Which version interprets 2 Cor 2:14 more accurately, the English Standard Version or the New Living Traslation?

"But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere" (ESV).

"But thank God! He has made us his captives and continues to lead us along in Christ’s triumphal procession. Now he uses us to spread the knowledge of Christ everywhere, like a sweet perfume" (NLT).

The implication of this verse, as I was taught as a young Christian, was that Christ the victorious general was leading me as a member of his conquering army in a grand victory parade. The rendering of the King James Version gives even greater cause for optimism: “Now thanks be unto God, which always causeth us to triumph in Christ.

The difficulty with these translations, and many others besides (NIV 1984, NJB, NKJV, RSV, ESV, NASB), is that there are no examples from Greek literature where the verb thriambeuo (to triumph) ever means this. If we were to render this clause in accordance with the only attested meaning of this Greek construction, we would have to follow the NLT, or perphas the most recent NIV or TNIV: “But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in his triumphal procession.”

This translation, coupled with the knowledge of the historical and cultural context of the passage, leads to a drastically different understanding than the one commonly accepted. In 2:14-16, Paul alludes to one of the most spectacular and important celebrations in antiquity, the Roman Triumph. Awarded by the senate to honor a victorious general, the Triumph was essentially an enormous parade through the heart of Rome. It was designed to display the glory of the Roman general and offer thanks to Jupiter for granting the victory.

The festivities could last several days, and the entire populace of Rome would turn out to view the spectacle. The city would be copiously adorned to embrace her conquering hero, with incense wafting from every temple. Josephus, an eyewitness to one such Triumph, remarks, “It is impossible to describe the multitude of the shows as they deserve, and the magnificence of them all” (Jewish Wars 7.132).

The pageant included plunder taken from the enemy, the victorious soldiers, and especially captured soldiers and leading officers of the enemy. The captives would be led before the chariot of the conquering general, to the mockery and taunts of the onlookers. In recounting the events of his reign, Augustus boasted, “I waged wars on land and on sea. …  In my Triumphs nine kings or children of kings were lead before my chariot” (Acts of Augustus 1.4). The climax of the procession involved a sacrifice to the Roman deities and the execution of any eminent captives in the forum.

The difficulty with reading 2 Corinthians 2:14 in light of this background is theological: How could Paul depict himself as a conquered enemy being led by God to his death? We should recall, however, that this is precisely how Paul describes himself in 1 Corinthians 4:9: “It seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like men condemned to die in the arena.” Moreover, Paul reckons all humanity to be “enemies” of God prior to conversion (Rom. 5:10; 11:28; Phil. 3:18). So we shouldn’t be too surprised to see Paul describing himself as a previously conquered foe.

The imagery of 2 Corinthians 2:14-16 actually represents Paul’s theology of the cross in its most vivid and arresting form. As the analogy of the Roman triumph and the incense-filled parade route continues in verses 15 and 16, we find Paul portraying his crushed and vanquished apostolic ministry as the means through which the aroma of the crucified Christ is mediated to those around him. Paul understood the paradox that God’s strength is most potently displayed through his own weakness and suffering. What is clothed in metaphor in 2:14, is later stated explicitly: “So, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10).

Paul’s words may be difficult to comprehend — even Peter thought so (1 Pet. 3:16) — but they bear witness to an important principle: God ministers more powerfully through our tragedies than our triumphs. It is the broken vessel that reveals the treasure within (2 Cor. 4:7-12).