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In the form of a god: the anarthrous genitive construction

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This is a dull, and frankly unnecessary, technical note on the genitive construction with a preposition en morphēi theou (ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ) in Philippians 2:6. I’ve had to look at this a bit more closely following a rather disjointed conversation with someone on Twitter who had different grammatical objections to John Baumberger to my translation “in the form of a god.” The following summary is based on Daniel Wallace’s Greek Grammar: Beyond the Basics (1996).

A noun in Greek without the article (that is, an anarthrous noun) may be indefinite (“a woman,” “a house”) or qualitative (“life,” “love”), but under certain conditions definite nouns (“the woman,” “the house”) may also lack the article (244-45).

One of those conditions is if the noun is the object of a preposition, so if we just had en morphēi, for example, morphē could be either definite or indefinite (“in the form” or “in a form”), and we would have to rely on the context to resolve the ambiguity (247). As it is, the definiteness or otherwise of morphēi is determined by its relation to theou, as we shall see.

In the case of genitive constructions such as morphē theou, Apollonius’ canon applies (250-54), though by no means without exceptions: the two nouns either both have or do not have the definite article, and there is little semantic difference between the two. There is a corollary to this rule which says that when both nouns are anarthrous (as in the present instance), they will usually have the same semantic force: both will be definite, or both will be qualitative, or both will be indefinite.

None of these considerations—I think I can say with some confidence—precludes my translation. As far as the syntax goes, we could translate either “in the form of the god,” which in context would probably have to be the God of Israel since no other god has been mentioned, or “in the form of a god”—or perhaps qualitatively “in the form of divinity.”

The thrust of the syntactical discussion, in other words, is not that the anarthrous theou must be definite but that it may be definite.

But my contention is that morphē does not allow a reference to the one God of Jewish belief because it invariably denotes the outward appearance of a person or object. I deal with the many attempts to rescue the traditional view, or something like it, at considerable length in In the Form of a God: The Pre-existence of the Exalted Christ in Paul.

The corollary to Apollonius’ canon was developed on the basis of studies of the New Testament literature, and the only other genitive construction with an indefinite theou I could find is in the acclamation of Herod, “The voice of a god (theou phōnē) and not of a man!” (Acts 12:22). In English “the voice of a god” is a natural translation: no particular god is specified, but it is the voice of that indefinite “god” that is intended. A similar New Testament exception to the corollary would be “the face of an angel” (prosōpon angelou) in Acts 6:15.

But it is hardly a peculiar idea, and other examples of the anarthrous genitive construction with an indefinite theou may be cited.

In the Septuagint: “voice of a god” (phōnēn theou) (Deut. 4:33), “habitation of a god” (katoikian theou) (Ezek. 28:2), “heart of a god” (kardian theou) (Ezek. 28:2, 6).

In the Lexicon of Photius, the word theeidestaton (“most godlike”) is defined “possessing the outward appearance of a god (theou idean)” (D42 [B48] Photius, Lexicon).

We have reference to a person who “did not wear a ring with the image of a god (theou sēmeion)” (Philostratus, Apollonius of Tyana, Testimonia 256).

Nestor says to Telemachus: “Tell me…, do the people throughout the land hate you, following the voice of a god (theou omphēi)?” (Homer, Odyssey 3.214-15; cf. 16:96).

Dio Chrysostom says that the Sibyl “obtained as her prerogative the voice of a god (theou phōnēn)” (Discourse 37 13).

In a polemic against idolatry, Josephus says that people have transformed base passions into “the nature and form of a god” (theou physin kai morphēn) (Ag. Ap. 2:248).

My thesis is that “being in the form of a god” presupposes rhetorically—not theologically—just this sort of pagan background. Jesus is praised as one who would have appeared “most godlike” to pagan onlookers, but when he was offered the chance to cash in his status as a son of the god of Israel, he turned it down.

Hi Andrew,

The above may have been somewhat mundane for you or even “unnecessary” but for me, it has been most helpful, so thank you. And also thankfully, my copy of your ‘In the Form of a God’ arrived yesterday!

On another though related matter, I have for a long time wondered and ponder over Paul’s… “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.” I may well be wide of the mark or maybe nowhere even near the mark, but wonder this…

Jesus was God’s man for the hour and likewise, before him Moses was God’s man for the hour, even to the point where Moses is declared “as God” (Ex 4:16; 7:1). Is that little word as even in those texts? but I digress, as my thought is this…

With Moses having assumed for himself the ‘royal we’ as in “Must we…?!” (Num. 20:10), could this in any way have any background relevance to Paul’s “to be grasped” – or is Moses restricting his we to himself and Aaron alone, and so, not grasping any equality or ownership along with God?; because he sure paid a high price for his infraction thereafter (Num. 20:12; Psa. 106:32-32).

As I said, I may be off the mark but have always wondered if there might be a tentative connection.

Hi Davo,

There is the idea in Hellenistic Jewish thought that Moses was the archetypal “divine man,” and I suspect that this concept lurks somewhere behind the pagan/post-pagan perception that the earthly Jesus had been in the “form of a god.” The boundary between divine epiphany and divine man is rather blurred.

But being considered like or equal to a god / God is not something that God bestows on Jesus in the way that being (as) a god to Pharaoh is bestowed on Moses.

I would have thought that the “we” in Numbers 20:10 is a reference to Moses and Aaron rather than a divine plural.

It was not hubris but a lack of faith that God Moses barred from entering the land (Num. 20:12).

Gerard Jayetileke | Fri, 05/12/2023 - 20:20 | Permalink

Hi Dr. Perriman,

A very mild detour if you would entertain it :)

Given that morphe refers to outward appearance/shape, and seeing as verse 6 uses the present participle, literally “who in form of (a) god existing…”, could the verse refer to Jesus’ glorified state where Paul is tying this form to his visionary experiences of Jesus? 

I guess my difficulty is in connecting Jesus literal(physical) appearance/shape while on earth to the idea of having a divine form.

So Paul would essentially be saying that Jesus who is currently in the form of a god/God, did not try to attain this sense of equality to god by force, but because of his obedience was rewarded with it.

Would like to hear your thoughts.

Gerard, it’s an interesting take on it, and perhaps it’s plausible to think that Paul has in mind the post-resurrection glorified state of Jesus. It at least keeps in view things that mattered to Paul and, as you note, Jesus’ physical appearance.

I don’t think there’s a grammatical reason for supposing that the present participle “being” must refer to Paul’s present rather than Jesus’ present at the time when he “did not think equality with God…”, etc.

Does not the order suggest some sort of logical relation between being in the form of a god and the rejecting equality with a god / God clause—at least temporal, if not concessive or causal? What would be the point of retrojecting the condition of the exalted Christ at this stage in the argument?

While we as modern believers may now have difficulty connecting Jesus’ physical appearance on earth with the pagan idea of a man in divine form or god in human form, it would not have been a problem for Greeks and possibly not even for Hellenistic Jews.

My argument is that the encomium tells the story of Jesus, in the first place, from a pagan or post-pagan perspective. But even Jews could translate orthodox Jewish ideas into Hellenistic cultural idioms, for various translational reasons.

What I think we have in this carefully constructed piece is not Pauline christology but post-pagan rhetoric: this is how the story of the Son sent to Israel appears to the Greek mind (verses 6-8), but this is what the God of Israel did for him (verses 9-11).

Does not the order suggest some sort of logical relation between being in the form of a god and the rejecting equality with a god / God clause—at least temporal, if not concessive or causal? What would be the point of retrojecting the condition of the exalted Christ at this stage in the argument?

My thinking here was that “being in the form of (a) god” and “equality with (a) god” have some sort of equivalence, where Christ did not attain this status by an attempt at seizure, but instead through an act of obedience and humility, which is precisely the logical relation between the two. This relation is precisely what makes me think that it must be referring to the exalted state because otherwise, I can’t think of a reason why form of god should be mentioned at all. And it’s not a retrojection of the exalted Christ, but a reminder of the state that preceded the current one. I feel it would also fit the immediate context better where the Philippians are exhorted to consider others better than themselves (probably due to an issue where they were doing the opposite, a la “first shall be last, and the last shall be first”).

Either way I certainly lean more towards your interpretation as to how form of (a) god would have been understood by Philippians and the larger Greco-Roman readership.

Hi Andrew,

While I’m not ready to embrace the view that Phil. 2 is shaped by paganism, I do agree that Θεοῦ is probably indefinite at Phil. 2:6.  My own reason is that there seems to be a literary correspondence between μορφῇ Θεοῦ and μορφὴν δούλου, which I find irresistible:

He existed in the form of….a god

He took the form of…………a servant

If this is the correct understanding/rendering then it seems to me that so many of the perceived difficulties with the text simply vanish.  It is unlikely that “orthodox” Christians will be eager to embrace this view, because, as J.C. O’Neill once pointed out, most are sure the text is “orthodox,” but it’s anachronistic to interpret Paul in light of ideas that emerged in a later time and very different socio-cultural ‘place.’  

I ordered your book today, btw.  

Yes, but then my question back to you is: how would “in the form of a god” have been understood by Greeks who had abandoned their idols to serve the living God if not by reference to the forms of pagan gods?

The collocation of morphē and theos is bound to have brought to mind such stories as Homer’s account of the servitude of Apollo and Poseidon when they were sent to rebuild the walls of Troy. Poseidon says to Apollo: “Do you not remember all the ills that we two alone of all the gods suffered at Ilios, that time when we came at the command of Zeus and served the lordly Laomedon for a year at a fixed wage, and he was our taskmaster and laid on us his commands?”

When Ovid retells the story, he says that Apollo “put on mortal form” (mortalem induitur formam) to work for Laomedon.

It’s by no means an exact analogy, but the language is common enough, I think, to suggest a readily intelligible motif of a figure in the form of a god taking on the form of a slave. There are other ways, too, in which the first part of the encomium reflects modes of Hellenistic (including Hellenistic-Jewish) story-telling.

In any case, it seems virtually impossible to account for the expression morphē theou in non-pagan terms.

Hi Andrew,

You said:

“In any case, it seems virtually impossible to account for the expression morphē theou in non-pagan terms.”

Maybe for those who are not familiar with the Divine Council motif that Mike Heiser did such a fine job popularizing; but, in my judgment, if one grants that such a body of “gods” was a known feature of ancient Jewish belief, then it becomes quite natural to think of the Son as one who was “in the form of a god.”  This would naturally require that the Son existed in heaven prior to his earthly life.

The problem there is still accounting for the language used. If Paul had written, “being one of the sons of God,” yes, that would be a plausible reference to a divine pre-existence. Perhaps it could be argued that Paul uses a pagan expression rhetorically to speak of Jesus’ status as a member of the divine council, but there’s no reason to think that other than the presupposition of pre-existence.

And why say “being in the form of a god” at all? Why not just “being a god”?

Presumably, also, to be in the form of something is not to be that thing—just as Jesus was only in the form of, or in the appearance of, a slave, not actually a slave. The point then would be that Jesus was not a god and, therefore, not a member of the divine council; he only had that appearance.

I didn’t come across the use of Heiser’s work to defend the idea of pre-existence but I could have missed something. Does he anywhere explain Philippians 2:6 in that way?

I had this to say about Psalm 82 and the council of gods a while back.

Just curious, do you deny the real preexistence of God’s Son, or do you merely reject that Phil. 2 refers to the Son in his preexistent state?  

The book only looks at Paul, and that’s all I’ve considered thoroughly; but I’m inclined to say that the pre-existence of Jesus is not found in what I regard as the dominant New Testament tradition, which I think is wholly forward-looking rather than backward-looking. Or if backward-looking, then from the place of belief in the exalted Spirit-Lord, not from the perspective of the disciples in Galilee and Judea—hence the subtitle: “The Pre-existence of the Exalted Christ in Paul.”

There is certainly the thought in Paul and elsewhere that the eternal wisdom of God gained novel traction through the improbable career of Jesus, and it may be that John imagined pre-existence in some way, though I’m not a Johannine scholar. Otherwise, I tend to think that the Greek church inevitably and rightly resolved perceived tensions in the New Testament eschatological paradigm in an accommodation of a pagan monotheism. Again, this takes me well out of my depth, but we have to think something.