1 Therefore I, the prisoner in the Lord, encourage you to walk worthy of the calling by which you were called, 2 with all humility of mind and meekness with long-suffering, forbearing one another in love, 3 being eager to keep the oneness of the spirit in the uniting bond of peace. 4 As there is one body and one Spirit, as also you were called in one hope of your calling; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, the one over all and through all and in all. 7 But to each one of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 8 Wherefore it says, “Having ascending to the height he led captive captivity, He gave gifts to men.” Ephesians 4:1-8 (translated from the NA28 Greek text)
It wasn’t until I started studying and learning Koine Greek that I ran into the puzzling verse above (Ephesians 4:8). After all, the English translations I have always used did not read like I translated that verse above. No, the NASB translates v8 as:
Therefore it says, “WHEN HE ASCENDED ON HIGH, HE LED CAPTIVE A HOST OF CAPTIVES, AND HE GAVE GIFTS TO MEN.” Ephesians 4:8 (NASB)
However, the Greek reads as I translated it. I have actually heard sermons and teachings based on the English renderings of this verse that viewed “captivity” in v8 as referring to Old Testament saints who though saved, were held in some sort of captivity. Supposedly, then, Jesus went into hades (hell), retrieved them from their captivity, and took them to heaven. However such a teaching is actually rooted in Roman Catholic tradition, not Sacred Scripture, and it does not even come close to the imagery of the phrase.
The Greek in question here is the verb ᾐχμαλώτευσεν (ēchmalōteusen) the aorist tense, active mood, indicative voice of αἰχμαλωτεύω (aichmalōteuō) which means “take captive” and the noun αἰχμαλωσίαν (aichmalōsian) the accusative, singular, feminine case of αἰχμαλωσία (aichmalōsia) which means “captivity.” Therefore my translation is the literal Greek to English of what Paul said, “he led captive captivity.” What an odd statement!
The picture Paul is giving us here is rooted in the public triumphs of conquerors, especially as celebrated by the Romans. The language clearly describes the conqueror who took captives, led them away in chains, and then made them part of his triumphal procession.