Do we really KNOW what the authors of the New Testament wrote? Sometimes we just can’t decide — despite what apologists almost always say (Most apologists, btw, have never actually studied the problem; I’m not trying to be snide or rude when I say that — it’s an empirical fact; even most PhD’s in New Testament Studies have not been trained to determine which actual words of the surviving manuscripts probably go back to the authors).
I am now looking at a case in point, a single word in a single passage of Paul’s first epistle to the Thessalonians (see the previous post). The decision of what he wrote comes down to a single letter in the word. Scholars (especially, as it turns out, those few who ARE deeply trained to figure these things out) can’t agree about the single letter.
And the decision determines the meaning of the passage. Did Paul remind the Thessalonians that when he and his missionary colleagues were with them they became like “infants” among them rather than great, powerful, and demanding apostles? Or did he say they became “gentle” among them?
Now, you might be saying: Who Cares?
Apart from apologists who insist we know what the biblical authors actually wrote, New Testament interpreters do. It may not matter like having a passage that determines a major doctrine (Who was Christ? Was his death an atoning sacrifice? Is there a Trinity?). But there are lots of things that matter that are not major doctrines. Any scholar of the New Testament wants to know the basic gist of each book of the New Testament; and its major themes and ideas; and the meaning of each of its passages; and the meaning of each of its verses; and the meaning of each of its words.
And here is a textual variant that affects the meaning of a verse and of an entire passage. What was Paul saying? Was he saying that he and his companions were gentle? Or was he saying they became infants? As we saw in the previous post, it appears to be impossible to decide the issue simply on the question of which text is more likely to be an accidental alteration. So what else might we consider?
Back to playing in the weeds — a fun place to play sometimes!
One approach to the problem that exegetes have taken leads once again to mixed results. Why not see which word “ÊPIOI” (pronounced “ape – ioi” and meaning gentle) or “NÊPIO” (pronounced “nape – ioi” and meaning infants) is a word that Paul more commonly uses in his letters? If Paul used one of these words a lot, and the other hardly ever, wouldn’t that suggest that it was the word he typically used a lot that he used here?
That’s a good strategy, but it leads to another set of mixed results. Here is why. Paul never uses the word ÊPIOI (“gentle”) anywhere else in the seven undisputed letters (it does get used again in 2 Thess. 2:24, but Paul probably did not write that letter himself, and it’s author appears dependent on 1 Thessalonians for many of his ideas, themes, and even words; so it doesn’t count). In fact, the word never occurs anywhere else in the New Testament.
On the other hand, Paul uses the word NÊPIOI (“infants) nine other times in his undisputed letters, and it is a relatively common word in the New Testament (it occurs fourteen times altogether).
So that should settle the matter, right? “Infants” is clearly the word Paul is more likely to use.
Or is it? Here is the complicating factor – a very complicating factor indeed. When Paul *does* use the term “infants” in his letters, it always has a negative connotation, not a positive one. That is to say, Paul does not speak of “infants” in favorable terms (for example, as charmingly innocent and guiltless, cute, and adorable); he speaks of them in negative terms (for example, as immature, ignorant, and not ready to face the realities of life).
You can see this for yourself. Here are the passages: Romans 2:20; 1 Cor. 3:1; 13:11 (five times); Galatians 4:1, 3. Look them up.
Now it is true that Paul could sometimes be self-denegrating. But would he say that he and his companions converted the Thessalonians by becoming immature, ignorant, and not ready to face the realities of life? That seems highly unlikely.
So even though NÊPIOI is a Pauline term, it would be used here in a highly non-Pauline way. Once again, then, we seem to be at a draw, unable to decide which term is the more likely one he used here, the term “gentle” that he never uses elsewhere, or the term “infants” that he uses a good bit, but always in a contrary sense.
OK, so here’s the next step. Maybe we should look at the literary context of the passage to see if one term makes better sense in the context than the other. Great! Bright idea! Let’s do that!
Here too we run into a problem. And a very interesting one. Remember what the verse says: “We were XXX among you, like a nurse taking care of her children.”
If we go with “gentle,” then the verse makes perfectly good sense. Paul and his companions acted among the Thessalonians like a gentle nurse tending for her young. OK, that’s a compelling image. But what if we go with “infants”? Then the verse is, to say the least, really confusing, and possibly confused. Paul and his companions acted among the Thessalonians like infants, like a nurse tending for her young.
But what sense does that make? Was Paul acting like the infant or like the nurse taking care of the infant? How could it be both? This is a mixed metaphor.
So doesn’t that show that the text must have originally read “gentle”? There are two further factors that need to be considered. The first is this: if one of these forms of the text presents a confusing reading that is hard to understand and involves a mixed metaphor, and the other is not at all confusing but is easy to understand without a mixed metaphor: which of the two forms of the text would a scribe be more likely to change and correct? (I’m not asking which reading Paul would write; I’m asking which reading a scribe would want to change.) Obviously the one that is hard to understand. But that would suggest that “Infants” was the original reading and scribes changed it to get rid of the mixed metaphor.
But the second factor is this: is the fact that there is a mixed metaphor an indication Paul did not write the word “infants”? One way to settle that question is to ask: does Paul ever use mixed metaphors?
And here the answer is “absolutely yes”!! Here is my favorite instance, Galatians 4:19, where Paul says: “My little children, with whom I am again in labor until Christ be formed in you.” Here in this one sentence there are three metaphors that are clearly not in sync! Who are the Galatians? According to this verse they are little children. They are also fetuses yet to be born (Paul is in labor with them). And they are yet also pregnant women (with Christ being formed in their womb). All in one verse!
So is it unlikely that Paul would use a mixed metaphor? No. But does a mixed metaphor in one variant reading of 1 Thess. 2:7 (people who are infants and nurses of infants at the same time) mean Paul did not write the verse that way? Again, no!
Once again we seem to be at a standoff. And in fact we are. Scholars go back and forth on this one. For those conservative evangelical scholars who tell us we can KNOW what the words of the New Testament were, I ask: OK, which word do we know that Paul wrote here? And if we know, why don’t we agree?