A Whole New Approach to the Christ Hymn in Phil 2

The writing of volume 2 of my Jesus Monotheism series has taken longer than expected.

The main reason is that in my work on the Christ hymn in Phil 2 I have been forced to acknowledge dimensions of Phil 2:6–11 which I had missed and parts that I had, in the past, misunderstood. I am relieved to report that my mind is now settled and I am now in the writing up stage of the Philippians chapter. But I have had to go through a paradigm shift in my thinking.

The shift has been precipitated by two factors: lexical semantics and historical context. In short, I have come to see that some of the words do not mean what I thought they meant and I have, progressively, come to the realisation that the hymn, especially its first half, has to be interpreted in a Greco-Roman (pagan), not just a Jewish, cultural context. (The underlying ideas are thoroughly biblical, but their presentation is Greco-Roman).

In the last month I have presented the results of my latest research and thinking on this passage to two university NT Seminars (one at the University of Gloucestershire and one in Cambridge), and the reception I received on both occasions has encouraged me to think I am on the right path.

Here is an abstract of the Cambridge presentation. (A full version of the paper is available on my Academic.edu page where it is also possible to leave comments on the specifics of the argument):

As many have now seen, Phil 2:6–11 (along with 3:20–11) is a traditional hymnic piece that uses Greco-Roman language for divine rulers to express a kind of “imperial Christology.” Whilst the second half (vv. 9–11) cites biblical prophecy (Isa 45:23), the first half lacks scriptural language. Instead it employs Greco-Roman language, especially the conventional terminology for the gods’ self-transformations; stories of gods taking on a new “form (μορφή)” to visit human communities in disguise. Besides the shared language that has been noted especially by German scholars (D. Zeller, U. B. Müller and S. Vollenweider, cf. A. Y. Collins), there are other ways in which verses 7–8 employ the distinctive terminology of divine self-transformations that have hitherto escaped commentators’ notice. Together, Phil 2:6–11 and 3:20–11 also echo distinctive themes of those stories, for example in the combination of divine self-transformation (2:6–8) and the gods’ transformation of human beings (3:21). Christ is a divine ruler who comes to earth in a way that is comparable to the poetic vision of Octavian as a self-transforming God who comes to earth as Rome’s saviour in Horace Odes 1:2 (lines 42ff). However, in other ways Christ’s divine self-transformation is like no other: he empties himself and lives a whole human life, dying on a cross (see vv. 7a, 8a–c), things that the pagan gods never do.

All this points to a fresh approach to the much-discussed problem of the harpagmos clause in Phil 2:6. The use of the rare word ἁρπαγμός is not satisfactorily explained by the theory of Roy Hoover that, in this context (ἡγέομαι + a double accusative), it means “something to take advantage of”. Also, v. 6c means “being in a manner equal (ἴσα) with God”. It does not mean “equality with God”. Following David Fredrickson recent and stimulating discussion of the language of desire in Philippians (Eros and the Christ: Longing and Envy in Paul’s Christology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), I present a three-layered interpretation of 2:6ff that takes seriously the consistent lexicographical evidence (of Plutarch On the Education of Children 15; Vettius Valens Anthology 2.38 and Ms Va of Pausanias Description of Greece 1.20.3) that ἁρπαγμός means “abduction for marriage”. First, Christ reckons that the divine identity is not constituted by the kind of aggressive and deceptive erotic pursuits ascribed to Zeus and the other gods. Secondly, he reckons that “being in a manner equal with God” does not mean, as Caligula (and perhaps other kings and emperors) claimed (Cassius Dio Roman History 59.26.5), that as a divine ruler one is entitled to imitate the immortal gods by seizing and raping whoever turns you on. Thirdly, by this contrast with the gods and with soidisant divine rulers, the hymn sets forth the life of Christ as a revelation of the true character of God’s desire (ἐπιπόθησις—cf. Phil 1:8; 2:26; 4:1) for humanity; a desire focused on humanity’s, not Christ’s, interests (cf. 1:4).

Thankfully, my changing my way of reading the text does not adversely affect the overall argument of the four volumes of Jesus Monotheism. Indeed, it confirms one of the principal contentions of the whole project, namely that incarnation was more important—historically and theologically—for the earliest Christology than has been recognised by most recent scholarship. The hymn begins with a clear and emphatic statement of incarnation. The reader (or hearer) does not have to wait until the second half to hear a Christology of divine identity through exaltation, as if Christ’s biography is modelled on the pattern of imperial apotheosis that prevailed in Roman political discourse. Furthermore, by adopting the language of the gods’ self-transformations to tell the the story of Christ’s incarnation Paul (and whoever was the author of the hymnic piece) are true to the texts’s incarnational theology. A theology of incarnation takes the linguistic—and cultural—form that the audience will recognise. Form reflects content.

Some might wonder whether this provides evidence to think that Paul (or the earliest believers) came to a Christology of pre-existence as a result of exposure to contemporary pagan ways of thinking. There are many reasons why this is highly unlikely. For one thing, as I note in the Cambridge paper, the God-coming-to-earth-as-a-divine-ruler model was rare in the Roman world. So there is no reason to think pagan beliefs about rulers would have exercised a pressure on the earliest Christians to think the same way about their king (Messiah Jesus). On the contrary, there is considerable evidence—much of it hitherto unnoticed—that belief in Christ’s incarnation arose in the Jewish context of his own life and reflection on it in the immediate aftermath of his crucifixion.

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