How religion has been used to promote slavery
Moses led the Israelites out of slavery, but he and other religious giants accepted slavery for others, scholars say.
March 29th, 2012
09:19 AM ET

How religion has been used to promote slavery

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?

- CNN Writer

Filed under: Africa • Belief • Bible • Books • Christianity • Church and state • Egypt • History • Islam • Islamic law • Islamic law • Israel • Jesus • Moses • Muslim • Uncategorized

soundoff (3,207 Responses)
  1. Tracey

    I am a follower of Jesus, or you could say Yeshua. Scholars agree 2 Peter was not written by Peter....where Peter has given credit to Paul for his "wisdom". Do the research and decide for yourself. It is the Great Commission that I believe in. Matthew 28:16-20. Anyway, I am doing my best to be wheat and not a tare. He who has ears, let him hear.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
  2. U so crazy

    Religion is like a hammer that can be used to build great things or to bash little children's skulls in. Only a fool thinks a hammer is evil or good. So too with religion.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • Al

      Hammers don't compel people toward ignorance. Religion does.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
    • U so crazy

      Al, some do. Some encourage moral behavior, charity and service for the poor. Some encourage the slaughter of entire cultures. Again, only a fool generalizes.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
  3. blah9999

    It's funny that CNN didn't mention that Mohammad had his own 12 year old s3x slave. I guess that would be too "offensive"

    March 29, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • JT

      They failed to mention the tens of thousands of children raped by your priests too.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
  4. talkic

    People tend to justify lots of actions in the name of religion. Shame.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
  5. Matt

    The Bible does not condone or support slavery. People have used it's passages to support slavery for their own gain. The Bible speaks of slavery as a fact of life within the culture it was written.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
    • travelinpants


      Well said!!!

      March 29, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
    • sam

      So when a culture changes, does the bible change, too?

      March 29, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
    • Al

      BS. The bible tells you who you may own as a slave and "god" also tells you how to treat them in the bible. He did not say, "Don't own slaves but since you do, let's mention them here." He said, "Own them, but make sure they are not from a neighbor country and if you beat them, make sure it's for good reason."

      March 29, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
    • PerryW

      Point to where that is in the New Testament. Not there.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
    • seyedibar

      I can think of many instances in which the Bible supports slavery, even calling it righteous at times.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
  6. dubrats

    these days we are ALL slaves to our gov't....some things never change....sadly.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  7. rad666

    In most current religions, women are still slaves.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • PantyRaid

      That's rad.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
    • outraged

      In many cultures regardless of religion woman are treated as slaves, nothing to do with religion.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
    • PerryW

      Hmmm..... that is definitely a false statement. But you knew that already.
      You are just a shock jock.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
  8. ssgduke53

    Islam is the only religion that still practicing SLAVERY!

    March 29, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
    • Al

      But, they are not the only one STILL practicing ignorance and spreading derision.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
    • whatever !

      EXCUSE ME !! Is that why most of all slavery we now see is in China.. Buddhist. Mid Africa-Christian. Mexico-Catholic and even right here in America-Christian. Quit educating yourself by watching FOXNEWS and get a real education.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
  9. Ruderalis

    I don't say this often, nice article CNN.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
    • Scott


      March 29, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
    • sam

      Scott's panties may be chafing him today.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
  10. banlin

    Religion is always use as an excuse to commit evil. Man are too cunning to own up to their own responsibility so they re-direct all their evil deeds, intention and actions to God.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
    • Al

      I suppose that depends. If you believe in "god" and your chosen sky wizard is the "god" of the bible, the bible does compel its followers to do some rather gross things – even if today's followers don't know what it says and/or chose to not practice what their mythology preaches.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
    • Heinz Doofenshmirtz

      That is because very few people realized that God and religion are two completely seperate things. Religion is all about controlling people in the name of God as written by humans. God is something else entirely.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
    • booboo

      man needs no excuse to commit evil

      March 29, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
    • Heinz Doofenshmirtz

      @Booboo..."Some" men need no excuse to do evil. Others do it in the name of God (the false side of God called religion)

      March 29, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
  11. Scot

    If it was up to the Southern Evangilicals they would have a slave in everyhome and call it welfare !!!!

    March 29, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
    • Bill, Bloomington Il

      now it is called Welfare and the recipients are slaves of the government.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • NaturallBornCitizen

      They already think a living wage is welfare.

      March 29, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
  12. Goliath

    Please post more articles identifying how evil the religions of the world are. I want them all banished. I can't wait till the apes evolve and we don't have to think for ourselves anymore.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
    • booboo

      typical. you have no idea what religion is. if you have a problem with the concept of god thats one thing, but religion is manmade and even if the idea of god was banished, religion would flourish. its natural and built in for man to need to worship. man would worship other men if the idea of god was gone. even atheism is becoming its own religion, with their funding of public displays of their beliefs, and agressive measures to force it down peoples throats (flying banenrs, renting billboards, advertising on buses, etc)

      March 29, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
    • hardcase59

      Ur so funny! LOL!!

      March 29, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
    • saopaco

      Atheism is not a religion. Atheism is to religion what bald is to hair color.

      If you see billboards, it is not promoting an oxymoronic atheist church, it is to spread awareness that people do not have to stay in a religion that they may not believe in.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
  13. Steve

    Atheist libertarians may have some claim to moral superiority over the religious, but liberals have more in common with true believers than they care to admit.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
  14. Socrates

    Religion is the biggest BS in the history of man kind. It is just a tool to control people, most of them low IQ, average Joe. How can you believe and even died for something you have never seen or talk or...just nothing. It is a woman, a man or what. This so called God doesn't make any sense at all. Stop the nonsense people and face reality, leave the fantasy for the children, you are an adult. Bye, I am going to church now.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
    • Scot

      Amen Brother !

      March 29, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • Scott


      March 29, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
    • outraged

      Completely rediculous and bigotted response, Your IQ is showing and we must look very far down to see it.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
    • Aristotle

      Now I know how the response on this will be however, there are many people who will die in the name of love..nothing they've ever seen physically, just something of emotional value toward others. Low IQ...even intelligent people have the capability and some do believe in God, or some type of agnostism. You seem bitter...what appears to be the problem? Bad day?

      March 29, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
    • booboo

      you bought into an idea of what god is, that was created and sold by men. now you are mocking and hating the idea that man created. this has nothing to do with god and you are robbing yourself. religion? pelase.. even if we squashed the idea of god we would still be religious, praying to other men or idols.. in 4000 years we might even be praying to technology.. dont be naive and blame religion on god..

      March 29, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
  15. Reality

    Passages from Paul's epistles which resulted in a form of slavery for today's women:

    "8 I will therefore that men pray every where, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting.
    9 In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array;
    10 But (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works.
    11 Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection.
    12 But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.
    13 For Adam was first formed, then Eve.
    14 And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.
    15 Notwithstanding she shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety.
    ( Timothy 2:8-15 KJV)"

    “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.” (1 Corinthians 14:34-35)"

    "He (Paul) feared the turn-on of women's voices as much as the sight of their hair and skin..... At one point he even suggests that the sight of female hair might distract any angels/ "pretty wingie talking fictional thingies" in church attendance (1 Cor. 11:10). (from Professor Chilton's book Rabbi Paul).

    Simply add Paul's thinking about women to the list of flaws in the foundations of Catholicism/Christianity.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
    • Mike from CT

      Passage from Peter warning all about the people who don't take the time to understand what Paul was getting at:

      15 And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, 16 as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. 17 You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability. 18 But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  16. outraged

    This journalist must have used the Coles notes on these religious texts for this article as it is far from accurate and is misleading in many ways,

    March 29, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
    • Jean Sartre, Milwaukee, WI

      Some religious fruit-loops just can't handle the truth... MAN created GOD...

      March 29, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
    • Captain Obvious

      I take it you're outraged by it.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
  17. ry

    oh cnn, you're funny....
    failed to mention that is was ferocious men of GOD that fought, sometimes to the death, in America's abolition movement to outlaw slavery...
    kind of important to mention don't you think? but... less the spin, less the story right?


    March 29, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
    • Scott

      John Blake, bigot.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
    • xebit12

      Is the heat from the sun any less real or non existent if I point your attention to the iceberg floating by in the ocean???

      March 29, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
  18. svann

    Jesus also said you should pay your taxes. But that doesnt mean he was supporting taxation.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
    • saopaco

      uh yeah...he was. Render unto Caesar and all that.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
  19. Mike from CT

    Yeah today I am spamming because the pages go by quick..

    Reality must be wetting himself today as Crossan was the person they went to on the subject

    For a more complete view I would offer


    or the audio


    March 29, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
  20. /sigh

    religion has been the cause of more attrocities around the world than any wars. Even hitler is a saint compared to what religions have, are and will do.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
    • Mike from CT

      Really? What if you figure out what type of world views or religious views were behind the majority of murders in the 19th and 20th centuries. Hint: you already mentioned one of them, now look to communism

      March 29, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
    • svann

      Far more people have been killed in secular wars than religious wars.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
    • outraged

      A popular statement but not factual.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
    • Jean Sartre, Milwaukee, WI

      No one could have said it better...

      March 29, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
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About this blog

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.