I discovered through facebook that the BBC recently aired a program titled: When God spoke English: The making of the King James Bible. The program is part of the international celebration of the KJV’s 400th anniversary. Unfortunately, the program is not yet available in North America.
Part of the program features a 5 minute clip of the ESV committee working at Tyndale House. The topic of the committee’s discussion is how to translate the word slave in the Bible. Pete Williams, warden of Tyndale House, was kind enough to direct me to a youtube clip of the committee’s discussion. It provides a brief look at how translation committees work on difficult issues. I have placed the clip below and then would like to make a few remarks in response to some of the comments made.
There are few things that I would like to say in response to the way slavery language appears and is translated in the Bible.
First I want to acknowledge that this is a difficult if not near impossible task for any translator/interpreter. Not only do we have to contend with the understanding and practice of slavery in antiquity, we also must grapple with the world’s most recent experience of institutional slavery in America and the way that the Bible was used by some to support the enslaving of human beings. It is near impossible for the one not to influence the other as was noted in the clip.
Second, it is clear that the youtube clip is an edited compilation of what was clearly a longer meeting and certainly involved much more conversation than is being presented. The way the discussion moves between Hebrew Bible and New Testament makes this clear. I have every confidence that the scholars in this clip took longer than five minutes to debate how they would translate “slave” in the Bible.
With the above two caveats in mind, here are some of my thoughts on what is being said here.
- While it is difficult to tell from the context, it seems some are advocating that the word “servant” be used for the Hebrew word ebed rather than "slave" since otherwise one would be "slaving for God." But I wonder why this is a problem. In Exodus, the story is of Israel being released from slavery to Pharaoh. But it is not a story of freedom as much as it is a story of being transfered from slavery to Pharaoh to slavery to God. In Exodus 4:23; 7:16; 8:20; 9:1, 13; and 10:3 God, through Moses, commands Pharaoh “let my people go that they might serve me.” The term for “serve” here is the Hebrew ebed which in the context of the Exodus story is probably better understood and translated as slave like service. It seems that the Israelites were released from Egyptian slavery to be God’s slaves. Indeed, the major reason that Israelites cannot own fellow Israelites as permanent slaves is because they are God’s slaves (Lev 25:39-46). There are many more examples of this we could point to in the Hebrew Bible (e.g. 2 Chr 12:8), but the theme is also found in the New Testament. In Romans 6 the overall contrast that is set up is that believers were at one time slaves of sin but are now slaves of God (6:22). So I am not sure that there is a problem with the phrase “slave of God” or slaving for God since it seems to be what the Bible has in mind. The Bible holds up slavery to God as positive. We may feel uncomfortable with that, but to mitigate it to "service" or being a "servant" seems to weaken the contrasts being made. I would still vote for using "slave" or "slavery."
- I am a bit confused by the statement that the difference between a servant and a slave is whether they are owned by the master or whether they are paid by him. I am not sure that we can say that calling someone an ebed means that the individual was owned by a master rather than paid as an employee. I think of examples like 2 Samuel 2:12-13 where Abner and Joab, commanders of the armies of Ishbosheth and David, are both referred to as the ebed of their master. The context certainly implies that these men are not owned by their masters, but the term used to describe them is the same one used elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible to describe chattel slaves. Thus, while I agree with the decision by translators to label Abner and Joab as “servants,” the language is not as clear as we would like it. It is possible that aspects of institutional slavery do play into the understanding of Abner and Joab’s position, but they are also not people bought and sold. I am also not sure that once can make the argument that the Old Testament was trying to improve the life of slaves (cf. Ex 21:7-11; 20-21). The presentation of slavery in the Old Testament is pretty bleak and if we are not careful we can read in positive aspects where there weren’t any. The fact is, being a slave was rarely, if ever, a good thing.
- My biggest hesitation is reserved for the comments about slavery in the first century or New Testament era. It is sometimes said that the type of slavery practiced in Rome was different than that of North America in the 16th – 19th centuries. In one sense this is correct since Roman slavery was not based on race and there were more opportunities available for slaves to become free. But caution should be exercised. At times Roman slavery can be presented as a harmless institution that provided security and economic benefits to the enslaved. But it is important to remember that slavery, in whatever form or time period, is not a positive experience for the enslaved. Moreover, the notion that in the first century it was “temporary,” “often voluntary,” and “provided status and legal protection” is problematic. In response I draw on the Epilogue from my Recent Research on Paul and slavery.
A) Most NT scholars are familiar with the thesis that individuals would sell themselves into slavery as a way to relieve themselves of debt, improve their quality of life or even as a means of social improvement. This has also been sometimes suggested as the background for Paul’s discussion of slavery to sin and God in Rom. 6:16–22 and his understanding of slavery to Christ. However, how frequently this form of enslavement was practiced is not clear. References to self-sale in the Roman jurists indicate that individuals who sold themselves into slavery had not only given up their inalienable right to freedom, but also brought shame upon themselves and their family (Digest 188.8.131.52; 40.12.1). Apart from two references in the Jurists, references to self-sale are few and obscure. Keith Bradley has noted that: “It is generally agreed that self-sale as a mode of enslavement was of negligible importance in the central period of Roman history.” (Roman Slavery, Roman Law, 483)
B) The only clear allusion to the practice in Christian literature is found in 1 Clement 55.2. The reference is enigmatic, however, and seems to be referring more to those who were willing to suffer for others rather than suggesting that the author was familiar with the practice of self-sale. Another allusion is found in Petronius’s Satyricon where the freedman Trimalchio claims to have sold himself into slavery in order to improve his social standing. However, satire was intended to distort common social values for the purpose of comedy while reinforcing those values at the same time. The limited evidence for the practice of self-sale should serve as a caution to NT scholars. The suggestion that it was “voluntary” or even temporary has little support and creates a positive view of slavery in antiquity that probably should not be perpetuated.
C) The belief that slaves were upwardly mobile individuals has been a common assumption among both classical and NT scholarship. However, there have been some studies in the last thirty years that have questioned not only the social mobility of slaves and freed persons, but also the social mobility of the free poor. When NT scholars focus on the social mobility that did occur among the very few who were members of familia Caesaris, they are analyzing an abnormal pattern, not one that would have been recognized by the slave population as an opportunity for social mobility. The experience of the vast majority of slaves cannot be mitigated by focusing on the unusual influence or atypical mobility of a select few. Moreover, social mobility among slaves suggests the presence of class consciousness among slaves. Bradley points out, however, that the idea of slaves having a ‘class consciousness’ of their own never developed in antiquity and that rather than admire the master’s ‘slave representative,’ all slaves, regardless of their position, would have been competing for the support and favor of the master. While some slaves were of higher rank and influence, this did not exempt them from the same type of abuse and maltreatment other slaves received. (Slavery and Society, 72-73; 152).
- Finally, I am a bit perplexed about the decision to render the four occurrences of doulos in 1 Corinthians 7 as “bond servant.” I am not sure what they mean by that term, but the inclusion of “servant” could suggest something less than a slave. I would argue however, that of the many places in the New Testament where doulos occurs 1 Corinthians 7 is a good place to translate it as slave. My reason is based on the fact that this is the only place in the Bible where the technical term “freedman” (a former slave) appears. Paul is purposely contrasting a slave with a former slave and he means someone owned, not paid. Interestingly, this is also the only time where, in the undisputed epistles, Paul mixes his usage of slavery language. He is clearly addressing real slaves sitting in the congregation at Corinth and he is attempting to mitigate their status by interpreting it metaphorically and referring to them as a “slave of the Lord” and “freedman of the Lord.” This suggests to me, then, that in those places where Paul calls himself a “slave of Christ” he means a slave that is “owned” like a chattel slave, not a servant.
Again, I want to emphasize that I know that the clip has been edited, and Pete Williams informs me that some of the material is out of order. I am not surprised. However, anyone watching this clip might get the wrong impression about slavery and the Bible. I think it is important to note that the topic and the challenge of translating the terminology are more complicated than is sometimes appreciated. Our experiences with slavery, particularly in America, may tempt us to sanitize the Bible of an institution that makes us uncomfortable. But if we understand the Bible in its historical setting, we see that slavery was a very real part of the world. The challenge for translators and interpreters is not to mitigate that reality while at the same time learning from it. It is ok to be uncomfortable with the Bible. It is what we do with it that is important.