Thursday, August 22, 2013

The earliest Statement of the Pre-Existence of Christ? Phil. 2.6-11

Born before all time: The Dispute over Christ’s Origin, Karl-Josef Kushel.

[Trans. John Bowden 1992, SCM Press ltd]

II. The earliest Statement of the Pre-Existence of Christ? Phil. 2.6-11
This is an astounding text, which cannot be compared with the history of the tradition which we have come across so far. And because this text is incomparable, the controversy over its interpretation in the history of exegesis has also been incomparable[1]. What do we have here? With phrases such as ‘in the form of God’ and ‘equality with God’, is this possibly ‘the earliest New Testament statement about the pre-existence of Christ’?[2] Is there an unparalleled change of perspective in Christology here, with consequences to match? From the man Jesus, the ‘wanderer without a home’, who having been enthroned as Messiah will return from heaven as Son of Man, to a divine being who already in heaven was ‘equal to God’ (isa theou), ‘in the form of God’ (morphe theou), before he came to be ‘in the likeness of men’?
And all this is in a very early, ‘pre-Pauline’, tradition history of the New Testament! Indeed, since his pioneering investigations of Philippians in 1928, Ernst Lohmeyer has been the key witness for a twofold thesis which still enjoys wide assent. First, the text Phil. 2.6-11 was originally an independent literary unit, or more accurately a hymn, a song of the community, with several verses, which was evidently sung in worship. And secondly, given the context, Paul himself cannot have been the author of this hymn.
Paul is clearly quoting this text, so it must be older than the letter to Philippians itself, and that was presumably written in the winter of 54/55[3].
Once again – what a shift in perspective seems to have taken place here, from the mere ‘post-existence’ of the crucified and risen Christ with God to a mode of pre-existence! What an ‘advance’ there has been from an originally two-stage way of thinking in Christology (life in lowliness – exaltation to divine dignity) to a three-stage way: being with God – descent and life in lowliness – ascent and exaltation. What a development! Could we not explain it particularly in the light of the original notion of the Son of Man? Was it not in fact just a small step from a Jesus as the Son of Man dwelling in heaven to the notion that ‘the earthly Jesus had really already been the heavenly Son of Man’?[4] And so not only Harnack, Barth and Bultmann, but a majority of present-day-exegetes, right across all camps and confessions, take it from granted ‘that in the pre-Pauline hymn to Christ the pre-existence of Christ is presupposed, and there is already reflection on a decision by the pre-existent Christ’[5] and even a particular kind of systematic theology is highly interested in this passage in Philippians. its representatives think that they have already found here a statement about Jesus’ divine ‘form of being’, divine ‘mode of being’ – in short, no less than a first ‘approach to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity’.

I. Christ – pre-existent like a Gnostic redeemer? Bultmann’s thesis today

As I have already reported at length, it was clear to Rudolf Bultmann that this hymn speaks of the pre-existent of Christ. Why? Because it had been the earliest testimony of Hellenistic Gentile Christianity, that Gentile Christianity which became quite distinct from the original Jewish Christianity. Indeed Bultmann had begun from an unparalleled ‘paradigm shift’ in earliest Christianity: the ‘ethical religion’ of a ‘Jewish sect’ had become a mythical cultic religion of a Gnostic-syncretistic kind. Jesus, the wisdom teacher and rabbi, the eschatological preacher of repentance and the prophet, had now been reinterpreted in categories of Hellenistic myth and cult.
The question is: was not Bultmann right in this assumption? Was not most of the Christian community in fact driven out of Jerusalem very soon after the death of Jesus (Acts 8.1b)? Did it not have to form again in Hellenistic cities like Antioch or Damascus (Acts 11.19f)? And with this transition to the Hellenistic sphere was not Christianity compelled to spell out the proclamation of Christ with quite different, and now thoroughly Hellenistic, categories, in the cultic context and in the scheme of a mythological soteriology? With a critical analysis of Phil. 2.6-11 in 1950, Ernst Kasemann markedly supported his teacher Rudolf Bultmann in this respect. So do we not have to talk of a pre-existence of Christ in this hymn, because the text seems to breathe the air of Hellenistic syncretistic Gnosticism? What is to be said about Bultmann’s theory in the light of present-day research?
We can make one preliminary comment here. Even those exegetes who still argue for a Gnostic background to the New Testament, statements about pre-existence have long since dissociated themselves from Bultmann’s understanding of Gnosticism. No one any longer shares Bultmann’s conviction, taken over from Hans Jonas, that the spirit of Gnosticism is identical with the spirit of antiquity generally; no one any longer accepts Bultmann’s thesis, taken over from Richard Reitzenstein, that the whole Gnostic world-view goes back to an ancient Eastern myth of Iranian origin, to a kind of basic mythical model (the Anthropos myth or the myth of the redeemed redeemer) underlying any notion of a Gnostic redeemer. In the meantime scholars have taken the critical view that Bultmann simply abstracted this basic myth, essentially from Manichaean texts; it does not occur in this form in other Gnostic texts. Moreover, as a work by the Berlin history-of-religions scholar Carsten Colpe showed as early as 1961, it seems impossible to demonstrate that this myth is Iranian in origin. So Hans-Martin Schenke, an expert on Gnosticism, can sum up the present day criticism of Bultmann as follows: ‘Gnosticism is not age-old, but only a little older than Christianity; it did not originate in Iran or in Mesopotamia but in the area of Syria/Palestine; there is no single (primal) Gnostic myth of the redeemed redeemer, but despite its uniform attitude to existence, world-view and picture of the world, Gnosticism is from the beginning manifold and variable in its myth, i.e. in its mythological objectifications’.
But in the framework of Gnostic interpretation is there an alternative to Bultmann? We shall see. Given the boundless debate on Gnosis and Gnosticism on the one hand and Gnosis and the New Testament on the other, I want to concentrate on one question. For all the criticism of Bultmann, is the Gnostic idea of a redeemer perhaps still the key to an understanding of pre-existence in the Philippians hymn? What is the argument for? What is the argument against?

     The argument for
1. Even now, linguistic parallels to the decisive phrases which possibly express a Christology of pre-existence (morphe theou and isa theou) can be demonstrated only in Gnostic texts: in Poimandres (‘Shepherd of Men’), a tractate from the Gnostic collection of writings known as the Corpus Hermeticum, and also in the ‘Hymn of the Pearl’ in the Syriac Acts of Thomas. Granted, all these texts come from the period between the second and fourth centuries after Christ, but at the same time it is the case ‘that both Poimandres and the Hymn of the Pearl are free from Christian influence’[6]. So these texts from non-Christian Gnosticism could possibly point back to the pre-Christian period.
2. The existence of a pre-Christian Gnosticism cannot be definitely ruled out. The lack of any pre-Christian Gnostic texts in no way allows the sweeping thesis that Gnosticism is a phenomenon that came about after the appearance of Christianity, indeed that early Christianity itself ‘was a catalyst in the rise of the Gnostic systems’[7]. The existence of Gnostic writings which are untouched by Christianity (for example, the Corpus Hermeticum, the whole of the Mandaean writings or various writings from the Nag-Hammadi Library), and the existence of writings into which it is clear that the Christian element was only incorporated later, at a secondary stage (e.g. the Gnostic-Justin’s Book of Baruch and the Hypostasis of the Archons or the Gospel of the Egyptians from the Nag Hammadi), tell against this.
Positions which rule out any relationship between the New Testament and Gnosticism therefore seem incapable of doing justice to the religious situation in the first century. Moreover, even now some exegetes use categories like ‘reciprocal influence’ or ‘mutual influence’. Thus the Gnostic expert Klaus Werner Troger, in a recent volume on Gnosticism and the Bible (1980), states that very few scholars nowadays still hold the view that the Gnostic question is irrelevant for the New Testament: ‘Rather, there is a widespread agreement that already in early Christianity there were reciprocal influences between Christian and Gnostic ideas. Indeed, in my opinion, the more that is taken for granted, the more clearly we can see the complicated interactions between the ideas of earliest Christianity. The evaluation of the Nag Hammadi texts which has now begun has done a good deal to provide a concrete description of this multiplicity and to mark out clearly some “trajectories”. In this respect the sources have already done more than answer the limited question whether or not the New Testament has Gnostic elements. The Nag Hammadi writings have above all provided valuable material for the differentiation of Christological positions and traditions both in the New Testament period and in the second and third centuries.’
3. The existent of a pre-existent redeemer figure (the scheme of descent and ascent) in Gnosticism is not just a product of Christianity, but can already be recognized before Christianity. In this connection many theologians still keep wrongly referring to the 1961 book by Carsten Colpe which I have already mentioned. In so doing they have overlooked the fact, rightly pointed out by Walter Schmithals, one of the militant apologists for research into Gnosticism in the New Testament, that Colpe’s work did not ‘primarily discuss the redeemer myth, but the notion of the primal man/redeemer in the history-of-religions school and its foundations in Iran’.[8]
Indeed, in his study, all that Colpe critically destroyed once for all were these Iranian foundations of the myth of the primal man/redeemer presupposed by the history-of-religions school. He expressly stated that he would deal with the relationship between the Gnostic redeemer myth and New Testament Christology in a third volume, but this has yet to appear. However, already in his 1961 book Colpe argued against the earlier history-of-religions research ‘that Gnosticism accepted a redeemer figure only under Christian influence’.[9] Of course, Colpe continued, the powerful significance of Christ in Gnosticism was obvious. But alongside this it was clear that in Gnostic texts the redeemer either bore another name or instead of and alongside Christ there were other redeeming hypostases of self or spirit. These had ‘not without reason led earlier scholars to assume that they represented the pre-Christian Gnostic redeemer figure, which had simply been suppressed by Christ’.[10] So with his 1961 book Colpe had not prejudiced the question of the influence of a Gnostic redeemer myth on New Testament Christology, but on the contrary had presupposed the existence of both pre-Christian Gnosticism and pre-Christian redeemer myths.[11]
Moreover, in a symposium with mainly American and German contributors (The New Testament and Gnosis), which appeared in 1983, Kurt Rudolph, one of the leading experts on Gnosticism, judiciously observed: ‘In any case, the idea of a descending Redeemer is strange, Hellenistic one for the original Christian kerygma as well: it is, I think, connected with the beginnings of Gnostic thinking; it is found already in Paul’s writings and then, above all, in the Fourth Gospel. Probably it would still be hard to decide here who gave and who received.'
At any rate Christology (and soteriology) as attested in the New Testament was born when Gnostic and Hellenistic ideas were already in the air.’[12] In other words, if we cannot definitely rule out the existence of either a pre-Christian Gnosticism or a pre-existent redeemer figure, an interpretation of the hymn in Philippians in terms of the pattern of Gnostic ideas cannot be illegitimate. But precisely what might it look like?
4. The first half of the Philippian hymn can be understood against the background of the widespread Gnostic theme: the theme of the origin of the world as the result of the fall of the divine being, usually Sophia. In 1973, in an article on ‘New Testament Christology and the Gnostic Redeemer’, Hans-Martin Schenke attempted to give this Gnostic interpretation of vv.6-8. In pre-Christian Gnostic texts the theme had run essentially like this: Sophia ‘seeks in covetous arrogance to be equal to the divine primal Father by attempting, like him, to bring forth something from herself alone; hence her product, primarily the demiurge, who for his part in turn wants to be God, and then also the world, is just a miscarriage’.[13] And what about the Philippians hymn? It will have been familiar with this background, but transformed it – with Jesus as redeemer: ‘The Son of God does not perpetrate the mistake of his sister, but descends into the world, leaving behind in heaven the riches of his divine fullness in heaven for the sake of what is to be redeemed, to make good this mistake. The description of his human mode of being (“in the likeness of men”; “his life was that of a man”) sounds very like docetism, as this emerges almost inevitably in the transference of the Gnostic idea of the redeemer to Jesus.’[14] In other words, in this hymn, Jesus is just as much a pre-existent divine heavenly being as the Gnostic redeemer, and remains so in his apparent (docetic) human form.
Our question is: Is this the solution to the problem of the history-of-religions background to the Philippians hymn? Certainly not.

            The argument against
If we look closely, all these interpretations are in turn based on presuppositions which are methodologically and hermeneutically questionable.

  1. Non-Christian texts or texts which only became Christian at a secondary stage are not automatically pre-Christian texts. The alleged Gnostic parallels to the Philippians hymn are back-projections from various non-Christian Gnostic writings and suggest a system which first existed in Gnosticism only in the second century CE. In other words, all Gnostic ‘parallels’ could just as well have come into being independently of Christianity and contemporaneously with it. There need not have been any kind of reciprocal relationship or mutual influence, and as long as the textual basis is questionable, this relationship remains abstract and hypothetical. 
  2. In terms of content, too, we need to be careful in explaining the Christology of the Philippians hymns by means of the Gnostic redeemer. As early as 1964 the Protestant exegete Dieter Georgi mentioned seven points which make dependence seem questionable. In the Philippians hymn the idea of the primal man (in particularly the primal fall) plays no part; in the hymn Jesus is human, but the Gnostic redeemer myth knows no real incarnation, only a taking of human form by the redeemer. In contrast to the myth, in the hymn there is no active conflict between the redeemer and the powers hostile to God; moreover believers, the objects of redemption, who are so important for the myth, do not appear at all in the hymn. Furthermore, in the myth the ascent of the redeemer into the heavenly sphere is either his own undertaking or the work of a further redeemer who completes the incomplete work of the previous one; the hymn, however, speaks of God’s action on the man Jesus in the act of exaltation. The myth is about the return of the redeemer from lowliness to an old state, a restoration to his old dignity; the hymn is about appointment to a new, higher dignity and the beginning of his position as ruler of the world, in other words a real enthronement. Finally, in 2.10f, an allusion to Isa. 45.23 (‘before me every kneed will bow’) is an integral part of the hymn. The conclusion is that the hymn does not say anything about the motivation of the descent (‘to make good the fault’) nor is there any echo of ‘docetism’. On the contrary in this hymn Jesus Christ is really human. Moreover, Dieter Georgi is also certain that neither religious Hellenism in general nor non-Christian Gnosticism in particular may be regarded as the traditio-historical setting of this hymn, but the world of Hellenistic Judaism, in which the Septuagint was a sacred text.
Here we are at a decisive point. For in understanding a statement which may or may not be about pre-existence, it is of crucial importance to define the traditio-historical background. What can be said about that in the light of contemporary exegesis?
  1. Both chronological and traditio-historical reasons tell against deriving the hymn from syncretistic Hellenism. Anyone who argues for the Gnostic background of the Philippians hymn always follows Bultmann and others in presupposing that the place where this christology came into being must have been the pre-Pauline ‘Hellenistic Gentile Christian community’. But is this right? After extensive studies of the history and chronology of earliest Christianity, the Protestant New Testament scholar Martin Hengel has been able to demonstrate convincingly that the concept of a ‘pre-Pauline Christianity’ must be completely rethought[15].  Hengel rightly points out that already in Jerusalem we have to begin from a twofold community structure: on the one hand an Aramaic-speaking Jewish-Christian community (the ‘Hebrews’), and on the other a Greek-speaking Jewish-Christian community (the ‘Hellenists’). Now it is important that these ‘Hellenists’ were the only ones who fled to Antioch after the conflict with the Jewish establishment in Jerusalem (Acts 8.1b; 1.19); they also continued their missionary work in Judea and Samaria, Phoenicia and Cyprus. The ‘apostles’, i.e. the Aramaic-speaking Jewish Christians, had remained behind in Jerusalem (Acts 8.1b). So initially (up to the year 48) the community in Antioch may well not have consisted – as Bultmann assumed – of Gentile Christians who did not observe the law, and who had completely succumbed to Hellenistic syncretism.
In these circumstances, what does ‘pre-Pauline Christianity’ mean? Close consideration of the chronology of earliest Christian history makes it clear that the founding of the community in Antioch (or Damascus, where Paul went first) and the conversion of Paul must have been chronologically very close together, around the year 35. Is the development of an independent ‘pre-Pauline Christianity’ conceivable in this time? More precisely, in this short time can we imagine the full development of a Christian-Hellenistic cultic piety in Antioch (a Kyrios cult) or a Christ myth (in the sense of the Gnostic redeemer myth), which Paul is said to have found already existing? That is hardly likely. The picture drawn by Bultmann, following Busset – with all its consequences for the Christology of pre-existence – may therefore need to be corrected.
We need to reckon with two other facts. First, the formation of the Christological tradition which Paul found in the Christian communities of Syria in the middle of the 30s may have been of Jewish-Christian/Hellenistic origin and thus much more markedly in continuity with ideas from the Old Testament and Judaism, and the kerygma of the earliest Aramaic-speaking community. Secondly, for Paul from the end of the 30s onwards (the chronology is not firm because of the differing information in Acts and Galatians)[16] we must begin from the assumption that he himself played an active part in shaping the kerygma of the Greek speaking Jewish-Christian communities in Syria. ‘Strictly speaking, we can only talk of a “pre-Pauline” community in the strict sense for the two to four years before his conversion (c.AD 32-34), or at most until the end of the thirties[17]. In other words, a christology like that of the Philippians hymn which Paul found already in existence, and which he developed further, is to be understood as being much more closely within the development of the Jewish-Hellenistic tradition. On hermeneutical, chronological and traditio-historical grounds, and on ground of content, a dependence on the pre-existence Christology of Gnostic syncretism is improbable.
Form this fact that the Jewish heritage rather than Hellenistic syncretism may be the key to understanding the Philippians hymn, present-day exegetes have drawn the radically opposite conclusion that the Philippians hymn does not speak of the pre-existence of Christ at all. Indeed, an increasing number of present-day New Testament scholars with good reason question the premises of exegesis hitherto and cannot see pre-existence, let alone incarnation, in the Philippian hymn. We must take stock here of the discussion, which has become more complex, as Phil. 2.6-11 is a key text for the problem of the pre-existence of Christ in the New Testament. Caution is appropriate, so that particular theological interests do not get in the way of an understanding of scripture. So,

2. Jesus – a contrasting figure to Adam?
Already in the 1960s and 1970s Anglo-Saxon exegetes had paid more attention than representatives of German exegesis to the basic alternative that in this text Christ is not celebrated as a pre-existent heavenly being, but in good Jewish fashion as a human counterpart to Adam[18]. That view cannot be completely false, simply because in other passages in his correspondence Paul also compares Christ with Adam (Rom. 5.12-21; 1 Cor 15.21f, 45-47). In fact we can ask: is not Adam, the first, original man, here replaced and surpassed by Jesus as the definitive, ultimately valid man? In that case we should regard Gen. 1-3, the creation and fall of the first man, as the traditio-historical background.
Linguistically, this seems to be supported simply by the fact that one can virtually identify ‘form of God’ (morphe theou) – thus literally, and better than ‘he was like God’ – with doxa (glory) or eikon (image) of God[19]. The same holds for the Greek word homoioma (‘and in the likeness of men’) of v.7, which, moreover, is occasionally translated ‘in form like a man’. So the first line of the hymn would speak of Christ, who like Adam was created ‘in the image’ of God and like Adam participated in the ‘glory’ of God before his fall. The contrasting term to ‘form of God’ would further confirm this derivation: ‘form of a slave’ is evidently an allusion to Adam’s fate after the fall. The second contrasting pair at the beginning of the text would point in the same direction: ‘likeness of God’ probably alludes to Adam’s temptation (he wanted to be like God, Gen. 3.5) and ‘likeness of men’ in turn to Adam’s state after succumbing to sin.
The phrase ‘being like God’ (Greek isa theou), too, may not simply be translated with terms like ‘equality with God’, ‘being like God’, as often happens. That would require the form isos theos. What we have in the text is the adverb isa, and that merely means ‘as God’, ‘like God’. So there is no statement about Christ being equal to God, and in this in turn tells against an interpretation in terms of pre-existence.
So on both traditio-historical and linguistic grounds, according to the Catholic exegete and Jerusalem Dominican Jerome Murphy-O’Connor there is ‘no justification for interpreting the phrase of the hymn in terms of being of Christ’[20].
So this text would be a piece of Adam Christology, of the kind that also emerges in other contexts in the New Testament. It would be a further example of the widespread two-stage christology of the earliest Jewish-Christian communities (life-death/resurrection-exaltation of Jesus Christ) which we have already analyzed, and thus would not be in the context of mythical tradition, but of Old Testament tradition.  So there is no question here of a pre-existent heavenly figure; Rather, Christ is the great contrasting figure to Adam. To be specific, was it not Adam who wanted to become even more like God and thus succumbed to hybris and the primal sin? Was it not Adam who then as punishment had to live a kind of slave’s existence? And is not the Christ of the hymn precisely the opposite? Did he not give up his being in the image of God voluntarily? Did he not take on the form of a slave, not as a punishment, but voluntarily and obediently, so that then he was appointed by God to his heavenly dignity? That, then, would be a contrast, the great antithesis in this hymn: Adam the audacious man – Christ the man who humbled himself; Adam the one who was humbled forcibly by God – Christ the man who voluntarily humbled himself before God; Adam the rebellious man – Christ the man who was utterly obedient; Adam the one who was ultimately cursed – Christ the one who was ultimately exalted; Adam who wanted to be like God – and in the end became dust; Christ, who was in the dust and indeed went to the cross – and is in the end the Lord over the cosmos?
Thus in this hymn Christ seems to be the new Adam who has finally overcome the old Adam. There is no question of a pre-existence of Christ with the scheme of a three-stage Christology; pre-existence, humiliation, post-existence. Instead of this, the author celebrates the whole earthly-human life of Christ as a life of voluntary self-surrender to lowliness, as obedience which extends to the existence of a slave and a shameful death. In so doing he makes two things clear. It is only because of, only through lowliness that Jesus could also become the pantocrator; and, conversely, the pantocrator bears forever the features of the humbled man, indeed the crucified slave.
Jerome Murphy-O’Connor can therefore draw the basic conclusion:
Strophe 1: As the Righteous Man par excellence Christ was the perfect image (eikon) of God. He was totally what God intended man to be. His sinless condition gave him the right to be treated as if he were God, that is, to enjoy incorruptibility in which Adam was created. This right, however, he did not use to his own advantage, but he gave himself over to the consequences of a mode of existence that was not his by accepting the condition of a slave which involved suffering and death.
Strophe 2: Though in his human nature Christ was identical with other men, he in fact differed from them because, unlike them, he had no need to be reconciled with God. Nonetheless, he humbled himself in obedience and accepted death.
Strophe 3: Therefore, God exalted him above all the just who were promised a kingdom, and transferred to him the title and the authority that had hitherto been God’s alone. He is the Kyrios whom every voice must confess and to whom every knee must bow.
Thus understood, the original hymn represents an attempt to define the uniqueness of Christ considered precisely as man. This is what one would expect at the beginning of Christian theology.’[21]
However, there is a question raised about this. Are the contrasting parallels to Adam really enough to explain the specific features of the Christ in this hymn? If we compare the wording of Gen. 3, are the parallels really so clear? Did Adam in fact deliberately want to become like God? According to Gen. 3.5 he is more of a sacrifice, someone who is twice misled, by the serpent and by the woman. So on a close inspection of Gen. 3 there can be no question of saying that Adam wanted to retain his being in the likeness of God ‘as a thing to be grasped’ and in an attack of hybris wanted even more – all this in contrast to the humble and obedient Christ. Furthermore, do not the phrases ‘he emptied himself’ and became ‘like men’ presuppose a state of divine being from which one can logically only empty oneself to become like men? For what is humbling oneself if not incarnation, becoming man? And one can talk more meaningfully about becoming man by assuming a pre-existence.
So does not the very formula [of] ‘humbling himself’ presuppose the pre-existence of Christ? Where does the statement about humbling himself and emptying himself come from?

3. Jesus – a suffering servant of God?
The term denoting ‘self-emptying’ is not attested anywhere else in Greek literature, so its exact meaning is difficult to define. As early as 1954, Joachim Jeremias pointed out that the best parallel to the content of this term is to be found in the Old Testament. The context in the history of tradition here could have been the fourth Suffering Servant song (Isa. 53). For there it is said of this servant of God that ‘he poured out his soul to death’ (53.12); ‘Self-emptying’ would accordingly not presuppose pre-existence and not mean incarnation, but refer to the cross of the suffering man Jesus.[22]
In a recent, 1987, article another Protestant exegete, Matthias Rissi, has followed the old master Jeremias. Rissi also concludes that the wording of the Septuagint text of Isa. 53.12 is different, but argues that this does not tell against Jeremias’ theory: ‘The poet of the hymn uses his own words to express the same content as that of the Old Testament text.’ And the content that he wanted to express was not pre-existence but the suffering of a just and innocent person. Moreover, Rissi claims, the only reason why Jeremias’ theory has constantly been questioned is on the assumption that ‘Phil. 2.6 speaks of the pre-existence and therefore also of the incarnation of Christ’. But here basically one unproven hypothesis has been used to support another: because Christ is pre-existent, emptying himself can only mean incarnation; or vice versa; because emptying himself can only mean incarnation; here Christ must be pre-existent. But for Rissi himself, the assumption of pre-existence in this text is ‘very questionable’.[23] What is the alternative?
The alternative is that in this hymn a messianically oriented servant Christology from Isa. 53 has quite decisively appeared alongside the Adam Christology of the first lines (2.6). This is also confirmed by the parallel statements about exaltation in Philippians and Isaiah. The servant of God in Isaiah will also one day be ‘exalted and lifted up’ (Isa. 52.13), just as it is said of the Christ in this hymn that God has exalted him above all.
Moreover Phil. 2.10 contains a clear allusion to Isa. 45.23: ‘To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear.’ So it is only the post-existent, exalted Christ to whom here a dignity is attributed which otherwise is reserved only for God. And in fact allusions to other Old Testament texts seem to point in the same direction[24].
So for Rissi it is clear that the author of the Philippians hymn has constructed his poem exclusively from Old Testament material like Gen. 1.3 and Isa. 53; 45. The sources are neither wisdom reflections on the righteous sufferer nor mythological speculations about a pre-existent divine being, but the messialogy of the book of Isaiah. So vv. 6 and 7 would not be speaking of a pre-existent heavenly being or of incarnation, but solely of the life of Christ on earth. Rissi’s conclusion is that ‘the Christ as the true man in God’s purpose did not let himself be led astray like the first man but remained sinless; however, he did not do so as an ideal figure but as a real human being. He fulfills the role of the servant of God in Isa. 53. He is the man Jesus who was exalted because he humbled himself, and at the end will receive eschatological homage from all. This is clearly a Jewish-Christian interpretation of the career of Christ on the basis of an Christological interpretation of the Old Testament.’
This interpretation in terms of the Old Testament which cannot discover pre-existence and incarnation in Phil. 2.6-11 has recently been supported by an investigation by Klaus Berger, the Protestant exegete from Heidelberg, into ‘Hellenistic Genres in the New Testament’.  In his view, underlying both the Philippians hymn and Heb. 1 there would be the tripartite scheme of the encomium, a genre widespread in ancient literature and also in Hellenistic Judaism, which would comprise statements about the nature of a person, his actions and his reward. Here Sirach 44ff. will have molded structure and semantics. So there would be a parallel between Christ, who was ‘in the form of God’ (Phil. 2) or a ‘reflection of the glory’ (Heb. 1), and Abraham, whose glory was equal to none (Sr. 44). Similarly there was also Moses, who was not only beloved and full of ‘glory’, but whom God also revered ‘like a God’ (Hebrew Sirach 45). The same goes for Joshua (Sirach 46), Samuel (Sirach 46) and David (Sirach 47). The conclusion is that ‘from this sequence it follows that Phil. 2.6 is primarily concerned with making statements about high status and by no means necessarily concerned with pre-existence. I do not think that it can be proved that this is a statement about incarnation. It may be much more about the contrast between election and sending by God on the one hand and obedience on the other.’[25]
The conclusion to be drawn from this is that one need not borrow extra biblical notions and texts to understand Philippians 2. The Jewish background is enough for understanding this hymn and indeed for providing continuity with Aramaic Jewish Christianity in the proclamation of Christ. So’ humbling himself’, ‘emptying himself’, is not to be understood as the act of a mythical pre-existent heavenly being, but as a qualification for the man Jesus. Like the Son of Man and Son of God of the earliest Aramaic-speaking Jewish-Christian community, he was understood and confessed as a lowly figure and as God’s plenipotentiary, as an eschatological representative, as the true human being and definite messenger. Thus Phil. 2.6-11, this early text, would be in continuity with the Aramaic Jewish-Christian community in Jerusalem.
And yet, do such interpretations really do justice to the phrase ‘in the form of God’? Furthermore, does this approach really understand the whole breadth and depth of this hymn? Would Aramaic-speaking Jewish Christianity have dared to use statements like ‘form of God’ and ‘humbled himself’? Are there not categories here which have been influenced by Hellenism? And if that is the case, must we not look for a more strongly colored Hellenistic background within Judaism?

4. Christ pre-existent like God’s wisdom?
But what tradition of Hellenistic Judaism is relevant to the Philippians hymn? The case that exegetes like Edward Schweizer and Dieter Georgi argued in isolation as early as the 1960s is now commanding broad assent: the tradition of wisdom theology.

            Perplexing parallels
In fact, if we assume that underlying this passage is the notion of wisdom as it is depicted in particular in the Old Testament texts which we have discussed here, perplexing parallels to the Philippians hymn emerge. Granted, nowhere in the case of wisdom with God, and Wisdom 9.10 speaks of the sending of his pre-existent wisdom from God’s throne. According to Sirach 24, wisdom similarly does not remain in her pre-existence, but comes to human beings in the form of the Torah. Precisely here, pre-existence, sending or descent from the heavenly sphere characterizes the picture of wisdom. And is not this precisely the case in the part of the Philippian hymn? Granted, in this hymn Christ is not explicitly the one who is ‘sent’. But he, too, does not remain with God any more than wisdom does; he, too, descends into the human world.
Furthermore, a wisdom background also seems to be indicated by the fact that in the second part of the hymn Christ is described in the same way as ‘the righteous’ in the book of Wisdom (chs. 3;4).They too had to go through persecution and suffering in order to be translated to heaven. And they too will one day sit in judgment at the last judgment and rule over the nations. Is this not also precisely the case with the Christ of the Philippians hymn? Is not death in Phil. 2.8 an end, but a turning point towards exaltation from lowliness? Indeed, according to Wisdom 10.13-14, does not wisdom similarly join the righteous in following the way to slavery and the humiliations of imprisonment? In short, if in this hymn there are already so many parallels between Christ and God’s wisdom, is not Christ also just as pre-existent as the wisdom of God?
The translation of the words en morphe may be crucial here. In fact this word morphe can be translated not just as earthly ‘copy’ but also as more-than-earthly ‘form’. But what does ‘form’ mean here? It is hardly – as it is in terminology elsewhere – something of a person’s own, something belonging to a person. The text explicitly says ‘in’ the form. One has a form, but one is not in it. What does this mean? The range of meaning of this unusual word is particularly wide, as has been demonstrated in particular by the 1942 article of J. Behm which all the exegetes always quote. A clear ‘definition’ of the phrase en morphe theou seems to be ruled out.  Only one thing is certain: regardless of the nuance of meaning that one decides for, en morphe theou cannot just refer to the earthly Jesus, but must imply some kind of pre-existent mode of Christ with God.[26]

            What the text does neat mean to say
However, precisely because of the different nuances in meaning, we would do well not to press the text, whether linguistically, theologically or in terms of the history of religion. It is striking how succinct the basic theological statement of the text is, how it builds up theological tensions without resolving them. Any interpreter has to remain aware that: ‘What needs to be noted in theological interpretation is that the hymn itself speaks in the unguarded language of praise, not in the diction of an exact dogmatics which has been safeguarded on all sides.’[27] So this hymn knows nothing of questions about two ‘natures’ of Christ.[28] The phrases ‘emptying himself’ and ‘being in the likeness of men’ are not to be understood as referring to the assumption of human nature by an abidingly divine person, nor is the text interested in clarifying the following problems. Is the equality with God given up along with the self-emptying? Is the ‘being equal to God’ at all affected by being equal to human beings, or is it completely unaffected? Is there any assertion of a before or after (formerly God, now man), or is it a state of contemporaneity affirmed (he is in the likeness of both God and human beings)? Catholic exegetes like Rudolf Schnackenburg make subtle but important distinctions here: ‘the form of God’ is not a statement about how Christ is; it says nothing about his ‘divine being’. It is not about the divine nature of the pre-existent Christ but about a divine mode of being, namely that of doxa.
The projection back onto the text of problems which have arisen in the history of dogma puts so much pressure on it that it becomes unrecognizable. Such problems include: ‘If Christ is only in the constitution or mode of being of God instead of in his essential form, in the context of Trinitarian theology this can easily and quite consistently be understood modalistacally and christologically in terms of the “habitus theory which corresponds to Nestorian thought”. And that would be a serious error.’[29] All such talk overlooks the Jewish-Christian context of the hymn, its character as a hymn and the inner dynamic of its thought. Joachim Gnilka’s warning needs to be taken seriously. True, he translates morphe in too forced a way as ‘that order of existence which shapes being in terms of its essence’, but at the same time he adds: ‘However, in order to exclude understanding, one must make it quite clear to those with dogmatic interests that there is no speculation about the natures of Christ here.
Here we have the first beginnings of a reflection on the pre-existent being of Christ, but it is orientated far more on the saving event deriving from the pre-existent Christ than on Christ himself.’[30] And even a historian of dogma like Alois Grillmeier leaves no doubt that: ‘Certainly no such “definition” of the “nature” of the pre-existent Christ is intended in the statement en morphe theou hyparchon. The concern is simply to stress the divine might and glory which the one like God possessed and voluntarily gave away. So what we have in v.6 is a concept of “being like God” shaped by Old Testament thought.’[31]
So this text is not to be appropriated for dogmatic interests. Moreover, numerous further questions of detail remain unanswered: the self-emptying of Christ is clearly depicted as a deliberate decision. But when did it take place? While Christ was still in his divine mode of being, or only when he was in his earthly mode of being? Does the self-emptying mean only a surrender of the divine ‘prerogatives and manifestations’ or even a ‘surrender of the divine essence’, a ‘surrender of the divine self’? We learn nothing about this. Nor do we learn anything about the reason for the humiliation, e.g. whether it had a soteriological purpose: the only reason given in the text raises more questions than it answers: ‘Therefore God exalted him.’ A momentous ‘therefore’! Did the price of the exaltation have to be the shameful death on the cross? What kind of a God can he be who requires this price, only later to recompense the one who has been thus humbled? What kind of a God can he be who did not prevent this slave from having to go through all this, even to the cross? And finally, why this whole history at all, a history which begins in the divine mode of being and leads back to it in a heightened form? Question upon question, which the text evidently leaves to its readers to cope with. Why? Because this text is not a theological treatise but a poem, a great piece of poetry.
We have noted the arguments for and against an interpretation of the Philippians hymn in terms of pre-existence. Which are the most convincing? Three arguments seem to me to be largely capable of commanding a consensus today:
  1. The spiritual background of the Philippian hymn is neither Aramaic-speaking Jewish-Christianity nor a non-Jewish syncretistic Gnosticism but the tradition of Hellenistic Jewish Christianity.
  2. A variety of Jewish traditions have found their way into the text. Their specific feature is a combination of motives. But regardless of the degree to which traditions of an Adam Christology and a servant of God Christology may have played their part, the text owes an important dimension of its chronology to the wisdom tradition.
  3. With the wisdom theology, for the first time a notion of pre-existence comes into view. It is here that the decisive difference from Aramaic-speaking Jewish Christianity may lie – and also in the Christological reception of wisdom theology (in the Sayings Source). The phrase morphe theou seems to necessitate the acceptance of a pre-existent mode of existence of Jesus Christ with God before his ‘humbling himself’. But how is this mode of being to be interpreted? What is the function of the statement about personal pre-existence that is made here? I shall now, finally, attempt my own interpretation of the Philippians hymn.

5. A hymn to the crucified and exalted Christ
My presupposition is that we do justice to this text only if we do not read it with eyes either of those with a dogmatic concern or those opposed to dogma, but simply note its linguistic subtleties, its inner dynamic and its poetic form. If we do this, the basic principle for understanding the text is that the Philippians hymn indeed contains a statement about the pre-existence of Christ, but this does not have any independent significance. So no interest in a distinctive Christology of pre-existence can be recognized. How is this view to be justified? A look at the poetic form and the narrative perspective will make this comment plausible. Then the theological conclusions can be drawn.

            A great piece of poetry
First of all, linguistic subtleties in the text itself tell against seeing it as an independent statement about pre-existence. That is true above all of v.6, which is decisive for a Christology of pre-existence. The RSV’s ‘though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality…’ similar to many renderings of this passage, is an unhappy and misleading translation. Why? Because it reads into the text an inappropriate contrast between once and now, then and today, prior time and present time; it needs to be noted that the original text runs en morphe theou hyparchon, with a present particle; i.e. it does not define any particular time. Literally translated, this decisive passage must run: ‘he, being in the “form” of God, did not count equality…’ What is the difference?
The difference is decisive for our consideration of whether this is a statement about pre-existence. For if we translate literally, we have neither an abstract definition of essence nor a determinative definition of a prior time here. On the contrary, from the beginning the text displays a dynamic movement. The hearer is caught up into a dynamic movement which is the dynamic of the process of humbling itself.
Furthermore, secondly, far too little attention is paid to the fact that the verb hyparchon contains within it the word arche, origin. If we translate this literally as well, we could say, ‘He who has in origin in God’s “world”.’ So the disputed en morphe is not a statement about essence but a statement about origin. The Protestant exegete Hermann Binder has recently brought this out again (with a reference to Ernst Kasemann) and rightly concluded: ‘Somehow (!) there is thus a hint of the notion of pre-existence which was native to early Hellenistic Christianity, so that in Phil. 2.6 there would be the first result of independent reflection within the church on the claim of the historical Jesus to be the Son of God.’[32] In other words, morphe theou is certainly a statement about pre-existence, possibly even the earliest in the New Testament, but it has no independent significance in the text as a whole.
Thirdly, the text is a piece of great poetry. It is a song, a hymn, which may have had its real place in the liturgy of the community, whether at baptisms (Kasemann) or in the celebration of the Eucharist (Lohmeyer). And as is well known, good poetry has laws of its own, a reason of its own.[33]
In its image poetry can express that for which there are as yet no concepts; it can boldly and metaphorically open up frontier realms of language which conceptual language is concerned to take in only at a later stage; it can draw outlines and leave details aside. So, ‘It is understandable that bold Christological sketches of this kind were not at first presented in the form of speculative prose, but in hymns inspired by the Spirit’ – thus, rightly, Martin Hengel.[34]
But why is the text good literature? It is good because it builds up contrasting tensions of high drama to interpret the Jesus event and produce an incomparable paradoxical density in the smallest of spaces: in the world (‘form’) of God – in the world (‘form’) of human beings; like God – like a slave; hold on to compulsively (‘a thing to be grasped’) – empty voluntarily; humiliation – exaltation; slave – kingly rule; death – enthronement; cross – cosmocrator. This deliberate literary contrast and tension in turn allows us to conclude that this hymn is not just about the earthly Jesus, the new Adam or the suffering servant of God, but about a Jesus who before his humbling himself to be in human form was ‘in the world of God’. Only in this way are the contrasting dynamic and the drift of the text there from the start: origin from God and yet a life, like that of human beings. However, it is important that the text deliberately builds up all these tensions and dispenses with any conceptual, philosophical or theological bridges. It is a hymnic sketch, a poetical spirit of the end-time, a product of the earliest post-Easter enthusiasm.
This literary and aesthetic definition has consequences for present-day theological interpretation. For the poetic language of the text is not provisional theological language, nor a lower form of theological reflection. It has not arisen from the naïve feelings of an enthusiastic poet which must now be brought down to the solid ground of theological sobriety by means of philosophical and conceptual reflection. Legitimate though conceptual theological and philosophical reflection may be, it must be relative to this poem, and not vice versa. In other words, the theological reflection must be done in such a way that the poetic tension in the structure of the hymn, its openness and nuances, are expressed and not concealed by pre-shaped conceptual theological language. The fragile images and subtle nuances of meaning must not be dissolved into what is claimed to be conceptually simple ‘thus and not otherwise’, and be cemented in with formulae. On the contrary, all the formulae must continually be open to these images.
And so the statement about the ‘form of God’, too, is to be regarded as ‘a form-critical element of style in the Christ-hymn, not as a general theme of speculation’.[35]

            The all-important perspective
What is crucial in defining the theological focus of the text is the question of ‘narrative perspective’. From what perspective does the hymn speak about its hero? What experiences underlie it? There can be no doubt that at the heart of this hymn lies the experience of the crucified Jesus Christ, who has been exalted and thus is present through God’s Spirit as Kyrios. So it is clear that the one perspective from which this text speaks is that of post-temporality. The author looks back as it were from the experience of the risen and exalted Lord who is at work in the present to the earthly life of Jesus in humility and his former being with God. In other words, as for the Aramaic-speaking Jewish Christians, so too for this early Greek-speaking Jewish Christianity, humbling and exaltation are the focal point for this confession of Christ. The focal point, then, is not a Jesus who is divinely ‘before time’ and his allegedly divine being which goes with this, but his humbling which leads to the cross and his exaltation to be Kyrios and Lord of the worlds. So according to this hymn, Jesus Christ is not primarily a divine figure of the heavenly world of light, a pre-existing divine being who left the world, took the form of a servant, and then ascended into heaven again (thus Bultmann), but its primarily the crucified and exalted man who came from God.
Thus this statement about the ‘divine form’ of Jesus must to some degree be interpreted ‘after the event’, in the light of his humbling himself and his exaltation; it does not stand at the beginning of Christological reflection but at the end of a process of interpretation in the light of the exalted Christ.
In other words, statements about Jesus being ‘in the form of God’ are ‘to be understood as an extension of statements about the passion and exaltation’[36], and have their significance in the qualification of the lowliness of Jesus as the mode of God’s revelation. What is said about the ‘form of God’ to some degree denotes the ‘depth dimension’ in which the life, death and resurrection of Jesus must be seen.[37]
This narrative perspective brings out the distinctive Christological temporal structure of this hymn – an eschatological interweaving of time which from now on we shall meet more frequently in the New Testament. Only from a later period, that of the experience of the exalted Christ brought about by the Spirit is reference made to a twofold prior existence of Christ: his earthly life and his life before that with God. This prior existence is thus a function of the later period and is qualified by it. So it would be a great misunderstanding to think that this hymn displayed as it were a linear time-structure with three equal ‘ways’ or ‘stages’ pre-existence – existence – post-existence; as though anyone could observe a drama of salvation history as an onlooker and reflect in tranquility, from a detached standpoint, on the beginning, middle and end of the divine activity. This would be to devalue the distinctive and paradoxical interweaving of times so that it became a ‘belief’ in three ‘saving facts’ which take place one after the other. These are not the theological conclusions to be drawn. But what conclusions are?
We have understood the breadth and depth of this hymn only when we stop being spectators and stand within the sphere of experiencing the exalted Christ ourselves, when we feel quite personally the power and presence of the exalted Christ brought about by the Spirit. Only this experience allows us to say anything about the depth of the history of this Jesus of Nazareth, which evidently was not just the depth of his humbling himself but also the depth of his divine origin. So we cannot achieve an adequate relationship to such a hymn by reflecting on it as onlookers; we too have to be seized by the Spirit. Even the scholarly historical reconstruction of the form and content of this hymn that I am attempting has its limitations here. We translate a hymn into scholarly prose; reflect ‘on’ it again in so doing stand right outside it. Scholarly prose can at best open up access, prevent misunderstanding and create presuppositions with which even the 20th century reader can breathe the spirit of this text without the fragrance of fashion or a stifling atmosphere.
So the decisive point is that the author of this hymn and the community which sings it are under the inspiration of the Spirit of the exalted Christ.
It is not reflection and speculation, but our own deep experience brought about by the Spirit which makes it possible to relate properly to this hymn. In earliest Christianity, from the start hymns and the experience of the Spirit could not be separated. According to Martin Hengel, ‘the first community in Jerusalem was stamped in a very elemental way by the primal event, the appearance of the risen Christ and the eschatological experience of the Spirit. Therefore the worship of the early community logically emerged as the work of the Spirit, who inspired the Christian prophets to admonitions, “revelations”, visions, but also glossolalia [speaking in tongues].’[38] There is no doubt that in the Philippians hymn we do not have visions in the style of apocalyptic, ebullient hymnody in the style of the wisdom literature, or glossolalia, but an experience of the depth of the Christ-event brought about by the Spirit.

            No Christology of pre-existence
What does all this mean for the question of the pre-existence of Christ? To sum up, we can now say that if we take note of the linguistic subtleties, the dynamic of inner movement and the poetic form of the text, this hymn does not contain what numerous interpreters seek and find in it: an independent statement about pre-existence or even a christology of pre-existence. The text does not provide what Rudolf Schnackenburg once called the ‘description of pre-existence’[39]; quite the contrary. Moreover, other Catholic (and also Protestant) exegetes are significantly more restrained here. Thus Joachim Gnilka was quite right when in his 1968 commentary he saw the difference, say, from Johannine Christology in precisely this question: ‘So this temporal element is alien to the Philippians hymn. There is no stress on what is before time, as is the case, say, in the prologue to the Gospel of John.’[40] In 1977 the Freiburg exegete Anton Vogtle also came to a similarly somber conclusion: ‘No pre-existence of Christ before the world with an independent significance can be recognized even in Phil. 2. There is just as little interest in the substance and nature of the pre-existent Christ, beyond the mention of his equality.’[41] And in 1988 the Protestant exegete Nikolaus Walter could still stress in his exegesis of the Philippians hymn:
‘So here pre-existence does not already have independent, saving significance in itself…The saving significance of Christ is not grounded in his pre-existence but in the way that he takes, which necessarily includes a consistent humbling of himself. God then responds to this with the exaltation at Easter’.[42]
In other words, with this hymn the early Greek-speaking Jewish Christianity which came from Jerusalem ventured for the first time to express the notion of a pre-earthly mode of Jesus’ existence, but was so little interested in its form that it made this existence a mere function of the process of humbling and exaltation. Christ’s being with God is mentioned basically as a prelude to this hymn, but there is no dwelling on it in meditation or reflection, mythically, poetically or in a visionary way. On the contrary, it is mentioned ‘only as an incidental thought’,[43] and immediately taken up into the great dynamic of the history of Christ’s humbling himself which ends in a history of exaltation. Moreover the first lines may have a completely ‘concessive sense’, as Gerhard Schneider rightly conjectures, and in this way already introduce the dynamic movement: ‘Though being in the form of God…’[44] It follows from all this that in a hymn like that of Philippians neither the form nor the historical context nor the basic theological statements indicate a christology of pre-existence which reflects or even speculates on the being or nature of Christ. The statement about personal pre-existence is a mere function of the statement about humbling and exaltation: the background, or better the depth-dimension, of the event of humbling and exaltation the subject and object of which is the crucified Jesus of Nazareth.
So the findings are sobering and call for theological caution. I ask a last time: if this is the case – if this hymn is somewhat restrained in what it says about pre-existence, if the humbling and exaltation of Jesus are the focal point, if in this interpretation of Jesus we have a combination of primal Jewish motives (Adam, servant of God, wisdom, righteous sufferer) – can we not, indeed must we not, ask whether the christology of the early Greek-speaking Jewish Christianity is so far removed from that of Aramaic-speaking Jewish Christianity? Here we take up an important insight of those who a priori could not see any statement about pre-existence in this hymn and could see only Old Testament motives at work. Our question is: is the Philippians hymn really the document of a radical paradigm-shift, a leap into another culture and thus another religion, as Bultmann and the exegetes who followed him still assumed? Can there be such a radical shift of perspective if the only argument cited for it, the statement about pre-existence, has to be interpreted completely within Judaism? Can there be such a change if even the Christology of, say, the Sayings Source still has the features of Jewish wisdom?

            A Jewish hymn – continuity with the earliest communities
With some justification, the Protestant exegete Eduard Schweizer has therefore recently raised the question whether the Christologies of Phil. 2.6-11 and the Sayings Source, which have been shaped by wisdom, ought not to be seen more closely together than has previously been the case.[45] Certainly, according to Schweizer, in Phil. 2.6-8 the descent of the pre-existent Christ is the decisive statement and the lowliness of the one who has become man is to be understood, only in paradoxical unity with the one who is like God. Q knows nothing of this. But on the other hand, can one deny that in Q, as in the hymn, cross and resurrection do not have a central theological place (the emphasis on the cross in the hymn is a Pauline addition) but are a function of the statements about lowliness and exaltation? Can one deny that in both cases there has been an identification of the earthly Son of Man with the coming judge? Can one deny, therefore, that both traditions have no real christological concern with the overcoming of death, but are concerned with the beginning of the Lordship of the exalted Christ?
In addition Schweizer is concerned to stress that for all the differences (Q knows no pre-existence), there are similarities in Christological structure here. For is not the striking thing about the hymn that it asserts two things at the same time: that the one who lived in ‘the form of a slave’ had previously been in ‘the form of God’? And is not the structure similar in the Sayings Source? To quote Shcweizer: ‘the charge that Jesus is a glutton and winebibber becomes important (in Q) solely because in deed and truth he is the messenger of God’s wisdom: in his person wisdom is insulted.
Similarly, the homelessness of Jesus is that of the Son of Man, and his death in Jesus is qualified only by being understood as the conclusion to a long series of murders of prophets…The anchoring of the proclamation of God in the fact that the earthly Jesus is in the being of God, in the figure of Wisdom which dwells from eternity with God which now speaks in the man Jesus and his words, may well thus have been developed further by the structure of Phil. 2.6-8.’[46]
If Schweizer’s theory is right, two conclusions need to be drawn: one in terms of the history of tradition, the other theological. In terms of the history of tradition the Philippians hymn is a hymn on the frontier between Judaism and Hellenism. For the first time – in contrast to the Christology of Aramaic-speaking Jewish Christianity – it attempts to make a statement about Jesus’ mode of being with God before his humbling himself, but with its focus on humbling and exaltation it is to be interpreted in complete continuity with the proclamation of the Palestinian Jewish-Christian community. This traditio-historical community is matched by a theological continuity. And this theological provocation is no less clear than that of the Aramaic-speaking Jewish Christians.
For can we overlook the fact that whole this hymn can be explained in terms of its Jewish-Hellenistic presuppositions, yet – precisely because of its paradoxes – it is also full of provocations for this environment? Can we overlook the fact that despite the way in which it has been pre-shaped by the history of tradition, at its heart it breaks through all that could also be said in terms of wisdom theology? The crucified slave Jesus, in the likeness of God, is here proclaimed the Lord of the worlds. Would wisdom theology have dared to say that? Hardly; Wisdom certainly goes into captivity and misery with the righteous (Wisdom 10.14), but nowhere does it identify itself with one of the righteous. By contrast the Philippians hymn ventures to think the unthinkable and to proclaim that God’s wisdom is identical with the crucified Jesus of Nazareth.

            The political origin of the statement about pre-existence
To proclaim the crucified Christ as ruler of the world is at the same time to put old powers, rules and authorities radically in question; it means propagating a new form of rule in the name of Christ. So we cannot estimate too highly the element of political dynamite in such a Christology, and here too there may have been some continuity with the Christology of the earliest community and of the Sayings Source.
For the challenge to the Jewish establishment was evidently that as a result of the recourse to wisdom theology,[47] now – according to Martin Hengel – ‘Christ had taken the place of the Torah/Hokhmah understood in ontological terms…It is impossible for us nowadays to evaluate the boldness of the break with the ritual regulations of the Torah in the Greek-speaking Jewish-Christian communities.’[48]
Indeed, the sociological attribution of the statement about pre-existence to Greek-speaking Jewish Christians, as those among whom it was handed down, and its traditio-historical attribution to the wisdom Christology familiar to these Jewish Christians, has considerable significance for any analysis of the concrete function of the statement about pre-existence. Hitherto exegetes have described the emergence of the confession of the pre-existent Christ only very vaguely and with intellectual categories like a ‘consequence of consistent theological thought’,[49] or the ‘inner necessity’[50] of Christological reflection. Rudolf Schnackenburg stands for a widespread conviction when he states: ‘Wisdom and pre-existent christology cannot be derived either from wisdom logia of Jesus or from direct reflections on the risen and exalted Lord, but probably rest on earlier post-Easter reflection on the eschatological mission of Jesus.’[51]
All this sounds as though in the early Christian communities people primarily ‘reflected’; as though statements about pre-existence were above all products of intellectual effort. Against this, Helmut Merklein has suggested another approach which allows us to give the statements about pre-existence a firm foundation in a specific political and social situation. He concludes that the specific occasion for the formation of the confession of pre-existence of Christ was not very vaguely and generally ‘the Easter experience’, but quite specifically Jesus’ criticism of Temple and Torah, the conflict of the Nazarene with the Jewish establishment. As we heard, this establishment had its own idea of who was pre-existent: the wisdom of God embodied in the Torah, which had ‘settled’ in the Temple at Jerusalem. Temple and Torah were the decisive divine authorities with which Jesus himself had already come into conflict. And the political powers behind Temple and Torah had been responsible for Jesus’ death. These were powers with which the Greek-speaking Jewish Christians of Jerusalem may also increasingly have come into conflict. Indeed, if we can trust the account in Acts, it was criticism of the Temple and Torah which drove the ‘Hellenists’ out of Jerusalem (Acts 6.11, 13, 14).
So it is easy to understand that it will have become increasingly clear to these Jewish Christians that in the long term they were faced with two irreconcilable claims to absoluteness, and a decision had to be made between them. Merklein may have reconstructed this conflict precisely. ‘If Jesus’ death embodied eschatological salvation, the existing Temple was no longer the place of election and presence of God, and the Torah of Moses was no longer the revelation of God for human salvation, but Jesus himself – in a paradoxical way precisely in the lowliness of his death. The confession of the saving death of Jesus inevitably led to a crisis among the Hellenistic Jews of Jerusalem for whom wisdom was a focal point, whether by taking over the confession and thus critically relativizing the Temple and Torah, or by declaring war on this confession and those who made it. Both things happened among the Hellenistic Jews of Jerusalem.’[52] This thesis in fact makes it possible to remove the origin of the statement of Christological pre-existence from the merely intellectual sphere.
Behind these statements there is political dynamite; there is the experience that Jesus of Nazareth had had to go to the cross for religious and political reasons and that those who dared to put the crucified Jesus at God’s side had to expect persecution. So the question of pre-existence cannot be detached from the politically relevant problem of the Law.
And yet here we should beware of exclusive positions. Certainly, with Merklein we can describe the Christological statements about pre-existence ‘as a transformation of the wisdom speculation of the Hellenistic Judaism of Jerusalem on the basis of the confession of the saving significance of the death of Jesus’,[53] if at the same time we see that the ‘saving significance of the death of Jesus’ is credible only in the light of the experience of the resurrection. The Easter experience indispensably became the qualification of the death of Jesus as God’s mode of revelation. And to the degree that the Easter experience is indispensable, it is also the primal ground for the statement about pre-existence. So cross and resurrection belong indissolubly together as the ‘preliminary sign’ of the statement about pre-existence.


[1] For the history of research see R. M. Martin, Carmen Christi. Phil. 2.5-11 in Recent Interpretation and in the Setting of Early Christian Worship, Cambridge 1967, 21983; W. Schenck, ‘Der Philipperbrief in der neueren Forschung [The Philippian letter  in newer Research] (1945-1985)’, ANRW XXV.4, ed. W. Haase, Berlin and New York 1987, 3280-313.
[2] J. Gnilka, Philipper-Kommentar [Philippians Commentary], 146f.
[3] Cf. E. Lohmeyer, Kyrios Jesus. Eine Utersuchung zu Phil 2.5-11 (1927/28), Darmstadt 1961; id., Die Brief an die Philipper, Kolosser und an Philemon [The letter to Philippians, Colossians and Philemon] Gottingen 1930.
[4] U. Wilckens, ‘Praexistenz [Pre-existence] (NT)’, RGG3 V, Tubingen 1961, 491f.
[5] "…Exegetes from both Protestant and Catholic backgrounds, who otherwise tend to diverge, agree over the question of pre-existence…"
[6] Cf. Gnilka, Philipper-Kommentar, 144-7.
[7] Hengel, Son of God, 34.
[8] Schmithals, Neues Testament und Gnosis [New Testament and Gnosis], 40.
[9] Colpe, Die religionsgeschichtliche Schule [The religious historical school], 207.
[10] ibid.
[11] Cf. similarly C. Colpe, ‘New Testament and Gnostic Christology’, Studies in the History of Religion 14, 1968, 227-49.
[12] K. Rudolph, ‘“Gnosis” and “Gnosticism” – the Problems of their Definition and the Relation to the Writings of the New Testament’, in New Testament and Gnosis, 21-37; 30.
[13] Schenke, Die neuterstamentliche Christologie, 219.
[14] A short time later Schenke modified his position and suggested that we must understand ‘the whole structure of the Philippians hymn in terms of wisdom’. But as here, too, Schenke refers to Gnostic texts from the second and third centuries after Christ, these reflections too can only count as speculation: H.M.Schenke, ‘Die Tendenz der Weisheit zur Gnosis’ [The Tendency of Wisdom in Gnosis], in Gnosis. FS H.Jonas, ed. B.Aland, Gottingen 1978, 351-72.
[15] M. Hengel, ‘Between Jesus and Paul. The “Hellenists”, the “Seven and Stephen”, in Between Jesus and Paul, London and Philadelphia 1983, 1-29; id., ‘Christology and New Testament Chronology’. A Problem in the History of Earliest Christianity’, in ibid., 30-47; id., Acts and the History of Earliest Christianity, London and Philadelphia 1979.
[16] For the problem of the chronology of Paul see R. Jewett, Dating Paul’s Life, Philadelphia and London 1979.
[17] Hengel, Acts and the History of Earliest Christianity, 91; cf. similarly ‘Christology and New Testament Chronology’, 40-3.
[18] This position is represented by J. Harvey, ‘A New Look at the Christ Hymn in Phil. 2.6-11’, Expository Times 76, 1964/65, 337-9; C. H. Talbert, ‘The Problem of Pre-existence in Phil. 2.6-11’, Journal of Biblical Literature 86, 1967, 141-53; J. M. Furness, ‘Behind the Philippian Hymn’, Expository Times 79, 1967/68, 178-82; Dunn, Christology in the Making, 114-21; R. Brown, The Community of the Beloved Disciple. The Life, Loves and Hates of an Individual Church in New Testament Times, New York 1979, 45f. Among the German exegetes is H. – W. Bartsch…Frankfurt am Main 1974. More recently in Catholic American theology, T. N. Hart, To Know and Follow Jesus, New York 1984, 93-100; L. Swidler, Yeshua. A Model for Moderns, Kansas City 1988, 23-6.
[19] Cf. F. – W. Eltester, Eikon in Neuen Testament, Berlin 1958, who draws the parallel to 2 Cor 4.4 (133). Cf. similarly J. Behm, ‘morphe’, TDNTIV, Grand Rapids 1967, 742-52, esp. 751: ‘The morphe theou in which the pre-existent Christ was simply the divine doxa: Paul’s en morphe theou hyparchon corresponds exactly to John 17.5’
[20] J. Murphy-O’Connor OP, ‘Christological Anthropology in Phil. 2.6-11’, Revue Biblique [Bible Revue] 93, 1976, 25-50:39.
[21] ibid., 49f. Against the theses of Murphy-O’Connor: G. Howard, ‘Phil. 2.6-11 and the Human Christ’, CBQ 40, 1978, 356-76; I. H. Marshall, ‘International Christology in the NT’, in Christ the Lord. Studies in Christology presented to D. Guthrie, ed. H. H. Rowdon, Leicester 1982, 1-16; L. D. Hurst, ‘Re-enter the Pre-existent Christ in Phil. 2.5-11’, NTS 32, 1986, 449-57; C. A. Wanamaker, ‘Phil. 2.6-11: Son of God or Adamic Christology?’, NTS 33, 1987, 179-93.
[22] J. Jeremias, ‘pais theou’, TDNT V, Grand Rapids 1967, 700-17; id., ‘Zu Phil 2.7: heauton ekenosen’, Novum Testamentum [New Testament] 6, 1963, 182-88.
[23] All quotes: M. Rissi, ‘Der Christushymnus [The Christ hymns] in Phil. 2.5-11’, ANRW XXV.4, ed. W. Haase, Berlin and New York 1987, 3314-26.
[24] On this see esp. Hofius, Der Christushymnus (n.5), who sees the hymn as being completely constructed from Old Testament themes.
[25] K. Berger, ‘Hellenistische Gattungen in Neuen Testament’ [Hellenistic types in the New Testament], ANRW XXV.2, ed. W. Hasse, 1031-1432, esp. 1179-84.
[26] There is a great controversy among exegetes as to precisely how ‘form of God’ is to be defined. Arguments and counter-arguments balance each other out. Anyone who decides, say, for ‘appearance’ (thus O. Knoch…) runs the risk of reading into the text a contrast between changing ‘external appearance’ and a permanent ‘inner being’. But there can be no question here of any kind of role-play on the part of Christ (thus, above all, Bornkamm, ‘Understanding’, 115). Anyone arguing that this is a statement about Jesus ‘can be misunderstood in physical-real terms, as though the person of “Jesus Christ”, pre-existent before the world, had a human or human-like form’…Anyone who argues for status, position (thus Schweizer, Lordship and Discipleship, 113f.), will hardly find a parallel in other New Testament writings (thus rightly Gnilka, Philipper-Kommentar, 113f.). And anyone who argues for the ‘dignity of a divine ruler’ or the ‘status of divine glory’ (thus Schnackenburg…) overlooks the fact that according to the hymn the obedient one only received this status after the humbling and not before. The most convincing interpretation still seems to me to be that of E. Kassemann: the en morphe ‘denotes the sphere in which one stands and which determines one like a field of force. That is the way in which Hellenism sees existence: on each occasion it is put in a field of force and qualified by it’ (33). Thus Kasemann defines en morphe less as a statement about personal nature and more as a statement about origin. So, too, G. Eichholz, Die Theologie de Paulus im Umriss [The theology of Paul in outline], Neukirchen-Vluyn 1972, 131.
[27] Hofius, Der…58.
[28] Thus already Cullmann, Christology, 176: ‘This means that v.6 does not refer to Jesus’ divine “nature”, but rather to the image of God which he possessed from the beginning.’ Similarly again recently, Schenk, Philipper-Kommentar, 211…
[29]   Oeing-Hanhoff, ‘”Der in Gottesgesalt war”’, 297.
[30]  Gnilka, Philipp-Kommentar [Philippian Commentary], 114
[31]  A. Grillmeier, Jesus der Christus im Glauben der Kirche [Jesus the Christ in the belief of the Church] 1, 86; cf. the English text, Christ in Christian Tradition, 20f.
[32] H. Binder, ‘Erwagungen zu Phil 2, 6-7b’, ZNW 78, 1987, 230-43; 236. In his interpretation Binder refers to Kasemann, and states convincingly: ‘So we may move completely away from the notion of form and think with Kasemann of a sphere, a field of force, at any rate of a spatial entity. This takes us out of the constraints of the individual-personal approach: the term morphe from Phil. 2 does not mean something distinctive to the person of Christ: the morphe contains him. Within the morphe theou he is put with God, in the morphe doulou he is among human beings. The morphe theou is the field of reference in which the encounter between God and Christ took place; the morphe doulou is the field of the activity of the servant, the worldwide sphere of the encounter between the serving Christ and the humankind whom he serves’ (235f.).
[33] For the liturgical background and the hymnic form see R. Deichgraber, Gotteshymnus und Christushymnus in der fruhen Christenheit. Untersuchungen zu Form, Sprache und Stil der fruhcristilchen Hymnen [Examinations about form, language and style of the Christian hymns], Gottingen 1967; K. Gamber, ‘Der Christus Hymnus in liturgiegeschichtlicher Sicht’ [The Christian Hymn in liturgy-historical view], Bibilica 51, 1970, 369-76; J. T. Sanders, The New Testament Christological Hymns. Their Historical Religious Background, Cambridge 1971; K. Wengst, Christologische Formeln und Lieder des Urchristentums, Gutersloh 1972; M. Hengel, ‘Hymns and Christology’, in Between Jesus and Paul, 78-96.
[34]  Hengel, The Son of God, 76. Similarly the Catholic exegete F. J. Schierse, Christologie, 92: ‘In view of the breadth of variation of the basic narrative pattern it is improbable that the author of the hymn had an individual literary model or a particular religious model (whether Old Testament, Gnostic or other). He simply started from what the Christian community knew of Jesus: from his awareness of God and his obedience in suffering, in his death and exaltation to be Kyrios. That he made the career of Jesus begin in his divine pre-existence was probably less the result of theological speculation than the poetic expression of a liturgical intuition.’
[35]  Blank, Paulus und Jesus, 266. ‘If this view that the liturgy is the Sitz im Leben [Sit in the life] for statements about pre-existence and that they are to be understood as hymns is correct, then their meaning will only really be completely understandable in that perspective. They then belong to the praise of the saving act of God which has taken place in Christ, which as an eschatological action arises in the depths of God and the nature of which is therefore before time; this praise makes the community prostate itself in thankfulness and joy. From this perspective it has not merely “theological” but “religious” significance, because worship and thanksgiving are included in it. On the other hand we would have to ask what “theological speculation”, which belongs to another genre with another Sitz im Leben, would be doing in an Christological hymn, the signing of which would be not without enthusiasm’ (267).
[36] Hofius, Der Chrystuhymnus [The Christ Hymn], 73.
[37] Thus the convincing formulation by E. Schweizer, Jesus, Nashville and London 1971, 88: ‘Here, too, the statements concerning what took place in “heaven” before Jesus’ birth and after his resurrection are meant to describe the dimension of depth in which the life and death and resurrection of Jesus took place.’
[38]   Hengel, Hymns and Christology, 91
[39]   Schnackenburg, Christologie des Neuen Testaments [Christology of the New Testament], 315
[40]   Gnilka, Philipper-Kommentar, 145.
[41]  Vogtle, ‘Der verkundigende und der verkundigte Jesus “Christus”’, 89; similarly Schneider, ‘Der Ursprung’ [The Origin], 408f.; Ernst, Philliper-Kommentar [Philippian Coemmentary], 77.
[42]  N. Walter, ‘Geschichte und Mythus in der urchristlichen Praexistenzchristologie’ [History and Myths in the Christian history of Pre-existence Christology], in H. H. Schmid (ed.), Mythos und Rationalitat [Myths and Rationality], Gutersloh 1988, 229f.
[43] Ernst, Philler-Kommentar [Philippian Commenatry], 67. Cf. there also the very convincing summary of the ‘christology of the hymn’, 77f. The statements in v.6 are ‘not descriptions of nature, for this is merely the characterization of that position which proceeded from humility; the first step to the deliberate interpretation of pre-existence has been taken’. Certainly the ‘presuppositions for the christology of incarnation’ have been created. But here this is seen from a ‘negative aspect’: ‘It is simply said that he (Christ) gave up something. Evidently the renunciation of the position which he occupied beforehand is the only perspective that is of interest. This emerges from the different “descriptions of status” already indicated for his earthly existence. There cannot yet be any question here of a positive interpretation of the incarnation.’
[44]  Schneider, Der Ursprung [The Origin], 408
[45] E. Schweizer, ‘Die Christologie von Phil. 2.6-11 und Q’ [The Christology from Phil. 2.6-11 and Q], TZ 41, 1985, 258-63.
[46]  Both quotations, 261-62
[47] Here I am concentrating on the challenge to the Jewish establishment. The challenge to the Hellenistic establishment was no less. In a world which believed itself to be ruled by merciless powers and above all by a blind fate, a world in which the longing was strong right through every level of society for ‘liberation from the cosmic powers and participation in the divine world above’, the message of such a ruler must have been offensive for some and liberating for others! Indeed the crucified Jew Jesus from Nazareth was the new cosmocrator, the one like God, who was exalted after voluntarily renouncing power, was the radical Christian counterpart to all the divinized ruler figures of antiquity, from Alexander the Great to the Roman emperors, who were similarly said to be ‘like God’. For this whole question see G. Bornkamm, Paul, New York and London 1971, 54-7 (see III, n.5). Similarly E. Schussler-Fiorenza, ‘Wisdom Mythology and Christological Hymns of the New Testament’, in R. L. Wilson (ed.), Aspect of Wisdom in Judaism and Early Christianity, Notre Dame 1975, 17-41. Also A. A. T. Ehrhadt, ‘Jesus Christ and Alexander the Great’, Journal of Theological Studies 46, 1945, 45-51; L. Ross Taylor, The Divinity of the Roman Emperor (1931), reprinted Middletown, Conn, 1980; C. H. Talbert, ‘The Concept of Immortals in Mediterranean Antiquity’, NTS 22, 1976, 418-39; id., ‘The Myth of a Descending-Ascending Redeemer in Mediterranean Antiquity’, NTS 22, 1976, 418-39. There is a critical discussion of Ernts Bloch’s and Albert Camus’s understanding of Jesus from the perspective of the Philippians hymn in H. Sierig, ‘Das Ende der Revolte. Jesus Chistus in der Philosophie der Gegenwart, dargestellt unter besondere Berucksichtigung von Phil 2, 5-11’ [The end of the revolt. Jesus Christ in the philosophy of the present, presented by Berucksichtigung from Phil 2, 5-11], [in Human being and human son] Mensch und Menschensohn. FS Bischof K. White, Hamburg 1963, 45-57. Similarly A. Ziegenaus, ‘Die Praexistenz Christi als Messstab des christlichen Zeugnisses angesichts der Verneinung Gottes’ [The Pre-existence of Christ in point of the Christian certificate in view of God’s negation], Munchner Theologische Zeitschrift [Muncher Theological Magazine] 33, 1982, 83-98.
[48] Hengel, Christology and New Testament Chronology, 43.
[49] Hengel, Acts and the History of Earliest Christianity, 106.
[50]  Hengel, The Son of God, 71.
[51]  Schnackenburg, ‘Der Urspung der Christologie’ [The Origin of the Christology], 60.
[52]  Merklein, ‘Zur Entsenhung der urchristlichen Aussage’, 53.
[53]  ibid., 54.

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