Philippians 2 and the Historical Jesus

Philippians 2 and the Historical Jesus April 10, 2016

It has been interesting to revisit the death of Jesus in my historical Jesus class this year. I’ve passed through phases of naive credulity and extreme skepticism with respect to the Gospels and other early Christian sources, and am now trying to find a place of balance between the two. On the one hand, there is no escaping the difficulties created by the overlay of later Christian theological interpretation on the stories, as Christians sought to make sense of the crucifixion of the one they believed to be the Messiah. On the other hand, we don’t for the most part get a depiction of Jesus walking around talking as though his only reason for being there is to die a death that will accomplish certain things, in a certain way, that is spelled out explicitly and specifically.

Indeed, there are details such as the Garden of Gethsemane narrative which suggest that Jesus had a sense that he was about to undergo something very difficult. In light of the later Christian view that Jesus’ death was an atoning sacrifice, this story is awkward and difficult, as Jesus asks to get out of it. But if he understood his path to installation as king to involve rejection and perhaps even death (following in the footsteps of his mentor John, assuming that John was executed before Jesus, contrary to the impression given by Josephus), with the dawn of the kingdom involving his resurrection not as a unique event but as part of the general resurrection, what we see fits well.

It is striking to turn in light of this to Philippians 2:6-11. If Paul is there quoting a hymn, then this might be our earliest source of information about the death of Jesus, as well as about how Christians understood it. In that passage, Jesus’ death is nothing else but the culmination of his obedience, leading to his exaltation.

Skepticism about the Jesus material can take one of two forms. On the one hand, one can say that all material interpreting the death of Jesus is written after the event. But for that to be plausible, it must be entirely the post-Easter experiences of early Christians that account for their becoming convinced that he was the Davidic anointed one despite his crucifixion. On the other hand, skeptical historians have often felt that believing Jesus to have interpreted his death in advance could seem to be making room for predictive prophecy. But there is no need to invoke prophecy or other supernatural things in order for Jesus to have seen his death coming, and having done so, to have offered an interpretation of it in relation to the soon-to-dawn kingdom of God. And this approach requires the historian to make less room for powerful religious experiences as the sole relevant factor. From this perspective, Jesus speaking about his death in advance is one of the factors that explains how Jesus’ followers could continue after his crucifixion while other messianic movements died out quickly after the execution of their central figure.

One may be skeptical of whether Jesus spoke about his death in advance. Or one may be skeptical of the capacity of religious experiences to turn a failed messiah into one vindicated by God. Neither seems inherently more preferable or more critical than the other.

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  • John MacDonald

    I don’t think Jesus’ followers expected him to be crucified, or else they wouldn’t have clashed with the guards who came to arrest Jesus. I think the prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane suggests Jesus in private thought he was going to be crucified (perhaps for atonement reasons), which would fit in well with Jesus’ words to the Jewish high council:

    Again the high priest asked Him, saying to Him, “Are You the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?”

    62 Jesus said, “I am. And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.”

    63 Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “What further need do we have of witnesses? 64 You have heard the blasphemy! What do you think?”

    And they all condemned Him to be deserving of death. (Mark14)

    Jesus could have easily escaped crucifixion by simply denying to Pilate that he was King Of The Jews, but he didn’t do that, probably because he thought it was part of God’s plan for him to be crucified.

  • Michael Wilson

    I’ve suspected Jesus expected to be killed. His prayer seems to be an invention, I’m not sure who us supposed to have heard it. His activity in the temple and his entry seems provocative, yet I don’t see indications that he planned to fight. Mark’s account gets a bit bleak after John dies and I wonder if it picked up on Jesus’s actual demeanor after that event. The gospel is pretty optimistic in the first half of his ministry and gets darker. It seems subtle to me, not something the author wants to really drive home, just the nature of the events. After John is executed and Jesus’s crowds start to peak, I think Jesus may have despaired at what he was doing. He may have thought that his movement could only get so big before the authorities killed him. Now whether he was planning to die, or even conspiring to do so in a way that would spare his followers, or if he just checked out and didn’t care what happened in Jerusalem I don’t know. I have thought that his temple clearing could have started a blood bath and was irresponsible. Further, while some have imagined him plotting to be crucified ir even fake his death, I think the variables were a bit to many fir any one to reasobable plan to be executed as he did. But after causing a ruckus in the temple, he certainly could expect to get jacked up.

    If Jesus expected to die, he may have shared this with his disciples and I wonder if did in fact tell them that God would raise him. It’s been pointed out that Jesus’s q statement about disciples sitting on 12 thrones suggest Jesus did believe he was the messiah. If he said he would return from the dead, it could have inspired some diciples to steal his body from its tomb. Recently I’ve been reexamining the timeline of Christianity and I suspect that the movement developed faster than I first thought, and that makes it more likely that the disciples were expecting or at least hoping for evidence he escaped death.

  • Neko

    Dr. McGrath, I may be misremembering, but I think I recall you being skeptical that the Philippian hymn implies Jesus was a pre-existent divinity, and then a few days ago (IIRC) you said the earliest Christian texts did not suggest Jesus was divine.

    If Jesus was said to be “in the form of a god” who then assumed human likeness, then what did the early Jesus followers think he was if not at least semi-divine?

    I quite enjoyed this post. I imagine after the disturbance in the Temple Judas (or whoever) panicked and maneuvered to save his own skin; Jesus began to suspect his days were numbered and imparted to his disciples an eschatological significance to his impending death.

    • Gakusei Don

      // If Jesus was said to be “in the form of a god” who then assumed human likeness, then what did the early Jesus followers think he was if not at least semi-divine? //

      Neko, James Dunn points out that the expression “in the form of a god” is very similar to “in the image of God”, which was also said about Adam. So it doesn’t need to apply to a divine figure. Dr McGrath discussed this on his blog in 2011:

      • Neko

        Good to see you, Gakusei Don! That possibility occurred to me, and I look forward to reading Dr. McGrath’s comments. Thank you for the reply and the link. Appreciated.

        • Sorry for the delay in replying. My view is that, if Paul envisaged a pre-existent entity in the form of God, it was the pre-existent Messiah, as per the Parables of Enoch, whom Paul also identified as the last Adam. And so, even if idealized in a variety of ways, I think that Paul’s Jesus is still a human who is exalted by God after his death on a cross, and not someone who pre-existed as God.

          • Neko

            Ah! Thank you for your reply (well within the bounds of timeliness). That is an extremely interesting position, one I’d not encountered before. I’ve been reading Gakusei Don’s links as well and discovered how much out of the loop I’ve been on the Philippians hymn debate. Always grateful for these insights.

    • John MacDonald

      Although Jesus is usually assumed to be a God, it’s sometimes hard to know, when reading the New Testament, whether the authors thought Jesus was a man or a God. For instance, Mark portrays Jesus as a fallible prophet, not an almighty God, who is unable to perform miracles in his home town (see Mark 6:5). The prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane is another example of this. In the prayer, Jesus is a man in agony and terror about his fate, terrified of his place in God’s plan, and petitioning God to change His plan! You would need to go through complicated mental gymnastics to explain the prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane from a Trinitarian point of view. In fact, it doesn’t really make sense to see Jesus as any kind of God here, since it seems silly that a God would be terrified of his atoning death, because that is the only reason he would be on earth in the first place. Does it make sense that in a story about a God who came to earth to die to wipe out the sin debt of mankind, that this God would beg to abandon his post? After all, Jesus knows he has nothing to fear because he will just suffer for a few hours and eventually be resurrected: Jesus says “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise (Mark 9:31).” You can picture a human Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, doubting that he will be resurrected (and terrified by that) – doubts that Jesus would not have if he was a God.

  • One needs to also keep in mind that some other human leaders have felt that they might be killed by opponents, too.

    For instance, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of his fear that he would be assassinated. One night several years before he was murdered, he became so distraught over the danger that he became very anxious.

    In the volatile circumstances Jesus lived in between ruthless invaders and Jewish terrorists, it would seem natural that he would recognize that he might be killed and that he would fear such an end.

  • Arlene Adamo

    “But if he understood his path to installation as king…” I don’t understand what you mean by this. Jesus rejected the attempt to make Him a king. John 6:15

    • But he also spoke in ways that indicate that he believed that God rather than people would install him as king, did he not? And he did so in material that is judged more historically reliable than John’s Gospel is felt to be.

      • Arlene Adamo

        I would disagree slightly on that point. Throughout the Gospels Jesus spoke as if He were King already and within his Kingship embodied the Kingdom of God. The things He did and the things He said were manifestations of the Kingdom already present. Luke 17:21 is a good example of this although there are many others.

        I see it not as Jesus fantasizing about sitting in Herod’s chair, but as having to communicate things of God to these people in cultural/religious terms they can understand. Throughout the Gospels He struggles to be understood by even His disciples.

        Even from a secular/historical view of Jesus, his thinking was so far ahead of his time and his perception of God so radical, you cannot assume things about him based what your average Joe Schmo might be thinking.

        • I find these statements problematic. While certainly Jesus seems to have envisaged his kingship as an eschatological one, and thus not merely one which involved him replacing the Herods, I wonder whether you can see the issues with your suggestion that Jesus’ thinking was “so far ahead of his time” that his meaning would have been badly misperceived by his contemporaries, but understood correctly by much later and presumably more enlightened individuals such as yourself.

          • Arlene Adamo

            You think I’m an enlightened individual! Well gosh darn and thanx! (Sorry but it did beg a response.)

            Obviously you have issues in mind but for some reason are not sharing. Please explain what issues you see so I can judge whether they can possibly add anything to my understanding of Jesus.

            If I can learn something from you, I will. If I can’t, I’ll leave the conversation. But I am not here to play a game.

          • Occam Razor

            The idea that Jesus was not understood by his contemporaries and his words could only make sense to people living decades and centuries later is problematic. It flies in the face of everything we know about behavior to think that the people who spent their lives with Jesus had no idea what he was talking about, but people today — living with a completely foreign world view, culture and technology — understand it perfectly.

            Much more likely that Jesus was a man of his times. A prophet in a time of fervent apocalyptic sentiment. Obsessively concerned about Israel at a time of occupation.

            Later generations had different concerns and problems so they reinterpreted his words in light of what was important to them. That goes for people today. Our concern is not the restoration of an earthly Jewish kingdom, so we preach individual salvation and heaven, concepts I doubt would have ever crossed his mind.

            As people did that reinterpreting, they had to account for the fact that his disciples remained pious Jews, so they wrote into the story that Jesus taught different things in private or that they did not understand him. The alternative is that Jesus spent his time misleading people closest to him, which makes little sense.

          • Arlene Adamo

            Thank you very much for your reply. I now think I understand more about this particular blog, which I had assumed, being on the Progressive Christian Channel was from a Christian perspective, but it is not.

            It seems that you see Jesus as a random Jewish dude who was looking to establish a theocratic ethnocracy and not a “Son of Man” with an intimate connection to the One True God of All Humankind. Do I understand this correctly?

            If yes, I’ve been trying to discuss Jesus within a Christian context with someone whose perspective is much more atheist-like or perhaps secular Jewish-centric, (even though no one here seems to be Jewish), so I see now why this conversation has not been working. It’s the same as me going into the Atheist Channel and trying to have a meaningful conversation about God. There’s no point to it.

            I should clarify though, that when I said Jesus was thinking well beyond His time, there are of course His positions around social justice which would be better understood by the modern audience, but more than that, He was thinking well beyond our time also.

          • What?! Why would you assume that, if you get a comment from someone who is not a Christian on a blog, the blogger must not be a Christian?!

          • Occam Razor

            Whoa, there buckaroo. Who gets to decide whether I am a Christian? I thought I was just discussing some facts and probabilities. I think it is unfortunate and improbable that there is a common view that we know more about what Jesus meant than the people who lived with him and probably died for him. That makes me an atheist? I’m not surprised Arlene thinks so, but et tu, James?

          • Sorry, you’re right, I should not have left the comment that I did. I didn’t even look carefully – I just saw that Arlene had received a comment from someone other than me and had jumped to a bizarre and illogical conclusion about me. I should have addressed that, but also the fact that she also jumped to an inappropriate conclusion about you too!


          • Occam Razor

            Hahaha, no worries. I stopped talking to my evangelical friends about this stuff because the first response to any position that deviates from whatever they have been taught is: “so do you believe Jesus died for your sins?” As if that obviates the need to think through anything else. And if you don’t give the answer they want, they can just dismiss everything else because I am a very bad man.

          • Arlene Adamo

            I am not an evangelical and nor do I hold to any organized religious dogma. It’s just that I don’t see how Christianity, (in general terms the belief that Jesus was some type of universal teacher and embodiment of the Divine), can mesh with what you have presented. If you can explain to me how this works, I’m certainly interested in hearing it.

            (I should add that if you are not able to converse without condescension and insults then just please ignore this post and I will avoid this blog in the future. Thanks.)

  • Honestly, I’d be more surprised if anyone went around first century Jerusalem doing and saying the kind of things Jesus said and did and NOT expect the Powers That Be to bring down the hammer.