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More on the Philippians Christ-Poem


This ‘rhythmic structure’ just does not work in Greek. The first ‘stanza’ with three ‘lines’:
Who, although he was in the form of God
Did not regard equality with God
Something to be grasped after;

In Greek the ‘third line’ is only one word and it appears in the middle of the ‘second line’, after only the first word of the so-called second line. There are a few different views of the structure, but they all must be based on the Greek text.



That’s exactly right – you make a good point. For my translation I arranged the poem in three stanzas of three lines each; but in Greek it’s different. But even there there are still three stanzas of three lines each, but because of the grammatical difference, it works differently. In Greek it’s like this for the first part of the poem:


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An Ancient Accusation of Textual Tampering
The Pre-pauline “Poem” in Philippians 2



  1. Robertus
    Robertus  February 20, 2013

    Thank you for showing this structure in Greek! When I was in graduate scchool, one of my francophone NT professors suggested that I write my doctoral thesis on this hymnn, and he had a very compelling view of the structure of this hymnn. I ended up writing about something else entirely with a different professor in a different language but have always wanted to go back to this hymnn and study it in more detail, but have never had the time, of course. His proposed structure of this hymn differs from this one, but I’m not sure if he or one of his students ever published on this so I don’t want to go into any detail here. But, thank you, for presenting this structure in Greek. It might inspire me to get back into Pauline studies some day.

  2. gmatthews
    gmatthews  February 20, 2013

    Your comment at the end of this post about “two Gods” and the Trinity is something I had thought of last week in one of the earlier entries on this topic. What would the Jewish religious authorities (the Sandedrin or who ever was the religious police) have thought about this possibility of two Gods? Is it possible the idea of the Trinity was developed to help explain away the suggestion of polytheism and the breaking of the first comandment? That there weren’t two Gods if they were really the same God in one?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 20, 2013

      Yup, that’s possible! The later rabbis were fearful of a doctrine of “two powers in heaven” (as opposed to just the one God). I”ll say more about that in a later post.

  3. bnongbri
    bnongbri  February 20, 2013

    This is a cool line of thought. The idea of Jesus as angel is one I’ve not considered. On the Philippians hymn, I wonder if establishing the alleged “poetic” features is really necessary or helpful. Michael Peppard had an interesting article on this topic in JSNT a couple years ago:

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    Jim  February 20, 2013

    In 1 Cor 10.1-4 (written presumably in the same decade as Philippians) Paul links Christ to the rock in the Exodus journey (Ex 17.1-6). 1 Cor 10.4 might give the impression that Paul viewed Christ as one and the same as YHWH (the only deity mentioned near Horeb). However in Ex 14.19 there was an angel/malek along on the trip. What is your interpretation of who Paul was linking Jesus to in this passage? There is probably(?) no poem/hymn here, so does 1 Cor 10 support Paul’s view as exaltational?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 20, 2013

      Yes, it definitely shows, in my opinion, that Paul understood Christ to be pre-existent, and one who helped the Israelites along their way.

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    AndrewAD  February 20, 2013

    It must mean there are two Gods,or maybe one God and one Lord?

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    Jerry  February 20, 2013

    So there is Paul’s Jesus in Philippians 2; Is the Christology in the Book of Hebrews similar?


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    hwl  February 20, 2013

    Do you think the early Christians started to think of Jesus as an incarnated/exalted divine being before Paul was converted or well after his conversion?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 20, 2013

      Great question. I think it’s impossible to know. What’s clear is they must have thought of him already as an “exalted” being before Paul’s conversion.

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    RonaldTaska  February 20, 2013

    I am looking forward to the “hammering out” of the Trinity. Keep plugging away.

  9. talitakum
    talitakum  February 20, 2013

    It is true it seems we have two Gods, but on the other hand the very same Isaiah passage is a strong monotheistic stance. I honestly don’t how this “tension” can be resolved without pretty sophisticated theology – some kind of thought possibly alien to Paul “the Pharisee”..
    Question: do you think that this kind of “tension” originated in a Greco-Roman cultural background, or is it Jewish?
    My impression is that the reference to Isaiah and the similarities with Moses and angelic figures (discussed on another topic here) may suggest Jewish origin, while further theological developments (and Christological titles) borrowed from Greco-roman culture.
    Thank you for your time – *great* blog indeed!

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 20, 2013

      Well, it certainly exists in parts of the Jewish tradition. In most of paganism there was less of a problem of the connection between the human and the divine. And many parts of the Jewish tradition also saw there to be less a chasm between divine and human and more a kind of spectrum of possibility.

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    Xeronimo74  February 20, 2013

    I’m looking forward to discussing the (illogical/incoherent concept of the) Trinity. That should be fun! 😀

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    hwl  February 20, 2013

    In the same way by citing the Philippian hymn echoes Isaiah 45 thereby equating Jesus with God in some sense, could Mark 1’s citation of Isaiah 40 be the author’s attempt to equate Jesus with Yahweh “Prepare the way of the Lord”?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 20, 2013

      Interesting idea. The problem is that for the Gospel writers, Jesus himself is the Lord.

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    bobnaumann  February 20, 2013

    So if it doesn’t work as a poem in Greek, does it work as a poem in Aramaic?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 20, 2013

      No, it’s a Greek composition. And my point was that it doesn’t work as a piece of music to be sung; it could still be a poem of sorts, I think.

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    DaveRamsey  February 20, 2013

    Some 25 years ago, I wrote a 50 page exegesis of this passage for an advanced Greek class at Duke Divinity School taught by Mickey Efird. I remember 2 things about that paper: harpogmas = grasped after, and that I mis-spelled Philippians throughout the paper (this was before Spell Check). No longer a minister (a growing agnosticism rendered me silent and therefore uselsss) and not having looked at a Greek New Testament for almost 15 years, I still remember these 2 things, but can’t remember what I had for lunch yesterday!

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 20, 2013

      At least you remembered the two most important things!

    • Avatar
      David Chumney  February 22, 2013

      Dave, was re-reading posts and comments and noticed yours. Like you, I’m a “used-to-be” who has left the ministry. Don’t know whether Bart is willing to help us connect, but would enjoy comparing notes if you’re interested.

      • Bart Ehrman
        Bart Ehrman  February 22, 2013

        Do you guys know Dan Barker’s “Clergy Project”? It’s a completely anonymous online community of past and (most interestingly!) present ministers who no longer believe and who are trying to figure out how to move on.

  14. Avatar
    bobnaumann  February 21, 2013

    Let me see if I understand what you are saying here. Paul believed that Jesus was a pre-existent incarnate being as evidenced in his letter to the Philipians, which seems to contradict his statements in his letter to the Romans. But in Romans 1 he is stating what the Romans believed and not his own beliefs. Is this about right?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 21, 2013

      I’d say that the statement in Romans 1 stands at odds with what Paul says elsewhere, but he probably *interpreted* the passage in such a way as to coincide with his beliefs — just as readers have done, and continue to do, with the passage, world without end. (most people reading this blog probably didn’t realize that it stands at odds with other Christian beliefs till it was pointed out to them.

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    Tara  July 18, 2014

    The scriptures don’t teach a trinity at all. The spokesperson of the OT was supposed to be the one known as Jesus the Christ. He was the rock followed during Exodus, the only one ever seen by humans, etc. He is supposed to be the firstborn son of God, which of course makes him a god, too, since a son of man is a man and a son of a monkey is a monkey, but the Father is the Most High. The Spirit is just that–the seed or sperm of God, just like a man spirit is the makeup of a man, a duck spirit is the makeup that lives in a duck’s body, etc.

    The bible speaks of Firstfruits called in this age and then a future age of humans reigned over by the Firstborn and the saints in the first resurrection. Then the bible speaks of another resurrection where all who lived before without knowing the scriptures are brought to life and shown the books and then given their chance to live and be judged (this would include babies, etc.)

    If the trinity doctrine was a teaching of the bible, it would not allow for the doctrine of many sons being born into God’s family. If the bible is true, then the end result will be one Father God and countless god children.

    • Avatar
      Tara  July 18, 2014

      Oh I also meant to comment on the “one.” The bible never days “single” but rather “one,” which implies unity. In John 17 Jesus talks not only about he and Father God being one, but also all who will enter the God Family. The “one” God family would be united, rather than warring with each other like polytheistic systems.

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