ESV Translators Debate the Word “Slave”

Last year the ESV translation committee met at Tyndale House in Cambridge, England to discuss revisions to the ESV. The BBC filmed a portion of their deliberations, and the video above includes their discussion about how to translate doulos in 1 Corinthians 7. The video gives fascinating insight into how translation committees do their work and deal with disagreements over translation. In the end, the committee votes 9-3 to change four instances of “slave” to “bondservant” in 1 Corinthians 7.

Among those participating in the discussion are Peter Williams, Gordon Wenham, Jack Collins, Wayne Grudem and Paul House. Lane Dennis is there as well as Justin Taylor, Bruce Winter, Clint Arnold, and J. I. Packer.


  • Don Johnson

    So in what is supposed to be an “essentially literal” translation, the actual closest word in English cannot be used as it is too negative?

    • Sean

      I think that is just the point, Don. The word “slave” is not the closest word in modern English. It may have been at one time, but the word slave today connotates things that the original text did not mean. As the English language changes, so must our translations.

      In other words, what word in use today means what the original word meant? That word may not be the same word used a generation ago.

      Think about all the words that young people use today that mean the exact opposite of what they meant a generation ago. I’m not saying that a Bible translation needs to reflect the latest slang, but when a word changes its common definition for many years, it may be time to reevaluate its usage in our texts.

      I applaud the ESV translators and their diligence in updating the ESV to be understood by the common person. Thanks Denny for posting this.

      • Don Johnson

        The basic challenge is that languages do not map to each other in any simply way, this is because the meaning of words is defined by the culture that uses it and of course the Bible gets to define and refine the words it uses, which trumps culture when it happens. So translating is often the art of fudging, of getting close but not really being able to nail it as the words mean different things in different languages.

        I wish more people were aware of this aspect.

  • Charles Camp

    I’m thankful for the work these men are doing to produce a reliable and understandable translation.

    I’d like to sit in on an entire meeting to learn more since we only get a glimpse of the work involved in these deliberations.

    Thank you for sharing!

  • Scott

    I have to agree with Don on this one. Paul’s letters evidence a very thorough understanding of what slavery was in the first-century social/economic context. Still, he uses “slave language” to describe his own relationship to Christ, complete with the necessary obligations. I’m not sure we should ignore this. If you replace “slave” with “servant,” you miss out on some very important connotations that were grounded in societal and inter-familial realities – and that can, and should, inform us today.

    We have a tendency to soften the realities of Greco-Roman slavery. That’s regrettable.

  • RD

    I have to ask, is what we’ve seen on the video the Holy Spirit editing the inerrant word of God? I ask this seriously, not in a snarky way (this is when typed comments can seriously be misinterpreted).

    • M Russell

      @RD – No.

      First, the doctrine of the Inerrancy of Scripture applies to the original manuscripts, those written by the Apostle or Prophet under the direct inspiration of God. It is those original Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic documents that are inerrant.

      Second, through the providence of God working through precise copying (OT) or massive parallel copies (NT), the working edition of the Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic Scriptures available today are probably 99.99% close to the original; with the small number of uncertain letters being insignificant and none of the variants affecting major or minor doctrines.

      Third, the committee was not revising the working copy of the Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic Scriptures. Instead, they were revising an English translation.

      Finally, no English translation or any other translation (Latin, German, etc) of the original is considered inerrant. All translations, even as the clip showed, suffer from various cultural and doctrinal biases of the translator.

      Translations of Scripture should never be used to build a systematic theology or deep understanding of Scripture. Translations help the average person grasp the major and minor doctrines, those leading to salvation and training unto good works. But, translations by nature loose information and thus can never be as good as the original texts.

    • Christianes

      no . . . not the Holy Spirit

      there is discussion and a ‘vote’,
      but it is ‘majority rule’,
      but it was not a ‘consensus’ that would be present among the Body of Christ

  • M Russell

    The clip illustrates a problem I have with the way Scripture is translated, especially when compared to the way a technical manual is translated.

    That problem is the desire to use single word translations. That is “X” in Greek goes to “Y” in English. Whereas, in technical writing, precision is the goal and if that means using multiple-words in the translation, then so be it. That is, “X” in Greek goes to “Y Z” in English.

    Example, doulos described someone who is: (a) owned by another, (b) cared for by another, (c) submissive and serving to the owner, and (d) without public rights. The translators were struggling with the single word equivalents of “slave” or “bondservant”. However, in technical writing, the context would narrow to highlight the appropriate combination of the more precise meanings through the use of qualifiers. For example, if the emphasis was on being owned, then the translation would be “owned person”. Or, if the emphasis was on owned and serving, then a possible translation would be “owned servant”.

    That is the problem with one word translations. Using “slave” would tend toward (a), (c), and (d), with the addition of a negation of (b). Modern definition of “slave” carries view of abuse, not care. Using “servant” would tend toward just (c), loosing (a), (b), and (d).

    Joking, this is one nice thing about German — you can create new words by joining together a lot of smaller word fragments. So, a doulos would be a “Owned-cared-for-servant-non-citizen-person”.

    Doulos shows the problems when picking from a list of candidate words. But, another problem exists when multiple Greek words are translated to the same English word. “Love” is probably the worst offender of this overloading. Agape and philio are so different, but they are both translated to “love”. Again, a case when adding a qualifier word, such as “selfless love” and “brotherly love”, would help clarify.

  • John

    I would gave the same question about the word translated ‘brothers’ in the ESV. Most of the time, in a footnote, it says it could be translated ‘brothers and sisters’. When I hear ‘brothers’, I think ‘fellow believers’ rather than ‘male believers’. But most of the people I work with think ‘male’ when they hear ‘brothers’. Should this also be changed in the main text, or does it really mean ‘males’?

    • Sean

      Would the text have been better served with a footnote explaining the difference between ANE Doulos and our contemporary ideas about slavery rather than a change in wording? Could that be contained in a footnote?

  • Erik

    Whether we agree or disagree about the word ‘slave’, I simply would love to be a fly on the wall listening to how these men dialogue on various portions of Scripture. For the average person in the pew, this is fascinating.

  • Jeff Parsons

    It seemed, at least from this clip, that the western perception of the word slave was being considered rather than it’s accuracy in translation. Which left me wondering, when does that type of process move from formal to dynamic equivalence? I’m such a novice at this, that the question is probably not even relevant……and I ask the question out pure fascination rather than supporting an agenda. I’m thankful God has raised up godly, intelligent men, who have a passion for His word and take it so seriously.

    • Sean

      From my understanding, essentially literal translation is concerned with the meaning of individual words while dynamic equivalence is concerned with the overall meaning of phrases or passages of scripture. The later leaves a lot open to the interpretation of the translators with the risk of a theological spin.

      Did these translators intend to come up with the best representation of the word or did they have a theological agenda?

      Another question is whether there is a difference between the “perception of [a] word” and a definition. It seems to me that in order to have “accuracy in translation” the two are inseparable. What good is an “accurate” translation when the reader goes away with the wrong perception of what the text actually says? That doesn’t sound accurate to me. I believe the perceived meaning of the text is not the same thing as the interpretation or implications of the text (which is what dynamic equivalence seems to be targeted at providing).

  • Brent Hobbs

    Fascinating video. I could sit and listen to discussions like this for hours.

    One thing about this video… It strikes me how easy it is to oversimplify translation issues, whereas the translation committee is forced to wrestle with so many different angles on decisions like this.

  • Bryan Chasteen

    I had hoped that the translators would get this word right. It seems they pay no attention to the opinions of trusted evangelical leaders such as R.C. Sproul and John MacArthur. At the end of MacArthur’s book he goes to great pains to show how founding fathers such as Augustine, Calvin, Luther and others viewed the word. Somehow, I think pleasing people not accurately translating the word of God was in view here. Boo. ESV translators. I think I will stick with the HCSB and NASB. Why couldn’t you just get that word right? Is it because you still think that a Christian decides how much of himself belongs to God? Just in case you guessed, Masters have slaves and not bond-servants or servants. This makes me so mad. Jay Adams translated the word slave. The HCSB translates the word slave. John MacArthur wrote his book entitled “Slave” and you think you are going to get flack for translating the word correctly? Come ON!

  • RD

    Isn’t this an example of how the Bible creeps – over time – into inerrancy? Fifty years from now people will be reading this verse and pointing to it as the divine word of God. But this verse will exist in this version of the Bible as the result of a 9-3 split vote. If we can’t agree on the interpretation of a single word, how can we agree that a codex of which there are virtually no original existing texts is the inerrant word of God?

    • M Russell


      It appears you are confusing the science of textual criticism and the art of translation.

      Textual criticism is the literary, forensic science that identifies and removes transcription (copying) errors from a set of copies with the goal of reconstructing the original text (autograph). The process enables the textual critic to produce a “critical edition” containing text that most closely approximates the original text. The more copies the textual critic has to work with, the more closely the “critical edition” will approach the original.

      In the case of the New Testament, the textual critic is flooded with copies. There are over 5000 Greek fragments, 10000 Latin translations, and 9000 other language translations of the NT dating from about 100 AD to 400 AD. This does not even count the number of NT quotes appearing in the early church fathers writings.

      Contrast this with other ancient writings, such as Josephus or Julius Caesar, where we only have dozens of copies dating about a 1000 years after the originals were written.

      The Nestle Aland (NA27) compilation of the Greek is accepted by the academic community as the best reconstruction of the original Greek New Testament autographs. This is the “gold standard” used by modern Bible translators.

      Again, the doctrine of inerrancy applies to the original Greek autographs, not any translation.

      I mention that translation is an art, not a science. There is no reproducible, procedural process in translation. It is a fine art of balancing understanding the vocabulary of the general public, recognizing audience cultural biases, interpreting the contextual meaning of the original language words, and more.

      No translation, whether the Latin Vulgate or KJV or ESV or whatever, is considered inerrant.

  • Adam Beck

    It seems the translators are concerned about misunderstanding of “slave” in our culture. Ironically, they don’t share the same concern about gender inclusive words they translate in a masculine way (which can also cause misunderstanding). I have much more respect for the HCSB for being willing to translate the word in question here as “slave” out of a respect for accuracy rather than any other chief overall concern.

  • John

    While I use the ESV sometimes and appreciate the fact that the translators take such care to be faithful to the original text, it seems that the HCSB more accurately represents the original, at least in this instance.

  • RD

    M Russell,

    You say above, “the doctrine of inerrancy applies to the original Greek autographs, not any translation.”

    No complete original Greek autographs exist, do they? Isn’t it the case that Christians in churches throughout the world read scripture only from translations?

    • Don Johnson

      No, this is not totally true. Modern Greeks can read the NT and LXX with some help, at least less help than most others. Some modern Messianics and some others can know Hebrew and can read Biblical Hebrew. But also, some teach from the Greek or Hebrew or Aramaic when needed and in some cases it is needed.

    • Don Johnson

      This is a way of denying that a TRANSLATION cannot have flaws, as it is obvious that no translation is perfect as it is a work of humans. Some may think that a translation (e.g., KJV) is perfect, but this is not the general belief of the majority.

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