Wednesday, 15 April 2020

Lost in Translation: A Closer Look at the NT Greek Term PHRONÉŌ

In Paul’s brief letter to his dear friends at Philippi, no fewer than ten times a form of the Greek verbal phronéō occurs, its highest concentration in the New Testament. Indicative of an interconnecting theme, the expression appears once in the first chapter and at least three times each in the remaining chapters.1

The central message of Philippians is bracketed between the apostle’s use of the term to describe himself toward his readers (1:7) and his readers toward him (4:10), with multiple applications in between. It is particularly exemplified in the Lord Jesus Christ (2:5). The problem is, there is no single word in the English language with which it exactly corresponds or that captures the full sense of the Koinē Greek. Neither is there consistency in any standard Bible translation in how the term is rendered in English. 

The fundamental idea of the phronéō word group is “a pattern of judgment that involves thinking, feeling, and acting.”2 It describes “a state of mind, an inward disposition. It signifies sympathetic interests and concern, reflecting the action of the ‘heart’ as well as the ‘head’.”

The purpose of this study is to offer a more descriptive and consistent translational alternative, thereby highlighting a thematic connectivity of the word’s usage throughout Philippians and revealing an emphasis otherwise lost in translation. Our aim is not ease of reading or proficiency of English grammar, but to contextually reflect the apostle’s own wording as closely as the translation process will allow.

Philippians 1:7

Paul expresses heartfelt gratitude in the letter’s opening thanksgiving and prayer (1:3-11). According to the NKJV, verse 7 reads, just as it is right for me to think this of you all …”, compared to the ESV“It is right for me to feel this way about you all …4 The challenge is finding an English equivalent for the present infinitive phroneîn. While expressing something current and ongoing, the word “think” misses the emotional aspect, the word “feel” leaves out the cognitive component, and neither conveys the behavioral overtones. 

Having acknowledged his thankfulness for and confidence in the saints at Philippi, the apostle continues: “Accordingly,5 it is right for me to be manifesting this caring disposition concerning you all, because I have you in [my] heart, in both my chains and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel; you are all partakers with me of grace. For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all in deep-seated affection of Christ Jesus” (1:7-8). This translation is an attempt to capture the thinking-feeling-doing nuances of phroneîn in both its immediate and remote contexts.

Paul has thus laid the groundwork for the rest of his message to these beloved brethren. His threefold repetition of “all” [pás], an adjective occurring frequently throughout the letter, indicates his keen interest in and close relationship with the Christian community as a whole, as well as each member individually.6 It also reflects how much church unity is on his mind, a nagging concern hard to account for in this otherwise joyous letter unless he is sensing actual or threatened disharmony (cf1:27; 2:1-18; 3:15-17; 4:1-3).7

By employing the term “heart” [kardía], figuratively representing a person’s physical, mental, and spiritual core, Paul lets his readers know they reside in the very center of his being. As biblical usage of “heart” involves the cognitive (Rom. 10:6, 8-10),8 the emotional (Rom. 9:2; 2 Cor. 2:4),9 and the impetus of action (Rom. 6:17; Eph. 6:6; Philem. 20),10 this wording in some measure reiterates the essential concept of the preceding phroneîn.

Seeming to struggle to communicate his point strongly enough, Paul then incorporates the noun splágchnois (dative plural of splágchnon) in describing the derivation of his intense yearning. Occurring again at 2:1, the word literally refers to the internal organs, metaphorically descriptive of deep-seated or even gut-wrenching emotions. The apostle’s longing for “all” these believers is “in deep-seated affections of Christ Jesus” (admittedly a less-than-adequate translation). From here Paul goes on to speak of the “provision of the spirit [pneûma] of Jesus Christ” (v. 19), whose caring disposition ought to be emulated, expressed once again with the verbal phronéō (2:5).

Philippians 2:2

In the second verse of the second chapter, Paul employs both the verb form and the participial form of phronéōserving as bookends of his plea for unity. Most English translators choose the term “mind” in both instances, while others submit a combination of “mind … purpose” (NASB, NET), “thinking … purpose” (CSB), or “attitude … mind” (ISV). But these renderings restrict the wider breadth of the word’s connotations. 

To more fully convey the essence of what Paul is saying, we propose the following translation: “Therefore if any encouragement in Christ, if any incentive11 of love, if any fellowship of spirit, if any deep-seated affections and compassions, fulfill my joy, so that you may be manifesting the same caring disposition, having the same love, united in soul, manifesting the one caring disposition” (Phil. 2:1-2; cp. Rom. 12:16; 15:5; 2 Cor. 13:11; Gal. 5:10).

While Paul develops this further in the verses that follow, note that koinōnía – “participation” (ESV), “fellowship” (ASV, KJV), “common sharing” (NIV) – involves much more than simply engaging in the same activities. It describes the close relationship (of mind, heart, purpose; partnership) Christians have with God (1 John 1:3b, 6; cf. 1 Cor. 1:9; 2 Cor. 13:14) and consequently with one another (1 John 1:3a, 7; cf. Gal. 2:9). Only the former makes the latter possible.

When the apostle speaks of koinōnía pneúmatos (“fellowship of spirit”), the question is whether God’s “Spirit” (the majority opinion) or the believers’ unified “spirit” is in view. In the immediate context, this seems to be a reaffirmation of 1:27b, “that you are standing firm in one spirit [pneûma], with one soul [psuchē], striving together for the faith of the gospel” (cf. 1:5). Paul then affirms: “Do nothing according to self-ambition or according to empty pride, but with humility considering one another above self, each regarding not the things of self, but each also the things of others” (2:3-4).

Philippians 2:5

As the appeal continues, the verb phronéō occurs again in verse 5, with English translators using words like “mind” (ASV, ESV, N/KJV, N/RSV), “mindset” (NIV), and “attitude” (CSB, ISV, NASB, NET). Serving as an introductory preface to the verses that follow, we recommend the following translation: “Be manifesting this caring disposition among you, which [is] also in Christ Jesus.”12

The sentence itself is somewhat enigmatic. The ESV omits the conjunction kaì (“also”) and adds “is yours” (not in the original text), interpreting the prepositional phrase “in Christ Jesus” as the spiritual realm in which the collectivity of believers abides (cf. RSV). However, it seems more likely that the contrasting parallel of the preceding prepositional phrase “among you” makes “in Christ Jesus” an allusion to the attitudinal, cognitive, emotional, action-prompting temperament that Christ Jesus possesses and exhibits.13 Accordingly, “the community created by the incarnate and enthroned Lord must share his spirit, and be controlled by the pattern of self-effacement and humility which his incarnation and cross supremely display.”14

Philippians 3:15

A form of the verb next appears twice at 3:15, typically rendered in both cases “think” (CSB, ISV, ESV), “have … attitude” (NASB), or “be … minded” (ASV, KJV, RSV), while sometimes varied: “mind … think” (NKJV, NRSV), or “view … think” (NET, NIV). Alternatively, in keeping with previous usage, we submit the following: “Therefore as many as are mature should be manifesting this caring disposition, and if [in] anything you are manifesting a [cognitive-emotional-behavioral] disposition differently, even this God will reveal to you.” 

While the statement’s initial employment of the verb reaffirms the sense of its recurring application thus far in the letter, the second occurrence introduces for the first time an apparent negative connotation (cp. 1 Cor. 13:11) that is fleshed out more a few verses later. Contextually there is the possibility that some of these readers have been influenced by judaizing thinking, characterized by confidence in the flesh, misdirected satisfaction with past achievements, and lacking spiritual maturity (vv. 1-14). 

When Paul says, “even this God will reveal to you [plural],” he does not elaborate on the means through which this is to be accomplished among the mid-1st-century Philippians (cf. 2:13), whether through local or visiting prophets or evangelists (2:19-23), the apostle’s continued instruction (1:24-26; 2:24), this very letter (3:1) or other inspired writings, and/or the examples of those adhering to divine directives (1:1c; 3:15a, 17). The mature in Christ seem to have little difficulty understanding and obeying the Lord’s will (v. 16).

Philippians 3:16

There is textual variation at v. 16. Many Greek manuscripts include a form of the verbal phronéō, and others do not. The ESV, primarily based on the UBS5/NA28 standard Greek text, renders v. 16, “Only let us hold true to what we have attained” (cf. also ISV, NIV, N/RSV). The Byzantine Majority Text includes the added phrase kanóni, tò autò phroneîn. The passage reads in the NKJV, “Nevertheless, to the degree that we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us be of the same mind” (cf. also KJV, MEV, WBT, WEB, YLT).15

The noun kanōn (“rule,” “standard,” “sphere,” included here in the ASV, NASB, NET) is a Pauline term (2 Cor. 10:13, 15, 16; Gal. 6:16), while the present infinitive phroneîn has already been used in the Philippians correspondence at 1:7 and again at 4:2 and 10a. The point of the phrase in question simply reiterates what is affirmed at 2:1-5 and 3:15a: “be manifesting the same caring disposition.” Therefore, whether these words were part of the original text of 3:16 or not, nothing new or different is gained or lost either way.

Philippians 3:19

Having alluded to a negative sense of phronéō in v. 15b, Paul more fully develops his concern in vv. 18-19. He and other mature Christians, following the pattern of Jesus, are themselves examples worthy of imitating (v. 17).16 Sadly, many do not think and behave as they should (cf. 2:3a, 21). In addition to the apostle’s adversaries (1:15-18) and the circumcisionists (3:2), another threat to the joy and spiritual health of these brethren is a group on the opposite extreme of the judaizers, viz. certain ones advocating lawless living. Having placed special emphasis on Christ’s humbling “death on a cross” (2:8), Paul alludes to “many” who are “enemies of Christ’s cross” (3:18; cf. 1 Cor. 1:18-23; Heb. 6:6; 10:29). Although not specifically identified, the warning’s address to “you” excludes these evildoers from being part of the local church. 

Three characteristics are identified. Their priority (“god”) is their inner desires, indulging the flesh, submitting to sensual appetites (cf. Rom. 16:18; 1 Cor. 6:13; Jude 11). They glory in their shame, taking pride in disgraceful conduct (cf. 1 Cor. 5:1-2; Eph. 5:12). The third description employs the verbal phronéō: “the [ones] manifesting a [cognitive-emotional-behavioral] disposition [set on] earthly things.”17 These worldly-focused pleasure seekers are the opposite of the spiritually-committed, heavenly-directed citizens noted in the verses that follow and the mature ones of the preceding verses (cp. 1 Cor. 2:14; 2 Cor. 4:3-4)Within the same general timeframe, Paul has also used the verbal phronéō to highlight the thinking, feeling, acting pursuit of “the things above, not the things on the earth” (Col. 3:2).

Philippians 4:2

A couple of members of the Christian community at Philippi, Euodia and Syntyche, were apparently in conflict with one another. Each one Paul entreats, using the present infinitive phroneîn, to seek reconciliation and unity. English translators typically employ words like “mind” (ASV, NIV, N/KJV, NRSV), “attitude” (ISV), “agree” (CSB, ESV, NET, RSV), or “live in harmony” (NASB). Based on what Paul has already written in the letter (esp. 1:27–2:5), particularly in regard to modeling Christ (2:5), each woman is being asked to demonstrate humility by putting the interests of others before self (2:3-4). Our proposed translation of 4:2 is as follows: “I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche, manifest the same caring disposition in the Lord” (cp. 1:7; 2:2, 5; 3:15a, 16?; 4:10).

Philippians 4:10

As Paul brings this very personal and passionate letter to a close, he prefaces his thanks for ongoing prayerful and financial support with a dual use of phronéō terminology: “but I greatly rejoiced in the Lord, that now at last you revived the manifestation of a caring disposition for me, wherein which also you have manifested a caring disposition, but you have lacked opportunity” (4:10).18 Paul is ending his letter by describing how the Philippians have thought, felt, and acted toward him, just as he opened the letter with a description of how he thinks, feels, and acts toward them (1:7).

Seeing that the verbal phronéō recurs so often throughout Paul’s letter to the Philippians, more than in any of his other extant writings, emphasis by way of repetition seems to be intentional. We have attempted to call attention to this thematic connection by offering a fuller and more consistent translation. In so doing we have uncovered a thinking-feeling-doing pattern with respect to Paul toward his brethren (1:7), the brethren toward one another (2:2), the ultimate example of Christ Jesus (2:5), the comparable example of the spiritually mature (3:15a) and potential deficiency of others (3:15b), the contrasting carnal extreme (3:19), practical application to a specific case (4:2), and finally the brethren toward Paul (4:10). At 3:16 there may be a reaffirmation of 2:2 and 3:15a, albeit with textual variation.

Although “joy” has historically been understood as the principal theme of Philippians,19 it is the phronéō motif (“manifesting a cognitive-emotional-behavioral disposition”) that makes true joy possible and gives it meaning as an internal conviction not particularly dependent on external circumstances. This, in turn, enables both Paul (1:18; 2:17; 4:10) and fellow believers (2:18, 28; 3:1; 4:4) to “rejoice in the Lord always …”

Every aspect of a Christian’s being can be succinctly summed up with the multifaceted expression phronéō. It is observable and influential (Acts 28:22). As a driving propensity, it governs our judgments, emotions, behavior, and everyday lives. It is how we think, feel, and act toward one another. It characterizes who Jesus is and who we ought to be.

--Kevin L. Moore

     1 Textual variation notwithstanding: Phil. 1:7; 2:2[x2], 5; 3:15[x2], 16(?), 19; 4:2, 10[x2]. Elsewhere in Paul, nine times in Romans (8:5; 11:20; 12:3[x2], 16[x2]; 14:6[x2]; 15:5) and only once each in 1 Corinthians (13:11), 2 Corinthians (13:11), Galatians (5:10), and Colossians (3:2). Outside of Paul, the word occurs in Matt. 16:23; Mark 8:33; and Acts 28:22.
     2 James W. Thompson and Bruce W. Longenecker, Philippians and Philemon (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016): 30.
     3 I.-Jin Loh and Eugene A. Nida, A Translator’s Handbook on Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (Stuttgart: UBS, 1977): 54. The corresponding noun phrēn refers to the diaphragm or inward parts surrounding the heart; metaphorically the inner self that regulates external behavior.
     4 Emphasis added in italics (KLM). The word “feel” occurs in the ESV, NASB, NIV, TLB, RSV; “think” in the CSB, ISV, NET, N/KJV, NRSV, WEB; “minded” in the ASV. Hereafter, unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are the author’s own translation, with added words [in square brackets]. 
     5 The adverb kathós (“as, in the manner that”) is left untranslated in some versions (e.g. ESV, NIV, N/RSV), but it indicates that the thanksgiving does not end at v. 6 and continues on into vv. 7-8.
     6 Jac. J. MüllerThe Epistle of Paul to the Philippians NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955): 34. See K. L. Moore, The Macedonians Had Names.
     7 Patrick E. Harrell, The Letter of Paul to the Philippians (Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 1984): 45.
     8 This would include volition as well (1 Cor. 7:37; 2 Cor. 4:1, 16; Gal. 6:9; Eph. 3:13). See also 1 Cor. 14:25; 2 Cor. 9:7; cf. Psa. 4:4; 7:10; 10:6, 11, 13; 14:1; 15:2; 16:7; 19:14; 27:8; 37:31; 40:8; 49:3; 64:6; 66:18; 77:6; 90:12; 119:11, 112; Prov. 2:2, 10; 3:3; 4:4; 8:5; 10:8; 11:29; 14:33; 15:14, 28; 16:1, 9, 21, 23; 18:15; 19:21; 20:5; 22:17; 23:7, 12, 19; Eccl. 1:13; Matt. 24:48; Acts 5:4; 8:22; 11:23; Heb. 4:12; 13:9.
     9 See also Psa. 4:7; 13:2; 16:9; 19:8; 25:17; 28:7; 33:21; 38:8; 39:3; 51:17; 55:4; 61:2; 73:21; 104:15; 119:111, 161; 143:4; Prov. 12:25; 14:13; 15:13, 15, 30; 17:22; 27:9, 11; Acts 2:26, 46; 7:54; 21:13.
     10 See also Psa. 9:1; 13:5; 86:12; 111:1; 119:2, 7, 10, 34, 58, 69, 145; 138:1; Prov. 3:1; 4:23; Matt. 12:34-35; 15:18-19; 18:35; Heb. 10:22.
     11 The noun paramúthion is usually rendered “comfort” (ESV, ISV, NIV, NET, NLT) or “consolation” (ASV, CSB, NASB, N/KJV, NRSV), but the idea of “incentive” (RSV) or “stimulus” (Müller 73) may be in view here, as J. B. Lightfoot suggests, “incentive, encouragement …. a motive of persuasion or dissuasion” (Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians [London: Macmillan, 1873]: 107).
     12 The Byzantine Majority Text has the passive singular phroneísthō, and the N/KJV supplies “was” for the missing verb (cf. also ASV, ISV, NASB). However, manuscript evidence more strongly supports the present active plural imperative phroneîte. See R. C. H. Lenski,The Interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistles to the Ephesians and Philippians (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 1937): 770. 
     13 See CSB, ISV, N/ASV, NET, NIV, N/KJV, NRSV.
     14 Ralph P. Martin, Philippians TNTC (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1987): 11:104.
     15 See Maurice A. Robinson and William G. Pierpont, The New Testament in the Original Greek: Byzantine Textform (Southborough, MA: Chilton, 2005): 442; contra Bruce M. Metzger, who considers the shorter reading to be original and the rest a gloss (A Textual Commentary on the Greek NT 2nd ed. [Stuttgart: German Bible Society, 1994]: 548-49).
     16 Paul has thus far in the letter used the examples of Jesus Christ (2:5-11), himself (2:17-18), Timothy (2:19-24), and Epaphroditus (2:25-30) to encourage and challenge the Philippians. He now calls upon his readers to imitate him (3:17; cf. 4:9), which is appropriate in so far as he is imitating Christ (1 Cor. 4:16; 11:1; Gal. 4:12; 1 Tim. 1:16; cf. Phil. 1:21; Gal. 2:20; 4:14). Other faithful disciples are also worthy examples to follow (1 Thess. 1:7; 2:1-12; 2 Thess. 3:9; 1 Tim. 4:12; Titus 2:7).
     17 English versions typically use “mind” or “minds” in this verse (ASV, ESV, ISV, NASB, NIV, N/KJV, N/RSV); also “think about” (NET) and “focused” (CSB). On the negative sense, see also Rom. 11:20 and contrasting usage in Rom. 8:5a; 12:3a, 16b; cf. Matt. 16:23; Mark 8:33. 
     18 English versions have rendered both the infinitive and the verb in this verse using words like “thought” (ASV, WEB), “care” (N/KJV), or “concern” (ESV, ISV, NASB, NET, NIV, N/RSV); also “care … concerned” (CSB).
     19 In the Philippians correspondence the noun chará (“joy”) appears five times (1:4, 25; 2:2, 29; 4:1), the verb chaírō (“rejoice”) nine times (1:18; 2:17, 18, 28; 3:1; 4:4, 10), the compound verb sugchaírō (“rejoice with”) twice (2:17, 18), and the cognate noun cháris (“grace”) three times (1:2, 7; 4:23). Joy, biblically understood as an internal conviction not dependent on external circumstances (cf. Heb. 10:34; 12:2; 13:17; Jas. 1:2; 1 Pet. 1:6-9), has an inextricable link to divine grace.

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