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2 Corinthians 2:17 — Commercializing the Word of God

Nov 18, 2023 — Conley Owens & Andrew Case

In 2 Corinthians, Paul speaks of false apostles (the “super apostles”) who, in comparison to Paul, charged for their preaching (2 Cor. 11:7,12-13). The first indication in the epistle that the false apostles wrongly accepted money from the Corinthians is in 2:17, but bibles differ on how best to translate this verse. The ESV renders it as:

For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ. (2 Cor. 2:17, ESV)

In this article we will argue that the best way to translate καπηλεύοντες in the phrase “peddlers of God’s Word” is with a word that carries the primary meaning of commercial action and intent, such as “retailers,” or “merchants,” or simply “sellers.” Paul is contrasting his own free ministry with the commercialized ministry of false teachers, and using this distinction to show God’s seal of authenticity on him as a true servant of Christ.

In 2 Corinthians, Paul defends the dignity of his ministry, which is fraught with things most would find shameful: beatings, shipwrecks, missed itineraries, etc. In constructing this defense, he must compare himself to the false teachers of Corinth. In this particular verse (2:17), The “many” (οἱ πολλοὶ) may refer to false teachers in general, but most especially refers to those of Corinth. However, the same entity reappears in the next verse as “some” (τινες), indicating that a particular group is in mind. This parallelism “suggests that ‘the many’ is rhetorical (and disparaging) rather than numerical.”[1] With this remark, Paul intends to implicate his opponents, the false apostles.

That said, the primary source of interest in this verse is the word translated by the ESV as “peddlers” (καπηλεύοντες, from καπηλεύω). Commentators and translations divide over recognizing this word as indicating an adulteration or commercialization of the gospel. Furthermore, they differ on whether or not this word necessarily implies a motive of profit. Thus, as we will see below, some translations add “for profit” to the verse because they believe it to be implicit information from the context that needs to be made explicit to the reader, even though the words “for profit” are not found in the Greek.[2]

VersionCommerceCorruptionGod’s WordProfit
Genevamake merchandise ofthe worde of God
KJVcorruptthe word of God
ASVcorruptingthe word of God
Modern literal
ESVpeddlers ofGod’s word
NASBpeddlingthe word of God
NKJVpeddlingthe word of God
ISVcommercializingGod’s word
Modern with explanatory gloss
CSBmarketthe word of Godfor profit
NIVpeddle the word of Godthe word of Godfor profit
BSBpeddlethe word of Godfor profit
NEThucksters who peddlethe word of Godfor profit
NLThucksterswho preachfor personal profit
CEVfrom preaching God’s messagetry to get rich

Corruption or Commerce?

It should be recognized at the outset that the word in question, καπηλεύω, occurs only in 2 Corinthians 2:17 in all of the NT. The rarity of this word presents a challenge to interpreters because there are no other biblical contexts with which to compare its use, besides the Greek version of Isaiah 1:22 which uses a nominal form of the word (κάπηλοί).

In spite of this difficulty, there are good reasons to understand καπηλεύω as referring to commerce and not explicitly to corruption. These reasons include a careful lexical analysis of the extrabiblical and Septuagint’s use of καπηλεύω and its related forms, the wider context of 2 Corinthians, a close look at what exactly Paul was being criticized for in terms of financial policy, a parallel passage in 1 Thessalonians 2:3–5, and the objective nature of Paul’s criticism. Let’s look at each of these in turn.

A Lexical Study of καπηλεύω

In spite of καπηλεύω being a hapax legomenon within the NT, there is ample evidence that it primarily means to engage in market transactions,[3] and for this reason BDAG gives the fundamental meanings of “trade in, peddle, huckster.” Although some older versions translate the word as “adulterate,”[4] there are compelling arguments not to go that direction. These arguments include a careful examination of two primary pieces of evidence: 1) the anti-Sophist polemic in the Greek classics and Hellenistic Judaism, 2) the use of the word “retailer” (κάπηλος) in the Greek LXX of Isaiah 1:22.[5]

Before discussing the evidence, it should be understood that the research of Hans Windisch from 1924 stands behind many of the mainstream arguments for understanding καπηλεύω as to sell.[6] Windisch did acknowledge the possible meaning of “adulterate,” but only as a secondary meaning. Unfortunately, some who read his research misunderstood or misapplied it, and took the idea of adulteration as primary.[7] But Scott Hafemann, in his painstakingly thorough exegesis of 2 Corinthians 2:14-3:3 has shown that the idea of corruption is not inherent in the commercial sense of καπηλεύω, but rather added to it.[8]

The anti-Sophist polemic in the Greek classics boils down to the idea that Plato, who did not sell his teaching, criticized the Sophists for doing so. For example, “The Sophist is really a sort of merchant or dealer (κάπηλος) in provisions on which a soul is nourished.” They are “hawking (καπηλεύοντες) [their doctrines] about any odd purchaser who desires them, commending everything that they sell.”[9] Some interpreters have assumed that Plato looked down on them because they were selling corrupt teaching or watered-down philosophy, and so the meaning of καπηλεύω must include the idea of corruption or adulteration. But a deeper understanding of Plato from more context leads to the conclusion that Plato was not critiquing the Sophists for corrupting their message, but instead for claiming to sell what they did not have. “For Plato, Sophistry was a sham, and its teachers were entertainers (see Soph. 235A). What they sold was worthless.”[10] Furthermore, a careful reading of Plato’s treatment of this issue shows that “to sell one’s instruction implied that what one had to teach was valuable enough to warrant its purchase. To sell one’s teaching was, in effect, to make a positive claim concerning the worth of one’s message.”[11] Thus we cannot take Plato’s use of καπηλεύω as support for the idea that it implied corruption. Rather, the context of Plato’s writing strengthens the conclusion that the word refers to the simple act of selling, and possibly the connotation of pretending to sell something that one doesn’t really have.

In Hellenistic Judaism (second-century B.C.) we find the word κάπηλος used by Jesus ben Sirach in Sirach 26:29: “A merchant will scarcely be delivered from wrongdoing, and a retailer (κάπηλος) will not be innocent of sin.” This teaching is undoubtedly related to what Sirach says later in the next chapter:

Many have sinned on account of cash, and he who seeks to increase will avert an eye. Between joints of stones a peg will be driven, and between selling and buying sin will be wedged. If one does not hold fast in fear of the Lord, quickly, with speed, his house will be overthrown. (27:1-3)

Notice that in Sirach 26:29 “merchant” (ἔμπορος) is parallel to “retailer” (κάπηλος). BDAG defines ἔμπορος as “one who travels by ship for business reasons, merchant.” So, although Sirach rightly believes that the pursuit of money can cause one to sin, his use of the word κάπηλος gives no reason to conclude that it also carries the inherent meaning of adulteration of goods. The fact that merchants have historically fostered a bad reputation for themselves through dishonest dealings does not mean that the work of a merchant is primarily the work of corrupting things. And if we examine the works of both Lucian and Philostratus, we will arrive at the same conclusion.[12] To be inherently suspect of watering things down in a certain culture does not change the definition of words like merchant, retailer, or wine-seller.

Another important piece of historical evidence comes from the use of the related noun form (κάπηλος) in Isaiah 1:22: “Your silver has no value; your taverners (κάπηλοί) mix the wine with water.” Before going further, it should be emphasized that the Greek version differs significantly from the Hebrew, which does not mention “taverners” or “drink-sellers.”[13] That said, notice that these κάπηλοί are the people who sell wine, but we only find out what else they are doing to that wine later on in the Greek verse. In other words, the noun form κάπηλοί here only identifies the merchants, and then tells us that they are also watering down the wine. κάπηλοί does not refer to the act itself of adulterating wine. As Hafemann writes, “there is no evidence that this word-group ever directly signified the idea of ‘watering down’, ‘adulterating’, or ‘falsifying’ or that these ideas were ever present as part of the wider semantic field of the verb.”[14] So while it may be understood why interpreters might be led to venture too far and impose the meaning of adulterate onto κάπηλοί because of the immediate context of Isaiah 1:22, that reading is tenuous at best. Although Paul was certainly concerned with the adulteration of God’s Word (cf. 2 Cor. 4:2), this verse does not address it.

The Wider Context of 2 Corinthians

The phrase “in the sight of God we speak in Christ” reappears (albeit in a different verbal form) later in the same letter in 2 Corinthians 12:19. What is the issue in the context of chapter 12? Paul continues to refuse to financially burden the Corinthians (2 Cor. 12:13–18). Twice Paul has appealed to his speech being in the sight of God in Christ, emphasizing the sincerity of his message and lack of ulterior motives. If the commercial interpretation of 2 Corinthians 2:17 is correct, both of these appeals have been in precisely the same financial context.

Criticism of Paul for His Financial Policy

Paul is not disparaged for the content of his gospel (corruption) but rather for the free giving of it (commerce), as seen in 2 Corinthians 11:7: “did I commit a sin… because I preached God’s gospel to you free of charge?”. He says that, “in the sight of God” he speaks in Christ. In other words, he asserts his impunity before man as long as he has pleased God. In other words, he is not on trial before the Corinthians but rather stands before a heavenly court where his only aim is to please the Lord. This indicates that there is some offense he is responding to. If καπηλεύω refers to corruption, then the Corinthians have been offended by the content of his preaching because they find his truthful message displeasing and prefer an adulterated one. However, the contents of the letter do not sufficiently account for this interpretation. Even if the false apostles had been tampering with God’s word to offer something more attractive (cf. 2 Cor. 4:2), at what point do we see evidence that the Corinthians despise Paul because of the contents of his gospel? If, on the other hand, καπηλεύω refers to commercialization, then the Corinthians have been offended because they find a free message displeasing and prefer the “dignity” of teachers who charge a fee. Indeed, reading the rest of 2 Corinthians, we see that this is precisely what has offended them (2 Cor. 11:5–7). The commercial interpretation of 2 Corinthians 2:17 acknowledges Paul’s need to respond to a past offense with a defense of his apostleship.

The Parallel Passage of 1 Thessalonians 2:3-5

Paul writes something remarkably similar in 1 Thessalonians 2:3–5. Although he doesn’t present his concerns in the same sequence, this passage helps shed more light on 2 Corinthians 2:17, as the following comparison demonstrates:[15]

2 Corinthians 2:171 Thessalonians 2:3–5
For we are not, like so many, καπηλεύοντες of God's word,[5a] For we never came with words of flattery, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed
but as men of sincerity,[3] For our appeal does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive,
as commissioned by God[4a] but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel,
in the sight of God we speak in Christ.[4b] so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts.
[5b] God is witness.

The key issue in 1 Thessalonians 2 is greed (1 Thess. 2:5). If the similarity of these passages indicates a shared concern, it is natural to conclude that 2 Corinthians 2:17 is addressing the commercialization of the gospel over the corruption of the gospel as the primary concern.

The Objective Nature of Paul’s Criticism

Paul’s directness in this verse demonstrates that his opponents accept payment for their preaching and teaching. We should ask, “How is Paul able confidently to attribute such negative motives to these men, while expecting his own claim ‘of sincerity’ to be accepted?”[16] If the false apostles are misusing Scripture in a particular way, then the matter is subjective, and Paul’s accusation jumps too quickly to a verdict. But if the accusation has to do with selling God’s Word, then the issue is already out in the open and objective: His opponents have accepted payment whereas Paul has refused.[17]

A Motive of Profit?

Beyond the concern between commercialization and corruption, many translations choose to elaborate on the motive behind the action (as seen above). Does “καπηλεύω” imply a desire to profit?

Of course, there is a normative sense in which anyone who sells—or even corrupts for that matter—has a desire to profit. Few would deny this. In fact, it is exactly for this reason that any word used for the commercialization of Scripture will naturally carry tacit suggestions of a profit motive. “Peddling,” the common word among many translations, does this sufficiently. Why add additional words, transforming undertones to overtones?

Adding an explicit reference to profit restricts Paul’s condemnation to the motive itself, failing to unambiguously condemn the specific action that is actually forbidden in the Greek text. For example, does Paul wish to distinguish himself from all who would sell God’s Word, or only to distinguish himself from those who would sell God’s word for profit? Is it actually wrong to sell God’s word? Or is it only wrong when the one who is doing so doesn’t have his heart in the right place?

Of course, Paul clearly answers these questions later in the same epistle. He wishes to distinguish himself from all who would sell God’s word. He preaches free of charge (2 Cor. 11:7) and he will continue to do so to distinguish himself from those who don’t (2 Cor. 11:12). Would Paul have been satisfied with the commercial practices of his opponents if they had charged less? Of course not. Would he have been sufficiently distinguished from them if he simply charged less than they did? Of course not. Only a free proclamation of the gospel distinguishes itself from one that is offered at a price.

When modern translations add a “for profit” clause, are they providing themselves and others with a loophole to escape Paul’s condemnation? Are they justifying themselves as “non-profit” organizations by adding “for profit” to Paul’s words? Only God knows their hearts and intentions.


There is something delightfully simple with the rendering of “καπηλεύω” provided by the ISV: “commercializing.” There is no attempt to suggest any motive. There is no restriction of this verse to those with underhanded practices, as words like “peddlers” or “hucksters” might imply. There is only an acknowledgement of the meaning of the word and the actual nature of the sin: to engage in a reciprocal exchange that trades the Word of God for something in return. To quote a larger portion, “we are not commercializing God’s Word like so many others.”

Paul distinguished himself from the false apostles of Corinth, not merely by having a right heart as he sold the gospel, but by refusing to sell it at all. There are indeed “so many others” who sell the message of Christ. May the Church of God follow in the apostle’s footsteps, offering that message at no charge at all. After all, when he did this, Paul was merely imitating his master, Christ (Matt. 10:8; cf. 1 Cor. 11:1).

  1. Barnett, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, 156n47. ↩︎

  2. Data collected from Bible Hub. ↩︎

  3. Herodotus, The Histories, 1.94, 2.141; Sirach 26:29. ↩︎

  4. For example, the Latin Vulgate renders it “adulterantes verbum Dei.” Informed by the LXX translation of Isaiah 1:22, Gregory of Nanzianzus concluded that both ideas of peddling and adulterating were present. See Gregory of Nanzianzus, Oration, § 2.46. ↩︎

  5. Scott J. Hafemann, Suffering & Ministry in the Spirit: Paul’s Defense of His Ministry in II Corinthians 2:14–3:3 (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990), 106. ↩︎

  6. Ibid., 101–102. ↩︎

  7. See ibid., 103. ↩︎

  8. Scott J. Hafemann, Suffering & Ministry in the Spirit: Paul’s Defense of His Ministry in II Corinthians 2:14–3:3. ↩︎

  9. Protagoras 313CD. ↩︎

  10. Hafemann, Suffering & Ministry in the Spirit, 110. ↩︎

  11. Ibid., 112. ↩︎

  12. Ibid., 119-22. ↩︎

  13. The Hebrew says: “Your silver has become dross, your choice wine mixed with water.” ↩︎

  14. Ibid., 123. ↩︎

  15. This chart is based on the similar chart provided in ibid., 176. ↩︎

  16. Barnett, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, 157. ↩︎

  17. See ibid. ↩︎