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?
The American slave holder of the 1860's had to INVEST in his slave. He had to pay an "upfront" cost, then supply him with food, housing and clothing. If the slave died, it was a big minus sign on his profit and loss statement. The modern American Capitalist has NO up front costs. He just hangs a "help wanted" sign. He pays a minimum wage (sometimes BELOW minimum) and if its not enough to cover food, housing and clothing...TOO BAD! If the Capitalist's "worker" dies...NO BIG THING...he just hangs out another sign. Which "slave master", do you think, makes the most profit: The 1860's slave master or the modern day American Capitalist?
slavery is real but god is pure energy that cant turn off :)
And yet, abolition movement was initiated and supported by Christian men. And, Jesus did speak against slavery.. the 'slavery to sin' was HIs goal to eliminate. In the mid-East, servantude and stewards are not the same as the slavery of Rome and Europe, Russia and America. The tone of the article is libel and slander against the founders of religion although the largest population of slave owners probably were not truely godly people. This is the un-coolest way to attack religion, to blame slavery on religion because the founder of the religion didn't 'speak out' against it. john blake and CNN are slanderous and promote libel.
Sorry, nice try.
But if Jesus and the Old Testament God are the same person, then he doesn't get his slate wiped clean because of a name change.
He endorsed slavery. I don't care if one day he decided he was against it – he endorsed it.
And for every Christian who was anti-slavery, there were Christians who were pro-slavery and called black the Children of Cain, their dark skin being the mark God gave them.
Of course the people for and against slavery were Christian – 99% of the population was at the time.
Illogical, propagandist post.
Man is so insatiable for more, so unsatisfied with normal life and reality, that now s\he has enough to eat, the unreachable bearded man on a cloud comes back in view, A.D. 2012. Indeed reality is stranger than paradise. And can we finally get over this slave thing? Each and everyone of us has the genes of killers and slave-owners in himself. What is important is the morality of your personal decisions, taken today.
God didn't create the slavery, MEN DID! but since men were ambitious and hungry of power GOD had to regulate how men should treat its slaves because of his "hardness of hearts". John Blake i think you should take a look into mankind history and you'll notice that must of the mayor social problems, even slavery were created by a selfish, cruel and rebel mEn and stop blaming God for what WE (YES YOU AND ME) DID!.
Soo instead of banning a hateful practice like he did with theft and coveting, God just regulated it a bit? Really?
You need to do better research and not include the Catholic Church in your statement that Christians condoned slavery. Saint Thomas Aquinas deduced that slavery was a sin, and a series of popes upheld his position, beginning in 1435 and culminating in three major pronouncements against slavery by Pope Paul III in 1537. If anything, the Catholic Church started and led the anti-slavery movement.
What happened for the 1400 years prior to 1435?
The ignorance of this author of this article is astounding. I'm amazed that they are actually willing to give print to such poor scholarship. First of all, Jesus NEVER said, "slaves obey your masters" as stated by Blake. That was the Apostle Paul. So, error number 1. Let's move on. Jesus may never have come out to directly oppose slavery, but He also never came right out to oppose Rome's oppression of Israel either. Did that make Jesus anti Israel? Even a Sunday school trained child can tell that wasn't true as we see Jesus weep for Israel in the gospels.
What we see in the gospels not Jesus addressing the social ills of his day, but rather focusing on something far more important. He said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” The idea is that you had better stop worrying about every little personal injustice you are experiencing and start being very concerned about the injustices that you yourself are guilty of, especially against God. That is why Jesus called all men to repentance. And I would submit that that would affect slave holders and their injustice toward those they held in slavery. And that is how the gospel has always affected the world. Everywhere it’s truly been accepted, it has changed society. In fact, William Wilberforce of England, who labored for years to end the slave trade, did it because he was a Christian. And John Newton, who wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace” , had great influence on Wilberforce because he was a repentant slave trader.
So rather than casting doubt and innuendo on Jesus, which is a veiled attempt at judging the Lord Jesus Christ, John Blake would do well to bow His knee in repentance as all of us must do. Why? Because one day soon the Lord Christ is returning to judge the living and the dead, and John Blake will find that the only safe refuge from God is God. In other words, if you want to survive the judgment of Christ, you had better humble yourself and repent and ask him to forgive you of your arrogance and sin and be your Lord and savior. If you don’t, and if you continue to argue, you will one day find yourself judged by God Himself.
AMEN!! That was the same point I addressed... We are nitpicking and not seeing the most important theme of Christianity.. REPENTANCE and SUBMITTING to the Father and Son as Lord and King...
Bob-That was fantastic!
Frederick Douglass said that the worst and harshest slave owners were the religious ones who thought the Bible justified what they did.
the self-righteous are always the most annoying people.
This is ridiculous! Never in the history of Islam was slavery allowed! The Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) actually condemed slavery and stated that, "God see's all men as equal, like the teeth of a comb" or in other words, God looks at everyone, no matter what color they are as being equal to the next person. This is why Muhammad ended slavery in that time. Get your facts straight!
You're talking about "god". How can you talk about facts? God is a lie.
This is just what the anti-religious do. They find a flaw in humanity, and ascribe it to religion. Neither did Judaism encourage bondage, it rather saw a flaw in human behavior and sought to control it, realizing elimination would be difficult or impossible.
thats right, islam only supports extremists
I believe the bible doesn't necessarily condone slavery, but speaks of the safest behavior when facing that situation (i.e., slaves obey your masters). That doesn't mean there weren't plans in God's mind to eventually eradicate the practice. Moses delivering his people....later civil rights advocates. There are a lot of things done or earth, that on further study of the scriptures, aren't God's preference, but He may have allowed them for certain periods of time (i.e., divorce). The bible says He hates it, but he allowed it, as written, because of "the hardness of people's hearts".
However, you may purchase male or female slaves from among the foreigners who live among you. You may also purchase the children of such resident foreigners, including those who have been born in your land. You may treat them as your property, passing them on to your children as a permanent inheritance. You may treat your slaves like this, but the people of Israel, your relatives, must never be treated this way. (Leviticus 25:44-46 NLT)
Moses delivered God's "chosen" people from slavery. Everybody else was on their own. He even ordered His people to kill other tribes down to the last man, woman, and child.
Make no mistake: the God of the old testament was a vengeful, merciless God.
Yes, those Old Testament times were dreadful, weren't they? I'm glad I wasn't there. Nevertheless, all of these things were the result of man's choices. Yet throughout biblical history, you still eventually see God creating alternative deliverance.
Prayer changes things .
Stop lying to yourself.
Ask an amputee to pray to regrow their limb, let us all know how that works out.
Prayer changes nothing. Try praying for an amputee sometime. It is just as effective as any other placebo. It makes you feel good, while not actually doing anything about the real problem.
you couldnt say it better prayer. I bet if 1,000,000 people held hands and prayed together what would that do?
I would doubt it if I hadn't experienced the benefits myself. Yet, different strokes for different folks. Be it unto you as you believe. If it doesn't work for you, no doubt, it doesn't. But as for me and countless others...it's a Godsend. :)
Wow. Talk about a gross misinterpretation of Jesus' teachings. "Servants" and "stewards" do not mean slaves. Nice try at making a very weak premise work though. At least it's inflammatory enough to get you some hits.
Actually, if you look at the earliest manuscripts in the Hebrew and Greek they DO mean slave. The Bible wasn't written in English, despite what some evangelicals have told you. Every translation contains a bit of bias and they are often sanitized to the point that the original meaning is lost or severely altered.
How do you define a servant then? Are you saying they meant to say Housekeeper/Maid LOL
I am tired of this type of "reporting" and I use the term loosely...this is NOT reporting, but intended to incite hatred toward religion. How about reporting in-depth as to the abuses of power of this administration. EFF OFF CNN!! Still the Communist News Network :/
Hey – stupid – this is an opinion piece.
And if you want to worry about inciting hatred toward religion maybe you should hold the religions that endorse slavery responsible.
Stop passing the buck for the evils of religion onto the rest of us.
Did I pass any buck? I just love how you libs like to call people names instead of addressing issues. LOOK at the name of the article...it was on the headlines of the CNN Homepage for all to see...yeah let's beat up on religion more and more...incite more hatred. Op ed or not, it is there with the front page news.
This was a poorly researched and obviously written to sit in judgment of religion and posted front and center for CNN to cram down our throats.
Hear Hear, tired of the truth you religious capo????? This article is good, it outlines all the facts and shows historical evidence behind it. If it you hate this article, go to Saudi arabia and live there
Simpley put we dont need religion here Thank you
Simply put we dont need religion here Thank you
@ A.D. ~~ I'm a republican and atheist. We're not all "liberals". You're a dolt.
There are Christian Communists too, you know:
Christian communists assert that evidence from the Bible suggests that the first Christians, including the Apostles, created their own small communist society in the years following Jesus' death and resurrection. As such, many advocates of Christian communism argue that it was taught by Jesus and practiced by the Apostles themselves.
Christian communists as'sert that evidence from the Bible suggests that the first Christians, including the Apostles, created their own small communist society in the years following Jesus' death and resurrection. As such, many advocates of Christian communism argue that it was taught by Jesus and practiced by the Apostles themselves.
Sorry, "reload" caused double post somehow...
$ is the true slave ma$ter.
What's with the non-stop slavery on CNN?? Enough, nothing to write about GaGa??
Religion is a fancy word for slavery
Yeah today I am spamming because the pages go by quick..
Reality must be wetting himself today as Crossan was the person they went to on the subject
For a more complete view I would offer
or the audio
Reality will blindly follow whateva Crossan says but will refuse to read the Bible in context.
I really wish all of you unamerican religious zealots who have a problem with this article would go live in IRAN where you belong. Admit it, you admire them.
What do you mean... Being religious is a bad thing? America is supposed to be based on freedom of religion.. What this article seems to make is that slavery is an awful thing... In many historical context, it is not considered that when you consider that a slave to a ruler is considered as high of a status... The Bible does not condemn nor condone slavery... In actuality, the relationship between believers, sin, and God is that of slavery. We are bonded (slaves) to Sin... But by Christ, we are release from that chain to be slave to Holiness (God).. What is amazing is God redeemed us bu His Son's Blood and gave us grace to be called His Children. So the article is right that the Bible does not condemn slavery.. The Bible also speaks of godly men to submit to their leaders, the government (how bad it is), husband and wives, family, and church... As long as it does not violate the Word of God, we are to submit like Christ submit to Roman Authority (give unto Caesar, Caesar.. What to God, God)... Like Christ submit to the Father... Why is slavery considered such a bad thing? It is the historical mistreatment of men against men that we all remember. In the Renaissance age, citizens submit to Kings (especially a benevolent) was not an issue.. It is only about tyrant that we talk about this... What do you think a citizen is? A slave to the nation (to honor and obey the laws of the land)... Slavery in the Bible is in the context of OBEDIENCE... Not about Slavery in itself that man corrupted it to be.
Which is why separation of church and state is such a great idea.
@John Spurlock: You are missing the real point here; if the Bible (or Torah or Qur'an) are the "word of god" and the "source of morality", then why would it condone slavery? By saying that in modern times only Islam condones slavery, then you are in fact admitting that the Bible is NOT the source of morality and that you have chosen to ignore certain parts of it.
JImmy, the article touched on but not in detail that: The new testaments culture of slavery was often indentured servant hood, not on the same par as southern 1800's slavery, allthough not freedom either. Also, the article quoted Paul as saying "slaves obey your masters" but the related text in the same chapter is about treating your "slaves" like your own brothers and sisters since they are now believers. You have to take it all iln context. a one page article does not do that.
I think slavery is the power of God to show you no matter what happens he is the one ruler of this earth. Now it is time to forget about the past and open arms just as Jesus did and not judge anyone and not let emotions get in the way no matter what skin color you are because we came from one.
Yes, I am sure you would love to forget the past lol
Yeah, I guess.
lol the past will only help the future :) but we cant predict the future no matter how hard you try. It is how hard we try :)
I don't want a one ruler. I don't find a one ruler to be a good thing. I want anyone's one ruler near me. Not with their track records especially. If there was an election for any of these one rulers they would face plant.
I put my real name because im not afraid of anything, what is there to hide from, is there something out there that i dont know about? Im not worried about anything, except for all the children with a sad face because there soul is pure and they dont know anything other than the things they see and do. There are kids starving in 2012 where is the technology to prevent this oh ......... God is the technology :) and he has a plan knowone knows about but himself because he cant let himself down!
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.