Slavery, Euphemism, and the New Testament

Slavery, Euphemism, and the New Testament January 26, 2018

Translation is a difficult and devious process. You can render the individual words used perfectly and precisely, but still fall short of conveying the underlying concepts, without using lengthy footnotes. Here, I will look at a specific issue in reading and interpreting the New Testament, namely the question of slavery and freedom.

A World of Slaves

In the Greek-speaking world of the first century AD, there was a critical difference between free (eleutheros) and slave (doulos). Each represented a very familiar legal status, with all the social and cultural baggage that implied. That distinction is rather hard to follow in English translations precisely because outright legal slavery does not exist in Western society, and the concept is absent from our language, except in the loosest metaphorical sense. In saying this, I am aware of the practices imposed especially on some foreign or immigrant groups, of sexual slavery and trafficking, or debt slavery. But by definition, these are not “normal” or mainstream, and they are assuredly not legal or approved.

Doulos in the ancient world did not imply a servant in the sense of an employed lower class person a la Downton Abbey. It meant a slave in whom one had property rights. That did not necessarily mean a brutally exploited farmhand on a large-scale plantation, the sense that comes to the mind of modern Americans, nor was the slave condition always permanent. There were many gradations of dignity, legal rights, and life chances, and some slaves could rise and prosper. The Old Testament placed tight legal restrictions on the practice of slavery, but it is much debated how far those still applied in the Hellenistic and Herodian eras, when Jewish practice broadly assimilated to Greek and East Mediterranean norms.

In any case, we are looking at slavery (douleia) in the sense of ownership by others. Although the exact etymology of each word is debated, doulos probably derived from a word meaning to bind, and eleutheros came from a verb meaning to come or go. What made you free was that you could decide to up and go as you wished, which slaves couldn’t, because they were bound.

Servant is therefore, strictly speaking, a mistranslation, and bondsman or bondservant are just archaic words for slave. For excellent reasons, the practice of slavery has fallen into terrible disrepute, and that is why we use euphemisms to conceal its omnipresence in the Bible. But that abhorrence does lead us into some conundrums of translation.

Conversely, the absence of slavery means that we use the word “free” much more loosely than in other societies in which it represented the antithesis of another well known condition. We always need to ask, “Free from what?”

I am reluctant to say that the slave-free distinction is absolute, and you can’t be partly a slave any more than you can be a bit pregnant. In various societies through history, there have certainly been unfree peoples who were not outright slaves, such as serfs in medieval England. In the ancient world, though, the distinction was more clear-cut. Doulos could have figurative meanings, but those depend on knowing the standard and original slave context. Slaves were slaves.

Slaves in the New Testament

What makes this such a thorny problem is that in its various forms, doulos is a common word in the New Testament, most prominently in Matthew, Luke, and Revelation. Strong’s Concordance gives 126 instances through the whole Testament, including every occurrence that English commonly renders as “servant,” as in “Well done, thou good and faithful doulos.” The Book of Revelation was revealed to God’s doulos, John. Jude, author of the Epistle, was a doulos of Jesus Christ. In the Magnificat, Mary praised God for his mercy towards her, his doula.

Paul was a free man and a Roman citizen, who nevertheless introduced himself as a doulos of Jesus Christ, or of God. You wouldn’t guess that from the translations of Romans 1.1 in the KJV, RSV or NIV, all of which use “a servant of Jesus Christ.” In his 1545 Bible translation, Martin Luther translated doulos as Knecht, which generally means servant, not necessarily with humble overtones (It is related to the English “knight”).

In Philippians 2, we hear the mind-boggling statement that although Christ was in the form of God, he humbled himself to take the form of a doulos, a form of self-emptying so extreme that “servant” does not begin to capture it. Yet standard English translations rarely use “slave” in this context,

Slaves and Servants

So how did Greek slaves become mere English (and German) servants?

In English, we can in part blame the ghosts of Latin. When Greek was translated to Latin, doulos naturally and correctly became servus, with the same meaning of slave or unfree. In the Vulgate, Romans naturally begins by introducing Paulus, servus Christi Iesu. Memories of the Vulgate remained strong in the minds of the Reformers who translated the text into English, even if they were notionally drawing chiefly on the original languages. So what more natural than to take the Vulgate servus and turn it into the English servant? Beyond sounding similar, the words obviously had the same derivation. “Servant” was the course followed throughout the New Testament by William Tyndale, and he was followed in that by most of the major English translations, including the Geneva Bible and the King James. In Tyndale’s version, Romans began with “Paul, the servaunt of Iesus Christ.”

The problem was that chattel slavery had disappeared from England by the Late Middle Ages, so that this emerging word “servant” no longer had unfree connotations, any more than it does today. Meanwhile, the word “slave” existed in English, but it was already really derogatory, demeaning, and insulting, a vile epithet far removed from the precise legal sense it had in antiquity. A “servant” in England in 1520, say – Tyndale’s time – might be humble or menial, but nobody actually owned him or her as property. Servants could, and did, quit, and seek new employment: they could come and go. Despite these critical differences, (unfree) doulos was now rendered as (free) servant, and we have lived with the consequences in most translations ever since.

Never Thank a Slave

I wonder if there is any solution to this issue? Look at a specific example. In Luke 17. 7-10, Jesus is teaching the disciples about the nature of faith. He uses an example that will speak to many of his listeners. Suppose, he says, you have a doulos plowing or keeping sheep. When he comes in at the end of the day, do you tell him to sit right down at table to eat and drink? Obviously not. You would command him to make supper for you, then serve at table, and after that, then he can go and eat. You masters don’t thank a doulos for doing what he is ordered to do. So you disciples too, you should likewise only say, “We are unworthy douloi; we have only done what was our duty.”

This text gives an interesting picture of the earliest audiences for Jesus’s message, listeners who included small-time but respectable people who could reasonably be assumed to own a slave or two. (Anyone richer would have had multiple slaves to tackle the very different kinds of labor demanded in the field in the household). Meanwhile, Jesus is clearly not addressing the slaves themselves, at least not here.

How do we translate doulos in this passage? In the original context, it unquestionably meant “slave,” but if we use the word today, then a modern reader will be so focused on that fact as to miss any other points in the story. We are  likely to to ask: how on earth can that man justify keeping a slave in the first place, and to treat him so roughly? So we say servant (or handmaiden), and miss the total subjection and constraint implied by slave. Quite likely, the word slave is now so tainted as to be (so to speak) beyond redemption. So what do we do? Any translation we offer will miss the cultural context.

Or to cite another passage in Luke that rarely receives much attention in modern sermons, Jesus notes that “that doulos who knew his master’s will, but did not make ready or act according to his will, shall receive a severe beating. But he who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, shall receive a light beating” (12.47-48). Translating doulos here as “servant” rather than slave is just silly, and yet that is the course followed by most standard English versions. The slave system was founded on corporal punishment, which did not apply to hired labor.

A Slave’s Eye Reading

On the other hand, assume we purge that slave element from the whole text. If we do, we miss a critical historical theme of early Christianity. If we were to translate each and every one of such usages as slave (with attendant words like slavery, slavish), this alone would make that appear as a core concept of the New Testament, which in a sense it was. Then add in the word for free (including freedom, make free) and that adds a couple of dozen related terms.

This all contributes to what we might call a slave’s eye reading of the New Testament. To over-simplify radically, early Christianity talked a lot about slavery and freedom, about real slaves and real free people, but usually in the sense of the freedom from that captive state found only in service to God. From that perspective, slavery could actually be a superior and desirable state, a classic inversion of the world’s values and standards. In relation to God, Jesus followers should and must regard themselves as unworthy douloi.

The Gospel is centrally concerned with slavery and freedom, worldly and spiritual.

Before anyone says this, obviously those early Christian writers were not defending or still less advocating human slavery. Jesus (as reported in Luke) was not advocating beating slaves, but rather noting that in human societies, slaves were beaten, and using that fact to make a point. Rather, those early writers were acknowledging the presence of slavery in the societies in which they lived, and perhaps of all human societies they could imagine. But if slavery was to exist, then it must rightly take the form of being owned and possessed by God, rather than by any human being. As celebrated theologian Bob Dylan famously observed, you’ve got to serve somebody. Or better, you’ve got to belong to somebody.

This all followed on naturally from the Old Testament usage of ‘ebed, slave or, less often, servant. That tradition continues in later Arabic with the many Muslim names beginning with ‘Abd, such as ‘Abdullah, slave of God, or ‘Abd al Karim, slave of the Generous One. Arabic-speaking Christians might choose the name ‘Abd al-Masih, slave of the Messiah, or ‘Abdul Salib, slave of the Cross. (At least, those were the original meanings, however they have been softened through time and long usage).

Beyond specific words like doulos, the thought-world of slavery pervades the New Testament. We see this especially in words like lutron and lutrosis, which are often translated in terms of being ransomed or redeemed. They can have that meaning, but in the context of the New Testament era, they often translate as the money paid in full to free or manumit a slave. In Mark 10.45, Jesus declares that “the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom [lutron] for many.”  The apostles meeting Jesus on the road to Emmaus hoped that he might have been the one to redeem (lutrousthai) Israel, and 1 Peter tells believers that they have not been redeemed (elutrosthete) by perishable things. However hard it is today to hear the word redeemed except in a theological context, this is a legal word intimately associated with slavery.

The Truth Will Make You Free

To see how this applies in the practical process of translation, John 8 contains a much-quoted dialogue between Jesus and the Jews, Ioudaioi (and that is another word that needs unpacking, but not right now). As he tells them, “you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free [eleutherosei]” (8. 32). The text is so familiar that we miss its meaning. Anyone hearing this at the time would note the key word free, eleutheros, as distinct from servile or a slave, doulos. That mattered immensely in a world where a large proportion of the population were indeed slaves, who could only dream of an act of freeing or liberation, which was the word Jesus used. (The Latin Vulgate has et veritas liberabit vos). Contemporary listeners would have heard the “free” word first – and perhaps entirely – in the legal sense of non-slave, rather than in any spiritual or existential way.

In the next verse, the baffled Ioudaioi protest that they “have never been in bondage [dedouleukamen] to any one. How is it that you say, ‘You will be made free’ [eleutheroi genesesthe]?” They hear Jesus using a common legal term, which self-evidently did not apply to them. We have never been slaves, they say.

English translations vary in how explicitly they bring out this legal contrast in Jesus’s remark:

KJV     We be Abraham’s seed, and were never in bondage to any man: how sayest thou, Ye shall be made free?

RSV     We are descendants of Abraham, and have never been in bondage to any one. How is it that you say, ‘You will be made free’?

NIV     We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?

The NIV makes the best effort to catch the nuance here.

Luther here again rendered slave as Knecht.

Jesus then explains that indeed they are and have been slaves in a figurative sense, because everyone who commits sin becomes a slave to sin, and only the Son can really free them of that. To use a modern analogy, it is almost as if someone today told you that you are a landlord. Excuse me, you reply, that is a legal term I know, but it is simply wrong, because I am nobody’s landlord. What on earth do you mean? And then the speaker explains that in a spiritual sense, we are all landlords of a common creation and environment. But that is a figurative or mystical expansion of an obvious and conventionally understood legal term, and makes no sense without that actual legal background.

So yes, let’s pay serious attention to the word doulos and the whole terrible social arrangement it implies.

This is why I cringe when the excellent modern women who assist others in giving birth take the title of doula, which they take to mean “woman servant or caregiver.” I always hear “slave woman,” and get uncomfortable. God bless them and their wonderful work, but could they consider changing the job title?

Useful books on the slavery theme include:

J.Albert Harrill, The Manumission of Slaves in Early Christianity (Mohr Siebeck 1995) and Slaves in the New Testament (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006); and Jennifer A. Glancy, Slavery in Early Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2002).

On a totally other topic, Kurt Manwaring has a great interview at his blog with scholar Gabriele Boccaccini, about the Enoch Seminar.



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