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Philippians 2:6-11

In light of comments and questions arising in response to my previous posting about what “in the form of God/a god” might connote in Philippians 2:6-11, I immodestly point to my own study of the passage published in my book, How on Earth did Jesus Become a God?  Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus (Eerdmans, 2005), 83-107.

Probably the further comments I’d make today are (1) that the phrase “in the form of God” may be illumined by usages such as Philo’s that I cited in my previous posting, and (2) that there are now more scholars questioning whether the passage originated separately as a hymn, or, instead, may have been composed by Paul as part of Philippians.

If the latter, then it still seems to me that the compressed wording and balanced phrasing suggests that it was composed (by whomever) in an “exalted” style, with some features of the Greek Psalms.  So, if not a hymn, then in some sense “hymnic”.

“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).[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.

Bookroll and Codex: Short Videos

In response to a query a day or so ago, I pointed to a couple of short instructional videos I prepared on the ancient bookroll and the codex as resources for our Centre for the History of the Book.  In one video I explain how bookrolls (scrolls) and the codex were prepared here.

In the other video I focus on the codex and the Christian preference for this bookform, explaining the particular steps necessary in preparing a codex for any extended literary text here.  It is often overlooked that the use of a codex required steps and skills additional to those otherwise required for using a bookroll.

I note that the early Christian materials reflect various experiments with methods of constructing a codex, which suggests that Christians in the 2nd and 3rd centuries were are the forefront of the use of this bookform.  It’s a remarkable phenomenon that early Christians preferred the codex, and especially for those texts that they treated as scripture.  At the same time, in the larger book culture the bookroll reigned supreme.  So, the early Christian preference for the codex is all the more striking.

For further discussion, see the chapter in my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts:  Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Eerdmans, 2005), 43-93.

Easter Roundtable

A roundtable discussion on Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection led by Professor Helen Bond, with Dr. Sara Parvis and me participating is available now here.  Bond commences with queries about how Jesus’ corpse was handled after his crucifixion, whether it was in fact buried or simply discarded, and whether figures such as Joseph of Arimathea may have been involved.

Then we turn to questions about the traditions of the empty tomb, and also what resurrection meant in the setting of the first followers of Jesus.

Professor Bond is my colleague in Edinburgh, and now Director of our Centre for the Study of Christian Origins.  Dr. Parvis is our specialist in Patristics and early Christianity.  Thanks to Mark Lamas and his fellow PhD students who arranged the event and handled filming and posting it on YouTube.

Early Christian Gospels: A New Study

Scott D. Charlesworth’s major study will deserve notice by anyone working on the text and transmission of the Gospels in the earliest centuries: Early Christian Gospels: Their Production and Transmission (Papyrologica Florentina, 47; Firenze: Edizioni Gonnelli, 2016). This is a wide-ranging work (developed from his PhD thesis), “thick” with data and analysis, and it would require much more space than I can give here to do justice to it. So, only a brief summary at this point, with a few preliminary comments.

The main claim is that certain formal features (or copying conventions) characterize copies of canonical Gospels in the 2nd/3rd centuries that were prepared for “public” (liturgical) use. Copies of these same texts prepared for private/personal usage tend to lack these formal features. The formal features that characterize copies of canonical gospels intended for public/liturgical use also distinguish these from copies of other early Christian texts, especially non-canonical gospels.

These formal features include (1) a preference for a particular codex size/shape (third-century gospel codices the same width as 2nd century copies, but taller), (2) various “reader’s aids” such as punctuation, sense-unit demarcation, and careful copying with few ligatures, generous line-spacing, and a “bookhand” or tending in that direction.

The regularity and frequency of these formal features/conventions likely reflect early “copying centres” (connected to churches in major urban centres such as Rome). Not medieval scriptoria, but church-based centres involving only two or more copyists. There were, to be sure, local variations, for the copying conventions spread trans-locally through Christians interchanging texts and communicating with one another. But, Charlesworth insists, the evidence reflects the rapid and wide acceptance of these copying conventions applied to gospel texts that were intended for liturgical reading.

I think that Charlesworth is at least basically correct that we can see visual/physical differences between copies of Christian texts likely prepared for public reading on the one hand, and copies prepared for personal/private use on the other hand. I’ve noted an example of the latter in study of the fragment of the Gospel of John known as “P22”.[1] Also, he is correct that the extant early copies of “non-canonical” gospel texts, such as the Gospel of Mary, and the Gospel of Thomas, suggest that they were mainly prepared for individual usage, not for liturgical reading.[2]

But note that Charlesworth appears to have confined his comparisons to copies of NT gospels and extra-canonical gospel-like texts. A full substantiation of his argument would require also comparison of copies of other texts that we know enjoyed a popularity, such as Shepherd of Hermas.

Charlesworth also contends that there was a two-stage development of early Christian conventions about the nomina sacra.[3] The initial development involved a small set of words that typically had God and/or Jesus as referents: θεος, κυριος, Ιησους, Χριστος. Then, however, as further words came to be treated as nomina sacra, and it became a complicated task for copyists to judge when the referent was or wasn’t “sacred,” leading to some confusion among copyists about when to write words such as κυριος, πνευμα, and ανθρωπος as nomina sacra. So, Charlesworth postulates a second development, which was to promote a “systematic” treatment of all occurrences of κυριος and the additional words as nomina sacra irrespective of the referent. This latter step is posited to the second half of the second century. Charlesworth has made this claim for a few years now, but it will require further time and analysis to assess it. At this point, I’m not convinced that there was the coordinated action that he seems to posit. Instead, it still seems to me that what we see in the data is a general sense among early Christian copyists that certain words were to be written as nomina sacra, and a frequent confusion about exactly when to do so. But this question bears further thought.

Charlesworth also posits a clear difference between the process involved in the production and transmission of non-canonical gospel-like texts and the production and transmission of what became canonical texts. In the main, he judges, copyists of proto-canonical texts did not make major changes in the texts copied. By contrast, those who produced non-canonical gospels clearly engaged in an authorial and compositional effort, drawing upon emergent canonical gospels and freely composing new material. But, he insists, it is invalid to cite the freedom exercised in the composition of these new non-canonical texts as a basis for positing a similar freedom exercised in the copying/transmission of the canonical gospels.

Charlesworth offers an analysis of the textual variants in 2nd/3rd century copies of the canonical gospels (focusing on textual portions preserved in two or more early copies), contending that they show a generally high level of faithful copying. There is no evidence of a “wild” freedom in copying these texts, no indications of major insertions or deletions or re-arrangement of the text in the extant early papyri. So, he reasons, the text of the canonical gospels conveyed in our early MSS likely preserves substantially the “original” text, with only minor variations that don’t affect significantly the sense of the text. My own study of early manuscripts, and the recent study by my former PhD student, Lonnie Bell on earliest papyri of the Gospel of John, lead me to a similar judgement.[4] The early papyri exhibit variants, certainly, but these are almost entirely minor variations in word-order, tense, presence/absence of the definite article, etc.

I am pleased to see Charlesworth’s book published, knowing for a couple of years that it was in the works. It should now receive close attention from other scholars. Charlesworth is forthright and confident in his claims, and so it will be appropriate and necessary for them to be tested.[5]

[1] Larry W. Hurtado, “A Fresh Analysis of P.Oxyrhynchus 1228 (P22) As Artefact,” in Studies on the Text of the New Testament and Early Christianity, eds. Daniel M. Gurtner, Juan Hernandez Jr. and Paul Foster (Leiden: Brill, 2015), 206-16.

[2] Larry W. Hurtado, Larry W. “The Greek Fragments of the Gospel of Thomas As Artefacts: Papyrological Observations on Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 1, Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 654 and Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 655,” in Das Thomasevangelium: Entstehung – Rezeption – Theologie, eds. Jörg Frey, Enno Edzard Popkes and Jens Schröter (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2008), 19-32; Christopher Tuckett, The Gospel of Mary. Early Christian Gospel Texts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

[3] See my discussion of the nomina sacra in my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 95-134. I also discuss the early Christian preference for the codex (43-89), and several other features of early Christian manuscripts (155-89).

[4] Lonnie D. Bell, “Textual Stability and Fluidity Exhibited in the Earliest Manuscripts of John: An Analysis of the Second/Third-Century Fragments with Attention Also to the More Extensive Papyri (P45, P66, P75),” (PhD, University of Edinburgh, 2015).

[5] It is unfortunate that the book comes with such a high price, €120. But it appears in a series edited by a respected papyrologist, Rosario Pintaudi, who was also one of Charlesworth’s examiners for his PhD.


“Coins in/and the Bible”: Day-conference

The Centre for the Study of Christian Origins (University of Edinburgh) will host a day-conference on “coins and the Bible,” 29 April 2017, in New College (Martin Hall).  Experts from the British Museum and the University will make presentations on a body of ancient material often overlooked or little understood, even by scholars.

Registration is required, but there is no fee.  The link to more information on the event is here.

Christian Century Interview on “Destroyer of the gods”

An interview by David Heim over my recent book, Destroyer of the gods:  Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Baylor University Press, 2016) appears online here, and will appear in the print version of Christian Century  April 12.

How Many Christians Does it Take . ..?

How do historians estimate the number of Christians in the earliest centuries?  In a previous posting I commended Thomas Robinson’s new book here, in which he shows how the numbers often used by historians don’t “add up.”  But a comment asking how historians arrive at their estimates prompted me to this posting.

I think that one factor is Constantine’s adoption of Christianity in the early 4th century.  The implicit or explicit assumption is that for him to have seen this an advantageous action Christianity must have been fairly successful already.  It is often assumed that a growth comprising perhaps 10% of the population would have been necessary for Christianity to have attained such credibility for Constantine to have adopted it.

Now it is also necessary to estimate the population of the Roman Empire, and estimates vary widely, but something close to 60 million is frequently cited.  So, 10% Christians would = about 6 million Christians by about 300 AD.

In short, this is all very rough and ready estimates or scholarly guesswork.  (But it’s scholarly guesswork!)

A recent comment posed a good additional question:  How many Jesus-followers were there at the outset, in the earliest years after Jesus’ crucifixion?  One could infer from the Gospel accounts that Jesus had aroused a certain number of followers during his ministry, perhaps especially in Galilee.  These would be additional to the more well-known group of followers who seem to have (re)located to Jerusalem.

From Paul’s reports of his own early efforts to “destroy” (his word) the young Jesus-movement, one could infer that, already within the first year or two, it had become highly visible, and generated the rather harsh verdict reflected in his efforts.  Perhaps, as well, the Jesus-movement had already begun to grow impressively, and this, too, was a factor that generated the concern of this then-young Pharisee.

From a very early point, also, the Jesus-movement was trans-local, with followers mentioned in Damascus and Antioch, and probably other places as well.  So, it is possible that what became “Christianity” was, from a very early point, a rapidly spreading movement.  But it appears that across the second and third centuries this growth continued, with impressive cumulative numbers.

Tertullian (ca. 200 AD) claimed an “immense number of Christians . . . almost all the inhabitants of your various cities being followers of Christ” (Apology 37), and that “our numbers are so great–constituting all but the majority in every city . . .” (To Scapula 2), and that pagan critics “groan over the increasing number of the Christians” (Ad Nationes 1).  This may well be deliberate exaggeration for rhetorical effect.  But it would have been somewhat counter-productive to make such claims if the number of Christians had been totally insignificant.  So, I think that it is likely that, at least in some areas (such as North Africa, where Tertullian lived), Christians were sufficiently numerous to be rather highly visible and of concern to pagan opponents.

Why people joined the Christian movement in this period, given the social costs involved, is the question I urge that scholars should consider more closely in my recent book:  Why on Earth did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries? (Marquette University Press, 2016).

“Who Were the First Christians?”

A new book by Thomas A. Robinson, Who Were the First Christians?  Dismantling the Urban Thesis (Oxford University Press, 2017) takes a virtual wrecking ball to the theories of a number of prominent scholars in early Christianity.  (The publisher’s online catalogue here.)

His most direct and effective critique goes at the numbers and accompanying assumptions widely touted about the growth of early Christianity.  Asking whether historians can count, Robinson shows that the numbers often invoked just don’t add up.  Many scholars posit that by 300 CE Christians made up ca. 10% of the population of the Roman Empire, and that somewhere between 5% and 15% of the population lived in urban settings, and that Christianity was almost entirely an urban religion.  But, as Robinson cleverly notes, putting these figures together would require that by 300 CE the population of urban centres of the Empire would have been totally Christian, something that no historian would hold.

So, something has to give.  Either there were far fewer Christians than typically imagined, or there were many more Christians beyond the urban centres than typically imagined.  Robinson then argues over several chapters for the latter view.  Drawing upon an impressive body of scholarly work, he seems to me to make a rather persuasive case.

One important point made is that there were strong links between urbanized and rural areas.  People from rural areas moved to cities, but likely retained links with relatives and friends in the countryside.  Cities and rural areas operated in a symbiotic relationship.  Indeed, it is not always possible to say where ancient cities ended and the countryside began.

Historians often grant that Christianity began to have a rural impact as early as 250 CE.  But,  extending his survey across a wide expanse, both eastern and western areas of the Empire included, Robinson also draws upon indications in early Christian sources that there were rural Christians from a far earlier point.

In two appendices, Robinson tackles the theories of two figures who loom large in today’s study of early Christianity, Ramsay MacMullen and Rodney Stark, and mounts an effective critique of both.  He posits problems in method in MacMullen’s thesis of two early Christianities.  But his sharpest criticism is directed at Rodney Stark’s use of dubious numbers to support his thesis that factors specific to the ancient urban centres were crucial in the growth of early Christianity.  I found it hard to avoid wincing at points where Robinson skewers Stark for failures in method.

As should be obvious, this book is primarily a work of criticism, intended to signal the need to re-think a lot about early Christianity.  Robinson candidly admits that this re-thinking lies ahead, and that his book is essentially a clarion call for it.  But the implications are far-reaching.

For if the thesis is incorrect that early Christianity had success pretty much solely in urban settings in the first two or three centuries, then that calls into question the putative reasons for its growth that follow from that “urban thesis.”

Moreover, Robinson challenges some now-popular notions about the social levels of early Christians (e.g., W. A. Meeks), contending that the evidence suggests a larger place must be given to Christians of lower social and economic levels.  This, too, might well have effects on theories about what it was about early Christianity that appealed to people.

I commend this book to all students of early Christianity.  It should start the ball rolling on a prolonged and far-reaching re-examination of who the first Christians were and why early Christianity developed so remarkably.

(Robinson has made a career of challenging widely-held theories effectively.  His published PhD thesis, The Bauer Thesis Examined: The Geography of Heresy in the Early Christian Church [Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1988], was a powerful refutation of Walter Bauer’s theory that “heresy” preceded “orthodox” Christianity in several areas of the Roman Empire.  Robinson’s book, Ignatius of Antioch and the Parting of the Ways:  Early Jewish-Christian Relations [Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson; Grand Rapids:  Baker Academic, 2009], offered an incisive reading of evidence of an early emergence of “Christianity” in distinction from “Judaism”.  I confess a certain pride in his accomplishments, as Robinson was one of my masters degree students from many years ago.)

For whom is “Destroyer of the gods”?

In all the various interviews about my recent book, Destroyer of the gods, the question  up early:  Who is this book for, and what can people today take from it?  So, I’ll summarize here what my answers are.

The book is intended for a wide swathe of readers, really, anyone interested in exploring how Christianity began and what it looked like in its earliest phases.  I’d hope that many Christians would be curious about their religious forebears, and would be interested to see what it was like being a Christian before Christendom.  It was a time when, in the words of the Australian ancient historian Eric Osborne, Christians had to reason for their lives.  A bit dramatic, perhaps, for not every Christian was under threat of death, to be sure.  But Christianity was simply one sect among  others, and, indeed, was seen widely in a rather negative light.

So, becoming a Christian held no social or economic advantage that I can see in the first centuries before Constantine changed things.  Those who wanted to aspire for upward social mobility would have been advised to give Christianity a pass.  My book focuses on several features of early Christianity that made it distinctive, odd, even dangerous in the eyes of some of the time.

In the “post-Christendom” setting of the modern Western world, Christianity is no longer the socially dominant force that it once was.  Christians are again one kind of religiousness among many others.  So, actually, it may well be those Christians and texts of the first three centuries that will be the most instructive about how to live out Christian faith in these circumstances.  Augustine, the Cappadocian Fathers, Aquinas, Calvin, Luther, Barth, etc., these all wrote in situations where their dialogue partners were other Christians.  But people such as Justin Martyr, the author of the Epistle to Diognetus, Tertullian, and others of those early centuries were seeking to articulate and defend Christian faith to outsiders and critics in a situation in which Christians had to do so.  Their efforts at articulating their faith and living it out in as winsome a manner as they could will, I think, be more relevant now than at any time in the preceding 1000 years of Western history.

But I also have aimed the book at a wider public who don’t identify themselves as Christians, but will be interested to see what this thing called Christianity was like in its earliest setting.  These folk (or some)  may presume that all religion is simply the refuge of mentally less competent, socially dysfunctional souls, and/or the tool of those seeking to exploit credulity for economic and political gains.  It will come as a surprise, I suspect, to see who early Christians were, and that they included people of all social ranks and a decent number of clear educational and intellectual abilities.  And, as I’ve stated, for these early Christians their Christian allegiance had scant chance of offering any economic, social or political advantage (prior to Constantine’s adoption of Christianity).

To cite again the comment from Wayne Meeks that opens my book:

“Even in an age that some describe as post-Christian, the beginnings of the strange movement that was to become Christianity in all its varieties continue to fascinate thoughtful people . . . Yet something more that mere curiosity about an ancient puzzle draws our attention to the first centuries of Christian history.  Our interest in the question betrays our awareness that, whether or not we regard ourselves as Christians or in any way religious, we cannot altogether escape the tectonic shift of cultural values that was set in motion by those small and obscure beginnings.” (The Origins of Christian Morality:  The First Two Centuries, Yale University Press, 1993, p. 1).



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