(Mis)Understanding Philippians—The Preformed Christ Hymn is Not Preformed…Or a Hymn

(Mis)Understanding Philippians—The Preformed Christ Hymn is Not Preformed…Or a Hymn July 6, 2020

The Preformed Christ Hymn is Not Preformed…Or a Hymn

It has been long said that more ink has been spilled (and keyboard keys clicked!) on Philippians 2:5-11 than on almost any other passage in the Bible. That is the say, scholars have long disagreed about the “Christ Hymn’s” origins, meaning, and purpose; but all agree that this is a key text that gives insight into NT Christology.

Here in this myth-busters blog I argue that the long held views that it predates Paul, and that it is a “hymn” are speculations, not able to be concretely proven nor provide important insights in pre-Pauline Christianity.

If you want to read a more detailed discussion of this, see my comments in my new Philippians commentary (New Cambridge Bible Commentary, co-written with Mike Bird).

NT scholars in the late 19th century through the middle 20th century were enamored with the hunt for preformed Christian teaching and liturgy embedded in the New Testament. Of course, there are things that we can be pretty confident of in terms of early traditional material: e.g., the Lord’s Prayer, certain Aramaic sayings (AbbaMarana tha), teachings related to the Eucharist. But there has been pushback on the matter of detecting and making too much of “preformed hymns” in the NT.

Firstly, when it comes to Phil 2:5/6-11, we can raise the matter of what exactly classifies as a “hymn”. This is a nebulous category and doesn’t seem to be a helpful category, except that perhaps it implies liturgical use in religious settings? I much prefer the scholarship that has labelled Phil 2:5/6-11 as “encomium”: speech honoring and praising a person as noble and worthy of emulation (see Matthew Gordley’s New Testament Christological Hymns). That is not to say the Christ event wasn’t “unique.” But it should be obvious in Philippians that Paul was holding up Christ as the example par excellence of humility, obedience to the Father, and courageous commitment despite facing suffering and shame.

Second, we need to question the view that the “Ode to Christ” (as I call it) was borrowed from primitive Christianity by Paul. It certainly could pre-date Paul’s use in Philippians, but there really is no fool-proof way of knowing. The fact it is poetic? No, Paul proves himself more than capable of beautiful writing (see Phil 2:1-2), wordplay, rhetorical devices, etc. The fact that we find unusual vocabulary? No, Paul used rare words when the need arose (such as μεμύημαι, Phil 4:12).

Some scholars have argued or assumed that Paul changed or adapted a preformed Christian hymn. That is even harder to prove! We would need a robust imagination to conjure up a hypothetical original against which we compare the given text in Philippians. Who is sufficient for these things? 

I, for one, am content to imagine Paul himself composing this, why not? Either way, what’s at stake?


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