I was recently asked why the English Standard Bible (ESV) translates Philippians 4:13 as follows: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” The specific question regards the use of the pronoun “him,” which differs from the King James translation’s use of the noun “Christ.”
First, let me say that both readings resolve to the same interpretation. Reading Paul’s letter to the Philippians and understanding Paul’s life as revealed in his writings, there can be no doubt Who it is that empowers him (see Eph 6:10; 1 Tim 1:12; 2 Tim 2:1; 4:17). In the context of this passage, Paul is exhorting the church to seek contentment in Christ regardless of the circumstances they may face. In v12, Paul is referring to his own life, explaining that he has learned how to be abased (brought low) and to abound, and to keep rejoicing regardless. How can he do this? He does this through the One that is strengthening him–Jesus Christ (v7). Christ is undoubtedly the One who enables such a spirit within him or any true believer. Noun or pronoun, the meaning of the passage is not changed.
Yet the question remains, “Why the difference?” The short answer is because the underlying Greek records a textual variant. If we consider the textual evidence, technically, the Greek word Χριστῷ (Christos) does not appear in any text prior to the 19th century. Now to be fair, a common abbreviation for Christos does occur, but only in revision to a earlier manuscripts and other than that, not until the 9th century. So in reality, the first reading that included “Christ” rather than “him” is 900 years after the autograph, whereas the reading “him” has support from the 4th, 5th, and 6th centuries, which are some of the earliest manuscripts available.
In A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Second Edition by Bruce Metzger, he writes, “In order to identify who it is that strengthens Paul, the Textus Receptus, following several of the later uncials and many minuscules, adds Χριστῷ. If the word had been present in the original text, there would have been no reason to omit it.” Gerald Hawthorne in Word Biblical Commentary, Volume 43: Philippians comments, “א2 D2 and the Majority Text add Χριστῷ, ‘Christ,’ to make clear who it is who strengthens Paul. If ‘Christ’ had been part of the original text, however, there would have been no reason to omit it, except by accident or possible haplography, i.e., unintentional omission, given the similarity of sounds in the case endings.” The notes to the New English Translation for this verse state, “Although some excellent witnesses lack explicit reference to the one strengthening Paul . . , the majority of witnesses . . . add Χριστῷ [Christos] here (thus, ‘through Christ who strengthens me’). 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.” Phillip Comfort in his New Testament Text and Translation Commentary writes “The variant is clearly a scribal addition . . . intended to make it absolutely clear that it was Christ who empowered Paul (see 1 Tim 1:12). But Paul hardly had to say this. Furthermore, he may have been thinking of “the Spirit of Jesus Christ,” because Paul had previously referred to him as the one who supplied all he needed.” These four scholars, trained in textual criticism, believe the proper reading is the one that is more difficult and leaves the pronoun unresolved. From these men, and others like them who have compiled the critical texts used in translation, the pronoun has been chosen—hence the difference.
God has preserved His Word. He has done so in the totality of the manuscript evidence, as well as in faithful translations of many languages. When we are considering differences between translations, we must be sure to look at the evidence, to seek and search for truth. Simply advocating one translation as better because it conforms to our own preconceived standard does not make it so. The King James is a faithful translation and has been faithfully employed by the church for centuries. However, the English Standard Version is also a faithful translation. While it has not yet served as long as the KJV, its language is faithful to the text, yet rooted in language that contemporary readers use day to day. Both are God’s Word. Let us not provoke “doubtful disputations”—or might we say “not to quarrel over opinions.” And let us live the truth of His Word.