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How Ancient is the Idea of Christ’s “Incarnation”?

Last week I was asked about the famous passage often known (among scholars) as the “Christ Hymn” of Philippians, 2:6-11.  For a very long time (mid 20th c?) scholars have argued that it is a passage Paul did not write himself, but one that he is actually *quoting*.  The passage seems to affirm the idea that Christ existed *before* he came into the world.

That may not seem weird to modern Christians, but in fact the only place where the idea is (otherwise) explicitly stated is in the Gospel of John.   In Mark’s Gospel there is not a word about Jesus existing before his birth, or, remarkably in Matthew or Luke either!  In those Gospels Jesus is born of a virgin.  But *nothing* suggests that he existed before then.  When God made Mary pregnant through the spirit, that is when the Son of God came into being — for those Gospels.

Only with John is Jesus said to be a pre-existent being:  and in John there is not a word about Jesus’ mother being a *virgin*.  The later idea that Christ was the pre-existent Son of God who became “incarnate through the virgin Mary” represents a theological combining of what Matthew and Luke say with what John says, ending up in a doctrine that none of them says!

So doesn’t that mean that the idea of an “incarnation” (the “becoming flesh” of a pre-existent divine being) is LATE in the early tradition, not showing up until the end of the first century, in the very last of our Gospels (John) to be written?

It may seem that way.  But in fact, the basic idea is already in the key passage this person asked me about, Phil. 2:6-11.  As I indicated, the passage is frequently called (probably wrongly) a “hymn” (that’s probably wrong because – as I’ve been told by an expert in the field of ancient music, it doesn’t actually scan as music).   But in any event, it is highly structured in a balanced fashion and thus seems to be more like a poem than like prose.  The reasons for thinking that Paul is quoting rather than composing it are pretty compelling, and I will get to them eventually.  For now I want to point out the rhythmic structure.

To urge their service for others, the Philippians are told: “have the same mind in yourselves that was also in Christ Jesus” and then the poem/hymn about Christ begins:

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Was Christ an Angel, According to Paul?
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  1. Avatar
    anthonygale  February 17, 2020

    If Paul is quoting something that doesn’t totally make his point, does he necessarily fully agree with it then? Do you think Paul believed Jesus to be divine and pre existing? Or is he borrowing from someone he doesn’t fully agree with who he still thinks said something well? In any case, I agree it’s neat that this offers evidence that Christ incarnate was believed early on.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 18, 2020

      I think he agrees with it, yes.

      • Avatar
        godspell  February 18, 2020

        Isn’t it possible this is by someone he knows–and perhaps converted?

        You suggest Paul is citing a poem people he’s writing to In Philippi will be familiar with. Yet we have no other evidence of this poem’s existence, anywhere. Meaning it’s unlikely to have been that widely distributed or well known among the overall Christian community, which largely seems to have believed that Jesus was man made divine by God, not a pre-existent heavenly being. John’s Gospel is the first to go with pre-existence, and John very likely read Paul.

        Paul is writing to a religious community he founded. And no doubt instilled with his own Christology, that he says was not influenced by any earlier source, but only by his own personal revelation. If he had read this poem before coming to his own conclusions, why would he cite it, thus undermining his own claim to divinely imparted knowledge?

        And this is, of course, assuming that neither Paul nor whoever preserved this snatch of writing rewrote it in any way, to more closely match Paul’s ideas.

        If there’s anything we know about Paul, it’s that he would go to any lengths to persuade others not only to become Christians, but also to share his conception of who Jesus was. All things to All Men.

        It is a very interesting theory. But given how early Paul was active in the church, should we assume this poem existed before Paul’s own Christology had been both formulated and communicated?

        • Bart
          Bart  February 19, 2020

          Sure, it’s possible. But I don’t know what kind of evidence could be adduced.

          • Avatar
            godspell  February 19, 2020

            Paul quotes one poem of uncertain provenance to back up his concept of Jesus’ nature that he very likely developed as a result of his vision on the road to Damascus. We don’t know when the poem was written, or when Paul first became aware of it. So we’re not doing too well with the adducing, no matter what position we take. (All the more since Philippians is thought to be a collection of snippets from different letters.)

            If Paul could have a vision of a man he never met, but had heard strange things about, so could others. But these people, I think, would be extreme outliers in the larger Christian community, and I doubt any of them had significant personal contact with Jesus.

            The prevailing tradition, in the early years, would be shaped by those who had known Jesus as a man, and their core memories are of a human being. Paul would have listened to these people with interest, and gone on thinking he knew better, because his revelation had been purer, more spiritual. They had seen the mask; he’d been shown what lay beneath.

            Is it likely that he read this poem and thought “Of course! This is it!”? More likely he saw in it confirmation of what he’d believed for a while. But granted, there are other ways to imagine it. And Paul would have taken some time to fully develop his Christology. So the influence could run either way–or both ways.

            However, the fact that we only have this poem from Paul himself is rather telling. If it was so well-known, and this was a well-established idea, why did it take so long for it to show up in early Christian literature?

          • Bart
            Bart  February 20, 2020

            Not sure what you mean about it taking so long? This is one of the earliest pieces of Christian literature we have.

          • Avatar
            godspell  February 21, 2020

            We have it only from Paul’s epistle, dated around 49-51 AD. The poem is not believed to go back any further than the 40’s, as I understand. Meaning that at most it’s ten years older than Paul’s reference to it. Probably less.

            Paul’s beliefs about the nature of Jesus certainly predate Philippians. (They may very well predate the writing of this poem). He does not say “This poem revealed to me something I had not heretofore understood.” He believes his knowledge of Jesus comes from divine revelation. Nor does he reference any other such sources. Meaning this could very well be the only thing not written by himself he’s aware of that comes close to his own conception. Which makes it not at all surprising that it was brought to his attention, and met with his approval.

            Paul may not have been alone in seeing Jesus as a pre-existent divine being, but of course he wasn’t. He was teaching every new convert he made what he personally believed about Jesus, and had been doing that before this poem is likely to have been written.

  2. Avatar
    robgrayson  February 17, 2020

    Interesting. I’m currently working through Pauline Dogmatics, the latest book from leading Pauline theologian Douglas Campbell, wherein he spends quite a lot of time unpacking the theology of the “Christ hymn” found in Philippians 2. I’m sure I recall that somewhere in the book, Campbell makes a passing statement to the effect that he’s not entirely convinced of this text’s non-Pauline origin (though, having just spent a good 20 minutes flicking through references, I’m damned if I can find where!).

    (FWIW, Campbell also bucks the consensus in believing Ephesians to have been authored by Paul, his argument being that the text was subsequently misaddressed, having been originally addressed (and delivered) to the church in Laodicea.)

  3. Robert
    Robert  February 17, 2020

    Stephen, another long-time blog member here, mentioned that your close friend Dale Martin’s next book will be the about the differences between the view of Paul in Acts and what we can glean about him from his authentic letters. Perhaps you could invite him to debut it here, either as he is writing it or when it is released. Increase sales and also benefit your blog members who have already become very interested in this topic by your posts on this question.

    • Avatar
      JGonzalezGUS  February 19, 2020

      I second that suggestion.

  4. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  February 17, 2020

    So, the early Christology expressed in the poem, would have Christ as a powerful supernatural being, almost on a par with God, potentially equal to God, but choosing incarnation out of love for humanity? Something like that? But not, as in later Christology, co-equal to God and existing from eternity as a part of a Trinity? In this earlier Christology it seems that Christ would have been something created, as angels were supposed to have been created, and so not co-eternal, but almost equal to God and potentially equal to God? This is hard for me to understand. Then again, I’ve never been able to make sense of “begotten not made”.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 18, 2020

      Yeah, maybe I should go into more depth about it. It’s an issue I deal with at length in my book How Jesus Became God.

  5. Avatar
    lbjorke  February 17, 2020

    If Jesus existed before his incarnation as the poem states, then is this evidence for a belief in reincarnation?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 18, 2020

      No, I”m afraid not. It’s referring only to Jesus as a divine being become human.

      • Rick
        Rick  February 20, 2020

        Then it would seem to be consistent with Jesus as an angel in Galatians 4:14 as you’ve discussed before?
        “ but you received me as an angel of God, as Jesus Christ.”

        That seems significant even if perhaps not generally so considered since it supports the Jesus was an angel elevated to God Christology… does this not make an additional Christology rather than changing the date for the preexisting logos view?
        1. Born human, made God at resurrection
        2. Born human, made God at Baptism by John.
        3. Demigod by god and virgin birth,
        4. Eternal trinity
        5. Angel exalted (either after turning human or just appearing human….).

        • Bart
          Bart  February 20, 2020

          I’ve decided to post again on Paul’s fuller understanding. And yes, it is a different Christology from that found elsewhere in the NT, with numerous similarities.

  6. Avatar
    Silver  February 17, 2020

    Some five weeks ago you shared with us your revelatory moment about your agnosticism/ atheism. Have you continued with this stream of thought during your times of meditation or have you been happy to let it lie and move on to other things? Has this new insight changed you in the way you approach your work, your relationships and life in general?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 18, 2020

      It hasn’t changed my life or work much, just my internal thought processes.

  7. Avatar
    veritas  February 17, 2020

    The way it is laid out it suggests *works* and not only faith is necessary to be exalted through reward. Does not this view suggest that,*God* and only God is a separate entity with more power than Jesus and only God can exalt to higher levels? Also to me, it sounds like we(people) can become fully obedient to this unselfish sacrificial love for others and in a sense be perfected in our progression. My second question is, are we capable to fully give up our will for God’s will ? This is exactly what Mormons believe. That by serving others faithfully and in humility , you too can be exalted to the highest realm (celestial) kingdom. Good post.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 18, 2020

      Yes, it does assume that Jesus was originally below God and that God exalted him to his own level later.

  8. Avatar
    fishician  February 17, 2020

    It would make sense to me that the early pagan converts would see Jesus as a god in the flesh,as their mythology already had lots of stories of gods either becoming human for a while, or fathering children with human women. But do you think it probably goes back to the early Jewish Christians? Of course, the Jewish Scriptures had stories of angels coming to earth in the form of men, so maybe it wasn’t a stretch for them, either.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 18, 2020

      I’d say it’s hard to tell. One indication of how tricky it is: Paul bought into it and *he* was a Jewish Christian!

  9. Avatar
    AstaKask  February 17, 2020

    Did Daniel think that the Son of Man existed before incarnation? Could this be from Daniel or the other apocalypticists?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 18, 2020

      Daniel doesn’t speak of the one like a son of man becoming an incarnate being, so it’s hard to tell.

  10. Avatar
    Stephen  February 17, 2020

    So Paul would not have found this “high” Christology incompatible with Jesus having had a normal biological birth, having both a human mother and father. Do we know how that was supposed to have worked? How does a pre-existent divine being become a human being sans the doctrine of the virgin birth?


    • Bart
      Bart  February 18, 2020

      They arrange to get born by a human. Hey, it’s a miracle! God can do what he wants. 🙂

  11. Avatar
    gavriel  February 17, 2020

    Since the style of the poem is un-Pauline, could it be a later interpolation?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 18, 2020

      It doesn’t seem to be because it fits very tightly into the context in order to prove the point Paul is making all along, and they key theological views are actually replicated elsewhere in Paul.

  12. Avatar
    toejam  February 17, 2020

    I’ve never been altogether convinced by the arguments for this passage’s pre-Pauline “pre-existence” (forgive the pun) as opposed to an alternative that it has been interpolated into the epistle later (perhaps around the time of the initial collecting, editing, and distribution of Paul’s epistles, c.100CE). Most of the arguments you bring here are the usual sort for spotting interpolations – a sudden change in language pallet, key concepts and phrases not used elsewhere, and that it doesn’t fit the surrounding context smoothly (as you say it might even work against the point Paul is trying to make). You stress the latter here to show it must have been around before Paul. But I’m not following the logic for precedent there. How do we know it wasn’t a poem/hymn that became popular after Paul and was inserted into his epistles around the time of the initial collecting, editing, and distribution? FWIW, Robert Price recognizes the passage as an interpolation (Amazing Colossal Apostle, p.459f.) and James Tabor thinks it a composition of Paul himself (Paul & Jesus, p.118f.).

    • Bart
      Bart  February 18, 2020

      It doesn’t seem to be an interpolation because it fits very tightly into the context in order to prove the point Paul is making all along, and they key theological views are actually replicated elsewhere in Paul. The normal arguments for interpolation don’t seem to work here (theological incongruities, poor transitions from preceding and following, context makes better sense without it, etc.)

  13. Avatar
    LuisMijares  February 17, 2020

    How you think this pre-Pauline indication of an incarnation Christology fits into your thesis found in your book “How Jesus became God”

    • Bart
      Bart  February 18, 2020

      Great question! But it not only fits there — it is an argument I used there! Several have asked about that: I think I’ll do some further posts on it.

  14. Avatar
    JGonzalezGUS  February 17, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman,
    I believe I read in one of your books that it may be possible that Paul regarded Jesus, from the beginning of time up to his birth and subsequent death, as ‘the Angel of God.’
    After the Resurrection, did Paul think of Jesus as having been elevated to the same ‘level’ as God (the Father)?
    The last 2 lines of the poem seem to indicate to me that Jesus is NOT God, or at least, not at the same level as God the Father.
    “That Jesus Christ is Lord
    To the glory of God the Father.”
    I don’t think that ‘Lord’ is a synonym as God.

  15. Avatar
    brenmcg  February 17, 2020

    I think Mark 12:6 suggests God loved the Son before he sent him into the world.

    And Jesus in Mark has no earthly father.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 18, 2020

      Where does Mark say that Jesus did not have an earthly father??

      • Avatar
        brenmcg  February 18, 2020

        In the very literal sense Jesus has no earthly father in Mark; he has a mother, brothers and sisters but the only father he has is God.

        It seems more than a coincidence that the one family relative the son of god is missing in Mark is a father.

        And if Matthew’s “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? Aren’t all his sisters with us?” is taken as the original version, Mark could be said to be explicitly denying an earthly father for Jesus.

        • Bart
          Bart  February 19, 2020

          OK, fair enough. But that means that he has no finger nails in Mark either.

          • Avatar
            brenmcg  February 19, 2020

            Yes but that would have more significance if Mark’s story was about Jesus Christ and the heavenly fingernails. And if at some point in the story he told us Jesus has perfectly ordinary hands and palms and fingers and fingerprints.

          • Bart
            Bart  February 20, 2020

            My point is that he had no reason to mention his father either, especially if it was known that he was deceased.

          • Avatar
            brenmcg  February 22, 2020

            Yeah either he thought he had no reason to mention the father or he left him out because he was supposed to be the son of god.
            I think given that 3/4 of the gospel writers felt a need to mention the earthly father that its more likely to be the latter.

  16. Avatar
    ccb_2k18  February 17, 2020

    Hello Dr. Ehrman,

    I recently joined your blog and I have to say I am quite glad that I did! I have a quick question that is unrelated to this post. Do you think that the historical Jesus actually said to Peter in Mark 8:33 and in Matthew 16:23 “Get behind me Satan!”? I ask this because I have heard you suggest that maybe the historical Jesus was not planning on getting crucified, but rather one of his disciples spilled the beans regarding the coming kingdom Jesus spoke of. If Jesus really did say this to Peter, I think it would suggest Jesus knew it was his destiny to be crucified. Was this a Christian tradition that was developed later?



    • Bart
      Bart  February 18, 2020

      No, I think that is probably a later addition to Jesus’ words, made in order to stress the idea that anyone who thinks Jesus could not be the messiah because he was crucified is from the devil.

  17. Avatar
    chixter  February 17, 2020

    Aren’t there Incarnation Christologies found in the O.T. ?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 18, 2020

      There are certainly divine beings who temporarily become human, yes indeed! Including the Lord himself.

  18. Avatar
    tskorick  February 17, 2020

    This is a lot to wrap my head around, I might grasp it better in the Greek. You mentioned an “expert in the field of ancient music” that said the verses didn’t seem musical. I would love to know more about that conversation. Have you covered this topic elsewhere? Does this expert have published work on the topic? Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  February 18, 2020

      Yes, he’s a friend of mine, a brilliant NT scholar named Charles Cosgrove. He has published on this, but only in a seriously academic journal, and I don’t recall where. It has to do with how ancient music worked (he’s also a skilled musician and publishes on ancient music)

  19. Avatar
    ddorner  February 17, 2020

    “Who, although he was in the form of God

    Did not regard equality with God

    Something to be grasped after;”

    So perhaps a Holy Angel or some other divine being, but the opposite of Satan who longed for Gods power? Would that be an accurate interpretation?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 18, 2020

      Oh boy is that phrase “grasped after” debated among scholars. Is he grabbing from something he didn’t have or is he clinging onto something he does have? Has a lot to do with the Greek word used. I wrote a long paper on the topic in grad school. Maybe I should post on it!

  20. Avatar
    4Erudite  February 17, 2020

    I have a question related to your post on Feb 10 re Oral Traditions…first, of course, no one has a perfect memory recall…but my questions are about translations of either written or oral stories. If a story is handed down through oral tradition over hundreds to thousands of years the meaning of words and phrases change over time…they don’t mean today what they meant then…so, how do those that you debate explain this? If they have kept it (oral) exactly the same for thousands of years, how does some one today understand what it means…unless you ‘update’ it to be understood by people today? And second question, when a written text is translated to a different languages wouldn’t some of the original meaning be lost in translation? Especially since we are not talking about just a sentence or two, we are talking about ‘books’ and/or copious text/documents. I have worked and lived in various countries during my life and it was always ‘assume’ that anywhere from 10 to 20% of original meaning could be lost in written business translations…and this is in today’s language…assume it would be much more if it was a translation of a text 100s to 1000s of years old. So, how do those that you debate address these two issues?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 18, 2020

      Great question. The normal answer is that in addition to the tradition an interpretation would be passed along with it, to explain it — just as today we have interpretations of Shakespeare and the King James Bible, cause we don’t speak that way any more.

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