Paul describes his ministry in terms of Isaiah’s “Servant of the Lord” (Romans 1:1)

In my book, I argue that when Paul uses the term δοῦλος in Romans 1:1, he is drawing on the scriptural figure of the “Servant of the Lord” found in Isaiah 40 –55, especially (but not exclusively) in Isa 49:1–7. This “Servant” (δοῦλος) both represents Israel and also has a special role with respect to the nations.

Paul and the Vocation of Israel: How Paul's Jewish Identity Informs his Apostolic Ministry, with Special Reference to RomansI begin by providing positive evidence that Paul is using δοῦλος to describe himself in terms of the Isaianic Servant, examining Paul’s letters (especially Rom 1:1 and Gal 1:10-16) and comparing them with the relevant texts in Isaiah. I then deal with three common objections to the claim that Paul’s use of the term δοῦλος in Rom 1:1 is a reference to the Isaianic Servant.

The first objection is the claim that the term δοῦλος was normally used to denote a menial social position—slavery—and thus cannot denote a position of special distinctiveness such as that described in Isaiah for the “Servant.” There is plenty of evidence, however, that the term was often used to denote a position of special distinctiveness in Paul’s Jewish milieu. As a point of special significance:

Some scholars claim that the preferred LXX translation for עֶבֶד is παῖς, and that δοῦλος is much rarer. For example, Combes claims that in Isaiah, “παῖς is far more common [than δοῦλος] vis-à-vis the chosen men of God,” and cites Isa 49:6 LXX as the “classic expression of vocation”. If Combes’s claim were true, it may weaken our case that Paul’s self-designation as δοῦλος is an allusion to the figure of the Isaianic Servant, and in particular to Isa 49:1–7. 1 However, Combes’s claim simply does not stand up to close scrutiny (p. 105)

The second objection is that Paul is using δοῦλος in Rom 1:1 primarily to identify with his readers by invoking his common status as a slave of God, not to distinguish himself from them by invoking a special divine role for himself. Some scholars point to the fact that Paul elsewhere describes his readers using the δουλ- word-group (Rom 6–8, 12:11, 14:4). However:

However, since the word δοῦλος was such a common term, it was quite possible for the same author to use it in different ways. There is no compelling reason to assume that the meaning of the term in Rom 1:1 must be determined by its use five chapters later. The meaning of the word should, rather, be inferred directly from the immediate context. (p. 108)

The third objection arises from the claim that Greco-Roman economic or political
institutions provide a better and more straightforward context for his use of the term (e.g. the Greco-Roman manager slave, or a high-ranking slave from Caesar’s household). “Our discussion so far, however, has shown that the Jewish Scriptures are both necessary and sufficient to explain Paul’s intention in his use of the term δοῦλος in Rom 1:1.” (p. 110)

What is the significance of Paul’s allusion to the Isaianic Servant?

Paul is thus self-consciously appropriating a text which speaks explicitly about a soteriological dynamic between Israel and the nations. This, of course, undergirds the Jew-Gentile dynamic in Paul’s own apostolic ministry. Paul is thus not simply identifying with his Gentile readers, nor is he presenting himself as a unique prophetic figure.⁸⁰ Rather, Paul is placing his own apostolic ministry within the context of Israel’s distinct role vis-à-vis the nations (pp. 111-112).

The full details of the argument and further references may be found in chapter 4 of the book (pp. 99-112). The chapter is available from the publisher in electronic format:

Windsor, Lionel J. Paul and the Vocation of Israel: How Paul’s Jewish Identity Informs his Apostolic Ministry, with Special Reference to Romans. BZNW 205. Berlin / Boston: Walter de Gruyter, 2014.

  1. Combes, I. A. H. 1998. The Metaphor of Slavery in the Writings of the Early Church: From the New Testament to the Beginning of the Fifth Century. Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series 156. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic. pp. 78-79