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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