The Birth of Jesus and the Christ Hymn of Phil 2:6-11

In a prior Christmas season article, I discussed the two passages in the Pauline Epistles (Rom 1:3-4, Gal 4:4-5) which refer in some way to the birth of Jesus. Today I will look very briefly at another passage dealing with what we would call the Incarnation of Christ: the so-called Christ-hymn in Philippians 2:6-11. If the birth of Jesus proper is hardly mentioned (outside of Matthew 1-2, Luke 1-2) in the New Testament, there are a few more references to the idea of Christ’s incarnation—that is, of his becoming human, or of taking on human flesh.

The best-known and most prominent passage is the ‘prologue’ to the Gospel of John (Jn 1:1-18), itself a kind of ‘Christ-hymn’; see especially v. 14—”and the Word [lo/go$] became flesh and set up tent [i.e. dwelt] in/among us”. Note also Romans 8:3f: “for the Law (being) powerless, in that it was weak through the flesh, God, sending his own Son in (the) likeness of sinful flesh, judged against sin in the flesh, that the justice of the Law might be (ful)filled in us”; and cf. 1 Tim 3:16; 1 Pet 4:1, etc.

Philippians 2:6-11 is generally called a hymn, and is often thought to be an earlier (non-Pauline) composition which Paul quotes here. Aspects of the vocabulary, style, and theology of these verses have been considered unusual enough in comparison with that of the (undisputed) Pauline Letters as a whole. However, if it is an earlier hymn, Paul has carefully adapted and integrated it, for many words and phrases and ideas are echoed already in vv. 1-5.

The Christ-hymn is actually extremely difficult to translate, especially the first half (vv. 6-8); but even in verse 5, there are difficulties—the syntax surrounding the verb (tou=to fronei=teo^), and the relation of e)n u(mi=n to e)n Xristw=|. The text as it stands would normally be rendered something like: “have this mind in [i.e. among] you which also/even (was) in Christ Jesus”. Occasionally it is understood with the sense of “have the (same) mind among your(selves) which (you have) in Christ Jesus”, but this seems contrary to thrust of the hymn the verse introduces.

I will be focusing specifically on verse 7, in the context of the vv. 6-8 (the first half of the hymn). However, as these verses are especially rife with difficulties, it is necessary to make a few exegetical notes here:

  • e)n morfh=| qeou= (“in [the] form of God”)—the precise meaning of this phrase is disputed, particularly in light of: (a) the phrase i&sa qew=| (“equal with God”), and (b) the parallel morfh/ dou/lou (“[the] form of a slave”) in v. 7. Conceptually, the “form” could imply: (i) the essential shape (i.e. the divine “nature”), (ii) the ‘visible’ appearance (i.e. the energy/power/glory of God). Probably the latter is more likely, to allow some distinction with i&sa qew=|.
  • u(pa/rxwn—the verb u(pa/rxw fundamentally means “begin to be (in/under etc)”, with the nuance of “being”, “existing”, “being present”, “belonging”, and so forth. A key question here is whether the emphasis is on divine existence (and pre-existence) as such or on existing in a particular condition. It is a subtle distinction, perhaps, but the latter is probably more accurate.
  • a(rpagmo\n h(gh/sato—this phrase, and its relation to what follows, has been hotly debated. The verb h(ge/omai literally means to “lead (out)”, sometimes in the sense of “bring (something) to mind”. The rare noun a(rpagmo/$ is a “seizing (by force)”. There have been four principal interpretations of this phrase, in connection with to\ ei@nai i&sa qew=|:
    • 1. “he did not consider it robbery to be equal to God”, that is, because he was, in fact, equal to God. This has been popular as an orthodox christological statement, but it seems quite foreign to the rest of the hymn. In particular, it generally disregards the adversative a)lla\ at the start of verse 7.
    • 2. “he did not consider being equal to God as something to be seized”—in other words, though he was in the “form” of God (i.e. divine), he would not attempt to be “equal” to God. This would seem to be the more natural sense of the words, and can be understood in a more (or less) orthodox sense as the case may be.
    • 3. “he did not think being equal to God was something to use for (his own) advantage”—this treats a(rpagmo\n h(gh/sato as a particular idiom implying opportunity/advantage, something like the English expression “seize the opportunity”. An interpretation along these lines is becoming more popular among commentators today. Like #1, it treats “in the form of God” as synonymous with “equal to God”
    • 4. Another popular modern interpretation holds that these verses have nothing to do with the deity or pre-existence of Christ, but rather reflect an Adam-Christ typology (as in Rom 5 and 1 Cor 15)—i.e., even though Jesus was in the image/form of God (like Adam) he did not wish to be like/equal to God Himself (unlike Adam), cf. Genesis 3. This, however, seems to read too much into the text; while there may echoes of such a motif in verse 6, it is harder to maintain throughout the hymn.
  • to\ ei@nai i&sa qew=| (“to be equal to/with God”)—as indicated above, much depends on whether this phrase is meant to be equivalent to “in the form of God”, or something quite distinct and separate from it. In any event, a parallelism is clearly intended (whether synonymous or contrasting):

e)n morfh=| qeou= u(pa/rxwn (‘being’ in [the] form of God)

ou)x a(rpagmo\n h(gh/sato (he did not bring ‘seizing’ [it to mind])

to\ ei@nai i&sa qew=| ([the] being equal to God)

Verses 7-8 follow and are subordinate to v. 6. There are any number of ways to outline these; my arrangement below illustrates some of the linguistic and conceptual parallels:

a)lla\ e(auto\n e)ke/nwsen  (but he emptied himself)

morfh\n dou/lou labw/n (taking [the] form of a slave)

e)n o(moiw/mati a)nqrw/pwn geno/meno$ (coming to be in [the] likeness of men)

kai\ sxh/mati eu(reqei\$ w($ a&nqrwpo$ (and being found [in] shape/appearance as a man)

e)tapei/nwsen e(auto\n (he lowered himself)

geno/meno$ u(ph/koo$ me/xri qana/tou (becoming obedient [lit. hearing/listening] until death)

qana/tou de\ staurou= (—but a death of [i.e. on] [the] stake!)

As in v. 6, there are several problematic words and phrases in verse 7:

  • a)lla\ (“but”)—the connection of the adversative particle is a major question: does it tie back to ei@nai i&sa qew=| or to a(rpagmo\n h(ghsato? If the former, then it signifies that Christ forsook equality with God (in some sense); if the latter, that he forsook any desire to seize it (by force), perhaps in the sense indicated above—of not using the divine nature for his own advantage.
  • e)ke/nwsen (“emptied”)—the force of the verb here has been debated for centuries, principally whether it is: (a) metaphysical, emptying himself of the divine nature/identity (in some sense), or (b) metaphorical, humbling himself by taking on the human condition. The parallel with verse 8 (“emptied”/”lowered”) would suggest the latter (b).
  • morfh\n dou/lou labw/n (“taking/receiving [the] form of a slave”)—the phrase is clearly meant to contrast with e)n morfh=| qeou= (“in [the] form of God”) in v. 6. I take the aorist (active) participle here as parallel with the aorist (passive) participle eu(reqei/$ (“being found”), and so “form of a slave” with “[in] shape/appearance as a man”.
  • e)n o(moiw/mati a)nqrw/pwn geno/meno$ (“coming to be in [the] likeness of men”)—this is the second of three participial phrases. To get a sense of the thought-structure of the verse, it may help to illustrate again how the three relate:

Taking/receiving [labw/n, aorist active particple] the form of a slave

Coming to be [geno/meno$, aorist middle participle] in the likeness of men

Being found [eu(reqei\$, aorist passive participle] in shape/appearance as a man

I have chosen the chiastic arrangment especially to draw attention to the middle phrase, as specifically related to the birth of Jesus—this coming-to-be (which can be understood as coming to be born) rightly stands between the active and passive: between the act of God’s own will (in Christ) and the helplessness of the human condition (into which Christ entered), we find the incarnate Lord being born, in our own likeness and at one with us!

Birth of the Son of God: John 1:13

In the previous note, I discussed aspects of the Prologue to the Gospel of John (Jn 1:1-18) which relate to the idea of the birth of incarnation of Christ as the Son of God, as well as some interesting parallels to the language and terminology found in the annunciation to Mary (Lk 1:28-35). The two most relevant of these—the verb genna/w (“come to be [born]”) and the title ui(o\$ qeou= (“Son of God”)—come together in John 1:13.

John 1:13

In order to view this verse properly in context, we must begin with the first portion in verse 12:

“But as (many) as received him, to them he gave the exousia [i.e. ability/authority] to come to be [gene/sqai] (the) offspring of God [te/kna qeou=, i.e. sons/children of God]—to the ones trusting in his name…”

The context is clear enough—Christ himself gives the ability to become “children of God” to believers (the ones who trust/believe in him). The the verb gi/nomai (cognate with genna/w) is used, more or less, in the sense of coming to be born, as is clear from the parallel in v. 13. The expression te/kna qeou= (“offspring/children of God”) is generally synonymous with ui(oi\ qeou= (“sons of God”), as demonstrated by a comparison of Rom 8:16-17, 21 with Rom 8:14, 19; Gal 3:26, etc. The Gospel and letters of John (Jn 11:52; 1 Jn 3:1, 10; 5:2) prefer te/kna qeou=; based on the slight evidence available, Luke (and the Synoptics) tends to use ui(oi\ qeou= (cf. Lk 20:36; and 6:35, where it is u(yi/stou instead of qeou=, as in Lk 1:32).

The sentence continues in verse 13:

“…who, not out of blood [lit. bloods] and not out of (the) will of (the) flesh and not out of (the) will of man, but (rather) out of God [e)k qeou=], have come to be (born) [e)gennh/qhsan]”

Note, again, a general parallel with Lk 1:28-35, especially if v. 35b is expanded with the additional (variant) e)k sou (“out of you”):

  • Jn 1:14e)gennh/qhsan “(the ones who) have come to be born”
    Lk 1:35to\ gennw/menon “the (one) coming to be born”
  • Jn 1:14e)k qeou= “out of God”
    Lk 1:35—[e)k sou=] “[out of you]” (v.l.)

In Lk 1:35, Jesus is born (as a human being) out of Mary’s body (i.e. her “flesh”); in Jn 1:14, believers are born (spiritually) out of God. The spiritual birth of believers is referred to on several occasions in the Gospel of John, most notably in the famous passage Jn 3:3-8, where the verb genna/w appears 8 times; by contrast, as indicated in the previous note, it is used of Jesus’ incarnate (human) birth only in Jn 18:37. The Gospel writer’s use of genna/w in 3:3-8 will be discussed specifically in an upcoming note.

The author refers to believers as te/kna qeou= (“offspring/children of God”) rather than ui(oi\ qeou= (“sons of God”), as indicated above; for him (and the tradition/community in which he writes), there is only one true “Son” (ui(o/$) of God, and this is almost certainly the proper way to understand the term monogenh/$ in the  context of Jn 1:14, 18—Christ is the only [monogenh/$] (Son) of God the Father. Within the Gospel, Jesus frequently identifies himself as “(the) Son”, usually in terms of his relationship to, and identity with, God the Father. Believers come to be (born as) “children of God” through Christ—that is, we are dependent on him for our relationship to the Father. Paul says much the same thing (though in different terms) in Rom 8:3ff, 14-15, 22-29; Gal 3:26; 4:4-7.

Despite the many New Testament references to believers receiving a divine status and/or nature as sons/children of God, Christians throughout the centuries have, at times, been uncomfortable with this idea. It has been much more prevalent in Eastern (Orthodox) tradition, under the theological/doctrinal term qew/si$ (theosis), “deification, divinization”—the ultimate destiny of believers to become “like God”. Such an idea, understood in a particular “gnostic” sense, was opposed by (proto-)orthodox theologians such as Irenaeus and Tertullian. It seems also to have been connected to a specific view of Jesus’ birth (and his full/true humanity) which involved an interpretation of John 1:13:

As is clear from the majority text, the relative pronoun and form of genna/w which bookend verse 13 are in the plural: “(the ones) who…have come to be born [oi^e)gennh/qhsan]”, referring back to “as many as [o%soi]…the ones trusting [toi=$ pisteu/sousin]”. However, Tertullian (On the Flesh of Christ §19) claims that the correct text has the singular: “(the one) who…has come to be born [i.e. o^$e)gennh/qh]”. He accuses the Valentinian “gnostics” of tampering with the text, changing the singular to the plural—instead of a reference to the birth/incarnation of Jesus, they make it refer to their own gnostic/spiritual ‘birth’. Tertullian cites the variant form again in §24, as does Irenaeus in Against Heresies III.16.2, 19.2; somewhat earlier, it is also found in the so-called Epistle of the Apostles (§3), as well as one manuscript (Latin MS b). A few scholars have argued that the minority reading (with the singular) is original, however the overwhelming textual evidence supports the reading with the plural. The error (if such it is) may have crept in through a careless reading of the text, thinking that the relative pronoun should refer back to the immediately prior words “his name”, especially since Christ is the implicit subject of the verb e&dwken (“he gave”), etc in verse 12. A scribe may thus have mistakenly “corrected” the text; the fact that the reading with the singular was advantageous in the context of early Christological debates with “gnostics”, could explain its temporary, limited popularity in the second century. For more on the text-critical issue in this verse, see the UBS/Metzger Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (2nd edition), pp. 168-9, and B. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture (Oxford:1993), p. 59.

Birth of the Son of God: John 1:1-18

For the introduction to this series of Christmas season notes (on the theme of “The birth of the Son of God“) see the previous discussion on Luke 1:28-35—the Angelic message to Mary, which climaxes with the declaration:

to\ gennw/menon a%gion klhqh/setai ui(o\$ qeou=
“…the (child) coming to be (born) will be called Holy, (the) Son of God”

When we turn from the Infancy narratives (of Luke and Matthew) to the prologue of the Gospel of John (Jn 1:1-18), we enter into a very different world of terms, concepts and images; and yet, as we shall see, there are number of interesting parallels with words and phrases found in Lk 1:28-35 etc.

John 1:1-18

Let us begin by looking at the verb genna/w, which is used as a verbal (neuter) substantive in Lk 1:35b—to\ gennw/menon “the (one) [i.e. the child] coming to be (born)”. In the first chapter of John, this verb appears only once (in v. 13, cf. below), not in reference to Jesus’ birth, but rather to the (spiritual) birth of believers. The verbs genna/w and the cognate gi/nomai both have the basic meaning “become, come to be”; genna/w more specifically has the denotation “come to be born“, but gi/nomai can be used in this sense as well. Because of the similarities in both form and meaning, these verbs are occasionally confused in the textual tradition, sometimes with subtle (but potentially significant) theological import (cf. ge/nesi$ vs. ge/nnhsi$ in Matt 1:18, and geno/menon vs. gennw/menon in Gal 4:4 [also Rom 1:3]). In the Johannine prologue, the Gospel writer distinguishes carefully between use of the existential verb ei)mi (“be”) and gi/nomai (“come to be”), with the former used of God (and the divine Logos), and the latter used of created beings—note the threefold use of ei)mi (“the Logos was [h@n]”) in v. 1 and of gi/nomai (“came to be / has come to be” [e)ge/neto / ge/gonen]) in v. 3. Only in verse 14, is gi/nomai used of Christ (that is, of the pre-existent Word/Logos [lo/go$]):

“and the Logos came to be flesh [kai\ o( lo/go$ sa/rc e)ge/neto] and dwelt [lit. put down tent] among us…”

Based on the context of vv. 1-13, this clearly is a reference to what we would call the incarnation of the pre-existent Word of God, identified here of course with the person of Christ, and almost certainly influenced by language and imagery related to divine Wisdom (personified) in Old Testament/Jewish tradition. Twice more in this chapter, gi/nomai is used of Jesus, in the parallel declaration by the Baptist (vv. 15, 30):

“the one coming [e)rxo/meno$] behind me has come to be [ge/gonen] in front of me, (in) that [i.e. because] he was [h@n] first of me [i.e. first for me, ‘my first’]”

All three of these verbs—ei)mi, gi/nomai, e&rxomai—have definite theological/christological connotation and significance in the Gospel. Though it is extremely difficult to offer a precise interpretation of this complex saying, I would suggest:

  1. e&rxomai (“coming”)—refers to Jesus’ coming into the world, specifically his public appearance/emergence in Israelite/Jewish society (cf. verse 11); chronologically, and in terms of the Gospel narrative, Jesus appears on the scene after John.
  2. gi/nomai (“come to be”)—following on verse 14, I take this a kind of veiled reference to the incarnation, that is to say of the man Jesus’ status as the incarnate Logos/Word of God; in this sense, Jesus is in front of John (as well as of all other human beings).
  3. ei)mi (“was”)—based on the usage in vv. 1ff, this more properly (and precisely) indicates Jesus’ deity and identity with God the Father; clearly, Jesus is to be considered “the first” (prw=to$).

Only once in the Gospel is the verb genna/w applied to Jesus—in Jesus’ own declaration to Pilate in Jn 18:37:

“unto this have I come to be (born) [gege/nnhmai] and unto this have I come [e)lh/luqa] into the world….”

This is the only specific reference to Jesus’ birth in John, but the pairing of genna/w and e&rxomai, along with the image of Jesus coming into the world, offers a reasonably close parallel to the use of gi/nomai and e&rxomai in Jn 1:11f, 14 (also vv. 15, 30). Jn 1:17-18 also provides an interesting parallel to v. 14 in its use of:

  • gi/nomai  (v. 17)—”the favor [xa/ri$] and the truth (of God) came to be [e)ge/neto] through Jesus Christ”, i.e. Jesus is the (incarnate) manifestation/representation of divine truth and favor (grace).
  • monogenh/$ (v. 18)—this word is almost impossible to render into English; literally, it means something like “(the) only (one who has) come to be”, and often carries the general sense of “(one and) only” or “one of a kind, unique”—the traditional rendering “only-begotten/born” probably reads too much into the term, though monogenh/$ can be used of an “only child”.

Both words appear in verse 14, framing the declaration:

“the Logos came to be [e)ge/neto] flesh… as (of) an only (son) [monogenh/$] alongside (the) Father”

It is not possible here to enter into the thorny text-critical debate over the reading monogenh\$ ui(o/$ (“only Son“) vs. monogenh\$ qeo/$ (“only God“), as the textual evidence is evenly divided and strong arguments can be mustered on both sides. I have discussed the issue in an earlier note, and will do so again as part of this Christmas series. If ui(o/$ (“Son”) is correct, then it spells out what is already implied in v. 14, and may provide another implicit reference to the birth of Jesus as the “Son of God”.

Another parallel between v. 17 and v. 14 is the combination of “(the) favor and truth (of God)”. The word xa/ri$ is often translated “grace”, though I consistently render it as “favor”, especially in the context of the favor/grace of God. There is an interesting synchronicity or resemblance in detail, however faint, between Jn 1:14, 17 and Lk 1:28ff, centered on the word xa/ri$ (“favor”)—in conceiving and giving birth to Jesus as son, Mary has found favor with [lit. “alongside”, para/] God (Lk 1:30), while Jesus himself is the manifestion of God’s favor, as of a Son “alongside” [para/] God. The expressions plh/rh$ xa/rito$ (Jn 1:14) and kexaritwme/nh (Lk 1:28) have (at times) both been translated “full of grace”, though, as indicated above, I would render the first expression as “full of (the) favor (of God)”, while the second properly means “favored (one)”, i.e. favored by God.

Returning to Lk 1:35, two other terms have parallels in the Johannine prologue—namely, the verb genna/w and the title “Son of God” (ui(o\$ qeou=)—in verse 13. These will be examined in the next article in this series.