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Another New Article on Philippians 2:6-11

May 7, 2015

Thanks to Crispin Fletcher-Louis’ pointer, I’ve read now another newly-published article on the question of whether Philippians 2:6-11 is a “hymn”:  Michael Wade Martin 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.  In this large article, they essentially argue that Philippians 2:6-11 exhibits key content-features typical of “hymns” as described in ancient rhetorical handbooks and related texts.  They also note the verbal resonances and Psalm-like parallelism identified by others.

I’ll have to ponder the matter further, and their case seems substantial enough to warrant it.  I’ll offer here only a few initial thoughts on the issues involved in this article and the other one that I posted about earlier this week.

First, there are at least two issues that are related to each other but should be kept distinct:  (1) Is Philip 2:6-11 (and Col 1:15-20) a “hymn/ode” deriving from early Christian worship circles/practices?  (2) Does Philip 2:6-11 exhibit features of content and construction that reflect a “hymnic” character?  Even if the answer to the latter questions is “yes” (as I rather confidently think is the case), that leaves open the other question about the circumstances in which it was composed.  Does the passage quote (or reflect, adapt) an early Christian “ode” or “spiritual song” that first emerged in early Christian worship?  Or is the passage the product of Paul, admittedly a fine example of “exalted prose” or “praise poetry”, but not a direct artefact of earliest Christian worship?

Given the impressive (to me) compositional qualities of Philip 2:6-11, I confess that I’m less confident that it arose as a spontaneous and inspired oral composition in the context of worship.  The verbal resonances (e.g., morphe theou/morphe doulou; hyparchon/labon; christos/patros), and the structured nature of the passage may more readily reflect composition as a text (or so it seems for the moment!).

But it is surely one of the most compressed, pithy and memorable Christological passages in the NT (as is Col 1:15-20).  This suggests to me that the thoughts expressed could hardly have been new to the original readers.  We require commentaries to explore what the phrasing means, but it seems that the original readers did not require this.  So, the passages in question still likely presuppose more than initiate the exalted claims made about Jesus in them.

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11 Comments
  1. Emad Atef permalink

    Dr. Larry,

    Does you statement “I’m less confident that it arose as a spontaneous and inspired oral composition in the context of worship” means that you changed your opinion from what you have written earlier in (How on earth did Jesus become God? P.84) “Whose original provenance was in setting of corporate worship”?

    • Emad: I’m definitely re-thinking the matter. I’m less confident now that Philip 2:6-11 is a direct importation of an early hymn, and considering more that it may be a “hymnic” composition by Paul. It could, thus, still be an INDIRECT reflection of features of early Christian hymns.

  2. Stephen C. Carlson permalink

    Thanks for pointing out these set of articles, Larry. I think that while Martin & Nash make as good off a showing they can that Phil 2:6-11 has necessary features of a hymnos, depending how you nuance the notion of divinity with respect to both Christ and the definition of the genre, it remains unclear to me that there is sufficient evidence in these short passages to be recognizable as such in antiquity (particularly since many of the features overlap with those of encomia, etc.). Indeed, the fact that the reception history of Phil 2:6-11 and Col 1:15-20 as adduced by Edsall and Strawbridge shows no evidence of such a recognition–despite the massive popularity of these passages and the high Christology of their readers (which ought to have made it easier in fact for either of these passages to be identified as a hymnos)–strongly suggests to me that sufficient evidence is just not there.

    However we may end up categorizing Phil 2:6-11 as a hymnos, encomium, Christuslob, or some other kind of rhetorical praise, I don’t think this exercise in classification really helps us with the source question, whether Phil 2:6-11 preceded the composition of Philippians in some kind of communal setting.

    But, all in all, two nice papers with an intelligent study of the broader Greco-Roman context within which we can better understand Paul.

  3. Sean permalink

    If we approach the evidence from another historical angle I think we have plausible reasons to consider Phil 2:6-11 and Col 1:15-20 as hymns.

    1. Singing was an important part of early Christian gatherings (1 Cor. 14:26; Eph 5:19; Col 3:16; Odes of Solomon).
    2. Early Christians sang hymns to Christ “as to a god” (Pliny Ep. 10.96).
    3. Kroll and Deichgraber observed that Christian hymnody of the first two centuries was almost entirely concerned with Jesus.
    4. Phil 2:6-11 and Col. 15-20 exhibit unusual vocabulary.
    5. These two (Phil. 2:6-11 and Col. 1:15-20) do not easily fit with an epistolary framework.

    Thus, while this does not provide proof, Phil 2:6-11 and Col. 1:15-20 do present themselves as candidates for consideration given the historical contingencies outlined above.

    • Sean: I think that your point 5 is one of the matters under dispute. The Philippians passage, for example, seems to fit quite nicely with the preceding and ensuing hortatory context. This passage certainly exhibits distinctive phrasing and stylistic (and phonetic) features that reflect an “exalted” kind of material. But is Philip 2:6-11 the text of an early hymn, or is it Paul’s own composition (albeit in exalted style and perhaps even reflecting features of early Christian hymns)??

  4. Hugh Scott permalink

    May I raise the point, concerning the time of the creation of Philippians 2.6-11, that (against the scholarly consensus, surely) on page 78 of his book ‘The Changing Faces of Jesus’ (Allen Lane/Penguin, 2000), Geza Vermes argues that this passage must be an insertion into Paul’s letter by a later redactor..
    Vermes says there: “The expressions ‘in the form of God’, ‘grasping equality from God’, and ‘emptying himself’ echo mythological concepts familiar from the Gospel of John and from late heretical Gnostic speculations. If so, chronologically they point to the early second century AD rather than the age of Paul. The hymn makes much better sense if it is taken as an existing liturgical composition inserted into the letter to the Philippians not by Paul himself but by a later editor. The fact that this poem can be removed without spoiling the general meaning of the chapter strongly favours the theory of its post-Pauline origin”.
    This brings in the whole question of the identification of ‘God/Lord’ in the Old Testament, and of ‘God/Lord/Jesus’ in the New. Phil 2.10-11 explicitly attributes to Jesus the text of Isaiah 45.23 (‘To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear’ -NRSV) which is addressed to the God of Israel, who is identified variously as Yahweh/El/Elohim in the Hebrew of Isaiah 45.14-25. ‘The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible’ (Abegg et al.) translates the original Hebrew terms in Isaiah 45 here as ‘God’ and ‘Lord’.. And the LXX uses the terms ‘theos’ and ‘Kyrios’ in this Isaianic passage. All these Isaianic sources idenify ‘God’ and ‘Lord’.
    And yet Phil 2.11 distinguishes ‘Jesus Christ’ as Kyrios, from ‘the[os] pat[er]’: that is, it ‘separartes’ ‘Lord’ and ‘God’ the Father’.
    To return now to Vermes: On every count his view is unlikely. The ideas of this Philippians passage occur again in the same epistle (notably in Phil. 3.20-21, shich refer to ‘a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ’, who has ‘glory’), and they are also equally strongly suggested in the text of Romans 10.9 (probably another pre-Pauline confession): “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord (kyrios) … you will be saved”. Will we be saved by believing merely that Jesus is greater than Caesar? Must not `kyrios, Lord’ here, applied to Jesus, mean `Yahweh’? See also, in the same sense, Romans 10.13, 1 Cor 12.3, Col 2.6, etc. What other ‘Name’ can Phil 2.9 and Rom. 10.13 be attributing to Jesus Christ, the Lord, if not ‘Yahweh’?

    • Hugh, Vermes’ claim is utterly unsupportable and seems to me a desperate move to try to avoid the (for him) uncomfortable reality that Jews such as Paul came to reverence Jesus in divine terms. The use/reading of OT passages such as Isaiah 45:20-25 in Philip 2:6-11 is remarkable, but it’s only one feature of the remarkable eruption of Jesus-devotion that is presupposed in Paul’s letters.

      • Martin Willis permalink

        Is this “hymn” docetic?
        Why is Vemez’s hypothesis “unsupportable”?

      • Philip 2:6-11 isn’t “docetic” at all. I don’t know where that question comes from. And Vermes’s claim is unsupportable because (1) he is simply incorrect that the passage is incompatible with Paul’s other statements about Jesus, and so (2) no imaginative textual surgery is warranted, (3) there is no manuscript evidence of an insertion (in contrast with such evidence for various Markan endings, and the periscope of the adulteress). Vermes’s claim reflects more his own reluctance to grant that devout Jews such as Paul could have regarded Jesus as he is portrayed in the text. But that tells us more about Vermes than Paul. Fini.

  5. Hugh Scott permalink

    Professor Hurtado,
    Thanks for your new comments. But you say: “I’m less confident that it [Phil 2.6-11] arose as a spontaneous and inspired oral composition in the context of worship”. Isn’t it possible that this text did indeed arise in this way, but was then developed as a hymn over time in its liturgical use, until the ‘finished’ form was incorporated (with possibly yet further refinement?) by Paul? I am impressed by the consideration that Paul would not have used such a densely packed Christological summary if its teaching was not already familiar to his audience. I therefore tend to think that it is not an original Pauline composition.

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