The scholars working on the English Standard Version of the Bible were fiercely committed to producing a strictly literal translation. So whenever the ancient writers used the Hebrew or Greek words denoting “slave,” the ESV translators used that English word.
The problem, though, is that the connotations of that word for a 21st-century American reader would be very different than they would have been for a Bronze Age or first-century writer. For contemporary English-language readers, the word “slave” had acquired a monstrous host of additional meaning from centuries of American-style slavery — meaning that would not have been intended by the ancient writers or understood by their intended readers. A strictly literal translation could therefore be misleading. Contemporary readers might see the word “slave” and think of someone like Levar Burton in Roots even though the passage was meant to describe someone more like Zero Mostel in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
That’s not to say that the form of slavery in the Roman Empire was a “funny thing.” It was oppressive, cruel, dehumanizing, and unjust. But it was also not as oppressive, cruel, dehumanizing, and unjust as the race-based, brutal, lifelong chattel slavery practiced in America. It’s injustice was different in both form and degree. That difference matters to any reader who hopes to understand the ancient texts of scripture that address the various forms of slavery practiced in the ancient world.
The ESV translators thus were confronted with the same situation described by Leonard Bacon and a host of other 19th-century abolitionist Christians who — as we discussed in the previous post — argued, repeatedly, that it was inaccurate and immoral to equate American-style slavery with whatever the biblical writers had in mind when they used the word we translate into “slave.”
Initially, the ESV attempted to address this with a footnote warning readers not to project the connotations of American-style slavery to passages about slavery in the ancient world. The footnote suggested thinking of these ancient slaves, perhaps, as “bondservants” — an odd, archaic word that I suppose attempts to convey that slaves in the ancient world were a bit more servant-like in their status than the people enslaved by white Americans, but were still in bondage, and not free, hired servants.
But a lot of readers don’t read the footnotes. They stick to the holy writ of the main text — the part that the ESV’s intended audience of American evangelicals regards as inspired, inerrant, and authoritative. So eventually the ESV shifted to using the word “bondservant” in the text of the translation, with the footnote explaining the translators’ choice. And then, a few years later, they got rid of the footnote entirely.
Samuel Perry describes this change, emphasizing that it’s a major departure from the ESV’s commitment to a strictly verbatim literalism. That’s worth emphasizing because, as he says, the ESV translators have, for years, condemned other translations for what they’ve characterized as a dangerously liberal accommodation to worldly culture for straying from such absolute literalism:
They have marketed themselves as an essentially literal translation that resists the PC push. The general editor, Wayne Grudem, had for years denounced contemporary Bible translations, like the New International Version, for doing those kinds of things: becoming [“politically correct”], changing the language to conform to modern sensibilities, that kind of thing, especially with regard to gender.
So for years they have said, “Hey, we’re not going to translate certain things in a gender-neutral fashion, because we want to be as literal as possible, and if you like that it’s capitulating to the feminist PC culture.” So ESV has marketed themselves as a very popular evangelical translation that is used most faithfully by complementarian Protestant Christians for that reason: because it’s conservative and because it’s supposed to be literal.
But at the same time, the fact that that the “slave” language in the New Testament is so obvious creates a real apologetics problem, because of all this talk about “slaves obeying your masters,” and how slaves should subject themselves not only to good masters but bad masters, and how slaves should stay in the station of life where they were called. It creates this really ugly impression of the New Testament, and especially Paul advocating for slavery.
So what you can see in the English Standard Version is that with each successive wave, from the 2001 revision of the Revised Standard Version to the 2011 revision and then finally in 2016, our most recent revision, was that they started by introducing a footnote in 2001 to the “slave” word, and then in 2011 they replace the slave word and put it in a footnote, and then they said, “We’re going to call this a bondservant. So it’s different from a slave.”
By 2016 they didn’t use slave language at all. If you read that translation you would have no idea that the original translation — and I think the most appropriate translation — would be “slave.” All you see is this kind of Christian-used churchy word “bondservant,” which you never hear outside of a biblical reference. Nobody knows what that means, but it’s a way that the English Standard Version and other Bibles like it can kind of say, “Hey, these are slaves, but they’re not real, real slaves. They’re not really bad slaves like we think of in the antebellum South, like chattel slavery. It’s something different.”
In Perry’s description, the change in the ESV was less concerned with clarifying the meaning of the text than it was with defending the perception of the text. Perry calls this an “apologetics problem,” which is a nice way of saying a public relations problem.*
It would be one thing if Leonard Bacon had produced an antebellum “bondservant” translation to combat Christian appeals to biblical support for slavery. That might have been understood as unambiguously intended to prevent the use of the Bible as a tool of oppression. But after more than 150 years of reluctant, begrudging white Christian resistance to legal equality, and from vocal proponents of a partisan faith committed to rejecting the Reconstruction Amendments, it seems clear that Perry is correct to view this belated shutting of the barn door as less concerned with opposing injustice than with defending the reputation and alleged innocent righteousness of self-proclaimed “biblical” Christians.
It seems less like an effort to clarify the meaning of the Bible and more like an effort to defend it’s reputation — and thereby to defend our own.
* That may seem uncharitable, but Perry has receipts to back up his skeptical take. The ESV translators, for one thing, weren’t bound by any strict commitment to literalism when they altered the language of the Revised Standard Version to make it more conservative in terms of gender roles. “They actually made gender language more complementarian, more about men’s and women’s roles,” he notes.
And then, more conclusively, there’s the ESV project’s abiding concern with “political correctness.” What does that mean? The only thing it ever means, which is nothing, substantially. The phrase “politically correct” (or, more recently, “woke”) is not used to convey meaning, or to name or describe a particular thing, or to articulate and communicate any specific idea. It is, rather, a tribal signifier. That is it’s only meaning and function. It is a secret handshake indicating one’s proud membership in the international brotherhood of disingenuous assholes.
When someone unironically uses the words “politically correct” or “PC,” or speaks menacingly of the threat of “wokeness,” there is no reason to merely suspect that they might be acting in bad faith. They have confirmed that they are. You’re not being uncharitable or unduly suspicious when you’re holding their signed confession.
This is also why I’m not a fan of Paul Rosenberg’s ironic appropriation of this language in his title and introduction to this interview with Perry: “When evangelical snowflakes censor the Bible: The English Standard Version goes PC.” That’s intended to highlight the apparent hypocrisy of the defiantly “politically incorrect” ESV marketers, but I’m not sure hypocrisy is an applicable category. It’s less a matter of a double-standard than it is of a lack of any good-faith standards at all. (See also: McConnell, Mitch.)