James D. G. Dunn on Adamic Christology in Philippians 2:6-11

The possibility of a comparison between Jesus and Adam in Philippians 2:6-11 has been one of the major talking points in discussions of Pauline Christology over the past three decades. Since at least one major proponent of mythicism somehow managed to miss this entirely while allegedly doing research into early Christianity, I am sharing links to some of the many previews of works by Dunn or other participants in the discussion which can be found on Google Books, for the benefit of those participating in the discussion. Whether they will be willing to read them now, when apparently they were unwilling to up until now, remains to be seen.

Be that as it may, I suspect that these links will be found useful and interesting by some readers. And so here are some of the many relevant sources available in online preview:

Dunn, Christology in the Making

Dunn, Theology of Paul the Apostle

Dunn, The Christ and the Spirit

Where Christology Began

Jesus and Paul: Global Perspectives

Works by scholars who disagree with Dunn in whole or in part can also be found on Google books – such as Larry Hurtado, Stephen Fowl, Walter Hansen and N. T. Wright. And my own views on this passage, Paul’s Christology and the broader development of early Christian thought about Jesus and God have been published in John’s Apologetic Christology and The Only True God.

  • Jonathan Burke

    Comparisons of Christ in Philippians 2 with Adam in Genesis 3, are found even in the early Church Fathers, and reoccur throughout the history of Christian exposition on the passage; it seems to have become prominent again in the 19th century, over 100 years before the present. It’s difficult to understand how someone studying this subject could miss all this, and object to it as as a novelty of liberal Christianity.

    • Gakuseidon

      Jonathan Burke: It’s difficult to understand how someone studying this subject could miss all this, and object to it as as a novelty of liberal Christianity.

      Yes, it seems incredible, doesn’t it? But I think it’s because Doherty’s theory requires a high Christology, so it just isn’t on his radar. It’s the same with Adoptionism. In a 800 page book on the origins of Christianity, there are probably less than 2 paragraphs discussing adoptionism/separatism, despite Ehrman’s focus on the topic in “Orthodox Corruption of Scripture”, a book Doherty cites a few times in “Jesus: Neither God Nor Man”.

      Ironically, Dunn writes that:

      “… the common belief that Phil. 2:6-11 starts by speaking of Christ’s pre-existent state and status and then of his incarnation is, in almost every case, a presupposition rather than a conclusion, a presupposition which again and again proves decisive in determining how disputed terms within the Philippians hymn should be understood.”.

      That sentiment is something that Doherty would undoubtedly agree with wholeheartedly… when he needs to.

      Doherty’s high Christology inhabits the same conceptual space as conservative apologists, and his focus on high Christology curiously supports those views. Doherty asks this question on Godfrey’s blog:

      “A crucified criminal dies on Calvary, is thrown into a grave and no one ever sees him again, except it is claimed in visions. Is that really enough to get countless Jews and gentiles across half the empire to accept that man as the divine Son of the God of Abraham, creator and sustainer of the universe, redeemer of humanity by his death and guarantor of their own resurrection?”

      To answer “yes” undermines Doherty’s argument, but to answer “no” would appear naive. For someone like JP Holding, author of “The Impossible Faith”, the answer would be a resounding “No! There has to be more to it!” And Doherty uses this argument quite often throughout his book, to the point where it almost comes across like the only options are “Christ as celestial being” or “Christ as depicted in the Gospels”. No concern on whether “Son of God” was used by ancient Hebrews to indicate someone who was obedient to God rather than an actual deity, no concern over whether Paul or the early Church fathers were adoptionists, no concern over alternate ‘low’ Christology readings like in Phil 2. Like conservative apologists pushing a ‘Lord, liar or lunatic’ case, those views are simply not on his radar.

      That’s why it is imperative for him to engage modern scholarship via the peer-review process. He will find such views presented to him.

      • Anonymous

        Don, you’re of course correct. Dunn clearly identifies Paul as having a low christology in Philippians 2:6-11. He has some odd reservations in other spots though and doesn’t always seem completely clear. I’d say that Doherty is not far off the ideas of Dunn and Hurtado here, do you feel they are conservative apologists?

        Dunn states:

        “What is most striking in Paul’s kyrios-christology, however, is the fact that he refers some of the scriptural kyrios = Yahweh references to kyrios Jesus.”

        Later he states about Philippians 2:6-11:

        “At the very least we have to recognize that the Philippian hymn (2.6-11) envisaged acclamation of and reverence before Christ, which, according to Isaiah, God claimed for himself alone. On any account that is an astounding transfer for any Jew to make or appropriate.”

        Larry Hurtado is also instructive:

        “All this means, as astonishing as it may that the idea developed so early, that Philippians 2:6-7 should be read as describing the action of the ‘preincarnate’ or ‘preexistent’ Christ.”

        You can criticize Doherty all you want if you think he strays from mainstream interpretations, but these two are clearly well in the mainstream of Jesus historicists and they find Philippians 2:6-11 anomalous for their theory. To act as if the state of play in the scholarly world is different seems disingenuous to me.

  • Robert

    Thanks for the links. I have read through the previews you supplied and ordered Dunn’s book, Christology in the Making. The argument seems quite plausible. Thanks again.

  • Alejandro Escalante

    Do you think Dunn’s arguments necessitate a historic Adam? I have not read these particular works by Dunn, but this discussion of Adamic Christology has me wondering about recent evolution/creation arguments.

  • Jonathan Burke

    //Do you think Dunn’s arguments necessitate a historic Adam?//

    Yes. Compressing it for the sake of brevity, Adam Christology is predicated on Jesus being a literal man, who lived in obedience to God’s law in direct contrast to Adam.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @Alejandro, I would say no, but I think two questions need to be separated. One is whether Paul would most likely have assumed Adam to be a historical figure, to which I think the answer is yes. The other is whether there is any particular theological necessity for Christians to accept a historical Adam in order for them to appreciate and on some level assent to Paul’s point, and the answer to that seems to me to be no. Paul is not contrasting a group descended from Adam and one descended from Jesus. He is contrasting two different ways of living as human beings, two different approaches to life and spheres of influence. And so there is no need for a historical Adam, and presumably even a mythicist could get on board with having two mythical figures contrasted instead of one. :-)

  • Howard Mazzaferro

    @James, I fail to see where there is any truth in what you just explained. If Paul believed Adam was a historical person, along with the rest of the creation account, at best he misinterpreted the texts and at worst he was completely deceived. How can we be confident we are getting any truth from Paul when he makes such blunders with the texts? Unless of course you do not have divine truth in mind, but merely the proposal that Paul was attempting to integrate what he learned about Jesus into his views of the Hebrew Scriptures, a purely human endeavor.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Perhaps that is because the truth has not been divinely disclosed to you? :-)

    You seem incapable of acknowledging when you disagree with the Bible. It can speak in terms of an ancient cosmology that you no longer accept, and you will say that it simply expressed a theological point in a way that did not express, but is nonetheless compatible with, our current understanding. If that is the approach that you find most helpful, why can you not say the same thing here? Adam was not a name in Hebrew, initially, but it meant human being. And so why do you so quickly reject the idea that what Paul is talking about here, even if couched in ancient terms, is two different ways of being human?

  • Jonathan Burke

    //You can criticize Doherty all you want if you think he strays from
    mainstream interpretations, but these two are clearly well in the
    mainstream of Jesus historicists and they find Philippians 2:6-11
    anomalous for their theory.//

    But they don’t say what Doherty says. To the extent Hurtado comes closer to Doherty, he stands closer to conservative views and less close to critical scholarship; unlike Dunn, he does aim to prove that Jesus was known as God, so his is an apologetic.

    //To act as if the state of play in the
    scholarly world is different seems disingenuous to me.//

    You’ve provided quotations from two different authors, neither of whom make the claims Doherty makes, and one of whom stands closer to the fringe of critical scholarship than the other (Hurtado); what we have here is two authors holding distinctly different views with some overlap. So what point are you trying to make?

  • Gakuseidon

    Beallen, where am I saying in my post that the state of play in the scholarly world on Phil 2 is different? My point is that Doherty all but rules out Christ as an itinerant preacher who gets crucified on Calvary as a possible alternative.

    To under-line my point, let me ask you the question that Doherty asks:

    “A crucified criminal dies on Calvary, is thrown into a grave and no one
    ever sees him again, except it is claimed in visions. Is that really
    enough to get countless Jews and gentiles across half the empire to
    accept that man as the divine Son of the God of Abraham, creator and
    sustainer of the universe, redeemer of humanity by his death and
    guarantor of their own resurrection?”

    Is your answer “yes” or “no”?

    Read Doherty’s book and ask yourself: if his mythicist theory could
    somehow be shown to be incorrect, what is the portrait of the Jesus
    Christ that remains according to Doherty?

    • Anonymous

      Don, your questions seem odd given your original statement. I have shown you that it is well within the scholarly mainstream to interpret Phil 2 the way that Doherty does. He is “interacting” with mainstream scholarship and is hardly torturing the language in ways that are unique to him. Dunn all but says the same thing. Do you have a response to this fact?

      But, to answer your questions. The answer to the first is no. The answer to the second is the same as Bultmann’s — we cannot know anything about a possibly existent Jesus because we cannot reach behind the veil of mythology that has sprung up around him. 

      Bultmann states, “One can only emphasize the uncertainty of our knowledge of the person and work of the historical Jesus and likewise of the origin of Christianity.” Again, this is mainstream scholarship’s key figure on the study of the historical Jesus in the 20th century. 

      Schweitzer, again a mainstream scholar on the historical Jesus states:

      “The Jesus of Nazareth who came forward publicly as the Messiah, who preached the ethic of the Kingdom of God, who founded the Kingdom of Heaven upon earth, and died to give His work its final consecration, never had any existence. He is a figure designed by rationalism, endowed with life by liberalism, and clothed by modern theology in an historical garb.”

      Doherty says much the same. Why are Schweitzer and Bultmann, not to mention Hurtado and Dunn not regarded as fringe figures?

  • Jonathan Burke

    //I have shown you that it is well within the scholarly mainstream to
    interpret Phil 2 the way that Doherty does.[/quote]

    This is a misleading sentence. It’s well within the conservative and Fundamentalist mainstream to interpret Philippians 2 as a reference to a pre-incarnate Jesus who later became a literal man. But Doherty doesn’t argue this; he argues that Philippians 2 refers to a mythical figure thought to be a divine being who never became a literal man at all, and whose experiences were restricted to some kind of astral plan. He borrows certain conservative and Fundamentalist arguments in the process, but he doesn’t reach their conclusions.

    It’s well within mainstream critical scholarship to argue that Philippians 2 doesn’t say anything about Jesus being divine, or that he didn’t exist before his birth, but Doherty doesn’t argue this either. More marginal within mainstream critical scholarship is to argue that Paul believed Jesus was God and intended to express a doctrine of the incarnation in Philippians 2, but Doherty doesn’t argue this either.

    The fact is Doherty’s interpretation of Philippians 2 is not well within the scholarly mainstream at all. The best we can say is that parts of his arguments are used and accepted in conservative and Fundamentalist circles, and are increasingly marginal in mainstream critical scholarship.

    //He is “interacting” with
    mainstream scholarship and is hardly torturing the language in ways that
    are unique to him.//

    In this particular case he is certainly torturing the language in ways which are shared by conservative and Fundamentalist Christians, but since when was torturing the language to extract a preferred meaning, the right way to approach a text?

    What he certainly isn’t doing is interacting with mainstream scholarship; he has demonstrated his complete lack of awareness of key arguments and interpretations which have been central to the discussion of this passage for around 50 years. He didn’t even know what μορφή means, despite the fact that it’s an incredibly common word with a simple meaning, which is typically learned in the first six months of a Greek course for beginners.

    //Dunn all but says the same thing. Do you have a
    response to this fact?//

    I do. Dunn doesn’t all but say the same thing. He says something very different, which is why Doherty actually disagrees with Dunn.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    It is within mainstream mythicism to claim that what major scholars say is similar to or the same as what mythicists say, when it isn’t.

  • Jonathan Burke

    Good point James.

  • http://www.facebook.com/pstenberg Pär Stenberg

    Sorry for bumping this old thread, but I am curious of how read Philippians 2. Would you mind paraphrasing it according to your understanding? I did not find that much on vv. 6-8 in the links to your two Googlebooks.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Sorry for the delay in replying. If you search for “Philippians” in the Google books version, you’ll find some of my thoughts on the passage (around pp.52-54, as I recall). I am inclined to think that Dunn is right about the Adamic background to the hymn, given Paul’s interest in the Adam-Christ comparison and contrast elsewhere. But it seems to me that that question is not decisive for the one about monotheism. Whether or not pre-existence is in view in the first half, the second seems to clearly indicate that Jesus is exalted to a status higher than any he previously occupied and which is granted to him by God, so that even the universal acclamation and worship he receives is ultimately for the glory of God because he remains subordinate to God – as also in 1 Corinthians 15.


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