"Doulos" and the NASB: "…voluntary submission to deity…"

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What with the ESV translation committee’s concern that the word “slave” (translation of the Greek doulos) has “irredeemably negative associations and connotations,” I wondered how my preferred translation, the New American Standard Bible, handled the same word (and the prefixed version, sundoulos, which generally they translate by adding “fellow,” as in “fellow slave.”). The NASB mostly renders it “slave,” but at a number of places, it has “bond-servant,”—a fact which stood out to me when I began preaching through the book of James a few years ago. James 1:1: “James, a bond-servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,…”.

Here’s the frequency of each of the NASB’s various translations of doulos (including the plural form and both singular and plural of sundoulos):

“Slave(s)”—103 times

“Bond-servant(s)”—25 times

“Bondslave(s)”—6 times

“Servant(s)”—4 time

I was curious about the variety, so I emailed the Lockman Foundation to ask for an explanation. Here’s the response:

The use of the term “slave” is a complex issue, one which we continue to review given its connotations. The NASB has the terms “bond-servant” and “bondslave” in places where “slave” might sound harsh for the context, though the three words all mean the same thing since “bond” refers to “bondage”. Of course “fellow” is included for the Greek sundoulos. The NASB translators felt that in all of these places a softer term than “slave” was justified because the relationship is one of voluntary submission to deity, though the duties and obligations are not thereby mitigated.

When you look through the specific verses, a pattern emerges that confirms their explanation…

Overwhelmingly, “slave” is used where the context is one of earthly, economic slavery or when that slave/master relationship is used as an example in a parable.

On the other hand, “Bond-servant” or “bondslave” is selectively used when referring to specific people and their relationship to God: Mary (Luke 1:3848), Simeon (Luke 2:29), the Apostles (Acts 4:2916:172 Cor. 4:5), Paul (Rom. 1:1Gal. 1:10Phil. 1:1Titus 1:1), Timothy (Phil. 1:1), Jesus (Phil. 2:7), Epaphras (Col. 1:74:12), Tychichus (Col. 4:7), pastors (2 Tim. 2:4), James (James 1:1), Peter (2 Peter 1:1), Jude (Jude 1), John (Rev. 1:1), God’s people (Rev. 1:1,2:207:311:1819:219:522:322:6), and Moses (Rev. 15:3).

So, though the NASB asserts that the words “bond-servant,” “bondslave,” and “slave,” all mean the same thing, her translators chose to use the softer term in those places where the master is God because it better expresses a “voluntary submission to deity.”

Always mindful of marketing and modern sensibilities, today's well-funded translation teams manipulate the inspired text of Scripture in order to make God more palatable and domesticated. Notice that the Lockman Foundation expressed that they wanted a "softer term" for the relationship between God and man. It is a softer term as it defines the relationship not by the will of the sovereign Lord but by the will of the one voluntarily submitting. Softer is always the direction of modern translators. Why? Other than the fact that such softness sells, they participate in and approve of our rebellion against all kinds of authority.

When the Lockman Foundation puts out the next edition of the NASB (are they working on a revision?), I fear they will be tempted to find still softer terms. "Paul, an unpaid intern of Christ Jesus..." 

Andrew Dionne is the pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Spartanburg, SC. He and his wife Sarah have six children. Read more from Andrew here.