Book Review - Slave of Christ by Murray Harris

Paul begins his letter to the Romans by identifying himself: “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ”—at least, this is how it is translated in the King James, English Standard, American Standard, Revised Standard, and New International versions. The New King James Version translates it this way, “Paul, a bondservant of Jesus Christ,” while the Holman Christian Standard Bible and New Living Translation say, “Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus.” This translation difference can be seen in most instances of the English translation of the Greek word doulos, used 126 times in the Greek New Testament.

What is the meaning of the Greek word doulos in its linguistic and cultural context? In Slave of Christ, Murray J. Harris presents a convincing case that the New Testament use of doulos refers to the ownership and authority of a master over a slave. Through a comprehensive review and synthesis of biblical and extrabiblical literature, as well as a detailed description of the meaning and connotation of slavery in the world of the New Testament, Harris argues that the New Testament use of the word doulos is a metaphor for wholehearted and total devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ (p. 19).

The slave metaphor

This scholarly yet accessible volume begins with an examination of the literature of the period and the connotations of slave terminology in the New Testament and Greek Old Testament in order to help the reader better understand the slave metaphor. From descriptions of slavery in Roman law and literature from the first century AD, a slave is defined as “someone whose person and service belong wholly to another” (p. 25). In light of this, “slavery involves (a) absolute ownership and control on the part of the master and the total subjection of the slave; and (b) the absence of the slave’s freedom to choose his action or movement” (p. 25-26). The identity of the slave was inseparable from the identity of his master (p. 44). There are more similarities than differences between ancient and modern slavery, and the essential characteristics of slavery were shared, for example, by slavery in ancient Rome in the first century as well as slavery in southern America in the nineteenth century. Therefore, the language of slavery would have been just as, if not more, offensive to first century readers of the New Testament as it is to twenty-first century readers. Because of this, Harris argues that the language of slavery should be retained in New Testament English translation.

In subsequent chapters the author details the metaphorical use of doulos in the New Testament under four main connotations: freedom, lordship, ownership, and privilege, then examines four New Testament examples of people who are called “slaves of Christ.”

Harris, in both the text and footnotes, often helpfully refers to contrary perspectives and explains why he disagrees with them. He also explains the relevance of this understanding of doulos to the life of a Christian, as one who is owned by and under the authority of God and of Jesus Christ, a sovereign yet kind master.

I would have liked to have seen more detail on the debate over the translation of doulos in modern English versions, given that Harris served on the Committee on Bible Translation for the New International Version and that the debate over the proper translation of doulos was an impetus for his research (p. 17). Harris does address this issue, but briefly in an appendix, almost as an afterthought. Nevertheless, I found this book to present a conclusive argument that doulos should be translated “slave,” and that New Testament Christians should think of themselves just as Mary (Luke 1:38), Paul (Rom 1:1; Gal 1:10; Titus 1:1), Tychicus (Col 4:7), Epaphras (Col 4:12), James (James 1:1), Peter (2 Pet 1:1), Jude (Jude 1:1), and John (Rev 1:1) did—as slaves of Christ, totally devoted to Him.

About the author

Murray J. Harris is professor emeritus of New Testament exegesis and theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. Formerly, he was warden of Tyndale House at Cambridge University in England. His Ph.D. is from the University of Manchester, where he studied under F. F. Bruce.

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There are 6 Comments

Brenda T's picture

How does this differ from Harris' 2001 edition with the same title? 

Greg Long's picture

I don't know, Brenda. On amazon I see a 1999 edition. The 2012 volume I reviewed does not say "revised" or "expanded" or "2nd edition" or anything like that, so perhaps it is just a reprint of the earlier volumes with a new publisher.

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Greg Long, Ed.D. (SBTS)

Pastor of Adult Ministries
Grace Church, Des Moines, IA

Adjunct Instructor
School of Divinity
Liberty University

Brenda T's picture

I've read the 2001 edition and was wondering what, if anything, had changed since then.

Greg Long's picture

MacArthur's book is a more popular work while Harris' is more academic. However, MacArthur relies heavily on Harris and quotes him quite a bit. It is somewhat humorous because MacArthur makes it seem like he is uncovering something that no one else has written about, and then proceeds to quote Harris. But I guess from a popular perspective MacArthur is the first to deal with this issue at length.

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Greg Long, Ed.D. (SBTS)

Pastor of Adult Ministries
Grace Church, Des Moines, IA

Adjunct Instructor
School of Divinity
Liberty University

Brenda T's picture

It wasn't until the spring of 2007, on an all-night flight to London while reading Slave of Christ by Murray J. Harris, that I realized there had been a centuries-long cover-up by English New Testament translators. . . . Had no one uncovered this before Harris in 1999?

from Slave, by MacArthur (p. 1-2)

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