For a long while I understood the Philippians 2:6-11 passage to be a pre-Pauline hymn that Paul drew upon when writing the Philippian congregation. Upon reading eminent New Testament scholar, Gordon Fee, in his NICNT Philippians commentary I’m not near as convinced as I once was.
As Fee begins to bring forward his thoughts on this passage, he first and foremost makes it clear that New Testament scholarship is nearly universal in its judgment that this text is a pre-Pauline hymn; thus, he’s swimming against the current of New Testament scholarship. He goes on and provides the most commonly accepted structural arrangement of vv. 6-11; I’ll post it below.
6 a Who in the form of God being
b Not grasping considered
c to be equal with God,
7 a But himself emptied
b the form of a slave taking,
c In the likeness of human beings becoming;
d And in appearance being found as a human being
8 a He humbled himself
b Becoming obedient unto death,
c but death of a cross
9 a Therefore also God him highly exalted
b And bestowed on him the name
c that is above every name,
10 a So that at the name of Jesus
b Every knee should bow
c of those in the heavens and on earth and under the earth
11 a And every tongue confess that
b the Lord [is] Jesus Christ
c to the glory of God the Father.
Fee stops his readers here and gives his reservations about this passage being a pre-Pauline hymn. Here I will briefly (and not exhaustively by any sense of the word) overview his points:
1) If as normally claimed it is a hymn, it would have to be Semitic in origin. The reason for this is because it has no familial correspondence with any kind of Greek hymnody or poetry. Okay, no problem, it has to be Semitic in origin is all. Not so fast; the only issue here is that there isn’t any Semitic piece of literature from the Hebrew psalmody that has parallelism with this supposed “hymn”. Building off this point, the word hymn properly describes what is to be a song used in praise of deity. Even in this version of the textual reconstruction and other various ones proposed, it thoroughly lacks rhythm and parallelism that one would expect to find in material that is sung. Furthermore and probably more importantly, it doesn’t fit with explicitly clear hymnic material found in the Psalter, Luke 1:46-55, 68-79, or 1 Timothy 3:16.
2) Exalted or even poetic prose does not, by any means, surmount in and of itself to the literary genre found in Semitic hymnals. Though it may be riding on a similar road, it still doesn’t have the punch to make it up the hill. Regarding this, Fee notes: “Paul is capable of especially exalted prose whenever he thinks on the work of Christ.”
3) The supposed literary familial features of christological hymns found in St. Paul’s other writings (1 Tim 3:16 and Col 1:15, 18) are not consistent in structure with the 2:6-11 passage. The reason for this is because the Greek hos (who) is not precisely like it’s alleged parallels. In Col 1:15, even though its antecedent is “Son” of verse 13, the connection with v. 15 isn’t gramatically smooth. Regarding the latter, 1 Tim 3:16, the hos, if connected with the rest of the sentence makes it ungrammatical, thus suggesting that it belonged or was apart of an original hymn. To the contrary, the hos in our present text fits neatly as a standard Pauline text which follows its antecedent, Christ Jesus.
4) These sentences, even though they are rhythmic and exalted in style, follow one another in what would be expected in a Pauline literary prose.
5) If wanting to argue this is Semitic poetry, it would be hard to maintain this considering that in the structural arrangement given above, six of the lines are exempt from verbs: 6c, 8d, 9c, 10a, 10c, and 11c.
All of this is said acknowledging that there is relative rhythmic and poetic features to this passage, but as expressed earlier (in a slightly different fashion), it seems as if it can’t make it up the hill to claim the prize of being a pre-Pauline hymn.
I want to lastly point out one other thing. Like I mentioned above, the grand majority of scholars assume the Philippians 2:6-11 passage to have pre-pauline origins by assuming it is a hymn, which predates Paul’s letter. Because of this, scholars have tried to place historio-cultural backdrops behind this text to truly understand how Paul was using it. As far as I know, this is a relatively exhaustive list of these backdrop motifs: Heterodox Judaism (Lohmeyer), Iranian myth of the Heavenly Redeemer (Beare), Pre-Christian Hellenistic Gnosticism(Käsemann), Jewish Gnosticism (J.A. Sanders), Old Testament Servant motif (Coppens, Moule, Strimple), Genesis Adamic theme (Murphy-O’Connor, Dunn), and Hellenistic Jewish Wisdom (Georgi). The issue with trying to figure out the thought behind this hymn is that we know barely anything about pre-Pauline Christianity! I think that it’s safe to say that the very diversity of opinions shows how little we do know about what stands behind this text (if it really is a pre-Pauline hymn), and that at our current place, it seems fruitless to assume we do.
Now, my thoughts on this are entirely flexible and subject to drastic change, so I’d love to hear what you think about this passage.
Grace & peace,