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Paul and Timothy in the Book of Philippians (Part Eight)

Posted on March 23, 2013 at 11:24 PM Comments comments (107)
“Paul and Timothy, Servants of Jesus Christ…”  Philippians 1:1      

In Part Seven of the Journal, I discussed extensively (1) the origin of the cultural impact, and (2) the Gospel in the Greco-Roman world. This Journal focuses on the last third point: Misguided translation, its background and the Gospel. These are the facts contributed to the erroneous rendering of doulos (slave)  for servant.   Now, let’s begin with the last point:  

Third, Misguided Translation, Its Background and the Gospel. Knowing who a slave was and identifying oneself as slave of Jesus created some cultural concern. There is a cultural gap that needs to be bridged in order for comprehension to occur.  So, Christian translators in those cultures began to struggle because literal translations by design ignore the cultural gap and leave it to the reader to reach the correct interpretation. Translating through a cultural lens leaves the truth of the Bible in a fog.  Such translations are not incorrect, but they are incomplete and rely upon the ability of the reader to come to the right conclusion through knowledge obtained outside the text.  Meaning-based translations, on the other hand, seek to bridge the cultural gap. The danger for this translation style, however, is misinterpretation, which may lead the reader astray, if the translators have not taken the appropriate care to ensure correct communication.

In the Greco-Roman culture, there is a unique distinction between Slave and Servant.  Slaves are owned and servants are hired.  A servant has a choice, without personal will or rights.  A servant is not bought, a slave is. A slave is considered as a thing, without will or rights. 

With this understanding, can one preach the gospel in those cultures with the battle trumpet to be a slave for Jesus Christ?  If you focus on such message as an acceptable position for Christianity in any democratic nation, it will negatively raise eyebrows for those in the pews.  For example, if you preach such a Gospel, let’s say, in America, it will not go down well with the American people due to their democratic values.  It will certainly sound an alarm!  America being the center of individualism, pragmatism, deism, atheism and postmodernism, would mean that the message of becoming slaves of Jesus Christ would sound strange. In fact, civil right movement will, immediately, blow an alarm for such Gospel. In the Greco-Roman culture identifying oneself as a slave of Christ would not go down well with the audience due to their definition of slave. Hence, these translators decided to use servant, which is a bit softer then slave.

But this was the message of the apostles, the church fathers, the apologetics, etc. There is a need to reecho the voices of those who stood by this great Gospel of being delivered from the slavery of sin and now has become a permanent slave of Christ:

  • In the Shepherd of Hermas (c. 130), one of the oldest Christian documents refers to Christians as “slaves of God.”
  • Polycarp (c. 69- c. 155) writes, “… Therefore, bind up your love robes and serve as God’s slaves in reverential fear and truth,…
  • Charles Spurgeon (1834-18923) says, “… Where our Authorized Version softly puts it ‘servant’ it really is ‘bond-slave.’  The early saints delighted to count themselves Christ’s absolute property, bought by him, owned by him and wholly at his disposal….’”           

Dr. John MacArthur, who wrote a masterpiece on this rediscovery, notes, “I also discovered in my trip around the world that there are many other major language translators who have followed the lead of the English versions and maintained the cover-up.  Yet there are some who do translate it correctly.  Thus, this revelation is not hidden to my fellow believers in places like Russia, Romania, Indonesia, and the Philippines.  Why in English?”          

“The lostness in Translation,” of the Greek word, doulos (slave) to servant begins with the English translation.  It began with the Geneva Bible, which was followed by the King James Version.  “Even earlier,” John said that, “John Wycliffe and William Tyndale rendered the Greek doulos with the English word ‘servant.’”John also notes, “The reason for this is as simple as it is shocking: the Greek word for slave has been covered up by being mistranslated in almost every English version….” Most of our modern translations do slightly better.  This cover-up has undermined and is corrupting the true meaning of believers’ relationship with Christ.  Sadly too, we hear deistic messages calling on Christian to trust in themselves instead in Christ, our master for every need.  I believe this cover-up stems from the impact of western culture.  Translators of the Geneva Bible and the King James Version think that by using servant for slave shall appeal to their culture.  The key point is such contextualization affect the true message of the Cross – we are set free from the slavery to sin and have now become slave to Jesus Christ.  There are Greek words, as had already been discussed in one of my journals, to be used in their translation, but they believe that slave is a stronger word, weird, and does not appeal to their culture, only servant does – it is softer. The truth is we are bought with Christ’s own blood on the Cross of Calvary, and are certainly His slaves. The rabbinic scholars who produced the Septuagint understood exactly what ebed meant, and it was rightly translated.         

In an article published in the Northwest Baptist Seminary’s website, in Cross-cultural Impact of Twenty-first Century, Mark Naylor observes similar contextualization problem in Japan,

A missionary to Japan, Norman Kraus, realized that the forensic metaphor of the atonement, familiar to North American evangelicals – that Jesus died to pay the penalty for our sins – did not make sense to the majority of Japanese.  In exploring the assumptions behind this rejection of the atonement, he discovered that they were interpreting the presentation according to a very different understanding of justice.  The Western concept of justice requires an impartial decision based on immutable laws leading to a debt that must be paid. For the Japanese the issue is not guilt banished through punishment, but shame that must be overcome through the establishment of right relationships and the restoration of honor.  

Translators of the English Bible were influenced by their cultures and they covered-up by rendering slave for servant.  The cover-up started with William Tyndale and John Wycliffe.  It was also picked up by the Geneva Bible and the English Version of the King James Bible. As a result the same cover-up is picked up by translators who used the English Version as its standard.  But few countries like Russia, Romania, Indonesia, and the Philippines did not cover-up, they got it right. For them, slave is slave and not render servant. Therefore, we   need a paradigm shift to the biblical meaning of the word, slave.    

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Polycarp, Letter to the Philippians, 1-2, in Ehrman. The Apostolic Fathers (2003), 1:335.
Charles Spurgeon, “The Way to Honor,” sermon no. 1118, in Metropolitan Tarbernacle Pulpit (Pasadena, TX: Pilgrim :publications, 1981), 19:356-57.
John MacArthur, 2.
Ibid, 15.
Ibid, 15.
­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Accessed April 9, 2011.
John MacArthur, 2.