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“The Form of God”: Philo and Paul

April 19, 2017

An interesting passage in Philo of Alexandria, Embassy to Gaius (110-14) casts possible light on Paul’s reference to Christ as “being in the form of God/a god” (ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ ὑπάρχων; Philippians 2:6).[1]

Philo mounts a sustained criticism of the Emperor Gaius (Caligula) as a cruel and unjust ruler who sought his own pleasures and glory and cared nothing for others; but who liked to attire himself as the god Apollo and then be reverenced as such by his frightened subjects. Philo contrasts this with the generous and protective attributes ascribed to the gods to which Gaius sought to be compared, such as Apollo. Philo then says, “Let him who falsely calls himself Paean [a title of Apollo] cease once for all to mimic the true Paean; for the form of a deity is not produced the way one can counterfeit a coin” (πεπαύσθω καὶ ὁ ψευδώνυμος Παιὰν τὸν αληθῆ Παιᾶνα μεμούμενος· οὐ γὰρ ὥσπερ τὸ νόμισα παράκομμα καὶ θεοῦ μορφὴ γίνεται, Embassy 110, my translation).

The phrase, “form of a god” (θεοῦ μορφὴ), is a close parallel to Paul’s phrase. Note in particular how Philo here treats the “form of a god” as comprising certain virtues, a way of being, not simply outward/visual appearance. Note similarly Philo’s statement a bit later: “Do we need more than these things [Gaius’ excesses] to teach us that Gaius should not be likened to any of the gods or demigods? For his nature, his substance, his chosen conduct have not been in accord with this” (Ἆρά γε ἤδη μεμαθήκαμεν ἐκ τούτων, ὅτι οὐδενί θεῶν ἀλλ̓ οὐδὲ ἡμιθέων ἐξομοιοῦσθαι δεῖ Γάιον, μήτε φύσεως μήτε οὐσίας ἀλλὰ μηδὲ προαιρέσεως τετυχηκότα τῆς αὐτῆς; Embassy 114).

I wonder if Philo’s emphasis on the moral/ethical qualities of being “in the form of a god” may suggest something similar in Paul’s reference to Christ in Philippians 2:6. That is, the description of Christ as “being in the form of God/a god” may have more of a moral/ethical force than is sometimes assumed. To be sure, it is likely that Paul alludes here to what we call Christ’s “pre-existence,” and then describes how the “pre-existent” Christ took “the form of a slave” (μορφήν δούλου λαβών) as a man (vv. 6-8). But if “in the form of God/a god” in Philippians 2:6 also has something of the moral/ethical content that Philo’s similar phrase carries, then the sense of Paul’s statement may include the ascription to Christ of certain virtues of that he regards as appropriate to a deity.

In this light, Paul’s statement of Christ being “in the form of (a) god” and his choosing not to regard “equality with God something to be exploited” may have more of a coherence than has sometimes been recognized. That is, instead of taking the verse as “although he was in the form of God/a god,” Christ chose the actions described in Philippians 2:6-8, we might read “being in the form of God/a god” as the premise for the actions that follow, these actions exhibiting his divine “form.”

And this also means that the exaltation of Christ by God in Philippians 2:9-11 is not a new conferral of divinity but a new position, the designation of Christ as thereafter the “Kyrios” to whom now all creatures are to give obeisance “to the glory of God the Father.”

I can’t myself say that Paul’s statement in Philippians 2:6 had originally any intended contrast with Caligula or other such figures. But I do think that Philo’s use of the expression “form of a god” provides us with reason to consider whether Paul’s equivalent characterization of Christ is more than a “mere” ascription of divine status or appearance, and may connote also some of the sort of positive qualities of divinity that Philo affirms.

[1] The absence of the definite article in the Greek phrase leaves it possible to translate it either way.

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20 Comments
  1. JGoodrich permalink

    Larry,
    Your suggestion that Phil 2:6a might serve as “the premise for the actions that follow” reminds me of Michael Gorman’s essay “Although/Because He Was in the Form of God: The Theological Significance of Paul’s Master Story (Phil 2:6-11),” originally published in the Journal of Theological Interpretation, and later appearing in his Inhabiting the Cruciform God. He argues his case differently from you, but if I remember correctly, he arrives at a similar conclusion. Very interesting proposal!

    John

  2. Larry,

    Was counterfeiting of coins a big problem in those days?

    • I suppose that counterfeiting was sufficiently know for it to serve in Philo’s comments.

      • Larry,

        Was there anything unique about a Roman emperor claiming divine status?

      • Reading assignment: Price, S. R. F. Rituals and Power: The Roman Imperial Cult in Asia Minor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

  3. John Mitrosky permalink

    Larry I am curious if you see any relationship between Paul’s concept, that Jesus did not think of God as something to be fully grasped, and Mark’s Jesus saying, “Why do you call me good?. Only God is good.” Do you think this Mark saying is authentic historical Jesus?

    • John, I have no idea what you’re referring to in your first part of your sentence. So I don’t understand the question.

      • John Mitrosky permalink

        “who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” (Phil 2:6). What I was wondering is: if Paul got this thought from, let’s imagine, something Peter had told him about how Jesus felt about God, than what Peter may have told Paul is something like: Jesus once said to me, “Why do you call me good? Only God is good.” And perhaps Mark is reporting this saying accurately? Do you think this is possible?

      • John: I don’t see any plausible connection between the saying in Mark and the Philippians passage.

  4. GPG permalink

    Philo was born about 20 years before Jesus, as his slightly older Jewish contemporary, in Alexandria Egypt. Could Philo’s words have influenced the ideas attributed to Jesus himself, right from the very start?

    • I don’t know that scholars have perceived any indication of sufficient similarities between the Gospel reports of Jesus’ teachings and Philo.

      • GPG permalink

        Well, interestingly, following Philo’s remarks questioning emperor’s deities on coins, Jesus was also pictured raising the very same issue, and with regard to coins. There, coins with Caesar on them.

        I’m thinking I might do an article on this. Keeping your cautions in mind of course.

      • I think you misunderstood Philo’s comment, which wasn’t about images of emperors on coins, but about Caligula dressing up like a god. Philo’s point was that you can’t fake being a god the way you can fake a coin.

  5. Bill Wortman permalink

    Thanks for this post!

    “And this also means that the exaltation of Christ by God in Philippians 2:9-11 is not a new conferral of divinity but a new position…”

    I’m no Hurtado expert, but this statement strikes me as a potential departure from your previously stated position (which I’ve understood to be that according to Paul et al. Jesus was conferred divine status/divinity only in connection with his resurrection). Perhaps I’ve misunderstood your position?

    • No, Bill. No change. I contend that for earliest believers Jesus’ resurrection involved also his exaltation to the (new) status of “Son of God in power” and “Lord”, making him the one through whom now God is to be approached and is more fully revealed. But also in light of that exaltation they quickly came to believe that he had been “pre-existent” from creation.

  6. Dan Moore permalink

    Interesting observations.

    This concept of taking on the form of divinity and shedding the form of divinity seems to have been a familiar theme during the era of Paul. Plutarch, who wrote only slightly later, decided to use similar “form of God” language in his writings on the life of Demetrius, where he quotes from Euripides. μορφὴν ἀμείψας ἐκ θεοῦ βροτησίαν (Exchanging now the form of god for that of man). [Credits to http://www.perseus.tufts.edu.]

    • I’m not sure that Philippians 2:6-11 narrates a “shedding” of the “form of divinity”, unless you make the “emptying” (εκενωσεν) to comprise this.

  7. Robert permalink

    Brilliant!

    At the risk of taking the shine of such brilliance, if only in the mistaken minds of some, I still had to chuckle at the use of “mere” in this remark: “… Paul’s … characterization of Christ is more than a “mere” ascription of divine status or appearance …”

  8. Calvin Taylor permalink

    Such a reading further illuminates this passage’s counter-ideological (if not also anti-imperial) tone.

  9. gman450 permalink

    Given the ethical thrust of the passage from 2:1-5, that seems a plausible way to take the phrase.

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