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. Bob

    I like turtles =3

    March 29, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
  2. Conrad Shull

    Religion has little or nothing to do with the practice of slavery. It has existed in virtually every pre-modern culture that has ever existed. It's like saying religion has been used to justify breathing to stay alive.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
    • Jimmy

      You are missing the point Conrad. According to the religious, the Bible is the absolute word of god, and it is the source of all morality.
      Therefore, according to god, slavery is just fine.
      If you do not believe this to be true, then you are in conflict with the word of god.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
    • WMoonFox

      Except for being completely and utterly wrong in every way, sure.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • Faith-Isn't-A-Preacher

      And all this time so many believed that God was in favor of freeing us from the bondage of Sin / or lack of civility.
      So, you are saying that Moses was wrong to gain the freedom of the Israelites?
      Quite frankly, too often slavery begins when a group of people looks to others to provide for their needs. Which is what happened for Israel. Then the parties developed an unequal status, where the Master / Slave relationship gets established, abuse of power over the other is seemingly inevitable. Much like what is happening with our relationship to Uncle Sam and his growing Plantation.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • Faith-Isn't-A-Preacher

      Jimmy – Could you provide some examples of your claim?

      March 29, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
  3. come on man

    My master is Salli Mae............lol

    March 29, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
  4. Faith-Isn't-A-Preacher

    How is it that societies that are dominated by a particular religion end up getting played, hijacked, and used by those that control it for their own gain?
    Then so many are quick to claim that the religion is at fault because it became perverted by the non-believers or opportunistic that sanctioned the atrocities?
    It's kind of like so many people looking to Obama for their ideological and social guidance. All doomed to failure or molestation after power is given to one that is perceived to be benevolent then is succeeded by or flips to use the power for nefarious objectives.
    There is no reason for me to trust an Atheist any more than one who claims Divine authority.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
  5. CaesarMcNallus

    Just another example of the hypocricy inherit with religion.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
    • Faith-Isn't-A-Preacher

      Religion is nothing more than an Social Doctrine that has a following. Whether it be centered upon a Deity or Ideology.
      Having a conviction in anything to the point of loyal adherence and mortal conviction is a religion.
      There is even a religion where people find security in a denial of the validity of other people's adherence and mortal conviction.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
  6. Kevin

    Way to keep hate alive CNN. You guys are the worst. Especially with your shameless coverage of T. Martin. CNN needs to tone down its agenda pushing rhetoric.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
    • dennis

      Don't rush to judment so fast. Perhaps "hate" isn't the problem, perhaps hating innocent people so that corrupt religions get a free pass for all their crimes against humanity, such as slavery and molesting your children, just for example, is the problem. Perhaps rising atheism will replace religion and then we can be done with all the crazies, sterilize them, lock them away and wait for their moral cowardice genes to die off. Do you think religious people are the only ones who can play at this game?

      March 29, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
    • mark3r

      I was just about to write this, you're so right. They just keep fueling the ignorant with this trash.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
  7. Jayne


    March 29, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
    • Lester

      I couldn't agree more!! Finally, someone with commom sense!!

      March 29, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
    • In English Please


      March 29, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
  8. Ekusa

    I think that all the people whining about this being unfair are all religious.

    Thanks for the honesty CNN,

    March 29, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
  9. boocat

    Even our founding fathers who came here for "freedom" owned slaves.....they were just as hypocritical.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      Afull third of the first congress owned slaves, despite the whole all men are created equal...liberty...etc etc

      March 29, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
  10. zodiac

    A religion cannot and could not justify slavery, It is an abstract idea. It can't do anything. Now leaders & politicians can and do all the time.. This also goes for wars. No one ever died because of a religion they died because week minded people follow megalomaniacs. A perfect example is Obamazombies. they are no different then the followers that drank he juice.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • boocat

      Spoken like a true Fox "News" zombie....

      March 29, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      "No one ever died because of a religion "

      I think a couple of thousand years of history disagrees with you.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • Ideas = harmless?

      So just because an idea cannot "do anything" it is hamless? Just as an Islamic clergy issuing a fatwa to kill Jews and other infidels is harmless? Actions are motivated by ideas. Ideas that call for the destruction of another human being, subjugate them, or discriminate against them are dangerous.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • zodiac

      You just proved my idea Islamic clergy issuing a fatwa to kill the person issued it.. not the religion

      March 29, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
  11. dennis

    I once heard there was a Christian who was against slavery back when it was the law. Yeah, he was pretty lonely, none of the other Christians would play with him.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
  12. Leucadia Bob


    March 29, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
  13. Glades2

    The Bible makes it clear that we are only owned by God Himself, and that no man can claim ownership of another...

    March 29, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • Jimmy

      Try reading it again. The bible makes it very clear that God has no problem with slavery.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
    • AndriconBoy

      No. You're really, really, really wrong. the bible shows several examples where one man has claimed ownership of another. If you disagree, just sak the Jews, for starters.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
    • dennis

      The bible doesn't have any integrity, it justifies slavery and then it says life has value. Pointing out that the bible can't make up its mind on the major moral issues isn't exactly a smart thing to do if you're Christian...

      March 29, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
    • Snap

      "The bible" and "makes clear" should never ever be used in the same sentence.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • Devolka

      Wow, really? Cause that's actually not waht the Bible says.

      Exodus 21:20-21 "And if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall be surely punished. Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two, he shall not be punished: for he is his money."

      Exodus 21:1-4 "If thou buy an Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve: and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing. If he came in by himself, he shall go out by himself: if he were married, then his wife shall go out with him. If his master have given him a wife, and she have born him sons or daughters; the wife and her children shall be her master's, and he shall go out by himself."

      Exodus 21:16 "And he that stealeth a man, and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death."

      There are TONS more. Not only does the Bibke condone slavery it lays out the rules.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
    • Dingobah

      Which Bible ... which testament ... which version? There is no single God given bible that was not corrupted by the Church. Organized religion is a blot on human evolution and progression

      March 29, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
  14. BobInIrvine

    OK, religious scholars, please explain this, if the Bible is God's word, "... biblical scholars, [say] 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."

    The inference is that God was afraid of antagonizing Rome. I mean, the words of God can't be written by men, right?

    Logic check.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • lee

      Anyone studying the bible – obviously including scholors understand that the bible in itself "contains" the word of God. As well as many recordings of history, stories and examples God provided through Man's ability to write in order to provide us with an instruction manual for life. You are correct, logic is required, in fact God asked us to use it when reading it. The "word of God" is very clear when its written in context withing the bible's teachings.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
    • Snap

      If the bible is so clear as you proclaim, why then are there so many denominations with completely different interpretations of the very same text? If it was so clear as you like to say without any thought to those words, then we would all get the same message from it.

      March 29, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
  15. Leucadia Bob

    Oh ya don't say? Religion is stupid. Check out my video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sIu5aPIIzzM

    March 29, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
  16. Jimmy

    The belief that a cosmic Jewish zombie, who is his own father, can make you live forever if you eat his flesh, drink his blood, and telepathically tell him that you accept him as your Master, so that he can remove an evil from your soul which was put there thousands of years ago because a woman made from a rib was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree. What's the problem?

    March 29, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
    • Snap

      Are you prepared for the return of the zombie Christ?

      March 29, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
    • George

      Tell me Jimmy, what do you belive in? You seem like an educated person with strong opinions. Let's see if there is any depth to your rantings.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
    • Jayne

      My words exactly..... I don't get how people fall for all this crap?!?!

      March 29, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
    • Jimmy

      @snap Yup, I've got my shotgun and chainsaw ready!

      March 29, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
    • Gezellig

      That's nothing. Study modern physics and you will see some really crazy stuff.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
    • Jimmy

      @george Appreciate the invitation to share, however, this obviously is not a format conducive to in depth debate. To sum it up though, I believe in being a good person for the sake of all humanity. Not for promise of reward or fear of punishment, but because it is a good way to live.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • Philbert

      If a similar "prophet" were to walk the earth today he'd be thrown in the looney bin. Let's face it, religion was spawned when man had no idea that a thunderstorm or a drought were natural phenomenon. They prayed to something that hopefully made life better for them. They saw the storm stop, walla, there must be a god. Over the years man has taken advantage of this for far too long for their own benefit. If humans didn;t die there would be no need fo god. And yet strangely, the prospect of eternal life is offered as the benefit if you become a sheep and follow this blindly while greed is considered a major sin. What is more greedy than longing to live forever? Greed at its highest point.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
    • Name*s kel

      Jimmy shotgun? Lol I could take your slave/bible justifying self at 100meters, no problem.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
    • GJD

      Jimmy I'm into Jesus. I believe in Him and that He is returning... I believe in life after we die. I believe we all will appear before God. I believe in unseen things. I believe this isn't all there is (physical reality). I believe Jesus actually died. I believe people saw Jesus dead and buried. I believe Jesus rose to life and scared people when He appeared to them. I believe they couldn't explain His physical presence and they were convinced He was not a 'spirit'. I have my questions and doubts but I also doubt that quarks exist although they are theoried to exist. I have my questions about dark matter which is supposed to exist although physists can't find it, detect it, etc... Faith my friend, faith.

      March 29, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
    • Snap

      I love seeing others that realize that living forever is the single most greedy wish of all time. Mankind is willing to do whatever god tells them to do as long as they get to live forever.

      March 29, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
  17. mariner I

    All of these idiots that profess to know god and speak for god know nothing. I know there is no god! God speaks and states: "I know there is no man!" ....... wait a second, that can't be right? wait a second.....if the guys says there is no god, then i'm supposed to say what? what did that guy nietzche say, how does that go? god is dead and so i'm supposed to say no nietzche is dead....dang i'm all confused now. As God, all I'm a saying is that I am that I am......and anyone who says anything different doesn't know what they are a talkin about. Can you believe that people believe all of this nonsense? Sure, the same people who profess to speak for god are in the back rooms molesting children and asking civilization to adopt ridiculous practices because they have been divinely ordanined to speak for god. If you or I made this claim in public they would lock us up and throw away the key.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
  18. Stephen

    Only CNN can tie in religion to the Trayvon Martin case. This article does just that. (sigh)

    March 29, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
    • zodiac

      megalomaniacs leading the blind, undereducated and ...stupic

      March 29, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
  19. dennis

    History is replete with slavery BECAUSE the religions that ran the world then were FOR it, or there wouldn't have been any slavery, rife throughout Christendom, Islam and Judah. Fortunately, religion has lost its hold after thousands of years, and slavery has fallen by the wayside as atheism has risen in the last few decades – not a coincidence. What an excellent article. Stating only the facts, though, of course, religious zealots have no respect for factual journalism, or reality itself for that matter, they just want to play make-believe with their pitiful lives and hear propaganda and religious lies to cover up the daily truths they can't deal with. They should go to Iran where they can hear religious propaganda and hate speech everyday, all day, and they won't have to worry about liberals or atheists or people like me getting in the way of their righteousness...LOL!!!

    March 29, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
    • Conrad Shull

      No slavery without religious support? Absolutely preposterous proposition that cannot be possibly held without a profound dearth of knowledge of history, almost any history! Sheesh!

      March 29, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • U so crazy

      I am sure you didn't mean to be funny, but... It is always fun to read religious people show only the good of religion, and the atheists ignore little events like the Soviet purges, Pol Pot and the like. Atheists always like to brush them aside as quick as the religious brush aside religions crimes.

      March 29, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
  20. mrpopular

    What the hell kind of article is this? Can we find ways to stir up racial divisions and faith divisions more than ever? CNN is guilty of throwing gasoline.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
    • mariner I

      We need to. Get rid of religion and all of the idiots that practice them. Better still put them all in zoos with the other primates who haven't progressed beyond the low hanging fruit stage.

      March 29, 2012 at 1:40 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.