“Paul, a ‘Slave’ or ‘Bondslave'”? Misinterpreted Bible Passages #7

20 Mar “Paul, a ‘Slave’ or ‘Bondslave'”? Misinterpreted Bible Passages #7

Paul begins his letter to the Romans by introducing himself: Παῦλος δοῦλος Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ, κλητὸς ἀπόστολος ἀφωρισμένος εἰς εὐαγγέλιον θεοῦ, “Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, a called apostle set apart for the gospel of God ….”

One would think that this would be a rather difficult verse to misinterpret, but nearly anything is possible in biblical interpretation. In this case (as in many), archaic translation bears the brunt of the blame, as several translations render the Greek word for “slave” (δούλος, doulos) as “bondslave,” “bondservant,” or similar form that has fallen out of common use. In order to explain the unusual word, folks who don’t really know the original languages explained this difference by looking back to Exodus 21:6, which lays out the procedure for a debt slave to become a life-long slave (a decision presumably tied to a good master or perhaps a wife given to him by the master while under debt slavery), sealed by the piercing of the ear with an awl.

Anyway, the teaching in question basically explains that Paul wasn’t just a regular slave, that his use of the term “bondslave” (rather than “slave” or “servant”) refers to the voluntary slavery of Exodus 21, highlighting Paul’s piety or underscoring some difference between these concepts. The problem is that this notion results from those who not only don’t know the original languages but also don’t really know these somewhat archaic English words. Etymologically, “bond-servant” is used to distinguish a purchased slave who is owned by (bound to) his master from a servant who is simply hired help but is free to go elsewhere. Essentially, “bond-servant” means “slave,” in distinction from “servant”; another equivalent term often used before the 20th Century was “bondman” (i.e. “bound man” or “man of bondage”), which is what the Darby translation uses.

“Bond-slave” arises from the same origin and is a direct (albeit emphatic) synonym to “slave,” again meaning an owned or purchased slave, one bound to a master as opposed to a free person. These words aren’t used today outside of Christianese, which lends them to easier misunderstanding. The translations that use “bond-servant” are actually trying to distance themselves from the KJV, which simply uses “servant,” which isn’t really the right word to translate δοὐλος today, since “servant” in modern English implies a free person in distinction from a slave bound to an owner. But many translations are a bit twitchy about using the word “slave” in these cases due to the extremely negative connotation attached to this word today (thanks to our history of race-based slavery). Thus, some 20th Century translations elected to go with the somewhat archaic but more precise “bondservant” (NKJV & NASB) or “bondslave” (again the NASB, which isn’t consistent w/its rendering of this word).

This led to the fanciful interpretations going back to the “voluntary” slave of Exodus 21, explaining that this is why Paul would call himself a “bondslave” as opposed to just a “servant” or “slave.” Of course, it’s all completely wrong. Paul simply uses the basic Greek word for “slave.” There’s no inherent notion of volunteerism in this word—it’s the same word that was used for a slave that was purchased at a slave market or from another owner—nor is this a unique word, as the archaic translation “bondslave” might suggest. Rather, Paul merely uses the basic word for a person who is owned by another person.

For that matter, Exodus 21 doesn’t support this change in terms, either. The Hebrew word in the passage doesn’t change—the man is a “slave” (עבד) before his ear is pierced, and he serves (עבד) after his ear is pierced. Same word. If one wants to point out a difference, it is between a debt-slave in the first instance—an Israelite debt-slave could only be held for seven years—and a “slave” or “bond-slave” (that is, an owned slave, one in bondage—a much more severe state) in the latter state. “Bond-slavery” is the more severe enslavement—a permanent one in which one is owned as property, as opposed to debt-slavery, which was to be limited in its timeframe. Either way, by Paul’s day, the debt slavery outlined in Exodus 21 (and the practice of voluntary slavery) had long ceased; in his introduction, Paul was straightforwardly using the standard word for “slave.” It is extremely far-fetched to think of this as an intentional reference to Exodus 21, and it’s even more unlikely that his audience (who were accustomed to hearing δούλος in everyday speech) would have connected Paul’s self-identification as a slave to ancient Israelite slavery regulations.

There’s no question that Paul’s application of δοὐλος to himself indicates his being “bound for life” to serve God, and he uses the word denoting the most servile state one could have in the Graeco-Roman world: “slave.” But the point is better preserved by applying the modern form of the word in the passage, and any attempt to find something “special” about this particular word (beyond its indication of being owned and in a servile state) goes beyond the evidence of the text. It really does just say: “Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus.”

15 Comments
  • Jonathan
    Posted at 18:25h, 01 May Reply

    There is no need to translate the bible, there is the New Testament Recovery Version that is available to the seeking ones. It is wonderful, there are footnotes that unveil the mystery of the Word. Please google the following, LSM the new testament recovery version online. I hope you will enjoy it more than I do.

    • Jason A. Staples
      Posted at 19:05h, 01 May Reply

      I have a hard copy and am not particularly impressed with the translation, especially with how textual decisions are handled. I also have significant concerns about the “recovery” theology underlying the translation and notes, which is similar to the views of KJV-only proponents who believe the KJV to actually be a re-inspiration on a higher level than the manuscripts (and eclectic critical texts) upon which it is based. No translation is perfect or makes further examination or translation permanently unnecessary.

      Rather than trust a single English translation, I would prefer to stick to the best available manuscript evidence in the original languages.

  • s. taylor
    Posted at 00:49h, 09 August Reply

    Well said, it so discourages me to admit to myself the vast majority of individuals would allow misgivings and uncollaborated, in fact, even disproven dogmas and ideologies to propigate. When will intelligent humans take the time and make the effort to find the truth about discrepancies that arise and stop clinging to traditions of their predesessors, instead of blindly, proudly defending errors, at best, and outright lies at times. Take the politics and population control out of the equation and throw in some common sense and maybe i will reevaluate my conclusions about religions.

  • Chuck
    Posted at 12:06h, 07 March Reply

    You might be interested in reading a new book by John MacArthur entitled, “Slave: The Hidden Truth About Your Identity in Christ.”

  • Laurence
    Posted at 04:36h, 18 March Reply

    Go back to your Hebrew roots to the culture and understanding that was then and you will get a complete picture of the bond servant and what Sha’ul was talking about, because as we all know he was Jewish and studied under Gamliel . lived and worked in a Jewish community and was talking to another Jew when he wrote the letter to Titus.

    Go back to the Culture and many things will be revealed.

    • Jason A. Staples
      Posted at 09:49h, 18 March Reply

      Thanks for the comment, Laurence. For what it’s worth, I’m a specialist working in early Judaism, so this post was already considering Hebrew culture. And Titus was a Gentile, not a Jew, although that doesn’t have much to do with the topic at hand.

  • Steve
    Posted at 21:31h, 13 April Reply

    Enjoyed your article. Here is a related article you might enjoy.
    http://www.gty.org/resources/print/sermons/80-321

    • Steve
      Posted at 21:32h, 13 April Reply

      Its a sermon to be more accurate.

  • Will
    Posted at 13:47h, 23 November Reply

    Enlightening. Thanks.

  • The Offer I’m Not Accepting | The Blog I'm Not Writing
    Posted at 03:39h, 20 March Reply

    […] ministers are slave-traders – all Christian ministers (Paul called himself a slave, Jesus said you should become captive and you should submit and deny yourself ). They are preaching […]

  • Nhlanhla Zwane
    Posted at 14:45h, 18 February Reply

    Do not be overly worried about the exact meaning of words guys. The truth is one can never be right in everything of God . Otherwise he can be on the same level with Jesus. He alone is righteous. Our righteousness does not depend on us getting everything right. Remember we are righteous only because Jesus is righteous.

    • Jason A. Staples
      Posted at 12:19h, 21 February Reply

      Nevertheless, I don’t think willful ignorance and abandoning any effort to understand the world around us or the texts in front of us is the best course of action.

  • Lee
    Posted at 20:09h, 01 March Reply

    Is there a theological implication for whether it is a willing slave or not? Does this imply irresistible grace? Can a spiritual slave still run away like Onesimus? Is it a robotic slavery?

    • Jason A. Staples
      Posted at 20:20h, 01 March Reply

      There is certainly a theological implication to that question. It definitely does not imply irresistible grace, as that concept is entirely foreign to Paul—it’s a nonsense phrase given that concept of reciprocity was inherently embedded in the word translated “grace” (χάρις). There are no robots in Paul’s world or imagination—slaves can behave or misbehave. They are not automatons.

      Nevertheless, Paul insists that all that he does and all that anyone can do must come through χάρις, since God is the source of all things. All a human being can do is return to God what is already his—thus the concept of reciprocity embedded in the concept of grace.

  • Randy Mitchell
    Posted at 00:34h, 07 March Reply

    Well said, in Jewish thought becoming a slave again for any reason is shameful. Hence, the ear and the door. The ear: Hear oh Israel, and the door, where the blood was painted the night of the first Passover.

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