The ESV Translation Committee Debates the Translation of “Slave”

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When the ESV (English Standard Version) Translation Oversight Committee met in the summer of 2010 (at Tyndale House in Cambridge, England), the BBC stopped by to film a segment on the discussion of how best to translate the Hebrew word ‘ebed and the Greek word doulos. It was a fascinating discussion of lexicography, biblical theology, ancient culture, and modern culture. The four-minute clip condenses hours of discussion based on hundreds of hours of research:

Speaking in the video are C. John Collins (Covenant Theological Seminary), Peter Williams (Tyndale House, Cambridge), Gordon Wenham (Trinity College, Bristol), Paul House (Beeson Divinity School), Wayne Grudem (Phoenix Seminary), and Lane Dennis (Crossway Books & Bibles).

The resolution to this discussion is reflected in the latest preface to the ESV:

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. 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. Where absolute ownership by a master is in view (as in Romans 6), “slave” is used; where a more limited form of servitude is in view, “bondservant” is used (as in 1 Corinthians 7:21-24); where the context indicates a wide range of freedom (as in John 4:51), “servant” is preferred. Footnotes are generally provided to identify the Hebrew or Greek and the range of meaning that these terms may carry in each case.

You can read more about the ESV 2011 text update in this note from Crossway President Dr. Lane T. Dennis:


Thank you for your love for God’s Word and for your interest specifically in the ESV Bible.

As the publisher of the ESV, I want to let you know that a small number of word changes are being incorporated into the ESV Bible text, as we reprint and publish new editions of the ESV in 2011.

The extent of the word changes is comparatively small, involving about 275 verses and less than 500 words out of more than 750,000 words in the Bible text. To put this into perspective, the changes to the ESV are about one one-hundreth of the changes made recently in other leading Bible translations.

A few examples are changes from “yourself” to “you”; from “servant” to “worker”; from “has not” to “does not have”; from “young man” to “boy”; from “capital” to “citadel”; from “bondage” to “slavery”; from “nor” to “or”; from “trustworthy” to “faithful”; from “competent” to “sufficient”; from “everyone” to “each one.” A complete list of changes, shown in the context of each verse, is provided here. You can also download a copy of the ESV preface, for further explanation of the ESV translation philosophy, principles, and legacy.

This list of 2011 changes was reviewed and discussed over the last five years by the thirteen-member ESV Translation Oversight Committee (TOC). The TOC then met in the Summer of 2010, and finalized the list in the Spring of 2011. The changes were then approved by the Crossway Board of Directors in April 2011. Editions of the ESV with the 2011 text changes include the following notice on the copyright page: “ESV Text Edition: 2011.”

Most changes to the ESV text were made to correct grammar, improve consistency, or increase precision in meaning. In making these changes, the Committee was deeply conscious of the enormous responsibility entrusted to it—to translate the very words of God, with the greatest possible accuracy and precision, depth of meaning, and literary excellence.

I would be grateful for your prayers and support for the ministry that the Lord has entrusted to all of us at Crossway—that we may faithfully serve our Lord and his church, and that he alone may be glorified in all we do.

On behalf of the ESV Bible Translation Oversight Committee and the
Crossway Board of Directors,

Lane T. Dennis, PhD

Crossway President and
ESV Translation Oversight Committee Chair

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