Now that I have discussed the purpose of 1 Thessalonians I would like to discuss a scribal change of the text – a change that involves just a single letter of a single word. Which did Paul originally write? The word *with* the letter or the word *without* it? How you decide the question changes the meaning of the passage. Yikes. A single letter?
The passage occurs in an earlier part of the book where Paul is reminding the Thessalonians of the time that he had spent with them when he converted them to their new faith. This is a very joyful part of the letter, one of the most sentimental passages of all of Paul’s letters, where he speaks of the relationship he had with his converts when he was there.
But the description is a bit hard to pin down, in part because of the presence or non-presence of just one letter of the alphabet. Some manuscripts have it, and others don’t. And it is very hard to decide which reading is to be preferred as what Paul wrote; moreover, it is difficult to decide whether the change was made by a scribe accidentally or on purpose.
In chapter 2 of the book Paul is reminding the Thessalonians of the time he was with them. He begins the passage by pointing out that before he and his Christian companions had arrived in Thessalonica they had been “shamefully treated at Philippi” (2:2). In other words, they had met rejection and possibly violent opposition when establishing the church in this other city earlier. Possibly Paul and the others had been beaten up, or otherwise publicly shamed.
He goes on to say that when he preached the gospel to them, the Thessalonians, he did not use flattering words and he did not seek approval from people – but only from God (2:4-6). He indicates how he had spent his time with the Thessalonians, working “night and day, that we might not burden any of you, while we preached to you the gospel of God.” (2:9). This in itself is an interesting verse. Modern scholarship has taken it to mean that when Paul was with them, he had an actual job that he worked at all hours, so as not to be a financial strain on his converts (i.e., they did not have to support his preaching ministry through financial assistance). Paul apparently preached while on the job.
In the midst of these recollections comes the passage that I am interested in discussing: “We could have made demands upon you as apostles of Christ; but we were XXX among you, like a nurse taking care of her children.” The textual issue involves the XXX. There are two possibilities, found in different textual witnesses. One possibility is that the word is NÊPIOI (pronounced with the Ê sounding like the “a” in “ape”: NAPE-IOI), which means “infants.” The other possibility is that the word is ÊPIOI (Again the Ê is like the “a” in “ape”: APE-IOI), which means “gentle.”
Is Paul saying that he and his companions were “infants” or that they were “gentle”? It is a difference of one letter. And this is one textual nut that is hard to crack.
Here’s how I try to show getting down into the weeds can be fun and interesting! Go figure.
There are all sorts of issues affecting the decision, and textual scholars go back and forth, back and forth, on deciding which the original reading was. Here I’ll talk about some of the complicating factors, just to give you the sense, over a couple of posts, about what textual scholars do in deciding an issue such as this.
First, it’s only one letter, the letter “nu,” which is the equivalent of the English “n”. One of the intriguing issues is that the word immediately before this word ends in a nu. The word is EGENÊTHÊMEN (again, the “h” sounds like an “a” in “ape”). It is the Greek were for “we were.” It ends in “N” and the next word *begins* with N. (EGENÊTHÊMENNÊPIOI). So, here’s one of the problems. If the change was made by accident, is it more likely that a scribe accidentally left out the second nu? Or that he accidentally wrote it twice? The reason it’s a tricky decision is because *both* kinds of mistakes are common and both ways of writing it make sense. By adding the letter nu, a scribe would have made the text say that Paul and his companions became like meek and innocent “infants” even though they had the power of apostles; by subtracting the letter nu, a scribe would have made the text say that Paul and his companions became very “gentle” even though they could have lorded it over the Thessalonians.
Compounding this problem ever further, both ways of presenting the text would have sounded exactly the same when read out loud. Say the words yourself, remembering how the “Ê” is pronounced: EGENNÊTHÊMEN ÊPIOI and EGENNÊTHÊMEN NÊPIOI. If you’re saying the words at normal speed, you don’t stop after the first word before pronouncing the second, so the two nu’s run into each other, sounding the same as if there was only one nu. Or if there’s only one nu it sounds like one nu.
That matters for two possible reasons. One is that if a later scribe were taking down the Paul’s epistle by dictation, he would not have been able to tell which word the reader had just given. So here’s the deal: sometimes scribes simply copied texts by themselves, manually, looking at a manuscript that was being copied and at the blank page in front of them as they rewrote the words into the new manuscript. Other times they copied what someone else was reading. This in theory was a faster way to do things. You would have a reader and a room of, say, three or four copyists. The reader would read the text, and all three or four copyists would write down what he read.
But if he read this verse, it sounded the same either way. So which way would scribes copy it? They would simply copy what they *thought* the reader had said. Some might produce one word, and some another. (And HERE’S an intriguing situation. What if Paul actually dictated the epistle to a scribe and he said one of the two things and the scribe wrote the other? In that case, the *original* text would have a mistake!!)
The other reason it matters is because the same mistake based on aural similarity could have been made even if a scribe was simply copying the text himself. Scribes almost always read out loud – as did everyone in antiquity. Silent reading was almost unheard of. And so a scribe copying this text would have read a couple of words out loud, then written them down, then read a couple more words, written them down, and so on. But if the passage sounds the *same* no matter which word was found there, the scribe may have seen it one way, pronounced it, and wrote what he had just heard himself pronounce.
If so, and the text was altered by accident, either by adding or subtracting a single letter, which word is more likely the original? At the end of the day, there is simply no way to know. Scribes often accidentally left letters or words out when they copied (that is called haplography); and they often accidentally copied the same letters or words twice (that is called diplography. So who can tell?
The problems are exacerbated in light of other issues, which I will address in the next post.