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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
    Oikonomos  March 1, 2020

    In “How Jesus Became God” you make the case that the Angel of the Lord was depicted as God Almighty himself in several passages in the Hebrew Bible. You mention Genesis 16, 18, 19 and Exodus 3 (beginning in p. 55 of the paperback ed.), which are great examples.

    A few more examples:

    Joshua’s encounter with the Angel of the Lord is basically the same as Moses in Ex. 3: “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy.” Jacbo seems to refer to them interchangeably in Gen. 48:16: “The God before whom my ancestors Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day, the angel who redeemed me from all harm, bless the boys.” Gideon seems close to thinking that the Angel and God are equivalent (at least in some sense): “Then Gideon perceived that it was the angel of the LORD; and Gideon said, “Help me, Lord God! For I have seen the angel of the LORD face to face.” (Judges 6:22) Also, Manoah after seeing the Angel of Lord (who accepts an offering made to Yahweh), “We shall surely die, for we have seen God.” (Judges 13:21-22)

    Perhaps most notably, “On that day the LORD will shield the inhabitants of Jerusalem so that the feeblest among them on that day shall be like David, and the house of David shall be like God, like the angel of the LORD, at their head.” (Zechariah 12:8)

    If Paul believed that Jesus was the Angel of the Lord, and was exalted to be equal with Yahweh, given Yahweh’s status, honor, and glory, how was this, in effect, different from that of what the Angel of Lord is shown to be in the Hebrew Bible? There he is already spoken of as Yahweh, feared as Yahweh, worshiped as Yahweh, etc. The idea of Paul believing that the pre-existent Son of God was the Angel of Lord fits better with Trinitarianism or something similar. However, if the lexical history indicates that the Greek word for ‘’grasped’’ means “. . .to refer to something a person doesn’t have but grasps for . . .” wouldn’t that imply that the type of divine being that Paul had in mind in the Philippians hymn was probably an angel of a lower rank than the Angel of the Lord?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 2, 2020

      I think the idea is that te Angel of the LORD in the Hebrew Bible remains an angel. Christ as the highest angel is promoted to yet a higher state in the Philippians poem. Unlike the ANgel of the LORD, he will be worshiped by all creation. The Angel of the LORD in the HB reprsented God, and so was treated like him. Christ actually is ealted to his level, and is fully equal with him.

  2. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  March 2, 2020

    The entire topic reveals how very hard it was to do away with polytheism. If Jesus is an angel, however exalted that being might be it is NOT God– THE god. The ONE god. And yet, Paul has no problem with the idea of worshipping that angel. If you have a supernatural cosmos populated with divine beings, for all practical purposes, it seems to me, you’ve got a variation of the old pagan polytheistic world. And if you can worship one divine being why not worship two. or three, or as many as you like? The problem is a practical one of not knowing their names, it seems. We know the name GOD and we know the name JESUS, If we knew some more names (Gabriel? Michael? Mary? St. Swithins?) we would have a nice little pagan world again. And if we can petition a divine being, like gimme this and gimme that, you have something that smacks of magic and incantation, calling on supernatural entities to gimme this and gimme that and do this to that person and do that to this person. No matter how hard the theologians squirm, it’s the same old superstition, with a new terminology.

  3. Avatar
    Freedom880  April 15, 2020

    Professor Ehrman, this thread about Paul’s resonance with the Philippian poem, and thus of a sect of the earliest Jesus movement that resonated with the “later” Gospel of John, is remarkable.

    It seems to challenge generations of scholarship on the Apostle Paul, which has tended to regard Paul as closer to the Pharisee theology than any other.

    In my reading, the 20th century scholar who most closely anticipates a Philippians poem theology in earliest Christianity was Morton Smith. Smith suggested that first century (and BC) Judaism was far more diverse than scholars typically care to explore.

    For one thing, he wrote (1971), the farther we descend into the lower classes, the more we should expect to find pagan influences, including Zohar angelology, Sethian Gnosticism and even magic spells.

    It may be that growing up in Tarsus and attending a Greek school of rhetoric as a child, Paul of Tarsus rubbed shoulders with many Gentile school chums. He possibly learned more about pagan religions than most young Pharisees of his generation. According to his Epistles (and also according to ACTS) we often find Paul resonating more with Gentiles than with his fellow Jews.

    Persecuting Christians was high on Paul’s agenda before his conversion to Christ — and perhaps this an overcompensation.

    In any case, the Philippians poem seems to sing of a typically *Gentile* view of a Divine Human. Did Christianity possibly begin as a radically diverse sect of Judaism — even earlier than Paul?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 17, 2020

      Yes indeed: as soon as Jesus’ followers said a crucified man was the messiah and been made divine — that was radically different from anything in Judaism

      • Avatar
        Freedom880  April 20, 2020

        Thank you. A Divine Human who escaped Hades and ascended to heaven was old hat in pagan mythology. The first Christians were, after all, recruited from among the lower classes of Judea — tax collectors and what have you. Were they less observant Jewish citizens? I’ve often wondered why the Gospels wash the hands of Pontius Pilate.

        To extend my question — how could we seek any possible roots of Christianity in Greco-Roman culture? Are there books on this?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 21, 2020

          I”m having a bit of trouble understanding your first paragraph. Are you saying that lower class Galileans were more likely influenced by pagan views? Pilate washes his hands as a symbolic statement to show that he has “no blood on his hands.” It’s found only in Matthew, which emphasizes the “Jewish guilt” in Jesus’ death. And yes, the idea that much Christian thought comes from Greek and Roman culture has been a common view for a very long time among scholars. A good resourse is the book by David Cartlidge and David Dungan, Sourcebook for the Study of the Gospels

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