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Philippians 2:6: The “Hymn” That Sparks Debate

Updated: Jan 22, 2023




Introduction


In what is said to be the most debated passage in the entire Pauline corpus we now venture into the “Philippians hymn” (?). Several keywords will be briefly examined in this article. μορφῇ will be introduced first. For clarity, the question mark inserts after the word Hymn that I employ are indications of uncertainty, that is I understand that there is no general consensus in scholarship as to whether this passage is a hymnic devotion to Christ at all. In my personal view, this passage is likely a epideictic passage utilizing the marker epainos (praise) rather than a pre-existing hymn since in rhetorical hypothesis and practice the latter term is used for longer and more intricate praise of individuals rather than the shorter kinds of passages found in the GNT. Furthermore, Matthew E. Gordle suggest that “introductory formulas and the advent of a passage with a relative pronoun are characteristics of nonhymnic passages as well”. [1]


Philippi by the first century


A region founded in the 4th century BC located some eight miles northwest of the ancient seaport Neapolis became a province rich with gold and silver, the settlement that would come to be known as Philippi was originally given the name Κρενίδες [Crenides] (Greek for fountains) in proximity of less than a century, nevertheless, in 356 BC… In 42 BC, Philip II of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great, named the new city after himself, “Philippi” (Colonia Victrix Philippensium). By the time around the first century when Paul first visits [Acts 16]; Natives of Romans, Greece and Thrace dominated the population. In a society where socioeconomic status was extensive, along with the worship of multiple deities and even the Emperor (likely Nero), Paul was compelled to write while under arrest to encourage a small group of believing Gentiles and Jews to remain in a Christlike humility. If this was a corridor for mimicking the attitude a two natured “God-man”, then we can't even begin to comprehend Paul’s request to his audience as it pertains to how to have a mind of an omniscient being.


Paul suggest to his readers, τοῦτο γὰρ φρονείσθω (think this of yourself). This is not to say, think of yourself as God, but abate your so-called omniscient prerogatives, become more benevolent than the creator himself. For such a request to think of yourself as the ultimate being would have been nonsensical to the original audience.



Exposition and Exegesis


Obviously, the word from μορφῇ (form) plays a vital role in our exegesis, the noun generally means throughout scripture to refer to the external appearance, visible shape or appearance of someone (or something). For example, it is used in Mark 16:12 where Jesus appeared to the women in the garden after the resurrection in a different "form” (ἐν ἑτέρᾳ μορφῇ). This was not an issue of his ontology or essence. It was the reason that the women did not recognize him when they looked at him. In Job 4:16, there is much support for a outside appearance hypothesis. It reads; “It stood still, but I could not discern the ἦν μορφὴ thereof”. See also Wisdom 18:1, Philo, Leg. Gai. 299; Herm. Vis. 3.10.2.


Looking at the text microscopically, we can clearly see how the Apostle uses a literary style of compare and contrast in his letter to the Philippians. Paul alludes to the distinction between “μορφῇ θεοῦ” (form of God) and “μορφὴν δούλου” (form of a servant). Likewise in Philippians 3:21 he drew a similar contrast between "the humble body" and "the glorified body." Philippians 2:6 could be using "the form of God" to refer to the condition and status of Jesus after he was exalted and glorified (Philippians 2:9-11). Being in the μορφῇ (form) of God clearly alludes to his social status (or the appearance of) a God’s firstborn and his kingly status. [2] Similar to how Adam was given dominion over all creatures on earth. Yet Christ did not use those privileges to his advantage. He did not regard being equal with God (power and authority) as something to seize upon, unlike previous kings such as Solomon & David. There are no ontological elements in this passage as “Orthodoxy” suggests. The discussion is not about what 'nature' Jesus had, but about what 'disposition' he was as human.


Verse five reads "τοῦτο φρονεῖτε ἐν ὑμῖν ὃ καὶ ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ”. The word 'φρονεῖτε' (froneite) is the theme of the entire passage and seems to neutralize the theory of “the incarnation”. The function of this word has an anaphoric origin, that is it is bringing back a previous idea from earlier. The imperfective element of this term intensifies the process of reasoning the way Jesus reasoned…We are to be of the same disposition as Christ. Again, if he had physically come from heaven (as YHWH) to only strip himself of godlike glory, the entire exhortation of the man Christ Jesus would have been meaningless to us. We in retrospect did not have godly glory in the beginning to set aside. Thus the theory is unrelatable…



Historical influence


Since Philippi was well-known for its social status-oriented culture, Paul logically in his discourse reflects on how honorific recognition and prestigious titles preoccupied the people of Philippi. [3]…Not to mention the Roman society in Philippi was a bedrock for the Imperial cults. Going back to the beginning, in a compare and contrast to Adam being God’s vice-regent having dominion over all, before his history-altering sin, did not pass the test in the end. We know a “position of authority” or “power” is precisely-biblical with how the Hebraic idea of “equality with God” is used in several biblical and extra-biblical parallels. Christ was compared to Adam is clear in the Pauline letters (e.g. Romans 5:12-21, 1 Cor. 15:21-22, 45-47) [4]. Theologically the passage is essentially about Christ on the strength that it highlights him indirectly against the background of Adam's downfall. Pointing out symbolically Adam's deadly choice in an attempt to "be like God" using his status as the earthly ruler and rebel against him. Where the first Adam failed (trying to be like God), Christ did not regard equality with God as a thing to be confiscated.


A detailed comparison to Adam to solidify Adam's Christology in the Hymn would be evident because it elludes to the contrast between Christ and Adam. Christ humbled himself >Adam rebelled; Christ Voluntarily humbled himself > Adam was forcibly humbled by the Most High. Christ was exalted and given authority and rulership> Adam was cursed due to his rebellion. Christ didn't want to be equal to God> Adam wanted to be like God. Ideally, this passage indeed shows us how and why the Messiah was called the new Adam who reversed and negated all that the first Adam did. [5]


Cultural Circumstances


Given the presence of Imperial Cults and emperor homage that co-existed within the city of Philippi, we can safely say that this text can be seen as a polemic against them. This is not strange for Paul to do as we can see Paul's anti-imperial gospel preaching in 1 Corinthians (6:8, 2:6-8, and 15:24). Philippians, like Corinthians, seem to draw a direct and explicit contrast between the earthly pagan Lord Caesar and the human Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.




A king's Authority represents God in form


Professor Joseph Hellerman (a Trinitarian) who also argues for “status” says in his dissertation “MORFH QEOU AS A SIGNIFIER OF SOCIAL STATUS IN PHILIPPIANS 2:6” that “Samuel’s speech to Israel in 1 Sam 8:10-18 indicated an Israelite king had the right to take men for military service; women for domestic service; and land and a tenth part of the harvest, flocks, and herds for the support of the monarchy, and to require state service by both the people and their animals. Jesus in a state of humility chose to wash his disciple's feet, heal the sick and feed the needy”[6].


Since Jesus did the total opposite of complete royalty, it meant nothing (οὐδέν). This a great example of humbling that we as creatures can relate to and be of the same mindset. Hellerman says “he denied himself and his own will and serve the One who is higher than himself: his God”.


Being in the form of God has an anaphoric origin in the first book of the Old Testament where the details of creation are expounded upon. Some exegetes indeed see form and image as synonymous terms. H. Gunkel takes a quite diverse nature, basing his resolution on Gen 5:3, which can be understood of appearance or external form, and on the anthropomorphic way in which the Old Testament describes God when he is clearly presented in human guise. He says: 'The first human being is like God in form and appearance." G. von Rad tracks him: 'The likeness of the person to God is to be understood in a predominantly corporeal sense," and W. Zimmerli likewise: "There is no getting around the fact that this first expression intends a real external relationship. The human form is an image of the divine form...


ἁρπαγμὸν


This Greek word is a one-off, that is in linguistic terms an hapax legomenon: Several lexicographical sources seems to differ on the essential connotation. The different interpretations are predicated on whether the word has a force of extorting something by force (robbery), snatching, or taking something wrongfully (to plunder) which would convey an active sense. Or there are those who take the Passive sense, that is to exploit, to retain in a positive sense, or to desire as a prize. Ironically most NT scholarship (which is Trinitarian dominated) leans towards the passive (exploit or retain).


τὸ εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ (to be equal with God):The phrase μορφῇ θεοῦ is modified by the phrase τὸ εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ and should be read with no inner reality in mind. This can be determined by the true meaning of the hapax legomenon (ἁρπαγμὸν).


However, with theological bias aside, the weight of literary parallels, contextual, lexicographic, and cultural background evidence shifts the meaning towards an active reading. That is “to be robbery”, “to snatch” or “plunder”.


The Liddell & Scott Greek Lexicon defines "ἁρπαγμὸν" as "robbery", "snatch away", and "prize to be grasped", “seize hastily”, “overmaster” or “adopt”. [7]…Zondervan has it defined as a “thing plundered or seized..., and so spoil, booty or a prize of war." We also have testimonies from cognate forms such as ἅρπαγμα (Job 29:17) and ἁρπάγματα (Ezekiel 22:25), which is translated as Seize or robberies.



In conclusion, Paul here sends a message to the believers in Philippi to refrain from the Imperial influences of Roman culture that held individuals with high status, honor, and/or the exercise of authority (Luke only used technical terms for the titles of the rulers of Philippi officials and other magistrates) as a thing to be seized that we should render loyalty to Christ and have his mindset (2:5). Though he was in a position of King, one who has the authority of God thus being equal and in the μορφῇ of God [8] did not exercise such gestures, yet he was a humble servant who washed his disciple's feet, healed the sick, and died on the cross. There are no hints of any ontological equality with God elements in this text, only authoritative components. [9]


Note: the 2nd-century Papyrus Heid. 1716.5 literally reads τί θεὸς τὸ κρἀτοῦν τί βασιλευς ίσοθεὸς. [10]


True Humility and exaltation: We should be defining humility within a human capacity, something we can closely relate to. Likewise, true humility is the act of disavowing one’s own honor and sanctity for the sake of others in return one will be praised and rewarded. Paul (assuming Hebrews is Paul's pin) does something similar in Hebrews 5:2-10 when he uses the analogy of a high priest candidate who knew he was the next in line for the office but declares "And no man taketh the honor unto himself” but waited to be appointed by God. Likewise, Jesus was "obedient" until God "saved him from death”. Paul learned well from the patriarchs of old such as Adam who failed in humility and Nehemiah who in his moving intercessory prayers (Neh. Chpt 1&9) never took glory for himself instead gave God all the credit. Also, see 2 Macc 9:12. [11] There are no ontological implications there.



Similar ideas in Paul’s theological playbook


Incidentally, the perception of the hymn based on the plain reading fits perfectly with Paul‘s comments about Jesus in 2 Corinthians 8:9: The status motifs are striking.


--For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake, he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.--


Also, we see a striking parallel and maybe an allusion to Phil 2 in 2 Timothy 3:5: “holding a form [μόρφωσιν] of godliness, but having denied [ἠρνημένοι] the power [δύναμιν] thereof: from these also turn away [ἀποτρέπου].” The middle passive ἠρνημένοι (denied) points up to a form of humility in and of itself. It also uses a μορφή cognate in a manner that directly contradicts the inward reality or a ontological assumption of the object in view.


Likewise, this plainly tells us that Christ had something very rare that he gave up for his people's sake. This is quite similar to Paul‘s testimony to the Philippians: ―although he was existing in God‘s form ( ̳he was rich‘), he emptied himself, and took on the form of a slave ( ̳he became poor for our sake‘). So by the time of Jesus' baptism he was so filled with wisdom, knowledge, Spirit, and power that Paul says he was "in the form (or likeness) of Elohim." Jesus also knew that equality with YHWH was impossible. Although he had all the attributes of high status, he downgraded himself and made himself of no prestige. He chose to become a servant.


Hymns to Jesus


Hymns are often misunderstood as a ritualistic liturgical device exclusive to "gods” or "God". Certainly, Pagans often utilized hymnic material to their gods and authority figures, not only for devotion and prayer but also for inspiration concerning important events in their time. (See the Homeric Hymns & The Sumerian Hymns)...


This was certainly not exclusive to Paganism, we can easily find in the Synoptic Gospels and see these concepts utilized by the authors themselves. The Characters in the Bible were not living in a vacuum, the ANE milieu was influential even within our own holy book.


Luke 1:68-79, Zachariah's Benedictus presents hymnic material in a poetic construction that incorporates the Covenant God in the initial strophe and dedicates a canticle (hymn) to his Son St. John the Baptist in the second strophe concerning his naming and circumcision.


The texts reads in summary,


Vs 68 "Blessed be the Lord, the God [Εὐλογητὸς Κύριος, ὁ Θεὸς τοῦ] of Israel; For he hath visited and wrought redemption for his people,”


Vs 76 "And you [σὺ], child, [John, the subject of the verb] will be called the prophet of the Most High. For you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,"


Hymns were common and not only exclusive to deity. Just as Zachariah sang a canticle (hymn) to his Son in conjunction with God, likewise we can accept and sing hymns dedicated to Jesus Christ because of his worthiness from all that he has accomplished. His death purchased persons from every different possible background.


Conclusion


Let us think about this first, if Paul wanted to tell us that Jesus was plainly God in this text then why not just plainly write to that likes of “Christ "who, being God”? A more clear and concise proposition. I contend the reason being is because Paul was telling the Philippians that Christ exemplifies God in μορφῇ and thought and he possesses the status of a king (who also represents God), he did not use it to his advantage. This was the total opposite of the practice of the imperialists. Paul emphasizes to the Philippians that there was a higher spiritual reward awaiting those who humble themselves. Christ perpetrated the ultimate humbling when he sacrificed himself on the cross. This is why we see such a lofty exaltation (ὑπερύψωσεν) applied to Jesus. We know this by the transitional double conjunction διὸ καὶ. διὸ is a inferential conjunction that points to exactly why something happened. Paul was making a parallel and contrast by declaring Christ who was in the μορφῇ (role) of God similar to how he took on the μορφὴν of a servant. It must be noted that a servant doesn’t connote essence, only a status should come to mind. [12]


Admittedly, the passage is quite ambiguous from a strictly grammar paradigm and cannot be settled from grammar alone. NT scholar Benjamin Karleen believes the interpretation of Phil 2:6-11 has immersed exegetes as much as any other passage in the GNT (Greek New Testament). Scholars up until today remain in curiosity, the interest in the examination of the passage’s origin, strophic structure, conceptual background, Christology, and vocabulary. [13]


Being made in the likeness of men: [nἐν ὁμοιώματι]. In form is locative. Greek grammarian Zerwick observes that “ὁμοίωμα -likeness (Rom 8:3) denies nothing of the volume of μορφή but of itself indicates simply that in every respect he was like a man”[14]. “Was made” [γενόμενος]. The Aorist +middle +participle +masc +nom +sg form of γίνομαι (means). The aorist participle describes “identical action” to ἐκένωσεν in first strophe and λαβών. See Acts 25:13; Rom 4:19, 21; Heb 9:12 and 1 Pet 3:18 as parallel examples. The two subordinate participles define what Paul meant by ἐκένωσεν, i.e., Jesus took the form of a servant and took on the likeness of human beings. Assumptions about the “Kenosis” of Jesus often needlessly theorize beyond these participles. The language of the passage does not promote such speculation but simply states that He (Jesus) was in the likeness of humankind rather than a pre-incarnate form. Again, there are no eternal pre-existing elements in this passage.


Can God be exalted and lifted up?


In theory, sure, God is said to have been lifted up in a unilateral sense. To be lifted up is not an exclusive feature only for divine beings. This issue must be nuanced out. To have the God of Israel lofty, on high and exalted is by no means a bilateral endeavor. For example, in Isaiah 6:1 & Isaiah 33:10 we see God magnifying himself as the sovereign entity of the universe. Isa.53 uses the Hithpōl 1st person singular (אֶנָּשֵׂא) which is properly translated "I will raise myself”. There is a significant distinction between the high exaltation (ὑπερύψωσεν) of Jesus, the Son of God by his God and Father and the magnification of God the Father’s self-exaltation in the Isianic-Deuteronic literature. One would be seen unilaterally and the other bi-laterally.[15] The idea of God or the divine authority would suffer and die only to be exalted is a non-existent theory in biblical proto-ancient Judaism and would have been theologically inconceivable. Philippians 2:9 declares διὸ καὶ (for this reason), that the Son humbled himself, he was exalted by his superior.


The extraordinary late Trinitarian turned Unitarian NT Scholar James D.G. Dunn in his well-known book “Christology In The Making” says and he quotes “that of the Adam Christology which was widely current in the Christianity of the ’40s and '50s. It seems to me that Phil. 2:6-11 is best understood as an expression of Adam Christology”.The comparison from a lesser to a greater hope is in Pauls corpus is heavy. The a minore ad maius literary device in most Hellenistic logic describes this technique as the “from the lesser to the greater”; in Hebrew it is called qal wehomer, “the light and the heavy.”nuanced out, the argument looks like this: if such and such is the case with x, which is a small matter, then it must be even more the case with y, which is a greater matter.


"that in the name of Jesus, every knee should bow, of things in heaven and things on earth and things under the earth” -Philippians 2:10


It is biblically acceptable for OT allusions applied to the covenant God to likewise apply to the NT revealed savior, Christ. These are dialectical compatible passages in that two things can be true that may seem to clash in nature.[16]


Hebrews is not the only New Testament writing to use the logic. We find in Rom 5:12–21, where Paul’s synkrisis (comparison) between Adam and the new Adam, Christ, is carried by the string of phrases πολλῷ μᾶλλον (“how much the more”), and has as its hypothesis that Christ is the beginning of a new humanity and a new reign of God more powerful than the reign of sin and death initiated by the first human:


Rom 5:19 (NET) — For just as through the disobedience of the one man many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of one man many will be made righteous.


Adam's disobedience > death-Christ obedience to death > life.



 

Footnotes:


[1] An exerpt from: "New Testament Christological Hymns: Exploring Texts, Contexts, and Significance" by Matthew E. Gordley.


[2] Joseph Hellerman (a Trinitarian) who also argues for “status” says in his dissertation “MORFH QEOU AS A SIGNIFIER OF SOCIAL STATUS IN PHILIPPIANS 2:6”1. https://www.biola.edu/blogs/good-book-blog/2012/in-the-form-of-god-phil-2-6


[4] Romans 5:12 “Therefore, as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin; and so death passed unto all men, for that all sinned:—Verse 18 is specifically significant because of the emphatic parallelism between the condemnation from Adam and righteousness from Jesus Christ. “So then as through one trespass the judgment came unto all men to condemnation; even so through one act of righteousness the free gift came unto all men to justification of life.”




[6]see reference 2


[7] Liddell y Scott_A Greek-English Lexicon Pg 174 ἁρπαγ-μός, ὁ,

1. robbery, rape, Plu. 2.12a; ἁ. ὁ γάμος ἔσται Vett.Val. 122.1.

2. concrete, prize to be grasped, Philippians 2:6; cf. ἅρπαγμα 2.


[8] The Pap. Heid. 1716.5 mimics this assertion

[9] See also Peter Oakes “Re-mapping the Universe: Paul and the Emperor in 1 Thessalonians and Philippians,”[2005] 301–22).

[10] Ibid 8


[11] 2 Maccabees 9:12…12 And when he could not endure his own stench, he uttered these words, “It is right to be subject to God; mortals should not think that they are equal to God.”[a]

[12] Joseph H. Hellerman notes "Still other texts use μορφῇ and its cognates in a manner that directly contradicts the inward reality [essence, nature or ontology ] of the object in view. Consider 2 Tim 3:5: “holding to the outward form of godliness (μόρφωσιν εὐσεβείας) but denying its power.” Similarly, Plutarch compares uneducated rulers to “colossal statues which have a heroic and godlike form (μορφή) on the outside but inside are full of clay, stone, and lead” (Plut. Ad Princ. Inerud. 780a). https://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/52/52-4/JETS%2052-4%20779-797%20Hellerman.pdf *italics mine



[13] The Interpretation of to einai isa theo in Phil 2:6: "Equality with God"?[Benjamin Karleen Doctorat en études anciennes

Philosophiæ doctor (Ph. D.)]


[14] GAGNT, 596


[15] See the Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon entry of the root word רוּם: Isaiah 33:10 (Ges§ 54c Köi. 454) I will raise myself (+ אָקוּם, אֶנָּשֵׂא). Also see Gesenius' Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon: high, lofty, used of a seat, Isa. 6:1; a mountain, Eze. 20:28, ete.; of a man of tall stature, Deu.1:28; 2:10, 21


[16] A dialectic is when two seemingly conflicting things are true at the same time. In the case of the New Testament utilization of Old Testament text that seems to be exclusive to God, can biblically be applied to his most prestigious earthly representative. It seems on the surface outrageously uncommon for a human to have similar divine prerogatives as the Supreme being. These two ideas are certainly simultaneously true.





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