Bible Translation

Bible Translation: HCSB vs. ESV on “Slave” or “Servant”

The Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) translates the Greek word “doulos” as “slave.”  The English Standard Version (ESV) translates it in three different ways depending on the context: “slave,” “bondservant,” or “servant.” Here is an explanation on the HCSB website for why it translates “doulos” this way (go here for the source):

Words we consider synonyms have different biblical meanings.

Consider words like slave and servant. All slaves were servants, but not all servants were slaves. A slave had no rights, didn’t receive any pay for work but was completely dependent on the master for everything. A servant, on the other hand, worked for a master but had rights and privileges aside from the master.

Here’s another treatment of the translation of “slave” vs. “servant” posted on the HCSB website:

Three out of four American Bible readers say they prefer a literal translation of Scripture even if some of the words or concepts do not fit easily into modern culture, according to a new study by LifeWay Research.

The study polled 2,000 people through a demographically representative online panel. All participants read their Bibles at least monthly — either for personal study or as part of a family activity. People who read the Bible only in a corporate setting, like a worship service, were not included in the study.

Survey participants were told: “In the original Greek and Hebrew, the Bible occasionally uses words that some might think do not fit in our society today, such as ‘slave.’ Some translators think these should be translated literally as ‘slave,’ while others think they should reflect current context and be translated as ‘servant.’ Which do you prefer?”

Nearly half (46 percent) strongly prefer a literal translation, and 28 percent somewhat prefer a literal translation. Fourteen percent somewhat prefer a translation to reflect current context while 4 percent strongly prefer such a translation. Seven percent are not sure.

The HCSB translates many ancient concepts literally, including “slave,” and uses bullet notes at the end of the Bible to explain them.

“The Bible includes concepts that may be uncomfortable or may require more study to fully understand,” said Scott McConnell, director of LifeWay Research. “This example shows more Bible readers prefer to see the literal translation rather than glossing over such concepts in a translation.”

This is too simplistic.  It’s not more literal to assign one English translation to one Hebrew or Greek word.  In fact it’s usually bad translation policy to do so.  If you only translate “doulos” as “slave” when there are contexts in which the usage of the word makes “servant” a better option, then you’re committing what D. A. Carson calls the fallacy of “unwarranted restriction of the semantic field” (D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, pg. 57).  Carson writes,

We sometimes fail to appreciate how wide the total semantic range of a word is; therefore when we come to perform the exegesis of a particular passage, we do not adequately consider the potential options and unwittingly exclude possibilities that might include the correct one.

A word should be defined and translated according to its usage, not assigned one English equivalent without regard to the different nuances the word might carry in its original context.  I like the ESV translation policy here (see pg. 2).

Critique of KJV Onlyism (including PDF download)

Lately I’ve been getting into a lot of conversations about whether or not the King James Version of the Bible is the only valid English Bible translation. Back in 2005, Dr. Robert Plummer had his hermeneutics class put together an overview sheet addressing the issue, so that we could later appeal to it in ministry situations such as the ones I’ve been finding myself in lately. I decided to update that sheet and provide it here for download in case someone else might find it useful in answering KJV only proponents that they come across in their ministries.

The major critiques are as follows (much of the information here is based on James R. White’s book, The King James Only Controversy: Can You Trust the Modern Translations? [Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1995]):

1) Holding the presupposition that the KJV alone = the Word of God alone and then attempting to prove from that presupposition that the KJV alone is the Word of God is a circular argument, and thus a logical fallacy. One should not assume what one sets out to prove.

2) Throughout church history, there have been Christians who have rejected changes to the translations or versions of the Bible that had become the accepted texts of Scripture. One example is Erasmus’ Greek New Testament. Much of the church was unwilling to accept it because they believed the Latin Vulgate alone was the Word of God. The irony here is that Erasmus’ Greek New Testament was the basis for the KJV. This shows that while KJVers are against change in the traditionally accepted text, it was change in the traditionally accepted text of Erasmus’ day that made the KJV possible in the first place.

3) One of the best arguments against KJV onlyism is the testimony of the KJV translators themselves. In the preface they promote other translations (something that modern KJV only advocates would never do) saying, “a variety of translations is profitable for the finding out of the sense of the Scriptures.”  Thus, as James White correctly notes, “The position requires the translation to be something its own authors never intended it to be” (White, 77).

4) Most of the incidents in which KJV only advocates have accused modern translations of “omitting” or “deleting” important words can be explained by the simple absence of the word(s) in the original languages (see PDF download above for examples).

5) The Hebrew and Greek sources used for translating the KJV are significantly inferior to those available today. As scholar Jack P. Lewis states,

Of the five primary uncial manuscripts now received as authority for the purity of the text of the New Testament, only Codex Bezae was then available, and there is no evidence that it was used. Papyrus discoveries came three hundred years later. The King James scholars could have known fewer than twenty-five late manuscripts of the New Testament, and these were carelessly used. Today there are 5,358 known New Testament manuscripts and fragments. . . . The 1611 situation for the Old Testament was even poorer. The Complutensian Polyglot (1517) and the Antwerp Polyglot (1572) would have been the sources from which they would have known the Old Testament. Where these two differ, the KJV agrees with one or the other except in about a half-dozen places where it agrees with neither. . . . About 800 Hebrew manuscripts have now been studied. (see Jack P. Lewis, The English Bible from KJV to NIV: A History and Evaluation, 2d ed. [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991], 41-42; quoted in Paul D. Wegner, The Journey from Texts to Translations: The Origin and Development of the Bible [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1999], 311.)

6) There are many instances in which the KJV translators obviously got it wrong in their translations of various words and phrases from the original languages, whereas modern translations get it right (see PDF download above for examples).

7) It is simply not true that the KJV was the first full English translation of the Bible (something KJV only proponents often claim). The first full English translation was the Wycliffe Bible, which was completed in 1382. The next full translation was the Coverdale Bible (1535), then the Matthew Bible (1537), followed by the Great Bible (1539), after which came the Geneva Bible (1560). But that’s not all; two more full English translations appeared before the 1611 KJV—the Bishops’ Bible (1568) and the Douay-Rheims Bible (1609-10).