Questioning the Translation “At the Name of Jesus” in Philippians 2:10

For those of us involved in translation work, it is not uncommon for the text to surprise us as we wrestle with its meaning. At times, careful study shows us where familiar translations have led us astray. We find ourselves caught off guard, yet marveling at the truth of what the text is really saying. 

This is exactly what happened to me as I worked to produce my own translation of Philippians 2.

Verse 10, toward the end of the Kenotic Hymn, struck me in a fresh way and challenged my previous understanding. Here it is in a few different versions, including my own (BET stands for Ben’s English Translation).

Greek: ἵνα ἐν τῷ ὀνόματι Ἰησοῦ πᾶν γόνυ κάμψῃ
NIV: that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow
BET: And since Jesus bears that name / Every knee will bow before him

Most English translations mirror the NIV here almost word-for-word, even most of the meaning-based versions I surveyed. So why have I bucked tradition and gone with something so different? Because I believe that by its adherence to form, the traditional rendering communicates the wrong meaning on multiple levels. (At least, it has done so for me.)

What’s in a name?

When I read the phrase “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,” a mental picture quickly forms in my mind. The name “Jesus” sounds forth, and because that name carries so much power, every knee bows in response. This understanding is sequential in nature. Knees bend when they hear the name of Jesus. For me, this has always been the plain meaning of the verse, until recently.

I have become convinced that there is no overt sequential element here. This line is not telling us when every knee will bow, but why every knee will bow. One English translation that, while not perfect, gets this particular detail right is the Good News Translation, which says, “In honor of the name of Jesus.” It is providing the reason that every knee will bow.

The Greek phrase underlying “at the name of Jesus” is more often rendered elsewhere as “in the name of Jesus.” It was common in antiquity for people to act “in the name of” someone important. This was usually an appeal to that person’s power and authority, or spoken in the context of proclaiming or obeying that person. The name was invoked in association with an action or event, whether baptism (Acts 2:38), exorcism (Acts 16:18), healing (Acts 3:6), teaching (Acts 4:18), blaspheming (Rev. 13:6), believing (John 1:12, 2:23, 1 John 3:23), receiving life (John 20:31), and being forgiven (Acts 10:43).

The name was not just a label but represented the personality of the one who bore it. An action performed in someone’s name was done in association with that person, with reference to their status and authority. Believing in the name of Jesus is essentially believing in Jesus. Teaching in the name of Jesus is proclamation of him, with an appeal to his authority. And in Phil. 2:10, to bow down “in/at the name of Jesus” is to submit to him because of his status and authority, evidenced by the name given to him. 

If the invocation of a name is more about the person than the name of the person, then there is no reason to attach a sequential meaning to the prepositional phrase “at the name of Jesus” in Phil. 2:10. Every knee will bow not because some magical name was uttered, but because of the absolute authority of the one who bears that name. 

What is the name?

This does not mean that the name itself is irrelevant. As I have said, the name tells us something about who that person is, and what aspects of their character we may be appealing to. So what name is being invoked here? 

In my natural reading of the phrase “in the name of Jesus,” I take the name to be “Jesus.” In Greek, this would be what Daniel Wallace calls a genitive of apposition. For example, in the phrase “the land of Egypt,” we would not be talking about a piece of land that Egypt owns or controls. The land is Egypt. Likewise, “the name of Jesus” can be understood as a reference to the name “Jesus.”  

There are in fact many places where the phrase “in the name of Jesus” is used in this way. (See the examples I listed above). But Phil. 2:10 is telling us something different. Jesus is not the name in reference. Rather, “the name of Jesus” refers to another name that Jesus bears (perhaps it is here a genitive of possession). If we look back to verse 9, we read, “Therefore, God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name” (NIV 1984). It would be incongruous to say that God gave him the name “Jesus” only after his crucifixion, death, and resurrection. But if not Jesus, then what name did God give him?

Other references to Jesus’ exaltation offer us some clues. Eph. 1:20-21 echoes Phil. 2: “…he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come” (ESV). Here we see the same truths echoed: Jesus’ position at the right hand of God is higher than any other position in heaven and on earth. His title outranks any other title that one could be given. In his exalted state, Jesus is Lord over all other lords (Rev. 19:6, 17:14). “Lord of lords” is a title reserved for God himself (Deut. 10:17, Ps. 136:3, 1 Tim. 6:15).

The name that Jesus bears and that God has given him in Phil. 2:9 is “Lord.” And this is precisely why in verse 11, “Every tongue will declare that Jesus Christ is Lord.” All creation will recognize him as Lord because of the very fact that that is who he is. It may seem redundant to say that because Jesus has been named Lord, every tongue will confess that he is Lord. But this reflects the very definition of lordship. No one can resist the one with the ultimate power and authority over everything. Every knee will bow whether they like it or not, because they will be under his lordship. 

Since Jesus bears that name…

For these reasons, I chose to abandon tradition in my rendering of Phil. 2:10. I chose to avoid the wrong impression that in this verse speaking the name of Jesus evokes a certain response. I chose not to explicate the name “Lord” itself, but I removed the ambiguity inherent in the phrase “name of Jesus,” and I would expect the name “Lord” to be inferred in light of verse 11. 

This verse and the others that speak of acting in the name of Jesus have sometimes resulted in some strange application. When some say there is power in the name of Jesus, they are referring to the name itself. In prayers, people sometimes invoke the name of Jesus as if the name itself carries magical power. This is nothing new. The seven sons of Sceva in Acts 19 assumed that the name of Jesus must have magical properties, so they tried to add it to their own formulas in exorcising a demon. But the evil spirit replied in v.15, “Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?” The name had no power on its own. They had not submitted to the Lordship of Jesus. 

I believe that moving away from a form-based translation in Phil. 2:10 would helpfully clear up confusion and rectify some commonly held misunderstandings and misguided practices with regard to the name of Jesus. Not only that, but it will also serve to magnify Jesus by bringing out the true power underlying the name – the reality that Jesus Christ has defeated death and now sits in glory at the right hand of God as Lord of all creation.

*This article was first published at Finding the Right Words on October 3, 2019, and is used with permission of the author.

Ben Kuwitzky is a translation consultant serving in Nigeria with SIL.

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