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?
If you go back 1,000's of year it should be obvious that society, law, cultural and the whole world was a very different place. What was legal or acceptable 1,000 years ago is not now. To judge anything in the past based solely on today's standards, culture and laws is Monday quarterbacking taken to the ultimate level.
God's laws are absolute and unchanging. How can they change? Are you saying God had some really bad ideas back then like slavery, but he's grown wiser since then? Nonsense! God is perfect and unchanging.
We are just a "spectator sport" for God. He puts you here as an independent being and watches just how you handle life's problems and rewards. If you do a good job he calls you back up and re-issues you in another form. If you do a bad job, he makes you return as a Republican.
Do you never tire of this boring nonsense.
Money is the true slave master.
The writer here either hasnt read the Bible or has not full understanding. Matthew 20:27- Jesus said "and whoever wants to be first must be your slave- v28- just as the Son of man did not come to be served, but to serve...
John 8:34- Jesus replied, "I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin".
Man is so focused on the small % of the abuse of having servants/slaves that he fails to see that we are all Slaves to what seperates us from God, Sin. We take care of that problem and the abuse of servants/slaves will take care of itself.
Matthew speaks more about where our focus should be, on others 1st, before ourselves. But he was speaking to believers so if you aren't a believer then you probably won't understand this nor will you accept hearing this.
Slavery as it became in some parts of the world, even the Deep South had its share of abuses but there are/were many cases where slaves were more indentured/hired servants and they were taken care of very well. It's always the Bad apples that spoil it and it's not only the white man. In Africa there are blacks that own other black slaves and there is abuse there to be certain. I don't think anyone has ever condoned abuses.
This author certainly needs to look at history before making some comments. The Romans had constant large scale slave revolts. Just because Hollywood hasn't made a movie about all of them doesn't mean they didn't happen. Even the Spartacus revolt was considered the third in a series of 'wars' that resulted from slaves rising against their masters. Rome lost control of Sicily as a result of the first one, which was actually much larger than Spartacus' rebellion.
I think we all know that the bible did not fall from the sky. It was written by man and is therefore not perfect. Clearly there are things in the bible that are not consistent with the teachings of Jesus and people need to use the common sense they were given and disregard those passeges which are obviously are hurtful and ignorant.
So you cherry pick your scripture; how uncommon.
Horus, Muslims don't cherry pick, they take every word of the Koran as perfect, everlasting, and directly from God. Is that any better?
This country has been headed downhill ever since the Civil War.
hahhahahaha dude your name says it all..Slave Master-baiter JIM
Now crawl back to the cave you crawled out of.
Long live the Union and the United States of America!
"... and as every sect believes its own form the true one, every one perhaps hoped for his own... they believe that any portion of power confided to me, will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly; for I have sworn upon the altar of god, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man". – Thomas Jefferson, 1800.
This is a good lesson for people who choose to take every word of the Torah, Old Testament, or Koran as literal truth to be emulated in modern life. John Brown, the famous abolitionist whose terrorism sparked the American Civil War and free the slaves, was a very, very pious Christian (a Puritan actually), but in his view the Bible ordered him to free slaves, by violence if necessary. He also started and took part in farming collectives emphasizing peaceful coexistence with American Indian neighbors. MLK used the Bible as justification to demand equal rights for all people, including the people of Vietnam. It cannot seriously be argued that either of these men were not pious Christians, and yet they choose, wisely in my view, to ignore the ugly parts of the Bible.
New Testament is no better, because it even mentions in Romans 13 that resisting authority condemns you as a person. According to the text it is assuming that the authorities are automatically justly right.
"...for the authorities are ministers of God, devoting themselves to this very thing"
This would make our authorities righteous, and not capable of doing wrong. Now would you follow that piece scripture to the letter? This is the main reason the Dark Ages continued for so long, the abuse of holy scripture despite the inhumane consequences.
To take one part of the bible into consideration without taking into consideration the other parts is outright laziness.
Sorry I meant Torah, New Testament, or Korean. It was actually the Old Testament that motivated John Brown to overthrow slavery. New Testament would be MLK.
Many moral outrages against humanity have been justified by sacred texts, including the Bible. History reeks with examples (slavery, pogroms, subjugation of women, condemnation of "witches", crusades. etc.). The sooner humankind can extract the genuine wisdom from its religions and throw away the garbage, the better.
That's never going to happen, because what is garbage changes through time. The Koran was actually a bit of women's lib back in its day. It RESTRICTED men to four wives and banned female infanticide, which were huge problems back then. Now that the natural number of wives is one, it is seen as misogynistic by ALLOWING men to have four wives. And while female infanticide is not a problem in Muslim countries, female genital mutilation is now practiced.
I can't help but think of Joseph and how he was thrown in the pit and all by the hands of God... I can't help but remind myself of a race of people who were brought to America against their own will... and now live here in America. Perhaps had their ancestors not been brought over as slaves alot of their lives might be much worse. We must always look at the end of the story.... sometimes hard to see while were in the middle.
So you believe in regard to slavery that the end justified the means because they are, in your opinion better off now?
better off... really... slavery has wrecked our people and has encased us in poverty for hundreds of years.. how are we better?
You have no right to claim that their lives are better because their ancestors were enslaved. How dare you! No amount of good can justify the evils of slavery, and it's not surprising that a Christian like you doesn't understand this, because if you did, you probably wouldn't be a Christian.
JAJA That is old! leave the old things to the old folks! the new SLAVERY Is trying to find a job and corporate idiots want your soul and sweet for a misery that cant even pay for rent in NYC. The real slaves are people like Bloomberg that don't care about the poor just wants nice things for his city and eradicate the low income people! man!!! I'm looking for a job and all I get offered is junk and job description that are a mile long! SLAVERY has evolution-ed into a new type and legal way! This is ridiculous!!!
The end justifies the means. You go right on thinking that. Just think, if your ancestors were enslaved, perhaps you would have been brought up differently, thus capable of rational thought.
John Blake is ALL WRONG on this. Islam, like all Abrahamic faiths have emancipated slaves. The Prophet Muhammad s was the first to emancipate slaves, a slave by the name of Bilal, setting the example for the people of his time.
The morality of God as expressed in the Bible is absolute! There is no changing God's eternal morality! Those laws are universal, forever, prefect and unchangable! God's morality does not change with time! God is NOT a moral relativist!
Moral relativism is the opinion of modern sinners!
Thou shalt not kill is forever and absolute! Though shalt not steal is eternally true! Never wear a blend of wool and linen is God's perfect truth! If someone in your family suggests that you worship another God, kill that person, for God said so! If you want to sell your daughter into slavery, then follow the proper protocols in Exodus and it is okay! God's law, unchanging, eternal! Jesus said those laws are to be obeyed!
Fricking moral relativists! Thinking you can change God's laws because they seem inhuman. You are all going to burn!
Ahmen my wise brother. We must make burnt offerings at the temple....
I agree. You make a good case for abolishing religion altogether.
And all those who eat bacon shall burn for all eternity
It works both ways. Tell us, CNN, how has slavery promoted religion...?
Prayer changes things .
And so does getting an education and learning a healthy habit of asking questions, reasoning, and applying a dose of skepticism to your world. I went to Catholic grade schools and a Christian High School. The thing they taught most about in Bible class above religion was CONTROL. I am not atheist, but I believe in an individual's right to find their own beliefs and methods of worship, if any.
One of the biggest flaws of organized religion is the "Do this or else" control model. And I don't like it. Not one bit.
Really? I beg to differ. Prayer changes absolutely nothing. If it did, religious people would have no need to go to hospitals and be treated by people who worked their butts off to get graduate degrees. There would also be a noticeable difference in results between people who pray and those who don't. People in poverty, many of whom pray quite fervently, would be living better lives. But they don't, because at the end of the day, prayer changes nothing. Prayer is simply an excuse to do nothing and hope for the best.
And stupidity and mysticism is?
The only religion that tolerates slavery in modern times is Islam. Trying to equalize them by look back historically is pointless and counterproductive. Islam needs major reform and everyone knows.
only because people are profiting from it... it is not the fault of religion... but the fault of manipulative self appointed prophets that is only thinking about profit and power... all religions have advocated peace.. but people have twisted it...
So the Civil War is "ancient time" according to your view of world history?
Islam was the first religon that provided rights & respect to the slaves, an example was Bilal who was given a higher leval in the community to ask people to come for prayer (which a number of free people wanted to do).
Freeing slaves was considered a great act, with rewards from Allah (God).
Chronological Snobbery is term coined by the late Oxford Professor, C.S. Lewis, to describe the arrogance of judging Ancient Man by the standards of Modern Man. Bankruptcy (and credit reports) did not exist in the ancient world, (except in the Jewish culture known as the "Year of Jubilee" in which all debts were forgiven on every 7th year.) For the rest of the world, slavery was the only way to repay debt if one did not have the assets to do so. It was also considered more humane to enslave a defeated enemy combatant than to simply kill them. (Releasing them would have been foolish, and ancient prison systems were not large enough to contain entire captured enemy armies.) With the advent of bankruptcy laws, property liens, the modern credit system, and large-scale prisons, slavery has long been out-dated as a vehicle of debt-repayment or enemy troop treatment. To judge an ancient culture by our standards today is purely out of ignorance. By the way, doesn't our country (USA) still permit Capital Punishment, a practice outlawed in the E.U. as inhumane?
The United States is the biggest slave nation in the world, today there are thousands of "indentured " slaves working in sweat shops and etc. These people have no rights and most are treated a lot worse than inmates. These indentured modern slaves have two choices work or die, some are even locked up in the building they work in. Society makes me laugh, slavery is alive and thriving more than ever and its here to stay.
Slavery is not sanctioned in the US, but it is hard to fully stamp out, especially when the enslaved feel too weak to resist.
are you trying to sound stupid?
When you use subjective material as your authority, you can use it to justify...just about anything that pops in to your head. Which many a person has ( crusades...inquisition...slavery...child molestation... ). And you know what? Because your material is subjective, those interpretations are just as valid as your own, "good" and "evil" not withstanding.
You want a fair and just society, where people are free to succeed or fail based on their own merits, you need an objective authority as your base. And indeed, every successful society in the history of the world has practiced this, whether they realize it or not ( and even failed example has practice the former ).
I wonder who here can identify what objective authority we here in the USA have used as our base?
And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.” And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:16-21 ESV)
Except that Nazareth didn't exist during the time your god-man lived....oops....
Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. (James 3:13-18 ESV)
So you ignore historical fact and respond with more words written by men over 2000 years ago.....hmmm....go figure.
So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:1-11 ESV)
In 2009 Israeli archaeologist Yardenna Alexandre excavated archaeological remains in Nazareth that might date to the time of Jesus in the early Roman period. Alexandre told reporters, "The discovery is of the utmost importance since it reveals for the very first time a house from the Jewish village of Nazareth." – http://www.israel21c.org/briefs/house-from-jesus-time-excavated
Patrick = another one who proclaims himself (and his favorite book) to be wise!
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.