Bondservant vs servant vs slave

Stephen L Smith

Administrator
Staff member
I have noticed in my NKJV (1984 revision) the translation often uses bondservant in key passages such as Rom 1:1; Titus 1:1; Philippines 1:1 etc. The LSB translates it slave; the ESV servant. I understand the Greek is Doulos - I don't have formal training on the original languages.

I know that LSB dogmatically assert the translation should be slave. Do you think bondservant is a happy middle ground between slave and servant?
 

iainduguid

Puritan Board Junior
I have noticed in my NKJV (1984 revision) the translation often uses bondservant in key passages such as Rom 1:1; Titus 1:1; Philippines 1:1 etc. The LSB translates it slave; the ESV servant. I understand the Greek is Doulos - I don't have formal training on the original languages.

I know that LSB dogmatically assert the translation should be slave. Do you think bondservant is a happy middle ground between slave and servant?
Hi Stephen,
There are a couple of challenges with translating doulos and its OT equivalent 'ebed. The first is that these Greek and Hebrew terms cover an enormous range of different positions, from field slaves all the way up to stewards in charge of large estates (think Joseph in Genesis 39). Some of these positions are indentured and expired after a period of service, while others are permanent. So as a result, there isn't really one English word that fits every context. In some places, "slave" is the right English equivalent, while in others "servant" fits better. It is striking that in spite of always translating doulos as "slave", the LSB doesn't always translate 'ebed as slave (e.g. 2 Kings 22:12). But then neither does the Septuagint, because they already understood that "consistently literal" is not a good translation approach, any more than it is a good interpretation strategy.

There may be places where "bond servant" fits; the problem I have with it is that it isn't contemporary English: no casual reader has a clue what a bond servant is. Maybe that is good if they go away and look it up, but most people don't.

"Happy middle ground" isn't really a thing in translation: a good translation finds the right equivalent word in the target language, even if that means translating particular words in the source language by several different words in the target language. We do this all the time: think ruach as wind, breath, spirit, and Spirit In Ezekiel 37, or 'elohim as "God, the gods, divine beings, mighty". Even more basically, every Hebrew preposition has about a dozen English equivalents. That's just how translation works. If you really want to catch all of the verbal interplays, you really need to learn the source language.
 

chuckd

Puritan Board Sophomore
There may be places where "bond servant" fits; the problem I have with it is that it isn't contemporary English: no casual reader has a clue what a bond servant is. Maybe that is good if they go away and look it up, but most people don't.
What about indentured servant?
 

Jake

Puritan Board Senior
I think that is probably better than bond servant; are there any translations that use that?
The NET Bible uses it at Zechariah 13:5 (with no translator's note here).

Instead he will say, 'I am no prophet--indeed, I am a farmer, for a man has made me his indentured servant since my youth.' (Zechariah 13:5 NET)

and the ISV has one use as well...

Now pay attention! I'm going to send evil in your direction! I will completely sweep you away and eliminate from Ahab every male, whether indentured servant or free, throughout Israel. (I Kings 21:21 ISV)

No uses I can find in the NT.
 

iainduguid

Puritan Board Junior
The NET Bible uses it at Zechariah 13:5 (with no translator's note here).

Instead he will say, 'I am no prophet--indeed, I am a farmer, for a man has made me his indentured servant since my youth.' (Zechariah 13:5 NET)

and the ISV has one use as well...

Now pay attention! I'm going to send evil in your direction! I will completely sweep you away and eliminate from Ahab every male, whether indentured servant or free, throughout Israel. (I Kings 21:21 ISV)

No uses I can find in the NT.
Interesting; neither involves 'ebed. In Zech 13:5 it is literally "a man purchased me from my youth"; here the NET is trying to bring out the concept of being apprenticed to someone for a period of time in exchange for money; not really slavery, but not exactly a concept we have (unless you count student loans...). "Indentured servant" works quite well for that. In 1 Kings 21:21, it is part of a merism (opposites that include everything in between); literally it is "bound or released"; it seems to me the translation "indentured servant or free" is too narrow for its literary function. The force would be better conveyed by "slave or free" here, I think. Translation is a tricky business, however.
 

iainduguid

Puritan Board Junior
If I recall correctly, Dr. William Mounce stated bondservant was a really good use of doulous.
You are correct. Bill discusses doulos briefly here, as background to doing a Greek word study (around 3:23):

He concludes that all three translations (servant, slave, and bond-servant) have contexts in the NT where they fit. The drawback of bondservant is that it is archaic, so people don't know what it means. The attractiveness of it (my interpretation of what he is saying) is that it combines the idea of being bound to someone (unlike modern ideas of servants, who can quit any time) with the idea of a range of tasks that don't all equate to the kind of chattel labor that most Americans imagine when they hear "slave". However (again my comment not Bill's, though I'm sure he would agree), there are contexts where what is in view is exactly the kind of chattel labor which makes "slaves" the best translation.

The other drawback with using "special" Bible words to describe something is that people feel free to pour into it their own idiosyncratic understanding that has nothing to do with the Greek or Hebrew word behind it. For example "a bondservant is someone who was given their freedom but chose to remain a servant". Clearly this person is thinking about Exodus 21:5-6, but then importing that idea into the word doulos, what Don Carson calls "illegitimate totality transfer".
 

Stephen L Smith

Administrator
Staff member
So as a result, there isn't really one English word that fits every context. In some places,
Thanks Iain. I appreciated your comments. I am aware of the problem that often there is not one English word that fits every context and this must be factored into account in translation.
"Happy middle ground" isn't really a thing in translation: a good translation finds the right equivalent word in the target language
The reason I used the word 'happy middle ground' is that some translations use servant because there is a stigma with the word slave. Bond servant appears to be a stronger word than servant while avoiding the negative connotations of the word slave. But I accept bond servant as a word has difficulties too.
There may be places where "bond servant" fits; the problem I have with it is that it isn't contemporary English: no casual reader has a clue what a bond servant is. Maybe that is good if they go away and look it up, but most people don't.

The drawback of bondservant is that it is archaic, so people don't know what it means.

What about indentured servant?
indentured servant also seems like sensible 'middle ground' but do people know what it means?

This is a fascinating discussion. Thanks guys. From a fellow bond servant. :)
 
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