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“bondservants” and other submissive wives

September 26, 2011

Denny Burk posted the following BBC video here, where’s there’s been some subsequent conversation.  (It’s a video in which, as Burk puts it, the ESV translation revision majority vote “to change four instances of [doulos, δοῦλος] ‘slave’ to ‘bondservant’ in 1 Corinthians 7.”)  Ed Kaneen has posted more helpful analyses here and here, calling into question the translation decision.

In this BLT blogpost, I’d like you to watch the ESV team (all-male, all-heterosexual, all-married, all-complementarian, all-Anglo-and-Anglo-American, all-Christian, all-Protestant, all-evangelical) deciding “the translation of the word slave in the Bible.”  Listen as C. John “Jack” Collins, at 2 minutes into the video, says this:

…. as an American, the term slave, um, is a term that is, is, is a term that is, is difficult to think of as a humanized, uh, institution at all.  Although, surprising, surprisingly enough, some of my African American correspondents are less sensitive about that than I am.

What should be obvious is that this “American” does not self-identify as an African American.  Nor does he label himself a female American.  What may not be as obvious, however, is that this Anglo American man is married to a female who is not an African American.  He does have one wife.  So you may infer that this wife of his is not one of his “African American correspondents.”

Forty seconds later into the video, Wayne Grudem agrees with Collins’s assessment of “the term slave,” and Grudem gives these final comments before the vote is taken:

…. but for the average English reader, the word slave has irredeemably negative associations and connotations.  In people’s minds it’s a permanent condition whereas in the Old Testament and certain, certainly in the New Testament it’s temporary; it leads to freedom.  And it was often voluntary, at least in the first century.  Number two, slavery in the Old Testament or the New Testament was not primarily racial; it was economic.  And third, it was often a situation that had status and carried considerable legal protection.  For those reasons, I think we are importing highly inaccurate meanings of the term.

What should be obvious is that this person (Wayne Grudem) is positioning himself as not your average English reader but as one of the scholars who knows better what biblical bondservanthood is than what’s “in people’s minds” about slavery.  What might not be as obvious, however, is that this scholar is inferring that, if Great Britain and the United States of America had followed “the Old Testament or the New Testament” translated properly, then human enslavement could still have positive biblical associations and connotations in which the condition of slavery would have been for volunteers who submitted themselves to the temporary status of bondservant, with full protections from the law, as they recovered themselves from their personal economic crises only to gain again their freedom.

Go ahead and watch, and then we can discuss why these facts may be important to Collins’s and Grudem’s majority vote “to change four instances of [doulos, δοῦλος] ‘slave’ to ‘bondservant’ in 1 Corinthians 7.”

So, you saw it.  You saw the sensitivities of Collins and of Grudem.  This is a personal issue for each one of them.  If they were “African Americans” or “average readers,” then outsiders looking in could accuse them of subjective bias in translation.  However, their successful vote works to protect them from accusations of bias.  Their vote works to perpetuate their positions as Anglo American men, husbands of Anglo American women, leaders of their Christian homes and ministries, evangelicals to their world, scholars on matters of biblical words, on biblical manhood and womanhood.  (Wayne Grudem is a chronic contributor to and conservator for the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.)

Now, we may want to agree with Henry Neufeld when he has said (blogging on some of these very same people) “that the correct way to examine and test a Bible version is by looking at the end product and not by determining the quality and morals of the translators.”  And yet, even Neufeld sees the subjective sensitivities and the personal impact of the ESV end product, when he goes on to say the following:

I’m not accusing the ESV translators of being misogynists. I do believe, however, that they have followed a translation philosophy that helps to foster exclusion rather than inclusion.

Which comes first, one’s translation philosophy or one’s class and one’s race and one’s gender?  Is there a biblical translation philosophy as there may be a biblical bondservanthood or a biblical manhood and womanhood?

Can’t we be a tad bit suspicious when one’s scholarly understanding of a word solidifies one’s own personal positions in life while that understanding would question the sensitivities of others as “surprising” or as merely “average”?

Could we agree with Rod of Alexandria (blogging on some supposedly “biblical way of viewing race”), when he rather astutely says the following?:

If we understand race as something as so simply as that which comes down from a bloodline, we are falling prey into biological determinism in which our stories are trapped in the false genealogies, histories, and stereotypes that come with that understanding of race. It is not a biblical way of viewing race, that Tony Evans [John Piper] and the like are promoting, but a very philosophical one, almost as old as Social Darwinism itself.

You may be asking me, as if surprised (as if a surprised scholar), why race or gender has to enter this discussion at all.  Isn’t C. John “Jack” Collins right that I Corinthians 7 has nothing to do with race-based slavery?  Isn’t Wayne Grudem right that biblical slavery, like biblical wife-submission, is something voluntary?

The best answers to such questions, I believe, come from those who do not share Collins’s and Grudem’s positions.  How might Harriet Jacobs answer, for example?  She was born into bondservanthood but describes her enslavement as something she might have volunteered for, as initially so “comfortable” and as “so fondly shielded” that she “never dreamed that [she] was a piece of merchandise.”  She’s an African American, and she’s an average reader.

Or how would Rodney S. Sadler, Jr. answer?

In discussing Genesis 16:2, Sadler quotes Jacobs.  But Sadler and Jacobs are speaking very differently in their understanding of biblical slavery than do Collins and Grudem.

Sadler claims the following:

[that the] sexual language [of the Hebrew passage –] used for this nonconsensual contact [between Abraham and Hagar, “an enslaved Egyptian woman”] – should remind us of enslaved Africana foremothers and forefathers raped by masters and enslavers who used their bodies for sexual gratification and their offspring as slaves.

And then he’s reminded of Jacobs, quoting her as saying the following:

But he was my master. I was compelled to live under the same roof with him—where I saw a man forty years my senior daily violating the most sacred commandments of nature. He told me I was his property; that I must be subject to his will in all things. My soul revolted against the mean tyranny. But where could I turn for protection?. . . . My master met me at every turn, reminding me that I belonged to him, and swearing by heaven and earth that he would compel me to submit to him. (Jacobs 44-46)

Sadler’s conclusion?

As we consider the plight of women victimized under a misogynistic system, we should note that Genesis provides no insight into the fear, betrayal, and incredulity that Hagar must have felt. (page 75, “Genesis,” The Africana Bible: Reading Israel’s Scriptures from Africa and the African Diaspora).

Now, lest some average reader protest that Sadler is not considering biblical bondservanthood as Grudem does, as “often voluntary, at least in the first century,” then can we turn to somebody else who looks back to the New Testament in that initial century.  What does Carolyn Osiek say?

Must we say that she’s an American, Anglo American, a female, unmarried, a feminist? Also a scholar and not just an average reader with involuntary unbiblical slavery on her mind?

Osiek starts one of her studies on the language of the New Testament this way.  Her scholarly essay, “Female Slaves, Porneia, and the Limits of Obedience,” begins as follows:

From a modern perspective, we would say the [first-century] categories ‘women’ and ‘slaves’ are partially overlapping. Some women were slaves, but not all were; some slaves were women, but not all slaves were. But, in fact, in ancient categories it is the expression ‘women slaves,’ which seems to us more inclusive, that is a conceptual contradiction. While women and slaves of the ancient Greco-Roman world shared much in common within the male perspective of the patriarchal household, they did not belong to overlapping categories. Both were in Aristotle’s categories fit by nature to be ruled, not to rule.

Both shared intimately in the life of the household, including its religion, economy, child production and nurturing, and burial. . . . Both women and slaves in many ways remained in a state of perpetual liminality. Ancient literature regularly ascribes to one the vices of the other. But if females who were slaves had to be fitted either into the category of women or of slaves, the ancient thinker would have considered them slaves, not women. As females who were slaves, they were doubly fit by nature to be ruled and dominated.  (pages 255 – 276, Early Christian Families in Context: an Interdisciplinary Dialogue)

Now, Osiek goes on to comb through the ancient literature, including the scriptures and even the New Testament of the first century, to find differences in how the categories “women” and “slave” were treated in various texts. She concludes generally:

This sexual availability of slaves seems to have been completely taken for granted.

And it makes me wonder how much Collins and Grudem and the majority voters for ESV biblical bondservanthood have taken for granted.

Osiek had already added the following, opining with good reason:

There is an astonishing lack of specification about slaves even in the literature of marital advice. More ancient authors than might be supposed advocate the marital fidelity of husbands, including Aristotle . . . and Pythagoras . . ., but it is doubtful whether sex with one’s own slaves is included. Plutarch, on the other hand, considers it normal for husbands to take their debauchery elsewhere, to go wide of the mark . . . with a . . . slave. . . . If Plutarch is consistent, then his advice about educating freeborn males not to be overbearing with slaves . . . does not prohibit rape of slaves.

And it makes me wonder about how Collins and Grudem translate the language of biblical marital advice, when wives from the New Testament forward, from the first century into the twenty-first, are advised to voluntarily submit themselves to their husbands.  If bondwives were a word, . . .

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    September 26, 2011 5:44 pm

    Thank you for this very necessary and very painful post. Thanks for linking to the story of Jacobs, who hid for seven years in a crawlspace.

    And then I think –

    leads to freedom
    provides status
    provides legal protection

    I can hardly believe someone would think that this could apply to any other than the most elite of slaves. If you were a brilliant and valuable slave, who was able to earn money, then you might earn freedom, but the average, the dullard, the less than able, must be perpetually “not lead to freedom.” Who is the gospel for anyway?

    And how are wives lead to freedom?

  2. October 31, 2011 1:01 pm

    I notice that this post got a hit today from someone who used the search term “how to be the most submisive slave to my husband”


  1. What Does “Bondservant” Mean? « BLT
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