1. Ephesians 4:8 (ESV)
  2. Exposition

How should we understand the change that Paul makes in quoting Psalm 68?

Ephesians 4:8 (ESV)

8 Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.”

In short

Paul makes a change when quoting from Scripture in the sense that

  1. he interprets Psalm 68:18 in light of the Jewish Targum interpretation; or

  2. he slightly altered Psalm 68:18 in order to conform to his argument.

When Paul explains that Christ gives spiritual gifts to the church, he introduces Psalm 68:18 to show that when Christ ascended, he gave gifts to men. Interestingly, though, he alters the verb to receive in Psalm 68:18 to to give. That is, Psalm 68:18 says that God receives gifts from among men, but Paul alters the verb so that it implies Christ gives gifts to men. How do we explain this change?

Most likely, Paul has in mind a traditional Jewish interpretation of Psalm 68:18. For we know from ancient Jewish sources, including the Targum and Midrash, that Jews understood Psalm 68:18 as referring to Moses. Specifically, they held that Moses ascended on high and received the Torah, which he gave to men. It seems that Paul is aware of this interpretation but he applies the psalm to Jesus, who exceeds Moses. Instead of Moses ascending and giving the law, Jesus ascends and gives spiritual gifts.

Some contend that the Targum is a late document, with the earliest recorded version coming from the fourth or fifth century AD. Thus, it is more likely that the Targum is influenced by Paul’s Christian interpretation of Ps 68:18 than that Paul is influenced by the Targum. The problem here is that the Midrashic interpretation dates back to the first century. Further, the Midrash interpretation retains the verb to receive, but interprets the Hebrew preposition bet as for. Thus, the Midrash renders Psalm 68:18, He received gifts for men. Paul may have been aware of this interpretation, and thought that giving gifts is equivalent to receiving gifts for men.

Some contend that Paul purposely alters the text to suit his theological argument. They point out that Paul does the same in other places; for example, Galatians 3:11, where he slightly alters Habakkuk 2:4 by dropping the personal pronoun his. The problem with this argument is that dropping a pronoun is not quite the same as changing a verb to its antonym. These also contend that Paul paraphrases Psalm 68:18 in light of the theme of the whole psalm. Thus, his alteration is really a paraphrase of the whole psalm. The problem here is that while Paul might have the whole psalm in mind, it is hard to see why that would motivate him to change the verb to receive to to give. For the whole psalm is about God triumphing over his enemies, so it is suitable for God to receive gifts.

In the end, while it could be that Paul has slightly altered the psalm for his theological purposes, it is more likely he recognized, based on traditional Jewish interpretation, that Psalm 68:18 could be interpreted in just the way he rendered it.

Interpretation 1:
Paul interprets Psalm 68:18 in light of the Jewish Targum interpretation.


Paul wants the Ephesians to understand that once Christ conquered sin and death, he gave gifts to men. He knows that there is a Jewish tradition that interprets Psalm 68:18 in light of Moses giving the law to the people as a gift. Paul leans on this Jewish interpretation of Psalm 68:18 to show that Christ is the one who gives spiritual gifts to men.


  • F. F. Bruce

  • Stephen Fowl

  • Margaret MacDonald

  • Thomas Slater

  • Charles Talbert

Minor differences:

Our authors agree on three points. First, Paul says that he quotes from Scripture, and his source is Psalm 68:18 (Psalm 67:17 in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament). Second, comparing Paul’s quote in Ephesians 4:8 to Psalm 68:18 reveals three differences. Third, these differences between Ephesians 4:8 and Psalm 68:18 are explained by the fact that there was an existing Jewish tradition during Paul’s time that interpreted Psalm 68:18 in light of the way that Paul renders it. Thus, Paul is leaning on a Jewish interpretation of Psalm 68:18 to make his point in Ephesians 4:8, and not on the original Hebrew rendering of Psalm 68:18.

There is a slight difference between our authors. For example, Stephen Fowl points out that we have textual evidence in the Targum for a Jewish interpretation of Psalm 68:18 that aligns with Paul’s rendering in Ephesians 4:8. The problem, according to Fowl, is that the Targum dates from centuries after Paul, so that it is just as likely that Paul’s interpretation influenced the writers of the Targum than that the Targum influenced Paul. The best we can conclude is that Paul’s rendering of Psalm 68:18 is not as idiosyncratic as one might think.1 The problem with this line of reasoning is that if the Targum mimicked Paul, then our conclusion is not that Paul’s rendering of Psalm 68:18 is not idiosyncratic, but that the Jews were influenced by Paul’s idiosyncratic rendering.

F. F. Bruce disagrees with the notion that the Jewish interpretation of Psalm 68:18 as captured in the Targum was influenced by Paul. Rather, Bruce contends that even if a Targum was written late, these writings were based on centuries of oral tradition. Thus, we ought to accept that the changes Paul makes to Psalm 68:18 align with an accepted Jewish interpretation that circulated in the first century. 2 Of course, the trouble with Bruce’s line of reasoning is that Paul specifically points to what is written, which suggests something other than an oral tradition.

Charles Talbert resolves the apparent conflict between Fowl and Bruce by noting that it is entirely possible a written Targum existed in the first century that reflected the same Jewish interpretation we find in later editions of the Targum. 3


Interpretation 2:
Paul slightly altered Psalm 68:18 in order to conform to his argument.


Paul wants the Ephesians to know that after Christ conquered death and ascended to the Father, he gave spiritual gifts in order to build up the church. Paul notices that Psalm 68:1–35 portrays God as a conquering ruler, just as Christ conquered death, so he quotes from the psalm but alters Psalm 68:18 slightly to suit his needs. Thus, instead of receiving gifts, the conquering ruler (Christ) gives them.


  • Steven Baugh

  • Frank Thielman

Minor differences:

Our authors agree that Paul alters the words of Psalm 68:18 to suit his theological point, but that he does so in a way that is consistent with the overall theme of the psalm. There does seem to be a slight difference between our authors. According to Frank Thielman, Paul alters Psalm 68:18 because it suits his theological argument. Thielman contends that this should not surprise us because Paul does the same in other places.13 Still, while Paul might alter a text, his alterations are consistent with the general meaning of the passage in question.

Steven Baugh explains things slightly differently. For him, it is not that Paul alters Psalm 68:18 in order to support a theological argument, but that Paul sees it that Psalm 68:18 was written about Christ. Of course, since the psalm reveals the work of Christ, according to Baugh, Paul is at liberty to paraphrase the psalm in order to draw out this connection.14