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April 25, 2011 / Daniel

The Incarnation and the Translation of Philippians 2:6

Bishop Tom Wright speaking at Soularize

Image by Jordon via Flickr

This is my attempt to process an article by NT Wright on Philippians 2, found in his book The Climax of the Covenant.  Although I was aware of the problems in the passage associated with the phrase “he emptied himself” (2:7), I was not familiar with the difficulties surrounding the translation of the word  ἁρπαγμὸν in v. 6.    This word is extremely rare.  It only occurs here in the Greek Bible.  And most of its other occurrences are found in the writings of the early church fathers in their discussion of this verse.  Here are some of the possible translations of the word.

1.  The KJV translates the word “robbery.”   “[Christ] who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation.”  This translation is based on one of its few occurrences in secular Greek.  The problem is that this implies that prior to the incarnation Jesus did not possess equality with God.  In other words, we might paraphrase the KJV, “Christ didn’t attempt to steal equality with God, instead he humbled himself.”   The problem is that the first half of the verse states that Jesus was in the form of God, which seems to suggest that he did possess equality with the Father prior to the incarnation.

2.  The ESV, the NIV,  the NASB, and the NLT translate the word “something to grasp.”   The idea here is that prior to the incarnation Jesus did possess equality with God, but he let go of his divine status in order to become a man.   The problem is that this lends itself to “kenosis” readings of v. 7.   In other words, Jesus set aside his divine attributes to become a human being.  However, the orthodox position has always been that Jesus is fully God and fully man.  Even after the incarnation, Jesus was fully God.

3.  Wright offers us an alternative.  He translates the word “something to be used for one’s own advantage.”   This is the translation of the TNIV, the NIV update and the NRSV.  In other words, Jesus has always been equal with God.  Both before and after the incarnation, Jesus has always had this status.   And yet he chose not to use this status for his own benefit, but for the benefit of others (2:4).    Here is my own translation of the verse based on Wright’s analysis.  “Because Jesus was by nature God, he didn’t consider his equality with God something to be used for his own benefit, but rather he made himself a nobody, taking on the nature of a servant.”

What do you think?



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  1. James / Apr 25 2011 6:08 pm

    I appreciate the clarity you and Mr. Wright are trying to bring from the translation of this single word, but I think the other translations are not so deficient if you think about this word in the context of its entire phrase.
    1. “…thought it not robbery to be equal with God…” What did Jesus think about equality with God? That he posessed it. No usurpation or self-aggrandizement here; it was his to have. His nature was God’s and he knew it. The “but” following is critical, as a contrast is implied between the previous and “made himself of no reputation.” The use of this conjuction prevents us from inferring, as you say the verse implies, that he did not possess equality with God prior to the incarnation. Thus the phrase conveys the same meaning, with a little brain work, as your alternate translation.

    2. “something to grasp” has plenty of room for what you describe as the correct meaning in its plain usage. Grasping can be clinging tightly to something one does possess, e.g. a baby grasping his security blanket, or reaching for something one doesn’t possess, “grasping for straws”. Once again, the phrase itself protects us from the possible inference that we’re afraid of. This statement of grasping is bracketed with “He was in the form of God” (a clear statement), and “BUT made himself nothing” (providing the contrasting attitude.

    3. I agree this is a clear statement of what you and Mr. Wright (and I) agree is the meaning of this word. An aside: why begin your translation with “because”? That makes me nervous. Can you translate the previous verse, too, so I can see the connection you’re making there?

    To sum up, when you look at the one-to-one translation of the word, you may not get the entire picture, but we don’t need to. This word’s meaning is tied to this phrase, and we don’t need a lexicon definition that infuses this one word with all the meaning this text gives it. We have the text for that. Maybe Mr. Wright has erroneously over-applied his opposition to systematic analysis to the sentence-word relationship.

    Thanks for the post.

  2. Daniel / Apr 25 2011 7:24 pm


    Thanks for commenting. It’s good to hear from you.

    I see that you have put a little different spin on the KJV reading. If I understand you right, you’re saying the phrase “he thought it not robbery to be equal with God” means “he thought that he was indeed equal with God.” In other words, it was his by right. He didn’t have to steal it. When I was talking with my dad yesterday, he told me that he understood the KJV in this way.

    Wright bases his translation of ἁρπαγμὸν on his study of how a similar idiom works. Evidently the folks who did the update on the NIV must have thought his lexical study was fairly convincing.

    Concerning your aside, the reason I chose the word “because” concerns the ambiguity in the Greek participle “being.” The NIV preserves the ambiguity in translating it “who, being by nature God.” Most translations take it as a concessive participle. “Although He was by nature God, he didn’t consider…” My translation takes it as a causal participle. “Because He was by nature God, he didn’t consider…” Both options are entirely possible in the Greek. The question is which one is most probable. If I’m correct in reading it as a causal participle, then Paul is suggesting that it’s in the very nature of God’s character to offer self-sacrificial love for others. The concessive reading emphasizes Jesus’ humility in becoming a man. Perhaps the NIV has it right in preserving the ambiguity.

    Thanks for the feedback.

  3. Daniel / Apr 25 2011 7:29 pm


    For a different take, look at this article.

    In my opinion, the problem in this article is that the writer allows his views on women-in-ministry to influence his exegesis in a passage that is not even dealing with his pet issue.

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