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Paul tells slaves that they should “be submissive to your masters with all respect (παντὶ φόβῳ)” (NASB). There are several points that should be made here. The first is the semantic range of φόβος. BDAG lists: Intimidation; Fear; Reverence; Respect.
Most translations go with “respect” (ESV, CSB, NLT). The NRSV has “deference” and the NET has “reverence.” What’s wrong with “reverence”? To my mind, “reverence” has more to do with how we treat God, so if Peter is talking about the human masters then “respect” is better.
However, “reverence” does broaden the scope of the word, which suggests the NET translators think Peter is speaking of something more than human masters.
The KJV reads, “Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear.” What is right about this? “Fear” is closer to the core meaning of φόβος (although certainly φόβος does not automatically mean “fear”; that’s the function of context). But what is wrong with this translation? To the reader who is not versed in the Bible and especially Old Testament theology, they are going to think Peter is saying the slaves should fear their human masters, a doubtful meaning indeed. What is good about this translation? To the person who is versed in biblical theology, mention of “fear” would naturally lead them to think of fearing God, of having a reverential awe of him, of being motivated by that divine fear.
After all, that is exactly what the context is saying. The previous verse reads, “Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear (φοβεῖσθε) God, honor the emperor.” And then in our verse Peter uses the same verb, and the two occurrences must be connected; they are too close.
This is also the point that Peter goes on to make. “For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God” (v 19). Their eyes are fixed on the Lord, which carries them through the pain. “But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God” (v 20). Again, the focus is on God.
All this explains the NIV’s reading. “Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters.” For a naive reader, they may see “of God” and accuse the translators of adding to Scripture. But the reverse could just as easily be said, that just translating words miscommunicates, as if slaves are being told to fear their masters. Yes, “respect” is a legitimate translation of φόβος, but it seems unusual that Peter is saying the Christian’s slave’s motivation for good behavior is respect for their human masters. Certainly Peter is saying that slaves should be motivated by their relationship with the Lord, not by any kind of human fear.
I would also add that this how we live our lives in general. Whether we eat or drink, we do all things to the glory of God. All of our lives are lived in relationship with him; he is why we do what we do. Certainly it is our fear of the Lord that propels all of us, slave or free, to behave as we do (or at least should) in all situations.
Given the clear statement in the preceding verse that they are to “fear (φοβεῖσθε) God,” and given the context of the two verses after our verse, it seem doubtful that Peter means they should be motivated by respect for their human masters. Certainly, it is their biblical fear of the Lord that motivates them in their human relationships (see Selwyn, Kelly).
If you agree with the exegesis, then you are forced to clarify the meaning of “fear,” otherwise any normal reader is going to misunderstand, and nobody wants that.
Translation is not about conveying the form of one language into another. It is about conveying the historical meaning of the biblical text into a form our target audience can understand. Accuracy is not about repeating word-for-word what the Greek says, but about accurately conveying its meaning. And while all translators are traitors — we either add a little or leave a little meaning out due to the nature of language — our goal is to accurately convey the author’s intent. Sometimes that requires adding in words, something every single translation does, including those who claim some degree of “literalness.”
So whether you are free or a slave, which includes oppressive employment, our motivation is to please the Lord, to act out the practical implications of a healthy fear of the Lord, a respectful awe of our Lord and Savior.
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