Posted by: mattcolvin | June 17, 2006

“No Temptation But Such as is Common to Man”?

Reposted from my old blog Fragmenta:

We English-speakers generally experience only one sort of “temptation” (πειρασμός). A man wants to look at pornography, a woman wants to eat too much, an annoyance makes a man want to lose his temper. Because of this narrow experience, itself the result of ease and prosperity, we have a hard time understanding the New Testament’s meaning when it uses the term “temptation” (πειρασμός) and the cognate verb “to test, to tempt” (πειράζω) in other ways. Thus, when we pray “lead us not into temptation” (μὴ εἰσένεγκε εἰς πειρασμόν), we think we are asking God to keep us out of situations and circumstances in which we will want to sin.

To be sure, that is a Biblical meaning of the word; it occurs in James 1:12-15, which speaks of ἕκαστος πειράζεται ὑπὸ τῆς ἰδίας ἐπιθυμίας, ἐξελκόμενος καὶ δελεαζόμενος (14) — “each is tempted by his own lust, being drawn away and enticed.” But the same meaning does not work so well in 1 Cor. 10:13, in which we are told that πειρασμὸς ὑμᾶς οὐκ εἴληφεν εἰ μὴ ἀνθρώπινος. πιστὸς δὲ ὁ θεὸς, ὃς οὐκ ἐάσει ὑμᾶς πειρασθῆναι ὑπὲρ ὃ δύνασθε ἀλλὰ ποιήσει σὺν τῷ πειρασμῷ καὶ τὴν ἔκβασιν τοῦ δύνασθαι ὑπενεγκεῖν. — “No temptation has seized you but a human one. But God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but will make a way of escape along with the temptation so that you may be able to endure it.”

On the usual understanding of “temptation,” the translators take ἀνθρώπινος to mean “temptation that happens to men,” as the NKJV and KJV do: “no temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man.” Such a reading looks back at 10:1-11 with its recounting of the sins of Israel in the wilderness wanderings: lusting after evil, idolatry, sexual immorality, tempting Christ (the verb is πειράζω!), and grumbling. The NKJV’s rendering of ἀνθρώπινος [πειρασμός] makes it a reinforcement of 10:11, sc. “You Corinthians are not inclining toward any new and unusual sins, but toward the very same sins that Israel committed of old.” On the NKJV’s understanding, the temptation is the same in both cases, Israel and the Corinthians, and this sameness is summed up by calling the temptation “common to man.”

The problems come in the next verse, where Paul promises that “God, on the other hand (δὲ) is faithful.” First, why the δέ? What is God being contrasted to in His faithfulness? Second, Paul says that God “will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able” — a sentence that has been subjected to twisting in the service of this or that approach to lifestyle questions involving temptation to sin. What does this mean? That God will only present you with as many dirty magazine covers as you can handle without actually falling into lust in your heart? Or what?

But this reading is not necessary. We may very reasonbly take ἀνθρώπινος to denote, not those who are suffering the temptations, but those who are inflicting it. Everything then falls into place: in contrast to the judgments that fell on OT Israel by various divine means — divinely ordained Levitical massacre (10:8, in the incident of the Golden Calf), by serpents (10:9), or by a “destroyer” (ὀλοθρεήτης, 10:10), Paul assures the Corinthians that the suffering they are experiencing is of merely human origin. Saying that the πειρασμός is ἀνθρώπινος means that it is men who inflict it. We can now understand the δέ: “men are testing you by persecution, but God is faithful.”

If the πειρασμός is persecution or outside pressure rather than James 1’s lust for sinful pleasure, then we can also better understand the diction of 1 Cor. 10:13b. The “way of escape” (ἔκβασις) becomes, not a metaphorical escape from temptation, but a way to get away from enemies. The verb “to endure” (ὑπενεγκεῖν) means, not to master one’s own desires, but to tough it out under persecution.

Thus my rendering: “A temptation has not seized you, except a human one.”



  1. […] (πειρασμός, probably not mere “temptation” either here or in 1 Cor 10:13; see here) at the hands of wicked men (τοῦ […]

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