Philippians 2:6-7

One of the challenges in these verses is the meaning of the Greek word ἁρπαγμός (harpagmos). The ending –mos basically indicates an event, so it is helpful to look at the corresponding verb ἁρπάζω (harpazō). This word is very common in the LXX and usually refers to plundering the property of the enemy, including taking captives.

The word is fairly common in the NT (14 times). The plundering idea is found in Mat 12:29.

A few times it refers to a kind of rapture, where a person is suddenly snatched away. Philip was snatched up in Acts 8:39, Paul was snatched up to Paradise/third heaven in 2 Cor 12:2,4, Christians are to be snatched up to meet the Lord in the air according to 1 Th 4:17, and a symbolic child is snatched up to God’s throne in Rev 12:5.

A person can be snatched from the fire and thereby be saved as in Jud 1:23. This is similar to Acts 23:10 where Paul is snatched away from an angry mob by soldiers and thereby saved.

In John 6:15 some Jews wanted to snatch Jesus away from his disciples and his ministry to make him king, but he escaped.

If the subject is a wild animal, it refers to attacking and tearing to pieces in order to eat the prey. The lion often does that in the LXX, and in John 10:12 it is a wolf. In Matt 11:12 we have violent people attacking the Kingdom of God wanting to tear it to pieces and destroy it. In Matt 13:4 the birds came to snatch up the seeds that fell on the path and then eat them, although here we only have the word for eating up the seeds. The snatching before eating is implied. In the explanation of the parable in Mat 13:19 Jesus explains that these birds represent Satan and his demons who come and snatch away the word that is sown in peoples’ hearts. In John 10:28-29 we hear that once a person has truly become a Christian, no one can snatch such a person away from the protective hand of the Father.

What is common in these various contexts is a quick and forceful seizure and removal of somebody or something. The purpose may be to save or to destroy. In many cases, but not always, the person has no right to snatch away this person or thing.

With this background, we can think of ἁρπαγμός as the event noun, snatching up something by force which one may not have any right to do. Now, event nouns in Greek are often extended to refer to the object for the action or its result. We recently looked at κτίσις (ktisis), which may refer to the event of creation, but in the NT almost always refers to the thing or being that is created. The same applies to ἐλπίς (elpis) which may refer to the event of confident expectation, but quite often it refers to the thing that one expects to receive. In the case of Phil 2:6, ἁρπαγμός likewise does not refer to the event but to the thing that is snatched.

The thing to be snatched in Phil 2:6 is the position of being equal to God. It is a position that Satan wanted to snatch for himself, but he did not succeed. That would have been robbery. However, for Jesus it was not a robbery, not something that he needed to snatch, since he already possessed it. Jesus, in fact, did the exact opposite. He already had that position, but he accepted to give it up in order to become a human being. He did not try to hold on to it forcefully, to cling to it and not wanting to give it up. In most cases, the one snatching something does not have the right to do so. But this is not how Jesus looked at this position. He had the right to keep it and cling to it, but he chose to let go and obey the will of the Father even if it meant humiliation and suffering.

BDAG suggests the following translation: “[He] did not consider equality with God a prize to be tenaciously grasped.”

The meaning of the verses is expressed quite well in the TEV, which retains the aspect of force that is always associated with the Greek word:  ”He always had the nature of God, but he did not think that by force he should try to remain equal with God. Instead of this, of his own free will he gave up all he had, and took the nature of a servant. He became like a human being…”

NLT96 has the same idea that Jesus did not cling to his rightful position. Clinging implies some kind of force: ”Though he was God, he did not demand and cling to his rights as God.” NLT04 is along the same line: ”Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges…”

Many are familiar with the NIV84 which is similar to RSV and NET: ”Who, being in very nature  God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped.” The meaning of this translation is a bit difficult to grasp, but it gets even more obscure in the revised NIV (which is similar to God’s Word and the HCSB): ”Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage. Rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.”

I don’t understand what advantage this might be, but maybe some of you can explain it to me?

46 thoughts on “Philippians 2:6-7

  1. Peter Kirk says:

    Iver, I would interpret the NIV 2011 rendering along the lines that Jesus could have brought his equality with God into his human life, as a piece of plunder from heaven (cf the common LXX meaning you mentioned), and used that equality to his personal advantage e.g. along the lines of what Satan tempted him to do in the wilderness – but he didn’t. I don’t know whether that is a possible interpretation of the Greek.

  2. JKG says:

    I don’t understand what advantage this might be

    I read “to be used to his own advantage” similarly as “to take advantage of for his own purposes.” The emphasis is not so much on what advantage is afforded but on the selfish exploitation in the process.

    Peter gives a possible context. Suzanne shows what Calvin sees in the Latin of the Vulgate and what many others have seen in the Greek. NIV 2011 is much improved over NIV 1984 (i.e., “something to be used to his own advantage” is better translation of the Greek than “a thing to be grasped.”)

  3. Peter Kirk says:

    Suzanne, in the post linked to by JKG, mentions Craig Blomberg’s defence of the NIV 2011 rendering at Bible Gateway. This material, from a member of the translation committee, is the obvious place to look for the explanation which Iver is looking for.

    Suzanne is right to prefer a rendering which doesn’t make the apparently heretical suggestion, e.g. of Denny Burk (quoted by her), that Jesus is not actually completely equal with God. Surely correct is Calvin’s interpretation that Jesus was equal with God but chose not to show this.

  4. iverlarsen says:


    Thank you for the link. I will ignore the strange interpretation (eisegesis?) by Denny Burk, but I agree fully with Calvin, when he says: “For when he says, he would not have thought, it is as though he had said, “He knew, indeed, that this was lawful and right for him,” that we might know that his abasement was voluntary, not of necessity.”

    That seems to me to be the key element that is in focus here. The Greek word can refer to an unlawful and forceful acquisition of something you have no right to. When Jesus did not consider equality with God to be such an unlawful acquisition, it is the same as saying that Jesus had all the right in Heaven and on Earth to stay with God and continue to be equal to Him, but he chose voluntarily to let go of that equality for a time and become a human being.

    I have read Blomberg’s comment several times, but found it unsatisfactory as a defence of the revised NIV rendering. He says in the last paragraph: “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.” I agree with the clinging, but not with the prize, because equality was not a reward or a trophy or something for Jesus to strive to obtain. He already had it. It is a pity that the revised NIV did not come closer to the NLT. One of the reasons, according to Blomberg, was that “…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.” In my view, the revised NIV has moved so far from the Greek text in this verse that people are better off reading the KJV. To even suggest that Jesus would ever use anything to his own advantage, sounds strange to me. That is not the picture of Jesus I get from the NT.

  5. Yancy Smith says:

    It seems to me quite strange to interpret ἅρπαγμός in reference to Satan when neither the devil nor Satan figure in anyway in the letter to the Philippians. While it may be true that the Evil One is always glowering in the background of Paul’s world view, it seems a bit like special pleading to use a Satan narrative to interpret Phil 2:6, 7, a bit like David Alan Black warns us against, “Evangleical Greek.”

    On the other hand, there are very real enemies in Philippi (mentioned in the letter) both in chapter 1 and in chapter 3, not the least of which were Roman elite overlords in Philippi who, as the famous Dream of Scipio (Republic book 6) suggests, saw themselves a sons of the deity and thus the rightful heirs, with rights to “grasp” their divinity by subjugating the world. In other words, there were plenty of human beings in Paul’s world who saw their status as the expression of pre-existent deity. And these people represented their mythical world view on the walls of their homes. This was the mythical warrant for grasping, acquisitiveness on a grand scale in the first centuries BC and AD.

    The story of Jesus represented in Philippians 2 presents a counter narrative to all this. In contrast to the way of the world that uses (supposed) divinity as a warrant to oppress others or grasp for status, Jesus, with all the right of divinity, did not make use of it to his own benefit, but chose the path of humble obedience and sacrifice for others.

    The fight for status and honor (wrapped up in the first or second hand goods of citizenship) constantly impinged upon the church, as the material in chapter 3 seems to indicate in alusive fashion.

    Accordingly, there is nothing wrong with the NIV revision nor with the BDAG suggested reading. Both of these readings take into account the larger issues of ancient culture, relatively free of the blinkered view of Evangelical Greek.

  6. Ken Berry says:

    I might offer a bibliographical footnote to the discussion: The article that began to turn the tide of interpretation and translation of this verse was the one by Roy Hoover, “The HARPAGMOS Enigma: A philosophical Solution,” Harvard Theological Review 64 (1971) 95-119. N.T. Wright followed Hoover’s lead in a 1986 article in Journal of Theological Studies (reprinted in Wright’s The Climax of the Covenant). Since then many, probably most, major commentaries have adopted or favored the “something to be exploited/used for his own advantage/benefit” interpretation seen in NRSV, HCSB, GW, NCV, TNIV/NIV2011, including O’Brien, Fee, Bockmuehl, Silva, Witherington, Fowl, and Hooker.

  7. JKG says:

    You say, “To even suggest that Jesus would ever use anything to his own advantage, sounds strange to me.” How does Romans 15:3 sound to you? Ray Hoover’s article, which Ken Berry points us to in his comment, points this out:

    “The οὐχ ἑαυτῷ ἤρεσεν ἀλλά, etc., of the Romans text is strikingly similar to the οὐχ ἁρπαγμὸν ἡγήσατο . . . ἀλλά, etc., of the Philippians passage — in its meaning, it may now be said, as well as in its antithetical form” (page 1180).

    You say that “there is nothing wrong with the NIV revision,” and then you have yourself used “grasp” a number of times in your comment – as if suggesting the NIV 84’s “to be grasped” had nothing wrong with it. To be clear, aren’t you consistently using “grasp” here to mean “grasp for” – as if suggesting more of a violent struggle? What is wrong with the first NIV is that Denny Burk’s sort of theology can be too-easily extrapolated and constructed from it; but if the NIV ’84 had said “to be grasped for” (as you write, saying, “grasp for status”), then it would have been less open to misinterpretation.

    Thanks for bringing Hoover’s article into the conversation. Hoover’s own translation, it might be worth noting, is this:

    “he did not regard being equal with God as something to take advantage of” (page 118).

    To me, that suggests the exploitation possible. It’s not far from the NIV ’11:

    “did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage.”

  8. JKG says:

    Sorry for the typo. Of course it’s Roy, as in Roy W. Hoover, who is a biblical Greek and Greek literature scholar, who’s not afraid to engage the (biblical Greek) views of classicists and rhetoricians. In “The HARPAGMOS Enigma: A Philosophical Solution,” Dr. Hoover is engaging the commentary on Philippians 2 of Dr. Werner Jaeger. The arguments are thoughtful, and mostly compelling. Obviously, as Ken points out, they’ve made a difference in English translation of this verse.

  9. Gary Simmons says:

    In the temptation narratives, Jesus never said “I can’t do that” to Satan. ISTM that Jesus retained the status of deity, but voluntarily relinquished the perks that come therewith. Much like a brilliantly lighted room wherein all the lights come on or off with but a clap, he had it right there in his power. Just one clap, and suddenly all the special powers come back.

    Jesus was tempted in every way we were — and in ways we could not understand. I’m very uncomfortable working out the potential outcomes of this, but Jesus did undergo temptation. He had the power to do terrible, wonderful things — if it were within his nature to abuse. But it is not.

  10. iverlarsen says:


    Romans 15:3 sounds very fine to me. It expresses the obedience of Jesus to his Father’s will: to give up his equality in order to come as a human being and to be insulted as the verse continues. It is echoed in Gethsamene: “Father, not my will, but yours.” That is similar to saying that he was willing to give up his rightful position in Heaven as equal to God rather than cling to it, and that is expressed well in the NLT, TEV and other versions. It would not have been “robbery” or “taking something that did not belong to him” for Jesus to stay in Heaven, since it was his right. Hoover’s translation makes no sense to me, but then, I am not a philosopher. Maybe if I had access to the whole article, I might understand what he was trying to say.

  11. JKG says:

    since it was his right. Hoover’s translation makes no sense to me, but then, I am not a philosopher.

    Does GOD’S WORD® make sense to you? It goes:

    “he did not take advantage of this equality.”

    How about Ann Nyland’s translation (“He didn’t think it was robbery to be equal with God!”) or Richmond Lattimore’s (“He was in the form of God, but did not think to seize on the right to be equal to God.”)?

    How about Willis Barnstone’s rendering as not so perspicuous poetry lines?

    He shared the form of God, but had
    No thought of robbery, of being
    Equal to God. He came empty

    Are you saying that you understand equality with God as essentially one’s staying in or basically as having a position in heaven? Maybe that’s why you’re so clinging to the phrases “grasp” and “cling to.” Couldn’t τὸ εἶναι ἶσα θεῷ mean other things, less positional and more ontological? Yes, I know there are movements, changes of directions, in the sentence. But what’s οὐχ ἁρπαγμὸν ἡγήσατο, if the ἁρπαγμὸν is some sort of agentless, safe, and benign “clinging to,” like how clothes in a laundromat dryer full of static electricity? (Doesn’t NLT96’s interpretation make more sense: “he did not demand and cling to his rights as God”?) Then there’s Denny Burk’s (- neither Yancy’s “a thing to be grasped for” nor BDAG’s “tenaciously grasped” – ) reading as if there’s an unrealistic wish of “equality with God [as] a thing to be grasped [because it never was there in the first place].”

    I just emailed you Hoover’s article. He is not a philosopher or rhetorician or classicist but, as a NT scholar, does also engage with the Greek commentaries of those who are.

  12. Wayne Leman says:

    I have always preferred a translation along the lines of both editions of the NLT. They seem to me to most clearly communicate in English what Paul was communicating in Greek. Several of the more formally equivalent translations are attempting to express the same idea, I think, but do so in ways that are more difficult for me to understand. And I’m a native speaker of English, not a non-native speaker as Iver is, who has good reason to have difficulty with some of the more complicated English translations of this verse.

    Craig Blomberg, who I admire a lot, doesn’t want the NIV to move too far toward functional equivalence. It seems to me, however, that in this case translations like the NLT and TEV here are the ones that may be more literal and clearer at the same time.

    As I have thought over the years about translation of harpagmos, it seems to me that in English anyway there are two senses of the word “grasp.” One is active, as in “He’s grasping for the life jacket.” The other is stative as in “He survived the flood by grasping a tree limb.”

    Does anyone know if harpagmos has the same two meaning senses? If it does, the context of this verse as well as the inter-textual context, ISTM calls for the stative meaning: Christ chose to no longer grasp something that was already his.

    He did it for you and me!

  13. Yancy Smith says:

    The vexed issue of the interpretation of 2:6 would require a monograph. Scholars usually consider ὑπάρχων either causal or concessive; however, in the flow of Paul’s argument, a temporal sense fits even better: “Who, when he was in the form of God . . . .” Thus, his obedience (not his deity) compelled his incarnation. If ὑπάρχων is considered a temporal participle, the verb ἡγήσατο makes better sense as a paradigm for the Philippians to follow (cf. 2:3, τῇ ταπεινοφροσύνῃ ἀλλήλους ἡγούμενοι ὑπερέχοντας ἑαυτῶν) and describes an attitude of the pre-existent Messiah that the Philippians can emulate. In the light of the exhortation of 2:3, where fellow believers, who are essentially equals, must practice the humility appropriate to fictive-siblingship and choose to consider others as higher in the “family” hierarchy, so functions Christ’s paradigmatic obedience. Thus, it is best to understand τὸ εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ as the proper status of God the Father. While Messiah had the status (μορφὴν) of God, the phrase οὐχ ἁρπαγμὸν ἡγήσατο could mean several things that are all very likely: (1) he did not attempt to “grasp” divine status through his pursuit of honor or (2) “he did not consider divine status something to be used to his own advantage” before God the Father or before others human beings. Another, (3) favored by N.T. Wright is brilliant, “he considered being equality with God to be not grasping,” that is, not to practice the aquisitiveness of the search for status and honor. Of course there are many other possibilities that command respect among scholars. The Roman leaders during the Julio-Claudian period were famous for endeavoring to outrank their (divine) predecesors in terms of virtue and the whole life was dedicated to the pursuit and maintenance of status through honor, as Cicero said so famously. John 14:28, in contrast with the cultural pattern, has Jesus frankly admiting that “The Father is greater than I am.” The pattern initiated by Jesus was to be obedient to the Father will. This interpretation is confirmed in 2:12, where it is precisely this point of humble obedience that Paul picks up as the appropriate application of 2:5-11 to the situation of the believers in Philippi. Translators must usually choose one option and footnote a near second. As long as the options chosen make sense in the flow of the discourse of the translation, having translations in print that communicate something of the variety of possible interpretations seems to be healthy.

  14. Iver Larsen says:


    I have never felt that “grasp” was a good rendering of the Greek word. It has too many meanings in English that are outside the range of meanings of the Greek ἁρπάζω. I don’t think “grasp for” is a possible sense of the Greek word. “Grab” or “seize” or “snatch” cover the meanings better. This word, like words in general, has a range of possible senses, but I have not found evidence that “exploit” or “use to one’s advantage” is one of those senses.

    One problem is that the noun form ἁρπαγμός is rare, but the most likely meaning is “robbery” as many older translations have.

    I agree with Yancy that the participial clause is best seen as temporal – while he was in the form of God. I also agree that the main topic is obedience in addition to humbling oneself. Humbling oneself includes not clinging on to your rights or what you perceive as your rights. But I don’t think that any of three suggestions he mentions for ἁρπαγμός is what is intended in this context.

    Sometimes ἁρπάζω refers to a sudden seizure, but suddenness does not apply here. Sometimes it refers to attack and destroy, but that does not apply here. Sometimes it refers to robbing, which means to take by force something that does not belong to you. This is the most likely meaning. If anyone but Jesus had tried to grab the position of being equal to God, it would have been unlawful robbery, but that is not the case for Jesus. Jesus already had that position. Therefore, it would not be an act of stealing or robbery for him to continue to be equal to God. If I am caught with something that does not belong to me, then it must have been a result of stealing or robbery.

  15. Iver Larsen says:


    Thank you for these other translations. They are helpful as a way to gather evidence and see how people who know Greek well have understood the text.

    To answer your questions: No, God’s Word does not make sense to me. Or to put it another way: I do not accept that “take advantage of” is the correct exegesis of the Greek word in its context.

    Ann Nyland’s is fine. It may not be very clear, but it might be as clear as the original, and it certainly respects the normal meaning of the Greek word.

    Lattimore’s is sort of OK, because it clarifies the rights issue. But I am not sure about “seize on”. The word “seize” is certainly within the range of meaning of the Greek word, but in this context I would have preferred “hold on to”.

    Barnstone also uses the standard meaning of the Greek word (robbery), but I am not too happy with “having thought of” for “consider”. But being poetic, there are various possible ways of taking the text, and I much prefer it for GW, etc.

    Arthur Way says: “He, even when he subsisted in the form of God, did not selfishly cling to His prerogative of equality with God.”

    I really like that one.

    But let me have a look at the Hoover article. Thanks for sending it.

  16. Iver Larsen says:


    Has anyone refuted Hoover’s paper?

    I can see that ἁρπαγμός can be understood as a “prize to be seized” in places like the Eusebius quote about Peter where he considered death by the cross a gain because of the hopes of salvation. The author says in his conclusion that “in every instance which I have examined this idiomatic expression refers to something already present and at one’s disposal.” I am not sure whether Peter would look at his death as already present or at his disposal.

    He also says that there is “evidence that harpagma is used in both active and passive senses.” His evidence for this is extremely weak. He cites a few instances from the LXX where he claims what he calls an active meaning (representing an act of seizure rather than the result of a seizure): Ps 61:10, Is 61:8, Sir 16:13, Ps. Sol. 2:28. But he does not address the texts themselves.

    In Ps 61:10 the word is best translated as “stolen goods”, which is also the meaning of the Hebrew text. Nets translates it “what is robbed.”
    In Is 61:8 the word is in plural and means “what is robbed, spoils” as the NETS say: “For I am the Lord who … hates spoils obtained by injustice.”
    Sir 16:13 is translated by TEV as “what he has stolen”, Brenton says “spoils” and NRSV says “plunder”.

    All other instances in the LXX are clearly what he calls “passive”. So, he has not proved his case at all. The -ma ending refers to the result of a action, so harpagma is the result of a seizure. Whether harpagmos in Phil 2:6 has the same meaning as harpagma is an open question, although quite likely. The context suggests that it is not so much the action (hARPAGH) as the result of an action.

    Another problem is that all except one of his examples are positive in terms of grammar. He only found one instance where there is an OUC: Cyril’s comment on Gen 19:1-4. I assume the suggested translation is by the author, so that he can use his preferred expression “something to take advantage of”, but without more context I cannot evaluate whether this translation is reasonable. It seems that “something to grab on to” might also work. He translates “He did not regard [their] polite refusal as something to take advantage of [because it would ‘get him off the hook’] as if [his invitation had come] from a listless and feeble heart.”

    I am always sceptical when the translator needs to add a lot of words in order to get to his preferred translation.

    Finally, I did not see any interaction with the context of Phil 2:6 or much with the NT in general. The claimed similarity with Rom 15:3 is based on the questionable suggestion for the translation of Phil 2:6. They are only “strikingly similar” if one ignores or at least downplays the context of both.

  17. JKG says:

    The vexed issue of the interpretation of 2:6 would require a monograph

    Hoover’s brief article is an outgrowth of his 1968 Th.D. thesis at Harvard.

    Has anyone refuted Hoover’s paper?

    Iver, You have. 🙂 But also check Denny Burk’s attempt at refutation in his essay “On the Articular Infinitive in Philippians 2:6”, Tyndale Bulletin 55.2 (2004) 253-274. He cites Samuel Vollenweider’s “Der ‘Raub’ der Gottgleichheit: Ein religionsgeschichtlicher Vorschlag zu Phil. 2.6”, NTS 45 (1999) 413-33; and J. C. O’Neill’s “Hoover on harpagmos reviewed, with a modest proposal concerning Philippians 2:6”, HTR 81 (1988) 445-49.

    Robert Strimple [“Philippians 2:5-11 in Recent Studies: Some Exegetical Conclusions”, Westminster Theological Journal, 41 (1979), 247-68], not long after Hoover’s article, re-engaged well some of the dispute:

    “It is sometimes objected that such an interpretation [i.e., Hoover’s] is impossible because it would imply that the pre-incarnate Son of God in his divine state was tempted, tempted to use his divine estate for self-aggrandizement, and God cannot be tempted. I think it well in reply to call attention again to Paul’s statement in the closely parallel II Corinthians 8:9 regarding the grace of the pre-incarnate Christ ‘that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor.’ Philippians 2:6 refers to that same grace. Here is where Ridderbos asks us not to “over-draw the parallel (temptation of Adam — temptation of the pre-existent Christ).” Ridderbos insists that Philippians 2:6 is ‘a matter of the description of an “attitude” not of a “decision” in a temptation situation . . .’ And I would remind us that Paul speaks in verses 6–11 of the experiences of Christ as pre-Incarnate, Incarnate, and Exalted, but they are all experiences of the same Person who manifests the same attitude of grace throughout.”

    In other words, the robbery Paul writes of (or that the hymn sings of) has to be considered at various stages of Jesus’ ontology.

    I like Barnstone’s translation too, because it lets the hymn be a poem, a song; and we all know that it’s hard to draw exact linguistic or theological conclusions from such congregational or confessional-ish lines. It’s not a Barbara Syllogism of Aristotle’s. Jaeger and Hoover are on to something, I believe, in seeing the forms of HARPAGMOS as retaining a consistent meaning (as a violent grasping for). But no one, not even Denny Burk, can insist on it supporting one and only one (especially “my own preferred”) reading.

  18. Yancy Smith says:

    In other words, the robbery Paul writes of (or that the hymn sings of) has to be considered at various stages of Jesus’ ontology.

    We too often read a passage like this that is in poetic form or at least in “exalted prose” as if it were a perfect revelation of a state of affairs in heaven or wherever. It is instructive to compare the prosaic account of Exodus 14 and the hymn in Exodus 15. In the one, Pharaoh goes down with his troops onto the dry ground between walls of water. In the poetic account, God “CASTS horse and rider into the depths of the sea.” Just as it would not be appropriate to press the details of the hymn on whether God REALLY picked up the Egyptians and threw them into the sea, which he did not in fact do(!), it is not really appropriate to press the details of Philippians 2:6-10 for heavenly REALIA when they are intended as inducements to moral and spiritual reflection on interpersonal matters.

    This is a brilliant reminder that the entire “hymn” essentially makes the point that the way of humility, the way of Christ is not grasping for status, but giving it up. In the end God rewards that attitude, which serves as an inducement to the readers to imitate it. One could also point to the examples of Paul, Timothy, and Epaphroditus as exemplars of this attitude in the carefully crafted epistle. And all of this was a powerful set up for Paul to engage directly a problem of interpersonal relations between two women in the leadership team of his fellow workers (4:1-3).

    All in all, Paul’s moral exhortation to joyful humility in the letter makes the point that is made in the prayer (1:9-11) that the Philippians should focus on the things that really matter (v. 10). I would not really quibble with the NIV revision at 2:6,7. It seems fine with me and quite clear. I would, however quibble with the traditional rendering of 1:10 “so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ.” In that phrase “discern what is best” can be seen the nub of the letter, in my opinion, a reference to a well-warn topic in moral exhortation—especially among the Stoics, but not limited to them. It is the practice of discerning between what is indifferent and what is truly important.

  19. BradK says:

    Iver, I’m not sure I understand why grasp is not a good rendering of the Greek word but grab or seize is. As far as I am aware grasp and grab are synonymous. Merriam-Webster give this as the definition of grab:

    : to take or seize by or as if by a sudden motion or grasp

    When I read grasp in this verse I think grab. Though I suppose grab would possibly be of a bit different (lower?) register than grasp?

    On a different note, you mention in the post that “[i]n many cases, but not always, the person has no right to snatch away this person or thing” and “snatching up something by force which one may not have any right to do.” Aside from theology (theology with which I agree) what tells us that this snatching or grasping in this verse is not of that nature? Is this totally clear in the Greek? If it is ambiguous in the Greek should the English translation reflect or permit this ambiguity?

  20. Sue says:

    (In a too long meeting and can’t read it all.) However, this is what I would call “payoff” theology. The Bible as hammer. Jim Hamilton and Denny Burk write about reinterpreting this verse. Jim blogs,

    “The payoff, then, of Burk’s careful grammatical investigation is that Philippians 2:6 affirms the ontological equality of Father and Son while maintaining the functional subordination of the Son, even in his pre-existent state (cf. 139–40 n. 46).”

    I don’t think that I would recommend that any woman who was not already familiar with subordination even read and find out about how the comparison of “as Christ is to God, so is woman to man” plays out. I have heard that as Christ did not consider himself equal, as Christ suffered on the tree, as Christ submitted in all things, so must woman.

  21. Suzanne McCarthy says:

    To respond to Brad’s question, “grasp” is something that we ought to do. We have the right and the need to grasp things, whether they are ideas and concepts, life, food or whatever.

    But usually we do not have the right to grab or seize. So the question is whether Christ was equal to God, and had the right to equality, and did not choose to grab at it, or use it for his own advantage; or whether Christ is eternally subordinate and had no right to equality.

    But this is even more important if the intention is to use this to justify treating a woman as someone who should not, and cannot function as an equal. I cannot endorse this teaching.

    Now, if we want an interpretation which has no association with the subordination of women – either way – the traditional interpretation is that Christ did not think that his being equal to God would be robbery, something that he grabbed without having the right to it.

    The abandonment of the traditional interpetation has been coupled with the subordination of women by Burk and Hamilton. Others may uncouple it, but in the meantime, women are being bound and gagged by this verse and others.

  22. JoeJ says:


    I would have to agree with you on Blomberg’s comment:

    “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.”

    And you said:

    “I agree with the clinging, but not with the prize, because equality was not a reward or a trophy or something for Jesus to strive to obtain. He already had it.”

    I would have to say I agree with Blomberg’s thought with “clinging” and “prize” and yet also agree with what you have said. Jesus was equal with God, He already had this. This was His “prize” as Blomberg put it. I would like to see a rendering which carries your thought more along the lines of “A treasure to be clung to”. Being equal with God was a treasure that Jesus already possessed.

  23. Peter Kirk says:

    I have heard that as Christ did not consider himself equal, as Christ suffered on the tree, as Christ submitted in all things, so must woman.

    Sue, I’m sure the Apostle Paul would agree.

    (Pause for expressions of shock and horror!)

    And so must man – every man and woman in Christ. That, rather than teaching on the person of Christ, is the point of this passage in context.

  24. Iver Larsen says:

    Since Kurk sent me the article by Roy W. Hoover: “The Harpagmos Enigma: A Philological Solution,” I have read it twice to try to understand his argumentation. I have therefore made the following comments which you may or may not be interested in reading:

    In his discussion of examples of the word harpagma from Heliodorus, H. shows that it can refer to a situation that has come about apart from one’s own actions and presents an opportunity to seize upon and exploit for one’s own benefit. The examples deal with a situation that has not yet been exploited or seized. It is related to other words like ”windfall” and ”stroke of luck” without being exactly synonymous.

    He starts section IV by saying: ”To bring these observations to bear on Phil. 2:6 it is necessary to demonstrate, first of all, that hARPAGMA and hARPAGMOS are used synonymously and, secondly, that the usages of hARPAGMA/hARPAGMOS TI hHGEISQAI, POIESQAI, TIQESQAI consistently convey the nuance alleged above.” (I am using b-Greek transliteration here.)

    In my view he fails to prove beyond reasonable doubt these two assertions.

    The two words are not entirely synonymous. Although hARPAGMOS is very rare, based on the –mos ending it is reasonable to assume that it can refer to either the action of seizing or the object that has been or will be seized. It is in principle similar to the English ”writing” which can refer to either the action of writing or the result of writing. Even ”plunder” can refer to the act or the result of the act. The –ma ending refers to a result which may already have been obtained or it may be obtained in the future. The context of Phil 2:6 indicates that here hARPAGMOS refers to the thing “seized/grabbed/held on to” rather than the action, and in this context, hARPAGMA might possibly have been used. On the other hand, there is probably a reason why it was not used.
    This similarity does not mean that you can substitute every occurrence of hARPAGMA with hARPAGMOS.

    H.’s next argument is that what can be said about hARPAGMA then necessarily also applies to hARPAGMOS. This is based on a faulty premise, since they are not complete synonyms. However, it is not a serious problem if it is applied to Phil 2:6, since there the word is probably used to describe the thing seized.

    H. claims that hARPAGMA can be used both with an active meaning (i.e. referring to the action) and with a passive meaning (i.e. referring to the thing seized.) He cites a few examples from the LXX to support the active meaning, but a scrutiny of the passages he cites shows that this is not the case. They are all used in the passive sense, referring to something seized. (He also cites one place in Plutarch which I have not been able to check.). While hARPAGMA is always used in this ”passive” sense, hARPAGMOS might well have been used in the active sense, but we don’t have much evidence, since the word is rare. LSJ lists for hARPAGMOS: 1. ”Robbery, rape” and 2. ”concrete: prize to be grasped.” BDAG says: ① a violent seizure of property: robbery … which is next to impossible in Phil 2:6 (Winer §28, 3: the state of being equal w. God cannot be equated w. the act of robbery).
    ② As equal to ἅρπαγμα, something to which one can claim or assert title by gripping or grasping: something claimed w. change from abstract to concrete.

    H. seems to agree when he later states that hARPAGMOS is in fact used in an active sense. He cites a sentence in Plutarch translated as: ”The custom concerning love among them is peculiar; for they do not prevail upon those they love by persuasion but by abduction.” hARPAGMOS is here translated as ”abduction”. The only other citation of hARPAGMOS is also translated ”abduction”. The same text has the verbal noun hARPAGH as a parallel. That word can also have both an active and passive sense. BDAG says about this word: ”① the act of seizure: robbery, plunder … of forcible confiscation of property in a persecution Hb 10:34. ② the product of seizure: what has been stolen, plunder …”

    Whereas H. has shown that hARPAGMA can be used in the sense of “something to seize”, he has in my view failed to show that this implies “something to take advantage of” and even less “something to use for one’s advantage.” Such ideas may be implied in certain contexts, but it is not really part of the semantic meaning of hARPAGMA or hARPAGMOS, nor is it part of the basic meaning of hARPAZW.

    However, what I consider the greatest problem in this paper is the failure to adequately address the time element. Since we are dealing with nouns, they have no intrinsic time reference. It is only the context that indicates whether it refers to something that one should in the future seize upon like an opportunity that has presented itself for exploitation, or whether it is something that has already been seized, like a booty or spoils already taken. He does mention in passing what is called the difference between “res rapta” (a thing taken) and “res rapienda” (a thing to be taken). BDAG has a comment on this: “If ἁρπαγμός approaches ἅρπαγμα in meaning, it can be taken … to mean booty, (a) grab (so for ἅρπαγμα LXX) and only the context and an understanding of Paul’s thought in general can decide whether it means holding fast to something already obtained (ἁ.=‘res rapta’; so the Gk fathers) or the appropriation to oneself of something that is sought after (ἁ.=‘res rapienda’).” It is interesting that the Greek fathers understood it as res rapta, something already obtained. I have no doubt that they were correct and knew Greek better than I do.

    All the examples that H. uses for interpreting Phil 2:6, refer to a future booty, ceasing upon something that is not yet realized. But that does not fit with Phil 2:6, because here we have a status already in existence. The status of “equality with God” is a reality at the time the verse refers to. Jesus was not looking at this equality as something he should abstain from using to his advantage in the future. Rather, he is looking at it as his rightful position at the time, something that he has no reason to consider a booty or spoil or robbery or unlawful acqusition. Nevertheless, he chose to give up this position that he had the right to keep, as the next verse says.

    As far as translation goes, it is not easy to handle it in a literal version. In our Danish version we said (as translated into English): “He was equal to God, and he had the right to keep that equality. Yet he did not demand (to keep) his right, but renounced his divine power, took upon himself the form of a servant and became a human being.” Another Danish idiomatic translation from 2007 says: “He looked like God. He was like God, and that was his right. But he renounced that right and chose to look like a slave. He became like a human being and resembled us.”

  25. JKG says:

    Yancy, Thanks for trying to help emphasize the differences between propositional prose and the sort of discourse found here.

    Iver, Thanks for the further analysis! It’s fair given your assumptions and how you point to Hoover’s incomplete logic (which you label as “based on a faulty premise”). Which Plutarch have you not been able to find? And can you show us the Danish (which you’ve offered the English translations of)?

    Going back to Paul’s probably quoting probably well-known verse, I wanted to try to see it better this way. Hence, I’ve formatted the Greek phrases to show their down-ward spiraling semantics. And I’ve tried to mirror that with the following English translation. Does it make sense? And does it make a rhetorical impact?

    ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ ὑπάρχων,
    οὐχ ἁρπαγμὸν ἡγήσατο,
    τὸ εἶναι ἶσα θεῷ,

    ἀλλὰ ἑαυτὸν ἐκένωσεν,
    μορφὴν δούλου λαβών,
    ἐν ὁμοιώματι ἀνθρώπων

    καὶ σχήματι,
    εὑρεθεὶς ὡς ἄνθρωπος,
    ἐταπείνωσεν ἑαυτόν,

    ὑπήκοος μέχρι
    δὲ σταυροῦ.

    In God-form to begin with,
    Isn’t rape, leads his thought,
    To be equal-with God.

    Although now himself empty,
    Slave-form now taken,
    In the same way, human,

    Shaped still,
    As human found,
    Himself lower down,

    Obedient until
    and, cross-dead.

  26. Yancy Smith says:

    To use this passage as a warrant for the subjugation of females to males really goes contrary to the way Paul applies it in Philippians (cf. 4:1-3).

    On the other hand, to use later Nicene theology as the basis of translation seems a bit anachronistic. Paul’s inspired quotation of the inspired song or verse (if that is what it is) does not require it to fit later theological developments that used Phil 2:6,7 as a starting place for thought. Indeed, the passage was used by many who formulated its theology in the most diverse means. One only need trace the way the passage is used in the Ante-Nicene Fathers to see the breadth of diversity of how it was used.

    Your versed translation is provocative, evoking a sort of free-verse feel with powerful punches. What do you think of this tweek?

    He is the one who
    had God-status to begin with.
    But recognized being equal with God
    was to have no need of grasping—for more of anything.

    People might think that way but
    He emptied himself,
    And once he accepted slave-status,
    And human form,

    Found in that condition,
    He humiliated himself —
    He lived obedient til he died,
    But he did not have just any death:
    No, no, he died an unspeakable cross-death.

  27. Sue says:

    I like the translations offered here. I feel as if how one translates this verse, is going to lead to diametrically opposed theology. In the one case, Christ is equal to God, and voluntarily lowered himself. This is about putting aside power and taking a low position on level with those that one intends to succour.

    But in the other translation, it is about the permanence and totality of subordination. Christ is not equal to God, and he is eternally and permanently subordinate. Hierarchy is necessary to justice, and those under authority can only be justified by remaining under authority, and those with authority …

    In fact, it seems as if there are going to be two different religions, based on two different translation traditions, and the NIV 2011 remains in the tradition of the KJV.

  28. iverlarsen says:


    It is an interesting poetic re-formation of the text with some nice points. Let me come back to that, but first a couple of further comments on Hoover’s paper and claims.

    What Hooever is doing was called “illegitimate totality transfer” by James Barr. For those who are not familliar with this term, let me try to explain it with ἁρπάζω as an example. The basic meaning of this word is “seize”. However, not all the senses of seize in English correspond to senses of the Greek word. My Collins English dictionary lists 7 senses of the English word, three of which fit the Greek word, namely 1. to take hold of forcibly or quickly, grab, 5. to take by force or capture, and 6. to take immediate advantage of: to seize an opportunity.

    Now, if you take sense number 6 and transfer that sense to passages where the sense is either number 1 or 5, you have done an illegitimate totality transfer. You have transfered a specific sense that fits certain contexts (when used with “opportunity”) and imposed it on other contexts.

    If we look at the Greek word and ask who benefits, the answer is: It depends on the context. If soldiers take spoils, the soldiers benefit. When a person is grabbed and dragged from a burning house, the person being grabbed benefits. Of course, if the object for the action is not a person, then the object cannot benefit, so if there is any benefit in such contexts, it has to be the subject. In the case of Phil 2:6 I would agree with Hoover that Jesus is the beneficiary, if that is what he was trying to imply. Jesus would have benefitted from staying in Heaven and hang on to his equality with God, because he would have avoided the humiliating death on a cross plus the agony of taking on the sins of the world. But he chose not to do this, probably for two reasons: Obedience to the will of the Father and love for humankind. He was willing to give up his status of being equal to God by becoming a human being. Or you could say that he chose not to hang on to that position and status, but instead emptied himself. He regained that status after his resurrection, which is the topic of verses 9-11. Now, if the GW rendering “he did not take advantage of this equality” is understood in the sense of “he did not hang on to (or cling to) his equality with God for his own benefit”, I have less objections, but I doubt it will be understood like that. The main point in this context is not who benefits, but it is all about not hanging on to his equality with God. It is first said in a grammatically negative construction: “he did not consider equality with God something to cling to (for his own benefit)” and then the same idea is repeated in a grammatically positive construction: “he emptied himself”, that is, he gave up his position of equality with God.

    Concerning poetry, I do not think Paul was quoting a song or poem already in existence, since there is no evidence for that. On the other hand, the text has poetic features. I would not call it poetry, but poetic prose. The challenge for a translator is as usual the tension between form and content. How do we balance them? In a theologically important passage like this, most translators would rather err on the side of content than form. Many translations try to create an illusion of poetry by using indentations, but that in itself does not create poetry. I like some of your suggestions, although I do not think “rape” is an appropriate word, and I would move your γενόμενος in stanza 3 down to the first line of stanza 4 where I think it belongs and translate it with become or was: “he became/was obedient”.

    You asked for the Danish words, so I’ll end with that and those who are not interested can skip it:

    6 Han var lig med Gud,
    og havde ret til at fastholde den lighed.
    7-8 Dog gjorde han ikke krav på sin ret,
    men gav afkald på sin guddomsmagt,
    tog tjenerskikkelse på og blev menneske.
    Som menneske ydmygede han sig
    og accepterede den værste død –
    døden på et kors.
    9 Derfor har Gud ophøjet ham
    og givet ham et navn og en position
    højt over alle andre.
    10 Alle kommer til at bøje knæ for ham
    i himlen og på jorden, og under jorden.
    11 Og alle skal erklære

  29. til Gud Faders ære:
  30. Jesus Kristus er Herre!

    It is not particularly poetic, but we did make a rhytm and alliteration in v. 11. (I tried to indent the lines, but I don’t know how to make it show up in the posted version.)

    Do you want me to translate it?

  31. JKG says:

    I really like your “tweak,” which takes the shock of “rape” into an active “grasping—for more of [something, of] anything.”

    Your point needs to be made again and again: the point of and the pointing to the fact of the opposing interpretations “as if there are going to be two different religions, based on two different translation traditions.”

    Thanks for sharing your Danish translation! Yes, would you now at least render the following into English for us?

    6 Han var lig med Gud,
    og havde ret til at fastholde den lighed.

    Is “at fastholde” your translation of “ἁρπαγμὸν”? Does it have any hint of violence, or of violation, of “res rapta,” of the KJV’s “robbery”? Which tradition do you find your Danish in? How might Denny Burk read it?

  32. JKG says:

    I believe you’ve mis-read Hoover or at least wrongly him of “illegitimate totality transfer.” Notice how carefully he works through Jaeger’s options, through the alternatives offered by Jaeger’s critics, through the evidence that Jaeger doesn’t as carefully consider. The biggest leap Hoover makes is one he follows many others in doing, and that’s demonstrating where “hARPAGMA and hARPAGMOS are used synonymously” in order to construct his argument for Phil. 2:6.

    We have to move beyond Hoover, I think. His dissertation and the article helped immensely to free scholars from mainly interacting with Jaeger in order that they could get back to textual evidences. Nonetheless, it’s important not to get beyond the theological import, the “two religions” constructed, as Sue puts it. Hoover doesn’t. One of the most important paragraphs in his essay is the following (emphasis added):

    Because the question has dogged the interpretationof Phil. 2:6 since the time of the Christological controversies of the third, fourth, and fifth centuries, it should be observed that this understanding of the ἁρπαγμός statement carries with it the assumption that τὸ εἶναι ἶσα θεῷ represents a status which belonged to the pre-existent Christ. While this can be persuasively argued from comparative uses of μορφη and ἴσος in Hellenistic religious literature, it is bound up with the idiomatic character of the ἁρπαγμός remark itself: in every instance which I have examined this idiomatic expression refers to something already present and at one’s disposal. The question in such instances is not whether or not one possesses something, but whether or not one chooses to exploit something. Likewise, the discernment of the idiomatic character of the ἁρπαγμός expression renders untenable the view that it intends to say that Christ did not regard equality with God as something to be held fast. Neither in this idiomatic phrase nor in any other usage does ἁρπαγμα, ἁρπαγμός, or ἁρπάγζειν, or any of their compounds or cognates mean to retain something. That idea, it appears, has always been commended by theological interest rather than by philological evidence.

    It’s interesting to see how these ancient Greek words are brought into modern Greek by translators. For the word in “The Praise of Helen” by Gorgias (which English translators have rendered “abducted, raped, ravished, abductor, raper, abductee, the raped”), translator P. Kalligas has αρπάχτηκε άρπαξε άρπαξαν αρπάχτηκε απαγωγέων. For the word the LXX has in Leviticus (for which Brenton makes in English as “has seized”), the Vamva Bible translators have “άρπαγμα,” coincidentally the same word as in the old old Septuagint. (Is this “illegitimate totality transfer”? I’m playing but hope you see what I’m asking.)

    For the Philippians word, the Vamva Bible translators use αρπαγήν and a translator using Demothiki or Modern Demotic Greek have αρπαγμό. Both words still connote the potential violence and violation, the exploitation, that Paul’s word seems to have.

  33. iverlarsen says:


    Thanks for the added quote from Hoover. I do not agree that we are dealing with an idiomatic expression, nor can I accept that the word always implies exploitation. That is where he commits the error of illegitimate totality transfer. In some passages, the context implies taking advantage of or exploiting, but that is not inherent in the Greek word in all its senses and it does not fit Phil 2:6. He does not interact with the context of Philippians chapter 2 nor with the New Testament in general. There is nothing wrong with allowing Paul’s theology to influence our understanding of what he is saying in Philippians.

    Jaeger should have been forgotten long ago. If others had not taken up Hoover’s thesis, he might also have been forgotten.

    In Danish tradition, the older translations follow Luther and say “rov” (plunder), which like the Greek word can refer to either an act or the object taken. This was changed to “røvet bytte” (stolen/robbed booty) in 1931, but the 1992 revision returned to the old “plunder”. No one had any problems understanding the text to mean that Christ did not consider this equality something that he had taken without having the right to it. Robbery means to take what you have no right to take. The Greek word does not necessarily imply violence, so “robbery” is a bit misleading. It is also awkward because it is literal, so we dropped it in the idiomatic version. Once you are doing idiomatic translation, you are no longer thinking of word for word substitution, but meaning for meaning.
    I don’t think there is any implication in this text of violence and not much taking advantage of. The main point is that his equality was not something he had taken as if he had no right to it. It is the context that implies that since he had the right to it, he could have retained it. That would have been to his personal advantage if you impute human thinking to the pre-incarnate Christ, but why should we do that? Isn’t this theology? I have heard people say that after Jesus became a human being, he was 100% human and 100% divine. I consider that a thought that has come from Greek mythology (human gods) rather than the Bible.

    You asked for a translation:

    He was equal to/with God,
    and he had the right to keep (or insist on keeping or hang on to) that equality.

    It is the whole expression “right to hang on to” which is a positive way of saying “he did not consider it something he had unlawfully seized.”

    There is also the question of what equality means. There can be unity without equality, and there can be equality in value without being equality of roles. But I do not agree with Burk’s theology. I don’t think anybody, Hoover included, can look at this text without exploiting his or her own theological presuppositions.

  34. JKG says:

    I know you’ve read the Hoover article a couple of times, but then you insist “He does not interact with the context of Philippians chapter 2 nor with the New Testament in general.” If he does find in Greek literature more generally what Jaeger missed, then Hoover still acknowledges the NT interpretive contexts. He discusses the contextual emphases Paul has: that Jesus “did not accept his sovereignty as a gratuity but earned that distinction” (remember also Hoover’s comparisons of Paul’s NT Romans with Paul’s NT Philippians?); and that the context of Paul’s “hymn says that Christ possesses his dignity, even though it is innate”; and that it’s important also to see “the meaning of Phil. 2:6 more on its context in Philippians.” It’s difficult for me to imagine how Hoover has neglected the NT or the Philippians context. Even if he didn’t examine these contexts, would we so easily discredit his conclusions? But he does look at the contexts. He’s hardly, as you seem to insist, not “allowing Paul’s theology to influence our understanding of what he is saying in Philippians.”

    Nonetheless, I think we can move on from Jaeger and Hoover (although my readings of both convince me that both consider the NT Greek in light of its own context and the contexts of the LXX and much wider ranges of Greek literature).

    What’s interesting is how you’ve decided to depart from Jerome, Calvin, Luther, the KJV translators, and the Danish tradition also. Thanks for providing us with your English translation of your Danish translation of the Greek. The paraphrase is useful too:

    It is the whole expression “right to hang on to” which is a positive way of saying “he did not consider it something he had unlawfully seized.”

    Which leads me to ask you, If you would retain a not-so-positive Danish way of saying what Paul says not-so-positively in Greek, then would you still depart from the Danish tradition? In other words, does your view of Danish idiom require you to say the negative Greek in a positive way? Can you then force the Danish to be negative and still abandon the Danish tradition?

    Please know that I’m asking sincerely. That you’ve made your Danish more positive than Paul’s Greek makes me want to know why such a shift (if it’s not just that you’re not seeing the traditional way of viewing the Greek).

  35. iverlarsen says:


    Actually, part of the following sentence in the Danish belongs more to verse 6 than to verse 7. It says: “Yet, he did not demand his right, but renounced his divine power.”

    When I produce an idiomatic version, verse numbers are sometimes a nuisance, because I think in larger units than words, phrases and verses.

  36. JKG says:

    Thanks Iver!

    So you really are wanting the Danish to get rid of “any implication in this text of violence [or violation] and … taking advantage of [exploitation],” right? Is it that you just don’t see that implied in ἁρπαγμός in the Phil 2 context?

  37. iverlarsen says:


    We are dealing with a complex issue in bits and pieces, but I hope that we are together moving towards a clearer understanding of the text.

    You are right. I do not accept the implications of violence or exploitation in the context of Phil 2:6-8. And therefore I don’t want to explicate those implications in the translation.

    Would the readers of “robbery” in KJV get the implication of violence? Robbery is not always with violence, and since the word is used here in an extended sense, the reader will probably understand that Paul is not talking about normal robbery. This issue has actually robbed me of some sleep, but not violently – and I don’t mind, because I feel it is worth it.

    Hoover base much of his thesis on the claim that ἁρπάγμα and ἁρπαγμός are synonymous, but this claim is not supported by the evidence he gives. ἁρπάγμα refers to the object or result of the action and basically means “booty, prey, windfall” (per LSJ). ἁρπαγμός is an event noun that may include the result or object in some contexts, just like “writing” can refer to both the process and the result. ἁρπαγή is also an event noun that may include what is taken possession of. It seems that this last word is used commonly with the sense of “greed” (Matt 23:25; Luk 11:39), but it is also used in the sense of (unlawful) confiscation of property (Heb 10:34). The adjective ἅρπαξ also tends towards greed or at least a desire to acquire what you have no right to take. When it is used substantively, it is understood to mean a “swindler”, but it is closely related to and motivated by greed. (Luk 18:11, 1 Cor 5:10,11; 6:10).

    My starting point is that choice implies meaning. Paul chose ἁρπαγμός. Why did he not say ἁρπάγμα if that is what he meant? I think the reason is that he wanted to focus on the process of acquiring something and not only the object. A basic sense of these related words is to seize or acquire something that you do not have the right to acquire. It might be caused by greed, it might be done violently, or quickly or unethically. It might come about as a stroke of luck or by deliberate scheming. It might be done to benefit yourself or to benefit the person being seized. The nuance depends on the context.

    It is on this background that I take ἁρπαγμός in this verse to refer to an acquisition made by a person who does not have the right to it. (Does acquisition refer to the event or the object?) If I put it in context and if we agree that Jesus already possessed the status of being equal with God, then I read: Jesus did not regard being equal to God as something he had acquired without having the right to it (with the implication that he then ought to give it up.)

    It is true, of course, that ἁρπαγμός in itself does not refer to retaining something. But this retaining is an implication from the following statement that he gave it up. Instead of having a double negative: “He did not consider equality with God something (a prized possession) that he did not have the right to have acquired (and therefore ought not to hold on to)” it is clearer in my lanugage to make it positive, and from the context we can make the holding on to it explicit and also make something else implicit: “He had the right to hold on to this equality (which he did not regard as having acquired unethically), but…”

    This is one of the differences between literal and idiomatic translations. In the last type we often make implicit information explicit and sometimes make explicit information implicit, but of course, it must be guided by the context. And I admit it can be risky, but all translation involves some risk, and all translation should be based on thorough exegetical research.

  38. JKG says:

    It is true, of course, that ἁρπαγμός in itself does not refer to retaining something. But this retaining is an implication from the following statement that he gave it up.

    This sounds awfully “idiomatic,” Iver.

    In other words, if you’re first going to read Paul’s statement here as “having a double negative,” and if next you’re going to insist (as is reasonable in many languages including English) that “it is clearer in my lanugage to make it positive [and not a double negative],” then your idiomatic translation is certainly called for.

    However, your careful logic here does not give any cause for rejecting other translations that follow the Greek better. And they don’t have to be “literal” (vs “idiomatic”) translations either.

    Why not the idiomatic TEV? … which retains the aspect of force that is always associated with the Greek word: “He always had the nature of God, but he did not think that by force he should try to remain equal with God…”

    Why not the not literal revised NIV? … (which is similar to God’s Word and the HCSB): “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage…”

    Seems to me the problem you’re having is not directly related to desiring not to be literal and rather to be idiomatic. It seems the issue is in the understanding of Paul’s Greek. You don’t want Hoover to see “the idiomatic character of the ἁρπαγμός” as an allo of a larger Greek emic semantic category for ἁρπαγμ*. And yet you do want to interpret the particular word as “not” ἁρπαγμ-ish or as different in kind from all other ἁρπαγμ-s. You want then to make it (so unique, without readerly inferences of exploitation) as part of a double negative, which cancels itself out as a positive. This is indeed “idiomatic” but seems very contrived. And it’s not letting TEV or the NIV2011 or GodsWord or even the HCSB be idiomatic (which they must be here, while still conveying the readerly possibilities in the Greek word(s) ἁρπαγμ*).

  39. iverlarsen says:


    My primary interest for this verse is not how to translate it, but trying to understand what it means in this particular context. I do not accept that there is always an element of force present in this word group, although it is common. Try to look them up, as many as you can find. Nor is there necessarily an element of taking advantage of something. In some contexts such elements are clearly present, in others they are not. One of the reasons I mentioned the swindlers was to show that quite often these words imply that the agent does have the right to acquire or have acquired something. If you take what you have no right to take, you may have to use force and it may be to your own advantage. I am not saying this element is present in all contexts, but it is the element of rightful acquisition or possession that I consider to best fit the context of this particular verse. That is why I prefer something like the NLT96: “Though he was God, he did not demand and cling to his rights as God.”

    We can hardly talk about translation until after we have agreed on the exegesis, and it doesn’t look like such an agreement is forthcoming.

    I’ll probably stop here, since I don’t think I can explain my position more clearly than I have done already.

  40. Mike Sangrey says:

    I just ran across something that might prove additional to this discussion, at least it speaks to the underlying theology and conceptual metaphors which necessarily support the exegetical and translation choices.

    Read Hebrews 4:14-5:10.

    The sentences that jump out are these (NASB):

    And no one takes the honor to himself, but receives it when he is called by God, even as Aaron was.

    So also Christ did not glorify Himself so as to become a high priest, but He who said to Him,

    just as He says also in another passage,

    Melchizedek did not have “father or mother”. In other words, this is not referring to some kind of miraculous birth. It’s simply saying, “Hey, this guy is a nobody.”

    So, this Jesus here in Hebrews is just like the Jesus in Phil. 2. He did not go after the glory, but was effectively a nobody.

  41. Iver Larsen says:

    Yes, there is clearly theology behind most exegetical choices in the Bible.

    I think it is important to remember the earth-shaking differences between Jesus in his pre-incarnate, incarnate and post-incarnate/resurrection state.

    In his pre-incarnate state, Jesus was in the form of God (divine) and equal to God. He was not subject to the human limitations of space and time. He was eternal, omnipresent, omniscient. He could not be tempted in any way and he could not die.

    In his incarnate state, he was no longer in the form of God (divine), since he had willingly and obediently emptied himself of that position. He was no longer equal to God. He was now subject to the limitations of space and time. He was no longer omnipresent or omniscient, and he could be tempted in any way just like other human beings, and such temptations included taking honor to himself, using something to his own advantage, becoming disobedient, being reluctant to suffer an unfair punishment and a humiliating and painful death on the cross, etc. He became a high priest in the sense that his mission was to explain God’s will to the people and bring people into reconciliation with God. He was different from a normal high priest in many ways, not least in that he brought himself as a once and for all atoning sacrifice.

    After his recurrection, Jesus was reinstated in his former position, which had always been his rightful position, but he now had the personal experience of the temptations of human beings, and one of his tasks was then to continue interceding for humans.

  42. JKG says:

    Iver, I know you’ve made your understanding as clear as you can. Beyond the theology, however, you state:

    All the examples that H. uses for interpreting Phil 2:6, refer to a future booty, ceasing upon something that is not yet realized. But that does not fit with Phil 2:6, because here we have a status already in existence.

    But how do you get that from the two other examples of ἁρπαγμός?

    καὶ τοὺς μὲν Θήβησι καὶ τοὺς ἐν Ἤλιδι φευκτέον ἔρωτας καὶ τὸν ἐν Κρήτῃ καλούμενον ἁρπαγμόν, τοὺς δ’ Ἀθήνησι καὶ τοὺς ἐν Λακεδαίμονι ζηλωτέον.

    “one ought to avoid the kinds of love which exist [present time] both in Thebes and in Elis as well as what is called harpagmon [presently] in Crete; one ought, on the other hand, to emulate those which exist both in Athens and in Lacedaemon.”

    ἐὰν Ἄρης κληρώσηται τὸν δαίμονα, Σελήνη δὲ τὸν γαμοστόλον, ἁρπαγμὸς ὁ γάμος ἔσται·

    “If Mars is appointed the destiny-determining power and the Moon is the marriage-arranger, the wedding will be [conditional] an abduction.”
    –Vettius Valens

  43. iverlarsen says:


    Thank you for these two texts. They support my thesis. In both of these ἁρπαγμός refers to the event or action and are therefore not equivalent to ἁρπάγμα as Hoover wrongly claimed. My comment was related to his examples of ἁρπάγμα rather than the usage of ἁρπαγμός.

    Both of your quotes supply a good background for Paul’s statement in 1 Thes 4:4.

    Plutarch recommend an honourable way for a man to acquire a wife, instead of a dishounarable way. The honourable way was practiced in Athens and Lacedaemon. The dishounorable way was practiced in Thebes and Elis and Crete. This dishonourable way is through abducting the woman without the needed marriage agreement and contract. These are general statements without a specific time reference. To ask whether these events are past or future is irrelevant. This abduction is closely related to rape, and that is why LSJ when quoting your two texts suggest the translation “robbery, rape.” However, “abduction” looks fine to me in both quotes. The second quote says that if you allow yourself to be directed by the Moon-god, then you can easily be tempted to do an abduction of a young lady rather than a proper marriage arrangement. The Moon was believed to have power to influence people to do strange things or even become crazy (“be moon-struck” σεληνιάζομαι).

    1 Thess 4:4 has unfortunately been misunderstood and mistranslated by most modern versions. (That may be worth a separate post.) The RSV is a rather lone voice in the confusion. It says: “3 For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from unchastity; 4 that each one of you know how to take a wife for himself in holiness and honor, 5 not in the passion of lust like heathen who do not know God.”This passion of lust is what leads to ἁρπαγμός which contrasts to the ἐν ἁγιασμῷ (in holiness, in a holy way) that Paul talks about.
    GW is not too far off, when it says: “4 Each of you should know that finding a husband or wife for yourself is to be done in a holy and honorable way, 5 not in the passionate, lustful way of people who don’t know God.”The only problem here is the anachronistic adding of “husband or”. It is the young men who were tempted to abduct and possibly rape a woman, not the other way round. It is exemplified in Gen 34 with Shechem and Dinah.

    Of course, this specific sense of ἁρπαγμός is not relevant for Phil 2:6. What they have in common is taking something that you do not have the right to take.

  44. JKG says:

    Mark Liberman has a good post on the Greek word, ἁρπάζω, as it’s been poorly translated “rapture.”

    It’s fascinating that most translators see fit to convey the violence in Acts 23:10, when it’s about Paul (“to take him by force from among them”; “take him away from them by force”; “to drag Paul back to”; or even the NLT’s softer “rescue him by force”).

    But most translators won’t allow the violence of the Greek word, when written by Paul about people being seized and snatched away, as in the act of rape or by an unwilled abduction. The discussion around this post, on Phil 2:6, has to a large degree been about whether there’s any connotation of violence (i.e., as with rape and robbery) in the Greek word.

    For other uses of the word by Paul, the best translations I’ve found are the following.

    For I Thessalonians 4:17, for Paul’s ἁρπαγησόμεθα, the one of the best translations is Clarence Jordan’s “will be whooshed up” (i.e., in Jordan’s The Cotton Patch Gospel);

    For 2 Corinthians 12:2 and 12:4, for Paul’s ἁρπαγέντα, the best is Nyland’s “was seized and carried off“; and GOD’S WORD® Translation’s and ISV’s “was snatched away.”

    For the Philippians passage, for Paul’s ἁρπαγμὸν, the best translations are by Barnstone, Nyland, and Lattimore (as noted above, “robbery” and “to seize on“).

    When Paul writes about it, such rapture really is rape-like. And the best English translators show this connotation.

  45. Christian gains says:

    I beg to disagree with a statement (and proof), that you, (Iver), made.
    “GW is not too far off, when it says: “4 Each of you should know that finding a husband or wife for yourself is to be done in a holy and honorable way, 5 not in the passionate, lustful way of people who don’t know God.”

    The only problem here is the anachronistic adding of “husband or”. It is the young men who were tempted to abduct, and possibly rape a woman, not the other way round. It is exemplified in Gen 34 with Shechem and Dinah”.

    The Dionisian religious sect played heavily into the Greek culture, and women were frequently the aggressors, and FREQUENTLY raped, and even killed young men, who dared to resist their lust filled approaches.

    This was an ancient ritual, for every Astarte, Osiris, and Hecate’ Mystery Religious movement from Sumer to Athens, to Rome.

    So, it stands to reason that “rape” was not simply a “male” aggressive act…remember, most of the ancient cultures devolved into Matriarchies, from Patriarchies, as is exemplified by “Queen” Jezebel of Bible fame, that Eliyah had to deal with…(talk about an aggressive female! Whew!:– Read I Kings 19! {specially verse 2)

    Sorry, but you are over generalizing — I fear from a doctrine, rather than a broad, and unbiased knowledge, of Ancient History.

    Ancient History is replete with women who were HIGHLY aggressive… (try Astarte…or Hecate…or…Osiris’s Mommy…for starters – no wilting wallflowers there my friend).

    Also, I refer you to “History Begins At Sumer” by Samuel Noah Kramer; falcon’s Wing Press, 1956; Pgs. 212 thru 216, {esply. the poem on pg. 213 — again, no wilting wall flower!}.

  46. Scott Sherrell says:

    1) The word “God” in verse 6 should be translated indefinitely because it is parallel to the indefinite “slave” of the next verse. It should be translated “the form of A god” to match “the form of A slave.”

    2) Almost all lexicons agree that the meaning of “morphe” is “form” in the sense of external appearance. It refers to something outward, not something inward. See A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and
    Other Early Christian Literature, which gives “form” “outward appearance” and “shape.”

    3) The much-debated “Harpagmos” is contrasted with the phrase “but he emptied himself.” Because of this, I think that context alone indicates that Harpagmos means something to be retained, as opposed to something to be emptied.

    4) The Greek “ison” can mean “equality,” but it can also mean “likeness” (as in the LXX of Job 10:10; 11:12; 13:12, 28; 15:16; 24:20; 27:16; 28:2; 29:14; 30:19; 40:4; see also Wisdom 7:3; compare the use of isa in Lu 20:36, where it also means “like” in that those of the resurrection are “like” the angels in that they can never marry or “die anymore”).

    In light of this, I propose the following translation of Philippians 2:6-7:

    “who, although existing with the [glorious] outward form of a god, did not deem this likeness to God as a thing to be retained, but emptied himself of it by taking the [lowly] outward form of a slave, ect.”

  47. Iver Larsen says:


    1. Since Greek does not have an indefinite article like English, you could also say that “form of god” parallels “form of slave”. A non-Christian Greek speaker at the time might well think of this as “form of a god”, since they believed in many gods, but for Paul and his readers, there is only one God, and that is why “God” ought to be capitalized: “form of God”. I looked up the New World Translation of this verse:
    “who, although he was existing in God’s form, gave no consideration to a seizure, namely, that he should be equal to God.”
    The genitives might also be expressed as “God-form” vs “slave-form”, but that may not be good or at least not normal English.
    2. Greek μορφή (form, appearance) does not necessarily imply a contrast between an inward and outward reality. In this context, Christ becoming a human being indicates the essentially different appearance/form as God/Master and as slave/human being. The dictionary you refer to says under this entry: “μορφὴν δούλου λαβών he took on the form of a slave=expression of servility Phil 2:7. This is in contrast to expression of divinity in the preëxistent Christ: ἐν μ. θεοῦ ὑπάρχων although he was in the form of God”
    3. I agree with you there.
    4. Thank you for your suggestion. We have now seen many different options. You have a good point in the contrast between a position as a human “slave” and a position as God/Master of the universe. This was a huge step down the ladder. Jesus was not literally a slave, but he renounced his former position at the side of the Almighty God in order to become a human being.

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