When the NIV Gets Tricksy (Why Greek Matters Part 13)

I am one of the last people I know to dog on the NIV. Honestly, I think its a fairly decent translation. Not my favorite modern english translation, but decent. Nevertheless, there are moments when reading the NIV that make me go, “hmmmmmmm…” Here’s one of them:

1 Thessalonians 2:7-8: “As apostles of Christ we could have been a burden to you,  but we were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children.  We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us.”

Here I will briefly point out places where this translation diverges from the standard Greek text accepted by scholars (the Nestle-Aland 27th and 28th editions)

1) “we were gentle among you” (NIV) vs. “we became infants among you”

The word “infant”(νήπιος, nēpios) is only a letter away from “gentle” (ηπιος, ēpios). There is evidence from a number of major manuscripts in the 4th century, that they originally read “infants” but were changed to read “gentle.” However, the oldest evidence (a papyrus manuscript from the 3rd century) also reads “infants.” Why not go with the best available manuscript evidence? Probably for the same reason as one commentator (reasoning from which I take exception) — that “gentle” makes more sense than “infants,” considering the apostles are pictured as nursing mothers in the next line. But why is it beyond Paul to change his metaphors, especially when they potentially communicate a common idea? More on this to come.

2) “like a mother caring for her little children” (NIV) vs. “as a nurse warming her own children.”

The phrase “her own children” probably implies that the “nurse” in picture is the childrens’ own mother. But why then remove the word “nurse” or any reference to “nursing”? The text literally reads “warming” rather than “caring.” Caring, comforting, or cherishing can be a metaphorical use of this word (θάλπω, thalpō), but with nursing already in view, is not a literal “warming” also in view, which would be accomplished by the mother holding the child close to herself, thus sharing the warmth of her own body?

3) “We loved you so much” (NIV) vs. “having yearned for you so strongly”

The relevant word here (ὁμείρομαι, omeiromai) does mean “love” as much as “to have a strong yearning” (BDAG). NASB translates this as “having so fond an affection for you.” So why does NIV opt for such a colorless translation like “love” rather than bring out the aspect of “strong desire”?

Let’s put this all together. The NIV translation has three significant differences from the Greek text – (1) The apostles are “gentle” rather than “infants;” (2) they are “caring mothers” rather than “nursing mothers warming others with their own body” and (3) the apostles “love” their disciples rather than “yearning for them strongly.”

At this point we cannot comment on the intentions of the translators (which would be near-impossible to discern without direct knowledge), but we can discuss potential effects of these translational differences. Taken together, these changes significantly soften the force of what this passage is saying about apostolic ministry, and Paul’s view of his own leadership. The apostles are not merely “gentle,” but “infants” – vulnerable, weak, and innocent before those they lead. They do not simply care for their disciples – they nurse them tenderly; they warm them by holding them closely to their own bodies. This is metaphor of course, but the imagery is stark and much more emotional, intimate, and vulnerable than “caring.” Finally, “to love” is certainly less emotionally charged language than “to yearn for another strongly.”

According to Paul, ministry is marked by vulnerability, attachment, tenderness, emotion, and closeness — five words that can send shivers down our spines, because, as much as we may want them, they open doorways to an unspeakable capacity for pain and hurt. This is the type of leadership the Holy Spirit beckons us to, as the Godhead is fashioning the church in the image of the self-giving love of the Trinity — which bears at its center the self-giving love, sacrifice, and pain of the cross. Nevertheless, it is perhaps easier to adopt a style of leadership which exempts us from these qualities. And an image of the apostles that corresponds to such a closed and self-preserved posture cannot be any more opportune. The NIV rendering of this passage may help us do this by avoiding the strength and precision of the original language. The Greek text, however, does not afford us this convenience.

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