An explanation of the ESV translation of 2 Corinthians 12:16

ESV Global Study Bible

(image courtesy Crossway Bibles)

By Spencer D Gear

Verses in the OT and NT cannot be translated in isolation from the context if we are to gain the correct meaning of a verse. After all, verse numbering came as later additions to the Scriptures. They were not there in the originals.

How is it possible to justify these words in the ESV translation of this verse, ‘I was crafty, you say’, when ‘you say’ does not appear in the original Greek?

I had some back and forth with a person on Christian Forums who did not like the ESV translation of 2 Cor. 12:16.

This person stated, ‘I do not accept Paul nor his writings’.[1] Part of my response to him was, ‘How come you are able to excise Paul’s writings from the NT? What gives you that authority? How do you know about justification by faith without Paul’s teaching in his epistles?’[2] Part of his response was, ‘I don’t believe that we are justified by faith alone. Brother, have you considered that the rest of Scripture points to justification by trust, repentance, and obedience, and not simply faith alone?’[3]

My response was:

We do not have the responsibility to test what is in the Scriptures. By the way, Deut 13:1-5 applied to the theocratic nation of Israel as v. 5 makes clear: ‘…. your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you out of the house of slavery’ (ESV).

And what was the penalty for a false prophet for Israel? Deut. 13:5 says that prophet “shall be put to death”. Are you advocating that false prophets in this NT era should be put to death?

By the way, what makes Paul a false prophet so that you cut out his writings from the NT?

With respect, you have stated that we are justified by trust, repentance and obedience. I note that you gave me not one reference so that I could check you out. By the way, trust is associated with faith.[4]

As the conversation progressed, he stated:

I cannot follow a man who admitted that he engaged in deception in his ministry:
2 Cor 12:16 Greek text – But be it so, I did not myself burden you; but, being crafty, I caught you with dolos/deception/guile. (cf 1Cor 9:19-23)[5]

Part of my response was:

Why do you twist what 2 Cor 12:16 in context states:

14 Here for the third time I am ready to come to you. And I will not be a burden, for I seek not what is yours but you. For children are not bound to save up for their parents, but parents for their children. 15 I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls. If I love you more, am I to be loved less? 16 But granting that I myself did not burden you, I was crafty, you say, and got the better of you by deceit. 17 Did I take advantage of you through any of those whom I sent to you? 18 I urged Titus to go, and sent the brother with him. Did Titus take advantage of you? Did we not act in the same spirit? Did we not take the same steps? (2 Cor. 12:14-16 ESV)

Literally, it says, ‘being crafty with guile you’. The Corinthians were saying Paul was crafty and with guile. That was not Paul speaking.[6]

His challenge to this understanding was:

Sorry, but actually the ESV is twisting that verse here. There is absolutely no “you say” found in the Greek. The ESV translators added that, perhaps to save Paul.[7]

Is this person correct? Is the ESV twisting the meaning of 2 Corinthians 12:16? The following is an attempted explanation

Three English translations & the Greek version of 2 Cor. 12:16

blue-satin-arrow-small The English Standard Version, using formal equivalence translation methodology, reads, ‘But granting that I myself did not burden you, I was crafty, you say, and got the better of you by deceit’ (2 Cor. 12:16 ESV).

blue-satin-arrow-small The New Living Translation, using dynamic equivalence as a translation methodology, reads, ‘Some of you admit I was not a burden to you. But others still think I was sneaky and took advantage of you by trickery’ (2 Cor. 12:16 NLT).

blue-satin-arrow-small The New International Version, using dynamic equivalence, reads: ‘Be that as it may, I have not been a burden to you. Yet, crafty fellow that I am, I caught you by trickery!’ (2 Cor. 12:16 NIV).

blue-satin-arrow-smallHow is it possible to justify any of these translations from the Greek of 2 Cor. 12:16 (Westcott & Hort Greek text)?

To obtain an understanding of how the

  • ESV translates as, ‘I was crafty, you say’;
  • NLT translates as, ‘But others still think I was sneaky’;
  • NIV translation, ‘Yet, crafty fellow that I am’,

we turn to Simon Kistemaker’s explanation of the context.

Simon J. Kistemaker’s commentary on 2 Cor. 12:16[8]

2 Corinthians

Courtesy Best Commentaries

e.  Scurrilous Slander (12:16-18)

‘We surmise that Paul has received an oral report from a person who has recently come from Corinth and has informed the apostle about comments made by his adversaries in the church. Paul has now come to the point of directing a few remarks to the people who are slandering him in his absence.

16. Very well! [You say] that I have not been a burden to you. But [you say] I, as a crafty fellow, took you in by deceit.

‘Gentleness has now changed to candor. The apostle must address slander that can be counteracted only by confrontation. He alludes to the words spoken by his opponents and which are believed by some members of the church. He realizes that slander can change the relationship between him and the Corinthian church. Therefore, he must deal forthrightly with this evil and eradicate it.

‘Paul knows that an unwholesome sentiment exists in the church. He himself has received no money at all from the Corinthians, and they admit that he has not been a financial burden to them. And that is to his credit. Thus he writes the first words, “Very well!”

‘The next comment, introduced by the adversative but, exposes the sting of slander. The saying that Paul cannot be trusted has been circulating openly in Corinth. The background is that Paul, who refused to accept money for his services, has sent Titus to them with a request for a collection. The slanderers spread the rumor that under the guise of helping the poverty-stricken saints in Jerusalem, Paul and Titus are working to fill their own pockets. These doubters suspect that the money will not go to the poor but will remain with the apostle.

‘Paul uses the Greek term panourgos, which I have translated “crafty fellow.” It conveys the idea of a person who is “ready to do anything” to achieve his purpose.[9] This odious expression originates not with Paul but with his opponents. They use a word that is a cognate of the one the apostle writes to describe the “craftiness” of the serpent deceiving Eve (11:3). Further, they accuse Paul of deceitfully taking in Corinthians who have put their trust in him.

17. Did I take advantage of you through any of the men I sent to you?…’


[1] Christian Forums, Christian Scriptures, Bibliology & Hermeneutics, ‘Anyone else here reads from the American Standard Version?’, netzarim (non-Pauline Messianic) #7, available at: (Accessed 7 October 2012).

[2] Ibid., OzSpen #8.

[3] Ibid., netzarim #9.

[4] Ibid., OzSpen #10.

[5] Ibid., netzarim #36.

[6] Ibid., OzSpen #37.

[7] Ibid., netzarim #38.

[8] Simon J Kistemaker 1997. New Testament Commentary: Exposition of the Second Epistle to the Corinthians. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, pp. 430-431.

[9] The footnote at this point was Bauer, p. 608 (Kistemaker 1997:431, n. 64). This is a reference to the Bauer, Arndt & Gingrich Greek lexicon. In my edition of BAG, it is on p. 613 [William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich 1957. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press (limited edition licensed to Zondervan Publishing House)]. Arndt & Gingrich’s actual words for the translation of panourgos were ‘in our lit. never without an unfavorable connotation clever, crafty, sly lit. “ready to do anything” (1957:613).


Copyright © 2013 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 20 May 2016.