Rob Bradshaw has pointed out a clip on the BBC (apologies if it doesn’t work for viewers outside the UK [edit – it is also available on YouTube, ht John Byron]), which shows part of the discussion between the 2011 ESV review translators on how to translate terms for slave. I am particularly interested as this impinges on my current research on slavery in the Synoptic Gospels. The clip shows something of the challenge of translating a subject which carries so much historical freight, especially for those in the States, the main market for the ESV I suspect. Peter Williams suggests that ‘ebed should be translated as ‘servant’ everywhere, since the implication of translating it ‘slave’ would make Israel to be slaves to God. It seems to me possible that this is precisely the meaning of the term. Gordon Wenham picks up the idea and argues for a consistent translation as ‘slave’, but Wayne Grudem has concerns about the ‘irredeemably negative connotations’ of the word today. I presume he means that since we see slavery as a bad thing, this would colour our reading of the Bible which often uses the concept without any sense of disapproval. However, I disagree that this would be importing ‘highly inaccurate understandings of the meaning of the term.’* The discussion then moves to a vote on 1 Cor 7:21-3. I will comment on this in part 2, but I take it that their discussion was ultimately seeking to encompass slavery in the NT which is what I want to comment upon here.

I fear that this is evidence of the persistent idea in biblical scholarship that slavery in the ancient world can’t have been all that bad, because we hear of some slaves being well treated, some slaves gaining riches and positions of authority, and some (even many) being manumitted in the Roman world. This, however, is a highly selective reading of the evidence. In NT times, the majority of slaves worked in the harsh, even brutal, conditions of agriculture, and as far as we know, were rarely manumitted, perhaps because they did not live long enough. Those who were household slaves had the dubious privilege of being close to their owners. For younger women and boys, this often meant sexual attention, and all household slaves were the recipients of physical violence at the whim of their owner, as the parables indicate. The slave owner decided slaves’ relationships, and owned any children produced. Slaves experienced terrible punishments under Roman law, even when their offence was carrying out the criminal intentions of their owner. Moreover, slaves’ testimony could only be received under torture. The majority of slaves were cut off from their places of origin, their culture, language, and kin, never to return to them. And this included those lucky slaves who found freedom and fortune. On any level, such an account of slavery is bad, and attempts to see ancient slavery in any kind of rose-tinted light should be abandoned.

I rather like the ESV as a modern ‘word-for-word’ translation (as they put it), and I’m glad the reviewers paid such care and attention. But they ought not to try to protect the Bible from its readers (or is it the readers from the Bible?). Slavery is there and slavery was and is bad. We do an injustice to the biblical texts, and to the unnamed and unnumbered slaves, if we try to pretend otherwise.

* I recognise that the clip is edited, so the discussion was no doubt more nuanced than it suggests.

[21/9/2011 Edited to remove the non sequitur between paras 1 and 2]