Slavery & The Bible (Part 4) Slavery Ain’t Always Slavery: The New Testament & Roman Slavery

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Read Part 1: Slavery & the Bible (Part 1) Cherry Picking, Worldview & Consistency

Read Part 2: Slavery & the Bible (Part 2) Not All Types of Slavery are Equal

Read Part 3: Slavery & the Bible (Part 3) American Slavery & Bearing God’s Image

INTRO

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:

slaverymeme3NT

 

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

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Pop Quiz: What’s wrong with this picture?

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.

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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.)

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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.

ESV NASB KJV RSV NLT NIV
1 Cor 7:21 Bondservant Slave Servant Slave Slave Slave
Eph 6:5-8 Bondservants Slaves Servants Slaves Slaves Slaves
Col 3:22-25 Bondservants Slaves Servants Slaves Slaves Slaves
1 Tim. 6:1-2 Bondservants Slaves Servants Slavery Slaves Slavery
Titus 2:9-10 Bondservants Bondslaves Servants Slaves Slaves Slaves
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.”

Read Part 1: Slavery & the Bible (Part 1) Cherry Picking, Worldview & Consistency

Read Part 2: Slavery & the Bible (Part 2) Not All Types of Slavery are Equal

Read Part 3: Slavery & the Bible (Part 3) American Slavery & Bearing God’s Image

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Bible Secrets Re-revealed! Has the Bible Been Lost in the Translation? How Do We Know the Words in Our Bibles Today are the Original Words?

**Has the Bible been translated & re-translated so many times that we have no idea what the originals said?  How can we know what the original manuscripts said?**

 

SERIES INTRO: Have the right narrator and ominous music and anything can sound scandalous.  Recently, I watched several episodes of the History Channel’s Bible Secrets Revealed TV show.  It was amusing but troubling at the same time since these sort of sensationalist shows aren’t about history or education, but preying on people’s lack of knowledge.  The sort of one-sided, half-information thrown around on these TV shows is sure to resurface.  So, here are some quick responses to some questions that might arise from such quality TV programing.

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Has the Bible been “translated and retranslated” so many times that the meanings of the original texts are “muddled” and lost?  Is the Bible corrupted and altered beyond ever knowing what it truly said?

First, do you know anyone who is bilingual?  Are you bilingual?  Trilingual?  Have you ever heard someone translate anything into another language, like, say, something in English to their non-English-speaking parents?  Did the parents understand?  Of course they did!  Though a 100% literal word-for-word translation from one language to another is sometimes difficult, that does not mean words, sentences, and whole books cannot be accurately translated.  Accurate translation is an everyday occurrence.

Our modern English translations of the Bible are translated directly from the original languages the books of the Bible were written in – ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek – and we have more ancient manuscripts of the books of the Bible today than ever before in modern times.

It’s true that sometimes translators have to use some personal interpretation to choose the right words if there are no exact parallel words, but this doesn’t mean we can’t have accurate translations.  For example, Greek has several words for love, but English has only one.  The Greek word eros is the type of love that has to do with sexual passion.  So, a translator translating a Greek-language sentence into English may translate a sentence using eros…

The adulterous man loves the woman.

But it probably could be better translated:

The adulterous man has passionate love for the woman

or The adulterous man has lust for the woman

or The adulterous man has an irrational passion for the woman.

Each translation is correct, and the main idea of the sentence is preserved, but picking the right words or phrases makes it more precise and clear.

This is an advantage of having so many English translations today available for people who cannot read the Bible in the original ancient Greek or Hebrew; they can compare translations to gain a better understanding of the nuances of some of the words and phrases.

Some translations are more “literal” and try to translate word-for-word.  These translations – like the NASB – may read a little awkwardly at times, but they’re useful if you don’t speak the original ancient languages of the Bible and you want to closely examine a section of text.  Other translations have more interpretation and translate the passages idea-by-idea.  These translations – like the NLT – are smoother to read, especially if you’re reading a whole book or through the whole Bible.  The NIV translation falls in the middle of the two types, which is why it’s one of the most popular translations today.

I prefer the ESV, which is a word-by-word translation, but it’s much more readable than the NASB.  Again, comparing translations helps with understanding perplexing passages, leading to more clarity.

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TEXTUAL CRITICISM

We can trust the modern translations of the Bible are accurate to the original manuscripts because of what is called textual criticism.  Textual criticism is the discipline of comparing all of the available ancient manuscripts we have today to make sure we have the most accurate version of the Bible possible.

Today, we’re in a better position than ever before in modern times to accurately reconstruct the wording of the original manuscripts of the Bible because of the sheer number of manuscripts that have been discovered.

Because people are imperfect, there are mistakes and variations in the manuscripts made by the scribes who copied them by hand, but because we have such a large number of quality ancient manuscripts, it’s easy to compare them and identify the errors.

The New Testament is easily the written work with the best evidence to support it from the ancient world.  We have about 5,500 ancient manuscripts.  The only ancient work to come anywhere close to this is Homer’s Iliad, which only has about 700 ancient copies.  But even this high number of manuscripts is rare.  In fact, we’re lucky if any ancient manuscripts that have survived until today are numbered even in the double-digits.

DATING THE MANUSCRIPTS

The dating of the New Testament manuscripts we have are extremely close to the dates the originals were written.  The earliest piece of a manuscript we have is a fragment from the Gospel of John, dated to about 125 AD.  Most scholars date John’s Gospel as being written in 95 AD.

Over eighty New Testament manuscripts are dated to the third and fourth centuries, and five mostly complete texts of the New Testament date from the fourth and fifth centuries.  Since all of the New Testament was written by the end of the first century, this may still sound like a long time, but compared to other ancient writings, this is extremely close.

It’s important to understand that the ancient New Testament manuscripts we have are from all over the ancient world as Christianity spread.  Had there been radical differences in the supposed “earliest versions” of the New Testament, it’s doubtful the network that spread and formed new churches in new areas (think of it like a tree growing with new branches) would all have the same New Testament texts.  At least one of those branches, isolated from the others, would’ve passed on and preserved the “older version.”  So, say, for instance, churches in Spain or Asian Minor would’ve had a much different version of the Gospel of John than we have today.  But this is not the case.

Because we have such a wealth of New Testament manuscripts – 5,500 (and this only includes the Greek texts and isn’t counting the thousands of ancient manuscripts in different languages) – which come from all over the ancient world, we can be secure that we have the original readings in our hands.

NT_JohnR_frag

Earliest fragment of the New Testament. From John’s Gospel. Dated about 125 AD.

BART EHRMAN’S SKEPTICISM

Agnostic New Testament scholar and author Bart Ehrman speaks a lot about how we can never find the “original text” and how he believes the New Testament books have been radically changed over time.  For example, he mentions 2 Corinthians may have been anywhere from two to four letters originally.  Can we find the “original text”?

Much of Ehrman’s protests about finding the original texts seem to come down to how a person prefers to define “original text” and his assumption that all of the written works of the Bible have been in a constant state of constant change.  Though there are variations found in the vast amount of ancient manuscripts we have, much of Ehrman’s assumptions that the books of the New Testament, like 2 Corinthians and the Gospel of John, are hopelessly corrupt are just that: assumptions.  Where is the evidence for these massive changes?  Where are the manuscripts that show the works in their earlier forms?

Ehrman may respond that those manuscripts are so old they probably no longer exist, but that doesn’t solve his problem, because he has just admitted there’s no evidence for his assumptions.  Almost all of the theories of composition Ehrman sites, “however probable, remain entirely speculative in the sense that no manuscripts have ever been found of the supposed sources that a biblical writer used,” including, for example, a version of the Gospel of John without the prologue and epilogue, 2 Corinthians split into two or more individual letters, or even the widely accepted theoretical Q document.

Due to the over 5,500 ancient manuscripts we have of the New Testament, variations are easy to identify and correct.  Further, even with over 5,500 manuscripts, none of those manuscripts show any of the massive editing or changes Ehrman imagines.

Further, even if they did exist, what would it matter?  This would only mean they may have served as a source for the future, completed work as we now know it.  Even conservative evangelical New Testament scholars agree that some of the Gospel writers most likely referred to earlier written texts for some of their information.  In fact, there’s even evidence from the early church fathers that there may have been a Hebrew or Aramaic version of the Gospel of Matthew before the Greek version we know today.  Just because some of the material or even a majority of the material appeared in an earlier form, it doesn’t mean it’s a corruption of the text.  What matters is whether the information is accurate or not.

FOR HOW LONG WOULD A MANUSCRIPT SURVIVE?

The material used to make ancient manuscripts was fragile and perishable (which is one of the reasons ancient manuscripts are hard to come by today), but some manuscripts may have lasted much longer than originally believed.  In a study of late antiquity libraries, collections, and archives by George W. Houston, published by Oxford University Press in the book Ancient Literacies: The Culture of Reading in Greece and Rome, he proposes that manuscripts could be used from 150 to 500 years!  For example, the fourth-century Codex Vaticanus (B) was re-inked in the tenth century, which proves a manuscript can last and be used for at least 600 years!  This fact seriously improves the plausibility that the original texts existed to be copied for much longer than previously suspected.

 

Other articles in this series: Did Constantine compose the New Testament? & Did God have a wife? & Could Jesus & the Disciples Read & write? & Was the Oral History Before the Gospels Were Written Reliable?

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