My father-in-law has a neat practice. Throughout the year, he sends one verse from each chapter of the New Testament to each of his children. He typically goes through books, and since the year has more chapters than the New Testament, he repeats from the gospels or adds in from the Psalms.
Recently, the verse he sent along was one from the tiny letter to Philemon. I don’t always ponder these little snippets like I should, but this one piqued my interest, due mostly to a mistranslation of the NIV84.
Philemon 6 reads in the NIV84, “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.” The Greek reads of 4-6 reads (I add more since it’s one all one sentence), “Εὐχαριστῶ τῷ θεῷ μου πάντοτε μνείαν σου ποιούμενος ἐπὶ τῶν προσευχῶν μου, 5 ἀκούων σου τὴν ἀγάπην καὶ τὴν πίστιν, ἣν ἔχεις πρὸς τὸν κύριον Ἰησοῦν καὶ εἰς πάντας τοὺς ἁγίους, 6 ὅπως ἡ κοινωνία τῆς πίστεώς σου ἐνεργὴς γένηται ἐν ἐπιγνώσει παντὸς ἀγαθοῦ τοῦ ἐν ἡμῖν εἰς Χριστόν.”
The bolded section is what concerns us here. Namely, κοινωνία (koinonia) does not imply the type of sharing that the NIV84 seems to imply. As it stands in the NIV84, Paul’s prayer for Philemon concerns evanglism: sharing the faith with those outside the fold. However, our word implies a sharing among intimates or friends. Hence, it is used in other contexts, like 1 Cor 10:16 to describe our communion with Christ through the bread and wine, or to denote the Philippians financial and spiritual partnership with Paul and his ministry.
Of course, you should always be wary of people who say, “well the Greek really says…” Fortunately for you, and for me, I have support for my claims! The standard New Testament lexicon (BDAG) gives four definitions:
- close association involving mutual interests and sharing
- attitude of good will that manifests an interest in a close relationship
- abstr. for concr. sign of fellowship, proof of brotherly unity, even gift, contribution
- participation, sharing τινός in someth.
The editors of the lexicon list this passage under section 4, and offers the following translation, “that your participation in the faith may be made known through your deeds.” This strikes me as unlikely (particularly the last part: I don’t know how γένηται ἐνεργὴς translates to “might be made known through your deeds”). I think participation is certainly a possible translation, but I’d want to add “with us” that that the corporate dimensions of Paul’s prayer are more clear.
When dealing with a Greek question like this, I always try to get a native speaker’s opinion. Fortunately, the late fourth century bishop John Chrysostom has left us a series of homilies on all of Paul’s epistles, including little Philemon. He notes (from PG 62.709),
Εὔχομαι, φησὶν, ἵνα ἡ κοινωνία τῆς πίστεώς σου ἐνεργὴς γένηται. Ὁρᾷς πρότερον αὐτὸν διδόντα ἢ λαβεῖν, καὶ πρὶν ἢ τὴν χάριν αἰτῆσαι [62.709], τὴν αὑτοῦ παρέχοντα πολλῷ μείζονα; Ὅπως, φησὶν, ἡ κοινωνία τῆς πίστεώς σου ἐνεργὴς γένηται ἐν ἐπιγνώσει παντὸς ἀγαθοῦ τοῦ ἐν ὑμῖν εἰς Χριστὸν Ἰησοῦν. Τουτέστιν, ἵνα πᾶσαν ἀρετὴν ἐπέλθῃς, Ἵνα μηδὲν ἐλλειφθῇ. Οὕτω γὰρ ἡ πίστις γίνεται ἐνεργὴς, ὅταν ἔργα ἔχῃ. Χωρὶς γὰρ ἔργων ἡ πίστις νεκρά ἐστι. Καὶ οὐκ εἶπεν, Ἡ πίστις σου, ἀλλ‘, Ἡ κοινωνία τῆς πίστεώς σου, συνάπτων αὐτὸν ἑαυτῷ, καὶ ἓν σῶμα δεικνὺς, καὶ τούτῳ μάλιστα αὐτὸν δυσωπῶν. Εἰ κοινωνὸς εἶ, φησὶ, κατὰ τὴν πίστιν, καὶ κατὰ τὰ ἄλλα ὀφείλεις κοινωνεῖν.
“I pray,” he says, “that your partnership in the faith may be active.” Do you see how he himself gives before receiving, and that before he asks him the favor, he provides a much better one of his own? “So that,” he says, “the partnership of your faith my be active in the knowledge of everything good thing we have in Christ.” That’s to say, “so that you may attain all virtue,” or “so that you may lack nothing.” Now faith is “active” when it has works, for without works faith is dead. He did not say, “your faith,” but the “partnership of your faith,” joining him (Philemon) to himself, and with one body revealed, he entreats him all the more. “If you share the faith,” he says, “then you are required to share other things too.”
John appears to understand κοινωνία not as participation, nor as evangelism, but as a partnership: notice the line “joining him to himself.” The use of κοινωνία serves to link Philemon to Paul, and hopefully make him more receptive to Paul’s plea to free Onesimus (the favor John mentions here).
John’s gloss of ἐνεργὴς (active, or effective) is also helpful, as this adjective isn’t terribly common in the New Testament. His explanation (that faith is ἐνεργὴς when it “has works”) fits particularly nicely in the context of the letter, as Paul is essentially urging Philemon to do a good work: free Onesimus!
All that to say, I think the NIV11’s change to this verse is most welcome! The new NIV reads: “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.” I’m still not sure about the second half of the verse, (how does ἐν ἐπιγνώσει…, which means “in the knowledge…”, fit in with the rest of the sentence?), but I think they nailed the first part. Kudos!
Update: I amended my translation with two suggestions from Stephen (see the comments). Thanks to him for catching several mistakes, and for the helpful suggestions!