“The Name above all names” (Phil 2:9)

Earlier this week I presented a paper at the St Andrews Divinity School Biblical Studies Research Seminar. The paper was warmly received, several responses have helped me further strength my case and none, as far as I could tell, seriously questioned or undermined my argument. I have posted a (slightly worked up) copy of the paper on my academia.edu site and have created a 30 day feedback session there so folk can view and comment if they would like.

Here is a brief summary of the argument.

The majority of scholars think that in Phil 2:6–11 Paul reminds his readers of a piece of Christian tradition; a poem or a hymn in praise of Christ. In the second stanza of that piece (vv. 9–11) the poem says that God gave the risen and exalted Christ a new name—a “name above all names”. There has been considerable debate about the identification of that supreme name. Most scholars now advocate one of three options:

  1. The name is “Lord” (Greek: kyrios).
  2. The name is God’s own name; Yhwh or Kyrios in the sense that the Greek word “Kyrios” functioned as a translation of the Hebrew word that Jews used as a substitute for the name of God—adonai.
  3. The name is “Jesus”.

An argument can be made for each of these. A careful reading of the Greek of Phil 2:9–11 in its original first century historical context gives grounds for each of them. Although there is no consensus, the majority (including leading voices in the study of NT Christology such as Larry Hurtado and Richard Bauckham) now vote for option 2.

However, there are seriously problems with each of these three. Option 2, for example, surely implies that Paul believed that Jesus somehow became YhwhKyrios at his exaltation. If he was divine already in pre-existence (where he is “in the form of God” in v. 6), at v. 9 he is exalted to a higher position as a result of his receipt of the divine name. (For an example of the way this reading works and its implications for an account of the origins of the earliest beliefs about Jesus, see a recent blog post by Larry Hurtado).

In the paper I gave at St Andrews I argue for a different approach to the one that almost all modern scholars currently take. I agree that Christ is identified with the divine name. The citation of language that describes the nations’ prostration to the one God in Isa 45:23 in vv. 10–11—“every knee shall bow … every tongue confess”—makes that clear. But there are numerous reasons to doubt that the name that Jesus receives for the first time in v. 9 is Yhwh-Kyrios. There is no clear parallel to this idea anywhere else in the earliest Christian documents where is, on the contrary, rather widespread and consistent evidence for the belief that Christ was identified with Yhwh-Kyrios already in pre-existence.

My approach is not entirely unprecedented. It is present, for example, in Maurice Jones’s commentary (published in 1918) and it is anticipated by two recent articles (one by Sam Vollenweider and the other by Michael Martina and Bryan Nash). Vollenweider, Martin and Nash propose that the “name above all names” actually refers to two names. Following Jones, I go one step further and argue that the supreme name is clearly stated in v. 11. The Greek of that verse is usually translated:

And every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (so e.g. ESV, NRSV, NIV)

However, the grammar of that verse is ambiguous and an equally, if not more likely, translation supplies the answer to the question, “what is the name above all names?” I translate the whole of verses 9–10 this way (with explanatory paraphrasing in brackets):

9 “Wherefore, God also highly exalted him,
and gave to him the name (onoma)
above all names,
10 in order that at the (utterance of) the name Jesus,
every knee should bow
in heaven and on earth and under the earth
11 and every tongue confess/acclaim,
“Lord/LORD Jesus Christ,”
to the glory of God the Father.

The name above all names is the three-part name-title “Lord/LORD Jesus Christ”. The name Yhwh-Kyrios is not given to Christ at his exaltation after death. The onoma that is “given” is a multi-part name title that is given in the sense that, for the first time after his death and resurrection, Jesus is publicly known and recognised as—and to be worshipped as—the one who is also Kyrios and Christos. His name-title contains the divine name (Yhwh-Kyrios), but it specifies the divine person for whom the hymn provides a brief biography as the one who has now (at the end of days) uniquely manifested the divine identity: Yhwh-Kyrios-Jesus-Messiah. 

This understanding of the divine name makes sense of the Greek expression κύριος Ἰησοῦς χριστός (that I have translated “Lord/LORD Jesus Christ”) in the context of both Philippians (cf. 1:2; 3:20; 4:23) and the rest of Paul’s letters. It also makes very good sense given the various ways names and titles functioned in the first century Jewish and Greco-Roman worlds (especially in texts honoring and praising human and divine persons). The three-part name title beautifully sums up the description of Christ in the hymn, where he is portrayed as: (a) a sovereign “Lord,” (b) “Yhwh-Kyrios” made-manifest, (c) the man Jesus of Nazareth (exalted to heaven), and (d) the Messiah who sums up in his life story the identity of all humanity (as a new Adam).

The Greek of v. 11 is ambiguous. (There are multiple, deliberate, ambiguities all the way through the hymn). First century readers or hearers of the piece would construe the Greek in several ways, all of which would help to unpack the primary sense that the one who was “in the form of God” in pre-existence is now known and worshipped as “kyrios Iēsous Christos”.

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