Are Philippians 2:6-11 and Colossians 1:15-20 Christ-Hymns?
A recent journal article offers a new reason for reconsidering whether Philippians 2:6-11 and Colossians 1:15-20 are (as many scholars have thought) remnants/adaptations of early Christian hymns/odes: Benjamin Edsall & Jennifer R. Strawbridge, “The Songs We Used to Sing? Hymn ‘Traditions’ and Reception in Pauline Letters,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 37 (2015): 290-311.
They are by no means the first to raise this question, and to suggest a negative answer. Indeed, as the authors readily indicate, in recent decades several scholars have raised objections to these texts as deriving from “hymns/odes” sung or chanted in earliest Christian circles. Previous critiques have focused on the criteria typically cited as justifying the notion that these passages reflect hymnic phrasing. For example, there is no clear metrical structure, and the parallelism of the phrases is disputed as well.
The new contribution by Edsall & Strawbridge is to cite the uses of these passages in early Christian writings (of the pre-Nicene period), drawing on the results of Strawbridge’s 2014 DPhil thesis. They judge that excerpts from Philip 2:6-11 and Col 1:15-20 “are amongst the most frequently cited Pauline texts in the whole of early Christian literature” (300). Both passages are cited several hundred times in the controversies over the person and nature of Jesus and the nature of God.
But, and this is their key point, in no case does any early Christian writer refer to either passage as a hymn (or as deriving from one). The authors contend, therefore, that early Christian readers of Philippians and Colossians didn’t see either passage as hymnic, and (barring some other strong reason to the contrary) neither should we.
Instead, they propose that these passages should be seen as “heightened prose” forming part of the composition of each epistle. They go on to offer the term Christuslob (literally “Christ-praise” or “praise of Christ”) (306). And, agreeing with Michael Peppard’s earlier complaint, they contend that it is inappropriate for these texts to be printed in poetic form, as in the Nestle-Aland editions of the Greek New Testament.
The arguments offered by Edsall & Strawbridge, along with those of the other recent works that they cite, should not be side-stepped, but should be considered carefully. It is certainly the case that what begins as a plausible hypothesis can become a presumed fact too readily, and this may be the case with these two texts. We know that earliest Christians chanted/sang biblical Psalms and also their own compositions of praise as part of their worship gatherings (e.g., 1 Cor 14:26). Philip 2:6-11 and Col 1:15-20 are two of the most condensed christological statements in the NT, and they have syntactical features that readily distinguish them from their surrounding texts. But does either passage derive from early Christian worship, or are both the products of the author of each epistle?
Taking these passages as examples, Martin Hengel contended that early Christian hymns/odes, spontaneously prompted by experiences of religious/spiritual exaltation, were a crucial mode of earliest Christological expression. He may well still be correct, but the question underscored by Edsall & Strawbridge is whether Philip 2:6-11 and Col 1:15-20 can still be taken as examples of this early Christian hymnody.
While that question is weighed in the guild, I’ve a couple of small immediate comments on the Edsall/Strawbridge article. First, in considering the applicability of the category of “rhetorical prose hymn” to these passages, they make a curious statement (299-300) that this is “entirely dependent on one’s reading of Paul’s Christology, since apart from worshipping Christ as God, these passages could equally be construed as praising Jesus as Lord (but not necessarily as God or even divine).” I am bound to say that this seems to me to reflect a strangely confused set of notions. As should be clear to any serious reader, in the NT Jesus is not worshipped “as God” (whatever that may mean) but, instead, with reference to God, as the Son of God, as the Lord appointed by God, as the “image” of God, etc. To be sure, Jesus is referenced as sharing the divine name and glory, and OT texts originally referring to “God” (YHWH) are interpreted with reference to Jesus, and, most importantly, in earliest Christian circles Jesus is accorded the sorts of reverence that are otherwise reserved for deities in the Roman era. So, there can be no question whether the exalted Jesus is treated in the NT as “divine.” But, at the same time, the NT (and early Christian writers generally) also distinguish God and Jesus, while also relating them uniquely to each other. (For further discussion, see my book, God in New Testament Theology, Abingdon Press, 2010.)
So, actually, it isn’t an argument against Philip 2:6-11 or Col 1:15-20 possibly being (or deriving from) a “rhetorical prose hymn” to hold that neither text presents Jesus being worshipped “as God.” There may be other reasons, but that one simply reflects confused thinking.
I was also a bit puzzled not to see the classic study by Joseph Kroll, Die christliche Hymnodik, included in their many references. Though now hard to find (except in really good theological libraries), it remains a noteworthy study that ranges widely through early Christian texts and examples of hymns.
Likewise, it seems to me that the study that most effectively persuaded most NT scholars that Philip 2:6-11 likely was hymnic was Ernst Lohmeyer’s 1928 work, Kyrios Jesus. Indeed, the layout of Philip 2:6-11 in the Nestle-Aland Greek text seems to follow the strophic layout proposed by Lohmeyer.
But, in sum, Edsall and Strawbridge give a stimulating airing of reasons to wonder whether Philip 2:6-11 and Col 1:15-20 are (or derive from) early Christian odes.
 E.g., Gordon D. Fee, “Philippians 2:5-11: Hymn or Exalted Pauline Prose?” Bulletin of Biblical Research 2(1992): 29-46.
 Jennifer Strawbridge, “According to the Wisdom Given to Him”: The Use of the Pauline Epistles by Early Christian Writers before Nicaea” (DPhil Disssertation, University of Oxford, 2014).
 Michael Peppard, “’Poetry’, ‘Hymns’ and ‘Traditional Material’ in New Testament Epistles or How to Do Things with Indentations,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 30(2008): 319-42.
 Martin Hengel, “Hymns and Christology,” in [Hengel] Between Jesus and Paul (London: SCM, 1983), 78-96; “The Song about Christ in Earliest Worship,” in [Hengel] Studies in Early Christology (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1995), 227-91.
 Joseph Kroll, Die christliche Hymnodik bis zu Klemens von Alexandreia (Königsberg: Hartungsche Buchdruckerei, 1921).
 Ernst Lohmeyer, Kyrios Jesus: Eine Untersuchung zu Phil. 2, 5-11. Sitzungsberichte der Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften (Heidelberg: Carl Winters Universitätsbuchhandlung, 1928).