I am about ready to wrap up my discussion of the textual problem of 1 Thessalonians 2:7. When recalling his time with the Thessalonians, when he had worked hard not to be a burden with any of them, did Paul indicate that he and his missionary companions had become “as infants, as a nurse tending her children” or that they had become “gentle, as a nurse tending her children.” It is not an obvious decision, whether you think the change was made accidentally or on purpose. (If you think it *is* obvious, look at the preceding two posts). It seems like it might go either way. I myself have an opinion on the matter (textual scholars tend to have opinions); but I”ll hold off on that for a minute.
First: some of you might be wondering–which of these readings do the best surviving manuscripts actually suggest? Is one of the readings (“infants” or “gentle”) better attested than the other? Which reading do our oldest and best manuscripts have?
Here, as it turns out, the answer is fairly straightforward and clear, and the irony (at least for me) is that the reading with the best manuscript support happens to be the one that I think is less likely to be original. Without a doubt, the reading “infants” (NÊPIOI — pronounced nape-ioi) is the better attested reading. We have five manuscripts of this passage that date from around the year 400 or earlier. (These are our five earliest manuscripts. And they include all of our very best manuscripts.) All of them read “infants.” One of these is the only papyrus manuscript we have, P65, from the third century, along with the fourth century manuscripts Vaticanus and Sinaiticus (all in all, our two best complete manuscripts). On the other hand, the first attestation of “gentle” is from the fifth century (codex Alexandrinus).
This is important evidence. Even more interesting, though, is that three of the five earliest and best manuscripts (including codex Sinaiticus) have *corrections* in them to the other reading. In other words, after each manuscript was made, and the world NÊPIOI (infants) was written in the verse, a later scribe came along and *erased* the first letter, so that now the text read ÊPIOI (gentle). On the other hand, there are NO early corrections in the other direction, no early instances in which a text read ÊPIOI (gentle) and a later scribe “corrected” it to NÊPIOI (gentle).
Now, you might think that this pattern of correction would suggest that ÊPIOI (gentle) was the original reading, because it is what scribes typically were correcting the text to read. But actually this evidence points in the *opposite* direction. It would suggest that scribes were more comfortable with the reading “gentle” than the reading “infants,” because that’s clearly the reading they preferred (since they would sometimes change the text in order to make it say that). This is a strong argument for the original text being NÊPIOI, infants.
Despite the strength of that argument, that’s not what I think the text said. I think it originally said “gentle” and that scribes (prior to our existing manuscripts) changed it. Here let me make several points.
First, it is true that the manuscript evidence points in the other direction. But our first manuscript is from 200 years after the original. We simply don’t know what most manuscripts would have said, say, a hundred years earlier. Our strongest evidence is from the fourth century and later. And the evidence from our “correctors” only tell us what scribes living hundreds of years after Paul preferred — not which reading *he* preferred.
My view is that in a case like this we need to choose the reading based on a combination of arguments working together with one another. First, which reading is *more* likely to have been created by scribes? Since “infants” is a more common term in our earliest Christian writings, possibly that one is more likely to have been the one scribes would more likely think of when copying the passage. Moreover, the *other* one is the one that makes the best sense as the one Paul would have written, for three reasons:
(1) It makes the best sense in the overall context of Paul’s writings. Within these writings, whenever Paul uses the term “infants” he uses it to mean something negative: it refers to people who are immature, ignorant, and not ready to face the realities of life. It does not at all seem to be the kind of term Paul would use to describe himself when trying to show that he could have acted with authority as an apostle of God.
(2) It makes the best sense in the immediate context. Paul is likening himself to a nurse caring for her children. What sense does it make to say that he was an “infant-nurse”??? What in the world is that? On the other hand, it does make sense for him to say he was like a “gentle-nurse.” Scribes who saw the word or heard it pronounced simply assumed it was the more common term “infants” and changed it by accident.
(3) For me this last point is a clincher. Years ago a social-historian of early Christianity, Abraham Malherbe, professor of New Testament at Yale, wrote an article in which he showed that the image of a “gentle nurse” was common in certain philosophical traditions of Paul’s day to talk about an authority figure who gently guided and provided for his hearers — precisely as Paul himself applies the image. And so this usage makes particularly good sense in his own world, as seen in other writings at the time.
And so my view is that Paul did not refer to himself as an infant, but as gentle.
I have gone to relative lengths with this one textual variant, involving a single letter of the alphabet in Greek, (and telling most of you more than you really wanted to know, I realize!) simply to give you a sense for what textual scholars are up against and what kinds of arguments they have to consider in making their textual decisions. They have to go through this process methodically, passage after passage, verse after verse, word after word for every book of the New Testament.
This is what some scholars simply *do*. It is a highly complex affair, and not for those who are either faint of heart or wary of detail or averse to long hours of patient reflection and research. I don’t work any longer in this field much, but for those who do, I say, more power to ’em!