112. My body to the flames? (1 Cor.13:3)

A verse that troubled me since my childhood days was 1 Corinthians 13:3.

To me the problem was this: Directly preceding this statement, Paul mentions quite a few achievements that could be deemed reachable and really plausible, contributing to the overall growth of Christianity. To speak with tongues, and prophesy, and have faith, and care for the less privileged would all contribute to the growth of the congregation, and its esteem in the world. Even giving up one’s body, meaning one’s life, rather than disown one’s faith during persecution, is plausible. But why the stipulation that it should be by the burning of one’s body? I could make no sense out of this, whether with love, or without. In my mind I could not fathom a person stepping forward and announcing: “here I am, you may give me up to the flames!” For what reason? To achieve what? It just made no sense to me.
On the other hand, if this had to do with being threatened with persecution and possible execution for one’s faith, could you have any say in the method? “Okay, so I am to be executed. In my case, you give me up to the flames!” Does one have any say in the way one would be executed if condemned to death due to one’s faith? Or were people executed that way reckoned of a higher esteem than those beheaded or crucified? Why did Paul add this stipulation?

That the faithful have given up their bodies through the ages, is well known. Daniel and his friends did so. (Dan. 3:28) Even Paul and Barnabas made that choice, “…men that have hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Acts 15:26)

KJV: “And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have no charity, it profiteth me nothing.”

But then I discovered that there are versions of the Bible that translate this verse in another way. Instead of “burning”, they have “exulting” one self. New Living Translation: “If I gave everything I have to the poor, and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it, but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing.” Common English Bible: “…to feel good about what I’ve done…”
Now I was even more confused. In the United Bible Societies Text, two versions are found with two words differing by only one letter. And they give their own choice of self exultation a “C – rating”, meaning “there is a considerable degree of doubt whether the text or the apparatus contains the superior reading.” The two words found in manuscripts are: “kauthēsomai” burning and “kaugēsomai” exulting. The purpose of exulting oneself, might be for the exultation of Christ as Paul says in Philippians 1:20: “…according to my earnest expectation and my hope, that in nothing I shall be ashamed, as always, so now also Christ shall be magnified in my body, whether it be by life or by death.”

The question remains, did Paul write that one should give one’s body for the flames, or for exultation?
Let us first examine the available manuscript evidence. The table below gives the manuscripts in their time of copying containing the two versions.

1 Corinthians 13:3

Versions: To exult: To be burned:
Manuscripts: Greek: Translations: Church Fathers: Greek: Translations: Church Fathers:
101-200 p46
201-300 Sahidic Clement, Origen* Tertullian, Cyprian
301-400 Sinaiticus, Vaticanus Bohairic Vulgate, Gothic Basil, Rebaptism
401-500 Alexandrinus Pelagius, Jerome Ephraemi, Bezae Armenian, Syriac Chrysostom*, Cyrel- Alexandria, Theodoret, Chrysostom*, Euthalius
501-600 Old Latin
601-700 Syriac Maximus-Confessor
701-800 Atous- Laurae 2 Old Latin John-Damascus
801-900 Minuscule 33 Mosquensis, Audiensis, Boernerianus, Angelicus 4 Old Latin
901-1000 3 Minuscules 16 Minuscules Old Latin
1001-1600 Ethiopic 5 Byzantine Lectionary, Old Latin, Ethiopic

According to the manuscript evidence “to exult” is found in the older Greek manuscripts, while “to be burned” is more often in the later manuscripts.
In the time of Caesar Nero execution by burning had been popular. But Paul could not have referred to this practice, since this letter was written 10 years before the reign of Nero. It is however clear that Paul mentions quite a few matters where one does have the possibility to exercise a choice. Yet in this verse, the choice is made whether one would give up one’s body, that means rather be executed than to abandon one’s faith. A “choice” cannot be exercised on the method of execution.
In short the two versions can be paraphrased as follows:
“Even if I give up my life to be executed by fire and not by another method, and I have no love, I would gain nothing.”
Or: “Even if I give up my life to be executed to exult myself, and I have no love, I would gain nothing.”
But I ask myself whether anyone would give up his life so that he could boast about it? Then I remembered a story I heard many years ago of soldiers storming into a little church in Russia, threatening to kill everyone confessing Jesus. After the cowards had fled, the soldiers put down their rifles saying they wanted to worship with true Christians. And guess in which group I fathomed myself!
The tragic reality is that I see myself as this giant in faith who would look death in the eye for the sake of faith. And yet, at an unexpected moment in the courtyard I find that I, like Peter had already said: “I don’t know the man!”

In both versions the decision to rather give up one’s life for the sake of faith, stands firm. In the first case, the method would be measured whether with love or not, something one would not have a choice. In the second version the motive would be measured, something one does have the choice.

Both the manuscript evidence as well as the context favour “kaugēsomai”, exulting.

God bless,


You are welcome to give me your comments at the bottom of this page, or via e-mail to bibledifferences@gmail.com

About Herman of bibledifferences.net

The reasons for the differences between older Bibles like the King James Version and newer Bibles like the New International Version have fascinated me ever since my studies in Theology at the University of Pretoria in the seventies. I have great respect for scribes through the ages as well as Bible translators, so there must be good reasons for the differences. With more than 5600 Greek manuscripts and more than 19000 manuscripts of ancient translations to our disposal, the original autographs of the New Testament can be established without doubt. I investigate the reasons behind the differences and publish the facts in a post on my blogs www.bibledifferences.net (Afrikaans: www.bybelverskille.wordpress.com) to enable my readers to judge for themselves. Personally I love to make an informed decision based of facts. That is why I endeavor to provide that same privilege to the readers of my blogs. Since 1973 I am married to my dear wife and greatest friend, Leah Page, founder director of Act-Up Support (www.actup.co.za) a prayer ministry for families struggling with drug-, occult- and other dependencies. We are blessed with two daughters and two sons, four grand sons and two grand daughters. God is alive and omnipotent! Glory to His Name! Herman Grobler.
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2 Responses to 112. My body to the flames? (1 Cor.13:3)

  1. Joanne says:

    I read it merely as an escalation of intent: first one gives up one’s possessions, and then one sacrifices one’s ultimate possession: the body. In my Bible margin is a notation saying:

    “Some ancient ms. reads that I may boast.”

    No matter the words, the point is delivering the body as a sacrifice. I can well imagine someone, motivated by love, sacrificing their life to help another. If not done in love, there is no profit, which is the phrase I find most interesting.

    First, without love, one’s words are meaningless. Then “I am nothing.” Then “It profits me nothing.”

    In essence, without love, we are ineffectual and nothing is added to us.

    Not every one that said to me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that does the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in your name? and in your name have cast out devils? and in your name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess to them, I never knew you: depart from me, you that work iniquity.

    It is obvious from the verse that even “sinners” can perform miracles that Jesus performed. Since the Kingdom of Heaven is within and the Father and Son dwell within, then love brings us into this state of heaven where we abide with God. But without love, we cannot enter into heaven. One is then left with the only recourse: works. “Look what I did.” Thus the boast. And works are performed from fear, which is hell on earth.

    Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.

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