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?
What is more important is the role Judaism and Christianity played in abolishing slavery. Slavery is embedded in the sacred texts and ahadith of Islam to this day -albeit no longer officially sanctioned. Were it not for the Judeo-Christian colonialists of the post Ottoman era, chances are that Islam would be still condoning and practicing slavery.
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.
Organized religion enslaves the mind.
And the writings of Darwin were used an excuse to euthanize and sterilize humans, to wage war, and to subdue entire races of people. This is NO way an indictment of Darwin or his theories but rather of the nature of people in general. We see what we want to see, when we want to see it. The writings are incidental to our purposes.
Yes, I agree, we use whatever tools our at our disposal to serve our ends, even if that means manipulating them into something they either were never meant to be or are culturally and morally anachronistic.
It is rather obvious that no master "God", super-hero, creator of the entire universe actually exists. If he/she did exist, why would a cultural-sensitive abomination such as slavery be tolerated and even condoned in the so-called "holy" books, believed by some to be written under the inspiration of said "God"?
Here something that is written, ' do not throw your pearls before swine.." Why even attempt to show them, goodness.
Here's a greeat response to the atheism argument.... http://theoatmeal.com/comics/atheism
Wake Up wrote on Thursday, March 29, 2012 at 6:14 pm, declaring, "A world with no religion would be the end of man. Even if evil is done in the name of religion (and it is), religion suppresses the true evil and selfish nature of the masses."
The masses you praytell? Suppressed by religion you say? The amassing of people today is sorta backed by many religious serenading wannabes. What about those singularists who steal people blinded by faith and even faithlessness? Today's timeline of worldly affairs is an exotic mixture of slave master wannabes with a pinch of key, yes keydom exponentials. One flew over the Coockoo's nest a bit too often!
RICK SANTORUM IS SATAN!!!
TAX ALL RELIGIONS!!!
We are ALL born agnostic!!!
went to church my whole childhood and never believed a word of it even when i was very young. events in history like this make me cringe and thankful every day i didn't get sucked into it.
One can be religious and not be availed to attend these man/woman churches created for the malcontents of false religious who need the aroma of falseness to satisfy their own unredeemable souless contritnesses. I am a God-fearing soul-filled believer in Godliness and I attend no built by people churches. I feel close to what Godliness wants me to assert to other folk. I do so love the lay of the land around my meeger lifestyle. Society's handiwork has given me an ample amount to live upon. I am not angry at society as I have once been. The puzzled pieces of this world's affairs are too much for me to put together. Leave to the world changers their worldly desires and one might find a happy corner from which to peer out.
The article seems to leave out the bondage and gulags of the athiest communist governments. While the history of the faith based religions contain some poor behavior ... that behavior is not just the sole action of faith based religions. History has plenty of examples of non-faith / anti-faith based leaders behaving poorly also.
But it's DOGMA that's the problem. Stalin may not have been a theist (though he was in seminary earlier in life), but he did have a religion – that of the State with himself as its God. He didn't enslave and murder in the name of 'lack of belief in deities', but in the name of the State and his own paranoia.
TAX ALL RELIGIONS! SOLVE THE DEFICIT IN LESS THAN ONE YEAR!
What gets me is you always hear religious people praying for their own selfish wants. Please let me win the lottery, please let me win this game, please give me this, grant me that. It makes me sick!!! What is god, your own personal genie in a bottle? Is that why people go to church? To get something back? Selfish, self-righteous, two-faced jerks that use religion to further their own personal gain. They're the ones going to hell, if you believe in it. I personally don't. Thanks for reading my rant.
Funny how they only talk about the Abrahamic faiths.
Lets not forget about the myriads of heathen and pagan faiths throughout history that justified slavery, war, and brutality.
You mean the pagan faiths the Abrahamic religions crushed under their boot with Crusades and Holy Wars?
agree!! what about employer and employee... modern day slavery???
"Funny how they only talk about the Abrahamic faiths.
Lets not forget about the myriads of heathen and pagan faiths throughout history that justified slavery, war, and brutality."
When small, a set of beliefs is called a CULT, when a set of thoughts is accepted by a majority of people who have no mind of their own, they can call it a religion!
TAX ALL RELIGIONS!!!!!
In the history of humans there was always a master(mostly the rich) and a slave(mostly the poor) since all cannot be masters or slaves at the same time. If you are a rich man then you have people working for you. in the sermon of Jesus he admonish everyone to be good in all their functions of life. if you are a master how can you be good? by giving what is due to your employees or slaves, if you are a slaves you can be good by obeying your masters. This is plain and simple obedience to someone above you then he introduce God as the master of all the masters whom all be a masters or slaves have to obey. Jesus always admonished the rich who were always the masters to share to the poor(slaves) what they have and then they can have a great reward in heaven. It is just that we can not eradicate rich and poor hence master and slave has to exist it's a plain and simple truth. If you have to follow someone above you then you are like a slave therefore all employees are in these category. John Blake himself is slave to his boss, that is reality though he may not like the term but that is the truth that if someone pays you for a job then he is your master and you are the slave.
We are always slaves of someone or something, our boss at work, our bank, lifestyle, health, etc...
But we can always make the best of it. If we would see each other as brothers and sisters we would
Not fear to be someone's slave because we respect one an other. That was the message of new testament but churches never got this
I wanted some figs even though they weren't in season, so I killed the totally innocent fig tree.
Why? Because I am a deranged idiot.
Hey Jesus, that wasn't all the idiotic things you did, right?
Sounds like you have problems (the guy behind the handle)
Stand back, this guy didn't come to bring peace but a sword.
I heard god hates figs.
Hey jesus, its nice and easy to take items out of context and make them look silly especially when you don't understand what the fig tree means and symbolic connection to the Nation of Israel. Go eat some tacos and leave thinking to those who believe in using their brains.
How surprising CNN.
In the beginning man created god in his own imagination
this article is stupid!!! Moses Freed the slaves!! Gees get a life ! Maybe read and stop hating
Look at this, an anti-religion article on CNN!
I can't believe it!!
To beleive you must have faith;-)
Are you mad because they give articles on both sides of the spectrum? Heaven forbid that anyone ever write an article that is against religion and call it news.
John Blake another hater from CNN ! Media an example of religious discrimination! Now people that believe in love are slave owners!
Jesus said alot of complex things that are Spiritually understood, through prayer. For instance, paraphrased, "You must hate your family and follow Me" or "An eye for an eye" or "If you don't eat of my flesh or drink of my blood you are not with me.." or ... Yet He also said He loves you! Jesus didn't change society he came to change your soul! To set you free! These things are Spiritually understood. So I challenge the non-believers! Just try this! Stop trying to use worldly logic for a moment, realize you don't know or understand many things. Humble yourself. Pray to Jesus and ask Him to reveal the truth to you. Do this regularly, hungering for truth. You will find that you start to understand, or have a perspective on things you didn't use to have. Slowly you will come to know Jesus is the way and the truth and the life. Read the bible (starting in new teastament) and you will find the same thing. What have you ever gained by doing nothing? You must act as I have suggested inorder to gain. What profit is it to me to lie to you? I don't even know you... Just do this and you will see that you will learn something new! You will be set free from the things that inslave you today... You will see and realize you were blind... God Bless!
"Jesus said alot of complex things that are Spiritually understood, through prayer"
It's been proven to be a waste of time.
An article in the Journal of Pediatrics examined the deaths of 172 children from families who relied upon faith healing from 1975 to 1995. They concluded that four out of five ill children, who died under the care of faith healers or being left to prayer only, would most likely have survived if they had received medical care.
The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs
Jesus did not come necessarily to heal the flesh. He came to heal the spirit. Actually when one accepts Jesus they die with Him in flesh and live unto Him in Spirit. You must pray to understand these things. Why are you afraid of prayer? Why is it so difficult to humble yourself and seek Him? If you don't find Him, okay, at least you can say you have tried. But be honest and really try, as a half attempt is not sufficient. It must be like you are running a race to win!
Chad – one clarification: when jesus said, "an eye for an eye" he was referring to the passage in the old testament about seeking revenge. But, he then went on to say that he represents the new covenant where instead of seeking vengence, you should turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, etc.
Please allow me to paraphrase Chad. DOH, DOH, DOH, DOH!!!
Correct. The eye for an eye was old teastemant. Just saying that Jesus said alot of extremely complex things. If you view His words from a worldly perspective you simply cannot understand them. For instance, you will never understand the difference between how Europe functions and how the US functions until you actually go there! If one man looks through a telescope and another doesn't, do they not see different things? Humble, humble, prayer is your telescope to understand very complex things and in the end the complex things boild down into one very powerful truth: Jesus and the cross.
Fact is, most non-believers were at one time believers (many were Christian). We have done your drill for many years (read the Bible, prayed ardently, humbled ourselves, broadcasted the propaganda, felt the euphoria and, blah-de-blabbity-blah).
We did not just fall off of the turnip truck.
There is no verified evidence for supernatural beings.
Mr "You don't get it," have you experinced the presense of the Holy Spirit? It is possible to be religious but never receive the Spirit. I say this from experience, again why lie? I feel His presence. The bible says we believe not just in word but in power. If you did not receive the Spirit this would cause you to fall away, lose interest. I know I would. I now know for certain God/Jesus exists and it's not that I can show you, it's His power I feel. It's like I know I love my wife but you can't possible understand this. You can see what I do (i.e. religion) but you can't see how I feel. When your heart is right then the Spirit comes in! So keep at it!
"It is possible to be religious but never receive the Spirit. I say this from experience, again why lie? I feel His presence. "
No, it's just a chemical reaction in your brain, nothing more. I use to be one of those fundamentalist who thought they were touched by the holy spirit, but it's really just yourself doing it. There is no god, no holy spirit, it's all about your brain.
I thought I "felt the spirit". Oh, I remember the emotional high, thinking that I was really communing with the divine... the rapid heartbeat, the jiggly stomach, the euphoria. Nearly 50 years of it, chad, until I finally realized that it was self-induced emotional responses. There is no-one out/up/over/under there. You are talking to yourself.
Mr "LOL," it's not at all in the brain. It's throughout the heart and it's like oil. There is great heat and you feel it even in your face. When worshipping it's very powerful. There is no greater peace. Jesus said, in short, blessed are the broken for it's only through this humility that you can come to this point. You must be as a child, humble. Your words are not humble, have you tried to be humble?
Mr "you don't get it" you could have convinced me, but you don't describe the Spirit. It's not at all like what you describe. It's like oil. Peace. Stillness. Clarity. Heat. Light. Piercing. You feel transparant at times. You didn't humble yourself. Or if you did you may have loved the world more? You must turn from the world, you see!
Come on folks...you can't take Chad seriously; he authored the following nonsense on this very blog –
"I dismiss all other gods other than the God of Abraham because the God of Abraham has told me that they aren't real."
"Every book that purports to accurately record history needs to be examined critically for internal consistency and for its accuracy in detail. The bible succeeds on all accounts."
"The Genesis account stands alone amongst all creation stories of the time, a fact universally acknowledged...We are only know [sic] beginning to scientifically discover how accurate it is indeed."
'As for supernatural vs natural processes, I also believe that the origin of life, and the development of more and more complex life forms on earth in the stages reflected in the fossil record, is the direct result of supernatural intervention (it's called "punctuated equilibrium" )'
There's also a big issue of how difficult it is to revolutionize or revise the entrenched societal structure in one day. What would've happened if all religions told slaves to rise up against masters, masters to free their slaves immediately? I would think that the core message of the respective religions would've been lost in not just a debate but a massacre from the rulers.
*** Instead, the religious leaders were wise in attacking the subtle but more powerful human nature of being charitable and respectful to ALL. This was the driving force that eventually ended slavery and continues to improve society today! There is a reason why "milk before meat." It's not that God has changed, but because we humans aren't humble enough to change to the better people we can become at once. It takes time and patience, and this is God's message for us, and eventually we can improve ourselves and our societies. This is the heart of religion. I don't think it's wise to simplistically condemn religion because they didn't change everything we think they should've by today's standards.
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.