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?
In the reference to Paul, here in the article as well as the apparent opposing perspective of Paul, it really seems to read more literally that if someone was a slave when they became a believer, they were to continue to honor the arrangements already in place, but in the reference in Philemon, he seemed to be asking how someone could become a believer and continue to justify owning another human being. I don't see that Paul is expressing two different views on slavery, but rather how becoming a believer should affect the way you treat others.
Mother nature is the God for all people, and people with power are the ones who condone slavery.
yeah, except now, only islam still practices slavery. and oh yeah, communism and socialism. you are an socialist apologist. soon you will be shut down.
Actually we knowling purchase products made by slave labor and have a booming "massage" parlor and slave trade for young women alive and well here in the United States where all religions freely participate in. It's just easier to turn cheek on this one though.
Correction: *people of all walks of life in the US participate in this. Can't blame any of that on religious teachings. But just lack of decency and paying attention.
Hitler was a Catholic
Yep, Hitler just lost sight of religion and became a megolomaniac.....
Well, his parents were, but once Hitler left home he never attended mass or took the Sacraments, so if he was a Catholic, he wasn't a very good one.
At least he didn't rape children like priests do so in a lot of ways I would say he's a better catlick.
I love it, religion is beginning its death throws. It may take awhile, but religious belief will continue to dwindle over the next few generations until it is a mere shadow of its former self. Logic and reason are the substance of the universe, and will certainly prevail. Please insert desperate comments of condescending denial below:
Great post, and I love seeing it happen myself. I just wish I could live long enough to see the end-the end of religion that is. Although I expect certain people to always be gregarious. But this forum is proof of how many people are changing, or skeptical. And there is a lot of modern genetic science to back up Darwin, and never mind the stuff about the Earth circling the Sun, or the 200 million year old crocodile (dinosaur) species still going strong. That would pre-date the myth-book printing press, so we don't preach about that.
Well, okay. You are correct if you are talking about the United States and other Western countries, but the church is growing quite a bit in Korea and China and in parts of South America and Africa, so from your rather ethnocentristic view of the world, you are correct. (Threw in the last part just to meet your request for condescension).
Sing it, brother! Slowly but surely, they'll all die off... Starting with the grand OLD party.
Religion will never die. Once the idea of gods is dead (if that ever happens, which I doubt), people will create their own cults based on more human beliefs and ideas. Even atheists are becoming religious in their atheism. And please, if you believe in logic, intelligence and reason don't make me explain that idea to you (if you possess a combination of those you can figure it out yourself). All that's wrong with the world would still be wrong with the world without theists, possibly worse since there would be nothing "greater" to keep the masses in line.
I´m christian---I have a wonderfull life in peace and free by the blood of Jesus!!! the world dont give me that..... research by the other side...not only your side,,,,,,,,,
So American was not base on Christian principles. The Const persevered slavery until 1808. A Const based on Christ would have abolished slavery.
Well, it was Christians who barked the loudest against slavery here and across the pond.
It is ironic that the last place on earth to openly maintain slavery is in Africa, and that the "light skin" blacks keep the "dark skin" blacks as slaves. Oh, and it is a Muslim country.
Africa is a country?!? I didn't know that.
Please read more carefully. "place" not "country"
"Judaism, Christianity and Islam have all played a role in justifying human bondage over the centuries". ESPECIALLY Judaism. No breed of human has made money off the backs of the under privileged – and LOVED IT – more than the Jews. When China realized that they needed to bend a bit in the whole communism thing in the late 1980's, the tribe send their henchmen over to set up sweat shops in China. The smartest thing the Jews ever did was buy all the companies that write the history books that our kids use in the schools. "History" shines a much sweeter light on the heritage of people whom control the content. Isn't that ironic??
The writer has zero knowledge about the religion of God.I advise the writer to do some research before you write something like this and misguide other people.This article talks about three most righteous and pious prophets of God, Prophet Jesus,Prophet Moses and Prophet muhammed (peace be upon them all).All of them were sent by Almighty God to spread monothiesm and peace among the people,and they commanded the people to be the slaves of the ONE creator of the heavens and the earth alone and not be slaves of any of his creations.For truly in the
For truly we can never be really freed unless we enslave ourselves to the one God.Because otherwise we are either enslaved to people,money,fame,riches which are all weak things and will go away one day.God tells us thru the quran that if you seek the weak things(worldly things) you will also be weak,but if you seek God you will also find strengh and peace.In the Quran God says:"O people, an example is presented, so listen to it. Indeed, those you invoke besides God will never create [as much as] a fly, even if they gathered together for that purpose. And if the fly should steal away from them a [tiny] thing, they could not recover it from him. Weak are the pursuer and pursued."
Nope, don't think so. The three men you refer to were trying to create their own empires based on the fear man has of a fictional creator. The native Americans and other civilizations that had multiple gods for different things had it right, if you want to believe in higher beings. No one fighting to be the leader of a church or claiming one god is more powerful than the other.
Muhammed was a vile, grotesque, child molesting warmonger. The god he made up is the schizophrenic and vain invisible friend of a psychopath.
Jesus Christ can't hit a curve ball
Jesus built my hotrod
Jobu, you've obviously not read "Jesus Hates Zombies."
Thanks so much for the history lesson, except, the article ignores the Christian foundations of the abolition movement. In England, the abolition movement was in large part driven by William Wilberforce–who was an Evangelical; George Fox a Quaker minister preached against slavery, as did Charles Spurgeon and John Wesley. In the United States the most outspoken voices against slavery were coming from the Christian community–John Woolman, Samuel Adair, Charles Finney, , Harriet Beecher Stowe. These voices tend to be ignored by writers who wish to paint the church as falling lock step into a pro-slavery position.
It wasn't ignored, the movements you speak of happened thousands of years after the time period in the article.
It is ignored when the blame for slavery is laid at the feet of religion without any discussion of the roots of abolition.
Look at the comments below to see how well known Christian opposition to slavery is among the posters.
and yet, the fact still remains that the big dude.. the one kahuna.. and his son.. did not say "Slavery is wrong". Also, just because the forward thinkers started the abolition movement does not attribute their success to the church or religion..
its like saying since George Washington helped this country achieve independence and he was a christian, the christian church was responsible for America's freedon.. Doesn't work that way, dude.. you are just being apologist here.
Thanks so much for the history lesson, except, the article ignores the Crusades. In England, and sweeping much of the rest of the world, the movement was in large part driven by Pope Urban II–who was an Evangelical; a Quaker, and a duck walk into a bar
Sorry, Snow, but the leaders I mention above were arguing against slavery through their interpretation of Scripture. They were not following the spirit of their day, but were actively resisting it expressly because of their faith, not in spite of it.
Jesus didn't speak out about a lot of things: He didn't speak about pedophilia or infants being abandoned in the streets or human trafficking or alcoholism or racism or a thousand other evils. His mission was not about social justice, but about inward transformation. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself. All the rest will follow.
People that want to enslave will look for whatever justification that they can find.
Jesus' message was love, hope, salvation... As a Christian I know the words you are quoting of Jesus, but, you simply do not understand what you have read. Paul said he was a slave of Jesus. Yes, difficult to understand if you are using a worldy education to understand this. Paul was saying he loved Jesus. And Jesus didn't come to be a politician and to change the worldly lay of the land, no, He came to set the soul free! He even said in that same area that in Him you are free, even though a slave on earth. The world is broken and at his time there was slaves, period. He came for the soul. Not to start a riot. Dear writter, please pray and ask Jesus to lead you into the truth with you read the Bible. Ask to receive Him and only by His Spirit can you understand these things. God bless!
Ummm Chad, you are using a typical Christian response and making up what you want the words to MEAN not what they said. Come on, Jesus was a man of his time, he did NOT see the future, therefore, he spoke on slavery in terms that he understood. All of this, of course, is dependent upon whether one believes in an actual historical Jesus, which I do NOT.
Exactly. Thank you Chad.
FYI, there can only be one truth and one meaning to a sentence.. and it can not be interpreted any differently. The book was written 2000 yrs ago dude.. you can not personally change its contents or the logic behind the words just because you found some things not favorable in modern times..
But it does mean that the book is wrong and was NOT written by the god pot.. who would have easily written it to stay true over time (however/whoever "interprets" it).
It was the Christians who went into Africa making slaves of the people and saying they are better off because they converted them.
The gods of all organized religions, if true, would all be horribly unjust and evil deities to send billions of people to eternal suffering for choosing the wrong one or being born in the wrong place. Looking at organized religion objectively, they are myths from stone age societies that were trying to explain the world, and there is virtually no chance any one is truth.
Rationally speaking if there is a just god and an afterlife, you will be judged on how you lived your life. Rejecting reason and deluding yourself in blind faith does not help your case.
"you will be judged on how you lived your life. Rejecting reason and deluding yourself in blind faith does not help your case."
– This part is correct.
Islam did not creat slavery, on the contrary Islam introduced solutions: in Quran and Sunnah, Allah ordered who commited wrong deeds to release a slave , so that Allah forgives him, even for those who did not commit wrong deeds, they are rewarded if they release aslave for gaining a reward. Even when we fast ( do not eat for a limited time ) in Ramadan , and some may eat for certain causes as disease, one way that Allah forgives him, first suggestion , in Quran is to realease a slave, read about Islam from Islamic, not Zionist or Christian sources. Islam is the only religion from God that still intact as your scientists say
what are you doing having slaves in the first place?
where in the article it says that islam invented slavery? It just says that they're prophet did not spoke against it, he even had slaves.
Prayer is delusional.
"I am an agnostic insomniac dyslexic, who lays awake at night, wondering about the existence of DOG"
that's hilarious. I'm stealing this tonight.
Lol.. I love that!
Stalin I think said "religion is the opiate of the masses." Keeps the low lifes in check by fear of retribution from their deity and makes the dishonest leader a good guy if he believes the same as his people. Religion is also a means for people to rise to positions of authority, and create a mindless followership that will support them because they are part of the winning team that goes to heaven while all others are going to hell. Pretty childish and transparent when you think of it.
Yeah, teaching people and having them believe that they will one day stand before God in judgment for how they lived their lives is not nearly as effective as using terror to subdue one's own people like Stalin did. Good example..
Gonna invoke Stalin, huh? Don't be a mindless religious sheep! Be a good, caring, worthwhile atheist like Stalin!
As long as it keeps the dirt bags from becoming bigger dirt bags. But seriously, people will do good or do bad, regardless of their beliefs. To think otherwise is naive. I bet the Christians outnumber the atheists in prison by a huge margin.
You don't need church or religion to be a good person. That's the brainwashing garbage your church tells you so you keep coming back and putting money in the donation plate.
This is what Jesus said about slavery: John 13:34-35 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
Any scholar who states that Jesus did not condemn slavery is an ignorant. As you can read above, Jesus did condemn slavery.
Emperor Constantine is the first Christian Emperor in the Roman Empire. He abolished slavery as soon as he converted into Christianity.
Not everybody who calls themselves a Christian acts according to the teachings of Christ. That explains why along history some self-called Christians turned a blind eye on the teachings of Christ agains Slavery. A true Christian must follow Christ's teachings and that means condemning slavery, for that is what Jesus did.
So, by default, because he did not openly condone slavery, he was actually condemning it? He actually was credited with saying that if was OK to beat your slaves but only to the extent that they deserved to be beaten. Come on, don't try and rewrite the biblical nonsense.
FYI, there is only one truth, and it can not be interpreted any differently. The book was written 2000 yrs ago dude.. you can not personally change its contents or the logic behind the words just because you found some things not favorable in modern times..
But it does mean that the book is wrong and was NOT written by the god pot.. who would have easily written it to stay true over time (however it is "interpreted").
How does this statement condemn slavery??
Thank you Carlos. Well stated... In reply to "No not really" ... you clearly have no interest in hearing anything that doesn't jibe with your agenda. If you have a counter point, based on scripture or any other rational basis... please feel free to bring it into the discussion . Just saying... No... doesn't add anything, you know?
Why couldn't he simply say "slavery is wrong"? One would think a god worth believing in could do better than that.
@Casey, you are guilty of doing EXACTLY what you accuse @"No Not Really" of.. and in case you failed in your Logic 101 class, using the same book (scriptures) to confirm the truth of things written in itself is not a valid way..
if you have tough time understanding it, here is an example. if I say "Whatever I say is true" and then I say "Since whatever I say is true [cited above], I am Superman" doesn't really make me Superman now, does it? Try thinking about it
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.