In the form of a god: what does the lack of an article tell us?

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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.

To your statement „it was impossible in mainstream Jewish tradition to speak about the outward appearance of the God who made the heavens and the earth“ I would say: Jesus did. See John 5:37.


Hi DoSi,

It’s interesting that you just mentioned Jn 5:37, I was just thinking about it as a counter-example of the claim, “it was impossible in mainstream Jewish tradition to speak about the outward appearance of the God who made the heavens and the earth.“

As I understand Jn 5:37, Jesus is referring to the spiritual deafness & blindness of his Jewish hearers to God’s voice (Scriptures?) and “form” (eidos) that He was presently revealing himself in/through, as evidenced by their refusal to believe his words.


This certainly opens up an interesting line of investigation. Here’s my translation of the passage:

And the Father who sent me, he has borne witness concerning me. You have neither heard his voice nor seen his outward appearance (eidos), and you do not have his word remaining in you, because him whom he sent, in him you do not believe. (Jn. 5:37-38*)

The word is eidos, not morphē. The connotations overlap (“form, outward appearance”), but whereas eidos is associated with the act of seeing something, morphē connotes the physical shape of the object or person. Eidos has a subjective orientation; morphē is more objective. One of the reasons the Jews resisted attributing morphē to God was that the word was so closely associated with the appearance or epiphany of pagan gods (physical beauty, noble demeanour, strength of body, etc.) and the concrete forms of idols.

There is a reference to the “appearance (eidos) of the glory of the Lord” in Exod. 24:17, but this is not a reference to the actual “form” of the “substance”or body of God, which is what morphē would bring to mind.

God says of Moses that he will speak to him “mouth to mouth… in outward appearance (eidei) and not in riddles, and he saw the glory of the Lord” (Num. 12:8). This is part of a rebuke of Miriam and Aaron, who “were not afraid to speak against my servant Moses,” which fits the context of John 5:37 rather well: Jesus is another Moses against whom the Jews speak. He goes on to say, “For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me” (Jn. 5:46).

On the chariot throne in Ezekiel’s vision there is a “likeness as of an outward appearance (eidos) of a human person above” (Ezek. 1:26*). This whole bright, fiery apparition was “the vision of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.”

So the Jews never saw the eidos of God, but exceptionally Moses and Ezekiel saw the bright glory of YHWH. But at issue here is only the seeing—the visionary capacity—of the exceptional prophet or “son of man” (cf. Ezek. 2:1). It is not said that Moses, Ezekiel, or Jesus was “in the outward appearance” of God.

@Andrew Perriman:

Hi Andrew

How would you further distinguish between morphe and schema (cp. 1 Cor. 7:31 and Php. 2:8)?



@Jaco van Zyl:

I don’t think the abstract thought in 1 Corinthians 7:31, which has its own distinctive literary background (Euripides, Bacchae 832; Philostratus, Vita Apoll. 8.7 §312), is relevant for Philippians 2:6. The more common idea behind schēma is the shape, form, outward appearance of a thing or person, but perhaps especially, in the case of persons, with the manner of attire in mind.

Lightfoot says that morphē “has not and cannot have any of those secondary senses which attach to σχῆμα [schēma], as gesture or dress or parade or pretext.”

The daughters of Zion are finely dressed, but God will “humiliate the ruling daughters of Zion, and the Lord will reveal their schēma in that day (Is. 3:17-18). They will be dressed instead with sackcloth and girdled with a rope, so either their schēma is their naked form or the humiliated form that they will receive when Jerusalem is judged by God. Jesus was “found in schēma as a human person” but he humbled himself.

Similarly, Hezekiah “removed his royal apparel, clothed himself in sackcloth, and took up a humble schēma…” (Josephus, Ant. 10:11; cf. 11:221-3, 225).

In Shepherd of Hermas 25:1 there is a description of a visionary figure with a glorious face, who appears “in the schēma of a shepherd, with a white skin wrapped around him and with a bag on his shoulders and a staff in his hand” (Hermas 25:1*).

The word sometimes carries the negative connotation of a false, deceptive or seductive appearance, but these clearly do not apply in the case of Jesus being found in schēma as a human person:

For women are evil, my children, and by reason of their lacking authority or power over man, they scheme treacherously how they might entice him to themselves by means of their appearance (en schēmasin). And whomever they cannot enchant by their appearance (schēmatos) they conquer by a stratagem. (T. Reuben 5:1–2*)

Since I was drunk with wine, I did not recognize her and her beauty enticed me through the schēma of her presentation (kosmēseōs). (T. Judah 12:3*)

It’s possible, of course, that in Philippians 2:6 schēma is used only for stylistic variation.