James R. White, author of The King James Only Controversy, considers the NIV’s rendering (in the 1984 version), “did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,” to be “clearer than the KJV’s ambiguous translation” (King James Only Controversy, p. 197). The issue with the KJV, however, is not that it translates ambiguously but that it translates differently than the NIV. The KJV and the NIV do not say the same thing, The NIV’s “[Jesus] did not consider equality with God something to be grasped” means that Jesus did not try to be equal with God. The KJV’s “[Jesus] thought it not robbery to be equal with God” means that Jesus did not think being equal with God was wrong – meaning that Jesus thought that he was God. The difference is in the way ἁρπαγμὸν is translated – either in the active voice or the passive voice and either with a negative or positive connotation.
Active or passive voice
“ἁρπαγμὸν” could have the active meaning, “robbery/grasping,” or the passive meaning, “something to be robbed / something to be grasped” (Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary) This is why the word is translated with one word “robbery” in the KJV whereas it is translated with many words (“something to be grasped”) in the NIV. What matters more in setting the meaning of the sentence, however, is whether ἁρπαγμὸν is translated with a negative or positive connotation.
Negative or positive connotation
“ἁρπαγμὸν” could mean “robbery,” which carries a negative connotation, or “catch” or “grasp,” which could carry either a neutral or positive connotation. The root word “αρπάζω,” meaning “to catch” is used in the negative sense in the following passages:
“…then cometh the wicked one, and catcheth away that which was sown in his heart.” (Matthew 13:19)
“…the wolf catcheth them, and scattereth the sheep.” (John 10:12)
“ἁρπάζω,” is used in the positive sense in the following passages:
“…he was caught up into paradise” (2 Corinthians 12:4)
“Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air:” (1 Thessalonians 4:17)
Thus “ἁρπαγμὸν” could either mean the negative “robbery” or the positive or neutral “catch.” When the negative “robbery” is used, the passage means that Jesus did not consider equality with God an act of robbery. The double-negative connotations of “not” and “robbery” cause the passage to mean that Jesus thought that he was equal with God. When the positive “catch/grasp” is used, and is negated by “not”, the passage means that Jesus did not consider being equal with God. So which connotation of ἁρπαγμὸν is correct? The context must decide.
The syntactical context favors translating ἁρπαγμὸν in the negative sense
When verses 6 and 7 are read together, we see that they form an antithesis:
“ος εν μορφη θεου υπαρχων ουχ αρπαγμον ηγησατο το ειναι ισα θεω αλλ εαυτον εκενωσεν μορφην δουλου λαβων εν ομοιωματι ανθρωπων γενομενος”
“Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:”
The contrastive conjunction “αλλ” (but) indicates the pivot point in an antithetical construction. In the KJV, Paul is basically saying, “Jesus thought he was equal with God but he served with humility.” This antithetical construction makes a lot of sense. The phrase preceding “but” states a fact as to why Jesus would not have to serve mere men, and the phrase following “but” states that Jesus serves men nonetheless. Facts stated on either side of the pivot are antithetical – just what we would expect in a construction with two ideas connected by “αλλ” (but). This antithesis is made possible by rendering ἁρπαγμὸν in the negative sense. Although translating ἁρπαγμὸν in a positive sense could create a different yet workable antithetical construction (i.e. “Jesus did not try to be equal with God but he rather served with humility”), this is not consistent with Christ’s statements and actions in the rest of scripture.
Congruence with the rest of scripture favors translating ἁρπαγμὸν in the negative sense
Jesus says, “I and my Father are one” (John 10:30) and “If ye had known me, ye should have known my Father also: and from henceforth ye know him, and have seen him.” (John 14:7). These explicit portions of scripture are clear that Jesus did regard himself as being equal with God the Father. So when explicit portions of scripture are clear that Jesus regarded himself as being equal with God the Father, we must translate the more ambiguous portions of scripture in accordance with these explicit portions. Although Philippians 2:6 taken in isolation may be ambiguous as to whether Jesus regarded himself as being equal with God, the whole of scripture is not. In order to translate Philippians 2:6 in accordance with the rest of scripture, we must translate ἁρπαγμὸν in the negative sense so that the passage would say, “[Jesus] thought it not robbery to be equal with God.” Although there is the argument that Jesus did not consider himself as being equal to God out of a sense of humility, this is not consistent with Jesus’ bold statements in the Gospels which assert his equality with God. Denying one’s true nature is not a praiseworthy act of humility but an act that could cause confusion. Jesus exhibited his humility not by denying his equality with God, but by serving others as if he were a mere man.
The 2010 NIV Update
Since this article was written the NIV has updated its phrasing of Philippians 2:6. Now the NIV says, “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;” This is quite different from the original phrasing. The reason for the change is noted at the page Translators’ Notes at the Committee on Bible Translation website and quoted here:
When the NIV was first translated, the meaning of the rare Greek word harpagmos, rendered ‟something to be grasped,” in Philippians 2:6 was uncertain. But further study has shown that the word refers to something that a person has in their possession but chooses not to use to their own advantage. The updated NIV reflects this new information, making clear that Jesus really was equal with God when he determined to become a human for our sake: ‟[Christ Jesus], being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage.”
What is telling from this note is the admission that the meaning of “harpagmos” was “uncertain” when the NIV was first translated. If the word were “uncertain” in 1984, it is doubtful that translators have finally pinned down the meaning in 2010, just three decades later. It appears the situation now is simply that more translators on the NIV committee are leaning towards this new theory of translating αρπαγμον. Moreover, the NIV 2010 rendering is not even new. The 1995 God’s Word Translation says, “Although he was in the form of God and equal with God, he did not take advantage of this equality.” New theories come and go but the KJV translation of αρπαγμον still makes perfect sense.