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?
Luiz Felipe de Alencastro states that there were 8 million slaves taken from Africa between the 8th and 19th centuries along the Oriental and the Trans-Saharan routes............This is because Mohamed allowed them to enslave my people .
Actually slavery is still rampant today anyway. Look at your local rub'n'tugs. They are everywhere and an overwhelming majority of the girls in those places aren't there by choice.
This article is a middle school report
"It [slavery] was established by decree of Almighty God...it is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation...it has existed in all ages, has been found among the people of the highest civilization, and in nations of the highest proficiency in the arts...Let the gentleman go to Revelation to learn the decree of God – let him go to the Bible...I said that slavery was sanctioned in the Bible, authorized, regulated, and recognized from Genesis to Revelation...Slavery existed then in the earliest ages, and among the chosen people of God; and in Revelation we are told that it shall exist till the end of time shall come. You find it in the Old and New Testaments – in the prophecies, psalms, and the epistles of Paul; you find it recognized, sanctioned everywhere.".
Where in the new testament has Jesus sanctioned it? just don't lie through your teeth.
A quote is not a lie. It's a quote. The religious brain is likely unable to process the logic of this observation. Let's face it. Christianity both sanctioned and abhorred slavery throughout its history. Which implies it stands for nothing. It also implies that humans determine what's right and wrong since religion has rarely been consistent in its dogmas.
Ephesians 6:5 "Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ." You would think God would just tell the Bible writers to say: "it's not moral to own people."
Has Jesus sanctioned it?
I get it. Only what Jesus says matters. The rest of the Bible is hog-wash
Christians believe in christ. you don't call them mosesians or abrahamian's or paulians.
You illustrate the danger in confusing the words of men, for the words of God.
I believe in Christ and the most important thing which Christ said was " Love thy neighbor as thy self", It is the most difficult thing to do and yet a solution to all human ills.
Actually, whether Jesus said it or not, matters very little in the realm of christianity. 2 Tim 3:16 backs that. Christianity believes that all of scripture is the word of god and the authority for their religion, picking and choosing what you believe and not believe is complete contradiction of your religion and makes you no better than the pharisees.
Not Only Slavery, WAR is the Worst Promotion of Religion!
ONWARD CHRISTIAN SOLDIERS, MARCHING ON TO WAR! GOD BLESS US FOR WHAT WE ARE ABOUT TO UNDERTAKE. BUT CHRISTIAN DOCTRINE SAYS "LOVE THY ENEMY!"
Way to rip on Christianity as opposed to Islam which teaches hatred of other religions and Judaism which teaches that anyone that isn't Jew isn't even human. You're a flippin moron.
If not for those soldiers you would be praying with your backside up in the air 5 times a day. that was to counter fire with fire. unlike now, Europe is just capitulating. It is very difficult to defend against fanaticism, you sometimes need to counter it with fanaticism.
Well done, I knew that comment would draw out the mouth breathing Christian hypocrites. There only defense is 'hey, we're not as bad as the Muslims – at least at this point in history'. LOL, pathetic.
I was referring to you quote. That point in time it was necessary to counter Islam. Other than the Spanish Inquisition. Christianity was not established by war in Europe.
Christianity most certainly was established by war in Europe, ensense. First by Roman conquest and then cemented by Constantine.
There is a vast difference between having a military defense set in place to protect your country and defend against groups willing to attack us, and leading the charge in the world to create war for polotical sake "in the name of god." Creating war instead of embarking in diplomacy is the christian way.
merely another poor practice of the 1st amendment...
HERE WE GO–CNN just can't stop making up non-stories to pin everything on "those evil religions." I guess you gotta give all those good atheists a place to congregate. I have personally seen how the church has helped people, but you'll never see that story on CNN.
It's not religion that is evil, it is the people who use it to control others that are evil.
A little charity doesn't make up for 4,000 years of holding back the human species.
Mike by holding back the species do you mean the same as the atheist USSR and Mao did. In all of Jesus teaching he has not sanctioned it any where. Slavery exists because humans have a tendency to take advantage of their own kind.
"Slavery exists because humans have a tendency to take advantage of their own kind."
Same with religion
Same with Atheism.
Shame on CNN for making you read unpleasant truths about religion eh?
I guess facts must be painful to your myopic vision of this world.
You mean Facts about the atheist USSR and China, under Mao. how about pol pot.
You blur your points with half pointed truths. Atheism has no foundation of control, no basis of law, and no hierarchy of leadership. Atheism is an idea centralized around the idea that there is no god. Atheism is not the issue in the Soviey Union and China. The government is. Now if you want to talk about polotical structures and their influence on the people they control, that would be a different topic. Christianity has been the foundation of governments, the ruling factor of law in countries, and the leading battle cry (see history text on the Middle Ages) for wars.
I agree that this article is timed for the response. But, can't help but love the bloggin'
"Though the three great Western religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – disagree on many matters, most of their contemporary followers condemn slavery." But not the inferiority of women, nor their repression, which all three broadly embrace.
But it's written in a book that women are property of men. Is that not justification enough?
Shouldn't you be in the kitchen making sandwiches?
Islamic Sudan, Morocco, Mali, Mauritania still practice slavery. Slavery was abolished in Saudi Arabia only in the 1960s there are still quite a few slaves in Saudi Arabia, and Yemen.
what does the man expect? slavery was a common practice back then,that was the mentality of the world. a man could own a thousand slaves back then and still be decent. that was just the mentality of the world. owning a slave back then was like owning farm animals today.
It looks as the wave of hate from the young Muslims in Europe, comes from the preaching in the mosques.
The only religion which never had slavery is ISLAM!? Research the history to see for yourself. During the past 100 years Christians and Jews have been imposing two world wars, the current middle east wars (result of west predominantly Christian and Jews!?) and slavery on the world, as late as 60 years ago. These atrocities still go on killing innocent deprived women and kids. Slavery is a fact and a shame. Muslim nations have been a victim of Zionism greed led by the west through wars and dictatorship imposed on them by the west Zionism greed!? Who has been and is supporting the most cruel dictatorships in the world!? I.e. Saudi Arabia? Yemen? Kuwait? Qatar? UAE? Bahrain? Mobarak Egypt? ...etc. The questions is whether the countries which have been supporting wars, killing, use of atom against a none atomic nation killing hundreds of thousands of innocent women and children and still supporting theses atrocities are predominately Christians and Jews not Muslims!? Why do you think Zionists and their supporters try to show the Islam as enemy!? Because Islam from its inception has been against the slavery (never had it) and wars on the deprived!? Whereas Zionism lives on wars, killing, and stealing from the deprived nations to feed the Zionism greed!?
cut the zionists cr*p. you don't know what zionism is,so why do you condemn it so? and the world wars had nothing to do with religion or nationality,it was all about interests. zionism isn't about land,it is about a homeland for jews. arab dictators twisted it's meaning,so that their oppressed citizens would let out all the anger on israel,instead of rebelling. and every one knows that was the arabs who started all the wars with israel in attempt to destroy it and take the jews' land,save for the suez crisis war,so who tried to kill and take all the land? you call us war mongers,while you scream that you will destroy us and educate your kid's to become martyrs.
Get a clue Dave and stop the hate. The Syrians are all enslaved. Open your eye wide and see the truth. "Muslim nations have been a victim of Zionism greed led by the west through wars and dictatorship imposed on them by the west Zionism greed!? " you are too obvious you bigoted fool.
Go look at how women are treated in any fundamentalist Muslim state or community and tell me Islam doesn't have slavery.
Dave, I agree that non-Islamic countries have been sabotaging the islamic nations, but the muslims do not practice what they preach, and play into the hands of, and many times in collusion, with these people. The common enemy here is greed and it does not matter who lights the spark, it is the flame bearers that share the majority of the blame. However, with the world financial network in their hands, the arms merchants and bankers who hide behind Judaism (money and power is their real God) are difficult to defeat.
Oh please. Boo hoo, I'm a victim. Look at all the horrible things you do...while I pretend I'm an innocent. It's the filthy Mo lovers own fault. It's like when my dog takes a dump in the neighbor's yard. Do I just pretend it didn't happen or do I rub his nose in it and sent him to the back yard? You're all getting your collective noses popped with a rolled up newspaper. Keep it up and we'll be sure that all of you are sent to bed without any supper. Act your age and behave yourself, and you'll be rewarded. All muslims ARE slaves...to their own so-called "religion".
Who enslaved the 8 million slaves which were taken from Africa between the 8th and 19th centuries along the Oriental and the Trans-Saharan routes...???
Saudi Arabia abolished slavery in the 1960's is that not where your mecca is? Sudan, Mauritania, Mali still practice slavery. where the slightly fairer Arabs have enslaved the black native population, you should go peddle your ignorance in your local Mosque, that way you will have a ready audience and no body to counter your arguments.
Well dav, slavery continues to exist today so I don't think we'll all get over it until it ceases. Also, sociologists would certainly argue that in our own country the economical and social repercussions continue to exist. Lastly, if you only understanding the context of your life within your own experiences and those told to you by the generation before, you'll have a very limited understanding of the "big picture" of how and why we are where we are. The "big picture" here, in my opinion is two-fold. One, we need to be careful TODAY when we use religion to persecute people or excuse injustices because we are OVER-emphasizing some parts of the bible while UNDER-emphasizing others and taking things out of context (gay marriage comes to mind..also the exploitation of a cheap labor force are examples). Two, if something is horrible in the future (such as slavery came to be), it is horrible NOW. We all like to just go with the flow but thankfully, some step outside of the lowest common denominator and speak up- thats how change happens. To me, that is fascinating!
Whats with all the race baiting CNN? First you cover the Trayvon Martin case and portry it as a hate crime. Now you are running a story on slavery? What is next? Roll the news vans out to a KKK rally? Or recount all of the Civil Rights era lynchings?
Nowhere in the new testament has Jesus said any thing about slavery. It is just that cnn does not have the guts to go against Moses and Mohamed it is lumping Jesus with them.
This article in no way can be considered as "race baiting", rather, it is a historical overview of slavery as it existed in the past. In the periods of time that are referenced in the article, slavery was not anywhere near as racially specific as we think of it today. In those days, prisoners of war, of any race, would be consigned to slavery, as would the people of the conquered states or societies.
Curse those who use facts to portray history!
CNN is so desperate they have to go to the sewer to keep people talking about them. There will be a day when believers will no longer protect these people from judgement. I would not argue with this idiots. Only those who are willing to listen.
CNN is so desperate they have that unimpressive Brit, dropout from celebrity apprentice covering for Larry King.
I'm not sure all religious people are idiots. Gullible maybe? Insecure? Weak? Idiot is a bit strong.
Actually religion is one of the most talked about issues/ideas today. For CNN not to post stories and ideas in their Belief section would just be bad for business. I mean, it got you here to read and comment, didn't it?
In fairness though, religion has also played a MASSIVE role in ending slavery and expanding civil rights.
Nobody who knows anything about History can deny that the major anti-slavery organizations in the 1800s were Christian.
We certainly wouldn't deny the role of Rev Martin Luther King and aother Christian leaders, black and white, in the civil rights movement either.
I can completely deny that. The K K K was and is a christian organization.
the KKK was a Christian organization as much as the Bolsheviks of the Russian Communist Revolution and the Jacobins of the French Revolution were Atheist organizations; they were not. You can claim to be Christian or Atheist, but unless your practices are consistent with what you claim, you aren't.
I will grant your point, as it is based on truth. Unfortunately, why is it that so many religious fundamentalists refuse to see this as just on of the many ways that religious dogma has evolved, and accept that change is necessary and appropriate, even to religion? Instead, they cling to their outdated beliefs in "creationism" and other patently unbelievable tenets.
Religion is the opiate of the masses, but I'd rather smoke opium grown in Pakistan any day. They have some impressive poppy crops.
Well God must have needed them in heaven. God took them from us cause he needed them. God tests us. God can heal you. God allows suffering to make us stronger. You were not healed because you didn't have enough faith.
Really religion has been at the very root of suffering and death for millennium's. How many have been cleansed in the name of the Father. Cleansed as in burned at the stake or put to death on a torture stake.
I wouldnt say that it has been at the ROOT of suffering and death since the 1600s. It sure has helped it along quite a bit though. If it werent for religion stagnating scientific discovery just think where we would be now. Prob have cars getting 1000 miles per gallon and be living on Mars by now.
There are a lot of religious people in America, so you would think that more would be aware of this. There is also a lot of illiteracy here, too. Lots of people like to wave the Bible around, but not many have actually read it which is a shame because some would then realize that the Bible must be taken on balance, rather than simply picking the nice bits.
Please see my response to John, above.
The Catholic Church educates 2.6 million students everyday at the cost to that church of $10 billion and a savings on the other hand to the American taxpayer of $18 billion. The graduates go on to graduate studies at the rate of 92 percent. Catholic charities in the US serve approximately 8 million people who are in need every year. Catholic relief services employs over 5000 people worldwide who help provide services ranging from emergency relief in the wake of disasters to increasing agricultural capacities in developing nations. But by all means, lets focus on the bad and bash religion in general.
I'd rather pay the $18 billion and educate our children to base their lives in reality instead of in antiquated male oriented mumbo jumbo, paternalistic control mechanisms. people need to live in the here and now and know that they alone have the power to change things – no Gods, no afterlife NOW!!!
Payers change things. Proof.
To state historical truth is hardly bashing religion. Religious beliefs have in the past, and should continue to, evolve in the course of nature.
the Church doesn't pay the parents do.
Please tell me where I can find these numerous Catholic facilities around the world that give free education to my childre, I will sign them up in a heart beat! Oh that's right, they don't exist.
Rely on Crosson? There are many "scholars" who love the limelight and will cause mischief to get it. Crosson is notoriously one of them.
John Dolan – "love the limelight and will cause mischief to get it"
An apt description of good ol' Moses.
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.