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. VoiceOf Truth

    I like CNN's Anti-Christian section because it brings out both the secular minded ones who look for more food for fodder, and it gives Christians like me an opportunity to tell the truth despite the vitriol. Thanks CNN (now stands for Christians Not Nice).

    In history, there are two kinds of slavery: voluntary slavery and involuntary slavery. Voluntary slavery has become what we know as "employment." Involuntary slavery is based on hate, kidnapping, violence and theft of labor, and is completely condemned by the Lord Almighty and is not supported anywhere in the Bible, but in fact is thoroughly condemned. One of the 10 Commandments says "thou shall not steal." Other verses require the death penalty for anyone who kidnaps anyone else.

    This silly article suggests that Jesus and other biblical leaders condoned slavery. If that's the case, then why wasn't Jesus, who was homeless and poor, not a slave holder? Jesus came to fulfill the law. If the law gave the death penalty to those who kidnapped humans, then why would He then encourage or condone such practices in slavery? This is what happens when non-Christians try to understand heavenly things with worldly minds. If you don't believe in Jesus, then just stick to that. You're good at hating Jesus and His Father, so get your hate on and stop going the extra mile of trying to bend and twist the truth of the Bible.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:49 pm |
  2. tardacus

    If jesus was against slavery he would have told us so in no uncertain terms. He was very clear in telling us about other things that are bad and that we arent suppose to do, but he never said that slavery is bad dont do it. He hardly even mentions slavery so obviously it wasnt a big deal to him.

    April 1, 2012 at 8:26 pm |
    • VoiceOf Truth

      all of the sins of man are of concern to Jesus. It's just that His main goal was to establish the age of grace so that men have access to the gift of eternal salvation. His second coming will address all those who willingly commit and encourage others to commit sin.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:55 pm |
  3. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    April 1, 2012 at 7:52 pm |
    • tardacus

      it`s true, for 5 years a prayed everyday for a new car and then one day after working hard and saving money for 5 years i bought a new car and it was like a miracle or something. during the drought of 2005 i prayed everyday for 2 months for rain and then one day it rained, it was a miracle.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:39 pm |
    • just sayin

      You have no clue as to what prayer is all about.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:02 pm |
    • Jesus

      More lies. No it doesn't. You have NO proof it changes anything! A great example of prayer proven not to work is the Christians in jail because prayer didn't work and their children died. For example: Susan Grady, who relied on prayer to heal her son. Nine-year-old Aaron Grady died and Susan Grady was arrested.

      An article in the Journal of Pediatrics examined the deaths of 172 children from families who relied upon faith healing from 1975 to 1995. They concluded that four out of five ill children, who died under the care of faith healers or being left to prayer only, would most likely have survived if they had received medical care.

      Plus don't forget. The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs.!
      April 2, 2012 at 10:38 am | Report abuse |

      April 2, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
  4. TaraP

    The reason we do not have slavery today, is because we have Welfare in addition we our a Church which Jesus spoke about in helping Widows and fatherless children.
    The Bible speaks on how you should treat your slaves...Slaves would of died of starvation and the elements if they did not have a Master giving them food and shelter.

    Slavery in the Bible was never about race, like it is in the Modern World....

    April 1, 2012 at 7:19 pm |
    • tardacus

      Only a 1%er would think that slavery doesnt exist today. economic slavery is alive and well. big corporations are the masters and the working people are their slaves.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:36 pm |
  5. Joel

    It's a book of fairy tales, it isn't going to cover everything.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:17 pm |
    • whineblackwhine

      Even God doesn't like blacks

      April 1, 2012 at 7:20 pm |
    • Muneef

      GOD would have not created what he did not like...beside if life started from Africa as per studies then we must have been blacks before we became to change color...

      April 3, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
  6. rick

    Christianity in particular has promoted every evil imaginable and tried to justify them every step of the way for many centuries. It's what they do and no one should be surprised.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:05 pm |
    • VoiceOf Truth

      Sounds like someone has not turned off the TV and put down the propagandized history books to find out the truth about history.

      April 1, 2012 at 8:57 pm |
  7. Clueless in Cleveland


    April 1, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
  8. Eli

    I love all the negative responses from the religious folk. How dare CNN remind people of the negative aspects of churches. Fact: the hierarchy of the catholic church are either pedofiles or supporters of pedofiles and should be jailed including the pope. We know of so many atrocities the church is guilty of. Imagine what we don't know. Religion...please go away.

    April 1, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
    • VoiceOf Truth

      Awww. So you let the anti-Christian media tell you the "truth" about the church instead of getting both sides and weighing the evidence? If injustice is your way of measuring the truth, then ignorance is bliss. Relying on CNN to tell the truth about Christians is like asking a thief to tell you who truly owns the stolen goods in his hands. If you seek the truth in an unbiased way with an unconditioned mind, you will find it.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:00 pm |
  9. kk

    Perhaps this article's author forgot about all the priests who marched alongside the blacks during the civil rights movement.

    April 1, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
  10. Lorraine

    Also, To Add....The law also gives us a proper way to eat, and drink for our own sakes, not these GMOs, and other chemicals, and synthetics without freshness, so that we learn to live, and eat healthy, and to prolong our lives, as Job had, he lived for four generations he shared, and saw them all grow up, his new family, and died with a fulfilled, and wholesome heart of joy, and good health. This is for us our well being, To prevent premature deaths, and diseases, in Duet.14, Leviticus 11.

    April 1, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
  11. Lorraine

    Reality, Prism1234, Sabina,b4bigbang, and Matt Hudson, religions are pagan, and coerced, by man. They control, and divide, and were forced on people as prophesied to come in the fourth kingdom of man in Daniel 2v40, that they would rule over many for gain, in Daniel 11v36-45, of false gods not of the most high Creator YHWH, unknown to Abraham, Issac, and Jacob. Many were killed by Constantine, if they did not do religion (christianity), then (islam,vs.43). Therefore, it is a new form of slavery compared to the old days, and to what is still going on in the other countries today, and here as well. Its all the same. Prism1234, you are so correct if the greatness of power has no conscious, then all we have is insanity in our world, and evidence proves that we currently do have insane rulers controlling, and govering this planet of ours. Sabina, you are just stiffnecked, the spirituality of positivity, and love, goes a long way when we use it right. be4bigbang, come out of that NT(not true), jesus, nor his story is nowhere mentioned in the so called OT, its true name is the book of remembrance, taught to us in Malachi 3v16, to remember the truth. Fact: the NT, should fulfill the OT, and not change what is said by YHWH, He changes not, in Malachi 3v6, and its a book, one part should not dispell the other, is why you did not give the exact scripture of what you posted, it is not spiritually said by the Almighty Creator YHWH through His prophet, taught in Amos 3v7. Moses not only brought the 'law' of our 'life', the commandments, the sabbath,and passover in Exodus 12, Leviticus 23, to us from the Creator YHWH, but Moses also, got 'Grace' from YHWH for us, in Exodus 33v16,17, not jesus(lie), not true. In order for us to live a righteous, and peaceful, and prolonged life, in Duet.32v45-47, and Duet.32v1-4, that we don't do, and is why we all are under this mayhem in our world of selfishness, and greed straying away from the 'law' of 'life' made for us. Matt Hudson, one must remember that before the westerners came to these people, before they forced their restrictions upon them, these people lived much better than the westerners did, don't put the horse before the cart, these people are innately a peaceful, intelligent people of sprituality for all, yet force changed their world to anguish, strife, and misery, while the westerners take full enjoyment, and control of their spoils, prophesied in Isaiah chapters 1,2,3 of their punishment from YHWH for their iniquities of straying away from their Creator YHWH, as all nations has done, and why we all have an unjustly brutal world we live in. Until we all return to the law of YHWH that is designed for real peace, unity, and righteousness, this is how our world will be, of indifferences, greed, hate, and poverty, is the truth from our only savior, and redeemer YHWH in Isaiah 49v26, and Isaiah 60v16, and He has already forgiven our sins in Isaiah 43v25,26, and Isaiah 44v22, and only ask us to come back to Him, the real truth of His words that are not just for the chosen Jacob, but for All nations to live in righteousness for a better world. Not a religion, but a fact of living right among each other raising a loving spirit for all to profit by.

    April 1, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • VoiceOf Truth

      Can you reformat this record-breaking paragraph?

      April 1, 2012 at 9:01 pm |
  12. prorealisrael

    Let's not forget that Jesus taught the Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would that others do to you." Do you really think that isn't a jab at slavery?

    April 1, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
    • jimbo

      That particular phrase is a much later addition to the books. In the original stories, there is no dialogue offered whatsoever. The dialogues were added much later, so there is no reason to think that Jesus, if he actually existed, would have uttered this phrase.
      But if he did exist, he would have grown up following the stories of the old testament, many of which glorify slavery and even call it righteous. Even one of the leaders of the Essene church after Jesus' supposed time, Simon, held slaves which the Romans repossessed after his execution. So history tells us that the church Jesus supposedly belonged to would have had no problem with slavery.

      April 1, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • Nii

      When did the Golden rule become a later addition. Someone who taught in parables avoided dialogue? Please conjecture is ok but forget about it when you want to be truthful. As to someone having slaves it doesn't mean they were for Jesus too does it? Besides the Essenes were not Xtians?

      April 1, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
    • Nii

      The Essenes were Jewish mystical monastic order. The Jewish Christian sect which broke with the mainstream Church was known as the EBIONITES not ESSENES. Christians read history too. Be careful when you present history in your defence. Everyone is skeptical here not just atheists. Xtians think too.

      April 1, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
    • SeeGodclearly

      God never intended for men to make slaves of other men. But He does not interrupt free will and uses it for people to condemn it and turn to Him to refute it. But it takes all to refute it which will not happen in an imperfect world where every individual wants it to be his or her way, aka pure selfishness.

      April 1, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
  13. Reality


    From p. 8.

    Christianity, Judaism and Islam as well as all other religions are a form of slavery as noted by the fact that said followers suffer in general from the Three B Syndrome, i.e. Bred, Born and Brainwashed in their form of religion.

    April 1, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
  14. scarey

    Every group of people has been used as slaves by some other group of people at some point in history. Its about greed. Nobody ever mentions that the original slave traders were blacks in Africa.

    April 1, 2012 at 11:42 am |
    • Nii

      i guess you conveniently forgot that Teutons, Norse and Celts also kept slaves and were slave traders and slave raiders.

      April 1, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
  15. Lorraine

    PRISM1234, Yes, now you have struck gold on your post for it is so true, we are what we have allowed to control us, and what we have accepted as good. Therefore, the spirituality that is passed on to others is the energy that we have given in to, and it is all wrong, bad, insuffering, and selfish energy, and yet we call it good, as written in Malachi 3v14,15. Consequently, we have the nerve to then expect good results from this. It only promotes greed, and in difference, among other careless wrongs making for us a hard, brutal world, and civilization.

    April 1, 2012 at 11:01 am |
  16. joe

    'Slavery' Bend it shape it... Blake is a slave to the dollar. He obeys his master and writes what he is instructed. Man's inhumanity to man is another story. And The Communist News Network (CNN) brings up religion. It is their attempt to secularize their readers and to get them to thinking religion perpetuated man's inhumanity to man. Why not let it's reader know it was the Churches in the south that brought around slavery's abolition. It was the true Christian Religion that brought about the end of American slavery as we knew it. The 'underground railroad' supported and assisted by religious Christians. But hey Blake, you keep doing YOUR master's bidding. I will pray for all for understanding and wisdom.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:30 am |
    • VoiceOf Truth

      Amen. It's always good to come across another seeker of truth. Secularist, anti-Christian historians have carefully conditioned students today to not know the truth about their arch enemy, th Church.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:05 pm |
  17. communicator1453

    It's sad but true. The Bible and other sacred texts did not condemn slavery. Consequently, they were used to justify the practice until people began to see the real human argument at stake. To my way of thinking, it took way too long, because people were comfortable with a partial understanding of history and a nonexistent textual criticism. They viewed their translations and understandings of the Bible and the Qur'an as complete, when in fact, they were riddled with incomplete artifacts that weren't as carefully copied as we had assumed and the cannons of these compilations were constantly in dispute as to what should be included and left out. Of course, we don't condone slavery today, but many other issues are now at stake while continue to make the same mistakes. Patterns are hard to abandon.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:30 am |
    • Nii

      The Bible and which other sacred texts. The Bible clearly forbids the return of runaway slaves to their master and the kidnapping of a person into slavery on pain of death. People cud sell themselves or their children. Slavewomen cud only be slept with by their masters if they became full wives.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:03 am |
  18. thegadfly

    Religion IS slavery.

    April 1, 2012 at 10:18 am |
    • VoiceOf Truth

      Actually, if you knew the truth about the evil ones who control this world, then you will see that anti-religion is slavery. Just ask the Russians before 1917.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:06 pm |
  19. Nii

    When will you grow up and see beyond the word "myth"? The technical meaning of the word is different from your dictionary's.

    April 1, 2012 at 9:56 am |
  20. Dana

    This is not surprising at all. When will people grow up and stop believing these myths?

    April 1, 2012 at 9:48 am |
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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.