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The translators of the NET note for Colossians 1:7 and 4:12,

The Greek word translated “fellow slave” is σύνδουλος (sundoulo"); the σύν- prefix here denotes association. Though δοῦλος is normally translated “servant,” the word does not bear the connotation of a free individual serving another. BDAG notes that “‘servant’ for ‘slave’ is largely confined to Biblical transl. and early American times…in normal usage at the present time the two words are carefully distinguished” (BDAG 260 s.v.). The most accurate translation is “bondservant” (sometimes found in the ASV for δοῦλος), in that it often indicates one who sells himself into slavery to another. But as this is archaic, few today understand its force.

The NET seems to be alone among English translations to use "slave" here, but it seems to have good reasoning, and I've heard others say that it's the better translation of the word.

  1. Would the initial readers have understood Paul to be referring to himself and Epaphras and fellow believers as "slaves" in the Greco-Roman sense of personal property?

  2. Would his use of the Greek word have the same scandalous connotation that it would for modern American readers to see "slave"?

  3. If the NET is correct to use "slave" in 1:7 and 4:12, then why not in 1:25?

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While an examination of Roman slavery practices would be too broad for this format, I am curious if this related question is a duplicate (at least of parts of this question) or not? –  maj nem ɪz dæn Mar 28 at 21:13
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Worth looking at the resources on John Byron's blog. He has written a couple books (at least) on the subject. –  Davïd Mar 28 at 21:54

3 Answers 3

“Slave” vs. “servant” in Colossians

The crucial point here is not so much the "meaning" of the words "slave," and "servant" as is the manner of their respective uses. Christianity has often given words a new meaning or import.

A servant was a hireling; someone who was not owned. If a servant did no like his/her job, employer, wages, working conditions, etc., he/she was perfectly free to leave that job/employer and seek other employment elsewhere. Contrariwise, a slave had no such freedom of choice or movement. A slave was bound to his master regardless of the tasks assigned, the conditions under which he/she was made to labor, etc.

Paul quite graphically employs servant/slave with respect to both Messiah and to sin (Romans 6:16-22 being a very prominent example). The use of fellow servant would be to emphasize the unity of the common faith in Messiah in contrast to our former slavish unity in sin.

Faith in Messiah releases us from sin's death grip, and places believers in a position of faithful obedience to him. In both Colossians 1:7 and 4:12 we find Epaphras in such a position of faithful obedience to the Messiah.

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It may be interesing to know how these verses are represented in Peshitta, as many people seem to believe that it contains ancient translation from Greek manuscripts.

In Colossians 1:7 there is word ܟ݁ܢܳܬ݂ܰܢ which means a companion, fellow-servant, collegue. To better understand the meaning the Payne-Smitch dictionary contains some more examples: ܟ݁ܢܳܬ݂ܰܢ is also an opponent in argument, wood is the ܟ݁ܢܳܬ݂ܰܢ of fire ("suits with its nature"). So it has some notion of serving one another in some complementary way.

Now, in Colossians 4:12 Peshitta has ܥܰܒ݂ܕ݁ܳܐ which in Aramaic is a completely different word but with clear meaning: servant, someone who serves another. This is very general word. Royal officer can be a servant and slave can also be a servant. There are some instances in Peshitta where this word is used in context of being slave, or being not free but this word itself does not seem to imply slavery. I think that it may be similar to Hebrew עָ֫בֶד and עֲבֵד (Strong's Concordance: 5650 and 5649). You need to look in what context this word is used to really understand its meaning.

If one is to believe, that Aramaic Peshitta is a translation from Greek, then I would suggest that either in Colossians 1:7 and 4:12 scribe/translator didn't see any specific meaning of slavery in any of those two Greek words, or that maybe Aramaic didn't have any appropriate words to express it.

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There are parallels between Colossians and the Letter to Philemon, which two missives appear to have been penned by Paul at the same time (cf. Col 4:7-9 with Philemon 1:12). In Philemon 1:16, the Apostle Paul makes reference to Onesimus as Philemon's "slave" (δοῦλος).

On the other hand, in Colossians 4:7 Paul makes reference to Tychicus as his fellow "bond-servant" (σύνδουλος), but, when he makes reference again to both Tychicus and Onesimus in the same context Colossians 4:7-9, Paul refers to them both as his "beloved brother" (ὁ ἀγαπητὸς ἀδελφὸς).

In the Letter to Philemon, Paul then asked Philemon to consider Onesimus as a "beloved brother" in the same way that Paul considered Onesimus as his "beloved brother" (Philemon 1:16).

In other words, when human beings are the property of another (whether that person is Philemon and/or the Lord), then the term at hand is "slave" (δοῦλος); when those same people are believers, the preferred term at hand is "beloved brother" (ὁ ἀγαπητὸς ἀδελφὸς) and/or "bond-servant" (σύνδουλος). That is, Paul urged Philemon not to consider Onesimus his slave but as his beloved brother, because they were fellow believers. Notwithstanding, Onesimus was still his slave according to Roman Law, which is why Paul returned Onesimus to Philemon.

In summary, the word "slave" denotes personal property, but believers are not to view other believers as slaves notwithstanding they are actual slaves. This nuance in no way changes our status as slaves before the Lord, who purchased us with his own blood (Acts 20:28 and Rev 5:9).

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