translating the dative of Phil. 4:13

A favorite Bible verse of many is Phil. 4:13. It typically reads as I memorized it as a child:

I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me. (KJV)

or

I can do all things/everything through him/Christ who strengthens me. (NASB, GW)

or

I can do everything through Christ/him who gives me strength. (NIV, TNIV)

The prepositional phrase “through him” is inteded to be an accurate translation of the Greek dative en tw. For those of us who are familiar with Bible English “through him” can be understood. But is it the best English translation of the Greek dative of this verse? Does it follow the syntactic and lexical rules of standard dialects of English? I suggest that it does not.

I would never say that I can do something “through my wife” nor “through” anyone else. Perhaps the word “through” can be used by speakers of some dialects of English to translate the instrumental idea of this dative, but it doesn’t ring right for my ears. It sounds better to my ears to translate a semantic instrumental idea with words such as “by means of”, but even this phrase sounds odd to me when it is referring to an animate person by means of whom or through whose enablement (odd English itself, isn’t it?!) something is done.

I suggest that sometimes instead of translating a biblical language phrase word-for-word, which is what is attempted with “through Christ” and “through him,” it can actually be better English (including more *communicatively* accurate) to restructure the English to more natural phrasing. I have found at least two English versions which do that for this verse.

My favorite for this verse is from the CEV:

Christ gives me the strength to face anything.

The TEV (GNT) translation is more periphrastic but also acceptable English:

I have the strength to face all conditions by the power that Christ gives me.

What are other ways you can think of to express the meaning of the dative of Phil. 4:13 using some form of standard English syntax?

26 thoughts on “translating the dative of Phil. 4:13

  1. jgar79 says:

    Wayne,

    I like the way the RSV handles it: “I can do all things in him who strengthens me.” It seems like a locative idea, but sounds like something we American English speakers might say. Good food for thought!

    Jason

  2. Damian says:

    Jason,

    Really? You’d say that? ‘It’s ok, I can lift that bag of potatoes in Todd who strengthens me?’ I can’t think of an example where any English speaker would say such a thing.

    I’d guess something like ‘I have the strength to do anything, with the power of Christ’ is the closest I can think in modern English. Although it reminds of of razor ads: ‘Have the closest shave, with the power of Gillette’.

  3. jgar79 says:

    Well, I don’t think I would use it in quite the way your example does (though that would be humorous!). I had in mind the way we speak when we are speaking about Christ. I would sooner say something to the effect of your “with the power of Christ” or “by means of Christ’s power,” though that is also rather awkward English. If only the biblical writers had foreseen our dilemma and had employed our tongue (by Spirit inspiration of course!). 🙂

    Jason

  4. Damian says:

    Jason,

    I think the point here is that we don’t talk about anyone in the same way as we speak of Christ; the writers of the NT didn’t either. That’s why I made my odd example: It just doesn’t work in normal English.

    Something like ‘by means of’, or ‘with the power of’ is closer, then, to the original term. It lacks the odd mismatch of preposition and noun.

  5. Jake says:

    A few translations use strength:

    “For all things I have strength, in Christ’s strengthening me;” YLT

    “I have strength for anything through Him who gives me power.” Weymoth

    “I have strength for all things in him that gives me power.” Darby

    “I find strength for every thing, in the Messiah who strengtheneth me.” Murdock (from Syriac)

    “I have strength for every situation through him who empowers me.” MLB

    “I am strong for everything in Him who gives me strength.” Montgomery

    “I have might, for all things, in him that empowereth me.” Rotherham

    DRC from Vulgate uses all *these* things:

    “I can do all these things in him who strengtheneth me.” DRC

    “Because” instead of “through” and such:

    “I can do all things because Christ strengthens me” BWE

  6. CD-Host says:

    I actually do use that expression “yeah we’re building that through Gunther” means Gunther is the vendor actually doing the work and we are paying them rather than doing the work with our own staff. Basically X is doing Y through Z means:

    X has the obligation or goal
    Z performs the work

    That seems to be the structure of what the KJV is doing. So at least I’ve heard and use it.

  7. JKGayle says:

    Compare similar constructs in ancient Greek

    – for example, Homer’s Odyssey 24.208b-210a

    περὶ δὲ κλίσιον θέε πάντῃ
    ἐν τῷ σιτέσκοντο καὶ ἵζανον ἠδὲ ἴαυον δμῶες ἀναγκαῖοι

    and Iliad 11.632a,

    πὰρ δὲ δέπας περικαλλές… ,
    ἐν τῷ ῥά σφι κύκησε γυνὴ ἐϊκυῖα θεῇσιν οἴνῳ Πραμνείῳ

    with Paul’s sentence

    Πάντα ἰσχύω
    ἐν τῷ ἐνδυναμοῦντί με [χριστῷ].

    A classicist such as Richmond Lattimore, for Homer, does seem to “follow the syntactic and lexical rules of standard dialects of English,” your “more natural phrasing,” Wayne. Lattimore translates the ancient Greek, respectively, as:

    and all around the house ran a shelter,
    in which the slaves. . . would take their meals, and sit, and pass the night.

    and

    and beside it a beautifully wrought cup….
    In this the woman like the immortals mixed them a potion with Pramneian wine.

    By analogy, and with some consistency in his English for the parallel NT Greek, you would think Lattimore would render Paul’s words something like:

    I have strength for everything,
    in him who fortifies me.

    Seems, however, that the classics translator followed bible translators too much, because Lattimore makes Paul write in English this way:

    I have strength for everything,
    through him who fortifies me.

  8. Rick Ritchie says:

    I do wonder whether some of the trouble isn’t that what is being said here would not be natural in any language. I think a parallel passage is the following:

    “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.” (Galatians 2:20)

    Now as with the example in the post, I would never say, “I have been crucified with Charlie, and it is not longer I who live, but Charlie lives in me…” But it is not because grammatical awkwardness that I would not say this. I wouldn’t say it because it isn’t true. Of Charlie or anyone else but Christ.

    The grammatical awkwardness is likely worth addressing, but I wonder if when we have done so, we won’t still be left with something jarring.

  9. Hannah C. says:

    Hmm…That particular phrasing has never struck me as odd – probably because I grew up in a conservative Episcopal church using Rite I, so that language was present every day in some prayer or other.

    I guess one could say “Christ gives me strength to do all things.” (And now I look up and see that the CEV’s rendering is very similar to this…)

  10. Wayne Leman says:

    Yeah, Tim, “periphrastic”! Start counting how often you use it each day for the next week 🙂

    Seriously, it’s a technical term. There is a time and a place for using technical terms for specific audiences. I would never recommend using “periphrastic” in a Bible translation or any other literary piece intended for common language (“vulgar”) usage.

  11. Wayne Leman says:

    Hannah wrote:

    Hmm…That particular phrasing has never struck me as odd – probably because I grew up in a conservative Episcopal church using Rite I, so that language was present every day in some prayer or other.

    And it never struck me as odd, either, Hannah, until a few days ago and I realized that I would never say that I had done something “through” something or someone. Like you, I grew up in a conservative church with Bible English as our common liturgical tongue. It takes work on my part to recognize the disconnect between that dialect, which I still remember well, and the ordinary language of non-churched people, both highly educated and those not highly educated. I have found my own spiritual life enhanced by using English Bible versions which are written in common English. Things which I previously assumed I understood well sometimes now have even greater understaning for me.

  12. Will Fitzgerald says:

    1. ‘Strong through X’ is perfectly idiomatic English

    We don’t have to just rely on our own intuitions. A simple web search reveals lots of instance where “strong through” (meaning through the means of/because of) seems perfectly idiomatic English, even in ‘non-churchy’ contexts:

    Soldiers grow strong through teamwork and diversity [1]
    Keeping Bones strong through Exercise [2]
    Keeping Our Military Strong Through Free Markets, Globalization and free markets will benefit U.S. military. [3]
    Getting Strong Through Resistance Training [4]
    Partnering to make recycling strong through economic and environmentally sound solutions [5]

    2. So is ‘do anything/everything through [means of] X’:

    I couldn’t do anything through Workman’s Comp. [6]
    Hamlet does not do anything through his own initiative. [7]
    I do everthing through the EVF [8]
    I do everything through paypal [9]

    [1] http://www.usmilitary.com/8955/soldiers-grow-strong-through-teamwork-and-diversity/
    [2] http://www.vitaminstuff.com/blog/2007/12/keeping-bones-strong-through-exercise.html
    [3] http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,165806,00.html
    [4] http://www.myoptumhealth.com/portal/Information/item/Getting+Strong+Through+Resistance+Train?archiveChannel=Home%2FHealth+Hubs%2FType2HealthHub%2FMen%27s+Health%2FTopTopics
    [5] http://www.nrra.net/
    [6] http://www.factnet.org/Scientology/jesse_tape_4a.html : Note, a Scientology site, but I don’t think this is relevant here
    [7] http://journal.dogus.edu.tr/13026739/2001/sayi4/M00057.pdf
    [8] http://forums.dpreview.com/forums/read.asp?forum=1033&message=22053454
    [9] http://forums.digitalpoint.com/showthread.php?p=9922695

  13. Will Fitzgerald says:

    Sigh. I wrote a long reply, but it was lost. But — suffice it to say if you do a web search for “strength through” or “anything through * -Jesus -Christ -him” or “everything through * -Jesus -Christ -him”, you will find many examples in idiomatic English where “through” is used to express “through the means of” or “via.” In other words, there is nothing unidiomatic about translating “ἐν τῷ” as “through” here.

    If there is something unidiomatic in the standard translations of this verse, I’d investigate the “I can do all things” part (πάντα ἰσχύω). Search for “can do all things -Jesus -Christ -him” and you don’t see (many) non-Christian results.

    And why do many of the translations use “strengthen” instead of “empower”? This seems to go out of the way to miss the “em-power” parallel to ” ἐν-δυναμοῦντί”.

    Warning: I don’t know much Greek, but I do know how to do a web search.

  14. tc robinson says:

    Here’s my shot at it, after thinking about this text last night:

    “I can rely on Christ’s strength for every encounter in life.” (Phil. 4:13, TCR)

  15. jonathancaldwell85 says:

    While we may not use that exact language in every day conversation, it is understandable. I would much prefer a literal (though awkward) reading than a thought translation.

    I think some of the paraphrases that are out and translations like the NIV have made us weak to these kind of phrases!

  16. Theophrastus says:

    I suppose I don’t fully understand the reason for avoiding the term periphrasis. It has an exact meaning, which can be easily be found even in modest dictionaries. While it is tempting to use an apparent synonym such as bombastic, chatty, diffuse, discursive, flatulent, gabby, garrulous, inflated, lengthy, long-winded, loquacious, palaverous, pleonastic, prolix, rambling, redundant, rhetorical, tedious, turgid, verbose, voluble, windy, or wordy, each of these actually have distinct meanings.

    In fact, they are so different that the Random House Dictionary includes the following usage note to differentiate some of these terms:

    Wordy, prolix, redundant, pleonastic all mean using more words than necessary to convey a desired meaning. Wordy, the broadest and least specific of these terms, may, in addition to indicating an excess of words, suggest a garrulousness or loquaciousness: a wordy, gossipy account of a simple incident. Prolix refers to speech or writing extended to great and tedious length with inconsequential details: a prolix style that tells you more than you need or want to know. Redundant and pleonastic both refer to unnecessary repetition of language. Redundant has also a generalized sense of “excessive” or “no longer needed”: the dismissal of redundant employees. In describing language, it most often refers to overelaboration through the use of expressions that repeat the sense of other expressions in a passage: a redundant text crammed with amplifications of the obvious. Pleonastic, usually a technical term, refers most often to expressions that repeat something that has been said before: “A true fact” and “a free gift” are pleonastic expressions.

    Using periphrasis to avoid the term periphrasis does not strike me as necessarily being good writing unless the text is meant to be pedagogical or is meant to be read by someone who does not have access to a dictionary.

  17. Mike Sangrey says:

    In a text, nothing ever stands alone. Here in Phil. 4:13, and more specifically, the word ἐν (EN), the question of “how do we translate the dative” is spot on. However, as I see it, that question is near the end of a discussion, and not near the beginning.

    Some earlier questions are the following. And the answers to these questions form a alloy with the answer to the question Wayne has raised.

    What does ἰσχύω (ISCUW; gloss: ‘special ability’) mean?
    What does ἐνδυναμόω (ENDUNAMOW; gloss: ’empower'[1]) mean?
    There are a few other questions, too; but, these are key and deterministic of the answer to the posted question.

    The reason I bring this up is this: Every time I’ve heard the expression “I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me,” it creates this dialectic argument within my mind. While these types of internal arguments should happen with the Bible when we wrestle with the meaning of a paragraph, they should not happen over a single word (technical words–which rarely exist–being an exception). This is especially true with prepositions which are more “markers of contextual meaning” than “conveyors of literal meaning.”

    The issue (the dialectic) for me is the resulting picture which comes to mind when I read the text (with the word ‘through’):
    1. First, I do something
    2. Christ, being the “pipe” through which the activity is flowing, does something (he adds something, removes something, some how or other he modifies the activity). After all, it is through him.
    3. The result of the action occurs.

    Theologically, that is weak at best; rather likely, it is simply theologically wrong. My own personal theology rather strongly dislikes it. It’s also not what the Greek says here in Phil.

    However, when I answer the two other questions I’ve raised above, the dialectic caused by the English is resolved. These are Greek questions.

    ἰσχύω (ISCUW) carries the idea of “special capability”, or, being able to do something one would not normally be able to do. It’s something exceptional. Now, theologically, I like that.

    ἐνδυναμόω (ENDUNAMOW) carries the idea of “to cause someone to have the ability to do something.”

    From these definitions I start to see that it’s not I who cause something to happen through someone else. It’s someone else who gives me a special ability I would not normally have in order to do something they enable me to do. That communicates to me, and I like it theologically, too. It’s also how this passage is generally taught, even though the English creates the dialectic.

    That is, we don’t mean in English when we say, “I do X through person Y” what the text says in the Greek. (And, I agree with Wayne, we don’t say that in English[2]). If I affix “who strengthens me” on to the end, I don’t resolve it. I then set up that dialectic I mentioned above. I do something–first part of sentence. He does something–affixed portion on end. How does that work in the real world? I’m not sure.

    So, what I do now is ask the question, “How do I precisely say the Greek meaning in English?” This gets to the question of how to translate the dative. If I attempt to translate the text ‘precisely’ I will make it too wordy for a popular translation. But, the intent is to then back away from the precision without loosing communicative accuracy in the meaning.

    Here’s a first draft:

    I’m empowered by the one who gives the special strength I need for all kinds of situations.

    This first draft, of course, raises the precision questions and other questions about how it correctly or incorrectly resonates within the literary context. Those are bigger picture questions and to attempt to get at those answers, we need to read the suggested draft in its literary context. You answer bigger picture questions with bigger picture solutions (ie. methods).

    Read Phil. 4:10-14, but insert what I’ve suggested above. See if the paragraph meaning communicates more accurately.


    [1] Will, we have to be careful with seeming etymological parallels between languages. For example, if you were translating ‘sweater’ in to another language, would you try to convey the idea of ‘sweat’? Not if you were trying to communicate accurately. However, with ἐνδυναμόω (ENDUNAMOW), the idea of “to cause someone to have the ability to do something” (see: Louw & Nida) is quite consistent with ’empower’. So, I think in this case your suggestion is right on the money.

    [2] I can think of a case where we could say it. If I’m in a project management role and I’ve been told to get X done. I could say, “Sure, I’ll get that done through John and Mary.” But, if I would say that, there are hints of disrespect to John and Mary. In short, it’s a put down to them since I’m treating them as mere objects and not independent agents.

  18. Michael Nicholls says:

    Theophrastus:
    Using periphrasis to avoid the term periphrasis does not strike me as necessarily being good writing

    Sounds like you’re using periphrasis to start talking about the term periphrasis. 😉

    jonathancaldwell85:
    I would much prefer a literal (though awkward) reading than a thought translation.

    You would have to be an expert in Biblical languages then. Otherwise, how would you know the significance of the literal, awkward English? Any bilinguals here ever had to stand up and translate for someone? You’d never aim for a literal, awkward translation. Why’s the Bible so different?

    I would prefer a natural, unawkward English translation of the natural, unawkward Hebrew/Greek, otherwise we’re making it sound like something it wasn’t to the original hearers.

    Mike Sangrey:
    I could say, “Sure, I’ll get that done through John and Mary.” But, if I would say that, there are hints of disrespect to John and Mary. In short, it’s a put down to them since I’m treating them as mere objects and not independent agents

    Good post Mike, and I agree with that last sentiment. It seems natural to say that you’ll do something through a certain channel, or “We got that done through the finance department,” but not so much through a person.

    A classic case of Biblish code-switching (we don’t even know we’re doing it!).

  19. Suzanne says:

    I would much prefer a literal (though awkward) reading than a thought translation.

    I warmly recommend to you the Bibles translated by Rotherham, Julia Smith, the Ancient Roots translinear and the Apostolic interlinear of the Septuagint.

    I hesistate to do this because those who do not read Greek and Hebrew sometimes draw wrong conclusions from these Bibles. However, it appears that this will happen anyway.

    Perhaps the NLT and CEV are better at communicating the meaning. Overall, recent study has reinforced my conviction that the KJV is an excellent middle choice between Smith on the one hand, and the CEV on the other.

  20. Wayne Leman says:

    Will, thanks for citing the data with examples using “through” in a kind of instrumental way. My comments about language use are always through my own mental lens and I realize that I sometimes miss how others use language which, at first, sounds odd to me. Many of the examples you cited sound OK to me. Acceptability judgments about language are slippery, not always easy to pin down and subject to change when we focus on some form for awhile. Thanks, again, for including the data. I’ll try to find time to think more about it. But I do want to say that it’s one of the nice things of sharing a blog like this. It helps me learn where my own intuitions about language do not fit those of everyone else.

  21. Michael Nicholls says:

    Wayne Leman:
    Will, thanks for citing the data with examples using “through” in a kind of instrumental way

    I agree they were good examples, but does anyone have examples where the agent is a person? I think what Mike Sangrey said still holds true, that using ‘through’ with a person is “treating them as mere objects and not independent agents.” At least in my dialect of English.

    “I was sick but was able to keep going through my wife.” We’d probably be fine with this if it said “through my wife’s help”.

    “It was through Andrew that we were able to finish the project.” Not bad, but it still seems better to say “through Andrew’s help” or “through Andrew’s tireless efforts”.

    Btw, is there a textual variation here? I don’t see ‘Christ’ mentioned in the NA Greek.

  22. John Radcliffe says:

    Btw, is there a textual variation here? I don’t see ‘Christ’ mentioned in the NA Greek.

    Yes, the Received Text has “Christ” at the end of the verse, and consequently so does the KJV. I’d guess that most modern translations that include “Christ” are simply supplying it.

  23. CD-Host says:

    I agree they were good examples, but does anyone have examples where the agent is a person? I think what Mike Sangrey said still holds true, that using ‘through’ with a person is “treating them as mere objects and not independent agents.” At least in my dialect of English.

    I usually here it in a business context when you think of people in terms of entities. Which is fine since Christ is an entity and not just a person. Mike is right about the tone issues, it does tend to carry a tone of subordination X is doing it but I’m really in charge. I can be see myself using something like, “We don’t have the rights skills here so I’m doing this through my boss (I could say “David” here) at corporate” which doesn’t sound like subordination but it really is. The point of this phrase rather than “My boss at corporate is doing this” is that I’m staying involved and ultimately in control. So I agree with him about the fact that this an English expression but the theology associated with the English expression is incorrect.

    So basically agreement with what Mike wrote.

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