By my counting, the popular website biblegateway.com lists no less than about 50 different English translations of the Bible. These days it seems like everyone is using a different translation of the Bible and arguing over which version is the best, is the easiest to understand, is the closest to the original Greek, and so forth.
On occasion, the Authorized (King James) Version will be criticized for how it translates a particular passage from the original Hebrew or Greek. I ran into one such criticism when I was having a fun, friendly debate with one of my friends about the differences in Bible versions. My friend’s critique of the KJV centered around Colossians 1:19:
For it pleased the Father that in him should all fulness dwell
My friend pointed out to me that “the Father” was not in the original Greek. Because of this, he argued that the KJV’s translation of this verse was not as accurate as the English Standard Version (ESV)’s:
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell
Since “the Father” isn’t in the original Greek, my friend’s argument made sense. If we take out “the Father” from the verse, it makes sense to read it along the lines that the ESV does: it pleased all fullness to dwell in him.
I admit that my friend’s argument sounded air tight to me; and I was bothered (in a good, fun sort of way) that the ESV seemed to do a better job of translating this verse than the KJV does. Since I can read ancient Greek, I began to pour over this passage in the original Greek New Testament; and I have come to a conclusion. Not only is the ESV’s translation not superior, but the KJV actually does a better job with the original Greek than the ESV.
In order to understand why I have reached this conclusion, we need to look at the next verse with it:
For it pleased the Father that in him should all fulness dwell; and, having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself; by him, I say, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven (Colossians 1:19-20).
In the original Greek, this passage is
ὅτι ἐν αὐτῷ εὐδόκησεν πᾶν τὸ πλήρωμα κατοικῆσαι καὶ δι’ αὐτοῦ ἀποκαταλλάξαι τὰ πάντα εἰς αὐτόν, εἰρηνοποιήσας διὰ τοῦ αἵματος τοῦ σταυροῦ αὐτοῦ, δι’ αὐτοῦ εἴτε τὰ ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς εἴτε τὰ ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς·
As I said before, “the Father” is not in the original Greek. But I want to look at the grammar of this passage for a little bit. The ESV translates this passage as if πᾶν τὸ πλήρωμα (all the fullness) is the subject of εὐδόκησεν: all fullness was pleased to dwell in him. But there is a problem with this.
In verse twenty there is a participle εἰρηνοποιήσας (having made peace) that grammatically has to match with the subject of εὐδόκησεν (it pleased). The problem comes because πᾶν τὸ πλήρωμα (all the fullness) is grammatically neuter but the participle εἰρηνοποιήσας is grammatically masculine. This means that πᾶν τὸ πλήρωμα cannot be the antecedent of εἰρηνοποιήσας. And since εἰρηνοποιήσας must grammatically must go with the main verb εὐδόκησεν, this means that πᾶν τὸ πλήρωμα cannot be the subject of εὐδόκησεν.
So if “all the fullness” is not the subject of the verb “it pleased”, then who is?
In this passage, the main verb “it pleased” (εὐδόκησεν) has two other verbs, “to dwell” (κατοικῆσαι) and “to reconcile” (ἀποκαταλλάξαι) that are infinitives dependent on this main verb. In other words, these verses are basically saying “it pleased (someone) to dwell and to reconcile”.
Since both of these infinitives depend on εὐδόκησεν (it pleased), let’s ignore verse 19 for a second and focus on verse 20. It pleased someone…”by him [Jesus] to reconcile all things unto himself”. It pleased someone to reconcile everything to himself through Jesus. Who was that? The Father. It pleased the Father to reconcile everything to himself through Jesus.
Verse 20 shows us that the subject of εὐδόκησεν (it pleased) is the Father. Having “the Father” as the subject of “it pleased” eliminates the grammatical problem that the ESV’s translation causes. The Father is masculine, and so it matches with the masculine participle εἰρηνοποιήσας (having made peace); and since εἰρηνοποιήσας goes with εὐδόκησεν, the Father is the subject of the main verb. πᾶν τὸ πλήρωμα then becomes the subject of the first infinitive: it pleased the Father that all the fullness dwell…etc.
The ESV creates a careless grammatical mistake in Colossians 1:19-20, but the KJV recognizes the issue and adds in “the Father” in order for the verses to make sense in English: “it pleased the Father that in him should all fulness dwell; and…by him to reconcile all things unto himself”. The Father was pleased that all fullness dwells in Jesus and that everything is reconciled through Jesus. The KJV is not playing loose and free with the original Greek here. Not adding “the Father” causes the grammatical translation mistake that we see in the ESV. Many other versions insert “the Father” when translating this passage.
The original Greek at a glance does seem to support the ESV. But when we look deeper into the grammar, we see that the KJV is actually superior. As a final thought, perhaps it is worth noting that in context Colossians 1:19-20 is part of a prayer in which the apostle Paul is “giving thanks unto the Father” (Colossians 1:12). I am so thankful that the Father was pleased to fill Jesus with his fulness, and to reconcile me through my Lord!
NOTE: The KJV is not the only version that inserts “the Father” into Colossians 1:19. Some other (mostly pre-KJV) versions include Erasmus’ Latin translation (1519), Coverdale’s translation (1535), the Great Bible (1541), the Geneva New Testament (1557), the Bishop’s Bible (1568), the Reina’s Spanish translation (1569), and the Spanish, French, Italian, and English versions found in the Hutter Polyglot (1599). Some other modern versions follow the KJV’s line of reasoning, but add “God” instead of the Father.