Should you ever change the words of the Bible? For a Bible-believing Christian a question like this is is like asking should you ever club baby seals? Why would you even ask this!!??
But Ephesians 4:8 creates for us a dilemma because it clearly shows that Paul is changing a quote from Scripture:
“This is why it says: “When he ascended on high, he took many captives and gave gifts to his people.”” (Eph. 4:8 NIV11)
Quoted from Psalm 68:18
“When you ascended on high, you took many captives; you received gifts from people, even from the rebellious— that you, LORD God, might dwell there.” (Psa. 68:18 NIV11)
One says “gave”, the other says “receives”. They are not just different words, they are different concepts altogether. In the context of the two passages, they are different. Paul’s point in Ephesians 4 is that Jesus is giving gifts to his people in the form of word-based ministers. Psalm 68 is about God’s king taking things from enemies.
Why would Paul do this?
In his commentary Peter O’Brien (1) has a survey of options that pretty much covers the main suggestions put forward:
- Paul misquotes the Psalm. Simply, this is: Paul got it wrong. Paul, the Apostle. The one who calls himself a Pharisee of Pharisees who studied under the great Gamliel got a quote from the Old Testament wrong. I’m not buying that.
- Paul misremembered the quote. OK, who has not got a memory verse wrong from time to time? However, we are talking about the Apostle Paul. See above.
- Paul was using a variant translation. Paul got it right, but it is a different version of the Psalm. Richard Taylor (2) has researched this one carefully and comes to this conclusion. There are variants that have this change, but it seems a strange thing for Paul to do and I think there is a simpler explanation. But this is a possibility.
- Hebrew words for “take” and “receive” are not that different. Perhaps Paul is using a play on words since some verbs translated as “take” but also could be “receive” or “fetch” in both Greek and Hebrew depending on the context. However, the problem is in the last phrase. The contexts drive us towards Paul is intentionally changing the meaning of the quote. Not to mention that this particular Hebrew word is very rarely translated as “receive” if ever.
- There is an Old Testament precedent for God to receive gifts to give them back to his people. The main example of this is Numbers 18:6: “And behold, I have taken your brothers the Levites from among the people of Israel. They are a gift to you, given to the LORD, to do the service of the tent of meeting.” (Num. 18:6 ESV). Perhaps Paul is seeing this in the NT people of God. I think this is on the right track, but could be taken further.
To understand why Paul has changed the meaning of the passage we need to have a look at one of the main themes of the letter. Paul is at pains to makes sure that the Ephesians know that they are ‘in Christ’. This starts in 1:1: Paul is writing “To God’s holy people in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus:” (Eph. 1:1 NIV11-GKE). We as God’s people are addressed as “you also were included in Christ” (Eph. 1:13 NIV11-GKE). In the gospel, we are “made alive with Christ” (Eph. 2:5 NIV11-GKE). “And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:6 NIV11-GKE). We could go on through the rest of the letter.
Further, we need to look at who Paul is addressing in this passage: the church. The church is described as “the body” of Christ at least 9 times throughout the letter. For example:
“And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.” (Eph. 1:22–23 NIV11-GKE)
The union with the head, that Christ, is clearly seen but the church is his active body on earth. This is particularly true of the surrounding passage we have in question. (See Ephesians 4:4, 12, 15, 16). Union with Christ is applied to the community of his people as the church.
This is what I believe Paul had in mind when he changed the verbs in Psalm 68. Since we are “in Christ”, the king, we are the ones who receive his gifts. As his body, we are the ones who benefit from his gifts.
The change in verbs in Paul’s quotation was not a literary technique or worse a mistake. It was driven by a theological conviction that we, as his people, benefit from being “in him”.
(1) Peter T. O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians. Pillar. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1999.
(2) “The Use of Psalm 68:18 in Ephesians 4:8 in Light of the Ancient Versions” Richard A. Taylor BSAC 148:591 (Jul 1991).