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May 3, 2011 / Daniel

Koinonia and the Translation of Philemon 6

NRSV

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This is another attempt to process a chapter in Wright’s book The Climax of the Covenant.   In this chapter, Wright wrestles with the translation of Philemon 6 and then draws some conclusions about how Jesus as Messiah represents his people.  After reading the chapter, I am not quite satisfied with all of Wright’s conclusions about the translation of this text.  And yet I think that he did made some valid points concerning the exegesis of Philemon 6.

I first discovered the difficulties surrounding the translation of Philemon 6 several years ago when I was working on a series of sermons on this book.  When I compared the various translations of the verse, I noticed every translation had something different.  I began to wonder why it was so difficult for translators to agree on the verse’s meaning.  What exactly is Paul’s prayer for his friend Philemon?

I think that there are three main issues in the verse.    1)  What is the meaning of the phrase ἡ κοινωνία τῆς πίστεώς σου “fellowship of your faith”?   2)  What is the meaning of παντὸς ἀγαθοῦ  “every good thing” ?  3) How should we understand the expression εἰς Χριστόν “in/for Christ” at the end of the verse?

1) The NIV, the ESV, and the NRSV translate the phrase ἡ κοινωνία τῆς πίστεώς σου “the sharing of your faith.”  This suggests that Paul’s prayer is for Philemon to be more active in personal evangelism .  And yet it is hard to see how this translation fits the letter.  The letter is not about evangelism.  It’s about forgiveness and relationships within the local church.  This is why I think that the NASB’s translation “the fellowship of your faith” and the NIV 2011’s “your partnership with us in the faith” are better translations of the phrase.  This is the typical way of translating the word  κοινωνία.  It is also important to notice v. 17, where Paul reminds Philemon that Paul is his κοινωνόν “partner.”  This suggests that in v. 6 Paul has in mind the relationship that Paul and Philemon share as believers in Jesus Christ.

2) There are two different ways that we could take the expression παντὸς ἀγαθοῦ  “every good thing.”  Does it refer to the good things that God has given us (i.e. the NIV and the NIV 2011)?  Or does it refer to the good things that we could do for Christ (i.e. NRSV)?   For me, v.  14 is the deciding factor, since Paul uses the same term there.   Paul writes, “I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord.”  This suggests that the NRSV’s reading is preferable.  In other words, in v. 6, Paul refers vaguely to “all of the good things” that Philemon can do for Christ.  In v. 14, Paul indicates that he has a particular “good thing” in mind, namely forgiving Onesimus.

3).  My solution to the second question influences how I take this question.  There are two different ways to read the expression εἰς Χριστόν.  First, we might read it as being synonymous with the expression ἐν Χριστῷ “in Christ.”  The NIV takes it this way.  Wright argues that this approach is problematic, since it treats Paul as being sloppy with his prepositions.  It is more likely that the NASB, the ESV, and the NRSV are correct when they choose to translate the phrase “for the sake of Christ.”  And if I’m correct in my answer to the second question, then this translation fits better as well.

So the result is a combination of the NASB and the NRSV.  V. 6a is based on the NASB.  V. 6b is based on the NRSV.

“I pray that the fellowship that comes from your faith might be active as you understand all the good things that we can do for Christ.”

Thoughts?

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2 Comments

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  1. JP / Jun 2 2013 2:48 pm

    Thanks for your comments on this fascinating (and promising) verse. I wonder if in the following line you are not using a modern idiom that would never have occurred to a pre-19th century Christian? I..e.when you write, ” this suggests that Paul’s prayer is for Philemon to be more active in personal evangelism “. is there any reference to evangelism as “sharing your faith” before the great awakenings and the rise of evangelicalism? I think koinonia in the faith it’s partnership IN faith (actively having it in common) which naturally would then move toward partnership in extending faith’ through evangelism….but the latter would not be in view in the verse at hand.

  2. fiester25 / Jun 5 2013 6:11 pm

    I’m sorry. The post must not have been that clear.

    I agree with you about the NIV 84’s rendering of the verse. Personal evangelism is not in view. I offered my translation at the end of the post.

    “I pray that the fellowship that comes from your faith might be active as you understand all the good things that we can do for Christ.”

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