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A Fuller Exposition of the Christ Poem in Philippians

I’ve been talking about the Christ poem in Philippians 2:6-10, and given some keys to it’s interpretation.  If you are new to the discussion, here is the poem itself, about “Jesus Christ….

Who, although he was in the form of God

Did not regard being equal with God

Something to be grasped after.

But he emptied himself

Taking on the form of a slave,

And coming in the likeness of humans.

And being found in appearance as a human

He humbled himself

Becoming obedient unto death – even death on a cross.

Therefore God highly exalted him

And bestowed on him the name

That is above every name.

That at the name of Jesus

Every knee should bow

Of those in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth.

And every tongue confess

That Jesus Christ is Lord

To the glory of God the Father.

 

I’ve said some things about it’s interpretation, but here I want to give a fuller explication of its meaning.  I’ve drawn this from my book How Jesus Became God  (so that there will be a bit of overlap with some of my earlier comments; but hey, just think how much better you’ll remember them now!)

 

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The Christ Poem and Incarnational Christology

There are in fact lots of things that could be said about this amazing passage.   Among scholars it is one of the most discussed, argued over, and commented upon passages in the entire New Testament.  If the majority of scholars are correct in their opinion that it embodies an incarnational Christology, then the basic perspective on Christ it paints is at any rate clear:  Christ was a pre-existent being who chose to come in the “likeness” of human flesh, who because he humbled himself to the point of death was elevated to an even higher status than he had before, and was made the Lord of all.   This view of Christ makes sense if we think of him as existing before his birth as an angelic being who abandoned his heavenly existence to come to earth to fulfill God’s will by dying for others.

I want to stress that Christ appears to be portrayed here, in his pre-existent state, as …

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Paul’s Incredibly High Christology
Did Paul Think Jesus Was a New Adam, Not a Divine Being?

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  February 28, 2020

    A beautiful exposition, and, among other things, we can see now how very, very, far modern Christianity has traveled from the original Christology. I think I like the original a lot better. Also, the early Judaic view of how the supernatural world is ordered makes vastly more sense (if one can make sense of the “supernatural” at all) than the later constructions of theologians with too much time on their hands. If only one could solve the problem of human suffering, and fit it into this framework! The result might be something worth believing, if one needs to believe in something.

  2. Avatar
    AstaKask  February 28, 2020

    So in Philippians Jesus is co-equal to YHWH but not the same, whereas in John they are indeed the same being (John 10:30)?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 1, 2020

      No they are definitely not the same in John. They are equal. (Otherwise Jesus, when he prays, would be talking to himself.)

      • Avatar
        dankoh  March 1, 2020

        There actually is such an instance in the Talmud, where the rabbis speculate about whether God prays. One rabbis says that God prays “May it be My will that My mercy overcome My anger. . . .” (Ber. 7a)

      • Avatar
        AstaKask  March 1, 2020

        But why does he use the “I AM” and “I and the father are one,” Are these not original to the text or is there something else going on?

        • Bart
          Bart  March 2, 2020

          The Angel of the Lord is sometimes identified as the Lord himself in the Old Testament (read the passage about MOses and the Burning Bush in Exodus 3 carefully, and you’ll see). So too with Jesus. The Angel was a separate being, but was so closely identified with the Lord that he could in a sense be fully representative of teh Lord. Just as if the king sends you a messentger, the messenger *is* the king to you.

      • Avatar
        anthonygale  March 1, 2020

        In John 14:28, doesn’t Jesus say the Father is greater than him? So how are they equal?

  3. epicurus
    epicurus  February 28, 2020

    I bet the New Testament authors would have chosen their words more carefully if they knew individual words they used were going to be dissected for thousands of years after, what with Jesus not actually returning and all.

  4. Avatar
    stokerslodge  February 28, 2020

    Bart, in 5:18 of John’s gospel it says Jesus “said that God was His Father, making Himself equal with God.” In what sense (do you think) did the writer of this gospel understand Jesus to be “equal with God”? Thank you.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 1, 2020

      He had the same divine status and so was equally worthy of worship,

  5. Avatar
    flshrP  February 28, 2020

    At the bottom of this fantasy is the idea that a finite divine being can become an infinite divine being (exaltation). This, of course, is just an example of magic thinking by an ancient people that has at best only a tenuous grasp of the concept of infinity. Bridging the gap between the finite and the infinite is a logical impossibility since one idea contradicts the other. If something is finite, it’s not infinite. And the infinite is by definition not finite. It’s like believing that there can be a married bachelor–a contradiction in terms. This error in logic leads Christian thinking eventually into the logical and conceptual quagmire that is the fantasy of the Trinity. And, of course, Christian theology teaches that its God is infinitely powerful, but His thinking cannot be illogical.

    That poem in Philippians is interesting, but it’s a logical mess.

  6. Avatar
    aar8818  February 28, 2020

    Brilliant post Dr Ehrman. Very insightful.

  7. Avatar
    fishician  February 28, 2020

    Do you think this poem is intentionally contrasting Jesus with Satan, who came to be thought of as an angel who DID grasp for being equal to God?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 1, 2020

      Interesting idea! But, my sense is that the idea of Satan falling because he wanted to be like God is a later development

  8. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  February 28, 2020

    Has the scholarly community been receptive to this view that Jesus was an angel who later was exalted into being God or have you encountered a lot of opposition to this view?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 1, 2020

      Not so much. I’d have hurt feelings, if it had been my own idea. 🙂

  9. Avatar
    lutherh  February 28, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman,

    From where do you think Paul (or whoever helped give Paul this idea) got the idea that Jesus was not just a man who had lived, become the son of God, died, and been resurrected (in some order), but rather that he was first a pre-existing, angelic being prior to his physical life in which he lived, died, was resurrected, etc.?

    Thanks in advance.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 1, 2020

      I deal with the transition in my book How Jesus Became God. Basic story: as Jesus gets increasingly exalted in Christain thought and worship, the heightened views led to higher Christologies.

  10. Avatar
    J--B  February 28, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman,

    You mentioned the similarity of the end of the Christ Poem with Isaiah 45:22-23. Is there any speculation as to which language (Hebrew, Greek, other) the “original” Christ Poem that Paul “quotes” in Greek and the Philippians possibly knew might have been in?

  11. Avatar
    bamurray  February 28, 2020

    What do other scholars think of the idea of Jesus’s preexistence as an angel? The late Larry Hurtado was very negative, and I seem to recall that he implied it was a minority – or even a fringe – view.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 1, 2020

      The best exposition is by Susan Garrett, No Ordinary Angel. My friend Larry generally didn’t like and minimized views he hadn’t been raised on. 🙂

  12. Avatar
    veritas  February 28, 2020

    Just to add a little zest, off topic or maybe related, King Melchizedek, is sometimes viewed as the incarnated Jesus of the New Testament, being perfected in his order. Melchizedek, was the King of righteousness and of peace, had no beginning or end and eternal. Moreover, from little we know of him, we don’t know if he had a mother and father. He was not from the Levitical genealogy (Aaron) and apparently he was the perfect priesthood. Abraham paid him a tenth (tithe) even though the law declared you pay the line of Levi only. Psalm 110 and Hebrews 7; 11-15 has some inclination towards Melchizedek being a great priest/god. What is your view Dr. Ehrman on this intriguing figure we know so little but is so powerful, could he have been Chris/God himself ?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 1, 2020

      Do you mean historically? No. He’s not presented that way in Genesis (the one account we have of him) He came to be a figure of Christ within Christain thinking because of the interesting parallels with the legends about him and the theologies developing about Jesus.

  13. Avatar
    godspell  February 29, 2020

    Still a very strong possibility that incarnation Christianity began with Paul, who had his vision on the road to Damascus sometime around 31-36–before this poem is likely to have been written. And once he started telling others of his experience, and his interpretation of it, the idea would spread. Like a virus. First imperceptible, then suddenly widespread. (Hmmm, how did that metaphor occur to me?)

    True, there’s nothing in what we’re told of Paul’s vision where Jesus identifies himself as a pre-existent spirit. But Paul insisted he had no sources for his own ideas, other than his own experience. Which didn’t include even a brief acquaintance with Jesus. To him, Jesus literally was just a spirit. The man Jesus wasn’t real to him. Only the voice that spoke to him, inside his head.

    So I’m skeptical this poem was any influence on him, and it seems entirely possible he was an influence on whoever wrote it. (Assuming he didn’t–I’ll leave that to the experts.) However, the same idea can occur to different people independently. And Paul might not have been the only person to hear about Jesus from those who had known him, and then had visions about him.

  14. Avatar
    brenmcg  February 29, 2020

    I don’t think Paul sees him as a high angelic being – he’s the son of God.

    He has the form of God because he is his son and takes on the form of a servant by being born of a woman.

    As the son of God, equality with God and Lordship of the cosmos is his birthright. However he doesn’t want to simply grasp what is his by right but wants to earn it. He humbles and sacrifices himself for humanity, as any righteous lord should do, so God raises him to the highest place giving him the titles Lord and Yahweh.

    The poem is telling us he earned these titles even though they were always his as a birthright and could be grasped at any time.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 1, 2020

      In the OT, angels are called “sons of God.”

      • Avatar
        brenmcg  March 1, 2020

        But none are described as “His own Son, whom He did not spare but gave up for all of us.”
        None as the “firstborn” or “heir”.

  15. Avatar
    anthonygale  February 29, 2020

    Has it ever been doubted that the poem was original to the letter?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 1, 2020

      Not seriously. It’s too intrinsic to the argument and there’s no hint that it’s an interpolation in any of our manuscripts.

  16. Avatar
    meohanlon  February 29, 2020

    Prof Ehrman,
    I wanted to point out a rather curious passage in the synoptic gospels (for instance in Luke 20:41) rarely mentioned by scholarship, where Jesus is arguing against the scribes for a non-Davidic messiah; ¨David calls him lord, so how can he be his son¨? And this is someone, Jesus claims, ¨sitting at the right hand of the father, who will make the [messiah´s] enemies into footstools¨.”
    So, my questions:
    1. how do the gospel writers and later interpretations reconcile this view with the passages (in Paul as well I think) that claim a Davidic descent, especially since two of them go to great lengths to show the genealogical connections?
    2) Is Jesus talking about himself as the (non-Davidic ) messiah or does he regard this a more pre-existent being, like the Son of Man (since how can David pray to him 900 years earlier? )
    3) because of its odd standalone nature, would the criterion of dissimilarity be helpful here in pointing to something the historical Jesus likely said?
    Otherwise, what is Jesus getting at here?

    Thanks! Very interesting series of posts lately.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 1, 2020

      As it turns out, scholars have devoted a good deal of attention to the verse, part because it is not at all clear whether Jesus is claiing not to be descended from David OR if he’s posing a conundrum that his opponents cannot answer but he can. (How is it possible for him to call him his son? Because of … this!). As you kjnow the Gospels themselves aer quite clear about Jesus’ davidic descent as well.

      • Avatar
        meohanlon  March 6, 2020

        True, which is why it’s hard to figure out what is motivating this passage, besides Jesus arguing with or even mocking the traditional Davidic view of the messiah. Is this evidence that Jesus himself may have had a different view? Or are the gospel writers reimagining (using the protagonist himself as a mouthpiece) the messianic role, its roots and therefore its destiny – that despite what the expectations were at the time (a victorious king) things wouldn’t turn out that way., and they had to make it all look foreordained. But then why would the gospels try so hard to cement a Davidic interpretation? How do you personally weigh the evidence? Also, what has been written on the subject that you can recommend? Thanks much.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 8, 2020

          I personally have sometiems thought that Jesus is posing a question they can’t answer that he can. The Son of David can be DAvid’s Lord if he descended from him as a human but was a pre-existent being who was superior to him. That would mean, of course, that it would not ahve been spoken by Jesus himself. If Jesus did say it, it may have been because he did not think of himself as descended from David. (Not having read the genealogies later found in Matthew and Luke!)

  17. Avatar
    Stephen  February 29, 2020

    An interesting change between the RSV and the NRSV for 2:6 –

    “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped…” (RSV)
    “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited…” (NRSV)

    You’ve commented about assisting Prof Metzger while he was on the translation committee for the NRSV. Were you privy to any of the discussions (or arguments) behind the change?

    thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  March 1, 2020

      Not to those particular conversations, but I know what was behind the change. They wanted to emphasize a particular meaning of the difficult Greek verb, and inserted their interpreation into the translation (so it means: Hold on to what he already had, rather htan grasp for something that was desireable but that he did not yet have)

  18. Avatar
    ddorner  February 29, 2020

    If the poem/hymn predates Paul and Paul was already rather early in Christian thought, and had access to probably a few of Jesus’ earthly followers, is it really likely that Jesus said nothing of his own divinity? I’ve read your view on this, that Jesus probably didn’t regard himself as divine and i’m inclined to agree, but how then would it be possible for Paul and even earlier Christians to think this? Wouldn’t Jesus’ own brother have cast doubt on the view if Jesus earthly message didn’t have anything at all to do with his divinity?

    Isn’t it more likely that Jesus did, in some way, claim to be a divine being sent by God?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 1, 2020

      I would say that a poem that originated years after Jesus’ death, by someone who didn’t know him, that does not mention his own view of himself, and is not presented as anything he himself said, would hot have any bearing on his view of himself.

  19. Avatar
    dankoh  February 29, 2020

    I have to ask how the last line of the Christ poem fits in with your argument (I’m also looking at your book as I write this), since Paul says that confessing and bending to Jesus is “to the glory of God the Father.” That is, this could be interpreted to mean that Paul does not expect Jesus to be worshiped for himself, but as an intermediary between the people and God. Even though Isaiah’s God specifically does say to worship only him directly and none other, this would hardly be the first instance in which Paul and the others bent Scriptural passages to fit their own needs and notions. In other words, just because Isaiah meant it that way, does it follow that Paul also did?

    And please permit me to bring up Fredriksen again (Paul, The Pagans’ Apostle), because I am trying to reconcile her argument with yours. She suggests (139) that the ending verses don’t apply to Jesus at the time of the resurrection but in the future, at the time of the parousia. Do you think that is a reasonable construction?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 1, 2020

      I agree with it. Every knee *shall* bow — it’s future from the time of Paul’s writing.

  20. Avatar
    eminentlaw  March 1, 2020

    Bart: It seems to me that your explanation helps reconcile a couple of things:

    1) As the Old Testament repeatedly avows, there is only one God. If Christ is an angel rather than a member of the Trinity, his identity does not contradict OT teaching;
    2) There is no Trinity. The very concept of the Trinity is something that has confounded me and that I believe is a logical impossibility. If Christ is understood to be an exalted angel rather than God, the trinitarian problem no longer exists.

    Do you agree?

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