Saturday, July 16, 2011

Jesus took on humanity, even though He was God: translation difficulties


I listened to a sermon the other day, in which the preacher used Phil 2:5-11, that famous passage on the incarnation of Christ.

In his sermon he mentioned at one point that he wanted to disagree with the ESV in its translation of verse 6, which says:

“who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.”

He felt that the “though” in the ESV wasn’t a good translation and that many translations have “being” in the form of God, making it essentially that it was the very nature of God that made Him give as much as He did, which of course is not wrong theology.

Of course, there have been many debates on the translation of the Greek word here.

So, here are a few thoughts on Phil 2:6 and the translation of ὑπάρχων, from ὑπάρχω, to exist, in this passage. When he said that he was going to differ from the ESV on the translation of this verse, my ears jumped upright to listen. I am an NASB man myself, and you can read here why. The ESV says something very similarly to the NASB, which says:

"who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped"

I decided to check up on this verse in the Greek, and I found that the reason why the NASB, ESV, and the NET chose to use "though" or "although" in this verse for ὑπάρχων, is that they feel this present active participle is a Concessive Participle.

Vaughan and Gideon explain it like this:

"The concessive participle refers to an action which is unfavorable to the ocurrence (sic) of the action of the main verb. The action of the main verb, then, is accomplished in spite of the action of the participle. The English word 'though' brings out this idea in translation."[1]

Black simply puts it this way, on giving the idea of the concessive participle:

"The concessive participle denotes a sense of--what else?--concession."[2] (He then cites Rom 5:10)

Wallace, one of the world's great Greek scholars says of this verse:

"The translation of this participle as concessive is not entirely clear upon a casual reading of the text. The two options are either causal or concessive.

"There are two interpretive problems in Phil 2:6-7 relevant to the treatment of this participle. First, of course, is the grammatical problem of whether this is concessive or causal. Second is the lexical problem of whether ἁρπαγμόν in v 6 means robbery or a thing to be grasped. The grammatical and the lexical inform one another and cannot be treated separately. Thus, if ὑπάρχων is causal, ἁρπαγμόν means robbery ('who, because he existed in God's form, did not consider equality with God as robbery'); if ὑπάρχων is concessive, then ἁρπαγμόν means a thing to be grasped ('who, although he existed in God's form, did not consider equality with God as a thing to be grasped'). As attractive as the first alternative might be theologically, it is not satisfactory. Ultimately, this verse cannot be interpreted in isolation, but must be seen in light of the positive statement in v 7-'but he emptied himself' (the participle ὑπάρχων equally depends on both ἡγήσατο and ἐκένωσεν ). Only the concessive idea for the participle and a thing to be grasped translation for ἁρπαγμόν fit well with v 7."[3]

The Concessive Participle creates a contrast. Even though you did not expect the results of B, based on the action of A, it is so nonetheless! The Concessive Participle is something of a paraprosdokian, “a figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence or phrase is surprising or unexpected in a way that causes the reader or listener to reframe or reinterpret the first part. It is frequently used for humorous or dramatic effect, sometimes producing an anticlimax.” When reading verse 6, one would expect someone like a god, to hold on to divinity, to keep it in his grasp, but not Jesus,

“who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped.”

Jesus, although He is God, and does not share the evil and sin of the human race, nevertheless, took on humanity, in spite of the fact that He is God!

Of course, there are other Greek scholars that do not agree with Wallace on Phil 2:6, but he does carry considerable weight in the New Testament Greek world. Hence, everyone does not have to agree with this either. I just thought that it would be good for us to know about this, since it is quite significant.

End Notes
1. Vaughan, Curtis and Gideon, Virtus E., A GREEK GRAMMAR OF THE NEW TESTAMENT: A Workbook Approach to Intermediate Grammar, Broadman Press, Nashville, TN, 1979, pp158-159.
2. Black, David Alan, It' Still Greeek to Me: An Easy-to-Understand Guide to Intermediate Greek, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, MI, 1998, p123.
3. Wallace, Daniel B., GREEK GRAMMAR BEYOND the BASICS: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, 1997, pp634-635.

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