IS “EXCELLENT” A “MISTRANSLATION” IN PHILIPPIANS 1:10 IN THE KING JAMES BIBLE?
by Shawn Brasseaux
We have probably all heard the claim that the King James Bible has a “mistranslation” in Philippians 1:10. Let us look at the controversial passage: “That ye may approve things that are excellent; that ye may be sincere and without offence till the day of Christ;….” The word “excellent” is greatly belittled. Furthermore, “different” is offered as a “better translation.” Is this substitution proper? Does the “correction” better explain Christian living? Or, does such a change obscure it? Let us search the Scriptures!
I. THE SCOURGE OF (UNBELIEVING) TEXTUAL CRITICISM
Many King James Bible critics—those who complain about various “mistranslations” in the Authorized Version—are often naïve. Their claims are usually not original research, something they personally investigated and evaluated. Often, they are merely repeating what others told them in books, sermons, and so on. Why do I say that? Well, my friend, I should know… I used to be one of those people!
Years ago, at the direction of a dear Bible teacher, I underlined “excellent” in Philippians 1:10 in my King James Bible and wrote “different” in the margin. This Christian brother encouraged me and those in his classes to make various other such changes in the Scriptures. Eventually, I began to mindlessly repeat his anti-KJB claims. However, when I checked his statements, I found him to be wrong. I politely confronted him, reminding him that the Bible, not him, was the final authority. He became angry and defensive, obstinately refusing to admit his erroneous assertions. As it turned out, he had not done his own research; he would just repeat others, and disliked the fact someone called him out on it. He was manifested as speaking evil of things of which he knew not. Many such people are guilty of this, and I have since renounced such folly.
Once again, I decided long ago to start researching so-called “mistakes” in the King James Bible. What I discovered through original research was its critics were often not qualified to make those determinations. They were unfamiliar with the English language, unskilled in the original Bible languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Koine Greek), unaware of critical events in church history that gave rise to “textual criticism,” and even inexperienced in the Bible text itself! This study documents my journey in seeing this more and more, especially concerning Philippians 1:10. Once we consider this matter, it will demonstrate how we need to be very suspicious of King James Bible “correctors.” Whether acting in innocent ignorance or deliberate defiance, they are making the Bible less clear by diminishing sharp distinctions.
Unfortunately, we have many men in the pulpit and seminary who claim to be Bible “believers” but constantly criticize and pick apart the text of Scripture (just like the atheists, agnostics, skeptics, free-thinkers, et cetera!). They have been trained to believe that the only method of teaching the Bible is to offer critical remarks about it! Therefore, we hear a lot of nonsense. For example, in the same breath as “I am not the final authority, the Bible is,” we hear, “But I think this Bible verse was never part of the original manuscripts.” Or, “I do not want you to go by what I say, I want you to follow the Bible. By the way, this word is a ‘poor translation.’ I think a ‘better’ rendering is….” (So much for “we follow the Bible not the opinions of men!” No wonder no one believes the Bible anymore. They are told at church, at Bible College, not to believe it!)
Friend, let me say something that will probably startle you. It may make you upset. Maybe you are not used to someone being so frank about this topic. Nevertheless, I am more compelled than ever to say it. It must be said before we proceed any further. If we cannot put a Bible before us and have absolute confidence in it, we need to throw it away and never look at another Scripture verse! It is absurdity ad infinitum that we have been told in churches to be “Bible believers” while also being told in those same churches “there is no perfect Bible today!” Either we have all the inspired, preserved words of God, or we do not. It is a clear-cut answer—“yes” or “no”—rather than a “I do not know, maybe, somewhat, a few, most.” My firm conviction is that all the inspired, preserved words of God are in the Authorized Version King James Bible. I can produce/exhibit a Book I believe in; I do not resort to the ridiculous defense, “I believe in the perfect original manuscripts that no one even has today.”
What if we do not believe in a perfect Bible that we can hold today? Well, if we do not believe that we do have all the words of God in one Book, then we need to quit being hypocrites and quit pretending like we do. We need to just come out say we do not believe any Bible anywhere. There is nothing more despicable than the attitude of a “Bible agnostic”—someone who professes ignorance about the Book he supposedly believes and defends. There is nothing more foolish than urging people to believe the Bible while also constantly telling them that there are mistakes in the Bible that only you and select others can fix. Who is the authority? The Bible? Then why do act like you are the authority, sitting on the judgment seat and subjecting the Bible text to your fallible whims and hunches? I would hate to stand before God and tell Him all about how I am smarter than He is!
By the way, my friend, I am not angry. Rather, I am quite passionate about Bible study, and I will zealously contend for the truth! So, I will say something else that will surprise you. If you think you can “fix” the Bible, then Satan is beyond delighted, for you are well on your way to establishing a cult! The Mormons “enhanced” the Bible (they call it “The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ”)! The Russellites (so-called “Jehovah’s Witnesses”) “corrected” the Bible to give us “The New World Translation!” The Roman Catholics “fixed” the Bible to give us “The Latin Vulgate” and its numerous resultant heretical translations!). Oh, and the Muslims “improved” the Bible too—their “revision” is titled “The Qur’an!” Just thought you should know that before you proceed further down the cursed road of textual criticism.
II. THE BLESSEDNESS OF (BELIEVING) BIBLE STUDY
Dear friend, with unbelief out of the way, we can now focus on faith, and the light and joy it brings. Faith will cause us to believe the 400-year-old King James Bible as-is, without contradicting or correcting it, thereby correcting and enhancing our thoughts and lives. Going back to Philippians 1:10: “That ye may approve things that are excellent; that ye may be sincere and without offence till the day of Christ;….”
The Greek word rendered “excellent” in Philippians 1:10 is “diaphero.” Depending on the context, it can indeed be translated various ways (over a half-dozen, actually—we will see this later). According to Dr. Strong’s Dictionary of the Words in the Greek Testament:
“G1308 διαφέρω. Pronounced dee-af-er’-o. From 1223 and 5342; to bear through, i.e. (literally) transport; usually to bear apart, i.e. (objectively) to toss about (figuratively, report); subjectively, to “differ”, or (by implication) surpass:—be better, carry, differ from, drive up and down, be (more) excellent, make matter, publish, be of more value.”
So, whenever we hear somebody complain that the King James Bible has a mistake, a mistranslation, in Philippians 1:10—that is, that “excellent” should be “different”—we just remember that any Greek dictionary says that “excellent” is a perfectly legitimate translation of diaphero. Now, someone may argue that “different” is an alternate rendering (as Dr. Strong offers this definition too). We will acknowledge that possibility. However, remember, as any competent translator knows, the context determines the sense of the English word needed.
A. AMPLIFICATION, EXPANSION, AND EXPLANATION
Friend, as stated before, long ago, I bought into the idea that “excellent” was a “poor translation” in Philippians 1:10. I used to believe “different” was a better rendering of the underlying Greek text. Recently, I have come to realize just how ridiculous my former position was. Is “different” more descriptive than “excellent?” My original research yields a resounding answer of NO!
Let me offer this illustration. Is being a blood-bought child of God “different” from being a Hell-bound child of Satan? Why yes, but we can be more vivid with our language. Being a blood-bought child of God is “more excellent than” being a Hell-bound child of Satan. See, the more information provided, the language is more precise and a more picture is formed in the mind. It is not merely a contrast of two similar positions (“different”). It is a contrast of two statuses, with one far greater than the other (“excellent”)—there really is no comparison because the difference is enormous. “Different” is just too weak to convey the truth here.
Considering the above illustration, we see that “different” does not give Philippians 1:10 the force, power, strength that “excellent” does. God does not want us to engage in simply “different” things, for such ambiguity may imply less valuable or average things. No, the potency of the verse lies in the word “excellent”—which potency is loss with “different” substituted. As per the Oxford English Dictionary, “excellent” is defined as “extremely good; outstanding.” (With “excel” a late Middle English word, derived from the Latin excellere [ex- ‘out, beyond’ + celsus ‘lofty’]). This is certainly not necessarily true of the word “different!”
Let us see the various ways in which the 1611 translators rendered diaphero, which provide us with Scriptural (and thus more important) illustrations. The word appears some 13 times, rendered the following ways: be better (3 times), be of more value (2 times), differ from (2 times), should carry (1 time), publish (1 time), drive up and down (1 time), and miscellaneous (3 times).
- Matthew 6:26: “Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?” (This is the same sense as “excellent” in Philippians 1:10—one class surpasses, is better than, the other.)
- Matthew 10:31: “Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows.” (This is the same sense as “excellent” in Philippians 1:10—one class exceeds, is better than, the other.)
- Matthew 12:12: “How much then is a man better than a sheep? Wherefore it is lawful to do well on the sabbath days.” (This is the same sense as “excellent” in Philippians 1:10—one class transcends, is better than, the other.)
- Mark 11:16: “And would not suffer that any man should carry any vessel through the temple.” (Here is a literal sense of the word.)
- Luke 12:7: “But even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not therefore: ye are of more value than many sparrows.” (This is the same sense as “excellent” in Philippians 1:10—one class is superior, better than, the other.)
- Luke 12:24: “Consider the ravens: for they neither sow nor reap; which neither have storehouse nor barn; and God feedeth them: how much more are ye better than the fowls?” (This is the same sense as “excellent” in Philippians 1:10—one class tops, is better than, the other.)
- Acts 13:49: “And the word of the Lord was published throughout all the region.”
- Acts 27:27: “But when the fourteenth night was come, as we were driven up and down in Adria, about midnight the shipmen deemed that they drew near to some country;….”
- Romans 2:18: “And knowest his will, and approvest the things that are more excellent, being instructed out of the law;….” (This is the same sense as “excellent” in Philippians 1:10—one class surpasses, is better than, the other. Israel did not merely act differently when following the Law of Moses. They acted “more excellent” than the pagans around them!)
- 1 Corinthians 15:41: “There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars: for one star differeth from another star in glory. (Notice “diaphero” in this context is a comparison of like items. They are “different” but equal, none superior.)
- Galatians 2:6: “But of these who seemed to be somewhat, (whatsoever they were, it maketh no matter to me: God accepteth no man’s person:) for they who seemed to be somewhat in conference added nothing to me:….” (In other words, they did not impress Paul, for they were not better than him or anyone else. Paraphrased, “It makes no difference to me who they were!”)
- Galatians 4:1: “Now I say, That the heir, as long as he is a child, differeth nothing from a servant, though he be lord of all;….” (Notice “diaphero” in this context is a comparison of like items. They really are not “different” but equal—there is no greater or lesser here.)
Friend, Philippians 1:10 is part of a Pauline prayer that the Holy Spirit prays for the benefit of the Church the Body of Christ (not just those in Philippi but us saints even today). It is especially applicable to mature Christians, people who are not new believers but are familiar with the message of God’s grace and have built up in their inner man at least some of the principles of grace.
Reading Philippians 1:9-11 again: “ And this I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment;  That ye may approve things that are excellent; that ye may be sincere and without offence till the day of Christ;  Being filled with the fruits of righteousness, which are by Jesus Christ, unto the glory and praise of God.”
The Philippians were not babes in Christ (as the Corinthians were—see 1 Corinthians 3:1-3). While they had various problems, as all believers do, the Philippian saints had spiritually matured to some degree. Paul therefore desires their love “may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment.” At the time of writing, there is room for even more improvement in their lives. The Apostle wants them to value and esteem things the way God sees them. “Love” here is not some fuzzy feeling or emotional upheaval; it is an attitude, a disposition, an outlook, a worldview. That love is according to “knowledge” and “all judgment.” Rather than being ignorant—uninformed or misinformed—Paul wants these Christians to evaluate things in life according to sound Bible doctrine. This is where the term “excellent” (as opposed to “different”) underscores or stresses the goal of the apostolic prayer. It is possible for something to be different and yet not be superior; it is impossible to be superior and yet not be different.
Paul prayed in verse 9. Why? Verse 10 tells: “That [purpose or intent of Paul praying] ye may approve things that are excellent; that ye may be sincere and without offence till the day of Christ;….” The Holy Spirit through Paul prayed for the Philippian saints, that their love would abound more and more in knowledge and in all judgment, that they would equip themselves with the tools needed to evaluate and rate things in life.
When the Bible speaks of “approving” things that are “excellent,” the word “approve” means, “testing/examining, comparing items.” Once we test things using the Scriptures rightly divided, then we choose what is best (superior, “excellent!”). The goal in Christian thought and living is not to find things that are merely different. Remember, in the physical world, our goal is not merely to find food, but to find food that is edible. We do not grab paper and eat it; we find something superior to paper (something with more nutritional value). We find and eat things “excellent!” So it is in the spiritual realm!
Why did Paul want those at Philippi, or even us, to approve the things that are “excellent?” The intent is revealed in the rest of the verse: “…that ye may be sincere and without offence till the day of Christ;….” When we approve the things that are “excellent,” of greater value, we are “sincere [pure] and without offence [not led into sin].” The “day of Christ” is the time of the Judgment Seat of Christ, when Jesus Christ will evaluate our Christian doctrine and service immediately after the Rapture. You can find more information about this in 2 Corinthians 5:9-10, Romans 14:10-12, and 1 Corinthians 3:9-15. Time and space do not permit us to discuss that here. Please see our related studies linked at the end of this article.
Philippians 1:11 now: “Being filled with the fruits of righteousness, which are by Jesus Christ, unto the glory and praise of God.” This is a summary of what has gone before. When our love abounds more and more in knowledge and in all judgment, and we thus approve the things that are excellent, thereby making us sincere and without offence till the day of Christ, all of this can be summarized as… “being filled with the fruits of righteousness.” Those fruits are the result of Jesus Christ working in and through us, as we study and believe His Word to us (1 Thessalonians 2:13). The life of Christ is not merely something different, it is something “excellent,” surpassing everything that a person can do in his or her own strength (works-religion).
Christ living is not merely outward duty that can be faked; it is the righteous nature of the Christian in Christ that produces a lifestyle far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far beyond the “normal” life (something people outside of Christ cannot match in conduct).
Our 1611 King James Bible translators were certainly not wrong in placing “excellent” in the text of Philippians 1:10. It is a perfectly acceptable translation of the underlying Greek diaphero. In fact, “excellent” is superior to (more excellent than!) “different,” the substitute people usually offer. It is possible for something to be different and yet not be superior; it is impossible to be superior and yet not be different. God does not want us to engage in merely “different” thought and behavior; He wants us to pursue “excellent” thought and “excellent” behavior. “Different” waters down Philippians 1:10—“excellent” gives the Bible text more force!
Romans 12:1-2: “ I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.  And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.” Notice the degrees of the will of God. There is something good (“good”), something better (“acceptable”), and something that is the best (“perfect”). We are not simply to avoid evil, but we are to pick the best out of many good choices. This comes with maturity, spiritual growth. A new convert to Christianity struggles with what is good and what is evil. However, a wise mature Christian looks for the best among a lot of good alternatives. He or she picks that which is “excellent!”
SUPPLEMENTAL: PHILIPPIANS 1:10 AND ENGLISH BIBLES
- “excellent” (King James Version, American Standard Version, English Standard Version, New American Standard Bible, New King James Version, Revised Standard Version)
- “excellent” [identifying the best, and distinguishing moral differences]” (Amplified Bible)
- “what really matters” (Common English Bible)
- “right” (Contemporary English Version)
- “better” (Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition – Roman Catholic “bible”)
- “best” (1599 Geneva Bible, God’s Word Translation, New English Translation, New International Version, New Revised Standard Version)
- “superior” (Holman Christian Standard Bible)
- “the highest and the best” (J.B. Phillips New Testament)
- “the difference between right and wrong” (The Living Bible)
- “the difference between good and bad and will choose the good” (New Century Version)
- “what really matters” (New Living Translation)
- “examine and determine the best from everything else” (The Voice)
- “the things that differ” (Young’s Literal Translation)