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?
My worship is a world with no religion............................religion created all that is evil.
Good point... I'm sure without religion, all interest in power and money would disappear and everyone would suddenly be nice to each other all the time ;)
All religions were born of hate and domination over the less strong.Look what our population would have been now except for the introduction of disease to people that got a long fine until one man figured if he could get 10 people to give 10 percent he would not have to work. Simple as that.Religion has cramped progress not helped it.As for a higher power that created this wonder we call earth, possibility.Had nothing to do with religion toough.We are called a flock,as in sheep, and have been fleeced since preachers took over.
I do not think any of the three religions encouraged or supported slavery,they tried to deal with ,like we say in Medicine, preexisiting condition. I can tell you as a moslem,Islam tried to end slavery through many avenues,the space here does not allow me to mention.
CNN miseed the mark on this one. Slavery both the word and the context for which it was used is not represented accurately in this article. For example. Jesus said one can not slave for two masters, here he refers to GOD and Satan. He (Jesus) also speaks of slaving for riches. In these contexts it could be seen in simular situations today. Examples: One could be said to slave over their family, their possessions, looks, or even their employers. Yes employment is a modern form of slavery in this context. One must follow all rules established by their emploter if they wish to retain it. One might say he or she could simply quit but the reality is that the employee needs to be in a sence inslaved to provide themselves and the family with nessessaties of life. Same as in biblical times, being enslaved could provide a family with all these things along with possiably inheritances, freedom (todays retirement of sorts), the love and admiration of their owner, which could be viewed as very benefical especially if one was an alien resident or captured in war. A concubine was to be treated same as a wife and her children could also recieve inheritances as did children from a wife. Children of conccubines could also recieve the rights of firstborn. In todays world if one is not rich or selfemployed one could be considered a slave by bible standards. But even today in those situations one could be enslaved to customers if selfemployeed or to stock holders if wealthy. All are inslaved to the laws of the land and or governments. I could go much further on the missconseptions of slavery in the modern age and of how yes people of faith abused teachings of slavery as refered to in the bible. This concept of slavery is not what Jesus or Moses refered to or so called tollerated. As niether of them would have condoned such practices of abuse. Im just an average religous person who self studies the bible and I get this concept. It supprised me that the scholars used in this artical did not have better understanding or answers of biblical (Christian) slavery.
Jesus is the Old Testament God. A name change does not erase his crimes.
The Old Testament endorses slavery.
Sorry, nice try.
" 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)"
Here we go. Blacks were NOT the only peoiple that were forced into slavery. Indians, Jews, Chinese, aztecs, whites..every 'race' was in slavery at one time. Except most blacks want you to believe otherwise. Remember blacks sold their own kind into bondage for trade. So stupid up already and move into the 21st centery why don't we all....
Mike your from Nebraska . What u wrote shows how backwards and slow your midwest white education is in reguards to black history. Its taught in schools back on the east coast that Africans and Arabs both caught and sold slaves by raiding villages. Old news hick! Only a racist like you would bring up black slavery like you did as a way of trying to justify it. You people are a complete negitive piece of work!
I've always believed that the abolishionist movement and the opposition to it were a battle between a litteral and an interpritive view of the bible. The litteralists could point to many examples of salvery being justified in the bible and argue that Jesus never spoke out against it. But those who took a less litteral view could argue that such passages as "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" would invalidate slavery even if he didn't mention it directly. Something worth thinking about today.
Why am I SO HAPPY: Because I'm NOT religious.
Give it a try.
To those who reject God:
Wait and see after the next major disaster comes to u're neighborhood.
Examine those who have a faith in God and those who don't. See who is cooping!!
Willing to put your money where your mouth is?
If you ever need critical health care, stay home and pray. No doctors. God will save you, remember? And if not, it's his plan.
We'll see how strong your faith is.
And your logic is flawed. You forget the world is filled with non-Christian faiths, who face hardship all the time, who cope just fine.
So, you're stupid and ignorant of reality.
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
All you do is make threats and claims. Never once have you provided evidence or compelling arguments to suggest a god even exists.
I know who's going to be in trouble when the next spelling bee comes to your neighborhood!
What is "cooping"? It sounds important. But if you mean "coping", what does any of that have to do with your Bible promoting slavery?
Why don't we talk about the here and now rather than the future and what "will" happen to us like you religious nuts continue to harp on about?
You expect any of us to take you seriously? You can't even type like an adult and I'm supposed to be intimidated by you and your celestial boogeyman? What's cooping? Who's laying an egg?
@LookSee ~~ Do you remember the tornadoes that struck a month or so ago (kentucky?). There was a CNN article about the family who was holding hands and praying with their neighbor when they were swept away and all but the neighbor killed. Even in THE ACT OF PRAYING they were killed. I don't mean to make light because it is truly tragic. But the point is that prayer does nothing. With the exception, of course, of some of the positive effects of meditation if done properly.
Of course his typical religious response to that would be "It was God's will, he wants them in heaven" and when a family doesn't die and miraculously avoids death by praying he would say "God bless them, it was God's will."
"God" closely mimicks chance probabilistically. The people died praying because either God too closely mimicks chance to actually help anyone or he doesn't exist. In either case, he's as worthless as a sack of feces and prayer is garbage.
Again, studies have shown that prayer has absolutely no effect. None, zilch, if prayer has some effect it's effect is no different than chance. Explain to me why that is, explain to me why religious nuts claim it's a God-given miracle when someone escapes death or escapes a coma but a God-given miracle NEVER occurs outside of the domain of human biology. Why does God NEVER regenerate a limb for example? Have you ever seen anyone lose their legs due to a car accident go into a hospital and praise the lord, regenerate both of their legs? NEVER. Have you ever seen someone go into a coma and get out of it? Happens often, praise the lord. Only one is completely possible because it's within the domain of human biology, the other is a complete impossibility. The question is, why doesn't the lord supercede human biology? He created us, he can't regenerate legs but he can help people leave a coma? How nonsensical is this? God doesn't work in mysterious ways, he works in stupid ways.
Again, there is no God. God closely mimicks chance because there is no God. So called miracles from God closely mimick human biology because there is no God, only human biology.
I will totally be cooping.
all of religion is for the weak and the weak minded......and always has been.
You're saying I'm weak-minded? And millions of others are too? That's quite a broad brush you're painting with. Maybe you should try to understand it before criticizing it.
Remember, u think life began from a rock. So don't undermine anyone's intelligence because they believe in a Higher power.
Great point big banjo. Agree. 80%+ of the world's population are sheep. Just look at the Muslims today.
lookandsee: it is not the belief in a higher power, it is the idea that someone else has the exclusive key to the higher power. and that is what religion provides
lookandsee: do you see this "higher power" as a being that judges human interaction? if so, why?
Slavery in those times was often an accepted way to pay off a debt. You worked for someone until you could pay off a debt that you owed. It was different than how most people think of slavery. It was common in society. The Bible just says for those who did it to treat their servants fairly.
That's your justification for slavery as promoted in the Bible? It was okay as long you treated your slavery "fairly"? Wow. You'd have fit in quite nicely back then.
Treat fairly, Like in Exodus
20 “And if a man beats his male or female servant with a rod, so that he dies under his hand, he shall surely be punished. 21 Notwithstanding, if he remains alive a day or two, he shall not be punished; for he is his property.
If a slave is beaten so bad they die it is wrong, UNLESS they live a day or two and then die.....then no problem.
Yeah that is fair I can see whay it is called the 'good book' (sarcasm).
why not talk about that as well. Native Americans were killed and taken away their lands by religious groups who came from Europe not only to this country but the rest of the American Continent.
These "belief blog" stories are the dumbest thing I've ever read. Isn't there any "news" out there that CNN can track down?
Another id!ot complaining about the worthiness of a very interest article, then insulting the news agency from which he's reading it. Hey, genius, here's an idea: get your news somewhere else. Brilliant! (Now, go away).
The slavery is still there, just brain washing instead and tax excempt.
The problem with this article and all the scholars is that they dont actually get it. If you read the Bible and understood it, you would know that it teaches obedience and self sacrifice. So if you were a slave, you were not supposed to try to run away. You were to serve your master with the same dedication you would serve the Lord with. Since life in this physical Body is temporary (according to the Bible), Life is a lesson. So no matter what conditions we find ourselves in– in life, we are supposed to serve the Lord in humility. That does not mean slavery was good. That does not tell christians to own slaves.
Back in the days of the old testament it seemed as though slavery was condoned. It was part of their customs. God allows the human race to do as we please, even if it isnt right. In the beginning, there was not Government. God governed. But people asked for judges, so he allowed it. They they asked for kings, so he allowed it. Now we have the current forms of Government and Law. He allows this. And we wonder why everything is all messed up. He allows us to go our own way, so we would learn that we cant do it on our own.
Anyway, i said all that to say this: Just because the Bible doesnt directly condemn slavery does not mean it can be used to condone slavery.
So now we are asking for gay marriage to be allowed and he has said "No!" Meat on Friday? "No!"
You didn't need to spew absurdity to make another absurdity not sound so absurd. The real explanation is that it's all bullshit.
Thank-you! Only a few understand and believe what is true. God bless you my breathen in Christ!
Religion itself is mental slavery. If the tenants of a religion are true, children will (and should, if the deity is in fact REAL) find out for themselves. Instead, we forcefeed religious beliefs and ideas into the minds of innocent children and corrupt their reasoning faculties before they can even read. I think this is immoral and abhorrent.
Atheism is the true slavery of the mind. Many people do find God on their own. You just don't get it.
Well, CNN's moment of sanity has passed. If you can't fight faith and religion one way (by the ObamaCare mandate forcing people of faith to pay for abortions), you'll fight it another way. What tripe! Pure, absolute tripe! Many modern-day theologists spend all their time trying to actually find themes in the Bible and religion to undermine religion and faith itself. I suppose they would consider God to be a slave-holder. After all, he expects and asks obedience from us. He tells us "Thou shall NOT...". Isn't all that a form of dictatorship? Actually, God's detractors conveniently forget: He gave us FREE WILL. We don't HAVE to obey him. We can "do our own thing." It usually doesn't work out to our benefit, but He lets us do as we wish. If humans, in our arrogance, in our stupidity, use religion and faith to promote our own evil wishes, that's our problem. It is NOT God's probem. And, I wish the lap-dog media would lay off religion. Leave those of us who do believe alone! You at CNN know nothing of faith. You truly know nothing of religion...except to condemn it. What you actually show is your own ignorance. Your own stupidity. But, you're so stupid, you don't even realize what you're doing to you own anti-faith, anti-religion, anti-God cause.
Please explain how people of faith are being forced to pay for abortions... by making people have health insurance.
Forcing people of faith to pay for abortions. More right wing faith drival. Are you realy that stupid or just not able to comprehend what you read. Love the way your sky fairy now gives free will. I thought your fairy, was jealous, angry, and demanding...oops .. sorry there we go again trying to confuse the issue with facts. You religious freaks are really...well just freaks
don't forget countries and business, like africa and banks – don't they practice slavery too ? don't pay your bills or live irresponsibly or inherit it from your parents debts and see what happens in 3rd world countries.
More proof that religion is a fairy tale.
The peoples of the time wrote the "bible" of the world as they – BARELY – understood it.
Volcanic events, comets, plagues of locusts (probably from mating season) etc were all interpreted as "signs" from above, when in reality they were naturally occurring events.
At the same time, slavery was condoned, so they wrote about these figures in a way that matched their society's needs at a time.
Do you really think the son of god would condone or allow slavery while at the same time bringing a message of peace?
Uh huh. Go read your fairy tales, theists. Sam I am or the bible, it's all make-believe.
The real fairy tale: things happened by chance against odds that are so high the numbers are inconceivable.
Again, religious nuts talk about odds as if they know what they're talking about. The evolution of the eye, the evolution of our species and the origin of the universe might have been "against all odds" but the point is it's not impossible.
Here's the point to take away: While both science and religion makes great claims as to the origin of the universe and our current situation, only one is backed by our observation of the natural world. Those very same rules we live by, the rules that govern why some people get sicker than others, why people die when they jump off of buildings, none of those have anything to do with bibilical laws. While both have no definitive proof, one is peer reviewable and always open to contradiction, the other is absolute and never challengeable. Guess which one your nonsense religion is?
The evolution of the eye or our species may be unlikely to you but probabilistically it is not an impossibility. The only thing that is an impossibility is what defies the laws of nature like the extraordinary claims found in holy texts.
Well, first of all you misspelled "atheist," but such a small error is easily overshadowed by the blatant ignorance of the rest of your comment. I find it ironic that this article and your comment single out religious groups when the entire world participated in slavery at the time. The Romans would enjoy witnessing vicious fights to the death in their colosseum, and emperor Nero was famous for burning Christians to light his dinner parties, but it's the Christians and other religious groups who are the bad guys for having slaves and bond servants? The teachings of Jesus and his disciples were radical concepts at the time because they told others to treat their slaves with kindness (an idea no practiced anywhere else at the time). Hebrew law also had a "Year of Jubilee" in which all previously sold property would return to its original owners and ALL SLAVES WOULD BE SET FREE. That's right. Freed. It happened once every fifty years. Was this happening in other places? Nope. Might I remind you that the Hebrew people themselves were slaves in Egypt for hundreds of years.
Also, can we just talk about how slavery ended in England? William Wilberforce, a self-proclaimed strong Christian, was one of the leading factors in England's abolition of slavery. He devoted his life to seeing slavery ended. In America, it was the founding fathers' idea that "all men are created equal" that set the stage to end slavery. This ideal was created by people dedicated to making a Christian nation built upon the ideals found in the Bible. Without Christians, slavery would never have ended. Don't get all high and mighty by thinking you would've done anything different if you had been born in a culture where slavery was practiced. You only think slavery is wrong because you were taught that it was wrong. These people realized it was wrong during a time when everyone thought it was fine.
iit is stated jesus did not own a slave. that is wrong. jesus owned a slave name jude. the book of jude is from the slave of jesus. Jude is mentioned briefly in one of the gospels. older translation have him as a slave, newer translation have him as a bond servant. jude was used to justify slavery.
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.