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. Ben

    All of the "experts" commenting on christianity where MUSLIM what's with that??? The way I read this article played out like this... Jesus didn't say anything about slavery, but he didn't speak out against it SO HE MUST BE FOR IT!!!! Muhammad owned slaves but at least he told them he loved them...

    CNN your twisted!

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

      He needed alternative bed fellows until his 6 year old bride reached the ripe age of 9 years. The thighs have it

      March 29, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • Bryan

      Makes sense. Christians who become experts on christianity become Athiests.

      March 29, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
    • Nonimus


      March 29, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
  2. CCD08

    Writer: "What should I write about today?"
    Producer: "How about another one on religion, that always gets em going!"
    Writer: "Alright then!"

    March 29, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
  3. NInio

    Now most of us are corporate slaves, or slaves to the decisions of corrupt politicians and governments.

    March 29, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
  4. Sean

    The folks 2,000 years also believed that God was in a palace up in the clouds (long beard and all), the Earth was flat and rested on four massive pillars (and giant sea monsters lived at the edges of the planet), that Noah really did fit two of every species on the planet in a wooden boat, etc etc. So no wonder they thought slavery was cool.

    The sooner we can shake our incredible blind spot, and leave religion where it belongs (in the Bronze Age), the better for all. There have been some pretty good books written since then.

    March 29, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
    • CCD08

      Sure blame religion

      March 29, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
  5. hun

    Jesus said love your neighbor as your self? How can he approve of slavery?

    March 29, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
    • Touché

      Because Jesus didn't say that a scribe did.

      March 29, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
  6. becool

    Any smart man will notice that what Moses has commanded Mohamed has doen the same, so we begin only with Moses who is the origin of these kind of religions. Jesus came to solve the problem of sin and to make God real to us. Others came to copy what Moses and some of Jesus have taught. And what about the far east relgions? why you don't mention them?

    March 29, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
    • Zaximus42

      Because we are not all smart men as you stated. I think it's great that you can find a single point for the beginning of religion with Moses. You truly are smarter than then rest of us. I think you should break down this obvious logic further.

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

      Zaximus jacks o fff to pictures of Stalin and Mao. leave him sitting in it

      March 29, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
  7. WachetAuf

    The popular culture informs our morality more than religious principle. It is therefore likely that the authors of religious texts would neglect to closely examine something like slavery since it must have been such an accepted aspect of the culture. I "believe" therefore that it is one more reason for us to examine the basis of our "belief". Just because grandpa "believed" it does not make it so. That does not mean that we should dismiss all religious principle, but it does mean that we should examine what we "believe" with a skeptical secular eye. Finally, to the guy who says that Jesus' principal teaching was our personal salvation, you should read the Bible. Yes, our own narcissistic egos move us to focus on our personal salvation. It is the attractive and moving element of most Christians. The culture does not, and will not, accept the burden of the Golden Rule. Our primtive nature rules us and it is not convenient to examine the plank in our own eye before we criticize the speck in another's. We would rather throw stones and "believe" that we will be "saved" by Jesus regardless of our sinful lives.

    March 29, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
  8. James

    Jesus said Slaves Obey your master!

    March 29, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
    • Touché

      Everyone is a slave today they just don't know it, if you are part of the money making machine you are a slave to the money. If you owe any debt you are a slave in having to repay that debt. If people really followed the teachings of Christ this would be a different world. It's why Christianity is such a joke.

      March 29, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
  9. Dan

    Now all you need is proof. Unfortunately, there isn't any.

    March 29, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
  10. christards

    Bill Miller

    Jesus is the true ass Reemer! Period!

    March 29, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
  11. Brice

    Better wake Christians, Jews & Muslims, etc...They are coming for your 1st Amendment rights.

    March 29, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
  12. MrHanson

    A few pointers to remember:

    1.Slaves under Mosaic Law were different from the harshly treated slaves of other societies, more like servants or bondservants.

    2.The Bible doesn’t give an endorsement of slave traders but the opposite (1 Timothy 1:10). A slave/bondservant was acquired when a person voluntarily entered into it when he needed to pay off his debts.

    3.The Bible recognizes that slavery is a reality in this sin-cursed world and doesn’t ignore it, but instead gives regulations for good treatment by both masters and servants and reveals they are equal under Christ.

    4.Israelites could sell themselves as a slave/bondservant to have their debts covered, make a wage, have housing and be set free after six years. Foreigners could sell themselves as a slave/bondservant as well.

    5.Biblical Christians led the fight to abolish slavery.

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

      So then beating a bondservant almost to death was a good thing? OK, I can get on board with that. You dumbaZZ.

      March 29, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
    • MrHanson

      Did you even read it moron?

      March 29, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
    • JayJP

      Interesting perspective. I have no issues with faith. Its through faith nowadays that the concept of good is spread. I myself am not for churches or the hierarchy there in. A hierarchy achieved in the annihilation of Christians who believed everyone was the actual son and daughter of god. My question to you sir is when do Christians or anyone for that matter step back and actually study the history of your faith. The Bible will tell you "good" where its up to you to know the history. At some point you must own up to the inconsistencies of religious and go simply by faith. You must just go "ya I understand that is what may have happened but I like where I am at with this".

      March 29, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
    • Eagle


      1. That is mostly false. Jews who owned slaves who were also Jewish tended to be treated better. But if you were a slave of a different ethnicity or religion, the animals and livestock were likely treated better.

      2. You found a verse in the bible that doesn't list the recommend prices for slaves, how they should be handled, and details about transactions and contracts. Congrats... This did not apply to all slaves my friend.

      3. That right there is justification for pro-slavery. If it doesn't say abolish slavery, why abolish it then right? Just acknowledge its a bad thing and keep going with it.

      4. Once again. Did not apply to all slaves. Most were inherited as property, sold, bought, and/or traded.

      5. This is the worst statement you have. Biblical christians owned slaves my friend. Plantation owners, typically were biblical christians. 'Biblical Christians' brought religion over to Africa to set up a platform to control tribes and people groups over there. Biblical christians worked with warlords to enslave rivals and fellow tribesmen. Biblical christians wiped out south and central and native americans under the conquistador banner and birtish colonial banner, and enslaved the rest. Biblical christians brought slaves to the caribbean and americas.

      These are facts i was aware of while I was a christian. Don't try to sugar coat them buddy. You're points are flawed.

      March 29, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
  13. hun

    Is Islam western religion?

    March 29, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
    • Bryan

      Yes. Why wouldn't it be? *sits back and waits for bigotry and ignorance*

      March 29, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
  14. christards

    Jesus was a gay pedophile

    March 29, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
    • jimtanker

      No, you're thinking of Moohamad.

      March 29, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
    • Terrance

      Nah, that'd be you.

      March 29, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
    • becool

      How could you know that smarty?

      March 29, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
    • Bryan

      Can't prove he wasn't. Must be true!

      March 29, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
    • toadears

      Soon Islam will have you and put you in uniform for WWIII

      March 29, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
  15. David Crosby

    Religion is Slavery..And all their holy books are a prescription for more slavery...

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

      Stalin, Hitler, Mao. And Hitler only pretending to be Catholic to fool the Vatican into joining the Nazis. There are your atheist success stories.

      March 29, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
    • booboo

      good thing god and religion are two different things.. now you understand that man is responsible for slavery.. not god

      March 29, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
  16. Michael

    If you want to justify present Islamic slavery in Africa, you could dig the past and accuse every faith for slavery.

    March 29, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
  17. christards


    God Is Imaginary Dot Com

    March 29, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
    • Mike from CT

      This looks like the same style sheet of why won't god heal amputees... but moving forward

      Proof #1 – Try praying
      How might we prove that God is imaginary? One way would be to find a contradiction between the definition of God and the God we experience in the real world.

      What would happen if we get down on our knees and pray to God in this way:

      Dear God, almighty, all-powerful, all-loving creator of the universe, we pray to you to cure every case of cancer on this planet tonight. We pray in faith, knowing you will bless us as you describe in Matthew 7:7, Matthew 17:20, Matthew 21:21, Mark 11:24, John 14:12-14, Matthew 18:19 and James 5:15-16. In Jesus' name we pray, Amen.
      We pray sincerely, knowing that when God answers this completely heartfelt, unselfish, non-materialistic prayer, it will glorify God and help millions of people in remarkable ways.
      Will anything happen? No. Of course no

      Prove the last statement of "No. Of course no"

      Let's look at Luke 11
      9“So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 10For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.

      11“Which of you fathers, if your son asks forf a fish, will give him a snake instead? 12Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

      Acts 1and forward we know the the Holy Spirit was given to those, so it seems to work

      we can't go on to proof 2 if you can't grasp proof 1

      March 29, 2012 at 4:08 pm |

    "Dear friends, do not hesitate to follow Jesus Christ. In him we find the truth about God and about mankind. He helps us to overcome our selfishness, to rise above our ambitions and to conquer all that oppresses us. The one who does evil, who sins, becomes a slave of sin and will never attain freedom (cf. Jn 8:34). Only by renouncing hatred and our hard and blind hearts will we be free and a new life will well up in us. Convinced that it is Christ who is the true measure of man, and knowing that in him we find the strength needed to face every trial, I wish to proclaim openly Jesus Christ as the way, the truth and the life. In him everyone will find complete freedom, the light to understand reality more deeply and to transform it by the renewing power of love." – Pope Benedict XVI, Apostolic Visit to Cuba

    Read more: http://www.ncregister.com/blog/edward-pentin/popes-homilies-and-addresses-i n-cuba-full-texts#ixzz1qTk7CfSL

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


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

      The book your church doesn't want you to read – that was a good read for sure. Just go straight to Dawkins and the God Delusion.

      March 29, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
    • Nii

      It is too late for that book. Countless anti-Christian books have been written. Read and understand the Bible for yourself. The enlightenment u gain is better than just knowing its words.

      March 29, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
    • Marlon

      HEY NII. I was a christian for 25 years. I was a minster for 10 years. I went to the depths of the Scriptures. You aint talking to no dummy. I was abused and hurt by the church. I realize that people can twist the Scriptures to mean anything. I experienced the control tatics and government tatics. People cheating and sleeping with each other, gossiping and telling lies, getting drunk and singing in the choir, smoking weed and ushering + teaching, deacons and pastors hitting on the young women. I experienced the control and power tatics. I REALIZED IT WAS A CULT. THEY CUT THE GAME UP HARD. BEEN IN THE GAME TO LONG TO BE WRONG. THAT WAS MY ENLIGHTMENT.

      March 29, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
  20. Bill Miller

    Jesus is the true Redeemer! Period!

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

      Jesus Christ, you're gullible.

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

      And your evidence for this is?

      March 29, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
    • Dan

      Now all you need is proof. Unfortunately, there isn't any. ~

      March 29, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
    • Marlon

      LET ME SAY IT HARD!! AND YOUR EVIDENCE FOR THIS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      March 29, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
    • Kool Aid

      I come in a refreshing rainbow of flavors.

      March 29, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
    • Bryan

      Redeemer of what? "Sin"? Must be an easy day to take away something that's imagined.

      March 29, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
    • toadears

      Kool aid, only your sheets and your right hand know that

      March 29, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
    • Kool Aid

      Toadears, don't deny it – you and Bill know how I taste.

      March 29, 2012 at 3:46 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.