My reading of the Philippians encomium visualised

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It is easy to visualise the traditional interpretation of Philippians 2:6-11 as a downward parabola or u-bend: Christ existed in heaven from eternity “in the form of God”; he descended into the world, becoming man and dying on the cross; then he is raised from the dead and restored to his position in heaven. Here again is that “cosmograph” for the who missed it the first time round.

My argument in In the Form of a God: The Pre-existence of the Exalted Christ in Paul is that what the encomium plots is not a cosmic journey or metaphysical transformations but changes in the estimation in which Jesus was held, how he was perceived, particularly with reference to how the story might have been understood when told to pagan Greeks in the context of the Pauline mission in Asia Minor and around the Aegean.

Helge Seekamp suggested that it might be worth having a second graphic to illustrate this reading, so I thought I’d give it a try. We still have a u-bend, of course, but what comes down and goes up is not the person of Jesus but his reputation, his approval rating: he is applauded at first, then booed and hissed at, but will eventually be given a standing ovation. Click for a larger view.

The Byzantine mosaics make two points: first, that this was a story being told to the Greek world about the Greek world; secondly, that appearances mattered (cf. Is. 52:13-53:3).

What follows is a paraphrase which aims to bring out something of the rhetorical force of what I suspect is a highly condensed summary of a more elaborate reflection on the significance of the Jewish Jesus for the Greek world.

From riches to rags

The first part of the encomium tracks what is essentially a Greek reappraisal of the career of Jesus.

He appeared initially as a wonder-worker, a thaumaturge, a divine man, in the form of a god, set apart and empowered with a heavenly presence at his baptism.

He rejected the opportunity presented to him to attain god-equal, Caesar-like rule over the nations of the Greek-Roman world—in language, incidentally, that implicitly invoked the Shema, the agreement to serve one God in the land which God gave to Israel: “You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve” (Lk. 4:8; cf. Deut. 6:4, 13).

Instead, he emptied himself of “vain ambition” (cf. Phil. 2:3) through the severe asceticism of the wilderness experience, and took on the quite contrary outward appearance of a slave. To the Greek mind, he squandered the reputation and potential that he formerly had as a godlike figure—or in Satan’s more orthodox terms, a “son of God.”

It was now apparent to any onlooker that there was nothing remotely divine about this person. Quite the opposite. His fanatical obedience to a desperate vocation led only to a degrading death on a Roman cross. There is no atonement here, only wretchedness.

From outcast to future Lord

In the second half of the encomium we shift from the language of Greek appraisal to the language of the Psalms and Isaiah.

In the eyes of the Greeks, the career of Jesus was a disturbing riches to rags story (cf. 2 Cor. 8:9, another supposed pre-existence passage which I discuss in the book). It started well but ended badly—a Hellenistic romantic storyline thrown violently off course by a perverse, self-destructive loyalty.

But in the estimation of the God of Israel, Jesus had remained faithful to his calling, and for that reason God massively raised his profile in the ancient world.

Paul undoubtedly believed that Jesus was now actually seated in heaven at the right hand of the Father (cf. 1 Cor. 15:25-27), but that is not what he is saying in this encomium in praise of Jesus Christ.

He means rather that God has given the man who lost everything in life a new exalted status, above all other beings in the cosmos. He has graciously bestowed upon him a name which is above every name—a renown above all renown, a reputation that will reach from east to west—so that it will be at the name of Jesus, in recognition of his transformed status, that people will bow the knee and confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the God the Father.

In other words, the encomium is a prophetic celebration of the agency by which the peoples of the Greek-Roman world would eventually be converted to worship of the God of Israel.

This is very helpful. I read the book and enjoyed it but felt like I couldn’t engage with it at the deeper academic and technical levels.  This post helped pull it all together.

Samuel Conner | Mon, 05/22/2023 - 23:32 | Permalink

Thanks, Andrew; this is helpful.

I have the book but have not progressed very far into it.

Perhaps this is answered in the book; forgive me for troubling you with it here if it is, though perhaps the question will occur to other readers who don’t yet have the book.

Both 2 Cor 8:9 and the Phil 2 encomium are not free-standing Christological assertions; they support an argument Paul makes about how he wants his readers/hearers to live or something specific he wants them to do.

Does your proposed understanding of the meaning of these texts significantly revise one’s understanding of what Paul wants his readers to in terms of their “imitation of Christ”? Would it revise present application of these texts to “the Christian life”?

At the very least, I suppose that it makes imitation a bit less daunting.

Yes, with both those passages there are implications for how the imitation of Christ was understood, though I think in some ways the matter becomes more rather than less daunting.

In the “being rich, became poor” theme the contrast is straightforwardly between what we might call a “spiritual” abundance and a faithful self-impoverishment and affliction in other respects. What is said about Jesus is no different in principle—perhaps in degree—to what is said about the churches in Macedonia (2 Cor. 8:1-2) or Smyrna (Rev. 2:8-11).

This parallels the contrast in Philippians 2:6-8 between “being in the form of a god” and taking “the form of a slave,” though the rhetoric has shifted—another way of saying “being rich, he became poor.” But more importantly, I think that my reading solves the long-standing problem of why Paul uses christology to address an ethical concern (Phil. 2:1-4). At the heart of the story told in Philippians 2:6-8 is the disciplined—even ascetic—renunciation of “selfish ambition” (eritheia) and “vainglory” (kenodoxia). What the encomium celebrates is not metaphysical transformations but changes of standing and reputation—so yes, easier in the sense that it is within the reach of the Philippian believers, but it is still a renunciation potentially to the point of death.

Thank you, Andrew.

I’ve been impressed for a very long time with Paul’s “one another” emphasis. It looks like I need to add to that a “let us suffer with the Messiah now, in order that we may later reign with him” emphasis.

There seems to me to be a great deal of grasping at overt power on my side of the pond. Perhaps we should be lowering our sights.

Both emphases seem highly relevant to the present life of the churches.

Again, thank you!

Yes, both emphases remain relevant, but I think Paul had in mind the specific role of Christ-like—Christ-imitating—communities, headed by the suffering apostles (“be imitators of me as I am of Christ”, which would be instrumental in bringing about, or at least which would herald, the coming rule of Christ over the nations. In other words, for Paul suffering had a very sharply defined eschatological function. We do not understand Paul better by generalising that function, even if the attributes gain traction in other contexts.