Was Paul “Gentle” or “Like Infants”?: A Closer Look at 1 Thess. 2:7

[Heads up. This is a longer post than usual and a bit more academic than most of my posts. Lovers of textual criticism will enjoy it.]

In 1 Thess. 2:7 Paul says either that “we were like little children [Greek = νήπιοι] among you” (NIV) or “we were gentle [Greek = ἤπιοι] among you” (ESV). The difference between the two words is one letter in the Greek. The vast majority of English translations prefer the latter reading: gentle (see ESV, KJV, NKJV, RV, RSV, NRSV, NEB, NIV [1984], NASB, NAB, NJB, REB, Phillips, MEV, NCV, WEB, and God’s Word.) Notably two translations changed from “gentle” to “children” in their most recent updates: NIV [2011] and NLT [2004]. Other exceptions include the TNIV, Douay-Rheims (“little ones”), Lexham English Bible (LEB, “infants”) and the NET.

Jeffrey Weima argues that “infants” is a far superior reading over “gentle.” All sides agree that the external evidence favors “infants.” (To aid the non-Greek reader I will translate the word in passages where only the Greek word is offered in the passages I quote.) On the extermal evidence Weima quotes Gordon Fee: “The evidence for ἤπιοι [gentle] is so much weaker than for νήπιοι [infants] that under ordinary circumstances no one would accept the former reading as original.” (1-2 Thessalonians, p. 181, Baker Academic)

Weima considers four arguments from internal evidence in favor of “gentle” which has obviously persuaded most English translations. After weighing each he finds them lacking. I will only summarize his points here.

  • Νήπιοι is the result of dittography. Dittography is an error made by scribes when a letter, word, or phrase is written down twice when the original manuscript only has it once. The word just before νήπιοι is ἐγενήθημεν. You can see the word ends with the same letter that begins νήπιοι. So the argument goes the scribe duplicated the letter “ν” in his transcription. Weima says this won’t work because it could have just as easily been an instance of haplography (a scribe writing a letter only once when it actually occurs twice). Therefore “the decision as to which of the two readings is secondary must be determined on other grounds.” (p. 181)
  • Νήπιοι (infants) is a common term replacing the rare ἤπιοι (gentle). In fact, “neither word is very familiar.” The word “gentle” “does not occur with sufficiently greater frequency than νήπιοι [infants] that a scribe would feel compelled to replace ‘infants’ for ‘gentle.’” (p. 182)
  • Νήπιοι (infants) is always used pejoratively by Paul and therefore would not have used it to refer to himself. Weima acknowledges that Paul does use the word in a pejorative sense (see especially 1 Corinthians) but he does not always do so. Consider 1 Cor. 14:20 where Paul admonishes believers to be “infants with respect to evil.” Weima cites numerous other places where “infants” is used in a positive sense in the NT, the LXX and in nonbiblical writers. One survey of all the occurrences of “infants” from the first centuries BC and AD reveals that “infants” “has a neutral sense the vast majority of time (75 percent), a negative sense as ‘childish, foolish’ over 18 percent of the time, and a positive sense over 6 percent of the time.” (p. 183)

4)      Νήπιοι (infants) creates the problem of mixed metaphor. Why, the argument goes, would Paul go from using the metaphor of an infant and then suddenly change to that of a “nursing mother”? Bruce Metzger called this a “violent transition”. In the context “gentle” is a much more suitable metaphor to go with the metaphor of a nursing mother. Weima offers four factors to mitigate this objection. First, the mixed metaphor makes this the more difficult reading and one of the rules of textual criticism is that the harder reading ought to be preferred. The counter to this is that the reading is “too difficult.” Second, proper punctuation will alleviate the abruptness. Weima argues for a number of reasons a full stop should come after 2:5-7b with the nursing-mother metaphor introducing the next clause. See his complete translation below. Third, “the phenomenon of mixed or rapidly changing metaphors is found elsewhere in Paul’s Letters (e.g., Gal. 4:19 is only one of several cited.). Fourth, the orphan metaphor in 2:17 shows Paul presenting “himself and his coworkers as children whose forced departure from Thessalonians has meant that they are orphaned from the believers in the city.” (p. 186) Here is another example of Paul mixing metaphors “since the apostle switches from the metaphor of himself as a father in 2:11 to that of an orphaned child in 2:17.”

Weima’s translation of 1 Thessalonians 2:5-8

“For we never came with a word of flattery (as you know), nor with a motive of greed (God is our witness!) nor were we demanding honor from people, neither from you nor from others (even though we could have insisted on our importance as apostles of Christ), but we became infants among you. As a nursing mother cherishes her own children, so we, because we cared so much for you, were pleased to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you became beloved to us.”



About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
This entry was posted in Biblical Studies, Commentaries. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Was Paul “Gentle” or “Like Infants”?: A Closer Look at 1 Thess. 2:7

  1. Thanks. I noticed in my recent read through the new NIV that they chose “infants,” and that this didn’t match my usual ESV text, but I hadn’t yet taken time to assess the choice. I like the “infant” reading.


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