New Testament Words and Verses
The Christ Hymn, Philippians 2:5-11
It is nearly incomprehensible to me how this six-verse hymn (2:6-11; v 5 is an introduction) could have been written and circulated widely in early Christianity by the time Paul used it here in about 62 CE or so. The rhetorical power and theological sophistication of these verses, as well as the theologically problematic character of a word or two (especially μορφή in v 6), make this an absolutely distinctive and memorable hymn. That this hymn most likely didn’t originate with Paul doesn’t detract from it in the least. It breathes a confident and optimistic spirit which still resonates powerfully nearly 2,000 years after it was written.
Some of the Vocabulary
One convincing argument that this is a pre-Pauline hymn is its distinctive vocabulary. Very important in the first few verses is the argument from “form.” Christ was in God’s “form” and ended up in human “form.” These are two of the three appearances of the word μορφή in the NT (the other is in the long ending of the Gospel of Mark). And, its translation here is somewhat problematic. Though we can call it “form” it really is the “outward appearance” or “shape.” μορφή is the physical instantiation or presentation of something to the outside world. That Christ was in God’s “form” suggests in the first instance that God the Father Himself/Herself has a kind of physical or visible representation. No Christian would affirm this, and the hymn no doubt doesn’t say this, but the word μορφή can lead us in that direction. Beautiful, but problematic.
Other words are rare or eye-catching. The word ἁρπαγμὸν in verse 6 is a NT hapax and also at first is a bit shocking, though this can be handled more easily than μορφή. Literally, it means “something stolen” or “robbery,” but that doesn’t easily fit the flow of the passage, and so has generally been rendered, “a thing to be grasped.” But the word sounds strange expressed by Paul, though it is central to the theology of the hymn.
Then, the hymn wrestles with the concept of form, exterior shape, appearance, likeness or figure by introducing two other terms, one of which just appears one other time in the NT (σχῆμα) and one which is more frequent in Paul (4x in Romans; ὁμοίωμα). The author is concerned about what one might call the “shape” of salvation that is given in Christ, and the piling up of words centering on that concept makes the meaning more rather than less obscure.
Then, finally, is the verb, also a NT hapax, ὑπερυψόω (v 9), “to raise/exalt beyond measure/very highly.” Just the second part of the verb by itself, υψόω, means “to make high” or “exalt highly,” but when we have a ὑπερ added to it, it is as if the rhyming English word “super” is appended. God has “super highly lifted him up very high.” The words of this section are riveting and memorable.
One can never fully separate words from concepts, of course, but this section will stress the uniqueness and strength of the concepts. The major point is the concept of movement. In some literature Christ is portrayed as moving through the heavens or moving along the earth, but here the movement is vertical rather than horizontal. Christ emptied himself (κενόω is verb) or made himself void or devoid of power. This though is correlated with a movement downward, from a lofty perch with God to a lowly position with humans. κενόω then becomes the verb that captures this downward motion.
This downward movement then hits rock bottom, and this bottom is captured in a literarily powerful fashion. Christ is humbled by becoming human, but the ultimate humiliation is death. Then, we have three Greek words in an appositional phrase with the word “cross”—θανάτου δὲ σταυροῦ, death on a cross. It is as if we have Christ reach his most utterly abysmal location, and then, with the pair of genitives, as it were bounce along the bottom of the sea of humiliation.
Then the tone of the hymn changes. God didn’t permit this humiliation to become the last word. Instead, God “highly exalted” Christ (using the verb ὑπερυψόω). The downward movement is more than balanced by the upward movement. We have elevation and special name bestowal (a name above every name—with the impressive threefold use of the word ὄνομα in nine words). Then, as it were, to complement the threefold ὄνομα is the threefold superiority of Christ: over heavenly, earthly and sub-earthly realities (with the “sub-earthly, καταχθόνιος, a NT hapax). So, when the hymn ends in verse 11 we have a finely structured theological and literary treatise, which presents for us the Christ who moves—from heaven, to earth, to the seeming finality of death on the cross, to a super-exalted position, where his threefold name now triumphs over three realms of the universe.
Paul, of course, gives no footnotes, so we don’t know who was originally responsible for this incomparable hymn. But its mere presence here shows us that the first generation of Christians was active in defining the role of Christ not just in the life of faith but in the structure of the universe. A more triumphant hymn one would have a hard time imagining.
Philippians 2:12-18, One
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