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I've been looking at this verse in different versions. NKJV says: He led captivity captive. On the other hand ESV says: he led a host of captives.

I'm wondering which is right:

Ephesians 4:8 — The New International Version (NIV)

8 This is why it says:

“When he ascended on high,

he took many captives

and gave gifts to his people.”

Ephesians 4:8 — The New King James Version (NKJV)

8 Therefore He says:

“When He ascended on high,

He led captivity captive,

And gave gifts to men.”

Ephesians 4:8 — English Standard Version 2016 (ESV)

8 Therefore it says,

“When he ascended on high he led a host of captives,

and he gave gifts to men.”

Ephesians 4:8 — New Living Translation (NLT)

8 That is why the Scriptures say,

“When he ascended to the heights,

he led a crowd of captives

and gave gifts to his people.”

The Strong's shows:

aichmalóteuó: to lead captive Original Word: αἰχμαλωτεύω Part of Speech: Verb Transliteration: aichmalóteuó Phonetic Spelling: (aheekh-mal-o-tew'-o) Definition: to lead captive Usage: I take captive, captivate.

aichmalósia: captivity Original Word: αἰχμαλωσία, ας, ἡ Part of Speech: Noun, Feminine Transliteration: aichmalósia Phonetic Spelling: (aheekh-mal-o-see'-ah) Definition: captivity Usage: captivity; a captive multitude.

Just looking at the Strong's, it seems to me that the NKJV is the most accurate. What is the best rendering of this verse?

3 Answers 3

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There are actually several matters here that affect the answer to this question.

  1. What does the Eph 4:8 actually say?

The pertinent phrase in Eph 4:8 is ᾐχμαλώτευσεν αἰχμαλωσίαν is a deeply significant phrase because it occurs several times in the NT (to be dealt with shortly). The phrase is highly poetic because it contains the cognate for of the same root word in both verb and noun form. Literally it reads:

ᾐχμαλώτευσεν αἰχμαλωσίαν = [He] captured captivity, or, [He] led captive the captured

A similar phrase also occurs twice in Rev 13:10, but that involves another question.

  1. What is this alluding to in the OT?

There is no question that Paul is quoting Ps 68:18 which says:

עָ֘לִ֤יתָ לַמָּרֹ֨ום ׀ שָׁ֘בִ֤יתָ שֶּׁ֗בִי לָקַ֣חְתָּ מַ֭תָּנֹות בָּאָדָ֑ם וְאַ֥ף סֹ֝ורְרִ֗ים לִשְׁכֹּ֤ן ׀ יָ֬הּ אֱלֹהִֽים = You have ascended on high and captured captivity - you received gifts among men and even from the rebellious, that the LORD God may dwell [there]. (My translation)

Thus, the NT Greek accurately reflects the OT Hebrew.

  1. What is the Meaning/allusion?

Eph 4:8 is central to Paul's argument in Eph 4 which discusses two matters:

  • the "gifts" given to church members to liberate them and their ministry in the world, V4-16
  • the new way of life in Christ that liberates us from the "futility of thinking" (V17) of the gentiles, their 'darkened understanding", "ignorance", "hardness of their hearts", "sense of shame" (V18), "sensuality", etc.

That is, Paul is discussing the new freedom we have in Christ to both minister and be free from our previous sinful lives. Indeed, the NT often uses the metaphor of being freed from sin by using the word "redeemed", or more accurately, manumitted - freed from slavery to sin.

I would also suggest that another of Paul's freedom topics is freedom from eternal death as discussed extensively in 1 Cor 15 where he declares (V54, 55):

When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come to pass: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O Death, is your victory? Where, O Death, is your sting?”

It is thus, that Paul can say that when Jesus ascended on high that He captured captivity, ie, removed all things that held sinners captive, namely, lack of ability to minister, sin, death and sinful tendencies, etc.

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  • +1. Thank you for breaking it down. It seems there are different opinions on what this means.
    – Jason_
    Feb 19 at 18:18
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The wording of Ephesians 4:8 indicates that it alludes to Psalm 68:18. Which says

Psalm 68:18 YLT

Thou hast ascended on high, Thou hast taken captive captivity, Thou hast taken gifts for men, That even the refractory may rest, O Jah God.

Who were the captives? Were they enemies of God or were they righteous followers of God?

Examining Psalm 68:15-24 we find these captives were God's enemies, elohim (gods) of Bashan and their worshippers. Understanding the context of Psalm 68:15-24 and Ephesians 4:8 could not be taken to mean that Jesus descended to hell and brought the freed dead with him on his ascension.

The contexts of Psalm 68 indicate these enemies were elohim (gods) of Bashan and their followers. Ephesians calls these "principalities, evil spiritual forces and powers in the heavenly places" Ephesians 3:10, 6:12. The understanding that Jesus defeated these powers, elohim/gods is consistent with Ephesians 1:20:21.

Ephesians 1:20-21

which he wrought in Christ, when he raised him from the dead, and made him to sit at his right hand in the heavenly places far above all rule, and authority, and power, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come:

I choose ESV on this one.

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  • +1 Thank you for your thoughtful answer!
    – Jason_
    Feb 19 at 18:16
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Ephesians 4:8

New English Translation

8 Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he captured[a] captives; he gave gifts to men.”[b]

Captured captives.

Here Paul uses the illustration of a soldier capturing men from his enemies, in this case it is Christ capturing men and women that are captive under the influence and control of his enemy the Satan .

He (Jesus) gave gifts to men and women naturally, that is to his church / congregation, for the building up of the body of Christ. And what type of gifts were?.In Ephesians 4:11-12 Paul writes:

Ephesians 4:11-12 New American Standard Bible

11 And He gave some as apostles, some as prophets, some as evangelists, some as [a]pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the [b]saints for the work of ministry, for the building up of the body of Christ;

I believe that the NIV translation is the most accurate.

Ephesians 4:8 — The New International Version (NIV)

8 This is why it says:“When he ascended on high,he took many captives and gave gifts to his people.”

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