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How Do We Know What Jesus Said or Did? The Criterion of Dissimilarity in Practice

The reason I’m explaining the criterion of dissimilarity is because I want to *use* it to talk about a passage in Matthew of relevance to the broader themes of this thread.  But before I use it I need to make sure everyone understands it.  In this post I show how it can be applied usefully; I being by restating the caveat about the criterion that I ended with yesterday (if you haven’t read that post, I’d suggest doing so before reading this one).

**********************************************

I want to be perfectly clear about the limitations of this criterion.  Just because a saying or deed of Jesus happens to conform to what Christians were saying about him does not mean that it cannot be accurate.  Obviously, the earliest disciples followed Jesus precisely because they appreciated the things that he said and did.  They certainly would have told stories about him that included such things.  Thus, on the one hand, the criterion may do no more than cast a shadow of doubt on certain traditions.  For example, when in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas the young Jesus raises kids from the dead or miraculously solves his father’s mistakes in the carpenter’s shop, these look like things drawn from later Christian imagination.  And when in the Coptic Gospel of Thomas Jesus is said to reveal the secret doctrines of gnosis to a handful of followers, this is too closely aligned with gnostic theology to be above suspicion.  But the criterion of dissimilarity is best used not in the negative way of establishing what Jesus did not say or do, but in the positive way of showing what he likely did.

Perhaps the criterion can be clarified by providing a couple of brief examples of where it might work.  As we have seen…

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Jesus, the Sheep, and the Goats
The Criterion of Dissimilarity

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  October 17, 2017

    Thanks for an excellent summary of how historians know what they know or what they think is most likely historical.

  2. Avatar
    ardeare  October 17, 2017

    The dissimilarity criterion must be heavy point of contention between the secular historian and the believing theologian.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 18, 2017

      For some, yes. But I learned it at Princeton Theological Seminary in classes preparing students for Christian ministry!

  3. Avatar
    Actual_Wolfman  October 17, 2017

    Hello Bart,

    I’m a layman but I find the idea of religion and why people believe what they do interesting. How would you direct me in locating objective, secular sources on the history of Christianity. besides your blog of course. Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  October 18, 2017

      There are lots of books out there, depending on what period of Christain history you’re interested in. First century? First four centuries? Down to the Middle Ages? REformation? MOdern world? All of it?

      • Avatar
        Actual_Wolfman  October 21, 2017

        Bart, I’d say Middle Ages and Modern Times.

        • Bart
          Bart  October 22, 2017

          Ah, I’m afraid that’s outside of my bailiwick! Sorry. But maybe others on the blog can make suggestions.

    • Avatar
      Jim Cherry  October 20, 2017

      You may wish to consider “A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom” by Andrew White of Princeton University. Published originally in 1896, and reprinted in 1993 by Prometheus Books. A long read covering many topics, I especially enjoyed the history of vaccinations and their intervention with the will of God.

      • Avatar
        Actual_Wolfman  October 21, 2017

        Thanks, Jim! That does sound interesting.

  4. Avatar
    Stephen  October 17, 2017

    Are you making a distinction between the criterion of dissimilarity and the criterion of embarrassment? The examples you give of John the Baptist and Paul would seem to fit the latter. It’s been a long while since my seminary days but I seem to remember that dissimilarity was formulated by Ernst Kasemann to claim that a Jesus saying might be authentic to the degree it stood against what we know of first century Judaism and early Christianity. It seems to have fallen into disfavor as it became apparent how closely Jesus fit in with his Jewish milieu. Am I misremembering?

    thnks

    • Bart
      Bart  October 18, 2017

      In my view the criterion of dissimilarity *encompasses* (what later came to be known as) the criterion of embarassment.

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  October 19, 2017

        Not about Jesus sayings in particular, but isn’t dissimilarity used to reject some NT passages (1 Cor. 14:33b-36, e.g.) beecause they contradict Jewish practice of the time? Are there instances where a Jesus saying is rejected because it is too unjewish?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 20, 2017

          No, dissimilarity as I’m using it is not related to the question of whether a passage is at odds with contemporary Judaism. It is a question of whether of whether it is at odds with what Christians would want to say.
          Moreover determining what *Paul* said is based on a close analysis of his writings — something we can’t do with Jesus. So the approach is different.

      • Avatar
        flcombs  October 19, 2017

        I’ve always found the embarrassment iffy at least for me. Mainly because it is hard to know what is embarrassing or what choice is MORE embarrassing than another. For example a prophecy doesn’t come true. I’ve heard it said so and so must have done what he said because it was too embarrassing to admit it. But if the alternative is that he was worshipping a false god, perhaps that is more embarrassing! Any way, I think it is often hard to legitimately use or at least is often misused.

        • Bart
          Bart  October 20, 2017

          Yes, that’s the problem. But we are always dealing with probabilities, not certainties.

  5. Avatar
    godspell  October 17, 2017

    The truly problematic passage is the one that has Jesus crying out in agony on the cross, asking God why he’s been forsaken.

    Would Christians have wanted people to think Jesus despaired, and doubted God’s mercy at the crucial moment? Hard to imagine. And for those who were starting to think of him as more than a man, of course, the words are alo problematic. God doesn’t have a God. He could have said Abba, father. He didn’t.

    So we have dissimilarity (aka embarrassment), and we have multiple attestation. It’s hard to believe it was just made up entirely out of whole cloth.

    But what did he say, really? Who would have transmitted the words to posterity? The disciples were not there. Perhaps some female followers, who had less to fear from the authorities, could blend into the crowd. How close could they get? How far would his words carry? He couldn’t have said very much in that condition. But he would have said something.

    He’s quoting the Old Testament, and it can be read this way–that he is making a parallel between what is happening to him, and what has happened to faithful Jews before him. Drawing strength from that sense of continuity. This would not offend the sensibilities of Mark or Matthew.

    It occurs to me that what got back to the overall community was this–that he’d been in great pain, that he’d cried out repeatedly, that he’d said things that indicated spiritual as well as physical torment, doubt of his mission (if he did in fact believe that his sacrifice would bring about the Kingdom, he’d be waiting for a sign of that, for God to speak to him, come to him in a vision, tell him he was right).

    So they had to frame this in some way that would fit the story they were beginning to tell. About the risen Messiah. Who suffered for all our sakes. And this had always been what was supposed to happen. They had just failed to understand him.

    Then Luke and John, not liking the roughness of those painful disturbing words, painted a different tableau. Their Jesus is suffering, but only physical pain. He has no doubts. He always knew this was coming.

    And he does not say “Eloi, eloi” because he wouldn’t be talking to himself.

    • Avatar
      Tony  October 19, 2017

      That is an amazing narrative godspell. Please consider the alternative. Jesus is completely silent, because he is a literary invention. As a literary invention the author needs words to be put on his character’s lips. But where to find the appropriate text? The Septuagint (OT) would be a great source! So, it is Psalm 22:1 for Mark and Matthew. But Luke did not care for that. He scrolls about eight verses down in Psalms and finds better words in Psalm 31:3. But wait, there is a fourth Gospel and it will surely tell us who was right! Here Jesus’ last words are: “it is finished”. No scripture reference. We seem to have a choice in last words.

      • Avatar
        godspell  October 22, 2017

        Well sure, and we have a choice whether to believe Caesar had any last words, or whether they were just “AGHHHHH! What the ****, Brutus!” There are a number of utterly fantastic stories about him as well. He existed, and so did Jesus. You are applying different standards of evidence to records from ancient history. Which makes me think you don’t know how the study of history works.

        • Avatar
          Tony  October 23, 2017

          Do you have a scripture reference for “et tu Brute?” No? I didn’t think so, because it originates with Shakespeare. We know that the final Jesus words are a fabrication, and we also know the source. But, if that’s a gospel fabrication, what about the rest? Real scholars have analysed the first Gospel’s text and found it to be sourced by OT prophecy fulfillment, pagan myths, historical fabrications, complex ring compositions, Pauline interpretations and much more. In other words, a myth or fabrication.

          Don’t believe me? Thomas Brodie, Richard Carrier, John Dominic Crossan, Randal Helms, Dennis MacDonald Robert M. Price and others all find that the gospels are pervasively mythical – even those who think that beneath these myths a historical Jesus is somehow hidden.

          • Avatar
            godspell  November 2, 2017

            No, I don’t. Because I was making a joke.

            Nice point, though. That you missed. Many false stories about Caesar that most people believe. He was becoming a myth while he was still alive. Lincoln was a myth shortly after his assassination.

            They still existed.

            And you just keep denying the obvious. Because you don’t care about history. You want your own myths. For your own religion. That you refuse to admit is a religion.

    • Avatar
      James Cotter  October 20, 2017

      Dr Ehrman, what is the likelihood of hearing jesus cry out “my god, my god, why have you forsaken me?” in the midst of shouting crowds?
      how does a battered person have the ability to do a loud shout ?
      who is there to hear the words of jesus?
      say that the source of information was the sanhedrin, why trust the sanhedrin?

      • Bart
        Bart  October 22, 2017

        I don’t think anyone was there to record his words.

        • Avatar
          godspell  October 22, 2017

          Public executions were a popular form of public entertainment for a very long time. There were people there to report his words–if any–and garble them. The whole point of the exercise is to remind people what happens if you cause trouble. So they want people there. And they would want those people to know Jesus despaired on the cross.

          Also, about the mass grave–I keep forgetting to ask–how massive would it have been?

          Suppose just a few people were crucified that day?

          There were no major rebellions going on, that we know of. Jerusalem was relatively quiet (if that had not been the case, perhaps Jesus wouldn’t have drawn enough attention to be crucified, for little more than overturning a table or two in the Temple courtyard).

          Mark mentions exactly three crucifixions. That seems in keeping with this not being some extraordinary event, from Rome’s perspective. So maybe there were just three bodies to be disposed of. You can find more bodies than that in your average family plot, which isn’t called a mass grave. Sometimes stacked one on top of the other.

          So you go to where you heard the grave is, looking for his body. And he’s not there. They put him somewhere else, maybe.

          When there are so many potential scenarios, it gets a bit silly, thinking this one is more logical than the other. We’re dealing with a long-vanished society. There’s still a lot we don’t know about the Romans with actual power, who left actual writings.

          So we can think various things, but what can we prove? There was a Jesus. There was a crucifixion. There was a body. Something happened to it. His followers believed it ascended to heaven. Which means they didn’t have it.

          That’s about it.

          • Avatar
            James Cotter  October 24, 2017

            “There were people there to report his words–if any–and garble them. The whole point of the exercise is to remind people what happens if you cause trouble.”

            quote : my god , my god, why have you forsaken me ?

            was this a rumor, or do you think the people who stood by really heard this? i believe mark clipped this from the psalms and put this question in jesus’ mouth.

          • Avatar
            godspell  November 2, 2017

            I have a hard time believing Mark, having spent the entire narrative he’s crafting trying to prove Jesus is Messiah (not God, or God’s begotten son), would then have him despair on the cross.

            I think he shaped the memories he’d collected. I don’t think he made stuff up out of whole cloth.

            If Jesus did say it, what did it mean? That he truly believes he’s been forsaken? That he’s drawing a parallel between him and past Jews who have faced persecution and death? That he’s making a very dark joke?

            Could be all of the above. Jesus did not get to write his own story (possible he couldn’t have done so), but he was more than just some marionette that people manipulated after his death. He created the circumstances that led to his being remembered, more universally and vividly than any other human in history. He couldn’t have done this were he anything other than a charismatic and compelling visionary in his own right. His background and lack of education make his achievement all the more stunning.

            The biggest takeaway from those words is one, of course, that you missed.

            By addressing God in this way, he’s proving that he doesn’t believe he is God. He’s just a man. Who doubts. Who fears. Who hurts.

  6. Avatar
    Franz Liszt  October 17, 2017

    Hey Bart, I had an unrelated light-hearted Greek question I was hoping to get your take on. I’ve heard that in Phil 3:8, when Paul uses ‘skybalon,’ he was essentially cussing, and that a more accurate translation would be s**t. I was wondering if that’s accurate or not.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 18, 2017

      Yes, it was a bit of a rough term, a bit like garbage, crud, or human excrement.

  7. Avatar
    Hume  October 18, 2017

    I was recently in Jerusalem and the surrounding area. I didn’t see any snakes nor does it feel like an environment for snakes. Yet, so many snake or serpent references in the Bible! Why?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 18, 2017

      Maybe they weren’t there because they killed them all. 🙂

    • talmoore
      talmoore  October 18, 2017

      There are also a lot of references to lions in the Bible, but I would challenge anyone to find wild lions in the modern Middle East. Human civilization has a way of displacing and extirpating nature.

    • Avatar
      godspell  October 18, 2017

      Um–why did Cleopatra kill herself with an asp?

      South Carolina, where part of my family has moved, is supposedly full of Diamondback Rattlers.

      I’ve never seen one. Snakes do sometimes make their way into the garage in my parents’ house, looking for a dark cool place to nap. Mainly harmless, but there was a cottonmouth once.

      Just because you don’t see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Snakes are not, in the main, exhibitionists. But also, man is much more dangerous to snakes than vice versa, and because we tend to kill them on sight, without bothering to find out of they’re the dangerous kind, they can get thin on the ground in settled areas.

      Australia is famous for snakes, and I’m guessing you wouldn’t see any there either, if you were visiting Sydney and its environs.

  8. Avatar
    Hume  October 18, 2017

    Wow, just reading the Apocalypse of Peter! It’s heavy on torture. Light on Paradise. Do you think Elysium influenced Heaven at all?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 18, 2017

      Do you mean did the Greek views of the afterlife affect the Christian? Yup.

  9. Avatar
    Hume  October 18, 2017

    As a non-believer from Catholic upbringing I think on my deathbed I will think, man I hope this Hell and Heaven and Judgement business isn’t true. What one or two things about the bible make it untrue or man-made?

  10. Avatar
    Tony  October 18, 2017

    The criterion as developed by Bultmann et al has come under some sceptical criticism lately. Here is one example: “Jesus’ association with John the Baptist at the beginning of his ministry is multiply attested”. There should be some criteria weighting process. John the Baptist was definitely historical and he made it in the Gospels. But Paul never mentions the man in any of his letters, The earliest and most reliable historical witness forgets to provide John the Baptist attestation – while certainly mentioning the use of baptism! The Multiple Attestations appear applied only in selected, but highly questionable sources. I’m sure there is an apologetic explanation.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 18, 2017

      When you say Bultmann developed the criterion, which writing of his are you thinking of?

      • Avatar
        Tony  October 18, 2017

        There were others who participated in the concept, but Bultman popularised it. I read “The History of the Synoptic Tradition.” I this a test?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 20, 2017

          No, I was genuinely interested. The criterion is usually associated with Bultmann’s students who wanted to move beyond his skepticism about the historical Jesus.

          • Avatar
            Tony  October 20, 2017

            Yes, I remember reading that his devout students did not like the direction their mentor was heading toward.

      • Avatar
        Tony  October 18, 2017

        Forgot to mention – I first found out about the criteria by reading your work. Credit where credit is due.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  October 18, 2017

      In Jewish circles, John the Baptist was probably far more well-known than Jesus, which is probably one reason why the Jewish Christians used John’s notoriety to boost Jesus’. In Gentile circles, however, both John and Jesus were probably equally unknown, which is why, writing to Greek ecclesia, Paul doesn’t bother mentioning John. One gets the sense from Paul’s letters that he’s practically exasperated trying to get just the simplest concepts into the congregation’s heads. In fact, at points it sounds like Paul is saying, “Just trust me, this the truth, okay?” The people he was writing to don’t seem like the kind of people you want to bog down with talk of a-whole-nother Jewish prophet…yada, yada, yada. Paul wanted to get straight to the point: Jesus’ death and resurrection is proof that the eschaton is coming anon, and all who trust in him will be saved from damnation when Jesus returns. That’s all they needed to know.

      • Avatar
        godspell  October 22, 2017

        It makes no sense they’d have John baptize Jesus as a way of plugging Jesus.

        That would be creating an opening for people to say “If he was without sin, why did he need baptism?” It would be creating an opening for John’s followers to say Jesus was John’s disciple, which was probably true for a while. They created the LATER stories of this encounter to try and argue their way out of it. But in the end, the Jesus cult won because John’s followers were lousy at writing stuff down, and were probably not very good evangelists either.

        Jesus never believed he was without sin. He never believed he was born of a virgin (he probably did not believe being the product of sexual intercourse meant you were born in a state of sin).

        We have this story because Jesus went to John for baptism.

  11. Avatar
    Tony  October 18, 2017

    I should have included a reference with my earlier comment on criterion criticism. Here it is:

    https://www.amazon.ca/Jesus-Criteria-Demise-Authenticity-Chris/dp/0567377237

    Bart, any comments?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 18, 2017

      Yes, there are difficulties with the criteria — just as there are difficulties involved with establishing guilt in criminal cases. But we haven’t abolished the legal system!

      • Avatar
        Tony  October 19, 2017

        Bart, if you were still a devout Christian you’d be a great apologist! But seriously, we had almost two and a half centuries, and three historical quests, of modern scholarship and none of the tools of textual criticism has withstood the test of time. They are all found to be flawed! I’m sure the next generation will try again and create other tools, but they too will be found falling short of their claims.

  12. Lev
    Lev  October 18, 2017

    Would you say this criterion can be used for assessing early church traditions also?

    For example, Clement preserved three traditions of how the gospel of Mark was composed. The first was reproduced by Eusebius, in Church History, Book 6, ch 14, v 6. The second is found in an extant work of Clement, From the Latin translation of Cassiodorus, Commentary on 1 Peter. And the third is again found in Eusebius’ Church History, this time in Book 2, ch 15, v 1-2.

    Of the three, the first records Peter’s nonchalant response to Mark’s gospel, where “he neither directly forbade nor encouraged it.” But the third account gives an elaborate response by Peter, who after learning of the gospel’s composition through a revelation of the Spirit, not only gives it his full blessing, by “the work obtained the sanction of his authority for the purpose of being used in the churches.”

    It appears to me the third account shows some awareness of the first account, and in order to combat the emerging gnostic critics of the 2nd century, attempts to demonstrate the apostolic authority of Mark’s gospel by having Peter give the work his blessing.

    Would you agree that the first account passes the criterion of dissimilarity as Peter’s refusal to sanction the gospel is an embarrassing feature out of step with later church tradition that requires some explanation?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 20, 2017

      In theory yes, the criteria can be used. Each case would have to be argued rigorously. But note, one cannot proceed on the assumption that *any* of them is “more” accurate than the others (if all three are problematic for a variety of reasons). In this case, they are all based on earlier traditions (Papias, e.g.) which are themselves inherently problematic.

  13. Avatar
    HenriettePeterson  October 18, 2017

    In several of your books you mention that most modifications in the NT manuscripts happened in first 3 centuries. If I’m correct we have no manuscript from 1st century and only few from the 2nd. That means we can say almost nothing about changes during this time. This is however more than half of the “greatest modifications” historical period. How many scribe modifications happened during this time? We now have evidence that the “women shut-up” part of Corinthians was a later addition. How many additions could we discover if we had access to what is now lost?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 20, 2017

      The reasons scholars have argued that nearly all the major changes were made int eh first couple of centuries are complicated, but pretty compelling. Maybe I’ll say something about it on the blog. The addition to 1 Corinthians, though, is usually seen to be an interpolation into the text — i.e more of an “editing” change, made before the book was put into wide circulation — rather than a simple scribal alteration.

      • Lev
        Lev  October 20, 2017

        I’d be very interested to read your views on how the NT settled down into the texts we have today.

        It seems to me that significant alterations were made in the first 150 years of when the gospels were first composed.

        Matthew 1 & 2, Luke 1 & 2, Mark 16 (part), John 8 (part) & 21, all appear to be later additions – and account for almost 7 chapters of material!

        When we speak of the canonical gospels, perhaps it’s more accurate to say that what we have today, are not the gospels of the 1st century, but the gospels of the 2nd century?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 22, 2017

          It’s a highly complicated question. I’d suggest you read The Text of the New Testament by Bruce Metzger to get a sense of the ins and outs.

  14. Avatar
    Tempo1936  October 18, 2017

    the “great commission” ( Matthew 28:15)
    Seems to be something Christians would add later and not something Jesus would say.
    The Phrase “baptizing in the name of the father son and Holy Ghost” is the only place The trinity is clearly mentioned. Does Not seem like something Jesus would
    say?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 20, 2017

      Yes, it’s usually understood as a later addition to Jesus’ words.

  15. Avatar
    jrauch  October 19, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman, this is an off topic question. I know that you believe that the gospels were not written by eyewitnesses and that they don’t claim to be written by eyewitnesses. My question involves the ending of the Gospel of John, is the author claiming to be a disciple and an eyewitness to the life of Jesus? It is confusing because is says “this is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things, and who has written these things; and we know that (his?) testimony is true”.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 20, 2017

      I think he’s claiming precisely *not* to be an eyewitness. He talks about “the disciple” who saw these things and then says “we” believe him. That means he’s not the disciple himself.

  16. Avatar
    Simulacrum  October 20, 2017

    Bart, do you recognize the validity of the principle of double similarity, that as far as I know, NT Wright is an exponent of?

  17. Avatar
    stevenpounders  October 21, 2017

    What does it mean to say that some historical matter in the gospels is multiply, independently attested, when we know that the earliest gospels, the synoptics, copy so much material from each other – often verbatim. Isn’t this the opposite of independence. Aren’t the synoptics obviously dependent on each other?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 22, 2017

      The traditions shared between two or more synoptics is not multiply, independently attested. If the same story is in matthew, Mark, and Luke, for example, that is not multiple attestation. It is single attestation (Mark).

      • Avatar
        stevenpounders  October 22, 2017

        If the gospel of John (or any apocryphal gospel) records something also found in the synoptics, is that considered independent attestation? Or are those gospels also dependent on the synoptics?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 23, 2017

          My view is that John was independent of the other three.

      • Avatar
        stevenpounders  October 23, 2017

        That makes sense to me. I guess I’m just confused, then, by your statements in this post that “Jesus’ association with John the Baptist at the beginning of his ministry is multiply attested”, but that “the story that John initially refused to baptize Jesus, on the other hand, is not multiply attested (it is found only in Matthew)”. What are the attestations, other than the synoptics, of Jesus’ association with John? Are other gospels, such as John or the apocrypha, the “multiple” attestations?

        I think I understand when you later say “according to all four canonical Gospels, and perhaps Paul, at the end of Jesus’ life he was betrayed by one of his own followers” and later say this is “independently attested”, if Paul is one independent attestation and the gospels are the other. Or perhaps John, in this instance too, is considered independent of the synoptics?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 24, 2017

          Jesus’ association with the Baptist at the beginning of his ministry is attested in Mark, M, Q, and John — all of them independent of one another.

  18. cheito
    cheito  November 27, 2017

    DR Ehrman:

    Your Comment:

    Again, in John’s Gospel Jesus claims to be equal with God, a claim that coincides perfectly with what some Christians were saying about him near the end of the first century, when John’s Gospel was written. Does this mean that Jesus did not really make this claim? Not necessarily. It means that the tradition cannot pass this criterion.

    My Comment:

    As you stated in the previous post, “The criterion of dissimilarity” Paul’s writings, are the first surviving writings from any early Christian – earlier by 15-30 years than the Gospels, and as you know very well, Paul already believed that Jesus existed in the form of God before he was born as a man. Paul clearly states his belief In the preexistence of Christ in God form, in his letter to the Philippians.

    Therefore doesn’t the tradition that Jesus claimed to have existed with God before he was born and was equal to God pass the criterion of dissimilarity – considering that Paul already had recorded it before the synoptic gospels were written?

    According to Paul’s writings, the tradition that Jesus was equal to God and that he existed with God before he became a man, was around much earlier that the end of the first century.

    Philippians 2:5-7

    5-Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus,
    6-who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped,
    7-but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.

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