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. Doledart

    "How religion has been used to promote slavery...and other historical BS that has no relevance with anything today and was only really written to try and get people to watch a show that we know they won't..because we think they're stupid enough to fall for it".

    March 29, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
    • Zaximus42

      Well we did fall for the whole "burning in hell" deal didn't we?

      March 29, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
    • Doledart

      @Zaximus42- If there is a Hell....it's full, and if I do somehow get in...I'm making S'mores.

      March 29, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
    • toadears

      Zaximus, you are way too smart to fall for anything other than science and man. MAN the giant creature at the butt end of the Milky Way galaxy currently using his giant brain and his scientific brilliance to blow himself up.

      March 29, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
  2. trollol

    Religions that support slavery. That's fcukin awesome!

    March 29, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
  3. Jay

    False "christians" have twisted the words of the bible to suit their own selfish gains since the death of the Apostles for centuries. And they still do so today...

    March 29, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
    • nik

      Okay, well, you can read in your own Bible for yourself. Leviticus 25:44-46, Exodus 21:2-6, Exodus 21:7-11, Exodus 21:20-21, Ephesians 6:5, 1 Timothy 6:1-2, Luke 12:47-48

      March 29, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
    • jimtanker

      No True Scottsman falacy!

      March 29, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
    • Zaximus42

      Those silly false christians. Ooooh lets make a giant flood and build a boat for the true christians and we'll gather up all the animals...oh wait that won't work. It's unrealistic and silly. How about a plague of locusts? Or just the good ol'fashion plague? No no that won't work either because it's silly...and unrealistic. Wait I got it...we'll just go to war.

      March 29, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
  4. Pung Chong Tiong

    Holy Bible
    The Greatest Commandment
    The most important one, answered Jesus, is this: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbour as yourself. There is no commandment greater than there. (Matthew 22:37 -39) (Mark 12: 30-31)

    Holy Qu’ran
    And serve Allah and do not associate any thing with Him and be good to the parents and to the near of kin and the orphans and the needy and the neighbor of (your) kin and the alien neighbor, and the companion in a journey and the wayfarer and those whom your right hands possess; surely Allah does not love him who is proud, boastful; (Qu’ran 4:36)

    Sakyamuni said to the king: Love the world people as your child.

    China (sì shū wǔ jīnɡ) (四书五经)
    康诰 said: Love people like a mother love the baby. In good faith to do it, even in the absence of full compliance with the meaning of the baby's, but not too far behind.(大学 – 释“修身齐家”)四书五经.

    Fan Chi asked about benevolence.The Master (孔子) said : Love People.


    March 29, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
    • nik

      Then what's all this about? Leviticus 25:44-46, Exodus 21:2-6, Exodus 21:7-11, Exodus 21:20-21, Ephesians 6:5, 1 Timothy 6:1-2, Luke 12:47-48

      March 29, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
    • Kafir

      So they preach love in one passage, but regulate slavery in another passage... no wonder so many theists are confused.

      March 29, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
  5. Bill Miller

    All I know is that I will remain firm in my belief that the true messiah is Jesus Christ, the Son of God, My Redeemer, etc. At age 61, what else do I have. Nothing!

    March 29, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
    • Kafir

      Maybe you should get out more?

      March 29, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
  6. Nii

    OTTO, if Jesus was the author of all human morality then you wudn't be able to declare Him a fraud, wud u? Jesus as YHWH is the author of God's morality not man's. Give us a break! U don't even understand Atheism how can u claim to understand Xtianity? In Xtianity we give up our morality for God's!

    March 29, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
    • LOL!

      Christianity did not create morality. Religion has killed more people in human history so religious morality sucks.

      March 29, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
    • Kool Aid

      Have some more.

      March 29, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
    • Horus

      Morality is internally driven, and based on awareness of self and others. You choose to be decent or not. I find it fodder that religious folks with their claims of moral superiority still rationalize "sins" by merely asking some sky god for forgiveness. Cheat on your taxes, spouse, etc.... and see how much forgiveness you get...

      March 29, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
    • Kafir

      If you give up your morality to god, then that pretty much says you're morally empty. Don't consider that an advantage.

      March 29, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
  7. my2sense

    Nice to see this still relevant issue being given the scrutiny it deserves. Compliments to the author for his equal assessment of the 3 faiths–as the great Hitchens would say: variations of the same untruth–and to CNN for airing this topic and providing a space for discussion.

    So maybe people will have to actually make their own moral decisions, without being told what to do? Maybe sometimes, the moral action will actually contradict "revelation," as in the present example.

    Things are looking up...

    March 29, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
  8. Karaya

    That's how major religions become "major" – they were selected by ruling elites based on their usefulness in running a country or empire. Among other things the religion should justify the existing or perspective "business practices", which at the time included slavery. So there is absolutely nothing surprising here.

    March 29, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
  9. Chuck

    What? A perfect being created evil?

    March 29, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
    • Zaximus42

      No chuck he created EVERYTHING!! Not evil. That doesn't make sense. Silly little "think-for-yourselfer." I'm sorry that you have to go to Hell now for having doubt in your heart....Here...have a slave on your way.

      March 29, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
    • Kafir

      he created everything eh....Talk about your fixer upper.

      March 29, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
  10. m

    well duh! This isn't news. religion has always been about power and money. still is. religion is a prision. I just believe in a higher power and to not do anything against people- that's what I believe in.

    March 29, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
  11. Jim P.

    "under Mosaic law, a master was encouraged to free slaves and forgive debts after a certain period of time" Only if they were Hebrew slaves and even then, they had to "go out as they came in". That is, leaving behind nay possessions and their wife and children if the master had provided the wife.

    Of course, they had the "option" of staying with their family but in doing so they had to agree to remain a slave the rest of their life.

    Non-Hebrew slaves did not even enjoy this option, they were owned for life.

    March 29, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
  12. Sam

    Say what you will about Muhammad and Moses, but next time read Luke 4:18-19 before you make such a claim against my king.

    March 29, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
    • Zaximus42


      March 29, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
    • Kafir

      It's not worth reading much if it doesn't condemn or curtail one of the greatest atrocities of history – the bondage of man.

      March 29, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
    • nik

      How about a few passages of my own to suggest YOU read? Leviticus 25:44-46, Exodus 21:2-6, Exodus 21:7-11, Exodus 21:20-21, Ephesians 6:5, 1 Timothy 6:1-2, Luke 12:47-48

      March 29, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
  13. Jay

    Any idiot would know that the bible does not ENDORSE slavery, but it SPEAKS on the topic as to the times in which it was written. At that time HUMANS enslaved one another. And while Paul told slaves to obey their masters, his teachings, based on Christ, instructed masters to love their slaves AS CHRISTIAN BROTHERS. Thereby, in effect, removing, with BROTHERLY LOVE, the traditional "Master/Slave" relationship.

    Think BEYOND the words written.

    March 29, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
    • Zaximus42

      Which time? It's been rewritten more times than we can count.

      March 29, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
    • nik

      Actually, it ENDORSES the subjugation and ownership of women as property. It also ENDORSES owning male slaves. Leviticus 25:44-46, Exodus 21:2-6, Exodus 21:7-11, Exodus 21:20-21, Ephesians 6:5, 1 Timothy 6:1-2, Luke 12:47-48

      March 29, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
    • Kafir

      You can't claim christianity as a driving force of morality if it failed to speak out harshly against harsh crimes, of which slavery is just as harsh as it can get.

      March 29, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
    • Jay

      Those verses were written for the ancient Israelites in a time when they went through the promise land to conquer it. You'll note that they were also instructed to not MISTREAT those who were slaves. They had to feed clothe and even pay them a wage as workers. So the term slave is something of a misnomer as it was more or less like having a housekeeper.

      Remember the Jews themselves came to be slaves in egypt. So it was not God who introduced the master/slave system but Man.

      March 29, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
    • huh?

      You are right brother

      March 29, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
  14. Marlon


    March 29, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
    • Zaximus42

      You can stomp on my beliefs but I'll be cross if you stomp on my James Bond!

      March 29, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
    • Nii

      Christianity had only one theocracy now and then. It is the Papal states of Rome which now is left with Vatican city. All other "Christian" countries were Christian by the will of their rulers not because they were priests.

      March 29, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
  15. jdoggg81

    I think the author being of caucasian descent is trying to perpetuate the myth that slavery is some kind of twisted, god giving right. My Jesus would never condone the suffering of one of his children.

    Being of african american descent i find this article distasteful. This is clearly a blatant attempt at making the white man feel spiritually cleansed for the atrocities and ungodly act committed by his ancestors... sadly not so long ago.

    March 29, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
    • nik

      Leviticus 25:44-46, Exodus 21:2-6, Exodus 21:7-11, Exodus 21:20-21, Ephesians 6:5, 1 Timothy 6:1-2, Luke 12:47-48

      March 29, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
    • Kafir

      If you believe that, then ask your church leader why the bible doesn't condemn slavery more explicitly. Can you think of any worse crime to inflict upon a living being for years or decades, that a religion could be used to stop?

      March 29, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
    • sam

      How many times are you going to post the same thing?

      March 29, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
  16. CNN

    the Last Prophet Muhammed peace be upon him said : All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over a black nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety and good action.... Do not, therefore, do injustice to yourselves.

    March 29, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
    • Kafir

      Then why was slavery permitted under his rule, and even later?

      March 29, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
    • reddragon

      So why do muslim women have to wear tents and submissive if they are equal to men?

      March 29, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
  17. toadears

    pssst psstt religion = bad . State = good. blah blah Jesus, blah blah Muhammad, blah blah pssst....get rid of religion. This is how the press gets into your brain. This is your brain on CNN. Watch their subtle attempts to push socialism and state worship. The Bible never touted slavery as correct. It told people how to survive under their cruel masters. It taught Israel how to escape slavery in Egypt. But CNN has an agenda and religion is in the way of State mind control.

    March 29, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
    • Kafir

      Funny that yahweh would not do something more to free people from bondage... being as he's you know, omnipotent and all.

      March 29, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
  18. huh?

    Worthless article. In the Bible, slaves were supposed to be treated like they were a part of the family. Yet, these guys claim to be experts. Always trying to make Christianity look bad. I guess Jesus saying love others like you love yourself doesn't say much how people should be towards each other.

    March 29, 2012 at 3:13 pm |
    • huh?

      And of course, Islam is glorified. Have we become so ignorant as to what Islam is really about?

      March 29, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
    • Zaximus42

      I'm going to Hell because.......why is that again?

      March 29, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
    • huh?

      I am not ignoring that some Christians took advantage of some parts of the Bible that they interpretted for their own convenience, because it did happen. But they were DEAD wrong.

      March 29, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
    • nik

      The following passages, including the words of Christ himself, endorse slavery. Leviticus 25:44-46, Exodus 21:2-6, Exodus 21:7-11, Exodus 21:20-21, Ephesians 6:5, 1 Timothy 6:1-2, Luke 12:47-48

      March 29, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
    • Kafir

      If you're trying to sugarcoat slavery by saying they should be treated as family, you're missing the point.

      March 29, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
  19. Heather

    Muhammed did not have a "wife" who was a Christian slave. She was a slave given to him as a gift that he made a concubine. CNN needs to do a fact check on it's contributors. It's lousy journalism to sugar coat sensitive issues with false facts.

    March 29, 2012 at 3:13 pm |
  20. B

    So either I can't find my post because there are so many posts, or CNN is not allowing what I said to be posted because I criticized them when I said it, in which case I have a question. Is this a truly public forum or is it not? If you are really censoring the free speech in comments, that's little better than slavery in my opinion.

    March 29, 2012 at 3:12 pm |
    • CNN Moderator

      We voted you down.

      March 29, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
    • CNN Giant Fluffy Gerbil Police

      And then we ate you for lunch.

      March 29, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
    • Helpful Hints

      B, An automatic word filter is in place here...

      Bad letter combinations / words to avoid if you want to get past the CNN automatic filter:
      Many, if not most, are buried within other words, so use your imagination.
      You can use dashes, spaces, or other characters to modify the "offending" letter combinations.
      ar-se.....as in ar-senic.
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      pi-s......as in pi-stol, lapi-s, pi-ssed, therapi-st, etc.
      p-orn… as in p-ornography
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      ti-t......as in const-itution, att-itude, ent-ities, alt-itude, beat-itude, etc.
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      There are more, some of them considered "racist", so do not assume that this list is complete.
      CNN Moderator: Heh, heh.

      March 29, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
    • CNN Giant Fluffy Gerbil Police

      Awww don't tell 'im. He might be able to read.

      March 29, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
    • CNN Moderator

      And a good time was had by all.

      March 29, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
    • Calaveras Cal


      You are a slave to the mighty frog of jumping to conclusions...

      March 29, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
    • Conclusion Frog

      Come along, slave.

      March 29, 2012 at 3:38 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.