by Vern Sheridan Poythress
[Published in the Westminster Theological Journal 64/1 (2002) 45-53. Used with permission.]
What does the verb ἐπέχω mean in Phil 2:16? Does it mean “hold fast” or “hold out”? The decision makes a difference. Are the Philippians instructed to hold fast to the word of life, as a source of life and instruction for themselves, or are they being told to hold out the word of life to others, as an aspect of their evangelistic responsibility? Commentators are divided on the question, because either meaning appears to fit the context reasonably well.
An overview of ἐπέχω
The key verb ἐπέχω can be used in a range of ways. When used with a temporal expression (the accusative of extent), it can mean “stop, stay,”1 as in Acts 19:22: “And having sent into Macedonia two of his helpers, Timothy and Erastus, he himself [Paul] stayed [ἐπέσχεν] in Asia for a while” (RSV). With a dative object, it means “hold toward, aim at,”2 in the sense of fixing attention on, as in Acts 3:5: “And he fixed his attention [ἐπεῖχεν] upon them, expecting to receive something from them” (RSV). BDAG indicates that with an accusative object ἐπέχω means “hold fast”:3 “wailing seized [ἐπεῖχε] the whole camp and the city” (Plutarch Otho 17.6). Since in Phil 2:16 ἐπέχω has the accusative object “word of life” (λόγον ζωῆς), Bauer’s lexicon classifies Phil 2:16 in this category, and assigns the meaning “hold fast.”4 This conclusion seems reasonable.
But is “hold out” also a possibility? BDAG does not list “hold out” as a possible meaning of ἐπέχω. But the Liddell-Scott-Jones Greek lexicon not only lists the meaning “hold out,” but assigns this meaning to Phil 2:16.5 The English translations are divided: RSV, NASB text, NKJV, New Berkeley Version, NIV margin, NRSV, NAB, New English Translation text, and GW exhibit the meaning “hold fast,” while KJV, RV, ASV, NASB margin, NIV text, NEB, REB, NJB, NCV, New English Translation margin, and GNB give an equivalent of “hold out.”6
We want to examine whether “hold out” is actually one of the possible meanings of ἐπέχω. The focus should be on the uses of ἐπέχω with an accusative object.
The commentators often do not indicate why they think “hold out” is a possibility. Vincent says vaguely that this use is “classical” (he admits that he cannot find other instances in the NT).7 Lightfoot gives citations, most of which are in Liddell-Scott-Jones’s lexicon, but some also from Plutarch’s Moralia.8
Lightfoot also provides some crucial extra information that most of the commentators do not. He indicates what the accusative objects are in the instances that he cites. They are οἶνον, κοτύλην, μαστόν, θηλήν, γάλα.9 He observes, “If therefore we are to look for any metaphor in ἐπέχοντες, it would most naturally be that of offering food or wine.” But in fact all the instances that Lightfoot mentions are even more specialized. They all have to do with drinking, not eating. And all have to do either with breast-feeding or with giving a small child a drink by holding a cup to his lips. One wonders, then, whether the usage in question is a specialized usage. If it is, we may need to reassess whether it is relevant to interpreting Phil 2:16.
Now let us look at the instances in Liddell-Scott-Jones.10 The citations begin in the first section under ἐπέχω, introduced by the general gloss “have or hold upon.” The crucial part in this section runs as follows: “ποτῷ κρωσσὸν ἐ. hold it to or for .., Theoc. 13.46; λόγον ζωῆς ἐπέχοντες (sc. κόσμῳ) holding it out like a torch, Ep. Phil. 2.16.” Liddell-Scott-Jones clearly endorses the interpretation that finds the meaning “hold out” in Phil 2:16. But why does it do so? It lists this interpretation of Phil 2:16 alongside the example from Theocritus 13.46, which may tempt some readers to think that the two cases are similar. But actually they are not. First, Liddell-Scott-Jones does not assign the meaning “hold out” to Theocritus Idylls 13.46. Rather, the meaning is “hold it to or for.” In the passage in question, a lad is holding a water jar to a spring in order to fill it. Thus, Theocritus 13.46 is not a case that supports the meaning “hold out.” Next, when we come to Phil 2:16, Liddell-Scott-Jones has to supply the word κόσμῳ, “to the world,” which does not in fact appear in Phil 2:16. Supplying this word does really tip the interpretation in the direction of an evangelistic meaning for Phil 2:16. But where then is the evidence that ἐπέχω can mean “hold out”?
The relevant examples in Liddell-Scott-Jones come from section II on ἐπέχω, for which the gloss is “hold out to, present, offer.”11 The first example in this section is Homer Iliad 9.489, which reads “till I had set thee on my knees and given thee thy fill of the savoury morsel cut first for thee, and had put [ἐπισχών] the wine cup to thy lips.”12 The context has to do a father who has a son on his knee. In the next lines it says, “Often did you wet the tunic on my chest, sputtering out the wine in your childish helplessness.”13 The wine is not simply “held out” or offered to him, as one might to another adult at a feast. It is held to him, held to his lips. The word “out” ought not to be there in English.
The next example, Homer Odyssey 16.444, also concerns giving wine to a child. The accusative object of ἐπέχω is again οἶνον, “wine.” The context is once again a child sitting on the knees of an adult who is feeding him. Murray translates, “hold to my lips red wine.”14 “To my lips” is not explicitly there in Greek. But “holds” is right. It is not “holding out” so as to offer wine to another adult, but holding the cup to the child’s mouth.
The next example is Homer Iliad 22.494. It is about an orphaned child who goes to the friends of his father. In pity one “holds out his cup for a moment: his lips he wets, but his palate he wets not.”15 This is again a situation with an adult giving a child a drink by actually holding the cup to his lips. The “out” in “hold out” is true in the situation in life, but it is very doubtful whether it is part of the meaning of the word as opposed to the meaning of the situation. The friend holds the cup to the child’s mouth. He does not merely offer the cup to the child for the child to take into his own hands.
The next example, Homer Iliad 22.83, involves a mother who gives her breast to a child. “Breast” (μαζὸν) is the accusative object. It is not a case of holding something out for another person to take in his own hands, but holding the breast to the child’s mouth.
The next example, Euripides Andromache 225, involves a mother holding her breast (μοστὸν, accusative object) to or for (dative object) bastards.
The next example, Euripides Ion 1492, has a mother providing nourishment (τροφεῖα, accusative object) with her breast to an infant.
The next example, Aristophanes Nubes 1382, has no accusative object, but context shows that it is a case where a mother is referring to breast-feeding.
The next example, Aristophanes Pax 1167, has no object at all, but occurs in a context of feeding oneself figs. The relevant line says simply ἐσθίω κἀπέχω, which probably means “I eat and pause,” or “I eat and stop,” “stop, pause, refrain” being an established meaning of ἐπέχω.16 Despite the context of eating, this instance is probably not relevant to the discussion.
Under meaning I, Liddell-Scott-Jones’s examples with middle voice of ἐπέχω are somewhat less relevant. If possible, we want to compare Phil 2:16 with other instances of the verb with the active voice. But even the instances with middle voice seem to run in the same direction. All have to do with drinking.17
Evidence from Greek authors
To further explore the data, I ran a computer search for ἐπέχω in Plutarch. A total of 120 occurrences include a number of instances of the meaning “hold,” and many more with the meaning “hold back, check,” or “stop, pause,” but only three where the meaning could plausibly be “hold out,” namely Plutarch Moralia 265.A, 268.F, and 320.D. In all three passages the accusative object of the verb is θηλήν. In all three passages, the context shows that a female is breast-feeding an infant.
A similar search through Josephus (79 occurrences), Philo (96 occurrences), Polybius (41 occurrences), Epictetus (7 occurrences), Athenagorus (6 occurrences), Justin Martyr (2 occurrences), Diodorus Siculus (55 occurrences), and Appian (46 occurrences) shows no instances of “hold out,” but many instances with the other meanings. Dionysius of Halicarnassus (66 occurrences) has three instances of holding the breast to infants (Antiquitates romanae 220.127.116.11; 18.104.22.168; 22.214.171.124), but no unambiguous instances of “hold out.” Likewise Lucian (30 occurrences) has one instance involving breast feeding (Lucian Zeuxis 4.11), and Pausanias (38 occurrences) has two (Pausanias Graeciae descriptio 126.96.36.199; 188.8.131.52).
Surely the accumulation of so many passages about giving drink to infants and young children is no coincidence. This occurrence seems to be a specialized meaning, focused especially on breast-feeding. The fact that the contexts are so specialized throws doubt on whether “hold out” is a feasible meaning in general contexts, that is, contexts beyond the specialized context of drinking. Beyond these specialized contexts, not one clear instance has been cited that requires this meaning.
Moreover, in view of the lack of evidence for the general meaning “hold out,” it becomes doubtful whether even the specialized contexts support this meaning. The specialized contexts are all capable of a different interpretation. In a number of the passages above, women are holding the breast to the infant’s mouth. “Holding … to” is just as good a translation, perhaps better, than “holding out to.” Similarly, in the Homeric passages involving a cup, the cup is held to the child’s lips. In all cases, the idea that “out” is part of the meaning is not suggested by the context. The people involved are simply holding a vessel or holding something to a child’s mouth.
Thus, the evidence for a meaning “hold out” is very doubtful. All the instances can be accounted for by the established meaning “hold” or “hold … to.” Until further evidence comes to light, we should refrain from claiming that “hold out” is one of the meanings of ἐπέχω.
In reply, it might be suggested, as Lightfoot does,18 that Phil 2:16 builds metaphorically on the idea of giving a child a drink. As a mother gives breast milk to her infant, so Christians are to give the word of life to unbelievers. But note that in the examples we are talking about, the verb ἐπέχω does not mean “give” and the accusative object is usually19 not “milk.” The verb means “hold … to” and the object is usually the breast or a nipple or a cup. The metaphor would have to run, “as a mother holds her breast to an infant, so Christians hold the word of life to unbelievers.” Such a metaphor is not impossible, but neither is it felicitous when applied to unbelievers. It is reasonable to picture newly born Christians as breast-feeding, and indeed NT expressions come close to this picture in 1 Thess 2:7 and 1 Pet 2:2. But it is difficult to use this picture with non-Christians, who are not yet “drinking in” the word for their nourishment. The picture of breast-feeding a non-Christian seems to sidestep the important element of choice and response. Thus, the metaphor is awkward unless we falsely imagine that the underlying meaning is “giving,” or “offering,” rather than “holding (to someone’s mouth).”
Moreover, the passages with an accusative object that we have been considering all have to do with literally holding a breast or a cup, and literal drinking. In these passages, the whole statement is literal, not metaphorical. If Phil 2:16 is indeed using ἐπέχω in a way that is built on these passages, Phil 2:16 represents a metaphorical use. Phil 2:16 then appears to have created a fresh metaphor, built on a comparison with breast-feeding. But the context of Phil 2:16 gives no hint of a metaphor based on drinking. How, from a context with no hint of drinking or breast-feeding or cups, is anyone going to guess this metaphor? The sole clue to a possible metaphor is the presence of the verb ἐπέχω. But this verb with accusative object has the well-established meaning “hold,” and this meaning fits the context. The context simply gives no basis for introducing a rather elaborate metaphor based on breast-feeding.
The meaning “hold fast”
The conclusion would seem to be obvious: we must give up the translation “hold out,” and instead choose the translation “hold fast,” as represented by the RSV, NKJV, and others. But things are not quite so simple. We must also look at the meaning “hold fast.” In the course of searching the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae database to test for the meaning “hold out,” I found to my surprise that the meaning “hold fast” (as distinct from simply “hold”) is also open to question.
BDAG clearly indicates that “hold fast” is one meaning of ἐπέχω. Under meaning 1 it says, “to maintain a grasp on someone or someth. hold fast.” It then cites two NT verses, Luke 4:42 D and Phil 2:16, and a significant number of extrabiblical examples. From this accumulation of examples, the meaning “hold fast” seems at first sight to be clearly established. But my computer search of extrabiblical sources soon showed that this “established” meaning was peculiarly elusive. One instance after another uncovered in the computer search involved a specialized usage in which an emotion or a turmoil “holds” a city or a group of people (e.g. Josephus B.J. 2.462.1; 5.543.2; 6.180.3; Diodorus Siculus 184.108.40.206; 220.127.116.11; 18.104.22.168; Polybius 22.214.171.124; cf. 126.96.36.199; Plutarch Antonius 48.5.2; Appian Historia romana 10.56.6 [Illyrian wars]; Appian Bella civilia 188.8.131.52; 184.108.40.206; 220.127.116.11; 18.104.22.168). In addition, I could not easily find a case that involved physical grasping or holding onto an object.
So it seems appropriate to examine the list of passages that BDAG provides in support of this meaning. The first, TestJos [Testament of Joseph] 15:3, says, “I restrained myself,” “restrain” or “hold back” being one of the widely attested meanings of ἐπέχω (LSJ IV.a).
The second case cited in BDAG is Luke 4:42, a verse that has the reading κατεῖχον in most manuscripts. Codex Bezae, however, has ἐπεῖχον. The crowds “would have kept him from leaving them” (RSV), which again attests the meaning “hold back, keep in check.”
Next, Diodorus Siculus 12.27.3 reports that “a great tumult held the city.” Diodorus is referring to a political conflict among the inhabitants between advocates of democracy and advocates of aristocracy. This is one of the many instances where an emotion holds a group. Similarly, in Plutarch Otho 1074 [17.6] wailing seizes the city.
The next citation is Josephus Bel.[Bellum judaicum] 1.230, which reports that Herod barely restrained his wrath. This is another instance of the meaning “restrain.”
Next, Sib.Or. 3.340 says that “the immense current occupies [ἐφέ&#xi;ει] a narrow channel.20 This represents the meaning “extend over,” meaning V in LSJ.21
Next, BDAG cites “Athenagorus 8:2.” This designates Athenagoras Legatio pro Christianis, line 8.4.5 in the TLG, which runs,
ὁ δὲ τοῦ κόσμου ποιητὴς ἀνωτέρω τῶν γεγονότων ἐπέχων αὐτὸν τῇ τούτων προνοίᾳ.
“… the Creator of the world is above the things created, managing [ἐπέχων] that [the world] by his providential care of these.”22 This usage is not that common, but fits in with the meaning “hold.” Lampe’s Patristic Greek Lexicon23 lists the passage under the general meaning 2, “hold,” with the glosses “keep, maintain.”
The last citation in BDAG is Phil 2:16, which is disputed.
What do we make of this evidence? The passages that BDAG includes are of several kinds, and exhibit more than one sense of ἐπέχω. The passages where some emotion grips people may be relevant, but they are not by any means decisive. The sheer number of such passages in the primary sources indicates that we are meeting a somewhat stereotyped usage. In every case of this kind an abstract noun functions as the subject, and a group of people are designated by the object of the verb. This is not at all the same as Phil 2:16, where the subject is a group of people and the object is an abstract. Moreover, the passages of this kind could be interpreted in more than one way. Do the passages mean to say that tumult or wailing “grips” a city? Then they would evoke a metaphorical analogy with physical grasp. But the meaning might equally well be that the tumult or wailing prevailed over the city, or occupied the city. Gripping or grasping is by no means the only reasonable interpretation.
In addition, elsewhere ἐπέχω does not seem most of the time to include the idea of physically gripping, grabbing, or holding fast. κρατέω would be the more usual verb with this force. Rather, it is close to the meaning of ἔχω. Now ἔχω itself shows a range of use. Both BDAG and LSJ offer “have,” “hold,” and even “grip” as possible glosses (cf. BDAG meaning 3; LSJ meaning II.2; see L&N 18.6). But the starting point here should probably been seen as “having in one’s power or possession.” “Gripping” or “holding on” is one way in which one can have something in one’s power or possession. Only the context of physical contact shows that “gripping” or “holding on” is the way in which the holding actually takes place. Phil 2:16, on the other hand, does not present us immediately with a case of physical contact. The verse might be rendered, “having the word of life” or “holding the word of life.”
For greater assurance on this question, it is wise to look at passages where persons are the subject of the verb ἐπέχω, and where the meaning is close to “have” or “hold.” I have found the following cases: Athenagoras Legatio pro Christianis 8.2 (“holding the world,” in the sense of keeping it in order; quoted above); Appian Bella civilia 22.214.171.124 (“hold rule or office”); 126.96.36.199 (“maintaining all things,” the subject being governmental power); Lucian Calumniae non temere credendum 12.17 (“holding (back?) a runner” [in a race]); Lucian Icaromenippus 14.21 (“holding the vulture’s wing still”); Lucian Toxaris 50.35 (“holding his mouth [shut]“). These passages do suggest that the meaning “hold” is legitimate, and the case of holding a runner involves physical grasp.
Maybe the word “hold” in English opens the door to possible confusion. “Hold” in English can involve physically gripping an object in one’s hands or arms. But it can also involve keeping an object or a situation stable, without any implication of a physical grasp. The word “hold” works in all the passages just cited, but most of the cases involve stability rather than grasping or gripping.
I conclude, then, that in Phil 2:16 the translation “holding fast” is not too bad, but probably makes too prominent in English the suggestion that we have here a metaphor based on physically gripping an object. “Having the word of life” or “holding the word of life” are less committed and probably better represent the meaning of the Greek.24 The meaning “hold out” should not be considered unless we can first display unambiguous evidence that this is in fact a possible meaning for the Greek word when accompanied by an accusative object. The entry for ἐπέχω in Liddell-Scott-Jones’s lexicon needs to be altered so as not to give the misleading impression that “hold out” is a well-attested sense that might fit the use in Phil 2:16.
Does this conclusion decide the meaning of Phil 2:16? It might appear so. But the case is not completely closed. The meaning “hold” does not by itself indicate what Paul thinks is the main purpose for holding. One might “hold the word of life” either for instructing oneself or for giving light to unbelievers. The latter is still a real possibility, since verse 15 talks about believers being like stars. Theophylact’s commentary indicates an awareness of both these alternatives. In commenting on Phil 2:16 he first talks about having the word of God within us. But then he says, “Or [it means that], as the luminaries both give light and revive bodies by heat, so also you should strive to be a life-giving power to other people.”25 Theophylact quotes Phil 2:16 using the verb ἔχω rather than ἐπέχω. So his two interpretations arise without having to postulate that ἐπέχω has a special sense “hold out.”
In fact, Theophylact’s two interpretations are not mutually exclusive, since they both involve only one lexical meaning of ἐπέχω. The expression λόγον ζωῆς ἐπέχοντες, “holding the word of life,” is fairly general. It does not specify any one reason why the Philippians should hold the word, nor does it specify any one benefit as primary. The Philippians are urged to hold the word of life for all the benefits that it might give. And what are the benefits? There may be many, as one could glean from elsewhere in Paul’s writings. The immediate context of verse 15 suggests two: the word helps with purity (v. 15a) and with one’s stance toward the world ( “shine like stars” v. 15b NIV). The word of life supports both purity and evangelism, among other things. Nevertheless, in v. 15b “shine like stars” is only obliquely evangelistic, since the thought may be of giving light to the world through pure conduct, as in Matt 5:15: “let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” The link to evangelism is indirect: in v. 16 “word of life” may suggest a source for “light” that resides in those who have the word. By another step the light produces effects on the world.
1 BDAG ἐπέχω meaning 3.
2 BDAG ἐπέχω meaning 2. The situation is in fact more complex. LSJ gives not only instances with dative alone, but instances with an accusative τό&#xi;ον (“bow”) plus a dative; the latter cases have to do with aiming a bow at a target (LSJ 619 IIIa).
3 BDAG ἐπέχω meaning 1. But see below for questions about this meaning.
5 LSJ 619, ἐπέχω I, cites Phil 2:16, and the meaning “hold out” is given under II.1. See below for a full discussion.
6 There are small variations in wording. NRSV has “holding fast to”; Berkeley “attached to”; NIV margin and NET “hold on to”; GW “hold firmly to.” KJV, RV, ASV, and NASB margin have “holding forth”; NCV “offer”; NEB and REB “proffer”; NJB “proffering to it”; GNB “offer them.”
7 Marvin R. Vincent, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistles to the Philippians and to Philemon (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1911), 70.
8 J. B. Lightfoot, Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians (reprint; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1953), 118.
9 Ibid. Actually γάλα does not occur as the accusative object of ἐπέχω in any of the passages that Lightfoot cites. It occurs rather in Pausanias Graeciae descriptio 188.8.131.52, again in the context of breast-feeding.
10 LSJ 619 under ἐπέχω.
11 Thus, if LSJ 619 really does think that Phil 2:16 exemplifies the meaning “hold out,” it would have been better to put the mention of Phil 2:16 in section II, not section I, of the entry ἐπέχω.
12 Translation by A. T. Murray from the Loeb edition, Homer: The Iliad, ed. A. T. Murray (London: Heinemann; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1954), 9.488-89.
13 Translation from A. T. Murray, ed., Iliad 9.490-491.
14 A. T. Murray, ed., Homer: The Odyssey (London: Heinemann; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1953), 16.444.
15 Murray, Iliad 22.494-495.
16 LSJ 619, ἐπέχω meaning IV.2.
17 There remains one doubtful case under Liddell-Scott Jones’s meaning 1, namely an occurrence of ἐπέσχηκε in Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum 1:362 (LSJ 619). (LSJ inexplicably includes this instance under its list of passages in the middle voice, even though it is in fact active.) This instance of ἐπέχω occurs in an inscription that commends Polos Sosigenous Aiginetes for his benefactions to his city. From the context of the inscription it appears that public funds were at a low point, and Aiginetes in response to a request from the people undertook to make a significant monetary contribution for the public benefit. The crucial part runs as follows:
τὰ μὲν ἐκ τοῦ θεάτρου γενόμενα | ἐκομίσατο, τὸ δὲ λοιπὸν ἐπέσχηκε τῆι πόλει, |
We might translate, “he provided for the things from the theater, and the rest he presented [ἐπέσχηκε] to the city.” LSJ gives the gloss present for this citation. But “present” is not the same as “hold out.” “Present” in this context implies that the city actually received the funds into its possession. “Hold out,” on the other hand, leaves open the question of whether the proffered item is actually received. In this context, “hold out” does not fit as a translation.
In addition to this difficulty, there is some uncertainty about the translation. The second clause might mean, “the rest he held for the city,” with the meaning “hold” for ἐπέχω. Does the second clause imply another dispersal of funds, or did he rather hold the rest in reserve for the city’s benefit? The use of the perfect rather than the aorist might favor this latter interpretation.
18 Lightfoot, Philippians, 118.
19 The one exception I have found is Pausanias Graeciae descriptio 184.108.40.206, and this is probably a case of metonymy: “milk” here substitutes for “breast” (that gives milk).
20 Translation by J. J. Collins from James H. Charlesworth, ed., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1983), 1:369.
21 Or possibly LSJ ἐπέχω meaning VI, “have power over, occupy.”
22 Translated by B. R. Pratten in Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds., The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 2:132.
23 PGL 515.
24 LSJ gives the meaning “hold” in II.3.
25 Ἢ, ὅτι Ὥσπερ οἱ φωστῆρες καὶ φωτίζουσι καὶ ἀναζωοῦσι τὰ σώματα τῇ θάλψει, οὕτω καὶ ὑμεῖς σπεύσατε εἶναι ζωτικὴ τοῖς ἄλλοις ἀνθρώποις δύναμις. PG 124:1169B-C.