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.
Hello Dr. Perriman,
Always look forward to your posts, and I’ve always found the narrative historical hermeneutic to be excellent (with reservations of course) while it factors in both historical criticism and traditional evangelicalism.
I’m wondering whether you think Paul even knew about temptation narrative -let alone anything about Jesus’ ministry- which we find in the synoptics and were written much later. Of course the traditions surrounding the stories may have been floating around, but is there any reason to think that this is what the self-emptying and “refusal to seize” refers to?
And is there a possibility that Paul was merely assimilating Greco-Roman stories and symbols (much like later Christendom) to create a sense of familiarity similar to Acts 17:23, or even assumed such a backdrop himself maybe?
I’m not aware of any direct evidence that Paul was familiar with the story of the testing in the wilderness. I make the claim largely on the grounds that there is an excellent “fit” between the idiomatic “seizing the opportunity to gain a god-like kingship” expression and the accounts in Matthew and Luke.
There may be ways of filling out the argument though.
Paul knows that Satan “tests” believers (1 Cor. 7:5; 10:13; 1 Thess. 3:5). Does that reflect knowledge of the testing of Jesus?
Mark only says that Jesus was tested by Satan in the wilderness, with no narrative elaboration. Is it possible that the encomium was part of the tradition that subsequently produced the detailed account of three temptations in Matthew and Luke?
Paul knows that God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, to Israel to redeem those under the Law (Gal. 4:4), so you’d expect him to have been a little curious about the circumstances of Jesus’ career as a prophet-messiah. It’s difficult to think that no detail were communicated to him when he visited the apostles in Jerusalem (Gal. 1:18-24).
Peter gives a fairly detailed account of the ministry of Jesus to the Roman Cornelius (Acts 10:34-42). It doesn’t mention the testing by Satan, but it rather presents Jesus to the Gentile as a “divine man,” so we may imagine that it was likely that stories about Jesus circulated among the churches in the Greek world in this way.
And yes, it’s part of the argument of the book that occasionally we get a glimpse of how the Jewish Jesus appeared to the pagan mind. I think it highly likely that the encomium was the work of someone with a pagan background, who instinctively translated the stories about the Son sent to Israel into pagan terms.
Thanks for the reply Dr. Perriman.
Yes I certainly agree that it’s highly probable that Paul did get quite a bit of information regarding Jesus from the Jerusalem Apostles. And in terms of building the narrative, this certainly could play an important role. But I’m wondering whether the historical circumstances could be more in alignment with the wider/shared culture more than “potential” events from the life of Jesus.
I haven’t gotten around to reading “In the form of a god” yet, so I’m not sure if you discuss the following (apologies if you have). Larry Hurtado discussed a parallel scenario (link below) to do with the idiom “form of (a) god” in relation to Philo’s criticism of Caligula, and I thought this had quite a bit of potential to be inline with your take on it. Would be interested to know your thoughts.
Thanks, Gerard. I discuss this well-known passage in the book, though I don’t think I’d come across Hurtado’s post before.
The main point is that Caligula dresses up as one or other of the gods in order to look like them. The word morphē, I argue, always refers to external appearance or physical “form”.
I disagree with Hurtado that “form” here also comprises “certain virtues, a way of being, not simply outward/visual appearance.” Philo’s objection is that you can’t emulate a god simply by counterfeiting the outward appearance. You also have to match the inner substance or character or nature.
I also disagree with the attempt to retain the idea of pre-existence. We have to ask what sort of occasion is likely to have elicited the statement that Christ was “in the form of a god,” which can only have evoked the idea either that the gods have appeared on earth or that a human person is godlike in appearance. If it’s the language of pagan epiphany, pagan epiphanies don’t happen in heaven.
I posted a few snippets of your statements from your book In the Form of A God that I recently purchased on the One God Report Facebook forum and Rivers O Feden responded to my post with the following:
John Baumberger … I would take issue with the “a god” translation in Philippians 2:6 for a couple reasons:
1. The Genitive (QEOU) and Dative (QEW) without the definite article almost always refers to God himself (and not “a god”) throughout scripture. Thus, it’s unlikely that any exception was intended here or in John 1:1 (where it is Nominative and not Genitive or Dative).
2. Philippians 2:9 also has the definite article for “the God” in the immediate context which just as well corresponds to the same person as the uses in Philippians 2:6.”
As I’m still working through your book, I haven’t yet come across where you have addressed these objections. Josh Jones was supposed to address these objections when he was to meet with you in person (not sure if your meeting ever took place, as we never heard back from him on this).
At any rate, I would greatly appreciate it if you would address these objections.
Thanks for this, John. An attempt to answer it here. And no, I don’t think we did get round to this question but talked about a lot of things and had a very nice dinner.
I like this argument. It seems quite reasonable and immediately brings to mind Acts 14:11.
Yes, and Acts 28:6: “They were waiting for him to swell up or suddenly fall down dead. But when they had waited a long time and saw no misfortune come to him, they changed their minds and said that he was a god.”
I think this sort of experience is likely to have been a significant part of the background to the encomium.
It’s perhaps also worth noting that Paul is first mistaken for a god, then Jews arrive from Antioch and Iconium, who turn the crowds against him and stone him, dragging him outside the city and leaving him for dead. He reproduces Jesus’ experience quite closely. He is first taken to be a god, then found to be a mortal human.
I agree totally with this very plausible shift to an status-change vs. ontological,change in Jesus…
It would be good to have a 2nd illustration, to engrave the new interpretation into the mind of the readers :-)