The Three Laws, Part I

“The three laws are perfect.”

Dr. Lanning

 

By: J. R. Watkins

Will Smith’s character “Spooner” in the 2004 film I, Robot faces the enslavement of humanity by AI-driven robots. He asks the droids’ creator—Dr. Lanning—if the three laws which govern all robot behavior are somehow flawed. Lanning responds with the epigraph above. Two thoughts come to mind with his statement. First, should we be disturbed that so many of our films about artificial intelligence have this same theme of human enslavement? Second, when laws that have always governed a discipline are suddenly transcended or ignored, it is appropriate to ask why. While I, Robot may seem far afield from a textual issue in 1 Thessalonians, the two discourses share some striking similarities. Both the film and the biblical text force us to ask if there is a shortcoming in the laws that determine their respective fields. Unlike the film, textual critics may not be prepared to declare that the three laws of textual criticism (usually referred to as “canons”) are in fact perfect. The three canons I am referring to are: (1) the shorter reading, (2) the more difficult reading, and (3) the reading that best explains the appearance of the other variants. Textual critics use these three rules as guides to discern which is the most likely original reading at places where the manuscripts vary. While they may not be perfect, these guideposts have proven too valuable to simply set aside.

The Textual Evidence

While the evidence we have points clearly in the favor of one reading, this passage has something of a convoluted history and has become a complex textual problem.  Space does not allow a full recounting of the debate’s history, which begins with Clement of Alexandria and remains ultimately undecided. As Gordon Fee states about 2:7 in his commentary, “Paul concludes his sentence with imagery that is so unexpected that it has had no end of being tampered with, first by some fifth-century scribes and then by modern scholars, so that Paul’s own sentence and wording have been reworked to make it more accommodating to later, even modern, tastes” (The First and Second Letters to the Thessalonians,  65). We will content ourselves with following the discussion derived from these modern tastes. 

Manuscript evidence for verse 2:7 presents two readings distinguished by a single letter:

Reading 1 – δυνάμενοι ἐν βάρει εἶναι ὡς Χριστοῦ ἀπόστολοι, ἀλλʼ ἐγενήθημεν νήπιοι ἐν μέσῳ ὑμῶν (“although we could have imposed our weight as apostles of Christ; instead we became little children among you”) 

Reading 2 – δυνάμενοι ἐν βάρει εἶναι ὡς Χριστοῦ ἀπόστολοι, ἀλλʼ ἐγενήθημεν ἤπιοι ἐν μέσῳ ὑμῶν (“although we could have imposed our weight as apostles of Christ; instead we became gentle among you”)

Put plainly, the internal evidence (the things the scribes or Paul might have done) for many commentators is simply not decisive since ἤπιοι (“gentle”) may be accounted for by an omission of the letter “ν” (nu) likewise νήπιοι (“babies” or “little children”) could have been a case of adding an extra letter. It is not hard to sympathize with the poor scribe who, confronted by Paul’s ensuing image of himself as a nursing mother in 2:8, may have altered the text from “babies” to “gentle.” However, as Beverly Gaventa points out, a conscious change from ἤπιοι to νήπιοι seems far less likely. Unfortunately, looking at Paul’s word usage does not make things much clearer. Initially the evidence favors νήπιοι since six of the ten cases of νήπιοι in the N.T. are found in Paul’s writings. Likewise, ἤπιοι is only found in the Greek at 2 Tim 2:24. But as luck would have it, the passage in 2 Timothy has just the opposite variant (the evidence suggests ἤπιοι but some manuscripts have changed it to νήπιοι).The external evidence (the age, origin, and distribution of the manuscript evidence we have) much more decisively favors the reading νήπιοι (𝔓65 א* B C* D* F G I Ψ*), with the support of a wide variety of versions and church Fathers. This reading has also won the backing of many scholars.

In their Greek text, Westcott and Hort use it without even indicating the alternative reading. Both Augustine and Origen quote the verse with the νήπιοι reading. In fact, the vast majority of commentators agree that the external evidence is decisive—decisive enough for Metzger to list the preferred reading as νήπιοι with a “B” rating despite personally disagreeing with the decision. The evidence for the textual issue at 1 Thessalonians 2:7 allows a confident decision, and yet, despite admitting the stronger attestation for νήπιοι, Sailors points out, “[E]very modern English translation of the New Testament follows the readings in the apparatus—ἤπιοι, instead of the text” (“Wedding Textual and Rhetorical Criticism,” 82). So how do the translators and commentators justify selecting the reading of ἤπιοι (“gentle”) despite the evidence to the contrary? 

Sailors argues that since the internal evidence is inconclusive, critics must look to other external evidence to find the best reading. And yet, he says, “This almost never takes place—at this point commentators turn to literary considerations, choose the readings that make sense to them (almost always ἤπιοι), and attribute νήπιοι to dittography. This is completely out of keeping with the canons of textual criticism” (Sailors, 83).  While Sailors overstates his case, he is correct that most commentators turn to “literary considerations” over the textual evidence. Three arguments are made in defense of accepting the word “gentle” contra the previously discussed evidence: context, usage, and familiarity. 

Martin in his commentary on 2:7 summarizes all three objections. He writes: 

“Gentle” removes the unlikely and sudden shift in image from “infant” to “mother” [context]. More significantly, although Paul did use “infant” elsewhere, he always used it to describe others, never himself [usage]. Finally, the repeated Pauline use of infant could have resulted in a scribal tendency to harmonize and read the frequently occurring “infant” (nēpioi) in a place where Paul had actually used the rarer “gentle” (ēpioi) [familiarity]. Thus we, along with the NIV, prefer the reading “gentle” (Martin, 1, 2 Thessalonians, 78-79.)

Thus, the primary justification for accepting “gentle” is based on the internal consistency of context.  The majority of commentators follow the lead of Ellicott who writes, “νήπιοι is the most strongly supported . . . but as νήπιοις [sic] mars both the sense and metaphor, we seem justified in retaining ἤπιοις [sic]” (St. Paul’s Epistles, 21). Perhaps this is what Sailors calls decisions based on personal preferences. Regardless, we should be advised to keep Perowne’s warning in mind: “If we choose to determine what a writer must say, instead of endeavoring to understand what he does say, we shall probably disregard grammar” (The Book of Psalms, 509).

The History of the Debate

Reviewing the textual issues and evidence brings us back to our original question: why have the canons of textual criticism been ignored by scholars or perhaps transcended at 1 Thessalonians 2:7? I have created two charts based on English language commentaries to help us gain some perspective on this debate. The first chart covers the major commentaries and articles on 2:7, listed alphabetically by author. This chart shows no clear pattern. 

Commentaries Listed Alphabetically by Author’s Name

Name  Publishing Date  Variant 
Beale 2003 νήπιοι
Best  1988 ἤπιοι
Blight  1989 ἤπιοι
Bruce 1982 ἤπιοι
Burke  2003 νήπιοι
Byron 2014 νήπιοι
Ellicot 1880 ἤπιοι
Fee 2009 νήπιοι
Frame  1912 νήπιοι
Furnish 2007 νήπιοι
Gray 2002 ἤπιοι
Gupta 2016 νήπιοι
Heibert  1971 ἤπιοι
Hendriksen 1955 ἤπιοι
Johnson 2016 νήπιοι
Lenski 1937 ἤπιοι
Lightfoot 1895 νήπιοι
Malherbe 2000 inconclusive
Marshall 1983 ἤπιοι
Martin 1995 ἤπιοι
McNeel 2014 νήπιοι
Milligan 1908 νήπιοι
Morris 1984 νήπιοι
Osborne 2018 νήπιοι
Richard 1995 νήπιοι
Sailors  2000 νήπιοι
Shogren 2012 νήπιοι
Vine and Hogg  1914 ἤπιοι
Wallace 2004 νήπιοι
Wanamaker 1990 ἤπιοι
Weima 2014 νήπιοι
Witherington 2006 ἤπιοι

The second chart, listed chronologically, shows the way in which the readings have come in and out of favor. 

Commentaries Listed Chronologically

Name  Publishing Date  Variant 
Ellicott 1880 ἤπιοι
Lightfoot 1895 νήπιοι
Milligan 1908 νήπιοι
Frame  1912 νήπιοι
Vine and Hogg 1914 ἤπιοι
Lenski 1937 ἤπιοι
Hendriksen 1955 ἤπιοι
Heibert  1971 ἤπιοι
Bruce 1982 ἤπιοι
Marshall 1983 ἤπιοι
Morris 1984 νήπιοι
Best  1988 ἤπιοι
Blight  1989 ἤπιοι
Wanamaker 1990 ἤπιοι
Martin 1995 ἤπιοι
Richard 1995 νήπιοι
Malherbe 2000 inconclusive
Sailors  2000 νήπιοι
Gray 2002 ἤπιοι
Beale 2003 νήπιοι
Burke  2003 νήπιοι
Wallace 2004 νήπιοι
Witherington 2006 ἤπιοι
Furnish 2007 νήπιοι
Fee 2009 νήπιοι
Shogren 2012 νήπιοι
McNeel 2014 νήπιοι
Byron 2014 νήπιοι
Weima 2014 νήπιοι
Gupta 2016 νήπιοι
Johnson 2016 νήπιοι
Osborne 2018 νήπιοι

In the late 19th century, those responsible for founding textual criticism as a discipline held to the textual evidence and favored the reading νήπιοι or “infants.” However, by 1914 with Vine and Hogg’s commentary, the readings shift towards ἤπιοι or “gentle” for the next eighty years. It would be unwise to ignore the fact that the shift in the readings seems to coincide with the rise of Protestant Liberalism and the devaluing of the authority of revelation in favor of one’s own personal intuition in religious matters. However, while Protestant Liberalism may have had some hand to play in the sudden shift in readings, to say that the text critical debate was simply an unintended consequence—fallout of the conservative liberal divide—is overly simplistic. One only need look at a few of the names on the above charts to see that many of the commentators who argued for the reading ἤπιοι are no liberal theologians.

In Part II of this blog series, J.R. Watkins looks further into the shift among New Testament exegetes and textual critics to prefer a reading that seems to reject the second and third canon of textual criticism. He then reflects on the interpretive solutions for the difficult metaphor shift that many later embraced as authentic. See Part II tomorrow on the CSNTM Blog.

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