Moderator’s note: Philippians 2:5-11 is one of the most beloved passages in Scripture. It’s also one of the easiest to misunderstand. Scholars today continue to wrestle with the interpretive challenges posed by these demanding verses. Advances in this debate actually led the Committee on Bible Translation to make a change on Philippians 2:6 in the updated NIV compared to the 1984 version. So I asked scholars to respond, and CBT member Craig Blomberg shared his thoughts on a challenging Greek word and the implications for our understanding of Jesus.
Question: What do we know about harpagmos in Philippians 2:6?
We know that the word occurs once only in the New Testament, in this passage. We know that it does not occur in the Septuagint, although the cognate harpagma does, which refers to the unlawful seizure of something. We know the root verb harpazö, from which we get our English “harpoon,” means to grab or to seize something suddenly. In the rare instances in which harpagmos appears in non-biblical literature it means something akin to “robbery” (cf. KJV), but that scarcely fits in the context of Philippians 2:5-11 on Christ’s incarnation. Nouns in Greek that end in –mos ordinarily have a verbal dimension to them, hence many translations speak of “a thing (or something) to be grasped” (ASV, NASB, ESV, NRSV, NET, original NIV). But this does not catch the somewhat negative overtones of the cognates, so something like “a thing to be seized” meaning “something to be taken advantage of it” (see Fee’s Philippians [NIGTC], 206-7) probably is best.
The point then of the verse is not that Christ, in choosing to give up his position, metaphorically, at the right hand of the Father in order to become human, gave up his deity or even his divine attributes, but that he didn’t consider them as something to be used to his own personal advantage. Evangelical theologians have often spoken of Christ giving up the independent exercise of his divine attributes apart from when it was his Father’s will.
The Holman Christian Standard captures this nicely: “who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be used for His own advantage.” So, too, does the NRSV with its rendering, “something to be exploited.” The updated NIV is almost the same as the HCSB: “something to be used to his own advantage.” The New Century Version substitutes “benefit” for “advantage” and gets at almost the same meaning.
My first-ever exegetical paper in seminary, in a second-year Greek course, assigned us Philippians 2:5-11. I remember after doing all the research way back then, that it struck me that a very nice rendering would be “a prize to be clung to.” Several translations use the verb “cling” (NLT, TCNT, Phillips) and Knox’s translation offers “prize to be coveted,” but mixing and matching the two comes out, in my opinion, particularly elegantly. But it probably starts to move one just a little bit closer in the direction of functional equivalence than would be appropriate for a translation like the updated NIV.
Craig Blomberg is distinguished professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary in Littleton, Colorado. He has been a member of the Committee on Bible Translation since 2008.
This entry was posted by Craig Blomberg and is filed under New Testament.