Abarim Publications' online Biblical Greek Dictionary
The noun δουλος (doulos) means "worker" or "employee" and is used 127 times in the New Testament; see full concordance. It's a very old word and is generally thought to derive from a Proto-Indo-European root dem-, via the Mycenaean word doero. This same root gave us the word δμως (dmos), which denotes a prisoner of war who is forced to labor. This word in turn has to do with the verb δαμαζω (damazo), meaning to tame or domesticate (animals, maidens, etcetera).
Our noun δουλος (doulos) describes someone on the low end of social inequality, and describes someone from the working class as opposed to someone from the property owning elite. In modern translations of the Bible this word is commonly translated with "slave" but that's far too narrow a slice of the working class. As we will explain below, our word covered anybody who held any kind of position of service to any sort of lord of property owner.
The virtue of social inequality
Although the term "social inequality" sounds bad, it's really the very virtue by which any complex society can exist. As long as social inequality remains within certain boundaries, social inequality is the reason for diversity, which in turn marks humans as separate from animals. In Mycenaean society (that's the society that preceded the Greek one), our word δουλος (doulos) appears to have denoted someone from the middle class. An even lower social rank was comprised of people who didn't pursue modernity and lived off the fat of the land in the wild uncultivated open.
The original δουλος (doulos), therefore, appears to have described a person who had voluntarily given up his natural freedoms in order to join a world of safety and surplus that he himself could not bring about — and it should be noted that similar considerations jump-started the evolution of domesticated animals out of populations of wild ancestors. We moderns have dogs, cats, cows, chickens, sheep, goats and pigs because the most agreeable individuals among their ancestors began to engage the most broadly minded individuals among ours.
A person on the other end of the social spectrum was called a ελευθερος (eleutheros), which described someone who owned enough properties to do whatever he wanted. When society began to crystallize and form the differentials of wealth that generate economic currency, the ελευθεροι (eleutheroi) were the ones who occupied the top plateau, and were thus the people who ruled society and determined where society headed. And this is also much better than it sounds:
As long as the ruling class is sufficiently diverse, society can sustain a currency of creativity and wisdom alongside its more familiar currency of money. That means that the members of the ruling elite can operate dynamically as a so-called smart-swarm, and adopt any member of any working class who has proven talents. Society's economy of wealth is the equivalent of an organism's blood system and its economy of wisdom (that' scientific and technological knowledge) is the equivalent of an organism's lymphatic system. This is why very early societies built mysterious centers such as the one at Göbekli Tepe: these hubs functioned as social lymph nodes.
When Rome invaded territories, their first order of business was to weaken a society's resistance by removing its intellectual superstructure. They'd kill or depose the priestly elite and destroy or occupy the lymphatic hubs with Roman deities. Rome's general Pompey invaded Jerusalem in 63 BC, deposed and replaced the incumbent High Priest and entered the temple of YHWH. He went as far as the Holy of Holies, but to his frustration found nothing but an empty room and no effigy or national totem to humiliate. In 40 AD, emperor Caligula tried once more to deflate the national zeal of the Jews by installing a statue of himself in their central temple. This was met with great but relative peaceful resistance and the plan was abandoned. Finally, in 66 AD, the Jews revolted violently, and in 70 AD the temple and the whole of Jerusalem were destroyed altogether. Sadly, this was no exception
When in the last century BC Rome's Republic fell apart and began to turn into the wholly centralized Roman Empire — which in turn destroyed all adjacent republics and peoples who lived happily and deliberately non-centralized, such as the Phoenicians to Rome's south, the Greeks to Rome's east and the Celts to Rome's north and west — the currency of wisdom and creativity literally became insolvent, which in turn triggered the mad lust for Scriptural canons (as if God's revelations had ever stopped!). Everybody became a slave and the human world swelled from false and watery lymphedemic wealth (instead of real flesh and bones).
Humanity's lymph system of wisdom and creativity was in diminished fashion restored in Europe's monastic orders, particularly by the peripatetic and academic monks, but it didn't fully pick up again until the Renaissance and has always remained subservient to the blood system; the economy of wealth. In the near future we'll probably see the spontaneous formation of decentralized community centers where people can check their health, find healing and learn how to stay in good shape.
The man who made the earth tremble
As more than 99% of people on earth will readily attest: our modern world is a hell hole where a small oligarchy is tyrannizing the enslaved masses, mostly by means of artificially sustained poverty and ignorance. Trying to remedy this situation starts with understanding how things got to be this way. Fortunately, this is really quite easy to do, and the following should be stenciled in gold letters on every wall of government buildings and trading houses (and schools):
Our world suffers from tyranny in its many guises because our modern world is still entirely based on Roman Imperial ideals. Those imperial ideas could emerge because the Roman Republic had collapsed. The Republic collapsed because it had destabilized after the military had obtained disproportional leverage, and the growing gap between rich and poor caused civil unrest.
That had begun to happen right after the Third Punic War, when Carthage had been destroyed and its people massacred in the world's first systematic genocide. This destruction of Carthage was in response to Hannibal's previous invasion of Italy (the Second Punic War). His Carthaginian army stood famously at the gate of Rome but even after having crippled the Roman army, destroying the city went too far for Hannibal, and after having made his point, he simply went home.
Hannibal's invasion of Italy was due to the disturbed balance of trade between the Romans on the northern shore and the Phoenicians on the southern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. That was caused by the outcome of the First Punic War. The First Punic War erupted on Sicily — where the Roman and Phoenician worlds had touched for centuries — upon atrocities committed by both sides. These atrocities had escalated from brawls escalating from local skirmishes that started with childish nuisances that were probably rooted in satire and pun in all good fun.
In other words: the last two thousand years of hell on earth (for 99% of mankind) was brought about when two competitors lost their respect for each other. It had nothing to do with kings and lords signing declarations of war, but began when the collective cultural spirit of both the general Roman and Carthaginian populations stopped viewing the others as equal and precious, and began to loath them as inferior and then as enemies. The modern world's pain was caused because two brotherly peoples stopped loving their neighbor and stopped treating the other the way they themselves wanted to be treated. It's the oldest crime in the world (Genesis 4:8, Matthew 24:48-49) and violates the greatest command (Matthew 7:12, 22:39).
Our modern world is likewise not destroyed by large corporations and billionaires, because all they do is channel social energy. What's destroying the world is the average mindset of the average western consumer, who trades a few dimes discount on a T-shirt for the wholesale destruction of entire nations in the far east. Saving the world, likewise, is not a matter of protesting these grave evils in the faces of the people who manage the revenue streams, but by raising awareness at the consumer level of how one human population can systematically exterminate a subsidiary population across deep waters.
The noun δουλος (doulos) should be translated as "worker" or "someone from the working class" because the word "slave" would take most modern readers to the Americas of the 18th and 19th centuries. Roman servitude, particularly in the time of the New Testament, was not at all like that of African slaves in the New World. In Rome only 25% of people owned the real property that made a city a city — including its infrastructure and surrounding rural estates — and such a person was called πολιτης (polites), or citizen. The rest of the population had to work for these property owners, and since there was little in the way of social securities, being neither a polites nor a doulos left very little opportunity of having any sort of civilized life.
Despite the confusing nomenclature, the relationship between Roman citizens and their workers was closely similar to the relationship between company owners and employees in modern times, especially if we count our third world "workers" as essential part of our western economic engine, and are honest about the degree in which society's financial elite controls our so-called "private time", our education, beliefs, concerns, fashions, norms and overall world views. In Rome, a worker was wholly integrated into his master's household and arena of operation, and although today our masters allow us our own little concrete coves, they own most of the real estate, media and schools, and control everything but the weather, so that's really the same thing. It's their world and the rest of us just work here.
In Rome many workers came from abroad and had been forcibly sold into servitude because of conquest or economic hardship, but this is really not at all unlike modern refugees who have found themselves forced to abandon their homes and bankrupted ancestral lands and travel under bestial conditions to the west to work off their "transport fees". Likewise, wars could shift vast pools of wealth, destabilize adjacent economies and revert entire populations from autonomy to servitude without ever having seen an actual battle. Sudden change of fortunes in turn could lead to revolts and in times of economic instability even to the formation of rogue states within Rome's republic — hence Spartacus' famous wandering army of escaped slaves, whose massive revolt could rather be classified as a civil war. This rebellion was crushed and the 6,000 survivors were crucified, but in the prelude to the formation of the Empire, conditions were drastically improved for the working class.
Still, even in the Empire servants could be sorely mistreated, especially unskilled workers or those assigned brutal labor, gladiatorial combat or functions of sport for sadistic bosses. Then as much as now, a person's lack of employ could result in the loss of their estate and even children, and then as much as now, the fear of losing one's job could be leveraged into having subservients do the craziest and most degrading things, without running much risk of being found out. But then as much as now, the average Roman citizen would take as good care of his human resources as a dog-owner will of his "best friend" today (Proverbs 12:10).
Today we find it perfectly normal that a loyal and intelligent creature has the same legal status as a parsnip just because it's not properly human, and future generations will probably condemn our dog-ownership as much as we condemn the ancients' ownership of lower class humans. Much to the shame of moderns, fellow earthlings like elephants and dolphins have recently been found to possess theory of mind, and the latter is even capable of nominative reason (dolphins have whistle names and thus nouns and are thus capable of abstract thought). That means that in the near future, humans will probably change the status of these species as equal to humans in matters regarding claims to earth's resources, and this may sound as unbelievable today as granting civil rights to native Americans sounded in the 19th century (or to women, blacks and gays in the 20th).
Believing that lower class and upper class people are really different species is not all that strange either. One's identity derives in a very large part from one's background, and, as luminaries as recent as Virginia Woolf still openly attested, subservients and masters are different at the core. White Europeans considered anything not white not human, which led to the genocide of native populations all over the world. By the time the German Nazis began to systematically kill Jews, gypsies, autistics, cripples and gays — likewise widely considered a perfectly reasonable form of pest control — the rest of humanity finally began to wake up to the fact that different physical, psychological or economical means does not constitute a reason to vilify or deny dignity and liberties.
Then and now, happy workers are much easier to manage than unhappy ones, which is why, then as much as now, workers were appeased with perks and petty liberties. Especially in imperial times, when Stoic philosophy began to urge for humane treatment of all properly behaving humans, a Roman servant enjoyed as much dignity, relative freedom and even social status as a modern employee today. Roman servants had facilities and associations and could file complaints against their masters, just like employees may try to do in our modern world. In fact, it was not unusual in Rome for high standing workers to own servants of their own (although legally, the whole hierarchy was still property of the citizen who owned the first subservient).
Jumping the fence
In Rome, the divide between citizens and workers was far from absolute and a lively currency between the two worlds existed. Fatally speculating or otherwise misfortunate citizens could forfeit their property rights and thus end up as servants (as spectacularly portrayed in the movie Gladiator). Servants could likewise inherit property from generous masters, they could earn property over time by working for it, or even marry their owners, and thus move up to the notch of citizen. But whatever the mechanism, Roman citizens freed their slaves in droves, and manumission was rather the rule than the exception; so much even that half-way the first century AD, legislators were forced to control the amount of slaves citizens were allowed to free, lest the generosity of Rome's gentry destabilized the economy, which was fundamentally based on functional inequality as much as our own economy is today.
The arrangement of bosses and workers is a dire one but it's the only one we got and it built us this whole fabulous modern world. Despite tales to the contrary, the world economy is banging; the spectacular rise of African and Asian economies have lifted the average standards of the average human earthling off the scales. On average, our generation is the wealthiest, most free, most connected and most diverse generation mankind has ever had, and we could not have come this far without bosses giving orders to the masses. In our modern times, people who achieve financial independence will either start their own business or hire gardeners and hair dressers to liven up their lives. Likewise, when in Rome a slave was freed, the first thing he would do was run to the market to buy his own slaves. Freedom from slavery, namely, had nothing to do with being unshackled and let out of the cage but with having enough resources at one's disposal to sustain one's freedom. The verb εξαγοραζω (exagorazo) means "to buy out" and did not only cover a slave's purchasing price but also means for him to stay free. When Paul wrote that "it is for freedom that Christ has set us free" (Galatians 5:1) he wasn't talking about one liberating event but a lasting economy in which a steady stream of income guarantees a permanent condition of freedom.
Freed servants inevitably maintained a reputation of unsophisticated vulgarity similar to that of the nouveau riche of today, but there are several recorded instances of ex-workers who attained substantial standing — for instance the author Marcus Tullius Tiro, once owned by Cicero, or the father of the famous poet Horace. In the Republic, freedmen, or libertiny, were not allowed to hold public office, but that changed when Rome became Empire. So much even that in the early second century AD, emperor Hadrian felt the need to curtail the won liberties of the libertiny. In our article on Pilate we argue that Pilate himself might have been a freed slave, who enjoyed the novelty of public office and who was doubtlessly fanatical about keeping or even increasing the rights of libertiny.
Our modern time has seen the invention of blockchain technology, which holds the promise of perfect transparency and thus the end of all leveraged subservience (John 15:15). Blockchain allows humanity to self-organize according to private talents and interests rather than lack of property and financial security. This will cause certain industries to be abandoned and others to flourish, and although anybody who wants to work for someone else will still be able to find employ, the norm will be dignity, sovereignty and autonomy of every person.
The literary style of the New Testament incorporates something like a modern snowclone ("orange is the new black" or "Macau is the Asian Las Vegas"), in which the opposite of a concept is discussed not by using an opposite term but by using the original term in an absurd way, such as: "the only 'war-banner' over me is that of love" (Song of Solomon 2:4). Emperor Augustus was called "son of god" (namely of the deified Julius Caesar) and "lord of lords" but the authors of the New Testament consistently made the point that not some human superman could lead mankind to divine splendor but rather the autonomy and sovereignty of every human individual (the word Christ means anointed and is applied to all autonomous people: 1 John 2:20-27). Likewise, no human being is supposed to be subservient to any human boss but rather (facetiously oxymoronic) to freedom. God is the only true sovereign of the universe and the complete fulfilment of his absolute and natural law (Romans 1:20) makes people absolutely free and thus (facetiously oxymoronic) "slaves to the Most High" (Acts 16:17) or "slaves to righteousness" (Romans 6:16-20, 1 Corinthians 7:22-23).
Our noun δουλος (doulos) denotes someone from the middle or lower class and should be regarded as expressive of the ordinary, functional social order rather than that of abuse and tyranny. The Bible famously predicts a new world and although Christ ends all dominion (1 Corinthians 15:24, Matthew 23:10), this new world is clearly stratified (Revelation 21:24). The novelty, however, is that nobody will be confined to any one stratus. Some of us abhor the idea of anybody telling them what to do, but an equal measure of equally valid fellow humans abhors the idea of nobody telling them what to do. In the New Jerusalem, we will all be whatever we are.
John the Revelator paints a picture of the New Jerusalem that consists of a huge amount of people and a small amount of governors, and all get along wonderfully. Since the Punic Wars, mankind has suffered so much from terrible managers that we can barely image a just government that is primary interested in the will of the people they govern, but now with blockchain transparency and a generation that's sick and tired of mind-numbing servitude to self-serving bosses, we're within hailing range of the most splendid and perfect form of human society the world has ever seen.
Derivations of our noun δουλος (doulos) are:
- Together with the verb αγω (ago), meaning to guide, lead or carry: the verb δουλαγωγεω (doulagogeo), meaning to lead into servitude, bring under subjection, form into working class (1 Corinthians 9:27 only).
- The verb δουλευω (douleuo) meaning to be a servant, to render a service, to work or be working class. This verb differs from the verb δουλοω (douloo), in that with the former the subject is the servant, whereas with the latter the subject is the master. This verb is used 25 times, see full concordance, and from it in turn derives:
- The noun δουλεια (douleia), meaning servitude, the function, status and activities of a servant. This noun is used 5 times, see full concordance, and from it comes:
- The noun δουλη (doule), meaning female servant; a woman belonging to the middle or lower class. This word isn't really a derivative of δουλος (doulos) but just the feminine version of it. It is used in Luke 1:38, 1:48 and Acts 2:18 only.
- The verb δουλοω (douloo), meaning to enslave, to subject, to put to work, to turn into a working class. This verb differs from the verb δουλευω (douleuo), in that with this the doer is the master or master class, whereas with the latter the doer is the worker or working class. This verb is used 8 times; see full concordance. From this verb in turn derives:
- Together with the preposition κατα (kata), meaning down from, down upon: the verb καταδουλοω (katadouloo), which may either mean to reduce to working class, or it means to make into working class toward a specified objective, to purposefully make into working class (2 Corinthians 11:20 and Galatians 2:4 only).
- Together with the prefix συν (sun), meaning together or with: the noun συνδουλος (sundoulos), meaning fellow servant or someone with whom one works in the same operation or effort: colleague. This noun occurs 10 times; see full concordance.