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Are Philippians 2:6-11 and Colossians 1:15-20 Christ-Hymns?

May 5, 2015

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.[1] 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.[2] 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.[3]

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.[4] 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.[5] 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.[6] 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.


[1] E.g., Gordon D. Fee, “Philippians 2:5-11: Hymn or Exalted Pauline Prose?” Bulletin of Biblical Research 2(1992): 29-46.

[2] 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).

[3] 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.

[4] 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.

[5] Joseph Kroll, Die christliche Hymnodik bis zu Klemens von Alexandreia (Königsberg: Hartungsche Buchdruckerei, 1921).

[6] Ernst Lohmeyer, Kyrios Jesus: Eine Untersuchung zu Phil. 2, 5-11. Sitzungsberichte der Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften (Heidelberg: Carl Winters Universitätsbuchhandlung, 1928).

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  1. The greatest imperative for hymn theory occurs with 1 Timothy 3:16. The hymn theory acts as a cover story for the solecism, the missing antecedent, in the critical text. Shortly after the grammatically problematic variant became popular (Griesbach) the hymn theory became the popular explanation.

    • No, Steven. The most commonly cited, and most important, passages proffered as “hymnic” are Philippians 2:6-11; Colossians 1:15-20. As for the textual variants in 1 Tim 3:16 (“hos”=who; or “ho” = which), the latter is much more obviously the “easier” reading and is supported by a less impressive array of witnesses. The masculine relative pronoun is more obviously the “difficult” reading, and so more likely original. See, e.g., the discussion in Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Second Edition (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft/United Bible Societies, 1994), 573-74.

      • Steven Avery permalink

        Larry, you said no, while confirming my point. The verse was dragged into hymn theory, and stays there today (as a second tier hymn) precisely because it is difficult == solecism == no antecedent for the relative pronoun. This allows loose non-literal translation matching the ethereal hymn that is conjectured. Masking the solecism.

        You did omit the textual variant that is in approximately 99% of the Greek mss, a curious omission.

        As one learned textual writer pointed out (Leonard perhaps, can dig it up when off ipad, if you remain patient on an interesting discussion) the harder reading concept should have early and strong boundaries, so that it does not become an excuse for writings that contradict an author’s style and skill. Evangelicals can add that the harder reading concept can be used to actually bring errancy into the text, as with Herod’s daughter Herodias. Lectio difficilior remains a canon that can shoot you in the foot :).

      • Again, Steven–No (to your original claim): The “hymn theory” didn’t commence with 1 Tim 3:16. CLear??
        As to the variants in 1 Tim 3:16, the “ho theos” variant supported by the “corrections” in Sinaiticus et al and in the mass of later manuscripts is so obviously secondary that I thought it unnecessary to mention. As for text-critical principles, “difficult reading” remains a valid one, and in this case obviously so.

      • Larry, I did not mean to give the impression that hymn theory (the New Testament authors appropriated existing hymns into their autographic text) started with 1Timothy 3:16. Only that for 1 Timothy 3:16, one of the most controversial in textual history, hymn theory has a special imperative. To mask the solecism.

        For the beginning of the hymn theory, we may have to look at Christoph August Heumann (1681-1764). e.g. Looking at Ephesians 5:14, which at that time, was considered the most decisive case.

        Ephesians 5:14
        Wherefore he saith,
        Awake thou that sleepest,
        and arise from the dead,
        and Christ shall give thee light.

        Heumann laid this out as a hymn source:

        Awake, O thou that sleepest,
        Arise from the dead
        And Christ shall enlighten thee

        Greek and English laid out here:

        The Sacred Poetry of the Early Christians (1829)
        David Young

        Although there might be hints of hymn theory in Grotius.


        As for textual issues, we will simply disagree for now :).

        However, maybe you agree that the debate about the Traditional Text reading, that largely began with Isaac Newton, and the grammatical problem, have been one major spur to the current embrace of hymn theory for 1 Timothy 3:16. The fact that there is now a type of “consensus” on one variant in some textual circles does not particularly really relate to the history,

        Steven Avery

      • Steven: The text-critical question of the variants in 1 Tim 3:16 is not determined, or shaped by what you call “hymn theory.” It doesn’t work that way. The masculine relative pronoun is obviously the “difficult” reading, the others obviously attempts to smooth things out. Your “solecism” was created by anyone trying to defend “hymn theory”. Let it go.

  2. Jeff Cate permalink

    I haven’t had a chance to see the article yet. Thanks for mentioning it. Just curious, do the authors mention any other hymns in the NT… maybe the noticeable ones in the Lukan infancy narratives or the many hymns in the Apocalypse of John? Granted, those aren’t typically considered hymns that existed prior to the penning of those texts (unlike the theory on Phil 2 & Col 1)… but I wonder if the noticeable hymns in Luke or Rev were or were not adopted into early Christian worship… and what that then might indicate about the non-use of Phil 2 & Col 1. Apos Const 7 mentions the gloria & nunc dimittis as part of morning & evening prayers (respectively), but beyond that, I’m not sure if there is indication that the noticeable hymns in Luke & Rev were used in early Christian worship. Thoughts?

    • Yes, Jeff, the main argument of the article is that, although other texts such as the Lukan nativity poems are treated as odes/hymns in Patristic tradition, the Philippians and Colossians passages aren’t.

  3. Steve Walach permalink

    Larry —

    My question has a more theological than scholarly basis.

    If the Philippian verse refers to the “name of Jesus” and not the “name, Jesus”, it seems to me that the “name” in question, as you say, is a direct reference to YHWH and not the word “Jesus,” even though in most Christian denominations YHWH is seldom if ever a salient feature of liturgy, homilies, prayers or theology.

    In the Philippian passage, Jesus is “highly exalted” in large measure because the name YHWH has been bestowed upon him; however, most Christian theology omits that contingency or treats it merely as a ceremonial event and absent deeper meaning — a meaning that might be at once troubling but also awe-inspiring to adherents of the Tanakh, who would have a much different association with the name [YHWH] than modern Christians.

    In John 17, 26: Jesus says, “I made known to them thy name, and I will make it known, that the love with which thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

    Most interpretations of Jn17 that I am familiar with equate Jesus to the name. The phrase “made known to them thy name” generally means that the disciples have witnessed the glorified Jesus who is equal to the name, and there he is manifesting himself to them in flesh and blood, word and deed, that is, “The Word made flesh.”

    How much of a stretch is to infer that Jesus in Jn 17 was not only the embodiment of the name — or perhaps its highest earthly manifestation — but that Jesus was also making the unutterable name YHWH, the name adored and worshipped in the Psalms, known to his disciples?

    The disciples would have then felt the love of the father “in them,” right? And one more reason “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow”?

    Thanks for considering.

    • Dear STeve,
      Let’s stay for now with what to make of Philip 2:9-11. GJohn is replete with references to the “name” and I’ve a current PhD student working on the matter rather thoroughly. He’s showing that there is a fascinating complexity to the relationship of the divine name and Jesus in GJohn. But let’s reserve that matter for another time.
      As for Philip 2:9-11, I take “the name above every name” to = “Kyrios” (understood as referring to the divine name, YHWH), and I understand the text to be saying that Jesus is awarded this name/title (or, more properly, made to share it). So, I take “in/at the name of Jesus” in v. 9 to be the setting/occasion for the confession, which is “Kyrios Iesous Christos” (“Lord Jesus Christ”).

      • Steve Walach permalink

        Thanks! And I hope you’ll be making your Ph.D student’s insights regarding the divine name and Jesus available on this blog. Even to a non-academic, the connections are fascinating and seemingly quite worthy of further study.

        John Ronning’s book “The Jewish Targums and John’s Logos Theology” adds a new (I think) wrinkle to the complexity and I think worth reading.

        Your book, God in New Testament Theology, which I must confess I’ve not yet read all the way through, refers to the astonishing lack of NT scholarship regarding the relationship of the words “God” and “Jesus.” It seems to me there is much fertile ground for research and discovery.

        Wishing your grad student well.

  4. Tim Whitaker permalink

    Do the authors provide literary examples from Greco-Roman culture which might provide a precedent to, or analogy to, writers’ prose approaching the poetic when offering praise to some person, entity, or divinity?

    • For examples of this, try instead the recent article: Martin, Michael Wade and Bryan A. Nash. “Philippians 2:6-11 As Subversive Hymnos: A Study in the Light of Ancient Rhetorical Theory,” Journal of Theological Studies 66, no. 1 (2015): 90-138. The authors note both similarities and differences between Philip 2:6-11 and Roman-era notions and practices of hymns, especially in what is praised.

  5. crispinfl permalink

    Larry, thank you for alerting us to this interesting article – and, as ever, your incisive observations on it. Another article that deals with this question has just been published. I found its argument quite persuasive: according to ancient generic conventions Phil 2:6–11 is indeed a hymn (though not necessarily one that had a strictly liturgical life setting):

    M. W. Martin and B. A. Nash, “Philippians 2:6–11 as Subversive Hymnos: A Study in the Light of Ancient Rhetorical Theory.” JTS 66 (2015): 90–138.

    I’d be interested to know your thoughts on this article.


    • Dear Crispin,
      Thanks for alerting me to this new article. I aim to blog on it too.

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