Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Sunday, March 4, 2012

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.


Great point, Bill. One question: Couldn't the same thing have been achieved without losing the plural: "I can do all these things...."?

Yes. Not sure the English style is quite as god, but yes.

Hi Bill, I believe there is a typo. The "NIV (2011) translate the plural πάντα as a plural. “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” Should read:  "I can do all this through him who gives me strength."

It say "ther" than the NIV. Does thta fix your question?

I do not think the Church members, or at least the majority, that quote this verse believe God is going to make them Superman.  Superman is fiction.  I believe Dr. Mounce was exaggerating to make a point but I would like to discuss his examples. So Paul does not believe God can strenthen him to fly?  Maybe?  But Peter believed for a moment that God can cause Him to walk on water.  Where in the world did Peter get that idea?  Where did he get the faith to step out into the sea and walk to the Lord?  Point is...if Paul needed to fly, would it be completely out of the realm of possiblity? The "thorn in the flesh" is a figure of speech.  It was a messanger of Satan that was harrashing Paul.  Someone or ones that were following Paul around to challenge him at every turn.  This was not simple harrashment.  It would have seemed extreme to us.  We are familiar with this phrase " A pain in my side."  The Lord simply told Paul that His Grace was sufficient to overcome this messanger of Satan.  Paul was able overcome this obstacle and reach his goal with the help of the Lord. Paul knew God's will.  He understood that he was supposed to go to Rome and eventually die.  He was warned by others that this was going to happen yet he marched on.  If he ever wanted to "escape" this fate, I have not found it in Scripture.  It reminds me of Jesus' march to the cross.  Paul was strengthen by the Lord to continue on towards Rome not flee from it.  His will was done. Here are a few of my own: Paul could not be biten by a deadly poisonous snake and live.  But he did. Paul could not be stoned so severely that they thought they killed him.  Then minutes later get up and walk right back into the city and preach.  But he did. I think it is obvious that Phil 4:13 is reffering to facing plenty or hunger.  Abundance or need.  But we also know that these are not the only "things" that Jesus strengthen Paul to accomplish.  So in the context of the passage it is limited to a specific example but in the context of Scripture it is unlimited.  All things are possible, right? Thank God for Dr. Mounce and this forum.  Let our minds be renewed by the Word of God.

I would encourage you to think through the implications of your position. Do you really think a Christian can do anything? I think it will only result in defeat and discouragement because in experience it just is not true. My opinion. --Bill

Thank you for showing some clarity. The plural of πάντα is really interesting as well as other plural forms of similar words. I guess there can't be good translation without context.