.
The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents the 1.5 million Conservative Jews in the United States, has just issued a new Torah and commentary, the first for Conservatives in more than 60 years. Called "Etz Hayim" ("Tree of Life" in Hebrew), it offers an interpretation that incorporates the latest findings from archaeology, philology, anthropology and the study of ancient cultures. To the editors who worked on the book, it represents one of the boldest efforts ever to introduce into the religious mainstream a view of the Bible as a human rather than divine doc-ument.
The notion that the Bible is not literally true "is more or less settled and understood among most Conservative rabbis," observed David Wolpe, a rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and a contributor to "Etz Hayim." But some congregants, he said, "may not like the stark airing of it." Last Passover, in a sermon to 2,200 congregants at his synagogue, Rabbi Wolpe frankly said that "virtually every modern archaeologist" agrees "that the way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way that it happened, if it happened at all." The rabbi offered what he called a "LITANY OF DISILLUSION”' about the narrative, including contradictions, improbabilities, chronological lapses and the absence of corroborating evidence. In fact, he said, archaeologists digging in the Sinai have "found no trace of the tribes of Israel – not one shard of pottery."
Why only newcomers? Why not finish the discussion of old?
Only for those that are human:
1. origin: http://www.nytimes.com/1993/11/16/science/house-of-david-inscription-clues-to-a-dark-age.html
PHOTOGRAPHS and transcriptions of a stone fragment bearing the first known reference outside the Bible to the House of David, a ruling dynasty presumably founded by King David in the 10th century B.C., have been published in Israel.
Discovery of the inscription in the ruins of Tel Dan, in northern Israel, was reported last summer by Dr. Avraham Biran, an archaeologist at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Inst.itute of Religion in Jerusalem. Scholars said this could be an important contribution to understanding the ninth century B.C., a dark age in biblical history, and also is strong independent evidence for the existence and influence of the House of David.
But pictures were not released because the discoverers were still analyzing the writing. Dr. Biran and Dr. Joseph Naveh, a specialist in ancient Semitic languages at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, have now provided a full, illustrated report in The Israel Exploration Journal.
They said the complete stone monument, a local basalt, was probably three feet high. The preserved fragment is 12 1/2 inches high, with the words separated by dots. The language is Early Aramaic.
Since each line is missing letters and words, Dr. Biran said in an interview that the reconstruction of the text was tentative. From some of the words and their context it appears that the monument is celebrating a victory in battle, possibly by a king of Aram in Damascus over a king of Israel. The words "my king" in the sixth line seem to indicate that the writer of the inscription was a dependent of the victorious king.
The letters in the ninth line clearly spell out the phrase "House of David," and the "most logical reconstruction," Dr. Biran and Dr. Naveh said, is that the victorious king is claiming he slew troops belonging to the king of the House of David, who was thus a descendant of David ruling Judah in southern Israel.
One initial interpretation was that the king of Israel of the inscription may be Baasha, and the king of the House of David was Asa, an ally of Ben-Hadad, king of Aram. "The nature of the biblical sources on the one hand and the fragmentary state of the Dan inscription on the other, do not allow us to draw definite conclusions," Dr. Biran and Dr. Naveh wrote.
But other interpretations will likely be offered when Dr. Biran describes the results at meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Schools of Oriental Research this week in Washington.
I emphasized one part because we know that Prof. Crossan loves independent attention
Kinda like Jesus.
You've got it wrong. Evil people use religion as an excuse to carry out bad deeds. They do it to try to convince others and themselves that they are doing a bad thing for a good reason.
The Apostle Paul sought to elevate the slave to the position of employee and brother. You see this in the New Testament letter to Philemon. Don't judge Paul in the matter of slavery, until you read the one page letter of Philemon.
Paul believes in imaginary sky fairies.
He has already been judged crazy.
I'm interested why the author doesn't mention Hinduism. In practice, the caste system, which is intertwined with Hinduism, may be the most overtly pro-slavery religion in the world.
Because it's not a big influence in westeren civlization, unlike the other three. Also hindus aren't out there trying to make everyone in the USA obey their religion or seek exemption from secular law, again unlike the other three.
Makes sense. However, they are aggressive in the non-western world, specifically India. So if we're on the topic of slavery (and the number of people enslaved), it is a legit question.
No matter what form of slavery it was...it still shows that even "jesus" could not fix the problem with our species hating each other. He couldn't even teach anything about astronomy. The bible wants people to hate, and be closed off from further knowledge about the big picture around them. IF there was a "jesus" that can commit miracles he would have seen our destined destruction if we all cannot come together as one with eachother and the planet. Instead we have MANY different "religions" separating themselves AND only behaving on sunday. Do whats right for the planet and star that gave you life, not a story that teaches you nothing.
Religion enslaves the mind and has been a vehicle for all of man's evil doings since the river of lies began.
People need to justify and rationalize because they lack the moral courage to just be an alpha. Isn't a clear, selfish need all the justification required? Flush that guilt crap and all those absurd moral constructs out of your head and just keep slaves. Most people are as incurious as livestock, might as well use them like livestock.
zzzzzzzzz .. Same agenda different day..
There is NOTHING wrong with slavery, as long as slaves are treated as part of the master's family. There's a difference between being FORCED into slavery and freely and willingly becoming a slave. Stop trying to "demonize" Christians and the Bible.
"There's nothing wrong with slavery."???????? What year are you living in? 1774? So, how's that slave business of yours going?
I love Christian women, they're usually the easiest to corrupt in bed. So for all you Christian men, chances are, I've already had your woman!
It is not slavery if one does so willingly. Slavery has been outlawed because it is wrong! Human's are not property and should not be treated as such!
Slavery is a system under which people are treated as property to be bought and sold, and are forced to work. Slaves can be held against their will from the time of their capture, purchase or birth, and deprived of the right to leave, to refuse to work, or to demand compensation.
Star Trek: Bread and Circuses episode describes a planet where slavery is excepted with the slave receiving health care, pensions ,and retirements; as long as you obeyed your master, had no rights, and lived in poverty.
are you serious? This made front page on CNN's main page. Last time I check for important news on this site. I'll go to FOX from now on...or google news..
Haha, yeah watch Fox. You'll really learn something educational there. Has Jerry Springer signed a contract to be an anchor with them yet?
Good luck with that. Sean Hannity will give you some good objective coverage. Maybe even Pat Robertson will come on by and tell you that New Orleans deserved to have thousands die because of their immorality or that if Peyton Manning gets injured, it serves him right for replacing Tim Tebow.
Dont' forget that 9/11 was the fault of the gays!
I follow the DC Comics, and you can't stop me!
What's the difference between the American Slave Holder of the 1860's, who provided his "slaves" with housing, food, and clothing and the modern Capitalist employer, who provides his "slaves" with housing, OR food, OR clothing?
To answer BADGUY, the difference is that the Capitalist employer won't "Cat Haul" or whip you. Cat Haulling was the practice of tying two cats together by their tails, and hanging them over a stretched chord above the slave. They were then free to fight it out over the slaves back, resulting in horrific cuts, infection, and blood loss to the slave. Last I checked, not even the Koch brothers or Mitt Romney have done that, but of course I could be wrong.
If you can't tell the difference then you are an idiot.
Lots of differences.....Emancipation, Labor Unions, the W-2, the NLRB, 1128729 lawyers that would just lu-u-u-u-ve to sue the snot out of a business employer, and we choose where we work. Wow....that was an easy answer....
How 'bout you admit being a slave to ridiculous ideology.....
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.