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?
"So when you meet in battle those who disbelieve, then smite the necks until when you have overcome them, then make (them) prisoners, and afterwards either set them free as a favor or let them ransom (themselves) until the war terminates…"[47:4]
Thus the Quran has restricted the victor with either freeing prisoners for ransom or as a favor. There is no third choice given by the Quran, and thereby it has not only abolished slavery but abolished the very source of this evil, i.e. prisoners of war.
LET ME SAY PEOPLE. Don't get me wrong I don't hate anyone for their belief system. YOUR PATH IS YOUR PATH THAT THE CREATOR HAS FOR YOU. BUT DON'T LIMIT THE CREATOR TO JUST 39 OT BOOKS AND 27 NT BOOKS. THE DIVINE ESSENCE, THE CREATOR, IS BIGGER THAN THAT. EXPAND YOUR CONSCIENCE. WE HAVE A SAYING IN THE AFRICAN CULTURE: KNOW THYSELF BEFORE ANYTHING BECAUSE YOUR ARE THE CREATOR. YOU ARE PART OF THE WHOLE (THE CREATOR). HE DID NOT CREATE YOU JUST TO SAVE YOU. HE CREATED YOU TO GAIN INFORAMATION. THAT IS OUR QUEST. WE ALL PLAY A ROLE IN THE BIG PICTURE. DON'T LET THESE AGENTS CONDEMN YOU BECAUSE YOU REFUSE TO ACCEPT THEIR BELEIF SYSTEM -JUST KNOW THYSELF, LOOK WITHIN TO FIND THE TRUE CREATOR IN YOU. THE WORLD WE LIVE IN IS JUST AND ILLUSION, A HOLIGRAM.
Notice I did not use the word "GOD". Why because the word "GOD" means baal.
Humanity dwells on hindsight and always looks to blame someone or something for its atrocities. Even if the Bible or other religious texts had never existed, humanity would still discover a path to wickedness. I don't know what Bible everyone else is reading, but mine emphasizes love, turning your cheek, and resisting evil mostly among all other things.
and don't forget going to hell for thinking for yourself....
Did you even read the OT? Not much about love there.
I agree 100%. But I must add that greed is the source of almost all evil; it causes slavery, wars, genocide, etc. I had someone recently tell me that religion causes all wars. I responded by naming off every war I could think of, and none were caused by religion. But to CNN, you publish some of the most poorly written, misconstrued, and just plain unfactual articles. I claim no political party, so I do enjoy some of your articles, but for the most part; this cite stinks of liberals and ignorance.
Atheism is the first part of becoming a theist. Unfortunately some stop there thinking they have arrived while all the time sewing nonsense.
That's right...the whole pitcher's right here, drink it all.
The Mosaic law stated that kidnapping someone and making them a slave was punishable by death! See Exodus 21:16. Therefore, the type of slavery most of us know from early US history, was expressly forbidden by the God of the Bible.
The article stated that the Bible 'encouraged' owners to free slaves every 7 years. No... it was the law. The entire family went free after 6 years of service. Sooner,if the debt was paid, or on Jubilee year (every 50 years). See Leviticus 25:39, 40, 41.and Exodus 21:2. Christians were also required treat servants justly. See Paul's letter at Colossians 4:1
I encourage independent minded people to read the Bible for themselves (or at least the verses above) and decide if people were twisting scripture to justify their greedy behavior.
..when I look back in my life at the miracles that took place... my cure from addiction to drugs, my 24 year still going strong marriage, my cure from smoking cigarets, my two wonderful healthy daughters, my awesome job, and countless other great things in my life..none came from anything "I" did. It was God that enabled these things to happen for me.
what I do know is that every time I didn't ask God or include God ... those things in my life proved to be meaningless and never amounted to much of anything, I honestly could not live this life without God out in front of me daily. It's sad to see people talk so callously of religion and God. I feel bad for those that have turned away from God. My heart goes out to the many many children that don't grow up with God in their homes. I'm not some perfect guy...I have had good times bad times like most ..I'm not saying life is one big happy day... but I do know God loves each of us and he waits patiently for us to ask for his guidance and help with the tings that are so over whelming in this life. He is an all knowing God, He is a forgiving and loving God. And to know him is so easy...all you need do is ask him to come into your life and accept him as your God, Lord and Savior. How much more simple can it be? =) I know this post will get people to say negative things... or people will twist the context of what I have said...and that's fine...but one will understand this post or maybe two...and that is enough me =)
@ANYK... So you feel bad for the majority of the world who don't believe in YOUR god??? Many of us feel sad for you because you lack the ability to think for yourself. Religion is a crutch.
I was never addicted to drugs, never smoked, have been married 15 years, 2 beautiful children, an awesome job – all thanks to MY hard work, effort and commitment. No gods required....
I did the same thing as an atheist. NO god involved whatsoever. All you need is guts to get your own a s s out of the mess it was in. Its called courage of your own convictions. Not some pie in the sky imaginery god. Get a life. Accept responsibility and accept the fact you did this on your own. Grab a brain. Stop talking nonsense.
Eddie Long keeps coming to mind.
Why not call your good fortune what it is...luck. Plain and simple. There were no miracles involved. But, if you insist on thanking your god for your good fortune, send him my thanks too. I'd like to thank him for for cancer. And AIDS. And the painful deaths of innumerable people throughout the ages. Oh yeah, and orphans. We just love those little guys. But why does he always have to kill their parents? I know, I know. It's all part of His plan and we could not ever hope to understand it. I don't think I'd ever want to understand the plan of such a sadistic twisted god, so I guess it's for the better.
Slavery of the soul has resulted in salvary of your thinking. How carefully we should use the name of God. Religion is broad, but to misuse the name of God is dangerous.
"For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For His invisible attributes, namely His eternal power and divine nature have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks to Him, but they became FUTILE in their THINKING, and their foolish hearts were DARKENED. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God...and since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a DEBASED MIND to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless." (Romans 1:18-30). We will be judged by our idle words (Matthew 12:36,37 says, "I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”
ANOTHER CHRISTIAN SCARE TATIC. See what iam talking about? People will use anything to twist the truth instead of gaining information. I have met people that are more conscience and aware and moral about life than most christians I met. And I have met christians who are greatly conscience and aware of there purpose in life because than respect other people and don't allow people to feed Western Mind set thoughts into their minds.
Slavery: Reason #19,345 why religion is stupid.
So because believes in Christ like William Wilburforce and company helped abolish slavery, you think religion is stupid and shouldn't have abolished slavery? Is that your point?
Atheism killed millions of perople in the 20th century, ergo, atheism is stupid.
That doesn't matter, because no one really cares about perople. As long as no people were killed, that's fine.
Mike from CT: William Wilburforce and company helped abolish despite their religion. Apparently Christ didn't care one way or the other about slavery. I think you know what my point is.
Kevin: Really? I think what you meant was, atheists killed millions of people during the 20th century. Can you show me the sections of the atheist holy books that encourage killing and violence? Oh wait, there are no atheist holy books. I can point to numerous instances in your holy books where killing and violence are not only encouraged, but required of the faithful. Get back to the 13th century where you belong.
taac2, Nope, I meant exactly as I said. The commies meant to wipe out religion and ran labor camps that worked people to death. They also tortured many people because of their beliefs. As for being out of time, you belong with your ancestors the apes.
I would be interested to know why the author quotes Christian and Moslem scholars who are able to speak for their religions, but no rabbi was quoted, to speak for Judaism. This is disappointing yet typical.
Greed and selfishness and cruelty cause slavery. Then the perpetrators look for a reasons why it is right. Sometimes they use race or religion or even revenge. But religion is not the culprit. It is used as one of many arguments – at different times – to justify greed.
I would like to see am article talk of the more common fruits of religion: kindnesses, love, and sacrifices. All of those seem to be forgotten whenever someone wants to make religion an evil.
OK CNN print this. YOU are TASS. You are a communist organization that does not allow free speech and censor anything with which you disagree. THANK GOD there are other news organizations in my new nation where I will never have to see or read or you again. And Ted Turner did a horrible thing in selling this network. It will never be as good again. Massive FAIL
You're in a lot of trouble, son.
Then why are you on their website increasing their web page hits. You realize your giving them money by going on their web page to complain, right? It you hate them so bad why are you even here? I don't go to McDonald's and order a burger so I can complain about the quality, why would you do the same here? Go away.
toadears is one of our resident Unhappy Bitches.
"He will call you to account for your deliberate oaths: for expiation…give a slave his freedom.."[5:89]
According to Quran if a slave asks for his freedom ,the believer is left for no other choice but to accede to his request and is also required to help him with funds in order to rehabilitate him as a free man
Now what ever happened to worshipping Poisdeon and Zeus? Come on now they were great gods.
I liked the whole relationship between Ares and Athena.
We got bored with it. So we came up with the ever more exciting JESUS!!!!
multiple denomination in all religion is an indicator that people will interpret the "sacred" text however they want even though nobody religious would admit to this.
THERE ARE BUT SLAVES AND MASTERS OF SLAVERIES. Any other wordisms are just that different words meant to confuse the masses and enslave many via the varying prudences of the mighty status quo.
In the book "white gold" muslim enslaved over a million europeans in morroco and north africa. Muslim has always enslaved everyone and still does. Christianity and the west freed slaves, free humans from evil (me included) and makes the world a better place.
Even in this 21st century, in the ordinary language of the Arabs, Black people are still called 'ABEED/ SLAVES'.
Just curious if you've ever read the real accounts of Columbus? Because his christian crusading wiped out an entire tribe of people. The accounts include: feeding infants to their dogs of war. Seeing who could remove a head with one swing. Hanging body parts for their dogs to chew on..... All religions are guilty.
lol... you are a slave to your poor communication skills.
Yeah, except for all of those people the Christians enslaved. And let's not forget everyone they killed, "In the name of God."
why not posted?
Your post was denied due to violation of our terms.
What do I have to change? It would be nice to know that; I just tried editing "stoo pid" and "scuu ing" but to no avail...
Your entire post was invalid, and you must start over.
hahaha, "your entire post was invalid" - sounds like censorship to me. I just changed it to be far less inflamatory and it still was not posted. And how can you know in the 5 seconds you have to read it whether it might be invalid or not? I'm thinking you have my name on some kind of "watch list" and you don't like what I say. You know that's bool sheeit right?
look back to page #27 for tips...
Damn, I can't believe she keeps falling for this.
You all seem to have conveniently left out that Jews have been slaves to the Egyptians and Babylonians. Jew, Muslim, or Christian, we all have to repent of our wrongdoings, make amends for them, even if all we can say is, "I'm sorry; this must never again happen to anyone!"...
The way to apologize is to slowly or as quickly as possible, get rid of the imaginery gods and myths. The United States is and has been built on Ignorance and its frightening. All of these tribes, the Jews, Arabs, Christians , Catholics, Mormons,etc, all have their own god? Go figure. Religion is for those who are afraid of death. That's the only reason it exists Oh and its used to justify killing of innocents. 77 virgins and 77 mother-in-laws also.
There's actually no proof besides the Bible to say that the Jews were slaves of the Egyptians.
Religion was invented to maintain order in a population of animals that haven't a clue about what is good for them.
It accomplished that, kudos Jesus. But now that we've grown up and that our politicians are all hypocritical atheists, it's time to make our relationship with the imaginary friend something private that cannot be used to control us.
Why is it that atheists seem to have only two tools in their war chest, trivializing and then belittling? Many of their posts appear to belie a great sense of anger at people who do not believe as they do. Atheism is, of course, an irrational belief system.
Mel: Exactly how is it irrational to not believe in something which has no proof whatsoever of it's existence? I think maybe you don't understand what the word irrational means.
How can an outrageous lie like this about Christianity being posted again and again?
Christianity is a mental illness. So is Islam, so is Mormonism, etc etc. Stop smoking the wacky tobacci...all of it is mentalism.
Maybe because it's not a lie. Your Christian religion (and all the others for that matter) has enslaved and killed innumerable people throughout the ages. The sooner religion is wiped clean from the face of the earth, the better.
Because most people have not read the Book. Also, they confuse what is in the OT and NT with the sinful actions of those calling themselves Hebrews or Christians. If you read the definition in detail of slavery, in the OT, it was a means to prevent poverty and homelessness. The slave earned back or was granted freedom after prescribed periods. Abuse was forbidden.
Most of the time Israel failed to live by the standard in the Book and slavery was an abusive practice. And specifically it mentions because they were freed by God from slavery , to be nice to slaves.
BECAUSE YOU BELIEVE A LIE IN THE FIRST PLACE. IF YOU STUDY WHAT WAS BEHIND CHRISTISNITY YOU WILL SEE IT WAS MADE UP STORIES AND FABLES WITH SOME MORAL TRUTHS QUOTED BY KEMETIC (EYGPTIAN) SCHOLARS. BUT YOU WON'T ACCEPT THIS BECAUSE YOU HAVE BEEN BRAINWASHED BY THE THESE JACKLEG PRECHERS AND GOBERNMENT AGENTS WHO PROMOTE THEIR SCARE TATICS AGAINST YOUR FREEDOM.
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.