Dunn and Ehrman on “Forms” of Jesus in the Philippian Christ Hymn/Poem (PART 1/2)

The Philippian Christ hymn poetry is a very old pre-Pauline discussion of the nature of Jesus.  In the updated NRSV it reads

3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or empty conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others. 5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

6 who, though he existed in the form of God,

    did not regard equality with God [as Adam and Eve did]

    as something to be grasped,

7 but emptied himself,

    taking the form of a slave,

    assuming human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a human,

8     he humbled himself

    and became obedient to the point of death—

    even death on a cross.

9 Therefore God exalted him even more highly

    and gave him the name

    that is above every other name,

10 so that at the name given to Jesus

    every knee should bend,

    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

11 and every tongue should confess

    that Jesus Christ is Lord,

    to the glory of God the Father.

This is a very controversial passage, and the two main approaches seem to be Ehrman’s as a poem about the incarnation of a great angel, and Dunn with the transition from Adam to Jesus.  I think Dunn is closer to the best reading. Following the clue in the introduction to the hymn, I don’t think the poem is about the ontological constitution of Jesus at all, but a change in Jesus’ mindset that we also need to undergo.  I will quote a piece of Ehrman’s critique of Dunn and his school to set the stage:

  • Here I just want to mention briefly an interpretation that is sometimes floated for the passage which takes it in a very different way indeed, as not being about incarnation at all.  In this alternative interpretation, the passage is not about a pre-existent divine being who becomes human and then is exalted to an even higher state.  In this other interpretation the passage instead means to refer to the human Jesus from beginning to end (though he is exalted at the end).  The poem, in this interpretation, is about how Jesus is a second Adam, who reversed the very bad consequences of the sin of the first Adam.  In this interpretation, when the poem begins by saying the Christ was “in the form of God” it does not mean in some kind of pre-existent state.  It is referring to the fact that as a human, like – Adam, Christ was made “in the likeness of God” (as in Gen. 1:26-27; so that “form” and “likeness” are understood to be synonyms).   The problem with Adam’s sin is that he ate of the fruit in order to “be like God” – as it says in Gen. 3:4-5 (God “knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God”).  Christ, on the other hand, also in God’s image, decided that “equality with God was a thing *not* to be grasped.”  In other words, he acted just the opposite of Adam.  As a result of his decision to do God’s will, rather than to seek his own well-being, he agreed to die on the cross – thereby reversing the sin of Adam by bringing salvation from the sin that Adam brought into the world.   And in response, God did to Christ just the opposite of what he did to Adam.  Adam he cursed.  Christ he blessed.  And exalted.  And raised him up to the heavenly places.  And made him the Lord of all.   Adam wanted to be like God and just the opposite happened; Christ did not strive to be equal with God and because of that he *was* made equal with God.  This interpretation is strengthened by the fact that in Romans 5 Paul does explicitly talk about Christ as the Second Adam.  For years I’ve wished that this interpretation could hold water.  On the surface, it sounds so persuasive, and it completely saves the big problem of Christology that people have, namely, that here in a Pre-Pauline poem there is a high Christology, whereas one would expect that high Christologies would come only later in the tradition – not prior to any of the writings of the New Testament!   So I and others have real incentive to want this interpretation to be right.  But I’m afraid that I don’t think it can be.   For several reasons:  If the author of the poem really wanted his reader/hearer to think of Adam when he described Christ, he would not have said that Christ was in the “form” of God but he would have used the word used in Genesis, that he was in the “image” of God.  Different words.  So the allusion doesn’t work.  It was Eve, not Adam, who is said to have eaten the fruit when she realized that doing so could make her like God.  However you interpret “form of God,” it is clear in the poem that after refusing to grasp for what should not be grasped, Christ “became human.”   In the alternative translation of Christ as Adam, he would already have been human.  So that doesn’t work.   This is about a pre-existent being becoming incarnate.  And elsewhere Paul does indicate that Christ was pre-existent (i.e. that he existed before his birth).   This can be found in four passages of 1 and 2 Corinthians: 1 Cor 8:6; 10:4; 15:47; and 2 Cor. 8:9  So, as much as I would like the passage to be about the man Jesus (second Adam) behaving in a way opposite to the man Adam (first Adam), I just don’t think it is saying that.  Instead I think it must be about a pre-existent divine being – an angelic being – who becomes human and as a result of obedience unto death is exalted after death, to be the equal of God himself.   It’s quite a statement.  It’s quite early.  But it’s not the only Christological view that was floating around at the time.  See Ehrman /bad-link/?goto=https://ehrmanblog.org/final-thoughts-on-the-philippians-christ-poem-for-members/

As I read it Dunn seems to hit closer to the mark than Ehrman.  The Philippian Christ hymn/poetry isn’t about the incarnation of God or a great angel, but rather the being born again of Jesus’s mindset from god form (morphe) to human servant form (morphe), which is going from striving for the paradigmatic knowledge of good and evil (eg., Jesus filling full of meaning the prohibition against adultery by saying if your eye lusts after a woman you have committed adultery), to the morphe of man which is the servant par excellence.  Hence, Jesus says the son of man doesn’t come to be served but to serve, to die.  We have in Mark, echoed in Hebrews, the struggle in Jesus’s mind in Gethsemane desperately trying to get God to change his plan, but resolutely deciding to remain obedient. Jesus says unless one is born again in this way, they can’t enter the kingdom of God, and this includes Jesus.  We know the hymn is about a change of attitude because that is how Paul introduces it.  To enter the kingdom of God one must overcome the god morphe gone wrong like Adam and Eve who innocently and curiously sought equality with God as knowing good and evil, to be born again or created anew in the morphe of the human, which is the servant who even though he desperately wants not to follow God’s plan, is obedient like Christ in Gethsemane.  Price raises the issue that the desperate prayer in Gethsemane may have originally been envisioned as being granted (compare Hebrews 5:7, where Jesus’ prayers were “heard”) (Price, 2011, p. 223). – Price needs to be slightly modified: NOT ANSWERED, BUT HEARD, JESUS PROVED HE WOULD BE OBEDIENT EVEN THOUGH HE DISAGREED, UNLIKE THE RELIGIOUS ELITE who wrongfully had him killed.  Hence, the Philippian Christ hymn/poetry reverses the genesis account, as Dunn argues.  As McGrath points, out this is not a high Christology, because the hymn says Jesus was given the divine name after the resurrection, not before hand.

In order to see this we need to interpret the key word form or morphe in the poem, which occurs twice, in a Greek philosophical way.  Rittenbaugh comments:

  • The first word we need to consider is form in verse 6. It is the Greek morphe, for which English has no exact equivalent. Unlike “form” in English, morphe does not mean “shape.” It is a philosophical term that means “the outward expression of an inner essence.” We can derive an illustration of this definition from figure skating. One might say, “I went to the Winter Olympics, and the figure skater’s form was outstanding.” What is meant is that skater’s swift, rhythmic grace, and coordinated movements were an outward expression of his inward ability to skate expertly.

Similary, in the movie Hook when Captain Hook sees Peter Pan fighting with sportsmanship and honor, he says good FORM, as opposed to when he sees someone acting deficiently, in which case he says bad FORM.  So, Jesus was in the morphe of God with his ministry of signs and wonders, but in the morphe of a slave when he went to the cross.  Lets consider this with a brief analysis of the Greek words morphe (form) and phusis (nature or inner principle).  Heraclitus says physis kryptesthai philei: nature loves to hide.  The job of the thinker is to disclose this being/nature of beings out of hiddenness, “a-letheia.”

For example, for the Greeks, fire strives up, and the stone strives down, kata phusin, according to their nature. When a body moves towards its place, this motion accords with nature, kata phusin … [such as when a] rock falls down to earth. However, if a rock is thrown upward by a sling, this motion is essentially against the nature of the rock, para phusin.

Heidegger argues “Being” for the Greeks basically means “presence,” and so Plato says with the beautiful thing beauty is “present.”  Similarly, with the piece of chalk materiality is co-present.  Presence means movement as presencing, and so with the beautiful mansion beauty is presencing through it, it is Beauty incarnate, the universal presences through the particular.  This is physis as morphe.  Heidegger, commenting on Aristotle’s Physics 193 a 31-b3, says the universal is not divorced from the particular, but presences through it, which is conspicuous in incarnate (so to speak) cases such as when we say “this is truly Nature” when we see the eagle circling, or “this is truly art” when we encounter the van Gogh (Heidegger, Physis, 21-22).  “Incarnate” is meant to describe the experience and is not making any theological claims.

So, with the gorgeous mansion “Being” is experienced in terms of movement, presencing beautifully for one person, gawdy for the next, and mere presencing if it is encountered as the average house (houseness is merely present in the average house).  Aristotle said the being-true of beings, the true beings (in the sense of exemplar or “true-friend”), were of course the most proper beings (the on alethes are the kuriotata on).

The other half of the determination of phusis (besides morphe) is hyle. Heidegger comments that hyle is dunamis (power, potentiality, possibility, appropriateness).  We say that the wood that has been selected is appropriate to the making of the house. More specifically, dunamis has the quality of movement, in this case being-at-the ready-to-be-enacted, in the sense that a runner poised on his marks on the starting line is ready to go (EAF, 187-8). Speaking of dunamis, Marx, in “Heidegger and the Tradition,” speaks of ‘”possibilities’ press toward their ‘actualization,’ energeia. ” Morphe is a greater degree phusis than hyle is. The poised runner (dunamis), for instance, is not indifferent towards the enactment of the running (energeia), but precisely has this in view in itself, and in this sense has the entelecheia in itself. It is this poise in which the end and the dunamis lie stable before the work is enacted that is the stable presencing

As peculiar as it initially sounds, Aristotle can say actuality {energeia) is prior to potentiality {dunamis). If we keep in mind the presencing of nature as the circling eagle or houseness as the mansion, hyle as material for production is now understood to mean that which is so constituted so that it can be passed over in a productive seeing that goes to the universal and returns in the hyle realized as morphe (eg, this specific Picasso painting presencing as Art incarnate).

Jesus was in the form/morphe of God, meaning having an exemplary understanding of good and evil (eg, adultery is not just the sexual act, but if you look at someone lustfully you have committed adultery).  But Jesus did not strive for equality with God as the religious elite did when they tried to outsmart God with a loophole by having Pilate kill Jesus when God forbid them to do it.  The religious elite tried to find a loophole by getting Pilate to kill Jesus, since they knew they were not allowed to kill him.  They thus broke the third commandment, thou shalt not misrepresent and pervert God’s will.  In Christian theology, kenosis (Ancient Greek: κένωσις, romanized: kénōsis, lit. ’lit. ’the act of emptying”) is the ‘self-emptying’ of Jesus’ own will and becoming entirely receptive to God’s divine will.  John the Baptist displayed the attitude when he said of Jesus: “He must become greater; I must become less.” (John 3:30)

Jesus as “a-letheia” dis-closing or un-hiding incarnate is, as the Philippian Christ hymn says, in the form (morphe) of the slave, self-sacrifice incarnate.  Plato, in Parmen., p. 132 d., calls finite things ὁμοιώματα, likenesses as it were, in which τά παραδειγματα, i. e. αἱ ἰδέαι or τά εἴδη, are expressed).

As Luke says, it is not a penal substitution interpretation of the cross but a moral influence one where the soldier sees the suffering Jesus and undergoes a transformation of repentance: “truly this was an innocent man,” “truly this was the son of God” in Mark.  As Paul says:

  • I grieved you with my letter, I do not regret it. Although I did regret it (for[b] I see that that letter caused you grief, though only briefly), 9 now I rejoice, not because you were grieved but because your grief led to repentance, for you felt a godly grief, so that you were not harmed in any way by us. 10 For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death. (2 Cor 7:8-10)

For a Further Critique of Ehrman’s reading of Paul, see Dr James McGrath here: https://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/2014/11/thoughts-on-bart-ehrmans-how-jesus-became-god-sblaar14.html

For my further collection of blog posts on this topic, see https://secularfrontier.infidels.org/2022/05/i-get-interviewed-on-freethinker-podcast-about-mythicism-atonement-and-gnosticism/

For my concluding second post on the Philippian Christ Hymn/Poetry, see: https://secularfrontier.infidels.org/2022/10/dunn-and-ehrman-on-forms-of-jesus-in-the-philippian-christ-hymn-poem-part-2-2/