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

“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.”

30 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.

  • Sarah Dahl
    Posted at 01:16h, 11 July Reply

    Hey jason, totally appreciate your insights and research. Just out of curiousity, I would like to hear your perspective on Malchus and the cutting off of his right ear. Do you think it was because Peter was left-handed as some scholars say, or because he was a bondservant under Caiphus and may have had his ear pierced? I’ve heard it said the latter, and was just super interested to get more opinions on it. As you can imagine, once Jesus healed his ear, IF Jesus grew a fresh new one (instead of attaching the original)…IF he had been a bondservant in the traditional Exodus sense, the last thing he would of wanted to do after being the recipient of Jesus’ final recorded miracle, would be to continue serving Caiphus. I wonder if Jesus grew a fresh ear and in that act set Malchus free from having to keep his commitment to Caiphus. Sorry that’s a longer ramble than intended. (I do realise it only says “slave” in the original text regarding Malchus, however seeing who is master was it just makes me wonder if Caiphus may have kept to some archaic traditions.

    • Jason A. Staples
      Posted at 20:41h, 12 July Reply

      1) Just a reminder that “bondslave” or “bondservant” does not specifically refer to one who has had his ear pierced with an awl to become a lifelong slave; it is just an older English longhand for what we would today call a “slave.”

      2) If Malchus was a Jewish slave of Caiaphas, it’s entirely possible he had his ear pierced, but we just don’t have enough information from the text to infer that.

      3) Quite frankly, I’m not sure what the point of the extra detail of it being the right ear is; the passage that addresses the piercing of the ear to mark a lifelong slave doesn’t specifically reference the right ear.

      I’ll have to look closer at this in the future, but those are my thoughts off the top of my head.

  • Rick McClain
    Posted at 12:28h, 14 July Reply

    Good article, and nice, clean website. Thanks.

  • Mark Kanouse
    Posted at 20:22h, 05 December Reply

    I am starting the Book of Romans for my High School Sunday School class. I rely heavily on our Pastor’s notes as well as 4 commentaries to help the Hebrew and Greek. I appreciate this website and your explanation clarifying the simplicity of what Paul was actually saying.

  • Drew Forster
    Posted at 05:10h, 06 December Reply

    Staples has established in this post alone, a new style of commentary., utterly of the moment with its transparency, openness and honesty while simultaneously achieving the highest levels of classic scholarly examination and analysis. Good biblical commentary adds to the reader’s understanding of the sacred Word. Great biblical commentary links the anointed Word of God with our. everyday lives to deepen our understanding both of the richness and depth, but also of the direct impact the living Word must have on our day-to-day existence, what Eugene Peterson describes as “everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life.” (Romans 12, The Message)

    As such, the best form of commentary must be constantly evolving to speak to the culture as it shifts and emerges, while simultaneously holding fast to biblical truth and examining the ways and the why’s behind past attempts falling short or losing their contemporary effectiveness.

    Thank you for this post which has significantly increased my understanding of God-spoken Word through the lens and life of Paul. I know I wrote this as if it were a review for the Times as if my opinion matters. I am not a biblical commentator or anyone whose name would be recognized, but wow! Would I like to add Jason Staples to my list of colleagues in Christ-centered communication in it’s various forms. Thank you.

  • Randolph Harris
    Posted at 13:21h, 13 February Reply

    In many New Testament books, the word bondservant was used in reference to a person’s commitment to Jesus. Most of Paul’s letters begin by referring to himself as a servant of Christ Jesus. James and Jude, half-brothers of Jesus, both refer to themselves as Christ’s bondservants. The apostle Peter called himself a “servant and apostle” (2 Peter 1:1).

    The importance of these New Testament authors referring to themselves as bondservants should not be overlooked. Despite proclaiming a message of freedom from sin in Jesus Christ, these writers were dedicated to Jesus as their one master. Further, their service to the Lord was not one they could consider leaving. Just as a bondservant was more than an employee who could leave for another job, these Christians were servants who could never leave their master for another.

    This belief and understanding of the Christian as a bondservant played an enormous role as early Christians often faced persecution. Peter, Paul, and James are traditionally recorded as dying for their allegiance to Jesus.

    The bondservant was a common role in the New Testament period that ranged from slave to bonded laborer. Commands were given to Christians regarding proper treatment, with freedom recommended whenever possible (1 Corinthians 7:21). Most importantly, the image of the bondservant became one of great importance for Christians, who are called to live as bondservants of Christ Jesus.

    In this day and time we seem to forget that we are bought at a price, the price He payed with His blood on the Cross!

  • Elizabeth Savage
    Posted at 04:47h, 01 July Reply

    There is a Pastor that I have met who has made people that they have been helping bond slaves to themselves and not to Jesus Christ. This Pastor has told me that this is Biblical and that they need this, the same way Paul was a bondslave to Jesus. Can you help me here. I have such a strong check in my spirit every time this topic comes up

    • Jason A. Staples
      Posted at 16:26h, 02 July Reply

      I’m not quite sure what you mean by any of this. Are you suggesting these pastors are claiming slaves? Can you clarify?

  • Ralph Simonton
    Posted at 21:29h, 20 July Reply

    I must respectfully disagree. A slave is referred to as pais, or “boy..” In Acts, the word paidiskes is used for a young female slave. A bondservant is not a true slave. A bodservant generally has a fixed time to serve. He either enters into that arrangement voluntarily or his parents assign him to it. Functionally, he differs little from a slave, but they are not the same thing.

    • Jason A. Staples
      Posted at 22:08h, 20 July Reply

      Disagree all you want, but you are flat wrong. Yes, the word pais, which properly means “child,” is sometimes used to mean “slave,” it is not the most common word in Greek for a person owned (under bondage) by another. That word was doulos, which is the word used for “slave” here.

      Generally, doulos is the more severe of the two; pais is a more familial term that would better apply to a house-slave or someone closer to or more valuable to the master, while doulos is a generic slave.

      For what it’s worth, as a rule, if you’re going to disagree about the definition of a word with someone who actually knows the language, it’s best to know the language yourself.

  • Pete
    Posted at 13:56h, 11 September Reply

    I am afraid you are mistaken. The “slave” translation is relatively new. I know that people like to go on and on about greek “interpretations”, but by considering the latin and syriac sources available, it is clearly “servant”. Also, you may want to consider the possibility that this letter to the Romans was not originally in Greek. Not that it matters, since doulos is also servant in the greek! Which makes me wonder what the purpose of this post really is??

    • Jason A. Staples
      Posted at 08:52h, 13 September Reply

      You’ve just revealed that you don’t know any of the languages you’re discussing. Best to leave such analysis to those who actually know the languages. The word means “slave,” as do the analogous Latin and Syriac words in those versions.

  • John Harrell
    Posted at 19:32h, 12 September Reply

    I believe we can better understand the meaning of Paul as a slave by looking at another passage in Exodus. Exodus 12:43-45 And the LORD said unto Moses and Aaron, This is the ordinance of the passover: There shall no stranger eat thereof: But every man’s servant that is bought for money, when though hast circumcised him, then shall he eat thereof. A foreigner and an hired servant shall not eat thereof. Paul refers to himself as a servant meaning slave or “bought servant”, knowing that he has been bought with a price, and made a partaker of Christ having been redeemed. Paul here recognizes that he has been purposed by God to serve His Church until the end of his life. We should not take this to mean that Paul doesn’t understand that he is made a son also, because we see many instances in Pauls writing where he acknowledges this fact. The emphasis here though, is that Paul is a bought slave, a partaker of the covenant, but with a lifelong mission of service.

    • Jason A. Staples
      Posted at 08:53h, 13 September Reply

      There’s no need to go back to Exodus to interpret Paul’s use of a very common word and concept in the Greek language and the world of the Roman Empire. He simply means “slave.” Many slaves were purchased by their owners, yes. Some were gained through conquest. Others were born as slaves. But in any case, all slaves were owned by their masters. He himself says he is the slave of Jesus Christ, having been purchased for that purpose.

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