Did Philemon Practice Outreach or Inreach?
Aug 18, 2011 by Craig Blomberg | 1 Comments
“I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ." (Philemon 6, updated NIV).
Unfortunately, many Bible readers today form opinions about the merits of various translations based on hearsay rather than firsthand examination of the text of Scripture, even if that hearsay is quite mistaken or slanted in what it claims. Sometimes people just accept the opinion of a trusted authority in their lives. Maybe they base their decision solely on the rendering of a single verse, or collection of verses on the same topic or involving the same issue. Some people stress very literal renderings at the expense of clarity of meaning, or freshness of style at the expense of faithfulness to the original languages.
Having read large swaths of many of the major English translations of the Bible and having been involved in the production of four of the major recent translations (ESV, HCSB, NLT and updated NIV), I am convinced that the updated NIV achieves the best combination of accuracy and clarity of meaning most frequently. Each translation has its appropriate niche, but the NIV seems to serve best the broadest cross-section of purposes and audiences. This is the sixth in a series of blogs, appearing more frequently than in the past, which looks at a diverse collection of texts and topics that I believe support my conviction.
After the original NIV appeared in the 1970s, Philemon 6 became a text perhaps more preached than any other to encourage congregations to be active in evangelism and witnessing to their faith: “I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.” Indeed, the point was often made that without such vigorous sharing of one’s faith, we could not attain to the fullest understanding possible in this life of the blessings we have in Christ. A pretty strong incentive, right?
Readers of other translations, or the Greek, even in the 1970s, might have paused. To be sure, the KJV had “the communication of your faith,” but “communication” in Elizabeth English also meant “communion.” The RSV had “sharing of your faith” but the ASV and NASB both had “fellowship of your faith,” which gives a very different idea. The ESV and NRSV left the RSV unrevised here, but notice the array of other options today: “your participation in the faith” (HCSB), “your partnership. . .in the faith” (TNIV, updated NIV, CEB), “the faith you share with us” (NET), “the generosity that comes from your faith” (NLT). What in the world is going on here?
The Greek reads simply he koinōnia t pisteōs sou: “the fellowship of your faith.” But is the genitive case with faith subjective or objective? In other words, is Paul referring to fellowship as the activity of sharing (outreach) with faith as its object—thus, sharing your faith (an objective genitive)? This is what the RSV-NIV-NRSV-ESV trajectory of translations opted for. Or is Paul talking about fellowship as the activity of warm, interpersonal relationships (inreach) with faith as its subject—thus the good relationships produced by your faith? This is what the NLT-NET-TNIV-updated NIV-CEB trajectory of translations opted for. The HCSB produced something different altogether by taking “your” as modifying koinōnia rather than “faith,” which is fairly unlikely.
How does one decide? (1) Paul’s style elsewhere. (2) What best fits the immediate context. Let’s start with (2). Absolutely nothing in the entire letter of Philemon is about evangelism, except for what Paul apparently accomplished with Onesimus when Philemon’s slave met up with Paul in prison, probably in Rome. But verses 5 and 7 are all about Philemon’s wonderful ministry with fellow believers. The whole point of the letter is that Paul is asking Philemon at the very least to welcome Onesimus back home as a fellow believer and not punish him. Most likely, he is suggesting that Philemon manumit Onesimus and allow him to come back and help Paul. All this fits the subjective, not the objective genitive.
What about (1)? Paul regularly uses pairs of abstract nouns with the second noun in the genitive, especially in his opening prayers and thanksgivings, with the genitive noun as subjective. An excellent example of this is 1 Thessalonians 1: 3 with its triad of “your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope” (the translation that has remained constant throughout every edition of the NIV), nicely bringing out the sense of “work of faith,” “labor of love,” and “endurance of hope.”
So here is a place where the current NIV is much to be preferred to the original NIV! Virtually all the major evangelical commentaries agree. Evangelism is still a good thing, but don’t teach it from Philemon. Use Philemon’s model to encourage people to be welcoming to the wayward who are returning, much like the father in the prodigal son. Use the entire letter to teach about freedom from slavery.