This is a new series reflecting on Bible translation by looking at the Greek text of Philippians. In my book Reading Philippians, I offer my own fresh translation of this letter. I tried to provide a readable, modern English translation, which means I made some untraditional choices. Follow along as I talk through some of these decisions. Here we will look at Phil 2:1-11.
“…treating the other as if they were superior (and vice versa)” (2:3)
τῇ ταπεινοφροσύνῃ ἀλλήλους ἡγούμενοι ὑπερέχοντας ἑαυτῶν
This verse is often translated “consider others better than yourselves.” But I think that is a poor translation. Paul wants believers to be humble and he is not interested in better or worse (i.e., objective quality), but rather subverting cultural status assumptions. I added “(and vice versa)” because Paul’s clear intent is that if everyone defers to each other (hence ἀλλήλους), everyone is eventually respected.
One of the biggest challenges I faced in translating Philippians is the Christ Hymn (2:6-11), which I call the “Ode to Christ.” I will admit I took some paraphrase liberties here because I really wanted to capture the poetic, artistic, and imaginative qualities of what Paul was aiming for here. I will comment here verse-by-verse.
Who once shined with the divine glory of God,
but did not cling to his divine status with a tight fist, (2:6)
ὃς ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ ὑπάρχων οὐχ ἁρπαγμὸν ἡγήσατο τὸ εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ
I wrestled with the question—What does it mean for Jesus to have existed in the “form of God”? The best scholarship today (see Bockmuehl, Hellerman, Fowl, Eastman) argues that it is not about “nature,” but more so appearance, probably here referring to glorious visible appearance. Culturally, our “form” as humans will include our physical beauty and how our clothes and jewelry might display our status. So, I wanted to make that explicit.
Instead he willingly made himself nothing
as when one looks upon a common slave, so he took the humble form of a mortal. And just as he was found to be an ordinary human (2:7)
7 ἀλλ᾽ ἑαυτὸν ἐκένωσεν μορφὴν δούλου λαβών, ἐν ὁμοιώματι ἀνθρώπων γενόμενος· καὶ σχήματι εὑρεθεὶς ὡς ἄνθρωπος
I wanted to avoid “kenosis” issues here, because Paul did not have in mind any emptying of his divine nature; rather, he was referring to loss of glory and splendor (or concealment perhaps). When it comes to becoming nothing, Paul had a ready-made image, that of the common slave. Now, Jesus wasn’t an actual slave, but the plummet from heavenly glory to earthly peasant was like a king becoming a slave.
indeed he lowered himself,
becoming a subject to the point of death—even death by shameful crucifixion. (2:8)
ἐταπείνωσεν ἑαυτὸν γενόμενος ὑπήκοος μέχρι θανάτου, θανάτου δὲ σταυροῦ.
I wanted to continue to play on Paul’s imagery of exaltation, so I chose “lowered” rather than “humbled.” Furthermore, I don’t like how most translations say that Jesus became “obedient” to the point of death. If that is what Paul wanted to say, he would have used the verb ὑπακούω. Instead, he chose the adjective form which means “subject” (like a king’s subject). It prompted the Greek reader to ask, subject to whom?
I also added the descriptive word “shameful” here because we (today) might associate crucifixion with pain, but the inhabitants of the Roman world associated it with shame and social, cultural, and political repulsion.
As a result of this obedience, God lifted him up on high, and bestowed upon him a superlative title, (2:9)
διὸ καὶ ὁ θεὸς αὐτὸν ὑπερύψωσεν καὶ ἐχαρίσατο αὐτῷ τὸ ὄνομα τὸ ὑπὲρ πᾶν ὄνομα
Again, I wanted to continue with the spatial imagery Paul uses of lowering and raising up—here a super-exaltation (ὑπερύψωσεν; “lifted him on high”).
such that when all hear the name Jesus,
every knee will bend in the heavens, on earth, and below, (2:10)
ἵνα ἐν τῷ ὀνόματι Ἰησοῦ πᾶν γόνυ κάμψῃ ἐπουρανίων καὶ ἐπιγείων καὶ καταχθονίων
Just a quick note: I find the language of “knees bowing” to be awkward!
And every tongue will confess “Jesus Christ is Lord,” And all this will bring ultimate glory to God the Father. (2:11)
καὶ πᾶσα γλῶσσα ἐξομολογήσηται ὅτι κύριος Ἰησοῦς Χριστὸς εἰς δόξαν θεοῦ πατρός.
Note that the Greek text doesn’t have “is” in the phrase “Jesus Christ is Lord.” This is common in Greek. It is either implied or the confession could be put more simply “Lord Jesus Christ.”
The Ode to Christ is not about his divinity (I think that can be taken for granted), but about his honorable actions and his humility (which means putting the needs of others above self-protection, self-promotion). Sometimes doing the hard thing (putting oneself in a position of being shamed and even killed) is noble, but won’t look like it from an outsider’s perspective. Christ models for the Philippians total commitment to the Father, come what may. The Philippians are meant to imitate this Christ, even if they cannot replicate his perfect obedience.