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?
Kind of how Obama has enslaved us to his health plan. You know people that have to work for a living.
lol Only a republican could try to link Obama to an article about how Religion condones slavery
wow, lotta FAIL you got there!
You dummy, so called "obamacare" is the same that republicans wanted in 1994.Ignorant republicans are against it because a democratic pres endorses it! Remember your joke of a debate when the tea party crowd shouted to let the fiction non health care covered person DIE?
X-tian – "The problem with you atheists is that you're so closed minded. You don't believe in anything bigger than yourself."
Atheist – "Actually, I agree with astrophysics, evolution, and the study of philosophy. All of those things are far, far bigger than myself."
X-tian – "But all of those are inventions of man. Don't you believe in something greater outside of anything that man has defined?"
Atheist – "Well, doesn't man define God? Doesn't man use his words to say what God is and what it has done?"
X-tian – "Well God exists regardless of how you define him."
Atheist – "You know what? I should open my mind to things that are greater than myself – things that are outside the realm of human definition. I'm going to go study the Qur'an, and then maybe learn some Wiccan rituals."
X-tian – "NO! No! You can't do that!"
Atheist – "Why not? I thought you wanted me to learn and believe in something greater than myself."
X-tian – "Yeah, but not those things. Those thigns are stupid and wrong. You have to believe in what I want you to believe."
Atheist – "Yeaaaaaahhhh. That's kinda what I thought. We're done."
Soooooo? You fancy yourself as some kind of philosopher? Guess what 1 out of 10 for knowing how to spell your name! The rest is juvenile.
well, we know the bible is historically factual. and jesus died for you and beaten up and cut up. but when he came back from the dead he healed his own body except for the wounds in his hands to prove to his disciples that he was jesus. his face must have changed because his disciples didn't believe it was him, but they saw the wounds in his hands and believed it was the lord. let me ask you this: who would put holes into their own hands to pretend they were jesus? NOBODY is that stupid. that is why jesus was clearly resurrected from the dead. if you don't believe, too bad, you're going to hell for trillions of years of punishment for failing the test god gave all of us.
lol... you believers are so funny
Here I fixed this for you:
"well, we know the bible is historically inaccurate and probable not based on facts. and someone wrote that jesus died for you and beaten up and cut up. but when he didn't come back from the dead the disciples made up a story about how he healed his own body except for the wounds in his hands to prove to his disciples that he was jesus. his face must have changed because his disciples didn't believe it was him (because in fact it was a fictional story), but they saw the wounds in his hands and believed it was the lord. let me ask you this: who would put holes into their own hands to pretend they were jesus? NOBODY is stupid enough to believe this, the disciples thought. that is why they made up the story of jesus being resurrected from the dead. if you don't believe, you are probably intelligent, you're not going to hell for trillions of years of punishment for failing the test god gave all of us because god and hell does not exist."
I hear ya!!! Good one!
I agree. The rest is juvenile. This is but an example of the kind of juvenile crap that non-christians have to put up with every day. "Believe what we believe, or 'else.'" Honestly, what kind of playground bully garbage is that?
And for the record, I never said I was a philosopher. I never even said the example I was using was indicative of me or my experiences. You made that assertion for your own benefit, your own agenda, and to insult me. So effectively you stooped to being juvenile by insulting me. Call the kettle black, much? Get over yourself.
1) Every "miracle" in the bible can easily be replicated, faked, or explained scientifically.
2) You have no proof that anything you said is true. Just because I write "I ate an elephant sandwich for lunch" does not mean it's true. Hell, Fox News makes a living off of falisfying, lying, and editing things.
3) I don't believe you're really a X-tian or a follower. Your reply was an attempt by an intelligent, sane, liberal person to make X-tians look bad. Why? Because never has anyone else provided me with such a stupid, subjective, irrational reply. Thanks for making me laugh. :)
To Believe: "well, we know that the bible is historically factual..." I read the rest but that one really drove it home for me. Praise Jesus. Thank you. Finally someone with some real base. I wanted to compliment you on your refreshing views. The part about the "trillions of years" of burning in Hell really speaks to me too. I'm going to go to church this weekend as a matter in fact. I really DON'T want to burn in hell for "trillions of years." That sounds horrible. How much should I donate when in church? What's the cost for our Lords love?
why don't you come back from the dead after being violently murdered in front of millions of people. then we'll know for sure that all miracles can be replicated or faked. let me know when you can do it. i'll come over to record it.
believe – Just because someone said it, doesn't mean it happened. There's no proof or evidence. In fact, no one in the bible saw it happen either. The corpse went into the tomb, days later it was empty. No one saw Christ rise, no one saw him walk out of the tomb, and there are a number of ways to fake such an event during a time in human history when they still thought the Earth was flat, the sun was a torch 40 miles up in the sky, lightning was God's anger and that wind was God's breath.
In fact, I have a time machine in my garage. I used it to go back in time and follow Jesus around for a while. We palled around, did some gambling, had a 3-w@y with Mary Magdalene, and got drunk. Eventually JC and I got into a fight over who could fit the most dates in their mouth. He chewed his up and I said it was cheating. So we got into a fight. He swung first so I stomped the living $h!+ out of him.
Those words are now transcribed on this page for all to read. The whole world can see it.
Does that mean it really happened? Well, according to you, of course it does. If all it takes for you to believe something is that it was written down someplace, then I really did those things.
So instead of waiting around for someone else to disprove God, why don't you try finding a way to prove it does. I mean a reasonable way. A comprehensive way. A way that does not resort to nonesense or "faith." The burden of proof is on the devout.
So until you can do this, just go back to being a closed-minded bigoted fascist, just like all the current GOP candidates.
the lord created humans to test them to see if they have faith in him. that's why you should believe. or you could go to hell for trillions of years for not believing in him. even aborted fetuses will go to hell for trillions of years. however, i do not believe a fetus would go to hell for all eternity like it says in the bible. that is just way too long for just being a fetus. heck, that is way too long a punishment even for someone who lived a thousand years.
Whew, it's a good thing you know the mind of god, because the rest of us are clueless!
Jimmy, you can't reason with people like Believe. Their God wants them ignorant and uncritical. He wants them to be slaves to the faith.
Jimmy – he's obviously got a crystal ball but it's like him – a bit dim and not very accurate!
Really?? God created humans to test them...that alone is pretty stupid statement if you think about it. The one big thing that keeps coming back to me is "DON'T believe everything you read cause it was written by man....the bible was written by man many many many years after Jesus was born, lived and died. It has been changed by man, many many many times since then. SO, I don't believe everything I read, I think about it and try to decide if it is possible, MOST of the bible is not possible! Period.
That’s unconscionable! He created us so that we would bow to him, worship him, obey his every command, and do his bidding!!?? That IS slavery. What is more, is that it also demonstrates God is an evil, evil being. Let’s look at some other examples in human history of people who demanded everyone bow to them, love them, do their bidding, and worship them: Ivan the Terrible, Hitler, Mussolini, Pol Pot, Mao Zedong, Nero, Genghis Kahn, Atilla the Hun, and every insane genocidal butcher in Africa.
Congratulations, believe, you just gave one of the best arguments against religion, EVER!
Hey its CNN trashing religion again!
How is pointing out the support of slavery over time "trashing" religion? Can't you just take it as an interesting article and be thankful times have changed?
Sometimes, the truth hurts. Sorry.
Is that like how documentaries on the holocaust trash Germany?
NEWSFLASH: It doesn't matter if this criticism comes from the left or the right, you whiny, self-righteous, propaganda-devouring, cultist drones, you still have to defend the fact that throughout centuries and millennia of slavery, nearly ALL of history, the VAST MAJORITY OF CHRISTIANS, Muslims and Jews JUSTIFIED AND SUPPORTED slavery THROUGH THEIR RELIGION!!!! That doesn't change just because a tiny minority of Christians saw it differently. Or perhaps that is your point – That throughout history, the majority of the followers the major religions, including yours, were FOR SLAVERY, while just a few were against it until modern times? Great track record! It's a wonder we even had so much slavery throughout history with moral stewards like you running the show! Why not have religion be the moral stewards of our society again? The middle east is a sterling example of what happens when religion has all the power in modern times! Yay! Go live in Iran where you belong, you're UNAMERICAN. It's atheists and liberals who prevent people like you from justifying dark ages religious morals over common sense or compassion or decency. I hope your children get a good 'education' from their priest, it must be why you all turn out so demented and unstable.
“Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result, but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property."
In many cultures regardless of religion woman are treated as slaves, nothing to do with religion.
But what drives those cultures? Religion.
slaves are property and so are women at some level. It is worse, a slave may earn freedom, but not a wife How great to be a man under J, C, or M religion.
As everybody knows, the first gasoline powered tractor was built in 1892. With the end of slavery in 1865 it only took a few years before the technologies of farm machinery were encouraged by the lack of slave labor. Therefore, in the United States it was science, and not religion that is the factor of those series of causes & effects that correspond to the cult of slavery in America. It is no longer profitable for the return of the Mississippi Slave Lord or those others whose mentality was geared toward slave labor. Having studied the Plantation Archives of my own ancestors does show that religion did play an important role in the rationalization of my ancestors whose controversial behavior was only exceeded by their persistent references to the black's God given duty to the south. Clearly, this part of the history not only of my ancestors is not only a closed page but America can move forth to new horizons with regards to farm technologies. The modern tractor is most certainly a monument of pride to the achievement of science where no temptation toward the clumsiness of slave ownership is necessary – nor wanted.
IF YOU SAY ISLAM DID NOT STAND AGAINST SLAVERY, THEN YOU DO NOT KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT ISLAM.
MOST OF THE PROPHET COMPANIONS WERE SLAVES.
All the big religions promoted slavery but only christians get blamed for it. Muslims and jews gets a free pass.
LOL at the Christian persecution complex.
You are to obey God! Your stinking moral relativism disgusts me! God does not improve – he's perfect, always has been, always will be. His laws can not be wrong – he created them. His laws cannot "evolve" or be improved upon, because that would mean he used to be imperfect and gave us bad advice – ridiculous!
When God says "Thou shall not kill", he means it forever. When God says "Thou shalt not dear false witness", that is always true! When God says children who curse their parents must be killed, the kill them! If God is good with slavery, the who are you to say otherwise?
When Jesus said "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets", that means you obey those Old Testament laws.
God cannot be wrong, God cannot improve. Saying that slavery is bad, or saying that you cannot plant more than one kind of crop on a field, is moral relativism at its worst.
Your God sounds pretty boring.
You didn't make it to the punch line, did you?
if god was against slavery, he would have appeared in front of every man and told him so, the way he told abraham not to kill his child.
Hmmm ... and yet when god said 'don't eat shellfish' he only meant that one for a few hundred years. I wish your god would just make up it's mind. He/She/It is such a moral relativist!
Hmm – epic fail me. Next time I'll read the whole post.
Great! That means I can sell my daughter into slavery! I could use some cash.
Better get ready to defend your 1st amendment rights America. They are coming for you.
We will have a civil war soon enough.
You guys need a tinfoil hat, apparently.
That's special bulletproof tin foil for the upcoming right-wing coup. They are going to save America by destroying all concepts of America.
When I have mine on, you'll try and steal it. I'm very prepared for that too. Good luck in the next four years fellow human.
Gotta love people like this. I bet you think America is a Christian nation and One Nation Under god was always in the pledge and on money.
And we are supposed to believe that morality comes from religion...
hEY jIMMY – DID NON-RELIGIOUS PEOPLE OF "THOSE DAYS" BELIEVE IN SLAVERY? MAYBE YOU SHOULD ASK SOME CRITICAL QUESTIONS BEFORE YOU MAKE S TU PD COMMENTS. I ALSO HEARD THAT NON-RELIGIOUS PEOPLE WERE AGAINST UNIVERSAL HEALTHCARE (I GET MY FACTS FORM THE SAME SOURCE AS YOU....MSNBCNN)
Please press it.
The story fails to clearly report the fact that today, only I s l a m condones slavery, thru it continued support of Middle Eastern Nations that allow the white slave trade to flourish untouched.
Middle Eastern Slavers still hunt in Africa and on the open seas as they have for hundreds of years.
i believe in the lord because he turned water into wine. i know the lord wouldn't heal everyone on the earth at the same time or appear in front of all races of people at the same time because that is what a show-off would do, like satan. the lord would only heal people around him, one at a time, or walk on water but not let everyone in the world walk on water for ten minutes at the same time, because that would make it too easy to believe in him. he wants you to have faith.
uhhhh, say what now? (craaaaazy!)
ummm, read the bible. it's all in there.
"I believe in the lord because he turned water into wine"??? Pretty flimsy excuse for a belief system.
Is that why God doesn't communicate directly to us through something like his own cable network or answer prayers by e-mail?
Yes, the bible says he turned water into wine...he also wore a dribblers bib...which is what alcoholics wore so they wouldn't spill there drink on their nice cloths...so whats that say about him?? Hmmmmm still don't believe everything you read. But then maybe its easier to believe what you read in the bible than to actually think...
Cause nothing esle is going on in the world. Lets just encite people!!! Nice job Cnn
The Romans were masters of Slavery, they did that shiite better than anyone
Prophete Mohammad never owned slaves....AND yes he OPENELY delcared slavery abolished under Islam. He freed Slaves buying them from their owners and setting them free..........the first freed slave was "Bilal" a black slave to a wealthy man in mecca at that time.********* It is shameful for the WashingtonPost to allow such an article based on NO kowledge or facts to be published
They freed them after they paid back their debt. This was common.
So you apparently have an open channel to the truth about Muhammed. Why not enlighten us with citations and references to support your contentions and disprove the author's?
No.. that is not what I said.. the only way to get a free slave from someone who paid for him is to give him his money back or more , the Prophete paid for their freedom and never asked them to pay him back. His friend "Abu Bakr" was a wealthy man and used alot of his fortune to free slaves..therefore again he paid for their freedom and not to enslave them until they pay him back. BIG DIFFERENCE
Save Us Jeebus******those who talks about Islam and slaves, missunderstand. At times of War, prisonners were taken. Islam had a new notion of how to treat prisonners who were actually your ennemies, instead of letting rot in prison, you integrate them into society. No it is not Maximun security prison with heavy duty instead were assigned to serve in the society, free to move with rights and obligations ....many who do not know Islam, tell you Islam allows slavery, but these were not actual slaves, they were prisonners of War. They could have killed them, instead, they gave them back their dignity to be part of society, they did not have to convert but serve society with rights and obligations. Ther is no system in modern human or prior to Islam that allowed for such kindness to your own ennemy. These prisonners could be freed if they person whom they serve allow them to go free, but remember they are prisonners not slaves but did not lead a prisonner nor a common slave life, since slaves by modern definitions have no rights, just obligations...
You are wrong, the Prophet Muhammad did not abolish slavery – he did encourage the freeing of slaves and inform us of the benefits and rewards, otherwise you are to treat your slaves as you treat yourself, feed them like you eat, clothed them how you clothe yourself, etc. Also, I believe the freeing of a slave was used a compensation for other acts of duty to Allah that you may not have been able to perform due to illness or something to that extent.
Roman times? How about 1977, when Mitt Romney's church still denied Blacks entry into their clergy.
what does that have to do with the article or slavery in general?
We are all slaves to money since all money is, is debt to Central Banks.
Yeah, but God is okay with slavery, so that is how it is supposed to be.
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.