So far in this series we’ve addressed 1 criticism of 3 often-voiced criticisms concerning Christianity and slavery: Criticism #1 – In the United States’ past, Christian slave-owners used the Bible to justify slavery. And we’ve found that both American slavery and racism are unbiblical. In fact, they’re anti-biblical.
In this article, we’ll start addressing criticism #2:
In the New Testament, Jesus and his Apostles never condemned slavery. In fact, the Apostles even told slaves to be obedient.
(In future articles, we’ll address criticism #3: In the Old Testament, God actually endorses slavery.)
Thus, in this article (and a few that follow), we’ll address: What the New Testament says about Roman slavery.
THE QUICK ANSWER
1 – Paul, an apostle of Jesus, clearly condemns as sinners “enslavers” by including them in a long list of other sinners (1 Timothy 1:10). The original Greek word used here means those who take someone captive in order to sell him into slavery. Thus, Christians are forbidden from human trafficking.
2 – The Apostle Paul tells slaves if they have an opportunity to gain their freedom to take it (1 Corinthians 7:21), and he says to not sell yourself into slavery (1 Corinthians 7:23), which was a normal practice in ancient Rome for the impoverished or those in debt.
3 – Masters are told to treat their slaves/bondservants justly and fairly, knowing they will answer to God: “Masters, treat your bondservants justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven.” (Colossians 4:1)
4 – Not only that, but slaves and masters are put on equal ground: “…[masters,] stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their [the slaves’] Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him.” (Ephesians 6:9)
5 – Christian slaves and Christian masters are “brothers” (1 Timothy 6:2). Furthermore, Colossians 3:11 reads: “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.” (Also see similar statements in Galatians 3:28 & 1 Corinthians 12:13.)
Seems pretty straight-forward but what about quotes from the New Testament, such as:
Our “Quick Answer” above may addresses many of our concerns about the New Testament and slavery (the Old Testament will be addressed in the next part of this series), but what are we to make of New Testament quotes like this? And why don’t we ever read Jesus or his apostles simply saying, “Hey, slave-owners, set your slaves free!”
To answer that, we’ll have to get into a longer answer, one which we’ll spend this article and the next few articles exploring…
“SLAVERY” AIN’T ALWAYS SLAVERY
Now, if you’ve been reading this series and paying attention, you should notice an immediate problem with the above billboard.
The picture on the billboard portrays an image depicting race-based American slavery. But the Bible quote, which is from the New Testament, would be addressing not American slavery, but Roman slavery, which was a type of slavery long extinct by the time the Americas were “discovered” by Europeans. In a pervious article, we discussed the important differences between American slavery, Roman slavery, and Israelite slavery.
So, that’s the first point I want you to keep in mind as we look at these New Testament verses addressing slavery: Roman slavery is not American slavery.
As we looked at in our last article, racism and American slavery have no grounding in the Bible; in fact, they are anti-biblical.
(Also, let me point out that the atheists who made the above billboard have to work on their knowledge of history for another reason: the New Testament was not written in the Bronze Age. The Bronze Age was long over for about a thousand years before the New Testament was written.)
(Also, let me ask: Where do atheists find any grounding for morality and human value to condemn slavery? They have none. Read more here.)
I’m not going to restate everything written in past articles (Perhaps take a moment and read more here), but to sum up: In ancient Rome, there was a wide spectrum of types of master/servant relationships that fell under the word often translated “slavery.” So when we modern people see the word translated “slave” or “slavery” in our English Bibles, it may mean something that doesn’t align with what’s in our heads at all.
“Slavery” in ancient Rome often means what we’d call indentured servanthood, or it may mean something closer to how a soldier in the modern military gives over a certain amount of years from his life to service for his country, or it could even mean something close to an apprenticeship.
Yes, in the ancient Roman Empire there was certainly what I’d call slavery-proper – meaning the slavery modern Americans think of when we hear the word “slavery” – literal ownership of another human being as property (though Roman slavery was not race-based). And this type of Roman slavery was just as repulsive and evil in God’s eyes as American slavery.
My point here is, there’s no reason to assume whenever you see the word “slavery” in the New Testament it means slavery as modern Americans define it because Roman “slavery,” the type of slavery/servanthood the writers of the New Testament lived among, was extremely different and diverse.
THE DIFFICULTY OF TRANSLATING “DOULOS“
You can see this concept of diverse Roman “slavery” in the different English Bible translations we have available to us today. As I stated in an earlier article, the ancient Koine Greek word doulos that is often translated “slave” from the original New Testament manuscripts into English can also be translate “servant.” If the translators had simply chosen to use “servant” instead of “slave,” much of the hubbub about these passages may not exist.
Interestingly, I was watching an interview with Dr. Wayne Grudem, probably best known for his highly used Systematic Theology, who was also one of the scholars that worked on the ESV translation of the Bible, and when asked what was the hardest part of the translation process, he replied that it was translating the word doulos.
Translating can be challenging because there is not always an exactly matching word from one language to the next. And since the modern American concept of slavery is much different than Roman doulos, an interpretative decision had to be made. Translating doulos as “slave” would have been too harsh, but translating it “servant” was not entirely accurate either. Grudem pushed for translating it “bondservant,” which he believed represented doulos more accurately (and I agree). (Watch the interview with Dr. Grudem here. The section about translating doulos starts at 9:10 minutes. Also, there is a short video filmed by the BBC actually showing the translators of the ESV discussing/debating this exact challenge. Click here.)
THE PROBLEM VERSES
There are 6 “problem” passages throughout the New Testament that address slavery in some way (1 Cor. 7:21, Eph. 6:5-8, Col. 3:22-25, 1 Tim. 6:1-2, Titus 2:9-10, and 1 Peter 2:18-25). Of these 6 passages, many English translations do translate all of them with the words “slave(s)” or “slavery.”
But I looked at 6 different translations, some of the most popular and reliable translations (ESV, NASB, KJV, RSV, NIV, NLT), and of those 6, only 2 translated every instance as “slave(s)” or “slavery” – the NIV and NLT, which are the two less literal translations out of the six.
The RSV translated every instance as “slave(s)” or “slavery” except for one passage (1 Peter 2:18-25), which was translated “servants.”
The King James (KJV) translated all of the instances as “servant(s).”
The NASB translated 4 of 6 instances as “slave(s),” one instance as “servant,” and one as “bondslaves.”
The ESV translates all of them as “bondservant(s),” except for one translated simply “servants.”
In the world of Bible translations, there are two kinds of translations. There are word-for-word translations, which try to match the original words as exactly as possible to, say, English words. Then there are idea-by-idea translations, which are more concerned with communicating the ideas the authors are trying to get across than the exact wording.
For example, if we were translating the opposite way (from modern English to ancient Greek) and we wanted to translate “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth,” we could translate that word-for-word, but an ancient Greek-speaker is going to be confused by this odd American folk-saying. So, instead, we may translate the idea; perhaps we translate it to this instead: Be grateful for gifts you receive and accept them without question. Obviously, an idea-by-idea translation requires a lot more interpretation on the part of the translators. (To learn more, read the GFTM article: Has the Bible Been Lost in the Translation? How Do We Know the Words in Our Bibles Today are the Original Words?)
Now, notice below, the ESV, NASB, KJV, and RSV, which are all considered solid literal, word-for-word translations differ and don’t always favor the translation “slave(s)” or “slavery,” recognizing the nuances of the original Greek. These are the most faithful translations to the original Greek, yet they differ.
My point is not that these are bad translations (because they’re not), but there’s no reason to assume the worst when you see “slave” if you understand the range and nuance of the original Greek word and the difficultly of translating to English such a word.
|1 Cor 7:21||Bondservant||Slave||Servant||Slave||Slave||Slave|
|1 Tim. 6:1-2||Bondservants||Slaves||Servants||Slavery||Slaves||Slavery|
|1 Peter 2:18-25||Servants||Servants||Servants||Servants||Slaves||Slaves|
Does this mean the translators had no idea what they were doing? No, it simply means the original Greek word has a range of meaning, which no one English word can communicate, and the context of the passages didn’t allow the translators to make a decisive decision on how it should be translated into English.
But, as I pointed out in an earlier article, many of these translations have footnotes at the bottom of the page explaining that “slave” can also be interpreted at “servant” or even a section in the preface of the Bible explaining that the word doulos covers a range of types of servanthood. In the preface to my ESV translation, a paragraph taking up about 1/3 of the page explains much of what I’ve explained in this article about doulos and Roman slavery/servanthood/bondservanthood.
So, maybe when Paul wrote in Colossians 3:22,
“Bondservants [slaves, servants, “doulos”], obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord,”
he meant the indentured servanthood type of “slavery.” Or maybe he was referring to a situation where the “slave” actually chose to stay in his master’s household as a servant even after earning his release, which was not uncommon in ancient Rome. It’s quite likely Paul was simply saying: You’re in a contractual obligation, so honor it by listening to your boss and doing a good job because you’re representing the Lord.
All that being said, let’s assume the worse: Let’s assume Paul and the other writers of the New Testament are addressing true slave masters and true slaves. Next, we’ll be looking more closely at these “problem verses.”
CHECK OUT OUR NEW BOOK HERE…