Is Christ All? How to Translate Colossians 3:11

Colossians 3:11 gives us one of Paul’s lists of formerly-significant people boundaries to indicate that now in Christ, we are all one and these boundaries no longer matter. The text reads:

 Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. (Col 3:11 ESV)

ὅπου οὐκ ἔνι Ἕλλην καὶ Ἰουδαῖος, περιτομὴ καὶ ἀκροβυστία, βάρβαρος, Σκύθης, δοῦλος, ἐλεύθερος, ἀλλὰ [τὰ] πάντα καὶ ἐν πᾶσιν Χριστός.

Unfortunately, the very last part of the verse always sounds weird. I mean, “Christ is all”–what does that mean? The translations do not deviate much from this line. I’m sure that lots of translators have toiled over this verse, so I don’t mean to scoff at their hard work or claim any sort of omniscience. I merely want to make a suggestion. The copula, the verb of being, is absent in the Greek and therefore always inserted in the translations. Latin can follow the Greek without an “is”: “…sed omnia et in omnibus Christus.” If all I had was that snippet and no context, I’d be very tempted to translate either the Latin or Greek as “…but all and in all, Christ” or “…but all and Christ in all.” So, why not translate the verse that way?

To me it seems that list of divisions Paul rattles off between Greek and Jew, slave and free and so one simply terminates at panta, all. Let’s try another sentence with the same structure to see if this could work: “Here there is no longer short and tall, big and small, serious and silly, but everybody and in everybody is ice cream.” Doesn’t it seem that the final term in my list, everybody, could function as the terminus of the list rather than as a predicate nominative of “ice cream”? “Everybody is ice cream” sounds strange.

To me it seems that the drive to translate our phrase as “Christ is all and in all” comes from the context and the idea of putting on Christ and especially “Christ who is your life” in verse 4. But it really seems like an unnecessary stretch. Why does the adversative, alla, but, have to create a new independent clause, couldn’t it just be Paul’s way of punctuating the turning point in the comparison?: Before, we had all kinds of divisions that divided us, but now we are one. Lastly again, it comes back to trying to make sense of the “Christ is all” statement. What does that even mean? Paul is certainly not pantheist or something, so what could such a statement convey, that every Christian is in some mysterious way, Christ?? I’d prefer that Paul is simply saying in Christ, the divisions fall away and only “all/everybody” is left and in everybody dwells Christ. That seems to fit the grammatical demands and Paul’s theology. Inserting an “is” to me seems an overly creative translation twist.

(Of course, perhaps I’m overlooking something important, so please comment if you can explain why “Christ is all” is the best translation here.)

5 thoughts on “Is Christ All? How to Translate Colossians 3:11

  1. Tom

    Fwiw, I noticed the Knox translation avoids the “Christ is all”:

    11 Here is no more Gentile and Jew, no more circumcised and uncircumcised; no one is barbarian, or Scythian, no one is slave or free man; there is nothing but Christ in any of us.

  2. Jonathan

    Mark, I barely know the letters of the Greek alphabet, but I always enjoy translation questions. A question for you: could “panta” be understood in the sense of “the whole”? The reason I ask is because some Spanish translations of that passage say “Cristo es el todo”, which could perhaps be translated as “Christ is the whole.” That calls to my mind the imagery of the Body of Christ.

  3. Orysia

    Although the word “is” might be an “overly creative translation twist, there must be a reason why the word was used. I suspect that “Christ is all” might say that it matters not who you are because anyone who believes, for them, Christ is all. Like you say, “divisions fall away” for we are all brothers and sisters in Christ and cannot allow divisions such as nationality, race, color or creed divide us. When we accept that we are all members of the same body, we then dwell in Christ and can radiate toward others, his love, compassion and mercy.
    Perhaps in the Greek and Latin, the word “is” did not have to be placed because it was understood. In many languages, certain words are not used because of the ending of other words that help with the understanding. This may be what is happening here. Those who read Greek or Latin, or heard it, realized that we are all part of the same body, that Christ is all. God bless, Orysia

  4. David Brunell

    Thank you for addressing this issue, and for affirming that Paul was not a pantheist. Having been brought up in the religion of Christian Science (which I later concluded was a false cult) I was constantly taught that “God is All” and that was meant literally: There is nothing but God. However, it wasn’t meant in the normal pantheistic sense that God is in the material world. We were taught that since God is Spirit and God is good, and God is All, therefore matter, sin, disease, and death are all illusions and don’t really exist. Therefore it was a bit “triggering” to read in Colossians 3:11 that “Christ is all…” Perhaps most commentators and translators are assuming that it would never occur to Bible readers to take Paul’s words in a pantheistic sense, since pantheism contradicts the rest of the Bible. But I wish the translators had taken the kind of care you have in considering how their translations could sound pantheistic. I note that the New Living Translation (leaning towards a paraphrase) translates the verse this way, “In this new life, it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized, slave or free. Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us.” The footnote in the NIV brings out that sense as well, although the translation itself still uses the phrase, “Christ is all.” Thank you so much for addressing this issue! (P.S. Those are translations which are familiar to me as a Protestant, but I appreciate Catholic scholarship as well!)

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