Posted by: chuckbumgardner | May 8, 2009

Fee on the Disorderly in Thessalonica

I obtained today portions of a pre-publication edition of the forthcoming NICNT commentary on Thessalonians by Gordon Fee, a welcome update to Morris’s NICNT Thessalonians volume of 50-year vintage.
I have posted before regarding the translation of the ἄτακτος (ataktos) word group in Thessalonians, and so I was delighted to read Fee acknowledge his complete inability to understand just why in the world the ἄτακτος (ataktos) word group is still being (or ever was!) translated with words related to idleness.  So, in his own words (note that page numbers are from the pre-publication edition and may not be precisely the same in the final edition):
the translation “idlers” . . ., even though it correctly points to an aspect of those who are in view here, does not in fact have a lexical leg to stand on. (209)
For reasons that are difficult to fathom, [rendering ataktoi as “the idle”] tended to take over among NT scholars, despite total lack of evidence for it. (209 n18)
In fact, there is no known evidence of any kind in its [the translation “be idle, lazy”] favor. (209 n19)
At some point in the history of English translation it was apparently assumed that the believers who were not working (refusing to work?) in Thessalonica were “out of line” in the sense of being “idle”; so they became “the idlers” instead of “the unruly,” even though there is not a single piece of literary evidence to support such an understanding. (210)
(Gordon D. Fee, The First and Second Letters to the Thessalonians, NICNT [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009])
Regarding the last quotation’s assertion regarding the lack of literary evidence and the “apparent” reconstruction of the cause for the shifting translation of ἀτάκτως, I wonder if Fee is familiar with the papyrological discoveries which caused Milligan, Moulton, Frame, Rutherford, and others to translate ἀτάκτως as “idle” or “lazy” in the early 19th century. Given Fee’s world-class exegetical abilities, I hesitate to suggest that he is unaware of the history of interpretation of  ἀτάκτως in Thessalonians. However, he states in a footnote that “the rendering ‘the idle’ apparently first appeared in the RSV (NT 1948)” (209 n18).  The RSV was the first major English version to utilize such a translation (which may very well be Fee’s point), but forty years earlier W. G. Rutherford published a translation of Thessalonians using “loafer” for ἀτάκτως in Saint Paul’s Epistles to the Thessalonians and to the Corinthians (London: Macmillan, 1908), 18-19.
That issue aside, I of course recommend Fee’s forthcoming volume heartily.  (I’ve seen it available for pre-order only on CBD so far.) Anyone who has used his commentaries on 1 Corinthians (NICNT 1987) and Philippians (NICNT 1995) recognizes the value of his work. For the level of commentary that the NIC series produces, Fee is notable for his inclusion of a disproportionately large (but welcome!) amount of information about textual variants and the way the text has been translated in English versions.  From what I’ve read, I do not know that his volume on Thessalonians will rise to the top of the heap over, e.g., Malherbe (Anchor), but I would certainly place it in the “top four” at this point.

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