The famous passage about Christ in Philippians 2:6-11 is usually described as a “hymn,” and is usually taken to celebrate the inverted parabola of Christ’s descent from heaven, his incarnation as man, the nadir of his death on the cross, followed by his return to heaven and exaltation to a position equal to or perhaps higher than the one he left.
The phrase “being in the form of God” is understood to be a reference to his pre-existent divinity, though scholars disagree wildly over how exactly en morphē theou would express that idea. Perhaps the commonest views would be that morphē somehow refers either to the inner nature of God or to his glory.
Christ then made the decision not to exploit his pre-existent status—not to hold on to the equality with God that he had by virtue of being in the form of God. Instead, he emptied himself of at least some part of his divinity and became incarnate as a man. At the lowest point of his cosmic journey, he was crucified, as though of no more value than a slave.
God, however, raised him from the dead, and restored him to his former heavenly position and status. The “name” given to him has been variously interpreted (Lord? God?), but there is general agreement that Jesus now receives the worship to which only YHWH was entitled according to Isaiah:
Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. By myself I have sworn; from my mouth has gone out in righteousness a word that shall not return: “To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance.” (Is. 45:22–23)
The christological cosmograph
In a Journal of Biblical Literature article discussing the origins of the descent-ascent motif, J. A. Sanders uses the term “cosmograph” for the descent and ascent of the gnostic Anthropos, which he thinks partly accounts for the narrative shape of the Christ hymn.1 The gnostic theme, however, does not explain the change of status from pre-existent divine person to humiliated human person, so Sanders suggests that the author also drew on Jewish stories of rebellious angels or “sons of heaven,” who did not humble themselves and, therefore, were cast down from heaven to earth.
So what we have is a “mythic amalgam,” according to which Jesus is the heavenly Anthropos or Man of Gnosticism, in the form of God, whose descent from heaven was not like that of the rebellious angels or Satan, and who was therefore elevated to a position of supreme authority in the divine council.
That’s just one of many attempts to explain the opening of the drama. I mention it because I like the word “cosmograph,” which captures rather nicely the most popular understanding of the course that the drama takes. There are some exceptions—notably the argument that the story begins with an Adam christology. But I think that there’s only one way to make sense of the phrase en morphē theou hyparchōn—“being in the form of a god.”
The flat story about Jesus
One of the leading claims I make in In the Form of a God: The Pre-existence of the Exalted Christ in Paul is that en morphē theou is not a reference to Christ’s pre-existence, which means that there is no descent from heaven in verses 6-8. But I have also come to think—though this was mostly outside the scope of the book—that there is no ascent in verses 9-11 either.
What the encomium celebrates and explains is not an ontological journey from divine to human to divine, from heaven to earth and back to heaven, but dramatic shifts in Jesus’ reputation. I’ll list the main reasons briefly.
- Being en morphē theou is a coherent notion only against a pagan background because it must denote outward appearance. It encapsulates the idea that to the pagan mind the wonder-working, wisdom-speaking Jesus would have appeared “in the form of a god,” in outward appearance as divine or perhaps as a “divine man.”
- The idiomatic expression “did not reckon being equal to a god a thing to be seized” alludes to the fortuitous opportunity presented to him by Satan in the wilderness, and perhaps on other occasions during his career, to accede to a god-equal rule over the nations of the Greek-Roman world (cf. Matt. 4:8-9; Lk. 4:5-7). Jesus did not seize that opportunity.
- On the contrary, he spent forty days in the wilderness emptying himself of the “selfish ambition” (eritheia) and vanity (kenodoxia) that characterise human behaviour generally and the behaviour of the Philippians in particular (Phil. 2:3). Philo says that Moses led his people “from the harmful customs of the cities into the wilderness [for forty years!] that he might empty (kenōsei) their souls of unrighteous deeds” (Decalogue 13).
- Jesus initially, therefore, would have appeared to pagan onlookers as a person of godlike form, but he made the perverse decision not to seize the opportunity presented to him, and in the end he turned out to be no more than mortal—in fact, in some ways, less than human, a slave. When the king Herod gave an oration to the people of Tyre and Sidon, they declared impetuously, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” In Jesus’ case, the acclamation would have been reversed: “The form of a slave, and not of a god!”
- Nothing is said about resurrection or ascension into heaven in verse 9-11, only that God “highly exalted” Jesus and bestowed on him “the name beyond every name.” The verb hyperypsoō is uncommon. It is used in the Septuagint for the exaltation (hyperypsōthēs) of God above all the gods (Ps. 96:9; cf. Dan. 3:52-90 LXX). More relevantly, it is used for the “highly exalted” (hyperypsoumenon) impious person, who is raised up like the cedars of Lebanon, but then is no more (Ps. 36:35-36 LXX). The exaltation of Jesus is not a reference to his transference to heaven—though this point is not denied—but to a startling transformation in his status and reputation.
- What Jesus has, in the end, is a “name,” and a name is a person’s reputation.
So what the encomium portrays is two dramatic shifts in the perceived status of Jesus with respect to pagan opinion.
He is presented, first, in the language of pagan epiphany, as a person in the form of a god.
He empties himself of the sort of “selfish ambition” that Satan hoped to exploit and appears entirely ungodlike, as a frail and wretched mortal, divested of his former excellence of form.
But in a further transformation, God has highly exalted him and has bestowed on him a name that will resonate loudly across the Greek-Roman world. He will be acclaimed as Lord, and the God of Israel will be glorified. The end envisaged by Isaiah—the overthrow of the pagan gods and the recognition by the nations that there is no god but YHWH—will have been achieved, not directly, but by the agency of Jesus, who became a servant to Israel so that the nations might glorify God (cf. Rom. 16:8-12).
In this reading there is still, in this praise of Christ, descent from high status to abasement and then ascent to an even higher status and a far-reaching reputation as the new Lord of the Gentiles. But ontologically everything is on the same level of appearance and reputation before the onlooking Greeks.
The son sent to the mismanaged vineyard of Israel, who was rejected and killed by his own people, has remarkably become a personage of immense eschatological significance for the nations.
- 1J. A. Sanders, “Dissenting Deities and Philippians 2:1-11,” JBL 88 (1969), 279-90.