How do you talk about “slaves” in the Bible?

Here’s an interesting video of the ESV translation committee debating how to translate terms like ‘ebed (Hebrew) and doulos (Greek), which are often translated as “slave” or “servant.” And the committee members have to wrestle with what the terms meant then, as well as what a term like “slave” means to modern ears.

The biblical discussion is fascinating by itself, but it’s also an interesting look into how Bible translation decisions get made.

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof at Wheaton College, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

7 thoughts on “How do you talk about “slaves” in the Bible?

  1. Like so many other biblical phrases, you have to explain what the term meant to the original hearers. A slave in the middle east during biblical times was different than a slave during the ‘War Between the States’ in America. Words have meaning but when that meaning is changed over time we have to explain it.

    1. I definitely agree that we need to be careful about giving up good biblical words just because our culture struggles to understand them. It’s often better to try and educate people to hear and understand the words better. The problem here, though, is with a word that people think they understand. “Slave” has a very specific meaning in our culture, and it’s a far cry from what the biblical authors had in mind. To just use it across the board, then, almost necessarily sets people up for misunderstanding, especially in a Bible translation when people will be reading it without anyone around to explain what the word really means.

      My first reaction to the video was that “bondservant” was no good because people have no idea what that means. But I realized that at least with bondservant, people don’t have any preconceived notions. They’re aware that they don’t know what it means, so they’ll look it up or ask for help. That seems much better than unintentionally reading false cultural notions into the word.

    2. I agree with David. You must consider what the word meant to the original hearers. Yes, we have to explain it but not change it. A bond servant is a slave, correct?

      1. As I understand it, the term “bondservant” is usually used to denote someone who has sold themselves into slavery.

        And with translation, we need to remember that there are two pieces to the puzzle. We have to consider first what the word would have meant in its original context. But we then have to ask how best to convey that concept in the receptor language. (Otherwise, why bother a translation at all.) So, the question is whether the modern English word “slave,” and the concepts that modern English-speakers associate with it when they see/hear it, is sufficiently similar to the ancient Hebrew and Greek words and their corresponding concepts. If they are, great. If not, then what word (or combination of words) does it better? That’s the discussion here.

  2. This is my first exposure to a “translation committee,” and it is fascinating. Doulos is indeed a word with at least two radically distinct — in the year 2011 — meanings in the New Testament, and I had never thought of its possible meanings in the Septuagint. I encourage you to publish more such committee discussions.

  3. Hi Marc,

    Thanks for sharing this. It is fascinating to see, even briefly, the discussion that goes into the translation of a word in a single portion of Scripture. I agree that bondservant allows us with more of an opportunity to redefine the idea originally intended by the authors, though I am interested in seeing how translations change moving into the future. Thanks for posting this!

  4. I agree that a Hebrew slave/servant (according to the Bible) was very different from taking slaves from the nations…but Yahveh told the Hebrews to take slaves from the nations, too. And they were (unlike the Hebrew slaves)…property. Hey, God does what He does…we dont judge His actions…He judges us! I dont have any problems with it. As one of God’s people I tell folks a slave in my house is better than a free man in your house (assuming they are an unbeliever)…why? …because if I am the covenantal head of my slaves I will treat them biblically (even if they ARE my slave)

Comments are closed.