For an Informed Love of God
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When does a singular better translate a plural? (Phil 4:13)
I never cease to be amazed at the power of context in translation. So many times I will see what I think is a good translation of a verse; but when I read it in context, red flags start to wave. Phil 4:13 is one of those passages.
All major translations other than the NIV (2011) translate the plural πάντα as a plural. “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (ESV, so also NASB, NRSV, HCSB, KJV, NET). The 1984 NIV and NLT say, “ I can do everything,” which is essence says the same thing as the plural.
While this is one of the most searched for verses on BibleGateway, and one of the most quoted verses in the church, the vast majority of people mistakenly think it means, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” This of course is obviously untrue. There are many things Paul could not do. He couldn’t fly. He couldn’t remove the thorn in his flesh. He couldn’t get released from his second Roman imprisonment.
As many know, context answers the question. V 12 reads, “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need” (ESV). The plural adjective πάντα goes back to these realities. Paul knows how to be brought low, he knows how to face plenty and hunger, because God strengthens him. The neuter πάντα references the entire preceding verse.
One of the realities of translation is that we know people memorize verses and use them apart from any biblical context. So how do you handle the plural πάντα and help people not conclude that Paul thought he was Superman.
The NIV has a great solution. “I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” It translates the plural (πάντα) as a singular (“all this”), but it does it in such a way that when you hear the verse in isolation you have to ask yourself, “What is ‘all this’?”
The question forces people to the context and to understand the verse properly, which of course is part of the function of a good translation.