I have spent much of the last couple of years revising my understanding of Phil 2:6–11. The journey has been uncomfortable. For the duration of the time you are forced to rearrange your mental furniture there can be nowhere comfortable to sit. But the rearrangement has been necessary and the end result has far reaching implications.
I figured a revision was necessary once I investigated carefully some of the passage’s language, and at the Cambridge New Testament seminar next Tuesday I will present some of my conclusions about the precise meaning of the expression τὸ εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ that Paul employs in Phil 2:6c.
These words are usually taken to mean an ‘equality with God’ and many have insisted this is only a status, not a nature or essence. The phrases is treated as a parade example of the conclusion that, across the earliest Christological texts, Christ’s divinity was not conceived in the anachronistic terms of later Patristic discussions of ontology, that were influenced by dialogue with Greek philosophy. However, remarkably no one has undertaken a thorough investigation of comparable Greek expressions and the arguments of many in the nineteenth century (and three German scholars in the twentieth) that the Greek cannot mean ‘equality with God’ have been ignored.
I have found more than 140 texts, from Homer down to the early third century C.E., that use ἴσος/ἴσα + θεός in ways that are comparable to Phil 2:6c, in five discrete syntactic constructions. Phil 2:6c should now be categorised as a rarely attested construction, but one which would probably sound Homeric in the first century, since it first appears in Iliad 5:441–2 and 21:315. Phil 2:6c is closest to a line in Homeric Hymns 5, line 214 (where ἶσα θεοῖσιν modifies an optative form of the verb εἰμί), but is similar also to a section of Pseudo-Perictione’s On the Harmony of Women (two texts which have not, until now, figured in the interpretation of Phil 2:6). According to the basic rules of Greek and, in keeping with these (and a few other) comparative texts, Phil 2:6c must mean ‘being in a manner equal with God’, or more precisely, ‘a/the being that is in a manner equal with God’s manner of being’ (as our nineteenth century forebears saw). The ἴσα θεῷ is an adverbial, ‘in a manner equal with God’, not an adjectival ‘equal with God’.
In several respects, however, the words τὸ εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ are unique and they have a precise two-fold purpose in this passage that has until now been missed by all commentators.
1. The expression τὸ εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ has a strongly active, verbal, force. (This has been missed, in part, because commentators have not appreciated the fact that the Greek verb εἶναι can have a durative and active force—’to live, be alive, to dwell, be present, or be available’). This is fitting because, within the οὐκ … ἀλλά construction that orders the thought sequence in vv. 6–8, τὸ εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ is interpreted by Christ in his act of self-emptying and his becoming human in vv. 7–8. One burden of these verses is to say that, strangely and scandalously for Greco-Roman readers, Christ exegetes divine equality by his becoming human; by incarnation.
2. In verse 6c τὸ εἶναι is used absolutely, to denote ‘Being’. (In Greek τὸ εἶναι can be used either predicatively or absolutely, as in English also. In English ‘being’ can be used predicatively as in the sentence, ‘Being the brightest in her class she won the competition’, or it can be used absolutely, as in, ‘The mystic sat cross-legged and meditated on the nature of ‘Being’). So the first half of the hymn, in its description of the incarnation, uses language that is highly suggestive of the Platonic distinction between being and becoming, as can be seen in this English translation:
‘who being (ὑπάρχων) in the form of God, considered being (τὸ εἶναι) (that is) in a manner equal with God’s being, not harpagmos, but emptied himself, … becoming (γενόμενος) in human likeness … becoming (γενόμενος) obedient to death.
A two-fold being defines Christ’s pre-incarnate, heavenly, existence. A two-fold becoming describes his contingent, earthly, existence (that ended in death). This is the basic Platonic distinction between being and becoming. It is true that Plato usually uses the words (τὸ) ὄν and οὐσία for ‘being’. But the verb γίνομαι is the standard Platonic verb for becoming. Furthermore, occasionally Plato used τὸ εἶναι for ‘being’ and passages in Philo and Plutarch show that in the middle Platonism of the first century C.E. τὸ εἶναι was regularly used in this way and that the verb ὑπάρχω (and its nominal form) also figured in such contexts.
Plato and his followers insisted that ‘being’ cannot ‘become’. Paul’s Christ hymn describes, by contrast, the life of one who, in recent history, demonstrated a being equal to God’s being precisely in the act of his becoming human and mortal. The hymn most certainly describes Christ’s divine identity in ontological terms, though it does so to offer a new kind of dynamic, incarnational, divine ontology.
Already, before Paul wrote to the Philippians, the earliest followers of Jesus were describing Jesus’ divine identity in terms of a kind nature or ontology—in terms of divine being.