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Gathercole’s Commentary on the Gospel of Thomas

I’ve just finished a review of Simon Gathercole’s commentary on the Gospel of Thomas (for Journal of Ecclesiastical History), and it’s an impressive piece of work:  The Gospel of Thomas.  Introduction and Commentary.  Texts and Editions for New Testament Study, 11. Leiden/Boston:  Brill, 2015.  At well over 700 pages, it’s weighty, but in contents as well as bulk.  Indeed, I’d say that it is now the major commentary on this much-written-about and fascinating early Christian text.  (I noted the book’s publication in an earlier posting here.)

In his 183-page Introduction (comprising twelve chapters), Gathercole addresses all the major questions with admirable clarity and cogency:  comparison of the Greek fragments and Coptic text; early references to the text; original language (Greek); provenance (difficult to judge); date of composition (second century CE); structure and genre (“mixed,” a “sayings Gospel” the best descriptor); religious outlook (elitist, ascetic, harsh toward Judaism and “non-Thomasine” Christians); and relation to the NT Gospels and historical Jesus (dependence on the Synoptics, possibility of also preserving “agrapha” of Jesus).

Thereafter, Gathercole gives detailed discussion of each of the 114 “Logia” of the text.  He interacts with previous scholarly proposals about what the (often esoteric) sayings might have meant in the second-century setting of the text, giving cogent reasons for his own judgments and candidly admitting that some sayings simply elude any confident judgment about meaning.

A 55-page bibliography (indicative of the huge amount of scholarly publication on the text), and indexes complete this work, which will be an essential (though eye-wateringly expensive) acquisition for libraries supporting research on early Christianity.

“The Chosen One” of 1 Enoch: On Facts and Inferences

Of the various “chief agent” figures in various second-temple Jewish texts, the mysterious figure designated variously “the chosen one,” “the messiah,” and, by various Ethiopic expressions typically translated “the/that son of man,” is particularly noteworthy, and frequently invoked.  A recent commenter on my previous posting about the two phrases referring to Jesus in the NT as “at/on God’s right hand” is an example of this.  So, I thought a posting on the subject appropriate, using it as an example also of the two categories of facts and interpretation of them.

Let’s note some relevant facts first.[1]  The figure in question appears only in “The Parables/Similitudes of Enoch,” a part of the writing known as 1 Enoch, which is extant in this complete form only in Ethiopic (Ge`ez).  We have portions of parts of 1 Enoch in Aramaic (fragments from Qumran, with bits of chaps 1-36, 72-82, 85-90, and 91-107, and parts of the Book of Giants (the relationship of this text to the rest of the corpus of writings that now make up 1 Enoch uncertain). In one recent calculation, the Qumran Aramaic fragments amount to about 196 of the 1,062 verses of the Ethiopic text (and the 196 verses aren’t actually fully extant in the Aramaic fragments). We also have 4th-6th century CE fragments of a Greek translation, these preserving about 28% of Ethiopic 1 Enoch.

But in a recent list, the earliest manuscripts of 1 Enoch containing the “Parables/Similitudes” (in which the mysterious figure in question appears) are from the 15th/16th century CE (and these only six of the 49 manuscripts listed). Moreover, all of these Ethiopic manuscripts (the majority of which are from the 18th-20th centuries) reflect recensions of the text made in the Ethiopic Church, which treats 1 Enoch as (Christian) scripture. We scholars commonly now posit a composition of the Parables/Similitudes sometime in the first century CE, and probably in Aramaic. But it bears noting seriously that we don’t have that. What we have are Ethiopic manuscripts of the 15th century CE and later, which reflect an Ethiopic translation, likely from a Greek translation of a posited Aramaic composition. In short, we have a text that has a long and complex transmission-history, with recensions and oodles of accidental and deliberate changes.

But we scholars work with what we’ve got, and make as much of it as we can. Facts are what we have to work with; and scholarship consists in finding facts/data and then trying to interpret them and make reasonable inferences.[2] But it’s important to distinguish interpretations and the facts/data to which they relate. If all we had were manuscripts of, let’s say for example, the Gospel of Matthew from the 15th century CE and later, we’d be suitably modest about what we claimed (hopefully).

So, let’s also note what we don’t know. We don’t know that the Parables were composed in the first century CE, although, all things considered, that’s a perfectly reasonable claim (indeed, perhaps the most plausible date of composition for the material). We don’t know that the Parables were composed in Aramaic, but again that’s a perfectly reasonable assumption. We also don’t know that the Ethiopic text of the Parables accurately preserves the putative Aramaic original faithfully, free of any significant accidental or deliberate changes, but we work on the hope that it does.

Now let’s turn to the figure in question. This “Chosen One” is clearly a messianic figure, a human figure (as indicated in the several Ethiopic expressions commonly, and perhaps somewhat misleadingly all translated “the son of man,” as if there were some fixed title behind these several Ethiopic expressions). He is presented in a remarkable light. He’s named and designated for his eschatological role before/at creation of the world, to be revealed in the eschatological time. When revealed he will act as the chief agent of God in gathering the elect to him, judging the (pagan) nations and their rulers, and establishing God’s rule upon the earth. In this role he is to receive obeisance from these rulers and praise and acclamation from the elect. In his chief-agent role, he sits on “a/his glorious throne,” acting as God’s vizier.

There are obvious similarities to be drawn with the exalted role of resurrected Jesus in NT texts (e.g., Philippians 2:6-11; 1 Corinthians 15; Hebrews 1; Revelation 5, etc.). Indeed, in the Ethiopic Church, the figure is seen as Christ. But, assuming that the Parables don’t derive from Christian circles, there are also some interesting differences.

The figure in question is a literary one, not an actual and historical one. The Parables present themselves as visions, projections of eschatological events that (at the time of composition) are yet to be. They assert that in the eschatological time God will triumph over the pagan nations and that this figure will be the earthly agent of God’s triumph. The NT texts make their astonishing claims, however, for a then-recent figure of history, Jesus of Nazareth, whom they present as already exalted by God to heavenly glory, reigning in/from heaven and sharing God’s throne, “at God’s right hand.” Moreover, these astonishing claims likely erupted before the likely date of the composition of the Parables, although the notion of such an exalted chief-agent figure may well have been “in the air” of Jewish expectations/hopes for some time previous to that.

Still more important historically, the NT reflects the adaptation of Jewish devotional practices, initially in early circles of Jewish Jesus-followers, involving the incorporation of the exalted Jesus along with God as recipients of devotion. I’ve itemized the devotional actions in question in a number of publications over the last 25 years, so I won’t elaborate here.[3] I’ll simply make the point that, so far as history-of-religion questions are concerned, this eruption of a “dyadic” devotional pattern has no real precedent or analogy in any known second-temple Jewish circles or texts. That includes the Parables of Enoch. There is no indication that the projected (and still hidden) figure of this material was ever the object of cultic devotional practices. Nor is it really clear that the Parables project such a cultic devotion to be given to this figure when he appears as eschatological agent of God.

These too are facts/data. What scholars do with them is another matter, and a perfectly legitimate one. We can speculate and debate, and we can cherish our interpretations and hypotheses. But they are that.

What we have in the Parables is remarkable. But it’s not really of the same momentous nature historically as what we have rather clearly reflected and taken for granted as already conventional devotional claims and practices about Jesus in the NT, as I’ve noted in previous postings here and here .  Of course, the historical significance of Jesus-devotion says nothing automatically about its religious validity.  That’s a theological issue.  My work has focused on the historical issues, and that’s the main point of this posting.

[1] I draw here on the review of data in George W. Nickelsburg, 1 Enoch 1 (Hermeneia Commentaries; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 9-26.

[2] In lectures I’ve sometimes referred to this using what I’m told originated as a US military term applied to war-games: SWAG = scientific wild-assed guesswork. But, I emphasize, it’s scientific guesswork, which means that it’s open to critique, refutation, and has to take best account of the facts.

[3] E.g., Larry W. Hurtado, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism (2nd ed. T&T Clark, 1998), esp.93-124; At the Origins of Christian Worship (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), esp. 63-97; Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), esp. 134-53.

“At/on the/my right hand”

Further to my posting yesterday in which I noted the curious variation-pattern in NT usage of two Greek expressions for “at the right hand,” a few additional observations and data.  In the midst of other commitments (with pressing deadlines), I can’t take the time to do the larger task of attempting to determine wider Koine preferences.  So I’ll offer results of a quick survey of the Greek expressions used in the LXX, and the Hebrew expressions translated.  (Apologies to those who don’t read Greek and/or Hebrew, but it’s a question about Greek usage in rendering Hebrew from the OT.)

First, Psalm 110:1 (LXX 109:1), which is central to the NT expressions.  The Greek here is εκ δεξιων μου, rendering לימיני .  A similar Hebrew form (לימין) used also in Psa 45:9 (LXX 44:10) and 109(LXX 108):31, rendered in each case as εκ δεξιων.  (But compare Isaiah 63:12, where לימין is translated τῃ δεξιᾳ.)  As well, εκ δεξιων renders other Hebrew forms:  Psa 91(LXX 90):7 (מימינך); Psa 110(LXX 109):5 (על ימינך); Zech 3:1 (על ימינו). So, εκ δεξιων seems to have been seen as a perfectly fine way to position someone/something on the right of someone/something else.

Occasionally, a different Greek expression is used, but in context seems roughly equivalent:  e.g., in Job 30:12 על ימין is translated επι δεξιαν, and similarly in Psa 121(LXX120):5 על־יד ימינך is rendered επι χειρᾳ δεξιαν σου.

By contrast, the LXX translators tended to use εν δεξιᾳ to render Hebrew expressions indicating something/someone in the right hand of someone else.  Compare the interesting variations in Psalm 16 (LXX 15).  In v. 8 (“he is at my right hand”)  εκ δεξιων σου = מימיני ; in v. 11, however, “in your right hand” is εν τῃ δεξιᾳ σου = בימינך .  Note also Proverbs 3:16 (“in her right hand”), where εν τῃ δεξιᾳ αυτης = בימינה ; and Isaiah 44:20 (“in my right hand”), where εν τῃ δεξιᾳ μου = בימיני .  As noted earlier, a similar Greek form, τῃ δεξιᾳ, renders לימין in Isaiah 63:12, which refers to God leading Moses “with his right hand.”

In sum, it seems to me that εν δεξιᾳ expressions in the LXX tend to be used to connote someone/something held in another’s right hand, not simply to depict someone/something positioned to/on the right of someone.  In the two instances that I discuss briefly in my essay for the Perth conference (mentioned in my previous posting), the use of εν δεξιᾳ is with reference to a person who has a close relationship with the other person.  In 1 Chronicles 6:39 (Hebrew 6:24), Asaph stands εν δεξιᾳ to his brother, and in 1 Esdras Apame (the king’s favourite concubine) sits εν δεξιᾳ to the king (and demonstrates her place in his affections!).  Contrast these with Psalm 45:9 (LXX 44:10), where the queen is pictured standing next to the king, εκ δεξιων.

So, to come back to the focus of all this, why the pattern of using εκ δεξιων consistently in quotations and direct allusions to the highly influential Psalm 110:1,but using/preferring εν δεξιᾳ in NT confessional references to Jesus as “at the right hand” of God?  If the latter arose from some early and alternate Greek translation of Psalm 110:1, why was this preserved, when it didn’t accord with the wording of Psalm 110:1 as familiarly known?  And why was εν δεξιᾳ continued as the preferred expression in Greek creeds for centuries?

See my essay (pre-publication form here) for my own tentative thoughts on the question.  (But that TLG project is what we need now.)

New Book on Use of OT in the NT

In today’s post came a contributor’s copy of a new multi-author volume:  All that the Prophets Have Declared:  The Appropriation of Scripture in the Emergence of Christianity, ed. Matthew R. Malcolm (Milton Keynes:  Paternoster Press, 2015).  The publisher’s online catalogue entry is here.

The volume arose from a special conference held in Trinity Theological College, Perth (Australia) in August 2013, and comprises a brief Introduction by Malcolm plus twelve essays by various scholars.  Here is the list of contributions:

L. W. Hurtado, “Two Case Studies in Earliest Christological Readings of Biblical Texts.”

I. G. Malcom and M. R. Malcolm, “‘He Interpreted to Them the Things about Himself in All the Scriptures':  Linguistic Perspectives on the New Testament’s Use of the Old Testament.”

Roland Deines, “Jesus and Scripture:  Scripture and the Self-Understanding of Jesus.”

D. S. West, “Acts 4:23-31 and a biblical Theology of Prayer.2

B. L. Sutton, “Becoming Prophets:  Acts 10:34-43 and Peter’s Appropriation of Prophecies about Jesus.”

M. A. Seifrid, “Scripture and Identity in Galatians.”

Lionel Windsor, “The ‘Seed’, the ‘Many’ and the ‘One’ in Galatians 3:16:  Paul’s Reading of Genesis 17 and its Significance for Gentiles.”

Martin foord, “Taking with One Hand, and Giving with the Other?  The Use of Psalm 68:18 in Ephesians 4:8.”

M. J. Keown, “The Use of the Old Testament in Philippians.”

Allan Chapple, “The Appropriation of Scripture in 1 Peter.”

M. R. Malcolm, “God has Spoken:  The Renegotiation of Scripture in Hebrews.”

Rory Shiner, “Reading the New Testament from the Outside.”

In an earlier posting after the conference I summarized major points addressed in my own essay (here).  One thing I didn’t mention in that post, and would invite some others with expertise in Koine Greek literature to engage, is the curious variation-pattern that we see in NT references to Jesus “at the right hand” of God.  The expression fairly obviously derives from Psalm 110:1 (LXX 109:1).  But there is an interesting pattern of variation in the Greek phrasing used.  In all the NT instances where the Psalm is cited or clearly alluded to in describing Jesus “at the right hand” of God, the form of the Greek phrase in the LXX is consistently preserved:  εκ δεξιων (e.g., Matt.22:24/Mark 12:36; Luke 20:42; Matt. 26:64/Mark 14:62/Luke 22:69; Acts 2:34; 7:55-56; Heb 1:13 (and also Mark 16:19).  (Likewise, in Acts 2:25 the citation of Psalm 16 [LXX 15]: 8-11 uses the LXX wording εκ δεξιων.)  But in the many other places where we seem to have confessional statements declaring Jesus to be seated at God’s right hand/side, the preferred phrasing is εν δεξιᾳ (e.g., Rom 8:34; Eph 1:20; Col 3:1; Heb 1:3; 8:1;10:12; 12:2; 1 Pet 3:22).

Scholarly survey of the LXX, Jewish Greek pseudepigraphal writings, the Apostolic Fathers (and some Greek papyri) indicates that εκ δεξιων appears to have been the overwhelmingly preferred construction for describing someone/something on the right side of another.  To cite LXX usage as illustrative, I find only two instances of εν δεξιᾳ (1 Esdras 4:29; Paralipomenon 1 [= 1 Chronicles] 6:24) and many more uses of εκ δεξιων.

So, why the NT dual pattern?  And it is a dual pattern, with the LXX text followed in citations and direct allusions, but εν δεξιᾳ preferred in those “confessional” statements.  My hunch at this point is that the latter expression may have connoted a more intimate or close linkage of someone to another, and so NT writers (across the board) preferred it in making a confessional statement of Jesus’ relationship to God.

But it would take a thorough analysis of data produced through the sort of search of Koine Greek texts possible using the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae to test my hunch adequately.  So, I’ve stuck my neck out with a hunch, maybe somebody can either confirm or falsify it.

P.S.  The pre-publication version of my essay is available on this blog site under “Selected Published Essays” here.

Edinburgh Canon Conference

I’m a bit tardy in commenting on the day-conference held here on 6 May:  “Power, Authority, and Canon,” which brought together a small galaxy of scholars on questions about the process by which certain writings came to be treated as “scriptures” and what it meant to do so.  The conference was organized by my Edinburgh colleague, Professor Timothy Lim, who himself is a major contributor to scholarly analysis on the topic, with his recent book:  The Formation of the Jewish Canon (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013).

Those presenting (in the order of their presentations) were John J. Collins (on uses of Torah in the second-temple period), Michael Satlow (on “bad prophecies,” i.e., how books that contain unfulfilled prophecy were included among “scriptures”), Manfred Oeming (proposing that the dynamics of canon-formation go deeply back into Israel’s history), Timothy Lim (arguing that divine “inspiration” doesn’t seem to have been all that decisive a criterion for canonicity), John Barton (exploring how much the contents of scriptural writings matters for faith-communities), Walter Moberly (a critique of a recent effort at redrawing the NT canon), Craig Evans (exploring Gospel reports of Jesus’ attitude toward scriptures), and Shaye Cohen (offering concluding reflections on the conference).

Our Martin Hall was full for the conference, which drew attendance from several UK universities, as well as from Germany, Lithuania, Canada, and the USA.  There were animated discussions in response to papers and in the breaks for coffee and lunch, indicating that the topic continues to hold a lively interest.  Lim is working with presenters toward publication of a volume arising from the conference.

“The Power of Children”

Over the weekend I finished reading a brilliant new study of early Christian teaching about children and households:  Margaret Y. MacDonald, The Power of Children:  The Construction of Christian Families in the Greco-Roman World (Waco:  Baylor University Press, 2014).  The publisher’s notice on the book is here.

The key NT texts mined in this study are the so-called “household codes”:  Colossians 3:18–4:1; Ephesians 5:21–6:4; with attention also to 1 Peter 3:1-7; and passages in the Pastoral Epistles.  Comparisons with Greco-Roman instructions about household management have often been made, and there are obvious similarities:  e.g., wives, children and slaves are to be submissive to husbands, fathers, masters, etc.  That is, the larger social structures of the Roman era are reflected and accepted in the NT texts.  But, MacDonald argues (creatively and effectively in my view), there are also important notes that are subversive of those structures, or are at least subversive of the abusive aspects of them.

One important observation to be noted right away is that the Greco-Roman household instructions are typically addressed to the dominant male:  e.g., husbands, fathers, slave-masters.  These dominant males are told to (and how) to ensure that their wives, children and slaves are submissive.  But the NT texts address both husbands and wives, both parents and children, both masters and slaves, as forming one “audience.”  This (as others prior to MacDonald have noted) appears to be “a distinctly Christian innovation to the household codes.”  This direct address to subordinate groups as full listening/authentic members of the “audience” (the gathered ekklesia) is “unusual, if not unique” (7).

In addressing these subordinate groups in this manner, the texts affirm their status as fellow members of the ekklesia, and confer on them a certain moral agency.  Moreover, addressing both dominant an subordinate groups together, each one hearing the responsibilities of the others, confers a certain sense of mutual responsibilities.  The relationships are, thereby, made part of the corporate life of the ekklesia, (whereas in Roman law and custom, the “father” of the household answered virtually to no one in how he treated subordinates).  (By the way, we have a particularly vivid example of a private matter being made an ecclesial one in Philemon, where Paul’s exhortations about Philemon’s treatment of Onesimus are addressed also to “the church in your house,” v. 2.)

One of several observations that frame her analysis is that members of Roman-era churches often had multiple identities, e.g., slaves could be husbands or wives, and children could be slaves or free.  “Fathers” could be surrogates (of various sorts) as well as biological ones.  In this and other matters, she helps us take better account of the complexity of Roman-era households and the subtleties of these NT texts.

MacDonald’s analysis is careful and cogent, her conclusions measured (respecting the limits of the evidence), and her approach fully informed by relevant ancient evidence and scholarly work.  The general line of argument is that these NT texts accept Roman-era social structures and yet also creatively challenged aspects of prevailing ideology and practices.

In addition to her specific arguments and conclusions, MacDonald also models how taking greater account of the historical context of NT texts can yield fresh insights into them.  Among those who should read this book, thus, are those contemplating PhD work in the field!

Kyrios Christos Centenary Publication

The latest issue of the journal Early Christianity (vol. 6, no. 1, 2015) is given to several articles assessing Wilhelm Bousset’s classic work, Kyrios Christos (1913; English trans. of the 5th edition 1970; new edition of the English trans. Baylor University Press, 2013).  The articles derive from a special session held in the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in 2013.  Here is the table of contents:

David Capes, “Introduction:  A Centenary Celebration of Bousset’s Kyrios Christos” (3-4)

Cilliers Breytenbach, “Bousset’s Kyrios Christos:  Imperfections of a Benchmark” (5-16)

Larry W. Hurtado, “Wilhelm Bousset’s Kyrios Christos:  An Appreciative and Critical Assessment” (17-29)

Kelly Coblentz Bautch, “Kyrios Christos in the Light of Twenty-First Century Perspectives on Second-Temple Judaism” (30-50)

Lutz Doering, “Wilhelm Bousset’s Die Religion des Judentums im neutestamentlichen Zeitalter” (51-66).  (This article actually focuses on another of Bousset’s major works, which continued to be used, especially in German circles as a textbook, for many decades.)

Robert Matthew Calhoun, “The Power of the Call:  Wilhelm Bousset on Miracle, and Mark 1:16-20″ (67-88)

In my article, I focus on some key problems in Bousset’s method and assumptions that render his construction of the origins and early development of Jesus-devotion untenable.  His use of sources was particularly bizarre.  For example, he presumed that the sayings material in the Gospels somehow derived from and preserved the confessional stance of the “primitive Palestinian” Jewish circles of the Jesus-movement, and he treated the Pauline letters as indicative of a quite different and secondary development in Christological beliefs and practices.  He presumed a “pre-Christian gnostic redeemer myth” that supposedly influenced particularly the Gospel of John.  He drew upon texts centuries later than the NT to posit the supposed background and sources for beliefs reflected in the NT.

But I applaud his aim of setting earliest Christianity in its ancient historical setting, and his recognition that early devotional/worship practice should be a key focus for scholars.  He was also correct to grant that the treatment of Jesus as “Kyrios”  and so rightful (co)recipient of worship erupted early, within the very first years of the young Jesus-movement.  We’d have much to argue about, but Bousset could be invited for a drink with the Early High Christology Club!

On “Hymns” in the New Testament: A Suggestion

As illustrated in the recent articles I’ve reported on in earlier postings, scholars continue to approach the question of “hymns/odes” in the NT in what I regard as a curious fashion.  They often first turn to “pagan” examples of hymns and formulate characteristics of Greek “pagan” hymns and poetry as a basis then for assessing putative hymnic material in the NT.  This I find open to questions for a few reasons, and I’d think a more inductive approach more sensible.

To start from classical/pagan poetry and hymnody is to presume that earliest circles of what became Christianity would have adopted these as patterns for their own “odes”.  But it seems to me much more likely that the earliest “hymnic” practices would have been shaped much more by the Psalms (which, by all evidence, seems to have been the most used and copied text in early Christianity).  The Psalms don’t follow Greek poetic/hymnic forms.  The earliest circles of the Jesus-movement, after all, were composed of Jews, and for the first few decades at least Jews (such as Paul) were prominent in leadership roles.  It stands to reason that the sort of “hymnody” with which they were familiar would have shaped earliest Christian practices.

Likewise, the “singing” involved in earliest Christian circles was likely much closer to simple chanting, rather than involving any more complex musical patterns.  You don’t need metre or rhyme to chant a text.

But, aside from these observations, I’d think it much more sensible to commence with early Christian texts that are explicitly identified as “hymns/odes,” and see what features they evince.  Then, we might have a better set of earmarks to look for in searching out “hymnic” material that is not explicitly identified as such.

It seems to me that one (or perhaps the) obvious place to start is with the overtly-identified “hymns” of Revelation.  There are at least two that the author identifies as “odes”:  Revelation 5:9-10, and Revelation 15:3-4.  In these two passages the author identifies the material as an “ode” that was “sung/chanted.”  There are also other passages often taken as hymnic (e.g., 4:8; 5:12-13), but these don’t involve use of the terms “ode” or the verb for singing/chanting.  So, let’s commence with the explicit cases.

These passages have an obvious solemnity and phonetic resonances when read in Greek, e.g., “hiereis (priests) and ges (earth) in v. 10, and a sonorous quality.  Now, of course, these “hymns” are literary products, and are put in the mouths of heavenly and/or eschatological figures.  They aren’t transcriptions of “hymns” chanted in churches such as those addressed by the author.  But I think it’s a good bet that these odes reflect “hymnic” material with which the author was acquainted, at least in formal features if not in direct content.  So, what would our expectations and criteria for what is or isn’t “hymnic” material elsewhere in the NT if we used these passages as key case studies?

Another New Article on Philippians 2:6-11

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.

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

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.

Notes:

[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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