N.T. Wright in his famous article on the issue “Jesus Christ is Lord: Philippians 2.5-11,” pp. 56-98 in The Climax of the Covenant. Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993) refers to J.B. Lightfoot’s rendering of the word ἁρπαγμός by the Latin and by the Greek Fathers (p.63). Lightfoot insists that the Latin Fathers treated ἁρπαγμός “in an abstract sense of ‘act of agression’” (ibid.), whereas the Greek Fathers treated it as “a standard Hellenistic idiom” with the resulting meaning “a treasure to be greedily clutched...”. But where actually in the writings of the Latin and Greek authors is it evident that they so use the word ἁρπαγμός? As I look at the Latin or Greek authors they both cite verbatum Phil 2:6 (using rapinam or ἁρπαγμός correspondignly). The difference I sense only in English translations where somewhat arbitrarily the phrase οὐχ ἁρπαγμὸν ἡγήσατο is being treated sometimes as “robbery”, other times as “thing grasped”.


4 Answers 4


ἁρπαγμός (harpagmos) occurs only here in all the NT. It does not occur in the LXX. It is also quite rare in nonbiblical Greek.

BDAG gives the following meaning, "a violent seizure of property, robbery". BDAG then lists several Greek sources that are similar to Thayer's list below. However, BDAG also offers the following comment about the meaning:

If ἁρπαγμός approaches ἁρπαγμα in meaning, it can be taken 'sensu malo' to mean booty, (a) grab (so for ἁρπαγμα LXX), and only the context and an understanding of of Paul's thought in general can decide whether it means holding fast to something already obtained (ἁ = 'res rapta'; so the Greek fathers, s. Lampe, s.v.B 1) or to appropriate to oneself of something that is sought after (ἁ = 'res rapienda').

However, the meaning of the word as it stands in the Phil 2:6 is unanimously said (by lexicons) to mean as per BDAG above and Thayer below, "seizure by robbery" or equivalent. It is only if we presume that Paul mean what he did not write that we obtain a mean approaching "hold fast".

Thayer has the following entry:

ἁρπαγμός, ἁρπαγμου, ὁ (ἁρπάζω);

  1. the act of seizing, robbery (so Plutarch, de book educ. c. 15 (others 14, 37), vol. 2:12 a. the only instance of its use noted in secular authors).

  2. a thing seized or to be seized, booty: ἁρπαγμόν ἡγεῖσθαι τί to deem anything a prlze — a thing to be seized upon or to be held fast, retained, Philippians 2:6; on the meaning of this passage see μορφή; (ἡγεῖσθαι or ποιεῖσθαι τί ἅρπαγμα, Eusebius, h. e. 8, 12, 2; vit. Const. 2, 31; (commentaries in Luc. vi., cf. Mai, Nov. Biblical Patr. iv., p. 165); Heliodorus 7, 11 and 20; 8, 7; (Plutarch, de Alex. virt. 1, 8, p. 330d.);utomniumbonapraedamtuamduceres, Cicero, Verr. 2:5, 15, 39; (see Lightfoot on Phil., p. 133f (cf. p. 111); Wetstein at the passage; Cremer, 4te Aufl., p. 153f)).

There is further evidence for this from the cognate verb, ἁρπάζω (harpazó) which occurs 14 times in the NT and always means either (as BDAG)

  1. to make off with someone's property by attacking or seizing, steal, carry off, drag away, eg, John 10:12, Matt 12:29
  2. to grab to seize suddenly so as to remove or gain control, snatch/take away, eg, Matt 13;19, John 6:15, 10:28, Acts 23:10, 25, etc.

I would like to thank all who responded to my question. Many interesting insights.

I found the answer to my question (at least with regard to the Greek Fathers' understanding) in the Homily on Philippians (homily 7) by John Chrysostom. He states:

"I have stated the views of the heretics. It is befitting that I now speak of what is our own. They say that the words, “He counted it not a prize,” are of wrongfully seizing".

That is, the word ἁρπαγμός for John Chrysostom cannot mean "seizing, robbery" because that is how the heretics understood the word.

"For this cause, Paul says not, “He seized not,” but, “He counted it not a prize”; He possessed not that estate by seizure, but it was natural, not conferred, it was enduring and safe. Wherefore he refused not to take the form of an inferior".

In other words, Son did not have to steal anything or to hold grudgidly to anything that was not His. Only the robber would do that.

"Whatsoever a man robs, and takes contrary to his right, he dares not lay aside, from fear lest it perish, and fall from his possession, but he keeps hold of it continually".

For these reasons we can concur with J.B. Lightfoot that the phrase ἁρπαγμόν τι ἡγεῖσθαι was read by the Greek authors as an idiom ("something to retain forcefully".


For a mine mistake I posted this post in the question no.40013, instead to this post here. Sorry.

‘To retain’ (and so on), and ‘to grasp’ (and so on), are opposite translating readings, because to retain is related to a thing yet possessed before the described action. Very differently, to grasp is related to a thing possessed only after the described action (see, for this basic concept, The Expository’s Greek Testament, 1967, vol. III, pages 436-437; see also The Epistle of Paul to the Philippians, by Ralph Martin, 1959, p. 97).

Αρπαζω (arpazo), that is the αρπαγμον (arpagmon)’s generator verb, means ‘to grasp (with speedness)’, like a predator. Αρπαζω (arpazo) does not possess - at all – the sense of to retain, or to maintain something yet in one’s possession (there are some other specialized Greek verbs that cover this meaning, like κατεχω, or εμμενω).

In addition to the Thomas Pearne’s fine notes I add here some other details.

I’ve said before that αρπαζω (arpazo) is the αρπαγμον (arpagmon)’s generator verb. So, it will be useful to read some NT passages to grasp (sic) the real meaning of the concept behind these terms.

John 10:12: “But he that is a hireling, and not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, and fleeth, and the wolf catcheth (harpazei) them, and scattereth the sheep.” (Webster)

In this case, the possession of the sheep (by the wolf) is subsequent to the action of the catching. In other words, the wolf, before the described action, did not possess the sheep.

Hebrew 10:34: “For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering (αρπαγην) of your property […].” (ESV)

Also in this case the Christians’ opposers possessed the property of those ones only after the described action.

Kindred reasonings could be made examining NT passages as Mat 12:29; Act 23:10; 2 Cor 12:2, 4; Jude 23, and Rev 2:5.

Also, the connection with the Hebrew language could be useful in this discussion. John Parkhurst (A Greek and English Lexicon to the New Testament, under αρπαζω) derived this Greek verb “from the Heb[rew] חרף, ‘to strip, to spoil’” Note that two consonants (R and P) are the same possessed by the Greek verb, besides that the meaning of the two verbs (Greek and Hebrew) are exactly the same (see, for one example, Judges 21:21. In this passage, the Hebrew verb [חרף] is translated by LXX just with a form of αρπαζω. Also the Jerome’s Vulgate translate with the Latin verb rapere [is it a coincidence that the same consonants – R and P – are present also in this homosemantic Latin term?]).

So, we may blaze a linguistic ‘trail’.

Hebrew חרף, ‘to strip, to spoil’.

Greek Αρπαζω, ‘to grasp (with speedness)’.

Latin (I) Harpago, as Verb, ‘to rob’; as noun, ‘a grabbing hook’; (II) Harpyia, the famous mythological winged monster; (III) Tropaeum, ‘spoils snatched from the enemies’ (afterward, trophy, in English).

Saxon Hriopan > Anglo-Saxon Gripe > English (to) Grip Ancient High German Grif > German Greifen > Swedish Grepp.

A last point. An interesting paper by Dennis Ray Burk (with slight revision by Daniel Wallace), on Phil 2:6 – titled The Meaning of Harpaghmos in Philippians 2:6 – An Overlooked Datum for Functional Inequality within the Godhead would be useful for this discussion, (https://bible.org/article/meaning-philippians-26-overlooked-datum-functional-inequality-within-godhead), taking into an account that Burk is a Trinitarian (the bold is mine):

I translate the term [αρπαγμον] a thing to be grasped for. In other words, the Son did not want to or try to grasp for equality with God. […] *If arpagmon be understood according to the above analysis, then Christ is said not to have snatched at or grasped for equality with God. Though he was himself true deity existing in the form of God, he did not try to grasp for this other aspect which he himself did not possess—namely, equality with God. On the contrary, Christ emptied himself. This emptying consisted in taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men (v. 7). Therefore, the contrast between verses six and seven is made very clear. Christ, the second Person of the Trinity, did not try to snatch at an equality with God which properly belongs only to the first Person of the Trinity. On the contrary, Christ embraced those duties which were appointed for the second Person—taking the form of a servant and being made in the likeness of men. In this way, Christ did not attempt to usurp the peculiar role of the first Person of the Trinity, but in submission he joyfully embraced his own in the incarnation.”

Even if this author believe in Trinity, he must admit that Christ “did not want or try to grasp for equality with God” (that Burk really understands the theological implications of these convictions of him that’s a horse of a different colour).

However, in final part of his paper Burk stated: “I think this interpretation opens the way for us to see an orthodox subordinationism within the Godhead. Although the Father and Son are one in their essence (that is, both of them existing in the form of God), they are distinct in their persons (that is, they each respectively fulfill certain roles and functions that are peculiar to their own Person). The character of this intra-Trinitarian relationship is what makes redemption possible. According to the Father’s predetermined plan (Acts 2:23), the Father sends the Son into the world as a man and as a servant. The Son does not try to abdicate his role by grasping for functional equality with the Father (Phil 2:6). On the contrary, the Son obeys the Father and enters onto the stage of human history (Phil 2:7). In this sequence of events, we see that the Son not only obeys the Father in his incarnation but that he also obeys the Father from all eternity. For this reason, if the Son were not obedient to the Father's sending him into the world and if he were not distinct from the Father in his Person (and thus in his role and function), then redemption would have been impossible, for the Son never would have obeyed the Father, and there never would have been an incarnation*.”

I hope these information will be useful for you.


I will leave the following as a counterpoint from https://wol.jw.org/en/wol/d/r1/lp-e/1101989307#h=23

Some claim that (1) Jesus already had equality but did not want to hold on to it or that (2) he did not need to grasp at equality because he already had it.

In this regard Ralph Martin, in “The Epistle of Paul to the Philippians”, says of the original Greek: “It is questionable, however, whether the sense of the verb can glide from its real meaning of ‘to seize’, ‘to snatch violently’ to that of ‘to hold fast.’” The Expositor’s Greek Testament also says: “We cannot find any passage where ἁρπάζω [har·paʹzo] or any of its derivatives has the sense of ‘holding in possession,’ ‘retaining’. It seems invariably to mean ‘seize,’ ‘snatch violently’. Thus it is not permissible to glide from the true sense ‘grasp at’ into one which is totally different, ‘hold fast.’”

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