Skip to content

What Does “Bondservant” Mean?

September 26, 2011

For context, see Kurk’s post.

It all sounds so genteel – “bondservant.”  But what does it mean?  Perhaps a bondservant is a type of bondholder – effectively an indentured servant – who merely needs to pay off his or her bond to “complete the assignment.”  Or maybe it is more like a bondager – a sharecropper or tenant farmer.  Or maybe it is something holy, like a bondieuserie.

But those are misreadings of “bondservant.”  In the the history of Biblical translation, a bondservant (or, more usually, “bondslave,” “bondmaid[en],” “bondman” ) is a slave.

Thus, the KJV has at 1 Maccabees 2:11:

“Of a free-woman shee is become a bondslaue.”

Tyndale has at Galatians 4:22:

“Abraham had two sonnes, the one by a bonde mayde, the other by a fre woman.”

Now, as Kurk relates, Wayne Grudem feels that the distinction between “slave” and “bondservant” has to do with permanent rather than temporary, voluntary rather than conscripted, and economic rather than racial (Grudem carefully avoids mentioning the term “tribal.”)

That is not supported by actual usage in Bible translations.  For example, I would have expected Grudem to be familiar with the KJV which uses the term as thus (1 Kings 9:20-21):

And all the people that were left of the Amorites, Hittittes, Perizzites, Hiuites, and Iebusites, which were not of the children of Israel, Their children that were left after them in the land, whom the children of Israel also were not able vtterly to destroy, vpon those did Solomon leuie a tribute of bond-seruice vnto this day.

Not temporary, but “vnto this day.”

Not voluntary but “a tribute.”

Not economic but based on religion and nationality (“Amorites, Hittittes, Perizzites, Hiuites, and Iebusites, which were not of the children of Israel.”)

It is most certainly not the case that in the Roman Empire (let alone the Babylonian Empire, the Assyrian empire, the Canaanite and Israelite kingdoms, the Alexandrian Empire, etc.) that slavery was primarily economic – primarily it was drawn from conquered peoples.  If the possibility of manumission existed, well it existed also in Antebullum American South.

Has the meaning of the word “slave” changed as John Collins (“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”) and Wayne Grudem (“for the average English reader, the word slave has irredeemably negative associations and connotations”) assert?  Did it once have positive connotations?

In fact, the word “slave” has a more positive connotation than it did 400 years ago.  Previously “slave” had a pejorative meaning (e.g., Shakespeare Coriolanus 4.5.175:  “Oh Slaues, I can tell you Newes, News you Rascals;” 1.7.39 “Where is that Slaue Which told me they had beate you to your Trenches?”  But its core meaning of a human in bondage (which is the real meaning of “bondservant”) has remained unchanged at least since Chaucer’s 1394 Troilus and Criseyde (3.391: “ I wol þe serue Right as þi sclaue.”)

The claim that “bondservant” is a clearer term than “slave” is certainly inaccurate; as is a claim that it has any real difference in English meaning (except to be more obscure.)  But one wonders at this sudden sensitivity of the ESV translators.  Why do they suddenly care about a change in the connotations of the word “slave,” but are indifferent to the change in connotations of “man” and other masculine forms to denote humankind?  Why do the suddenly care about a change in the connotations of the word “slave,” but are indifferent to the change in views about the way the word “Jew” is used in the translation of the New Testament?

22 Comments leave one →
  1. September 26, 2011 5:09 pm

    This looks to me like a case of preachers wanting to use obscure words in a translation so they can make them mean what they want in their sermons – and make their congregations feel dependent on their learning.

  2. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    September 26, 2011 5:29 pm

    I am trying to summarize in my head the incongruencies. First, regarding translation, how can they justify the change when the gender language cannot be changed. Doesn’t changing the word “slave” also change the word of God?

    Of course, this slavery was not voluntary – one is either born into slavery, captured into slavery, or starved and frozen into slavery.

    I can hardly bear to read these two posts. I will say no more at the moment.

  3. September 26, 2011 11:30 pm

    Peter, I cannot conceive of any actual semantic reason (based on the plain English meanings of the words “slave” and “bondservant”) why the committee would have made the decision it did. Certainly, there were no convincing reasons given in the (edited) BBC segment that Kurk presented in his post. To me, it looks like pandering — partly for the “big word” effect you allude to, but partly to make this particular passage sound less harsh.

    Suzanne, this is euphemism by fancy words (another example is the translation “Lord God of Hosts.”) There is a real element of hypocrisy here, since prominent members of the very same committee decry the use of inclusive language as a form of euphemism. It seems that they regard the meaning of the Bible as something quite plastic.

  4. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    September 27, 2011 1:59 am

    They want to remove the mention of slaves from the epistle to the Ephesians so that the slavery issue is not used as a comparison for wives. There is an attempt to legitimize the hierarchy of master and bondservant, to normalize this kind of bondage as servanthood, and as a noble thing, as something with status and legal protection. But if so, then why is it so important to say that it was not permanent and lead to freedom. This makes no sense.

  5. September 27, 2011 7:23 am

    Very helpful points, Suzanne.

    They want to remove the mention of slaves from the epistle to the Ephesians so that the slavery issue is not used as a comparison for wives.

    This is precisely why I wanted to entitle my post, “‘bondservants’ and other submissive wives.” It’s also why I coined the phrase, “biblical bondservanthood” as some sort of analogy to the so called “biblical manhood and womanhood” of Grudem, Piper, et al.

    why is it so important to say that it was not permanent and lead to freedom.

    Indeed, this makes no sense! And I believe Grudem would back off of this point, not so much because he has to face the facts of history, but because he cannot say that the state of being a voluntarily submissive wife is as temporary (if as, he would say, as noble and as full of status and as legally protected as bondservitude would be); nor could he allow a woman to free herself from her husband over her. So, yes, the sensibleness is gone.

    At least Aristotle was consistent. He saw Nature (not economics or volunteerism or self-submission) to be the cause of the plight of both slaves and women/wives.

  6. September 27, 2011 8:13 am

    make their congregations feel dependent on their learning.

    Peter, You are correct, and it seems also that they want their readers dependent.

    The marketing of this “Standard” version goes like this:

    ” Trusted Legacy
    Trusted Scholarship
    Trusted by Leaders
    Trusted for Life”

    And readers need not consult other translations, much less the original languages, since:

    “The ESV is an ‘essentially literal’ translation that seeks as far as possible to capture the precise wording of the original text and the personal style of each Bible writer. . . . Thus it seeks to be transparent to the original text, letting the reader see as directly as possible the structure and meaning of the original.”

    Precision and transparent meaning for a 75% majority of the ESV scholars means that the readers should trust them. When Paul writes doulos to the Korinthians, he’s written “bondservant” to the English readers today.

  7. September 27, 2011 5:40 pm

    So I’m late to the comments but what is the difference between a bondslave and a slave? I feel like the parable of the unforgiving servant is actually about a bondslave but he’s been lent money by his master and is threatened with being sold along with his wife and children. I would have thought that since he’s already a slave there would be little point in selling him – it would just be a loss to the master. This had got me wondering about what makes someone a bondslave versus a regular slave.

  8. September 27, 2011 8:34 pm

    Eric — in English, “bondslave” and “slave” have identical meanings, and indeed, the same Greek word is used at Matthrew 18:21-35 as as in 1 Corinthians 7.

    You are right that the parable lacks some internal consistency — both because of the enormous debt involved (10,000 talents = 6 million denarii = 200,000 man years of labor = 11 times the annual royal tribute at the time of the division of Herod’s realms) and because of the shifting role of the king, who at times is a king (18:23) and at times is a master (later in the passage).

    Regarding the illogic of the master selling the slave, see John Nolland’s 2005: NIGTC commentary

    As part of the storyteller’s flourish, the more imposing word for ‘sell’, πιπράσκειν, is used as in 13:46, which also has πάντα ὅσα ἔχειν (‘all that one has’) as found here. The ancient world knew nothing of limited liability or humane laws of bankruptcy. In any case, the wife of a slave and his children (though probably not his goods) were most likely already owned by the master. Except for the small amount, presumably, to be retrieved for the slave’s goods, the master’s plan is actually to shore up his own financial position by liquidating some of his own assets and at the same time to bear down punitively on the slave. Jeremias identifies the price range for slaves as about 500 to 2,000 denarii. The sale of the slave and his family would make no realistic contribution to meeting such a huge debt. The story at this point would work better with a debt of something more like 10,000 denarii.

    Regardless of whether you accept Nolland’s analysis or not, “bondservant,” “slave,” and “bondslave” all have nearly identical meanings in English.

  9. September 27, 2011 11:28 pm

    Thanks. I had somewhere in my head that there were three Greek words indicating servitude with “doulus” being a debt-slave, “diakonos” being a servant, and there being some other word indicating someone who was made a slave through warfare or by being born into that state but I don’t think I have any good reason to believe that. I gather from your explanation that there isn’t any such word and that adding “bond” to “slave” doesn’t serve to mark a different Greek word than “slave” alone does. Is this correct?

  10. September 28, 2011 12:39 am

    Eric, you are mostly right, but I am not familiar with the claim that doulous means “debt slave.” Here is the entry from Liddel-Scott-Jones — I don’t see support for “debt slave.”

    δοῦλος (A), Cret. δῶλος Leg.Gort.1.1, al., ὁ:—prop. born bondman or slave, opp. one made a slave, τὰ ἀνδράποδα πάντα καὶ δοῦλα καὶ ἐλεύθερα Th.8.28, cf. E.IA330: then, generally, bondman, slave, opp. δεσπότης (q.v.) for the distinction between δοῦλος and οἰκέτης cf. Chrysipp.Stoic.III.86, Ammon.Diff.45: not in Hom., who twice has fem. δούλη, ἡ, bondwoman, Il.3.409, Od.4.12, cf. A.Ag.1326, X.Cyr.5.1.4, Pl.R.395e, etc.: freq. of Persians and other nations subject to a despot, Hdt., etc.; οὔ τινος δοῦλοι κέκληνται, of the Greeks, A.Pers.242: of the subject of Roman empereor, IG4.204 (Corinth, vi A.D.) metaph., χρημάτων δ. slaves to money, E.Hec.865; so γνάθου δ. Id.Fr.282.5; τῶν αἰεὶ ἀτόπων Th.3.38; λιχνειῶν, λαγνειῶν, X.Oec.1.22, cf. Mem.1.3.11.

    II. Adj. (not in A.), δοῦλος, η, ον, slavish, servile, subject, δ. πόλις S.OC917, X.Mem.4.2.29; γνώμαισι δούλαις S.Tr.53; δ. ἔχειν βίον ib. 302; δῶμα δ., opp. νοῦς ἐλεύθερος, Id.Fr.940; τοὺς τρόπους δούλους παρασχεῖν E.Supp.877; δ. θάνατος, ζυγόν, πούς, Id.Or.1170, Tr.678, 507; δ. καὶ τυραννουμένη πόλις Pl.R.577d; δ. ἡδοναί, = δουλοπρεπεῖς, ib. 587c, etc. δοῦλα τοῦ θεοῦ τρία ἀδέλφια SEG36.1182; fem. as subst., ἡ δούλη τοῦ θεοῦ ib. 1186 (both Galatia, v/vi A.D.): Comp. δουλότερος more enslaved, Αἴγυπτον δ. ποιεῖν Hdt.7.7, Myc. to-e-ro, do-e-ra (fem.).

    2. τὸ δ., = οἱ δοῦλοι, E.Ion983, etc.; also, slavery, a slavish life, ib. 556 (troch.).

    3. ancillary, δ. ἐπιστῆμαι Arist.Metaph.996b11.

    See also

    οἰκέτης, ου, ὁ, (οἶκος) household slave, A.Ch.737, Hdt.6.137, 7.170, Antipho 1.30, Th.2.4; δημόσιος οἰ. τῆς πόλεως Aeschin.1.54.

    2. οἱ οἰκέται also, = οἰκετεία, household, A.Ag.732 (lyr.), Hdt.8.4,106,142, S.Tr.908, X.Cyr.4.2.2.: Pl.Lg.763a, 777a, 853d; διαφέρειν φησὶ Χρύσιππος δοῦλον οἰκέτου, διὰ τὸ τοὺς ἀπελευθέρους μὲν δούλους ἔτι εἶναι, οἰκέτας δὲ τοὺς μὴ τῆς κτήσεως ἀφειμένους Stoic.3.86: but freq. synon. with δοῦλος, Arist.Pol.1252b12, al., PLille29.2 (iii B.C.), IG5(1).1390.77 (Andania, i B.C.); δοῦλος μεῖζον οἰκέτου φρονῶν Men.696.
    II. perh. residing divinity, ὅδε σηκὸς οἰκέταν εὐδοξίαν Ἑλλάδος εἵλετο Simon.26.6 P. as epith. of Apollo, ἱερέως .. Καρνείου Βοικέτα [B = ϝ] IG5(1).497, cf. 589, 608 (Sparta), Paus.3.13.4. (Cf. οἰκότης.)


    διάκονος [ᾱ], Ion. διήκονος, ὁ, later διάκων (q.v.):—servant, Hdt.4.71, 72, PFlor.121.3 (iii A.D.), etc.; messenger, A.Pr.942, S.Ph.497; ὄρνιθα καὶ κήρυκα καὶ δ. R.:—as fem., Ar.Ec.1116, D.24.197, epith. of Hermes, Ἑρμεῖ διακόνῳ SEG30.326.8 (Athens, i A.D.).

    2. attendant or official in a temple or religious guild, Inscr.Magn.109, 217, IG9(1).486 (Acarnania, ii/i B.C.), 4.774.12 (Troezen, iii B.C.): fem., CIG3037 (Metropolis in Lydia):—esp. in the Christian church, deacon, 1Ep.Ti.3.8, etc., POxy.1162.3 (iv A.D.): fem., TAM4(1).355, SEG37.367 (Patrae, vi A.D.) deaconess, Ep.Rom.16.1.
    II. as Adj., servile, menial, ἐπιστήμη Pl.Plt.290c: irreg. Comp. διᾱκονέστερος Epich.159 Ahr. (cf. ἐγ-κονέω, ἀ-κονιτί.)

    All of my co-bloggers here know Greek better than I do, so I am certain they will correct me if I am mistaken.

  11. September 28, 2011 1:34 pm

    Kurk, that’s an excellent post. You should consider cross-posting it — or at least posting a pointer to it from this blog (not just buried in the comments.)

  12. TheyS permalink
    October 2, 2011 7:19 am

    So the formaul here is: 1st Century middle eastern, Roman empire “bondservant” experience, legal implications and life *in practice* is equal to (if not in all ways, then in all practicality to), 19th century American South slavery experience, legal implications and life, in practice.

    Maybe putting this discussion in the context of 1 Timothy 1:10 would also be helpful.

  13. J K Gayle permalink
    October 2, 2011 8:17 am


    Grudem wants the supposed voluntary and ostensibly temporary and would-be economical “bondservant” to live not just in the 1st century but also to be the ideal of the earlier Hebrew Bible and to be a permitted state into the 21st century. He doesn’t want it to be “slave” as in 19th century southern America, of course. His own challenge is to consider the Korinthians and then to persuade his fellows that their “slavery” was kinder and gentler, like a 21st century “complementary” man over woman marriage should supposedly be: all parties in agreement about the hierarchy.

    Since you bring in I Tim 1:10, we may want to consider how the ESV translates it, especially ἀνδραποδισταῖς. My guess is they want it to keep religion and the New Testament far away from engagements with involuntary or gender based slavery of any sort. Unfortunately slavery has existed and still exists where there are religious regulations of it, such as noted here:

  14. TheyS permalink
    October 2, 2011 5:38 pm

    @ JK- thanks, but that doesn’t answer my question.
    Let me ask it this way:
    Is the apostle Paul, the bond-servant of Christ in Romans 1:1, in an Antebellum Enslavement Relationship with his Savior? Such that Paul was forced to work for no pay from sunup to sundown, could expect to be raped, beaten if he tried to escape bondage, kept from education or the pursuit thereof, forbidden to own property, forbidden to bequeath to offspring, etc etc.
    Is that the slavery in the NT view when the word is used?
    That what we’re talking about?

  15. October 2, 2011 9:55 pm

    I find the idea that there is one master-slave relationship in any time and culture a little odd. When Paul says that he is a doulous of Christ is he in an Antebellum American slavery relationship with Christ? Well, which one? One one end of the scale is the horror you describe, on the other are the slaves who (up until several used these trips to plan slave rebellions) conducted business for their masters out of state and received money of their own. I’d assume that when Paul discusses being a doulous of Christ he really does mean to imply slavery but we are meant to think of Christ as a kind master. However, the image of slave is important because the relationship is good only as Christ sees fit to make it so – Paul and Christ do not have some sort of agreement that gives Paul leverage with Christ.

  16. October 3, 2011 10:41 am

    Eric and TheyS,

    What Paul does in Rom 1.1 is striking. He does indeed use “the image of slave,” which isn’t so different from how the Greek gospel translators of Jesus’ parables use the term, doulos, δοῦλος. It’s striking! Robert Farrar Capon rightly observes how the parables of Jesus relate God to “a mixed bag of questionable characters: an unjust judge, a savage king, a tipsy slave owner, an unfair employer, and even a man who gives help only to bona-fide pests” (page 1, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment). The readers of Paul’s Greek (not Latin) letter — written to Jews and Greeks in Rome (not to actual Romans) — start to get how startling Paul intends his epistle opener to be when they get to how he uses doulos, δοῦλος in (what we call) chapter 6. Even the ESV translation team — when they come to Rom 6 — must use “enslaved” and “slave” (and not their ostensibly softer “bondservant”) because the English terms work better for Paul’s Greek douleyein, δουλεύειν and doulos, δοῦλος. Awful slavery to sin gives way to freedom to righteousness which is enslavement to righteousness. To rob the metaphor of the horrors of slavery is to take away how startling Paul’s punch is.

    (ESV does its English readers a dis-service by translating Rom 1.1 as “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus” but only then rightly translating Rom 6 with “enslaved” and “slave” throughout.)

    Paul loves to take difficult images, it seems, and to play with them.

    For example, to the men in Korinth, Greece, he – like a jealous matchmaker for God – would present them a pure virgin to Christ (ἡρμοσάμην γὰρ ὑμᾶς ἑνὶ ἀνδρὶ παρθένον ἁγνὴν παραστῆσαι τῷ χριστῷ.). Now, of course, there in II Corinthians 11.2, Paul is also addressing the wives of these men in Korinth. But to have men (or even married men and their wives) be “untouched virgins” for “one man” who is “Christ” is startling and striking. And Paul comes across looking a bit like Yente in The Fiddler on the Roof. So what kind of “pure virgin” is he implying here? What kind of good wife must these Korinthian men (and their wives) be to their one husband, the Messiah?

    Another example: What Paul does in Philemon 1.1 is as striking and as startling as what he does in Rom 1.1. He starts in with desmios, δέσμιος, as his relationship to Christ. Chains? Shakles? The ESV translation team have: “a prisoner for Christ Jesus.” But to great Greek rhetorical effect, Paul plays on this word through the little letter. And in the same letter, he also plays on, and turns on, the horrors of doulos, δοῦλος. (There, he’s playing on the names of the subject of his letter – Onisumus, which means helpful — and of the recipient of his letter — Philemon, which means lovingly, or at least friendly.). Would the wordplays, the turns of meanings, the understatements, the appeals to pathos, to ethos, to logos, work with any force at all if Paul were only dealing with a voluntary situation (i.e., with a servant who would indenture himself to an employer in a happy transaction)? That Paul would start in (as the KJV renders it) — a prisoner of Jesus Christ — is very striking indeed.

    Jesus, the jailer of chained prisoners. Christ, the owner of humans of slaves. Messiah, the one husband of a pure virgin. Paul, the shakled; Paul, the owned and perhaps abducted slave; Paul, the matchmaker to find Christ his virgin. In Paul’s Greek, I’m not sure these words — or their images — can be softened in English translation any without losing their impact.

  17. October 3, 2011 8:33 pm

    Given that this is ultimately rooted in a discussion of the ESV’s translation choice what is your overall impression of the ESV? My Hebrew is passable while my Greek isn’t and I haven’t had too much fight with the ESV in the parts of the Old Testament I’m familiar with (well, except that it retains Hebrew syntax in English sentences as often as it possibly can) but I don’t consider myself a fit judge of such matters.

  18. October 4, 2011 10:33 am

    My overall impression of the ESV is that its translation choices are mired in “complementarianism” and in the CBMW constructs of so-called “biblical manhood and womanhood.” It’s very political (and by that I mean culture-wars and church polity political) but is advertised as “essentially literal” and as to be “trusted.” (See my second comment above.) In this way, I find it somewhat disingenuous: the goal of “word-for-word” literalness gives way to hidden interpretations (i.e., “Paul, a servant” in Rom 1 vs “slave” in Rom 7, “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus” vs. “Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus” vs. “bondservant” in I Cor. 7 vs. “slave” in Rom. 6). What drives the mismatches here in the translation of the Greek is not an “essentially literal” as if “word-for-word” ideal. The contexts do not demand the little changes that the ESV translators say they do. Rather, the translators are motivated by their own personal power, as white heterosexual evangelical Christian men bent on interpreting Paul as putting them over their wives and over any woman who would preach for or would teach them. In contrast, translators such as Ann Nyland and Willis Barnstone and Craig Smith, who admit the political in the practice of Bible translation, do not push their respective translations as indisputably objective, as if following the Greek and the Hebrew the one and only way it can or must be followed. Nor do Nyland, Barnstone, or Smith fail their own ideals for translation, bending their English choices variously, due to some hidden agenda (which is in the case of the ESV the hidden agenda of male hierarchy in the Christian church). Translator bias in the name of “trustedness” colors my overall impression of the ESV. If you would like additional examples of where and how the ESV translators interpret the Greek along the lines of their complementarianism, I could blog more.

  19. October 4, 2011 12:24 pm

    Folks: I’ve been away from computers for a few days, so I am still catching up on articles.

    Regarding my opinions of the ESV, I agree with Kurk’s assessment that most of its translation decisions seem to have been driven by politics rather than impartial analysis. I think that the video linked by Kurk clearly shows this.

    The ESV is based on the RSV (which I think is quite a good translation) and I think that the ESV retains many of the RSV’s merits. However, when I compare the two when they do differ, I almost always think the RSV is superior. (The RSV was also published with an expanded apocrypha in 1977 in one of the best one volume study Bibles ever published: the 1977 New Oxford Annotated Bible. Oxford University Press even published an edition of the ESV with a super-lightly edited version of the RSV’s Apocrypha.

    I think that almost all of the good points of the ESV are already found in the RSV, and where they differ, the ESV is usually worse.

    I also have complaints on how the ESV has been marketed — I feel it was marketed in a predatory manner.

    I want to say something nice about the ESV to balance my criticism, so let me say that I do admire how Crossway has gone out of its way to produce so many different editions of the ESV and how it has developed rich web sites to support it.

  20. October 25, 2011 1:31 pm

    “Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God.”

    1 Peter 2 ESV

    Reading this passage, I imagine that slavery back in that time was something closer to the slavery experienced in this country in the 19th century. It mentions masters beating their slaves, and treating them unjustly. We seem to forget that the world back then was a lot more harsh. It is WE who have grown soft. We seem to be offended so easily by the word slavery, or hell, or women having to submit to their husbands, or any passage that talks about the punishment that awaits homosexuals.

  21. October 25, 2011 1:47 pm

    Christian, thank you for your thoughts. One of the themes of Exodus is the desire of slaves to be free, and I think that was equally true in the early Christian era.

    But if we have grown soft, I think that is a good thing. It means we have the freedom and sensitivity to move away from basic concerns and instead focus our energies on our spiritual development.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: