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.