John Baumberger has a question about my translation of en morphē theou in Philippians 2:6 as “in the form of a god.” He takes issue with the indefinite construction on a couple of grounds:
1. The word theos ‘without the definite article almost always refers to God himself (and not “a god”) throughout scripture.’
2. The article with theos in verse 9 refers back to the theos of verse 6; therefore, en morphē theou in verse 6 must be translated “in the form of God.”
I haven’t done a comprehensive study of the use of the definite article with theos in the Greek Bible or other Hellenistic Jewish texts. We could make the obvious point that sometimes the anarthrous form does refer to a god.
Still, it is certainly the case that there are similar genitive expressions with theos which do not have the article but refer to the one God—“glory of God” (doxa theou), for example (1 Cor. 10:31; 11:7; Phil. 2:11). If morphē could be shown to mean “glory” (it can’t), then there wouldn’t be a problem with the traditional interpretation (but there is).
Indeed, the main argument for the translation “in the form of a god” is not that the article is missing in verse 6 but that morphē always denotes outward appearance. Since, on the one hand, it was impossible in mainstream Jewish tradition to speak about the outward appearance of the God who made the heavens and the earth, and on the other, morphē is widely used in Greek literature with reference to the gods, it seems highly likely that the Philippians would have heard en morphē theou as a reference to Jesus’ outward appearance as a god.
I suggest further in the book that “form of a god” is analogous to “voice of a god” and “heart of a god”:
Ask… whether any nation has ever heard the voice of a living god (phōnēn theou) speaking from the midst of the fire… (Deut. 4:33)
And the people were shouting, “The voice of a god (theou phōne), and not of a man!” Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God (tōi theōi) the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last. (Acts 12:22–23)
Because your heart was exalted and you said, “I am a god; I have inhabited a habitation of a god in the heart of the sea,” yet you are human and not a god, and you rendered your heart as a heart of a god (kardian theou). (Ezek. 28:2)
A god can have a personal voice, heart, and form. The Ezekiel and Acts passages are especially interesting because they belong to Jewish polemic against the divine ruler cult, which is, in my view, in the background of Philippians 2:6. I also make the point in the book that the first part of the encomium reverses the acclamation of Herod as a god and not a man. The story of Jesus’ career, to the observer, was that he turned out to be a man and not a god.
We also have the example of the man of lawlessness who “opposes and exalts himself over every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God (ton naon tou theou), presenting himself as a god (theos)” (2 Thess. 2:4*). Behind him are the prince of Tyre again, who says, “I am a god (theos eimi egō)” (Ezek. 28:2), and Antiochus Epiphanes, who “will be enraged and will be exalted against every god (panta theon) and against the God of the gods he will speak remarkable things” (Dan. 11:36* LXX).
Finally, Philo discusses the statement “I am the God (ho theos) who was seen by you in the place of a god (en topōi theou)” (Dreams 1:227-30). He thinks that there is a distinction here between “the God” and “some other.”
What then ought we to say? There is one true God only: but they who are called gods, by an abuse of language, are numerous; on which account the holy scripture on the present occasion indicates that it is the true God that is meant by the use of the article, the expression being, “I am the God (ho theos);” but when the word is used incorrectly, it is put without the article, the expression being, “He who was seen by thee in the place,” not of the God (tou theou), but simply “of a god” (theou).
He then goes on to identify the other “god” with “his most ancient word,” if I’ve understood him correctly, which perhaps has relevance for the interpretation of John 1:1, but the identification rests on a linguistic distinction between the true God with an article and other gods without.
So it seems that Hellenistic Jews of Paul’s time were at least aware of the potential theological significance of the definite article.