ESV Bible Translators Debate the word “slave”
English speakers understand the word “slave” as irredeemable, and understandably so. Yet the nuances of the language of slavery in the Bible refer to a world in which “bond-slaves” could be volunteer debtors who could sometimes work their way to freedom, a world in based not on race but on debt, a world that, when tracing through both testaments, we see a progressive God begin humanizing an institution with a unique teaching, and eventually inspiring the Western world to make the institution obsolete, yet not without paradoxically reflecting on their own faith as a response of volunteer “bond-slave” to one’s Lord.
When coming upon the word “slave” in either testament, it is hard to zoom out and see the context, one in which Old Testament slaves were given more dignity, in which New Testament slaves were to obey, not because the slave-master relationship was equal and just, but because it demonstrated the submissive servant-hood of Christ in the midst of injustice and inequality, and gave opportunity for slaves and masters to be reconciled in a more transcendent relationship, one of true equal brotherhood. When the story we are familiar with is the use of scriptures to justify some of the most brutal institutions of slavery the world has ever seen—the Atlantic Slave trade of the Caribbean and American coast—we blush with ignorance, wondering what to make of it all. To some, this leaves us with two options: Reject Christianity as barbaric for not outlawing slavery from the beginning, or murmur a regretful endorsement of slavery, so long as it’s benevolent.
The problem is failing to see the narrative scope of the Gospel across both testaments, how Christ ultimately came to “set the captive free”, both from physical and spiritual chains. But part of the problem also may be that the English word “slave” is a stumbling block. Here’s a fascinating look into an English Bible translation committee discussing whether to use the English word “slave” or “bond-servant” to meet the linguistic needs of contemporary English audiences.