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Philippians 2:6 NIV Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage

Philippians 2:6 NLT Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to

Philippians 2:6 ASV who, existing in the form of God, counted not the being on an equality with God a thing to be grasped

Philippians 2:6 YLT who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal to God,

Most translations from Bible Hub show "in the form of God" but not NIV and NLT. What is the justification for NIV's and NLT's translation of Philippians 2:6?

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  • You should study a bit about the translation nuances and purposes. Not all translations are literal word for word. NIV and NLT particularly are aimed for a simplistic translation for easy understandability. Many times such translation would convey the meaning better than the hard translations to the readers. Studying about translation methods would save you from asking many questions in the same line.
    – Michael16
    Oct 19, 2021 at 9:21
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    Michael this may be the best place available for some people to ask the question, making the Hermeneutics site valuable. And translation philosophy certainly falls within the purview of Hermeneutics. We surely do well to learn more in depth, but asking questions for beginners is also helpful. That said, by all means, study more. Oct 19, 2021 at 9:35
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    Rather than repeat what I perceive, you can see my comment under @Jesse Steele below. Upvoted + 1. Oct 19, 2021 at 11:07
  • @Olde English. Thank you. Oct 19, 2021 at 11:57
  • @Michael16. Thank you for your comment. Can you please expound and answer my question. Oct 19, 2021 at 21:28

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I interviewed Dr. Taylor (NLT) on Bible translation

Your Question is about how Bible translators think. This is a good and normal curiosity for many Bible readers, which we should allow on the Hermeneutics site.

I was in a Bible introduction class at Moody, and our group was assigned to research the Living Bible. The New Living Translation was Ken Taylor's second translation, which he oversaw through multiple committees. He personally translated the Living, but gave me a copy of the NLT when I met with him.

I later went back and told him about the NLT, "I like your translation, but for word studies I prefer the NASB."

Dr. Taylor replied, "I agree with your analysis. If we are going to study the words, we need to have the words. But, this [NLT] is for the people to be able to understand."

That was his defense on how he translated the NLT the way he did.

I have done Bible translation from Greek

I think you are trying to ask why it may have been translated the way it was—essentially asking about the rationale behind Bible translation. You're not asking the translators directly, you're asking people with experience to explain the thinking of Bible translators in general.

Remember, different Bible translations have different purposes. Translators keep those purposes in mind to make their translations different from other translations, thus more useful to Bible readers.

The Greek text in question:

Philipians 2:6 (greekbible.com)

ὃς ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ ὑπάρχων οὐχ ἁρπαγμὸν ἡγήσατο τὸ εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ,

The text you are boldfacing is literally "in form of God being" from "ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ ὑπάρχων" (eno morphae theou huparchoen). You can see in there the word for "morph" or "form".

Why, then? Speculating based on experience

I have translated the Book of Revelation. I've also taught mature adults and young children, reading from Greek and translating as I read for understanding at their level. I wrestle with these questions constantly myself.

The NIV and NLT translators probably felt that "form" might diminish the Soteriological claims of who Jesus was. They probably wouldn't want readers to get any impression of "merely form of, but not really, God". I certainly know Dr. Taylor would have felt that way as his rationale behind the NLT.

NIV & NLT differences

I lived in the Grand Rapids, Michigan area almost 30 years and rubbed shoulders with Zondervan editors, which publishes NIV. Zondervan (NIV) aims more at "adult basic understanding" while Tyndale (NLT) gives a little more focus toward children.

The NIV tends to have a word in English for a word in Greek, translating "form"/morph as "nature". But, the NIV is hardly a "word-for-word" translation as the NASB is. The NLT tried to be just a little more unbound by word-for-word translation than NIV, aiming just a little more for the understanding of the reader.

Wanting children to understand, the NLT translators likely think that differentiating between "God being in the form of God" vs "God being God" splits hairs without understanding and only causes confusion.

When I talk to seven year olds, I certainly don't try to explain how "form" is different from "substance"; Tyndale House probably doesn't want to either.

Hence, NIV would naturally want to use "nature" for adult easy reading while NLT would naturally just leave it out to avoid confusion.


Theological influence

Afterthought:

It came up in the discussion that the omission in NLT and alternate of NIV term "nature" are based on presumptions of the Trinitarian publishers. Both Tyndale (NLT) and Zondervan (NIV) are Trinitarian, at least in reputation (churches 'have' doctrine, publishers 'favor' doctrine). Both their theology—and the theology of their readers especially—directed their choices as a matter of course. They wouldn't and shouldn't say so in the translation notes within their circles because of their own shared presumptions. Trinitarians will expectedly translate Trinitarian. We can't fault them for that, but we should surely observe.

Similar presumptions in translation occur with the worldviews of Mandarin and English speakers I have encountered in Taiwan over the last 12 years. So back to the OP: Why? Theological presumptions are indeed a more than 0% factor. I don't want to dive too deep in that because that should be discussed on Christianity.SE. This approaches the overlap of Hermeneutics and Christianity/SysTheo.

On a personal note, I would try to use some word understandable to both children and adult readers, not just omit. The "likeness", "form", and "nature" aspect of the incarnation of Christ is a fascinating concept behind the text. This concept existed in the minds of the NT writers. I don't understand the concept perfectly myself, so I can't make assumptions on the best way to translate text that affects our understanding on that concept.

We want translation of their words to express that beauty in their ideas. None of us know how to do that perfectly. That's why Tyndale was founded by Dr. Taylor, to offer yet one more perspective/translation to assist discussion as we collectively read a text to understand more of what can never be fully understood.

In other words, I would try to limit my own theology's influence on translation and try to let the text come through so as to be the influence on my ongoing development of theology. I couldn't do it perfectly, though. No other translator can either.

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    You make a good point regarding why translators choose a certain path. Unfortunately, most seem oblivious to this reasoning and the NIV (for eg.) is widely used as a truth bible, when it is not, sometimes, even close.
    – steveowen
    Oct 19, 2021 at 8:52
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    The answer to why the translators of the NLT and NIV translated the way they did may actually be more to do with bias than simplicity in the understanding thereof, and the Trinitarian bias is unmistakable here. Oct 19, 2021 at 10:59
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    Glad to hear that from you but that didn't come across in your answer. You seemed to be at peace with the exegesis of the NLT and NIV translators to my mind. I suggest that an edit may be in order. Oct 19, 2021 at 17:47
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    I sense that you are obfuscating. You seemingly have no real objection to the Trinitarian approach, which is probably why you don't really feel an edit is warranted. I would have liked to have seen you go beyond the objective tone myself, but then again, I'm an unapologetic non-Trinitarian, but nevertheless a seeker of truly responsible translation of the ancient languages. I feel no further need for discourse here, as I see it devolving into possible argument. Oct 19, 2021 at 23:09
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    Thanks for the clarification, Jesse. I realize you have reasons for the stance you take but when we translate scripture, we are held to a much higher standard. You must know that from having translated Revelation. "God" and "form of God" express two very different concepts. Regardless of our theological or experiential biases, I don't think we have any defensible justification for imposing a change like that in scripture. Btw, I love the "5% unfinished" remark. I appreciate your humility. Oct 19, 2021 at 23:45
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I am probably expressing a minority view here but I believe it is the correct one and people can feel free to push back if they wish. It seems there have been several variations on this question lately which shows me that it must be important. It is also interesting to me that I have not come across a single accurate translation of this text, and again, I am open to someone proving me wrong. I suspect most people will merely be able to say, “You have your opinion and I have mine.” Here’s the Greek, so the language scholars can verify easily.

6Ὃς ἐν μορφῇ Θεοῦ ὑπάρχων οὐχ ἁρπαγμὸν ἡγήσατο τὸ εἶναι ἴσα Θεῷ

A rough literal translations would be

Who in form of God existing, not considered robbery to be equal to God.

So, how could this be translated faithfully in readable English? There are different options that don’t affect the meaning, but I would suggest something like this.

Who, though existing in the form of God, did not consider seizing equality with God.

So the text clearly shows that for Jesus to become equal to God, he would have had to try to seize something that was not meant for him to attain. I realize that centuries of church history and doctrine would have us think otherwise but I believe this translation fits much better with what the rest of the Bible says about the relationship between the Father and the Son, such as Jesus saying that the Father is greater than he and his current place now at the right hand of the Father, but that goes beyond the scope of this question.

Let us now revisit the two translations mentioned in the question above.

Philippians 2:6 NIV Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage

Philippians 2:6 NLT Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to

To me, it’s a pretty big leap to go from form (appearance) to nature (essence). The NLT leaves out "form" altogether. Why do they do this? I believe they have a theological bias to show that Jesus was equal to the Father. Ironically, the Greek is saying exactly the opposite.

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    I hope people will judge this and all answers, for that matter, based on the hermeneutics and not whether it agrees with what they have been taught all their lives. We must not be afraid to examine our beliefs in the light of scripture. Personally, I have never down-voted anybody for clearly presenting a reason for their beliefs, and I have nothing against my brothers and sisters who sincerely hold differing opinions. Oct 20, 2021 at 6:35
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    Nice job Martin. You have my vote. Oct 21, 2021 at 1:23
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    Martin, Great job explaining this as well as in the spirit you wrote it. Unlearning things is much harder sometimes then learning new things. Traditional teaching doesn't make things true. Teachers that we love can also prevent us from hearing the truth if we truly are questioning things that we once held tightly to be true.
    – Sherrie
    Oct 21, 2021 at 18:42
  • Thanks, Sherrie. Yes, we don't want to hold on so tightly to doctrines that we can't objectively examine them in the light of the Word. One of the most important things I try to teach people is not to rely too much on any teacher, including me. We will all be held individually accountable for what we have believed and how we have put it into useful action for the kingdom. God bless your faithful heart! Oct 21, 2021 at 20:11
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Young's Literal Translation Philippians 2:

6a who, being in the form of God,

being
ὑπάρχων (hyparchōn)
Verb - Present Participle Active - Nominative Masculine Singular
Strong's 5225: To begin, am, exist, be in possession. From hupo and archomai; to begin under, i.e. Come into existence; expletively, to exist (verb).

[the] form
μορφῇ (morphē)
Noun - Dative Feminine Singular
Strong's 3444: Form, shape, outward appearance. Perhaps from the base of meros; shape; figuratively, nature.

YLT uses a more literal methodology in its translation. American Standard Version has done similarly:

who, existing in the form of God

These are more conservative translations for English-speaking natives. On the other hand, NIV adopted a more dynamic strategy, translating the concept indicated by the word:

Who, being in very nature God

NIV appeals to the international English readers/scholars whose mother tongue may not be English.

New Living Translation took this translation liberty another step:

Though he was God

Read Jesse Steele's answer for further explanation of NLT translation philosophy.

What is the justification for the New international Version and New Living Translation's translation of Philippians 2:6?

Basically, NIV and NLT are more liberal compared with YLT and ASV. There are advantages and disadvantages to every translation. I advocate reading more than just one version. Particularly, when it comes to proving a doctrine, like in this case, do not just rely on just one single translation. Relying on a single liberal translation could really mess things up.

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    The NIV and the NLT may be more liberal in their translations but if they succeed in altering the true meaning, which I believe they have, to support their more than obvious Trinitarian biases, rather than true exegesis, then how can they be advocating for accurate knowledge, which we should all be able to seek, without naked deceit, when all is said and done. Oct 19, 2021 at 18:27
  • That's why I advocate reading more than just one version :)
    – Tony Chan
    Oct 19, 2021 at 18:39
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    All you have done, here, is point out differences. You weren't advocating any such thing. You finish up by saying...*there are advantages and disadvantages to every translation.* You would have done better to have said...*Reader beware. Don't put one's faith in just one rendition of the ancient languages. check out others*, and remember, context is key. Oct 19, 2021 at 20:56
  • I added. Thanks :)
    – Tony Chan
    Oct 19, 2021 at 21:02
  • You're getting closer. Oct 19, 2021 at 21:12

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