Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Letters received from complete strangers

During the course of my teaching career, I've received letters and emails from complete strangers. Sometimes they simply send an entire paper which they ask me to endorse. Sometimes they have a query about a subject in the NT --more often than not from Revelation. Sometimes they send along a real question on an issue on their minds.

What I do depends on the query. I got one of them this week and since the author knew General Seminary and since the three pages concluded with a statement, "If I am mistaken, where have I gone wrong?" I am going to spend some time composing a letter in reply.

However, it's taking longer than I thought. It's about the rendering of DOULOS as "slave" in the NRSV as opposed to "servant" in the KJV. Apparently the author of the letter is exercised by Matthean parables in which "God" as slave owner evidences coercion. True, every Matthean parable featuring managerial slaves (unmerciful slave 18:23-35; wicked tenants 21:23-41; wedding banquet 22:1-10; overseer 24:45-51 and talents 25: 14-30) graphically shows the vulnerability of slaves to bodily harm. So what are we going to do with this imagery?

I'm starting with issues of translation. The NRSV choice of "slave" for DOULOS is to indicate legal subordination. For some, a translation "servant" indicates voluntary servitude. Another word DIAKONOS is generally rendered "servant"and occasionally the NRSV reverts to "servant" for DOULOS: see Gal 1:10.

I try next to differentiate ancient slavery from modern slavery. Race is not a factor in the institution of slavery in the ancient world. Ancient slaves were educated whilst education of American slaves was legally forbidden. Ancient slaves could own property (including other slaves) and most slaves could be emancipated by the age of 30 and could become Roman citizens. Ancient slavery is akin to a process; modern slavery is a permanent condition.

I'm still writing the letter to include the other complicating element: use of the term EBED in Hebrew Scriptures. EBED is rendered by DOULOS in the LXX and occasionally by OIKETES when indicating a household slave.

Here's my conclusion: "So taking the notion of slavery seriously means that we view the language of Paul and gospel writers describing Jesus's ministry to reflect on the one hand the normative reality of ancient slavery and on the other, metaphor. There's no evidence that Jesus or Paul were slaves. And in distinction to modern people, ancient writers do not customarily use language of free will and choice when it comes to allegiance and affiliation. Philippians 2, the text you mention, describes Jesus humbling himself even to death on the cross by “taking the form of a slave” to reflect that crucifixion was the punishment for slaves.


Also, taking the Bible seriously means taking the language it was written in and the social realities that shaped it seriously. We cannot escape slave language by softening the translation; rather our vocation is to reflect on the implications of that language, and to judiciously critique any attempt to replicate antiquity's social mores in today's world."

Inbetween times, I've solicited from colleagues their own examples of such letters. My favorite was the one that asked a colleague to confirm that bee pollen was eaten in the Garden of Eden. Of course they wanted him to endorse a health product. 

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