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The Pre-pauline “Poem” in Philippians 2

In my most recent post on Christology I began to speak about the “incarnation” Christology found famously in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, 2:6-11.  There are a lot of other things I want to say about this passage, all of them relevant to the issues I’ve been discussing.  The first and most important thing is that it has been widely recognized by scholars for a very long time that this passage is something that Paul appears to be quoting, that it is not simply part of the prose letter.  Moreover, it 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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More on the Philippians Christ-Poem
Incarnation Christology, Angels, and Paul



  1. Avatar
    Emmett  February 19, 2013

    It certainly is interesting. If indeed it’s earlier than Paul, as seems likely, it portrays Jesus more as the Docetists might: only an illusion as a man. This line of thinking leads me to think about whether Paul took a turn away from Docetism in this letter, as he looked at the full meaning of what he wrote, perhaps only after hearing what a reception it had. What if Docetism was the earliest and most ‘orthodox’ Jesus cult — and that Paul was a branch of that tree, the branch that eventually strangled the trunk?

  2. Avatar
    David Chumney  February 19, 2013

    If Christ was considered by some early Christians to have once been “a pre-existent divine being” (an angel), did that mean that he was–prior to his incarnation–numbered among the “sons of god” as referenced, e.g., in Job 1:6? The LXX had already read “sons of god” (benei ‘elohim) as “the angels of God,” so I’m wondering if that played any part in this Christological view.

    Prior to your earlier post, I had never encountered this reading of the Philippians passage (although I was aware of the view that Paul is quoting an earlier poem). During seminary, I read Ralph Martin’s Carmen Christi, but certainly don’t recall that he discussed the pre-existence of Christ in these terms. Can you tell us who first suggested this understanding of the text?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 19, 2013

      Yes, I think Jesus as “son of God” may well have been interpreted by some to mean “angelic being” (of some sort). As to who first suggested an angelomorphic interpretation of the Philippians poem — I don’t know! It’s not a widely held view!

  3. Avatar
    dallaswolf  February 19, 2013

    But it would also imply that early incarnational Christology did not support the Logos doctrine found in the Gospel of John and later Trinitarian doctrine developed by the Cappadocians (one ousia, three co-equal hypostases), correct? It can lead one to a Chistology of Jesus as a created bring, albeit angelic, whom God promotes to “Lord” for a job well done. Even at that promotion, it does not claim Jesus to be God, “the” Lord, nor equal to him. Am I on the right track here?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 19, 2013

      Keep posted!

    • Avatar
      Scott F  February 20, 2013

      Can John’s use of the word “logos” be fairly interpreted as the “intention” of God? Would this alter the meaning of the passage to read that an angelic being was incarnated such that it might carry out the intention of God by teching, dying and ultimately being exalted?

      • Bart Ehrman
        Bart Ehrman  February 20, 2013

        I’m not sure “intention” is quite the right nuance, as it implies something that God was mentally thinking about doing, and LOGOS is really something more like “reason” or “rationality.”

  4. Avatar
    Wilusa  February 19, 2013

    What is the date thought to be for this letter to the Philippians?

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    toddfrederick  February 19, 2013

    Whether or not Paul actually wrote the poem, it is beautiful. I am always bewildered when reading Paul. He can express the most profound insights in the most beautiful ways that I just want to read and re-read them for their beauty and inner depth touching my spirit. And then he can become so utterly hateful, saying the most awful and heinous things about his rivals and those who see to disobey him. It’s almost as though he’s bipolar with severe mood swings…very mentally ill. I don’t know what he’s all about…as a person.

    • Avatar
      RyanBrown  February 19, 2013

      That’s in part because not all of the letters attributed to Paul were written by Paul.

  6. Avatar
    Yentyl  February 19, 2013

    Mm-m. Interesting. Can’t wait to hear the rest.

  7. Avatar
    toejam  February 19, 2013

    I’m not saying you’re doing this, but I this always pops into my head whenever I’m reading about Pauline authorship: If we simply take all the bits out of the writings atrributed to Paul that we declare “don’t sound like Paul”, which I’m sure you’d agree is quite a lot, at what point can we say that we know what Paul sounded like at all? How do we know we haven’t got it the other way around? How do we know that Paul wasn’t just an eccentric contradictorary/chameleon-like character, like L.Ron Hubbard, who simply wrote a lot of dribble that sounds elegant at first glance but is ultimately contradictorary upon further scrutiny? Why do we expect Paul to always be consistent? – Not everyone is. Indeed, most religious cult leaders (again, I’m thinking of people like Hubbard, Marshall Applewhite, Jim Jones etc.) are highly contradictoary despite their prolificity of their sermons.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 19, 2013

      Yes, Pauline scholars have to deal with this issue all the time! There are some consistent notes struck throughout Paul’s writings, and there are stylistic similarities throughout, so there is *some* core Pauline material there — probably almost everything in the seven undisputed letters.

    • Robertus
      Robertus  February 20, 2013

      L.Ron Hubbard sounds elegant at first glance?

  8. Avatar
    Xeronimo74  February 19, 2013


    This might be slightly off-topic but how about a post about whether or not Christian concepts (like the Trinity, the Incanration, etc) are actually logically coherent and consistent? Which they are not, according to my analysis but it’s always interesting to read other opinions. Because Christians will, of course, claim that, for example, the Trinity IS logical but then they fail to actually make their case.

    Same with other illogical concepts like ‘fully God, fully human’, ‘never-changing yet intervening’, ‘God is sovereign yet has to suffer’ etc.

    By the way, do most religions require the belief in illogical, irrational constructs or is that a hallmark of Christianity? Christianity, a religion that seems to fully embrace its irrationality and even be proud of this.

    • Avatar
      pdahl  February 20, 2013


      I am sympathetic to the concerns and frustrations you express about traditional Christianity as many of us have been taught it. Just a couple comments here, which may be of some help.

      St. Paul’s understanding of Jesus, for example, can be appreciated as having been highly logical, within the confines of his argumentation, as Bart has nicely outlined in his book *Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene* (pp. 113-114 in my paperback edition). However, for many citizens of the 21st century, it’s the very premises of Paul’s argument that must be called into question, in which case his subsequent “theo-logic” regarding the meaning of Jesus is potentially undermined. From Paul’s pessimistic reading of Genesis, he seems to have presumed that God was wrathful about human sin and that humans were helpless to regain God’s pleasure because of it, ideas that were later propounded (and pounded into us) by Augustine and Luther. Yet here rests the essential foundation on which the very idea of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross rests. In this understanding, mankind now stands on a low rung of the moral/ethical/behavorial ladder, having fallen from the much higher rung on which God initially placed our forebears as part of His initially (near-)perfect creation.

      On the other hand, a human anthropologist or evolutionary biologist today would be more likely to argue that mankind got to that proverbial first rung of the ladder by crawling (metaphorically) from the ground up, not by falling (literally) from the top down. By this alternative view, which has gained much traction based on the evidence that has accumulated since Darwin, humans evolved by natural selection from lower animals whose very self-centeredness was also a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for their own survival as individuals and as a species. This opposing premise to explain the human condition confronted by both Paul and by us alike logically raises the very different question, however: “How can God condemn us for acting on the very nature that He — yes He! — gave us?” From here, it is logically difficult to conclude that Jesus’ death was a sacrifice for sin per se, which thus redeemed humans in the eyes of God and thereby vindicated His righteousness, etc., etc.

      In summary, I think we can still appreciate the genius of Paul’s theological argumentation regarding the meaning of Jesus, which was based on sound principles of reason and logic and knowledge that was available to him at the time. That said, I think it’s the *premises* of his argument that we can reasonably dispute today, based on modern knowledge that Paul could not have had. Of course, a different premise regarding the origin of the human condition leads us to alternative conclusions about the meaning of Jesus, which may trouble some Christians yet enrich others.

      Anyway, I think that similar distinctions between argument per se and the premise(s) for said argument can be raised regarding other Christian doctrines as well, like Incarnation and Trinity (which you mention), but I’ll stop here for now. Hope this helps!

  9. Avatar
    hwl  February 19, 2013

    “Which makes it pre-Pauline. Which makes it very old indeed.”
    How old? 1 year before Paul, 5 years, 2 decades? How do scholars actually put a date to these things – which seem to be a matter of conjecture?

  10. Robertus
    Robertus  February 19, 2013

    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.

  11. Avatar
    RecoveringCalvinist  February 19, 2013

    In “Jesus Interupted” you write of the reconceptualization of the horizontal (spatial) dualism to the vertical (temporal) one. I assume Paul’s “horizontal” viewpoint doesn’t change during his lifetime. Does the phrase “On heaven, and on earth, and under the earth” indicate that vertical thought is starting to gell? Also, why is this hymn/ poem not defined as a creed?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 19, 2013

      Ah good point. Apocalypticists did have a horizontal dualism, but they too realized that there was an “up there” and a “down here.” They simply thought the up there was going to be realized down here in the future; that’s what got changed, the futurity of it, so that it was no longer a temporal dualism that mattered.
      The reason it’s not usually classified as a creed is because it has a narrative structure; it is not a staccato like list of belief statements.

  12. Avatar
    Dr.Context  February 19, 2013

    In my one of my previous post, responding to these verses, you misunderstood my point, I know this because of the book/writer that you mentioned. Having checked into it, not at all resembling my views. Paul’s letters were follow up letters written after having spent time, teaching those whom the letter addressed, with the exceptions of Romans. All these things, I realize that you know. Just trying to lay some foundation. In his letters, he is refering back to his own foundation already lain. So it may well rather be his previous teaching that he is refering to rather than a hymn. Or possibly a hymn that he himself taught. But in this, we are lacking the foundation already lain. That foundation must be factored in in order to properly understand Paul’s intent. The assumed to be known, underlying, unspecified foundation of this passage is that Eve tried to grasp equality with God. She wanted to be “like God”. Those called by God to Shepherd the people did the same. Rather than serve the people, they had the people serve them, as if they were gods. Gods on earth. This was in Paul’s mindset as he wrote, him assuming that it was also his audience’s mindset. Next, before I move on, I should explain “in the form of God’. Adam was made in God’s image/form, but he failed to represent that image so he was expelled from heaven. Jesus did not fail to represent that image. He was credited with being “the exact representation of the image” God was pleased, adopting him as Son. Back to the verse at hand. Jesus being in the form of God, representing God’s image, did not do as those before him who had made themselves as gods on earth, He did not try as Eve and those before him to grasp or sieze equality with God, but elected to serve, realizing that he was man [mans being created by God, intended to serve God] so he humbled himself, served the peoples ultimate need, went to the cross, Therefore, God was highly pleased, and gave him a name above all others. The traditional view of him preexisting, giving up his divine status, returning to where he came, is not found in these verses. That view comes from preconceived ideas taken from elsewhere, but not here. Compare “being born in the likeness of a human” to “becoming in the likeness of men [common men, not as the Kings of the day who had made themselves as gods]. And compare “being found in human shape” to “being found as a man” [Jesus realizing that he is a man, a created being, meant to serve God, maybe even recalling the psalm, “what is man that you are mindful of him”] I believe he was adopted at his baptism, those around him also believing this, it being confirmed to them by his resurrection from the dead. I usually stand alone in my view of the Phillipian passage

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 19, 2013

      The book I referred you to was the most thorough study of the passage. If you want a treatment that considers the poem in relationship to Genesis 2-3 in particualr, see James Dunn, Christology in the Making. Dunn and others do not tie it to Eve, however, but to Adam, since it is Adam, not Eve, who is said to have been made inthe “image” of God (which, it is argued, is parallel to Christ in the “form” of God). Moreove,r there are other passages in Paul where Jesus is talked about as the second Adam (Rom 5) but nowhere that he ties him to Eve. But you have an interesitng view!

  13. Avatar
    dmthliana  February 19, 2013

    Being a layman and not paying too much attention to the written words in the Bible, these posts have been very enlightening indeed. The concept of “incarnation Christology” has never entered my mind and this is the first time I’ve heard of a belief where Jesus was first considered to be an angel. Food for thought indeed.

  14. Avatar
    RParvus  February 19, 2013

    My guess is that the original poem was Simonian.

    P.L. Couchoud pointed out about seventy years ago that, according to the poem, what was given was a name—not a title. “Lord” is a title, not a name. And since the name in question was given after the Son’s exaltation, it makes more sense if the name given was “Simon.” For Simon of Samaria was active *after* the alleged death and resurrection of the Son who descended, and he claimed to be a new manifestation of that Son.

    And the hymn’s use of the words “form”, “likeness”, and “shape” to describe the Son’s manifestation corresponds much better with the claims of Simon: “And so he (Simon) *appeared* as man, when in reality he was not man. And likewise he suffered in Judaea as Son—though not actually undergoing suffering, but *appearing* to the Jews to do so… “ (Hippolytus, “Refutation of All Heresies,” 6,19)

    And a Simonian scenario explains better the connection between the obedience of the Son (“he humbled himself and *became obedient* to the point of death…”) and the name given as a result of it: Simon, whose root meaning in Hebrew is “hear; hearken, obey;” as in the first word of the Shema. Simonians claimed that Simon was given his name because he had previously obeyed the Father: “Appelatum fuisse Simonem dicebant, id est, obedientem, quia obedivit Patri mittenti illum ad nostram salutem” (Mansi, Coll. Conc. Tome 2, col. 1057. – roughly: “They (Simonians) said that he was called Simon, that is to say, the obedient, because he obeyed the Father when he sent him for our salvation”). Now if the poem was originally about someone named “Jesus”, one would expect its sense to be more along of the lines of: Because he *saved* men, God gave him the name “Jesus” (Savior). But the hymn underlines “obedience”, not salvation.

    Finally, according to the very testimony of a proto-orthodox heresy hunter, the Simonians are described as in fact treating the name of Simon as sacred. As such, they avoided using it and replaced it with other names and titles: “They (Simonians) have a statue of Simon in the form of Zeus… And if any among them on seeing the images, calls them by the name of Simon… he is cast out as one ignorant of the mysteries”. (“Refutation of All Heresies,” 6,20).

    As I see it, Simon is a better fit.

  15. Avatar
    Ron  February 19, 2013

    The phrase “did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped” should not suggest to us that Jesus could have chosen, at any time, to be exalted. This would be, in my opinion, the same as being “thrice-born” all at once, instead of in stages, which is the only way to accomplish this heroic deed. So, in harmony with Luke’s narrative, Jesus was regarded as the “Son of God,” not only at his birth (1st experience) and at his resurrection (3rd experience), but also at his baptism (2nd experience), where the proper reading of Luke 3:22 is “Today, I have begotten thee.” These experiences have appointed times and places, and Jesus understood what his mission was – to be a suffering Messiah who would meet his fate by being viciously murdered by the Romans, only to be rebirthed/resurrected by His Father alone to final exaltation. This was not physical rebirth of his previous body in a tomb, but rather an appearance of One more like that described in Rev. 1:13-19.

  16. Avatar
    brandyrose  February 19, 2013

    I seem to remember there is a “creed” that predates Paul in another letter of his; does that also express theology/Christology that is at odds with Paul himself or appears to be “too early” in traditional models of the developement of Christian thought?

  17. Avatar
    JoeWallack  February 20, 2013

    “But that means Paul is simply quoting an earlier poem that he (and possibly the Philippians) already knew. He quotes the whole thing, even though part of it doesn’t make his point (and in fact, upon reflection, may work against his point). And that means that the poem was around before Paul. Which means it was before the letter to the Philippians. Which makes it pre-Pauline. Which makes it very old indeed. Which means incarnation Christologies were probably around before Paul.”

    The El-e-Paun in the room is that all your observations are evidence of editing AFTER Paul. Higher Christology, does not fit his style, context or vocabulary. Add to this that we have exponentially better evidence than anything you say above, that Paul in general was edited. It’s just amazing that you cite this solid evidence of post Pauline as evidence of the exact opposite, pre-Pauline. All to try and fit your new theory of Christian origins.

    My advice is to take it easy on the historical claims and focus on your specialty, Textual Criticism.


    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 20, 2013

      So you want to argue that this is an interpolation into Philippians? Interesting idea, but I’m afraid it runs into lots of problems, including the fact that if you take the poem out, the literary structure of the letter falls apart.

      I should add that the view I mapped out is the one held by almost every Pauline scholar on the planet, with only one or two exceptions (and none of the exceptions — to my knowledge — think the passage is post-Pauline, only that it is Paul himself)

      But I’m curious: why do you think textual criticism rather than history of early Christianity is my “specialty.” More of my graduate training (before my dissertation) and almost all of my research for the past ten years and almost all of my graduate-level teaching for the past twenty was actually oriented toward historical study than text-critical.

  18. Avatar
    Scott F  February 20, 2013

    What about the possibility that this “hymn” was already in existence – in whole in in parts – and only later came to be applied to Jesus? This would ease the issue of the potentially remarkable pace at which these poems and the theologies that they present developed.

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