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Doulos, Diakonos, Slaves and Servants

“Doulos” is the common Greek word in the New Testament (and Septuagint) translated as “slave” or “servant” or “bondservant”. “Ebed” is a similar Hebrew word. “Diakonos” also means “servant”, sort of, but not “slave”. Since “doulos” is so common, what does it mean— servant or as slave?

From my cursory research, it looks as if the scholars have not sensibly addressed this question, important though it is. Doulos can definitely mean slave. It is less clear, actually, whether Diakonos can mean servant. What is crucial is whether Greek makes a distinction between the following categories: (a) slaves who can be bought and sold, (b) slaves who must follow orders but are not bought and sold, merely inherited, in the normal course of events, (c) paid servants who must follow all orders but can end employment at will, (d) paid servants who cannot leave at will, and (e) people hired for particular jobs who cannot be commanded to do other tasks. If “doulos” means all of these things, then its meaning depends on the context, and it would be misleading to use the phrase “slave of God”, for example. Note that it would be useful to know even the meaning of “slave” in Greek. Does it mean a chattel slave, who can be sold at any time, separately from his wife and children? Can a master kill his slave if he wants? If the slave earns wages from somebody else, do they belong to the master? We Americans of 2009 think of our ante-bellum Southern slaves when we think of slaves, but ours was not a typical form of slavery.

Some notes follow.

Kittel, on Google Books, says secular Greek calls the following deacons: bakers, messengers, stewards, assistant helmsmen, and statesmen. The entry is surprisingly small. The “diakoneo” entry is also short. It says Josephus uses the word for “to wait at table,” “obey” and “render priestly service”. It sounds like “to assist” and “assistant” to me. Kittel on “doulos” is not relevant. It says that the word means “slave”, but it doesn’t say whether it could also mean “servant”. The entry for “pais theou” is interesting. That’s where the Hebrew “ebed” is discussed.

Paula Gooder
“Diakonia’ in the New Testament:
A Dialogue with John N. Collins,”
has scholarly sources. It says that “diakonos” might mean “go-between”, or at any rate not have connotations of menial service. See Collins, John N. Diakonia Re-Interpreting the Ancient Sources. (New York and Oxford: OUP, 1990). See, too: ”
Diakonia and the New Greek Lexicon (BDAG): John N. Collins, 2001. Unpublished essay commenting on a new revised edition of a Greek lexicon which utilizes the linguistic research found in Collins’ Diakonia: Reinterpreting the Ancient Sources (New York: Oxford, 1990). The lexicon’s treatment of the diakon- words is the first appearance in a scholarly linguistic text of Collins’ findings.”

John Macarthur:

“There are six words, at least, for servant, doulos is not one of them. There is diakonos from which we get deacon, oiketes related to oikos, house, a house servant, heis, having to do with one who serves by instructing the young. Huperetes, a low-level, third level, under servant, literally an under-rower, the third level on a galley slave, someone who pulled an oar down at the bottom of a great ship; leitourgos, another kind of service, usually associated with religion; paidiske and maybe misthios that can be translated minister. There are plenty of words for servant, there’s only one word for slave, doulos and sundoulos. Yet in the history of the evangelical translation of the Greek into the English, all the translators consistently have avoided the use of the word.”

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