Paul, Philemon, and the Problem of Slavery

by Anthony Weber

Though Paul’s letter to Philemon is often used to accuse Paul of supporting (or at least being okay with) slavery, the criticism misses the deeper purpose of this letter. Paul presented a radical message that to Philemon would have undermined everything he had been taught about masters and slaves, and could only lead to a world without slavery.

Does that seem like a bold claim? Perhaps it is. But I believe an honest reading of the text within the context of 1st Century Greco-Roman culture leads us to this conclusion.

The term “slave” finds its origins in 13th century France; linguistically, it’s only fair to acknowledge that any discussion of 1st century conditions will be distorted if we use the word “slave” indiscriminately. The Greeks used many different words to describe people in servitude or slavery. Doulous, the word Paul uses throughout the New Testament to reference someone who is not free, cannot be indiscriminately translated as “slave” without poisoning the wellDoulos could mean slavery, servitude, or simply self-sacrificial commitment. Jesus took upon himself the nature of a doulos (Philippians 2:7); all people are either the doulos of sin or of Christ (Romans 6:17-18); Paul said he was a doulos to everyone (1 Corinthians 9:19). In order to do justice to Paul’s message in Philemon, we must be honest about the intricacies of the language.

When the writers of the ESV sought to translate both the Hebrew and Greek words that had been commonly translated as “slave,” they ran into some problems:

“A particular difficulty is presented when words in biblical Hebrew and Greek refer to ancient practices and institutions that do not correspond directly to those in the modern world. Such is the case in the translation of ‘ebed (Hebrew) and doulos (Greek), terms which are often rendered “slave.” These terms, however, actually cover a range of relationships that require a range of renderings—either “slave,” “bondservant,” or “servant”—depending on the context. Further, the word “slave” currently carries associations with the often brutal and dehumanizing institution of slavery in nineteenth-century America.

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For this reason, the ESV translation of the words ‘ebed’ and ‘doulos’ has been undertaken with particular attention to their meaning in each specific context. Thus in Old Testament times, one might enter slavery either voluntarily (e.g., to escape poverty or to pay off a debt) or involuntarily (e.g., by birth, by being captured in battle, or by judicial sentence). Protection for all in servitude in ancient Israel was provided by the Mosaic Law. In New Testament times, a doulos is often best described as a “bondservant”—that is, as someone bound to serve his master for a specific (usually lengthy) period of time, but also as someone who might nevertheless own property, achieve social advancement, and even be released or purchase his freedom. The ESV usage thus seeks to express the nuance of meaning in each context.”    ”The ESV Translation Committee Debates the Translation of “Slave” 

Doulos made up about 40% of the Greek and Roman population. This seems like an astonishingly high number, but doulos in some fashion formed the backbone of the economy. There were absolutely brutal forms of doulos (particularly for captured soldiers and criminals), but other forms that bore little resemblance to what we think of today. Many were what we would think of as indentured servants (similar to what happened in the early days of American settlement). Greek and Roman doulos were often highly educated, and many were doctors, professors, teachers, administrators, public servants and even policemen…

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Paul, Philemon, and the Problem of Slavery | TC Apologetics