ABSTRACT: The Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) offers an excellent contemporary translation alternative. However, the HCSB may present a potential unnecessary offense to some black readers by translating the Greek word “doulos” as “slave” in most occurrences regardless of context. This comes at a time when the Southern Baptist Convention is making good faith reconciliatory efforts toward the black community. The article is intended to spark reasoned discussion and not meant to be critical or divisive.
About 2004 I purchased a leather-bound Holman Christian Standard Bible New Testament (HCSB). I heard that the HCSB was being produced by the Holman Bible Publishing Company so that Lifeway could include readings from the new version in Sunday school material as a contemporary translation of the Bible. Like many Southern Baptist church pastors, I began trying out the HSCB for teaching and preaching and at the outset a challenge was presented. In a Bible study of Philippians 1:1 a young black woman I had baptized raised some concern over a word in the verse. Here is the verse:
Paul and Timothy, slaves of Christ Jesus: including the overseers and deacons. Philippians 1:1 (HCSB)
The word in question was “slaves.” Her comment was, “What does it mean to be a slave of Christ? One becomes a “slave” by force but one becomes a “servant” or “bond servant” by choice as other Bible versions translate the word. She said the verse created a troubling image in her mind as a new Christian. She could not envision Jesus forcing her to believe with a whip in hand. She had come to know Jesus by his love. Her question was thoughtful and one that other Christians of color are asking.
I began trying out the HSCB for teaching and preaching and at the outset a challenge was presented. In a Bible study of Philippians 1:1 a young black woman I had baptized raised some concern over the word “douloi” translated “slaves.” …She said the verse created a troubling image in her mind as a new Christian. She could not envision Jesus forcing her to believe with a whip in hand. She had come to know Jesus by his love.
I raise the issue herein respectfully not as a biblical language translator, though my seminary education included biblical languages. I am certainly not a biblical languages expert. However, the issue is important as my church is becoming a truly multicultural church. Have other church leaders heard comments or a rejection of the HCSB over the same issue? Why would the HCSB translators choose to translate the word “doulos” as “slave” in almost every case? Other options such as “servant” or “bond-servant” were available that would 1) make the proper translation equally well, and 2) avoid offending American blacks who have been deeply affected by slavery and the civil rights movement. It is interesting that some have started calling the HCSB the “Hard Core Southern Baptist” Bible. Will the HCSB receive broad use and perhaps cross denominational lines? Only time will tell but it will certainly be interesting to see whether the HCSB receives acceptance in the African-American community and culture.
Few non-blacks can comprehend how the issue of slavery continues to hurt and affect people. Just a few days ago a black leader in the church told a story of how his great grandfather was “lynched” for taking his own pig that had escaped to the neighboring farm that belonged to white people. He spoke of the disturbing event as if it happened recently. There should be greater sensitivity regarding the issue.
COMPARATIVE TRANSLATION OF THE WORD “doulos”
A comparison of how various Bible versions translate the Greek term “doulos” indicates that two popular contemporary versions translate it to “slave.”
- KJV= servant
- NKJV= bondservant
- NIV= servant
- ESV= servant
- NLT= slave
- HCSB= slave
- NASB= bond-servant
- Amplified= bond servant
Which is most correct based on definition in the original language AND the context of biblical usage, AND how the reader will likely understand in the receptor language?
To be fair and accurate, the NKJV has 20 occurrences of “doulos” translated as “slave” due to context and 81 occurrences of the same word translated as “servant.” The HCSB has 72 occurrences of “doulos” translated as “slave” or “slaves” and 3 occurrences of the word translated as “servant” or “servants.” Please realize that there are a few other Greek words that may be translated as servant or slave often indicating a child. However, it is clear that the HCSB translators made a choice to translate most occurrences of “doulos” as “slave” even when another choice was available. A small and insignificant point? Let the reader decide. I would love to hear the opinions of African-American Christians on this point.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:
- To what degree is the receptor language of Bible translation important to translators?
- To what biases are the translators susceptible?
- Does the translation committee reflect racial diversity and sensitivity?
- What is reflected in the “proceedings” regarding the translation of words in question?
- To what degree is the committee aware that they are reaching beyond several demographics of social strata?
INSENSITIVITY, COMMITMENT TO ACCURACY, OR A MISTAKE?
It is true that the Greek word “doulos” may infer voluntary or involuntary servitude so why raise the question? I pastor a church that has made a commitment to be a multicultural disciple-making church. We are one church with two congregations with the active church membership being about 50% white and 50% black. As the reader can imagine, merging a largely black congregation into a white congregation presents more than several challenges. The leaders are always on guard for issues of insensitivity and misunderstanding between the two cultures of the church. As a result, I do not use the HCSB because the translators were slavish regarding the translation of the term “doulos” as “slave.” I believe the Greek word could be translated as “servant” or “bondservant” and avoid the potential problem.
Christians in America will cross oceans to reach races of other nations with the Gospel but we must learn to cross the street.
Is this an example of insensitivity, a commitment to accuracy, or a simple mistake? Cultivating relationships in a multicultural church has required me to immerse myself into the culture of black Americans. It is unlikely that the translation committee for the HCSB considered the issues discussed herein. It is ironic that the release of the HCSB with the identified issue, comes at a time when the SBC is trying to be inclusive to black churches and leaders. It may indicate a lack of missionary prowess on the part of the coordinating leaders and agencies of the SBC.
- Is this discussion much ado about nothing or is it meaningful?
- Do you understand the cultural barriers between Christians of differing races?
- Do you think the HCSB publishers should consider the issue discussed herein in a future revision?
Dr. Tom Cocklereece
Dr. Tom Cocklereece is CEO of RENOVA Coaching and Consulting, LLC
He is a pastor, author, professional coach, leadership specialist, and is a member Coach/Teacher/Speaker for the John Maxwell Team