“The Form of God”: Philo and Paul
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).
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.
 The absence of the definite article in the Greek phrase leaves it possible to translate it either way.