The following is an excerpt from Joe Hellerman’s recently released commentary on Philippians (EGGNT). Included below is Hellerman’s discussion of Philippians 2:5-11 in a section titled “Christ Our Example.”
The literature on Philippians 2:5–11 has become virtually unmanageable. Scholars have produced whole books on single terms in the passage (e.g., Fabricatore on μορφή, below). The limitations of the EGGNT format necessitate a highly abbreviated treatment of this central Christological passage. Readers are referred to the commentaries (cf., especially, O’Brien and Reumann) and bibliography for further study and support for alternative views. The exegesis that follows assumes that Paul has leveraged Christology—conceived in terms of status and prestige—in the service of ecclesiology.
Traditional interpretations of Philippians 2:5–11 focus upon ontological Christology (v. 6 and v. 7 highlighting, respectively, Christ’s divine and human natures), drawing upon theological categories fully articulated only later, at the ecumenical councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon (reflected in some EVV, e.g., “in very nature God” [NIV tr. ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ, v. 6]). Paul’s agenda, however, is primarily sociological, not ontological (pace Park 36). To be sure, one can effectively argue from Christ’s status of “equality with God” to his divine nature. The acclamation of Jesus as κύριος (OT Yhwh) in v. 11 points in the same direction (Wallace 474; Silva 114). Indeed, it could be fairly asserted that prior ontological assumptions, on Paul’s part, stand behind and legitimate much of what the apostle says about Christ’s status throughout our passage. But this argument is not Paul’s, not explicitly, at any rate. His interests relate, rather, to Christ’s position in the pecking order of the universe, so to speak. Paul focuses throughout not upon Christ’s essential nature (οὐσία) but, rather, upon what Christ chose to do with his status (and corresponding authority) as the preincarnate Son of God. Paul appropriates Christ, so conceived, as a model for relationships among members of the Philippian church (v. 5). Philippians 2:5–11 is Christology in the service of ecclesiology, therefore, and will be treated as such in the discussion that follows.
The poetic language of the passage (Hansen 122–24; cf. Wallace 340–41) has led most to characterize Philippians 2:6–11 as a pre-Pauline hymn that the apostle adapted for the epistle (G. Delling, TDNT 8.500–501; Hansen 130–31; H-M 99–104; cf. the essays in Martin and Dodds, Where Christology Began). It is possible, however, that Paul composed 2:6–11 himself (Fee 193; Hellerman 155–56; Park 16; Oakes 208–10; cf. Wright, “ἁρπαγμος,” 352; for bibliography, see Hellerman, “μορφῇ θεοῦ,” 779 n. 1). In the final analysis little is at stake exegetically. For even if Paul appropriated an earlier source, he did so because (a) he thought the material perfectly advanced his argument in its present context in the letter and (b) he was in full agreement with the theology of the piece (see Fee’s sensible comments along these lines [43–46]). The discussion that follows assumes Pauline authorship for vv. 6–11.
The term “hymn,” moreover, is used rather loosely in the literature, and for good reason, since no agreement has been reached on the poetic structure of vv. 6–11 (Park 12–13). A more promising formal candidate is the Greco-Roman encomium, or “speech of praise.” The encomium typically extolled its subject’s “(divine) origins; deeds or acts, service on earth; and fame, including any titles bestowed” (Reumann 364). Identifying Philippians 2:6–11 as an encomium contributes little to the interpretation of the text, but it does show that the Philippians would have been in familiar territory when they heard this portion of the letter for the first time.
Paul’s encomium to Christ, however, unfolds in a way that would have directly subverted the expectations of a Roman colonial audience. Elites in Rome competed with one another to ascend what was known as a cursus honorum, an “honors’ race” that marked an aristocrat’s social climb through a series of prestigious public offices. The titles accumulated along the way were, in turn, publicly proclaimed, in order of importance, by means of inscriptions erected either (a) by grateful recipients of elite benefaction or (b) by the aristocratic benefactors themselves. The cursus honorum was replicated throughout the empire, where local aristocrats competed for offices and honors in the smaller confines of their own provincial towns and municipalities. Still further down the pecking order, nonelites mimicked their social betters by adopting a race of honors in their various trade associations and religious groups.
Cursus ideology was particularly central to the cultural values and social codes of Philippi since the settlement had been established as a Roman colony in 42 BC and, again, under Augustus, in 30 BC. The following inscription presents the career of a second-century Philippian aristocrat:
Publius Marius Valens, son of Publius, from the tribe Voltinia, honored with the decorations of a decurion, aedile, also decurion of Philippi, priest of the divine Antoninus Pius, duumvir, sponsor of games (395/L780).
Publius was a Roman citizen from birth (“Voltinia” was his citizen tribe). Because he was born into a family that included persons who served as decurions (Philippi’s town council), he was “honored with the decorations of a decurion,” likely while still a child. Publius became a “decurion” himself as an adult, and soon won two important civic honors: the office of “aedile” and a priesthood in the imperial cult (“priest of the divine Antoninus Pius”). Finally, Publius became “duumvir” of Philippi, the highest civic office in the colony (the στρατηγοί of Acts 16:20 ff.). It was in that role, presumably, that he financed a display of public entertainment for the municipality (“sponsor of games”).
The honors in Publius’s cursus are listed in ascending order. In his encomium to Christ, Paul inverts the normal direction of the cursus honorum, by portraying Jesus descending through three stages of what we might label a cursus pudorum, or “race of ignomies.” Instead of using his social capital to gain more honors and public recognition, Christ leveraged his status in the service of others. Such a utilization of power— indeed, a voluntary relinquishing of rank and prestige—would have struck Roman elites as abject folly. The esteemed senator Pliny pointedly observed, “It is more uglifying to lose, than never to get, praise” (Ep. 8.24.9). Christ lost it, and he did so willingly (ἑαυτόν [2x, vv. 7–8]). God’s positive response to Christ’s pilgrimage (vv. 9–11), in turn, strikingly affirms an approach to human relations radically contrary to that which characterized the dominant culture in the colony at Philippi, a way of life that Paul wished to see reflected in relationships among the Philippian Christians (v. 5).
Expressions from the semantic fields of public honor, shame, and social status include ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ (v. 6), τὸ εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ (v. 6), ἐκένωσεν (v. 7), μορφὴν δούλου (v. 7), ἐταπείνωσεν (v. 8), ὑπήκοος (v. 8), σταυροῦ (v. 8), ὑπερύψωσεν (v. 9), ὄνομα (v.9 [2x]), πᾶν γόνυ κάμψῃ (v. 10), πᾶσα γλῶσσα ἐξομολογήσηται (v. 11), κύριος (v. 11), and δόξαν (v. 11).
About the Author:
Dr. Joe Hellerman is Professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Talbot School of Theology. He also serves as a team pastor at Oceanside Christian Fellowship, El Segundo, CA, a church that has become a laboratory, of sorts, for Joe’s vision for the church as a family. Joe’s education includes an M.Div. and Th.M. from Talbot, and a Ph.D. in History of Christianity from UCLA.
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