The Three Laws, Part II

By: J.R. Watkins

Introduction by: Leigh Ann Hyde

In Part I of “The Three Laws,” J. R. Watkins describes a well-known variant in the text of 1 Thessalonians in the middle of verse 2:7. The evidence appears to favor one reading— νήπιοι (“babies” or “little children”)—over another found in manuscripts—ἤπιοι (“gentle”). Yet, many biblical scholars shifted to prefer the reading less supported by the evidence in the early 20th century. Interestingly, ἤπιοι became the preferred reading for over 80 years. In Part II (below) Watkins continues to investigate the shift and how scholars have since understood the difficult textual issue.

The History of the Debate, Cont.

Here we return to something previously stated: most scholars faced with inconclusive internal evidence and external evidence created a nearly “nonsense” reading in their mind and turned to discourse analysis to cast the tie-breaking vote. Unfortunately, many of these scholars relied on poor or surface readings of Pauline text or on a misunderstanding of the syntax and ultimately came to the wrong conclusion. Most commentators object to the idea that Paul called himself an infant based on either the difficulty of the metaphor or the syntax of the clause.

 Paul’s use of metaphor is regularly misunderstood. More precisely, Paul’s use of metaphor is often flattened out, allowing many commentators to dismiss viable possibilities. Likewise, many commentators do not appreciate Fee’s point that Paul’s metaphors turn more on a “‘catch-word’ and not by consistency in application” (On Text and Commentary on 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 178). Neither can we be surprised by Paul using childhood or feminine imagery as “[t]here is a similar instance in Gal 4:19” (Furnish, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 58). In 1 Cor 15:8, McNeel adds, “Paul refers to himself as a ἐκτρώματι: a miscarriage, abortion, or premature birth” (McNeel, Paul As Infant and Nursing Mother, 2). However, the greatest issue seems to come from the ascribed attributes of infants. 

The issue with this image of Paul as an infant seems to be a matter of muddled images. The modern reader conjures a particular image of an infant where, as Fowler points out, the “relevant attributes associated with infants are that they are dependent and demanding—especially when it comes to matters of food and lodging. These are the very things Paul wants to avoid saying about himself. Such associations, however, are too close to the notion of infancy to be suppressed” ( Fowl, “A Metaphor in Distress,” 472). While the reader at Thessalonica would certainly be aware that infants can be taxing, in this case, Paul uses the image of infants for himself and his coworkers to describe the nature of their actions in Thessalonica. Most of these are associated with the idea of innocence. Infants are not capable of guile or deceit. As Gaventa points out in the Septuagint (e.g., Pss 18 [19]:7; 118 [119]:130; Wis 10:21) and in other New Testament writings (Matt 11:24–5; 21:16), νήπιος does refer to those who are simple or guileless. Being guileless does not destroy Paul’s metaphor but rather completes it and, Weima says, “serves as a fitting contrast to the impure motives of coming with a word of flattery,’ ‘a motive of greed,’ and ‘demanding honor’” (1-2 Thessalonians, 145-146). 

The second issue for many commentators is that they have misunderstood the syntax of Paul’s construction. Fee concurs that many of the objections—particularly that a mixed metaphor would be too jarring—stem from a poor understanding of the syntax. He notes in his 1992 SBL lecture, “If this seems like an abrupt change of metaphors, it is so, only if one thinks the ‘nurse’ clause is syntactically related to the ‘babes’ clause” (Fee, 178). Many commentators simply seem to miss, he says, that the grammar and the rhetoric of the section point to Paul having moved on to a new topic rather than expanding the previous material when he makes the “nurse” comment. One can allow some grace for the syntactical confusion given how rare a construction ὡς ἐὰν is in the New Testament. However, if the syntax of the clause separates the “infants” reading from the clause including the “nurse” metaphor entirely, most of the difficulties in this passage have been dissolved.

The History of the Solutions

Essentially three strategic solutions offer ways to solve the problem of Paul’s “mixed metaphor.” We will briefly discuss all three. Charles Crawford tried to resolve the issue by reading νήπιοι as a vocative. His 1973 article “The ‘Tiny’ Problem of 1 Thessalonians 2:7: The Case of the Curious Vocative” has met with little acceptance in academic circles. 

Alongside the textual concerns, most scholars recognize that punctuation raises a ‌second ‌ ‌problem. The next two solutions take this into consideration. Mark Proctor outlines another proposed suggestion:  “Terminating v. 7b with a question mark (;) [is] a means of resolving its text-critical and interpretive issues” (“‘Were We Infants among You?’”, 317). As a result, Proctor renders the passage as: “were we infants among you?” Given that many commentators see 2:7 as a new sentence and transition, and since Moo points out that Paul regularly uses rhetorical questions to introduce new lines of thought, Proctor’s suggestion is intriguing. However, Dr. Proctor’s essay has not received a response and probably requires further investigation within the scholarly community. 

Finally, a number of commentators have put forward the suggestion that 2:7 should conclude with a full stop. Many “modern versions wrongly end the positive half of this antithetical clause too early after the phrase “apostles of Christ” in 2:7a and so begin a new clause already at 2:7b (‘But we became . . .’)” (Weima, 1-2 Thessalonians, 138.). However, if 2:7a is read as qualifying the preceding verses (2:5–6), Sailors argues for a 2:7a translation: “functions as an aside” (“Wedding Textual and Rhetorical Criticism,” 94.). This would allow a comma or mid-point to bracket the clause off following ἄλλων ἀπόστολοι. 2:7b then begins with ἀλλά, contrasting the preceding material in 2:5–6. A third clause begins with the unusual ὡς ἐὰν construction and functions as a correlative with οὕτως at the start of 2:8, so that a full stop (period) should mark out 2:7b and 2:7c. Another mid-point following τέκνα can prevent the asyndeton in 2:8. Sailors says, “Ending the sentence with a full-stop after 7b and having a second sentence continue from 7c makes good sense not only syntactically, but also . . .  in the larger rhetorical argument” (“Wedding Textual and Rhetorical Criticism,” 94.). Most commentators after 1995 concur and argue for the full stop so that the passage reads: “we became infants among you. Like a nursing mother . . .”


How did a relatively straightforward textual problem develop such a complicated history? Oddly enough, it is rather simple: all the trouble in this text is caused by Paul’s use of two metaphors that have been mistaken for one. Restoring this reading now invites the reader to ask questions about how and why Paul felt the need to use such startling images. Paul gives us a glimpse into the complex relationships between the apostle and his church. Perhaps “part of the reason for Paul describing himself as an ‘infant’ may lie in the fact that in this letter his authority is not in any danger nor is it being challenged by his converts, hence the ease with which he can risk himself into such a vulnerable and non-authoritarian role” (Burke, Family Matters, 157). Paul is writing as much a reassurance as he is a defense of his ministry.