As the apostle Paul closes his immediate words acknowledging a recent gift from the Philippians (Phil 4:10-12), Paul interweaves a statement which transcends gifts and the encouragement to endure that they provide. In Philippians 4:13, Paul’s words read, “I can do all things through…”
It ellipses into a scene from a role playing game. At this point, the verse breaks out into three possibilities (variant readings) as to how the verse ends. The first two are represented by mainline translations, but the third is my translation (AT) since there are none that I am aware of to represent it:
(A) I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. (NKJV; CEV, FHV4, KJV, NLT, Tyndale)
(B) I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (ESV; ASV, Barclay, CEB, HCSB, NASB95, NET, NIV, NRSV, Phillips, RSV, Weymouth, Wycliffe)
(C) I can be able to do all things through Christ. (AT)
In truth, Paul’s point is transparent regardless of the textual problem. In them, Paul, at bottom line, concludes his statement with a powerful declaration that “Christ/God gives me the strength to face anything.” Yet, at times questions are asked as to why a translation has this word or is missing that word, so this aspect of the text will be explored here.
So here, in this note, we are not so concerned with the sense of the passage than we are with the original wording of the passage. For while these variants are theologically harmonious, they differ but in two ways; case in point, did Paul label Christ as his enabler, or did he leave it undefined for a reason? Let us consider the textual question, then attempt to put the most probable words in context.
Don’t Get Jittery, We Love the Bible
Every early Sesame Street kid remembers the lyrics: “Three of these things are kind of the same; Can you guess which one of these doesn’t belong here?” Sometimes when the topic of textual criticism emerges upon the scene of our faith it feels so flippant and cruel. “You mean to tell me that it was God’s Word in the time of my grandma but now ‘scholars’ know [sarcasm] it isn’t.”
But the study and search for the earliest wording of the biblical text is an act of devotion to God’s word and not some academic display of nerdiness. While there are areas of subjectivity to the evaluation process of the textual variants, so much as been done to minimize them as much as possible.
Why? Because for the most part textual criticism shows a love for the Bible. So in the words of the late Dr. Dowell Flatt, let us be clear that the search for the earliest wording of the biblical text is not (1) a liberal versus conservative issue, (2) a high view versus a low view of inspiration debate, nor is it (3) a study of the varied English versions, or (4) a study of what the providence of God should have done or not done.
However, variants make it necessary to “arrive at nearest thing we can have to that which” is God-breathed; “it is, after all, somewhat difficult to study or interpret a document accurately unless one first knows exactly what the document says.” This is, then, a necessary element of biblical interpretation.
How can one explain the text if there is an uncertainty in the wording of the text? Unfortunately, the everyday student of the Scriptures (versus someone like an academically trained student of the Scriptures) rarely walks through these ancient halls and so it becomes something of a mystery. It does not need to be so.
An Evaluation of the Textual Variants
There are a few things that should be said at the beginning about some general assumptions I am making. There are more refined treatments of this subject to be sure, but these will at least give some reason for the approach taken here.
First, this evaluation is based upon the premise that (within reasonable limits) the closer a manuscript is in age to the timeframe of its composition, then the more probable it is that it represents its autographic wording (i.e. original wording). The closer one is the source it is typically regarded more pure.
Second, wide geographic distribution is a vastly important consideration of the evidence, but it is not as weighty as the date of the manuscript evidence. For example, a reading may have a significantly wide geographic distribution, but if an earlier reading exists also having a wide distribution, then (all things being equal) the oldest reading is more probable to be the autographic wording.
Third, in most cases one must consider what is the variant which is the hardest to explain and would be most likely create a need to correct or clarify a difficult reading. Sometimes, for example, the shorter reading is taken to be the most probable reading since variations are often additions rather than deletions.
There are many exceptions to these general assumptions, but these are laid out in full disclosure. Let us, then, turn to the three textual variants of Philippians 4:13b.
From the Least Likely to the Best Supported
First, the (C) variant has the weakest evidence to be the probable reading of the early text of Philippians 4:13. It is only mentioned in the UBS4 textual apparatus.
The only manuscript supporting this reading in the apparatus is from the twelfth to thirteenth century (minuscule 1573). This variant can be easily dismissed due to its weak and late support, but it is an interesting combination of the next two variants. It is also weak since because variants (A) and (B) are more difficult to explain than the (C) variant.
Second, the (A) variant is perhaps the most well-known among the three to the English reader. This is due in large part to the influence and dominance of the King James/Authorize Version tradition (1611). It is well known and it clearly establishes the source of Paul’s endurance – Christ.
I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
Manuscripts. The strongest manuscript evidence is seen in second hand “corrections” to the text of both Aleph (4th century) and Claromontanus (6th century). Yet, since they are second corrections the Christo notes are from about 7th century (Aleph) and 9th century (Claromontanus) respectively. Despite support in the later Byzantine text (Byz) and in church lectionary readings (Lect), the reading is found in the ancient versions of the Syrian Peshitta (5th century) and Ethiopian tradition (6th century).
The evidence in the early church leaders (i.e. Church Fathers) is mixed. The mid-4th century finds roughly about half of Eusebius’s manuscripts which include “Christ,” and several late 4th and early 5th century Greek writers with verifiable references to 4:13 (Basil, Gregory, Chrysostom, Cyril, Theodore in latin). Four-fifths of Jerome’s unstable Latin text (419-20) and Paulinus-Nola (481) are witnesses of the Latin church.
Distribution. While this variant has a wide geographic distribution among its witnesses (Western, Alexandrian, Byz), the strongest and earliest examples are substantially late and statistically problematic. David A. Black calls us to be open-minded to the possibility that “a later MS may preserve an early reading. It is the date of the reading and not of the MS, that is important.” Still, the strength of this variant reading is its wide geographic distribution.
Probabilities. The earliest witnesses for this reading come from ancient translations and quotations from church leaders in both the Latin and Greek church and are omitted in the body of earlier Greek manuscripts. Instead, they exist in much later corrections notes. This leads to the probability that the reading emerged as “a later addition for the sake of clarity,” perhaps due to influential church leaders and the lectionaries harmonizing Philippians 4:13 with other passages with similar wording (2 Tim 4:17 and Eph 6:10).
In other words, the reading emerged to identify the one who strengthens Paul and all subsequent Christians. Further, as Metzger observes, “If the word [Christo] had been present in the original text, there would have been no reason to omit it.” One would more likely need to explain the “elusiveness” of the text rather than to delete Christ from the verse, as such, it would be a “predictable” variant.
Third, on the whole, the evidence for the (B) variant is decidedly better to be the wording of the earliest text of verse 13. It’s vagueness better explains (A) and (C) because it is the most difficult reading between the three.
I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
Manuscripts. This reading has a strong representation from the manuscripts regarded as the most reliable witnesses of the New Testament. They date from the 4th century (Aleph*, Vaticanus) and the fifth century (Alexandrinus). Also, it is represented in the fragmented Freerianus (5th century) and the Claromontanus (D* 6th century) manuscripts.
It is also represented by early third-century text of Clement of Alexandria (before 215). It is insightful that statistically there are alternative texts among fourth-century church leaders Eusebius (1/3) and Didymus (1/3) with this reading. This shows a similar instability of their texts which include variant (A) above. Still, various fourth and fifth-century witnesses to this reading are from Latin church leaders.
Distribution. Witnesses to this reading are geographically broad. It is found in Alexandria and Western manuscripts to eastern translations (Armenian, Vulgate, Coptic), and as far West as Britain (Pelagius after 418). This distribution weighs stronger for the (B) variant due not only to its distribution but also due to its earlier witness.
Probabilities. The evidence of the manuscripts and early church leaders indicates strongly that this variation is older and is in the best position to explain variants (A) and (C). The later “scribes” understood Paul’s intent to be Christo (“Christ”), no doubt because Paul, as Gerald Hawthorne observes, “paradoxically gained all by losing all for Christ; he who longed to know Christ and the power of his resurrection (3:7-10), and so on, could only envision Christ as his true source of inner strength.”
So we conclude here that the text reads, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (ESV). The evidence above explains why the majority of modern translation have the “unspecified” reading in the body of their texts (ASV, Barclay, CEB, HCSB, NASB95, NET, NIV, NRSV, Phillips, RSV, Weymouth, Wycliffe). So if this is the text, who then is “the one who strengthens” Paul?
So Why the Vagueness Paul?
Let us start with a verb. The verb endunamao used in Philippians 4:13 (“I make strong”) is used approximately 7 times in the New Testament, the majority of time by Paul (Rom 4:20; Eph 6:10; 1 Tim 1:12; 2 Tim 2:1, 4:17). The balance is one reference about Paul gaining strength as an early Christian (Acts 9:22) and those whom the world was not worthy due to their faith (Heb 11:34). The verb itself is part of a larger word family (based on the duna- stem), but we will limit ourselves to endunamao.
Abraham, Paul argues, “grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God” (Rom 4:20). Before Timothy, Paul evokes in prayer “him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord” (1 Tim 1:12). In his last letter, Paul both encourages Timothy and acknowledges the role of “the grace that is in Christ Jesus” and “the Lord [who] stood by” has in their lives to strengthen them (2 Tim 2:1, 4:17). Moreover, in Ephesians Paul empowers his readers with, “Finally be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might” (Eph 6:10). The title “Lord” (kurios) is predominately a title for Christ Jesus in the letter.
Aside from Paul’s discussion of Abraham’s faith in Romans, Paul is clear to connect the empowering force in his life with the Lord Jesus Christ, his grace, and God his Father. This leaves us with Philippians 4:13b and its “vagueness.” The phrase, “the one who strengthens me,” requires explanation – who is that?
The truth is that Paul was not vague, elusive, or unspecific. Paul was perfectly clear. The articular particple (to endunamounte) points back to the “Lord” (kurios) in 4:10a. Again, consistent with Paul’s use in Ephesians, “Lord” (kurios) is used throughout the Philippian letter for “Jesus Christ” (Phil 1:1; 3:20). There is perhaps no greater example in Philippians that “Lord” refers to Jesus than 2:11: “every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
In the immediate context of 4:13b, Paul already expresses his great joy to be “in the Lord” (4:10; 3:1). Paul repeats this locative phrase “in the Lord” several times in Philippians (1:14; 2:19, 24, 29; 3:1, 4:1-2, 4) and such a phrase is unique to Paul. It is one of those phrases that he seems to have just made up to convey a Christian concept where the Lord Jesus’ presence dwells within – an immanent Christian context. “In the Lord” means, then, “Jesus is here” or “in the presence of Jesus.”
So contextually, “the one who strengthens me” (4:13b) goes back to the presence of Jesus (“in the Lord”) in 4:10a and it is obvious that this is Paul’s intended meaning, even though it is not Paul’s words. But why the so-called “vagueness”? Perhaps it is simply a matter of style or syntax convention.
Consider one example along these lines. In Philippians 1:6, there is a similar example of a “vague” articular participle, “he who began a good work in you…” The context begins with “God” (1:3). “God our Father” is always connected to the work of Jesus Christ (1:1). Even in the context of 4:10-13, Paul calls upon God to “supply every need” of the Philippians “according to this riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (4:19) as part of his gratitude for their gift (4:18). But it is God who is the source of our salvation (1:28) and the exaltation of the Lord Jesus (2:9). It is God who consummates the work He begins in His children at the day of Christ (2:13-16).
So contextually, the “vague” articular participle, “he who began a good work in you,” goes back to “God” in 1:3. This is a parallel to 4:13b and leads me to conclude that Paul is not being vague, elusive, or unspecific.
In both cases, Paul leads with God or the Lord, then references back with an articular participle. It is God “who began a good work in you” (1:6) and it is the Lord through whom Paul can “do all things” (4:13). These participles are functioning as anaphoric abstract adjectives for God and for the Lord. In other words, it points back up the text and to a previous referent (God, Lord).
In seeking an answer to the textual variant in the Greek text of Philippians 4:13b, we walked through some history of the text in the early church. Christians seem to have needed a stronger sense of the one through whom Paul was empowered to endure all things. Was it a slip of the pen? Was it a theological harmonization with other passages using so many similar words? Hard to say.
But the history of the text shows a few things. Theologically, the variant is insignificant because all three variant readings are essentially harmonious. They say the same thing just with a difference in nuance.
Still the question remains: why so vague Paul? The answer is most likely a matter of convention. It is not that Paul is purposely elusive as if he wishes the Philippians to guess. We see a parallel in 1:6 and 4:13 using the articular participle to tell us more about God and Jesus.
So what Paul wants his readers to know is that Jesus is here, in his life, manifesting the power of the resurrection and it gives Paul (1) insight to be content in the face of real challenges and (2) the capacity to endure all things that come his way (Phil 3:7-11, 4:10-13). This is the grace and source of strength for all those whose citizenship is in heaven (Phil 3:20).
- The Greek texts and apparatuses used are the following: (NA28) Barbara Aland, et al., eds. Novum Testamentum Graece, 28th ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012); (UBS5) Barbara Aland, et al., eds. The Greek New Testament, 5th revised ed. (Germany: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2014).
- Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2d ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2001), 11*; Jack P. Lewis, Questions You’ve Asked about Bible Translations (Searcy, AR: Resource Publications, 1991), 91; David Alan Black, “Textual Criticism of the New Testament,” Foundations for Biblical Interpretation, eds. David S. Dockery, et al. (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 1994), 396-97.
Dowell Flatt, “Can We Be Certain of the Text? —New Testament,” inGod’s Word for Today’s World: The Biblical Doctrine of Scripture,eds. Don Jackson, et. al (Kusciusko, MI: Magnolia Bible College, 1986), 103-04.
Lewis, Questions You’ve Asked about Bible Translations, 100.
Michael W. Holmes, “Textual Criticism,” Interpreting the New Testament: Essays on Methods and Issues, eds. David Alan Black and David S. Dockery (Nashville, TN: B&H, 2001), 46.
- Black, “Textual Criticism of the New Testament,” 396-413; J. Harold Greenlee, Introduction to New Testament Textual Criticism, revised ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964; repr., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1999); Michael W. Holmes, “Textual Criticism,” 46-73; Frank Pack, “New Testament Textual Criticism,” Biblical Interpretation Principles and Practice: Studies in Honor of Jack Pearl Lewis, eds. F. Furman Kearley, et al. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1986), 214-25.
- “A geographically widespread reading is more likely to be original than a reading preserved in only one locale” (Black, “Textual Criticism of the New Testament,” 404).
- Metzger, A Textual Commentary, 13*-14*.
- NA28, 59*.
- Black, “Textual Criticism of the New Testament,” 404.
- Jacobus Johannes Müller, The Epistles of Paul to the Philippians and to Philemon (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1955), 147; Archibald T. Robertson, Paul’s Joy in Christ: Studies in Philippians (New York, NY: Revell, 1917), 256; Alfred Plummer, A Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians (London: Roxburghe, 1919), 102; Frederick F. Bruce, Philippians (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2002), 151. Compare this variant of Philippians 4:13 (to endunamounti me Christo) with (a) 1 Timothy 1:12, endunamosanti me Christo Iesou, (b) 2 Timothy 4:17, endunamosen me, and (c) Ephesians 6:10, enedunamousthe en kurio.
- Metzger, Textual Commentary, 550.
- After evaluating the variants, the footnote in NET Bible has this comment: “But this kind of reading is patently secondary, and is a predictable variant. Further, the shorter reading is much harder, for it leaves the agent unspecified.”
- The * in Aleph* and D* (Claromontanus*) refers to the original hand of a given manuscript. That is to say, it is the reading in the main body of the manuscript text, versus a correction of the text in the margins.
- Gerald F. Hawthorne, Philippians (Nashville, TN: Nelson, 1983), 201; William Hendrickson agrees (Exposition of Philippians [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1962], 206); Handley C. G. Moule labels this variation (A) “a true ‘gloss’” (Studies in Philippians [1893; repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1977], 118).
- Walter Grundmann, “dunamai, et al.,” TDNT 2:284-317.
- Albrecht Oepke, “en,” TDNT 2:541. Albrecht Oepke observes that en kurio is a formula that is “not found prior to Paul” and is “rare outside the Pauline corpus.” In fact, Oepke speculates that not only is this formula “peculiar to Paul,” but that such constructions perhaps find origin with him. The phrase en kurio “characterizes an activity or state as Christian.”
- Daniel B. Wallace, The Basics of New Testament Syntax: An Intermediate Greek Grammar (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 98-104.