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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40 thoughts on “The ESV Translation Committee Debates the Translation of “Slave””

  1. SoSpricht says:

    I wish there were more videos like this. I love watching the “behind the scenes” stuff.

    Thanks for posting!

  2. Bill says:

    Justin, were you there too? The man who comes into focus from 1:02 to 1:05 sure looks an awful lot like you. If so, did you get to participate, or were you simply observing?

    1. Justin Taylor says:

      Yes. I was a non-voting participant, making only an occasional comment.

  3. Michael says:

    So because no one knows history anymore, we should change the translation? Why not use the misunderstanding of the term as a teaching moment, like JM does in his recent book? Why the certainty of 1 Cor. 7:21-24 meaning “bondservant”?

    I’m pretty sure that the slaves taken in war, babies born to slaves, and children kidnapped into slavery during the NT times would argue with Grudem’s statement that it was “often voluntary”. Thiselton estimates only 1/3 of Imperial period slaves were voluntary arrangements.

    1. Carlos says:

      True Michael.

    2. SoSpricht says:

      1/3 of the slaves were voluntary? I think that’s evidence enough to demonstrate ‘slave’ in the first century connoted something significantly different than what it does today.

      You also said, “So because no one knows history anymore, we should change the translation?”

      Did you read the post or watch the video? Let’s be reasonable here. This is an unfair reductionism.

      “Why not use the misunderstanding of the term as a teaching moment?”

      I agree, but like Collins in the video I also see Peter’s point. What do you think of his synthesis?

      1. Michael says:

        By rendering doulos as bondservant, the implication is that all slavery was voluntary, not just 1/3. Even the 1/3 indentured slaves were not free to do as they pleased.

        I did watch the video, read the post, read the new preface and compare the ESV to other literal translations.

        Regarding Peter’s comment (the one about slaving before God?) we are slaves to Christ and we do the Master’s work. I see no problem with that. For further study, see MacArthur’s slave or Harris’ slave of Christ. By changing this to servant, we loose the many nuances of this term.

        1. SoSpricht says:


          I’ve read both books. Harris’ work is wonderful and I would recommend it to anyone. MacArthur’s book is poorly argued and he confuses issues (between lexical meaning and preferred translation; Equating ESV’s rendering as an intentional affront to the Lordship issue). My impression reading the book was that he is not very knowledgeable regarding translation theory.

          The issues that Harris, Wenham, Williams, Grudem and Collins are grappling with are very different from what MacArthur is. These scholars are dealing with a sticky matter. MacArthur seems to think he is dealing with a very black-and-white matter, which is only convoluted because the translators are involved in some conspiracy. I know some of these gentleman personally and I can assure you that they are not involved in any such thing. They are diligently working to present God’s Word in English as faithfully as they know how.

          If one wishes to disagree on the translation of doulos, that’s fine. But it crosses a line to call the translators motives into question. On top of this, I think it is a foolish observation to see this issue on par with the gender controversy and the NIV. Two big reason: Wayne Grudem and Vern Poythress.

          I’m sorry if it sounds like I’m attacking you but I want to defend these men who work (what appears to be) a thankless job. They deserve more thought and attention than what they’re typically given on the blog comments.

          Grace and Peace!

          1. Michael says:

            The issue in question is over the translation of “slave” and the philosophy behind it. I do not call into question the men you list, as I respect much of their work. Nor do I equate it exactly to the new NIV translation issue (although the NIV issue is a picture of where political correctness can take us.)

            I agree they are trying their best to translate God’s Word, yet they have made a wrong turn here in re-translating doulos as servant/bondservant. Realize the ESV originally translated it as “slave”. Not in the 1950s or 1960s, but 2001. Have the last 10 years changed the view of historical slavery? The main reason for changing this term is not exegetical or historical, but what we all political correctness.

  4. Zack Skrip says:

    I totally understand the struggle, but the problem remains that if the text is a bit opaque then the translation should be opaque as well. I understand that they are all “pretty sure” which way to interpret doulos or ebed but if I was ok with them being “pretty sure” I’d read the NIV.

    On top of that, Pastorally this is really annoying. There are already two different ESVs out there, and now there will be a third. When my congregation reads the ESV with the pastor, they notice differences. We switched to the ESV to have one text, and now we don’t have that anymore.

    1. Josiah says:

      Zack, I agree with your pastoral observation. I work at a Christian school, where we switched to the ESV because of the recent NIV updates; we figured that the ESV would be one unified text instead of being subject to constant change like the NIV. This is especially important for memory work, etc. Now we find that we need to clarify which Text Edition to use for some of our memory verses. It is annoying, yes–but I also have this nagging feeling that there is always going to be another update, and we’ll never be able to get a truly “standard” text. Since it claims to be a “standard” text, this is troubling.

      How much of this is driven by the need to sell Bibles? I have no idea. Maybe none of it, and my question is unfair. I am, however, concerned.

      1. Justin Taylor says:

        It may be a fair question, but I can assure you that the consideration of the “need to sell Bibles” played no role whatsoever in the updating of the text.

        All major translations have done this sort of thing. It’s an extremely small percentage of changes, but is part of the ongoing work of trying to produce a translation that is as accurate as possible.

        1. Josiah says:

          Thank you for your kind reply, I appreciate it.

  5. Ray Ortlund says:

    “And after there had been much debate . . .” (Acts 15:7). Good precedent there for a good discussion here.

    Such debates today are not infallible, and can go terribly wrong, but the ways of God include robust debate. Just because we are involved doesn’t necessarily mean God isn’t involved.

  6. Justin Keller says:

    I can’t agree that it should be left opaque, mostly because I don’t think “opaque” is the right category here. The Greek and Hebrew terms have broader semantic ranges than the English term “slave” does. I encounter this problem in reverse when working with people for whom English is not their first language. In addition, while Koine Greek and ancient Hebrew are static languages, English continues to shift and evolve.

    Three cheers for the ongoing work of the committee! Make the best decisions possible in keeping with the translation philosophy of the ESV.

  7. michael henry says:

    This is an example of one of Dr. MacArthur’s observations, backed by his research, that translators were more than squeamish about translating doulos to slave. It really seems that the bible has to fit this time, more than it fit the times it was written in. When the brothers of the Lord call themselves “bondservant”, they were clearly translating themselves as slaves, not “i kinda had a choice”. Rather than take the hard to swallow totality of what being a total and abject slave means, it appears men search for politi-biblical speech to insert, at every turn. Because of the emotions that the spectrum of being a slave would engender, is it really any different than the NIV row over “inclusive” language? I appreciate the lengths these men go to to be faithful and true, but from the uneducated bleachers outside academia, it seems suspicious at best.

    1. Carlos says:

      Thanks for your comment Michael. I agree and tend to lean to Dr. MacArthur’s point of view and I’m a black American!

    2. SoSpricht says:


      I think you touched on something important in your last sentence, though, I don’t think I picked up what you intended. You said,”from the uneducated bleachers outside academia, it seems suspicious at best.”

      One of the reasons the translators chose the change that they did is precisely because the term ‘slave’, while appropriate for academics who have an understanding of slavery in the first century, would be inappropriate in a context where most people do not have such an understanding. So, for example, when MacArthur says the best lexicons say doulos should be rendered ‘slave’, well: 1. That’s not true (see BDAG), and 2. What the best lexical definition is is not necessarily the best translation.

      Secondly, keep in mind that many of the ESV translators (I think 25 or 30%) are also on the HCSB. So translation choices don’t always reflect each individual translator nor does each translation have the same audience in mind.

      Thirdly, We need to be careful not to confuse issues. There is a great difference between, “I disagree with the ESV translation” and “There is a conspiracy afoot.” It’s fine to hold the former opinion but the latter can quickly become slanderous.

      God Bless!

      1. Michael says:

        Examples abound of words in the Bible that might “be inappropriate in a context where most people do not have such an understanding.”

        The question we must ask is do we translate the text or interpret it as well for our readers?

        1. SoSpricht says:

          The question operates on a faulty premise. All translation is interpretation. Everyone who knows a foreign language knows this.

          1. Michael says:

            True, but a literal translation should be as literal as possible. To say that it might “be inappropriate in a context where most people do not have such an understanding” is to include more interpretation than is necessary. Due to the effective education in today’s world, one could argue that much of the Bible is “in a context where most people do not have such an understanding”.

            See Rykens “The Word of God in English” where he mentions that we expect 18 year olds to understand Shakespeare but not adults to understand modern Bible translations.

  8. moises acayan says:

    it the updated esv already out? if not when will it be released?

    1. Justin Taylor says:


      1. moises acayan says:

        so will the esv study bible be republished to carry the updated version of the esv?

  9. SoSpricht says:

    Jack Collins is one of my professors and I have a few other professors who are on the ESV and HCSB translation committee. I have the greatest respect for him and the others. I have never known a translator who wasn’t serious about presenting God’s Word in English as it was originally intended. I have no doubt that these men are humble servants of God and of His church. Reading some of the posts here I just want to encourage anyone wrestling with this to reflect on that. A lot of time and effort goes into translating the Bible. They deserve more respect and thought than a flippant remark or the sway of one book or blog. Don’t get caught up in one side of the story. Give these guys the respect they deserve.

    God Bless

    1. Wayne says:

      To this I can only say, “Amen!” I too had Collins as my Hebrew/OT Professor and I couldn’t be more grateful.

  10. Thanks Justin for this peak behind the veil… It’s great to see the interaction of these men at this level.

    Other question for you (seeing your MacBook Pro) – what Bible software do you use/recommend? I have dodged purchasing an expensive package since so much is available online, but I am not always online…
    thanks, db

  11. I find this both interesting and disappointing. One is because of the focus on the effects that North American slavery has on the translation process, particularly because this translation is used worldwide, [and especially because in this time black people were kidnapping as many if not more other black people and selling them into slavery] and secondly because it presupposes that the words of Paul, James, John, etc, “A slave of Christ” would not have carried the same [or at least a similar] stigma back when they said it. Its not like saying that would have readily and cheerily accepted, especially by the nobility and upper class. And lastly- so what if a word has primarily negative connotations? the very gospel itself is foolishness, and the scripture contains tons of situations which the world would find irredeemably offensive, least of not is john 14:16, or the commands of God to kill all the babies.

    I love my ESV and will probably always use it, but it’s disappointing to see the concerns that they considered before rendering doulos.

  12. errr, I meant John 14:6

  13. Andrew Bywaters says:

    Leaving the argument over Doulos for a moment, I noticed that a disproportionate number of changes occurred in 1 Samuel, and a lot of the changes are quite substantive in nature. Does anybody know why this book in particular was singled out for such a comparatively thorough revision?

  14. Jim says:

    The link to a complete list of changes does not work. Is there a way to view the complete list of changes? Thanks

  15. Jay says:

    I also found the link to the list of changes broken. I hope it will be restored so we can study the changes made by this august committee.

  16. Justin Taylor says:

    Sorry for the broken link. I’ve updated the post above. Here it is:

  17. Karen Hieb says:

    Would you be able to provide the complete list of changes as something that can be downloaded and/or printed? I haven’t been able to figure out how to do that with the link that you posted here, and we could something downloadable and/or printable so that we can revise our ESV curriculum references to match the 2011 version…Also, would you be able to pass along a greeting to Lea, too? You are both remembered with much thanksgiving.

  18. Karen Hieb says:

    Sorry, I missed up on my email address for the last comment. It should be corrected here.

  19. OPC Ruling Elder says:

    Having just chaired a committee that (successfully) recommended switching from the (now-unavailable) 1984 NIV to the ESV as our pew/pulpit Bible, it’s almost problematic to learn of the 2011 ESV (along with the 2001 and 2007 ESV’s).

    It’s fine to slipstream versions of software, it is ok to update electronic documents, but repeatedly obsoleting a translation used in community contexts is problematic. I shudder to think of seeing a church full of people accessing the Scriptures via Kindles, iPhones and i-thises and i-Thats.

    Does Translation Oversight Committee think they can let the text be for awhile?

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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