The Name Above Every Name

The Name Above Every Name May 26, 2011

Over at Vridar, Neil Godfrey discussed the argument (a point of agreement between mythicist Paul-Louis Couchoud and his opponent A. D. Howell-Smith) that the “name above every name” bestowed upon the central figure in Philippians 2:6-11 is the name Jesus. I concur with Godfrey that this is a matter about which it is possible to reasonably disagree. I will explain here briefly why I am persuaded that Howell-Smith and Couchoud are incorrect in their interpretation of the Christological hymn in Philippians 2. First, one must consider the inherent likelihood that Jews such as Paul and at least some of his readers in Philippi would have taken for granted that the name which is above every name is God’s name. Moreover, Paul emphasizes the ultimate supremacy of God even in relation to Christ in 1 Corinthians 15:27-28. Since “Jesus” is nowhere attested as a name for God prior to the rise of belief in Jesus’ own divinity within Christianity, if the name that is in view in Philippians 2 is “Jesus,” then we would have to understand that God gives a name superior to his own to the central figure of the passage. This scarcely seems likely. Moreover, the bestowal of the name “Jesus” would not account for the application to this figure of reverence described as due to the one supreme God Yahweh alone in Isaiah 45:23-24. The bestowal of the divine name, however, would make sense of it, since presumably the recipient of the divine name could be viewed either as the one foreseen in the passage, or perhaps more likely, as Yahweh’s agent. The bestowal of the divine name upon a principle agent is found in other Jewish texts (3 Enoch and the Apocalypse of Abraham), Samaritan sources (where it is applied to Moses), as well as other Christian texts (the Gospel of John, in particular 17:11). To this must be added as well the fact that the name “Jesus” was a common Jewish name (Joshua) and would not be one to think of for any obvious reason as “the name that is above all names.” And so I respectfully suggest that this passage envisages Jesus being exalted by God to a rank second only to God’s own, as other passages in Paul’s letters envisage. To indicate that Jesus (a common human name that this human individual, who suffered on a cross, already had) had been exalted to the highest status to which a human could attain, God bestowed upon him his own name, as other Jewish and related literature suggested God might do with a supreme agent. This understanding of the name seems to me to do the best justice to the Jewish context, the intertextual echoes from Isaiah, and the comparable ideas in Paul’s other writings as well as other early Christian literature. Needless to say, I think that the attempt to try to utilize this passage as part of a case for mythicism is unpersuasive. But it should be emphasized that this is not only because the other claims made by mythicists are unconvincing, but because the interpretation of this text which some mythicists as well as non-mythicists have proposed is less likely that that which I have offered here. For discussion of the issue of pre-existence in 1 Corinthians 8:6, see the recent post on this subject at Diglotting, which also points out the widespread notion, relevant to this passage, that the divine identity and name could be shared with a supreme agent. For more on the Philippians hymn and other passages that may or may not envisage an incarnation, see too James Dunn’s essay on “Incarnation”. And see too my discussion of this passage and of the divine name in New Testament Christology in my books The Only True God: Early Christian Monotheism in Its Jewish Context and John’s Apologetic Christology.

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