This series of daily notes, to run through October and into November, will focus on the “Christ hymns” in the New Testament—that is to say, the early Christian hymn-like confessions or creedal statement preserved in the Scriptures. The two most notable of these are found in Philippians 2:6-11 and Colossians 1:15-20. We will begin with the famous Christ-hymn in Philippians.
The origin and authorship of Phil 2:6-11 have been much debated by New Testament scholars; this will be discussed in more detail in a concluding note on the passage as a whole. The main argument against Pauline authorship is based on vocabulary—the presence of a number of rare words and expressions which are not found elsewhere in Paul’s letters, or are used in a somewhat different way. As an example, we may note in particular certain key words which occur only in Phil 2:6-11, and nowhere else in the New Testament:
- morfh/ (“shape, form”, vv. 6-7)—elsewhere it occurs only in the ‘long ending’ of the Gospel of Mark (16:12); it is also rare in the LXX (8 occurrences). Other representatives of the morf– word-group do occur numerous times in the NT (including the Pauline letters).
- a(rpagmo/$ (“seizing, something seized”, v. 6)
- u(peruyo/w (“be high over”, v.9)—simple u(yo/w (“be high”) occurs 20 times in the NT, but only once in Paul’s letters (2 Cor 11:7)
- kataxqo/nio$ (“under the ground”, v. 10)
Such arguments on authorship, based on vocabulary, are far from decisive, especially when dealing with a relatively small data set for comparison. However, they are significant enough that they must be taken seriously. Three main views on the authorship of Phil 2:6-11 are held by commentators:
- It is a pre-Pauline hymn which Paul has adapted for use within his letter to the Philippians
- It is a Pauline composition which utilizes traditional language and terminology
- It is an original Pauline composition throughout, written as he composed the letter
Probably the first view is the one most commonly held by critical commentators today. However one judges the matter, it is of the utmost importance that the “Christ hymn” be studied within the context of its place in the letter. Because of its compelling Christological content, there has been a tendency to read the hymn out of context, as though it were intended as some kind of definitive Christological statement. The best starting point in this regard is to study carefully the wording Paul uses in verse 5, which introduces the hymn. For a brief study of the prior verses 1-4, cf. the recent article in the Monday Notes on Prayer series.
“You must have this mind-set in you, which (was) also in (the) Anointed Yeshua…”
The key word in this introductory statement is the verb frone/w, which is derived from the noun frh/n (pl. fre/ne$), a term itself of uncertain derivation, but used to refer to a person’s inner organs. As such, the noun frh/n came to be used in a figurative sense for the mind—the thought, feelings, and emotions—of a person. The related verb frone/w fundamentally meant “use the mind, think”, but could also be used in the developed sense of “be of a certain mind (or attitude)”, “have a mind-set”, etc. In the New Testament, this verb is virtually a Pauline term, as 23 of the 26 occurrences are in the Pauline letters—most notably 9 times in Romans, and 10 times here in Philippians (also 1:7; 2:2 [twice]; 3:15 [twice], 19; 4:2, 10 [twice]). The occurrences in 1:7 and 2:2 should be used to establish its meaning and significance here in v. 5.
In 1:7, Paul uses the verb to affirm his common bond with the Philippian believers. Even when he is in prison away from them, he still thinks of them, holding them firmly in his mind; this is parallel to the idiom of “holding” them “in (his) heart“. This reflects the unity of believers in Christ—a central theme of the letter. As I discuss in the aforementioned Notes on Prayer study, Paul’s exhortation to the Philippian believers is framed in terms of a prayer-request made to God (1:9ff). His prayer for the Philippians corresponds with their prayers for him (vv. 19ff)—in both instances, the prayers by believers are focused on the needs of others. Such an approach demonstrates the ideal of unity, whereby believers support each other through an attitude of humility and self-sacrifice.
Though this unity of believers occurs fundamentally through the Spirit, the goal is that it should be realized (and demonstrated) in practical terms within the local community, or congregation, as well. Paul understood the challenge of this for local congregations, and so takes great pains to encourage and exhort the Philippian congregations to work toward the goal, with a unity of mind and purpose. This is the emphasis in 2:1-4, as the strong exhortation in vv. 1-2 makes clear; note in particular how the goal is phrased in verse 2:
“…that you should have the s(ame) mind, holding the s(ame) love, like souls (united) together, having one mind.”
Paul uses the verb frone/w twice in this verse, giving special emphasis to a unity of mind and attitude, that believers should share a common way of thinking. And what is this common way of thinking? It involves a willingness to put the needs of others above one’s own self-interest (vv. 3-4). It is this attitude of self-denial and self-sacrifice which Paul has in view in verse 5—an attitude which follows the example of Jesus himself. The force of the imperative fronei=te (“you must have the mind[set]”) is comparative: this (tou=to) mind-set that you should have is that which (o%) Jesus Christ had. The comparison is established by the relative clause: “…which (was) also in (the) Anointed Yeshua” (o^ kai\ e)n Xristw=| )Ihsou=). The emphatic conjunctive particle kai/ (“and” = “also”) could also be rendered in context here as “even” – “which was even in the Anointed Yeshua” (i.e., within Jesus himself). Since believers are united with Jesus Christ (through the Spirit), it is natural that we would have the same mindset and way of thinking. However, this does not happen automatically; it requires a willingness, a receptivity, on our part, to be guided by the Spirit to live and act in a Christ-like manner. This the reason for Paul’s forceful and carefully argued exhortatory instruction, and helps us understand why he turns to the “Christ hymn” in vv. 6-11 to illustrate his argument.
In the next daily note, we will begin our study of the hymn as it begins in verse 6a.