“The Word Became Flesh…”: The Johannine Gospel, part 2

“And the Word became flesh…”
kai\ o( lo/go$ sa\rc e)ge/neto

There are three components to this statement in Jn 1:14a; the first of these (the noun lo/go$) was discussed in part 1. We now turn to the next two components.

2. sa/rc

The noun sa/rc (“flesh”) occurs rather more frequently in the Gospel of John (13 times) than in the Synoptics (11 times, combined); these occurrences are distributed over seven references (1:13, 14; 3:6; 6:51ff, 63; 8:15; 17:2). In addition, the noun occurs twice in 1 John (2:16; 4:2 [par 2 Jn 7]).

For the most part, in the Gospel, sa/rc is used in the context of a contrast, between that which is physical/material and that which is spiritual. However, this contrast is not defined as sharply as it is in Paul’s writings, with the fundamental ethical-religious dualism between Spirit (pneu=ma) and flesh (sa/rc)—cf. Gal 3:3; 4:29; 5:16-17ff; 6:8; Rom 8:4-9ff; Phil 3:3. Only in 1 John 2:16 do we find anything like the negative ethical connotation that Paul attaches to sa/rc. The Johannine and Pauline usage of sa/rc is, though, comparable in the way that the term stands for the natural life and existence of a human being. It connotes, in particular, the mortality of the human condition, and its limitations (in relation to God).

This concept of “flesh” is not negative, per se, in the Johannine writings. The flesh cannot give birth to what is spiritual (or born of God); but this is simply because a human being (“flesh”) can only give birth to another human being (“flesh”). Only the Divine Spirit can give birth to something that is of the Spirit. That is the point Jesus makes in 3:6, and it is also emphasized by the Gospel writer in the Prologue (1:13).

There is a bit more denigration of “the flesh” in 6:63, where, again, the contrast is with the Spirit. As Jesus puts it in this famous saying, “the Spirit is the (thing) making alive [i.e. giving life], the flesh is not useful (for) anything”. This saying comes in the context of the Bread of Life Discourse of chap. 6, and, especially, the closing verses 51-58 with their apparent eucharistic language. Jesus refers to the importance of eating his “flesh” (and drinking his “blood”), which communicates life to the one eating it (vv. 53ff). And yet, in light of v. 63, it seems clear that Jesus is not referring to his physical flesh, per se, but to his life and existence as a human being. In particular, the reference is clearly to his death, by which he gives up his own life, sacrificially, for the good of humankind.

This is in accordance with Johannine usage, whereby sa/rc refers to the life of a human being, especially in its mortality and limitations. The term, in 8:15 and 17:2, connotes the human condition more generally; and, yet, mortality and limitation is clearly being emphasized (in comparison with God). The reference in 17:2 is particularly significant in the way that humankind (“flesh”) is related to the person of Jesus (the Son), with two key points of emphasis:

    • Jesus’ authority over human beings, with the idea that certain human beings (believers) have been given to him, suggests a strong point of connection and affinity between the Son and human believers.
    • The eternal life possessed by God is not normally accessible to human beings (who are mortal); it can only be communicated to humans through the person of Jesus, which again suggests a point of contact (that would make such communication possible).

Whether or not this Johannine theological orientation applied to the (original) Logos-poem of the Gospel Prologue, it is definitely present in the full Prologue. We can see this by the way that verse 14 is juxtaposed with vv. 12-13. The rather clear implication is that the Logos “coming to be” (vb gi/nomai) a human being (“flesh”) took place so that human beings could “come to be (born)” (vb genna/w) as God’s offspring. The Gospel writer likely would have had in mind that this communication of eternal life, from the Logos/Son to human believers, could only take place because the Logos/Son had himself become a human being.

The reference in 1 John 4:2 (par 2 Jn 7) emphasizes the theological—and, I think, soteriological—importance of the Son becoming “flesh”. The author was combating Christians, (former) members of the Johannine Community, who (from his standpoint) held a false view of Jesus Christ, and thus were false believers. In two passages (2:18-27; 4:1-6), he calls these false believers “antichrists”, and provides confessional statements meant flatly to oppose their view of Jesus. In 4:2, the statement is:

“By this, you may know the Spirit of God: every spirit which confesses/acknowledges Yeshua (the) Anointed (as) having come in (the) flesh [e)n sarki/] is of God.”

The implication, clearly, is that any would-be believer, supposedly speaking from the Spirit, who does not confess/acknowledge (vb o(mologe/w) Jesus Christ as having come “in the flesh”, is not of God. Such a person speaks from another spirit—a spirit of the world that is opposed to God, a spirit of “antichrist”, a false and lying spirit. Note how this is stated in 2 John 7:

“(It is) that many who lead (people) astray [pla/noi] have gone out into the world, the (one)s not confessing/acknowledging Yeshua (the) Anointed (as) coming in (the) flesh—this [i.e. such a person] is the (one) leading (people) astray [pla/no$] and the (one) against the Anointed [a)nti/xristo$]!”

Scholars continue to debate the precise nature of the opponents’ view of Jesus, with the following three lines of interpretation being the most plausible:

    • The opponents held an early (or rudimentary) docetic view of Jesus—viz., that the Son of God only seemed to be a human being, but was neither really (or fully) so.
    • They accepted his human incarnation, but denied that the Son actually suffered and died like an ordinary mortal.
    • They accepted the reality of his human life (and death), but denied (and/or downplayed) the importance and significance of it (for salvation, etc).

I have discussed the matter at length in earlier studies (see, most recently, the discussion in the series “Spiritualism and the New Testament”), and will not repeat any of that here. The author’s emphasis on Jesus’ death (“blood”) in 5:6ff, with the expression “having come…in water and blood” seeming to qualify the earlier expression “having come in (the) flesh”, all suggests that the opponents denied, in some fashion, the reality of Jesus’ death.

In any case, the author’s polemic in 1 John provides evidence that there were early Christians—even those within the Johannine congregations—who struggled to understand and to explain the nature (and consequences) of the incarnation of Christ. It is likely that the author of 1 John, his opponents, and many of his intended readers, were all familiar with the Gospel Prologue—and especially Jn 1:14—and sought to interpret it in various ways.

In Part 3, we will examine the use of the verb gi/nomai (“come to be, become”) in the wider Johannine context. Along with this analysis, we will consider what differences or nuances of meaning there might be between the idiom of “coming to be” flesh (Jn 1:14) and “coming” in the flesh (1 Jn 4:2 par).



“The Word Became Flesh…”: The Johannine Prologue, part 3

“…and set up (his) tent among us”
kai\ e)skh/nwsen e)n h(mi=n

In considering the place of verse 14 in the Gospel Prologue, we turn now to the phrase kai\ e)skh/nwsen e)n h(mi=n (“and he set up [his] tent among us”). In part 2 of this article, I expressed my view that the three main phrases of verse 14 refer to three distinct stages in the life of Jesus (as the incarnate Logos):

    • “became flesh” —his birth, coming into existence as a human being
    • “set up his tent among us” —a summary expression for his life among other human beings, emphasizing the establishment of it
    • “we looked upon his splendor” —refers to the period of the public ministry of Jesus, his words and deeds, and the response of people (particular believers) to them.

However, some commentators would prefer to see the verbs e)ge/neto and e)skh/nwsen as parallel, in which case the verb of becoming (e)ge/neto, “he/it came to be”) would refer more generally to the life and existence of the Logos as a human being, rather than specifically to his birth. This possibility will be discussed further at a later point in our study.

As indicated by the literal translation above, the verb skhno/w, which is rooted in the word skh=no$/skhnh/ (“tent”), fundamentally means “set up [i.e. pitch] a tent”, or to dwell in such a tent. The verb occurs 4 times in the LXX, where it is used both for setting up a tent (Gen 13:12), and for dwelling/living in a tent (Judg 8:11 B). Both aspects of meaning also occur in the New Testament, in the 4 other instances where the verb is used. In Rev 7:15, we find the specific image of God spreading out His tent; however, in Rev 12:12, 13:6, and 21:3, it is the idea of dwelling (in a tent) that is emphasized. Indeed, skhno/w can be used as a term that simply means, more generally, “dwell”, without necessarily preserving the etymological component of a “tent” per se.

Here in verse 14, the general idea of “dwelling” certainly is intended, but also (I believe) the specific aspect of establishing a dwelling—that is, of “setting up” (or pitching) one’s “tent”. However, it is also likely that the particular image of a tent, preserving the etymological/root component skhnh/, is being emphasized. There are two main reasons for thinking so: (1) the reference to Moses at the end of the Prologue (a theme that runs through the entire Gospel) brings to mind the Exodus traditions and the Tent-shrine which functioned as YHWH’s ‘dwelling-place’ (/K*v=m!) during Israel’s wilderness journeys (Exod 40, etc); and (2) the likelihood that the Prologue draws upon Jewish Wisdom-tradition (cf. below) means that the verb here may be alluding to Sirach 24:8 (or a comparable reference):

“Then the Creator of all things gave me a command,
and my Creator chose the place for my tent.
He said, ‘Make your dwelling in Jacob,
and in Israel receive your inheritance.'”

In any case, the principal reference is to the Logos, having “become” flesh (i.e., a human being), beginning to dwell on earth among other humans. In this regard, verse 14 builds upon the idea(s) expressed in vv. 10-11. Before exploring this further, it is worth discussing briefly critical theory regarding the composition of the Prologue.

Many commentators view the Prologue as representing an adaptation (by the Gospel writer, or subsequent editor) of an existing hymn. Whether the Prologue, in any form, was ever used as an actual hymn may be debated; however, the poetic character of the Prologue—much of it, at least—seems relatively clear. It is best treated, both in presentation and translation, in verse form, recognizing poetic lines and units.

Scholars do, however, differ regarding the precise constitution of the original poem, its provenance, and how/when it was adapted and integrated into the Gospel. For example, Rudolf Schnackenburg, in his now-classic and highly influential commentary, proposes that the original “Logos-hymn” was comprised of vv. 1, 3-4, 9-11, 14, 16 (Vol. 1, pp. 224-9 [ET]), the other portions representing Johannine editorial additions. For a different reconstruction and analysis, see, e.g., that of U. C. von Wahlde from his commentary on the Gospel and Letters (Vol. 2, pp. 17-24).

I am inclined to accept the theory that a core “Logos-poem” was inherited and adapted by the Gospel writer. The large number of words and phrases not found elsewhere in the Gospel, or which are rare in the Johannine writings, increases the likelihood that existing material was imported. At the same time, even in the verses typically viewed as (likely) being part of the original poem—viz., vv. 1-5, 9-11, 14, 16ff—one finds Johannine vocabulary and terminology. The best explanation for both these lines of evidence would seem to be that the Gospel writer has adapted existing material. For lists of the words/phrases in the Prologue that are both foreign and common to the Gospel (and/or the Johannine writings), consult the critical commentaries, such as that of von Wahlde (Vol. 2, p. 18).

My own working hypothesis is that the Gospel writer (not a later editor/redactor) inherited existing poetic material (dealing with Jesus as the incarnation of the Word/Wisdom of God), and cast it into the distinctive Johannine theological idiom; at the same time, he also added several expository/interpretative statements that serve to integrate the material with the Gospel—both in its narrative and its theological outlook. I would identify verses 6-8, 12-13 [certainly v. 13], and 15 as Johannine expository statements.

If verse (12-)13 does indeed represent an integrative comment by the author, then the natural conclusion is that verse 14 essentially follows vv. 10-11(f) in the original (adapted) poetic material. Let us consider how these two portions relate, beginning from vv. 10-11:

“He was in the world, and the world came to be through him, and (yet) the world did not know him. He came unto (his) own (thing)s, and (yet his) own (people) did not take him along.”

In parts 1 and 2, I discussed the likelihood that the Prologue draws upon Old Testament and Jewish Wisdom traditions, including the tradition that the personified Wisdom (Heb hm*k=j*, Grk sofi/a) of God came to dwell among human beings (Prov 8:31; Sirach 24:8ff; Wisd 9:10), but could find no welcome (1 Enoch 42; cf. also Sirach 15:7; Baruch 3:12). The Enoch reference is particularly worth citing:

“Wisdom could not find a place in which she could dwell;
but a place was found (for her) in the heavens.
Then Wisdom went out to dwell with the children of the people,
but she found no dwelling place.”
(42:1-2a, translation E. Isaac, OTP)

As in the Gospel Prologue, Wisdom first has a dwelling (with God) in heaven; then she seeks a dwelling on earth among humans, but finds no place for her there. It seems highly probable that the ‘Logos-poem’ of the Prologue and 1 Enoch 42 are drawing upon a common line of tradition.

While some commentators would hold that vv. 10-11 refer specifically to the incarnate Logos (i.e., the life of Jesus), I do not believe that this is correct. The primary point of reference is the presence of the Word/Wisdom of God among human beings throughout their history. This refers to all human beings, but particularly to the people of Israel. The more general aspect of the Logos dwelling among humankind seems to be expressed in v. 10, with the phrase “he was in the world”. The use of the verb of being (imperfect tense, h@n, as in vv. 1-2, 4, 9) emphasizes again the Divine nature of the Logos—it is the Word/Wisdom of God. At the same time, being “in the world” (e)n tw=| ko/smw|), refers to the manifest presence of the Logos in creation—in the universe generally, but in/among human beings specifically.

This identification narrows further in verse 11. The idea of being among “his own” may be understood on two levels: (1) the rational aspect of human beings means that, in a sense, they are like the Logos and belong to it, having been illuminated by the light of wisdom and reason (v. 4); but also (2) it refers specifically to the people of Israel as God’s people (and thus also belonging to the Divine Logos). Verse 11 further distinguishes between “his own”, using the neuter plural of the adjective i&dio$ (“[his] own [thing]s”), and using the masculine plural (“[his] own [people]”). The Logos comes unto/into the domain of God’s people (i.e., the land of Israel and Israelite society), to be received by the people themselves. But the Logos is not received by Israel (“[his] own [people] did not take/receive him alongside”) anymore that he was received by humankind at large (“the world did not know [i.e. recognize/acknowledge] him”).

While vv. 10-11 refer primarily to the presence of the Word/Wisdom among humans (and among God’s people), in the context of the Prologue it also alludes to the presence of the incarnate Logos (Jesus) on earth. Yet, I would maintain that verse 14 is meant to introduce a new stage in the historical drama. From this standpoint, the initial kai/ of v. 14 could be translated “And so…” —that is, “And so, the Logos, (having received no welcome previously,) came to be flesh…”. There is now a difference: the Word/Wisdom of God has become a flesh-and-blood human being, and dwells (as a human being) among other humans.

The “tent” in which the incarnate Logos dwells is a temporary, not a permanent, dwelling. It is set down, and then, after a time, is pulled up. The Gospel of John is particularly aware of the temporary character of this dwelling. The true dwelling of the Logos is with God in heaven. He “stepped down” (vb katabai/nw) to earth for a time, and then “stepped up” (vb a)nabai/nw) again, back to God. The Prologue only alludes faintly to this theological perspective, in part by making use of the tent-idiom with the verb skhno/w.

In the next part (4) of this article, we will examine the next phrase in v. 14: “…and we looked upon his splendor” (kai\ e)qeasa/meqa th\n do/can au)tou=).

    • Rudolf Schnackenburg, The Gospel According to John, Volume 1 (Crossroad Publishing: 1990), translation by Kevin Smyth; original edition: Das Johannesevangelium, Part I, Herders theologischer Kommentar zum Neuen Testament IV/I (Herder: 1965).
    • Urban C. von Wahlde, The Gospel and Letters of John: Volume 2, Commentary on the Gospel of John, Eerdmans Critical Commentary (Eerdmans: 2010).
    • OTP = The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Vol. 1: Apocalyptic Literature and Testaments, edited by James H. Charlesworth, Anchor Bible Reference Library [ABRL] (1983).

June 22: 1 John 4:2-3 (9)

1 John 4:2-3, continued

In considering the opponents described by the author of 1 John (in 4:1-6), and, in particular, regarding the Christology of the opponents (addressed in vv. 2-3), the earliest interpretative information we have comes from the letters of Ignatius of Antioch. These letters likely were written not many years after 1 John. Moreover, Ignatius was writing to Christians in cities of Asia Minor (Smyrna, Philadelphia, Tralles, Magnesia), in a region centered around Ephesus. This is the same area traditionally identified as the geographical location for the Johannine churches (cf. Rev 1:4; chaps. 2-3); and many commentators would accept this identification. If correct, it raises the likelihood that the opponents with whom Ignatius is dealing (in his letters) may be related to the opponents of 1-2 John.

Before proceeding, it is worth quoting the parallel to vv. 2-3 in 2 John 7:

“(For it is) that many pla/noi (have) gone out into the world—the (one)s not giving account as one (of) [i.e. not confessing/acknowledging] Yeshua (the) Anointed (as) coming in (the) flesh—this is the pla/no$ and the (one who is) against the Anointed [a)nti/xristo$].”

The noun pla/no$ is related to the verb plana/w (1 Jn 2:26; cf. 3:7) and the noun pla/nh (4:6); it refers to a person who goes astray—or, in the causative sense, makes people go astray, i.e., leads them astray (by deceiving them, etc). Here the noun pla/no$ captures the meaning of the verb in 2:26 (cp. Mark 13:5-6 par, and in the book of Revelation, 2:20; 12:9; 13:14; 18:23; 19:20; 20:3, 8, 10); the noun pla/nh (in 4:6) refers to the same end-time dynamic—viz. of false prophets and evil spirits leading people astray (cf. 2 Thess 2:11; also 2 Pet 3:17; Jude 11). The opponents are thus characterized as end-time “false prophets” capable of leading even believers astray (2:26; cf. Matt 24:24). They do this primarily through their view (and teaching) regarding the person of Jesus Christ, a view which the author regards as false and inspired by an evil/lying spirit; they are thus said to be “against the Anointed (One)” (a)nti/xristo$), i.e. “against Christ”.

But what exactly was the opponents’ Christological error? In 4:2-3 and 2 Jn 7 it is summarized as denying (or refusing to confess) that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh (“Yeshua [the] Anointed [as] having come in [the] flesh”). But what does this mean precisely? Some light on the question may be found by Ignatius’ use of 4:2-3, and the views of the opponents whom he combats.

In his letter to the Christians of Smyrna (5:2), Ignatius seems to refer to v. 2, describing certain people who do not confess/affirm that Jesus had real human flesh: “not giving account as one [mh\ o(mologw=n] (of) him (as) bearing flesh”. The adjective sarkofo/ro$ (“flesh-bearing”) is used instead of the participial phrase “having come in the flesh”; otherwise, the use of mh/ + the verb o(mologe/w makes it all but certain that Ignatius has 1 Jn 4:2-3 and/or 2 Jn 7 in mind.

At a number of points in his letters, Ignatius is combatting what is commonly referred to as a docetic view of Jesus Christ. The term docetism derives from the Greek verb doke/w (dokéœ), meaning “think, consider,” sometimes in the semi-passive sense of how something seems or appears to be (or how a person imagines it to be). When applied in a Christological context, to the person of Jesus Christ, it refers to a belief that Christ only seemed/appeared to be a real flesh-and-blood human being (i.e., the man Jesus). As a manifestation of the Divine Son/Christ, Jesus’ humanity was essentially a visual illusion.

Ignatius addresses such a view of Jesus, treating it as a dangerous error, from the very beginning of his letter to the Smyrneans (1:1-2). He emphasizes that Christian faith has its basis in both flesh and the Spirit, affirming that Jesus was “truly” (a)lhqw=$)

    • of the genealogical line of David “according to the flesh” (kata\ sarka/, cf. Rom 1:3)
    • born of a virgin and baptized by John
    • nailed to the cross “in the flesh” (e)n sarki/)

In emphasizing the real suffering and death of Jesus, Ignatius specifically mentions certain ‘false’ believers (lit. [those] without trust, a&pistoi) who say that Jesus only seemed [vb doke/w] to suffer (2:1-2; cf. also Trallians 10:1). The specific use of term sa/rc (“flesh”) has particular significance for Ignatius, even as it does for the author of 1 John, since it represents the reality of Jesus’ existence and life (and death) as a human being. He stresses how even after the resurrection, Jesus still had tangible flesh (3:1-2; cf. the Johannine evidence, 19:34ff; 20:17, 20, 25-29; 21:10-13). Again, Ignatius warns his readers against the dangerous false believers (“wild beasts in human form”) who teach that Jesus only seemed [dokei=n] to live and act as a human being (4:1-2; 5:1f [cf. above]; Trallians 9:1-2).

There are other points of similarity between the opponents of Ignatius and those in 1 John. He also emphasizes the opponents’ lack of true love for other believers (6:1-2; 7:1). Their abstaining from the Lord’s Supper rite (6:2) is tied to their denial of Christ’s real human flesh (cf. above), but it may also be related to an exaggerated form of Johannine-style spiritualism (cf. Jn 4:23-24 and 6:63, in connection with 6:51-58). Indeed, it is quite possible that the Johannine opponents would have seen little value in the physical partaking of the Lord’s Supper rite.

Elsewhere in his letters (e.g., Ephesians 7:2; 20:1; Romans 6:1; Trallians 9-11), Ignatius emphasizes the suffering and death of Jesus; in all likelihood, he has the same opponents (referenced in Smyrneans) in mind. Their denial of Jesus’ true humanity (“flesh”), and especially the reality of his death, certainly seems, on the whole, to correspond with the opponents’ view of Jesus in 1-2 John. Writing some years later, Polycarp (bishop of Smyrna), references similar opponents (with a docetic view of Jesus) in his letter to the Christians of Philippi. In 7:1, he quotes 1 John 4:2-3 (and/or 2 Jn 7), in a slight paraphrase:

“For, every (one), who should not give account as one (of) Yeshua (the) Anointed to have come in (the) flesh, is against-the-Anointed [antichrist].”
Pa=$ ga/r o%$ a&n mh\ o(mologh=| Ihsou=n Xristo\n e)n sarki/ e)lhluqe/nai a)nti/xristo$ e)stin

Polycarp was a younger contemporary of Ignatius, and a correspondent with him (cf. Ignatius’ letter to Polycarp; Ephesians 21:1; Magnesians 15:1). On the connection between the churches of Smyrna and the collection of Ignatius’ letters, cf. Philippians 13.

According to Irenaeus, writing no more than 20 years after Polycarp’s death, Polycarp had been a disciple of John the apostle (trad. author of the Johannine Letters). In one famous anecdote (Against Heresies III.3.4), Polycarp tells of John’s encounter with Cerinthus at a bath-house in Ephesus. By the time of Irenaeus, Cerinthus was regarded as an arch-heretic, but one who held, not a docetic view of Jesus Christ, but a separationist view—viz., that the man Jesus and the Divine Christ were two separate entities, who were joined together at Jesus’ baptism and then separated again at the moment of his death (cf. Against Heresies I.26).

This is significant, because there are some commentators who identify the opponents in 1-2 John as early separationists, though this is established more readily from the Christological statement in 1 Jn 2:22-23, rather than the one in 4:2-3. In this regard, the colorful anecdote of the confrontation between John and Cerinthus has been taken as symbolic of the crisis surrounding the Johannine opponents in 1-2 John.

In the next daily note, the final one in this set, I will briefly survey the notable theories regarding the opponents, comparing together the evidence from 1 Jn 2:22-23 and 4:2-3.

June 20: 1 John 4:2-3 (7)

1 John 4:2-3, continued

Having examined verse 2 in detail, it is time now to turn to what follows in v. 3.

To begin with, there is a major text-critical issue in this verse. The Majority Text [MT] reads the verb o(mologe/w (with the negative particle), at the point indicated in bold below, while other witnesses attest the verb lu/w. Here is how the MT reads, according to the NA critical edition:

“And every spirit that does not [mh/] give account as one [o(mologei=] (of) Yeshua is not out of [e)k, i.e. from] God…”

In the MT of verse 3a, the author simply negates the confessional statement in v. 2, by use of the negative particle mh/; in other words, the person who does not confess or affirm the statement in v. 2, does not speak from the Spirit of God, but is inspired by the false/evil spirit of the world (and “Antichrist”) instead. As previously discussed, the verb o(mologe/w (“give account as one”), in context, essentially means agreeing with (and confessing publicly) the view of Jesus expressed in verse 2—viz., that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh (“Yeshua [the] Anointed [as] having come in the flesh”).

There is, however, an important minority reading that uses the verb lu/w, rather than mh/ + o(mologe/w; comparing the textual difference, we have:

    • pa=n pneu=ma o^ mh\ o(mologei= to\n Ihsou=n
      “every spirit that does not give account as one (of) Yeshua”
    • pa=n pneu=ma o^ lu/ei to\n Ihsou=n
      “every spirit that looses Yeshua”

It is important to note that mh\ o(mologei= is the reading essentially of every Greek manuscript; lu/ei is found only as a marginal reading in the minuscule MS 1739. The external (Greek) evidence is thus completely overwhelming, in favor of mh\ o(mologei=; yet a good number of commentators (e.g., Bultmann, Schnackenburg, R. E. Brown, von Wahlde) are inclined to regard lu/ei as original. How can this be?

Certain internal considerations would seem to favor lu/ei. It is the more difficult reading, and it has proven difficult to explain how lu/ei ever could have emerged as the reading, attested in the Vulgate (“solvit Iesum”) and other Old Latin MSS (ar c dem div p), and in the writings of a number of Church Fathers (cf. below), if it was not original. By contrast, mh\ o(mologei= can be explained as a harmonization with the wording in v. 2.

However, as many commentators have pointed out, the reading mh\ o(mologei= is difficult and peculiar in its own way. If the author (or a later scribe) had meant simply to negate the statement in v. 2, it would have been preferable (grammatically) to use the negative particle ou)x (rather than mh/) with the indicative verb, though the construction with mh/ is attested on occasion in the New Testament (including elsewhere in the Johannine writings—Jn 3:18; also Acts 15:29 [D]; 1 Tim 6:3; Tit 1:11; 2 Pet 1:9 [cf. Ehrman, p. 168]). Even so, it is rather unlikely that a copyist would have introduced this grammatical peculiarity, mh\ o(mologei=, rather than the reading ou)x o(mologei= (cf. ou)x w(molo/goun in Jn 12:42).

If the reading lu/ei is not original, it is nonetheless known from at least the late 2nd-century, being attested by Irenaeus (Against Heresies III.16.8), Tertullian (Against Marcion V.16.4), and Origen (Commentary on Matthew 65), and may have been known somewhat earlier by Clement of Alexandria (cf. Ehrman, pp. 128, 169, 171). Origen and Tertullian are familiar with both readings. Thus the textual change, in which ever direction it took place, must have occurred by the middle of the 2nd century (at the latest).

Let us, for the moment, consider the possibility that the reading lu/ei to\n Ihou=n is original. What would the author have meant by it? The verb lu/w means “loose(n)” (cf. Jn 1:27, in the sense of untying). When it is used in reference to another person, with the person as the object, it usually means “loose (from a bond),” i.e., “set free”, as, for example, in Jn 11:44. There are two other instances in the Gospel of John where it is used in reference to the Torah regulations, in the sense of violating (or negating) the obligatory requirement—i.e., of “loosing” the binding obligation to obey the Torah (5:18; 7:23); cp. the similar usage with regard to the Scriptures (10:35).

The verb lu/w can sometimes be used in the sense of “dissolve”, or, more generally, “destroy”. This is the meaning in the Temple-saying of Jesus (2:19), where it refers to the dissolving (i.e. destruction) of a building (lit. the “loos[en]ing” of its stones and joints):

“Loose [lu/sate] this shrine, and in three days I will raise it (up)”

In the Synoptic version of the Temple-saying, as reported during the narrative of the Sanhedrin interrogation scene (Mk 14:58 / Matt 26:61; cp. Acts 6:14), the compound verb katalu/w (“loose[n] down”, i.e. tear/bring down) is used. This usage, specifically in the Johannine Temple-saying, is significant in the way that it applies the verb lu/w to the physical (human) body of Jesus (cf. below).

The only other occurrence of lu/w in the Johannine writings—and the only certain occurrence in 1 John—is in 1 Jn 3:8, where it refers to the purpose of Jesus’ earthly life and ministry:

“Unto this [i.e. for this purpose] the Son of God was made to shine forth [e)fanerw/qh]: that he might loose [lu/sh|, i.e. dissolve/destroy] the works of the Devil.”

This context raises the possibility that the phrase lu/ei to\n Ihsou=n (“loose Yehsua”) could have a similar meaning—viz., as a kind of shorthand for “dissolve (i.e. destroy) the work of Jesus”, perhaps in the sense of negating or denying the efficacy of his mission as a human being (“come in the flesh”), including his sacrificial death.

Another possibility, along similar lines, relates to the specific use of lu/w in Jn 2:19 (cf. above), applying the verb to the ‘dissolving/destruction’ of Jesus’ physical person, his human body (“the shrine of his body,” v. 21). If the opponents in 1 John denied the incarnation of the Son, or (possibly) denied the significance of his human life (and death), then, in a sense, they could be said to “dissolve” his body.

It should be pointed out that this is not the way that the early Church Fathers seem to have understood the use of lu/w, in the context of 1 Jn 4:3. Rather, by all accounts, they interpreted it in opposition to a separationist Christology—that is, a view of Jesus Christ that separated the man Jesus from the Divine/heavenly Christ, or which separated the human Jesus from God (and the Divine realm) in other ways. This will be discussed further, as we proceed, in the next daily note.

References above marked “Ehrman” are to Bart D. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament (Oxford University Press: 1993). His discussion of 1 Jn 4:3 is found on pages 125-35.

June 17: 1 John 4:2-3 (5)

1 John 4:2-3, continued

“In this [i.e. by this] you (can) know the Spirit of God: every spirit that gives account as one (of) Yeshua (the) Anointed having come in (the) flesh is out of [i.e. from] God”

In the previous note (cf. also the note prior), I examined the emphasis in verse 2 on affirming/confessing one’s faith/trust in Jesus, focusing on the author’s use of the verb o(mologe/w (“give account as one”) and the double-name Ihsou=$ Xristo/$ (“Yeshua [the] Anointed,” Jesus Christ). As I discussed, the verb o(mologe/w implies agreement with the author’s understanding of Jesus (cf. verse 6), as reflecting the common belief of all true believers. According to the author, the opponents do not affirm this Christology, and thus show themselves to be false believers, and false prophets who speak from the evil “spirit of Antichrist,” rather than the holy Spirit of God.

To understand the nature of the Christological point of dispute, we must turn to the next two components of the statement here in v. 2.

e)n sarki\ | e)lhluqo/ta
“in (the) flesh | having come”

The position of the expression e)n sarki/ (“in [the] flesh”) allows one to read it as part of a larger expression (or concept)— “Yeshua (the) Anointed (One) in (the) flesh”. Other commentators would place the emphasis on the verbal phrase— “having come in the flesh”. Before deciding on the precise force of the phrase (as intended by the author), let us examine each component.

I begin with the expression “in (the) flesh” (e)n sarki/). The precise expression, without the definite article, occurs 16 times in the New Testament; to this must be added 7 instances where the definite article is specified (“in the flesh”), along with 7 instances of the dative sarki/ (with or without the definite article) where a preposition is implied. In all of these instances, the basic meaning or denotation is the same—viz., “in the flesh”.

In the New Testament, this expression is distinctively Pauline. Of the 30 occurrences, all but four are in the Pauline letters (including 3 times in Ephesians). The only non-Pauline occurrences are here in 1 Jn 4:2 (with the parallel in 2 Jn 7), and twice in 1 Peter (4:2, 6). The use in 1 Peter is general, referring simply to a person’s existence and life as a (mortal) human being. That is also the fundamental meaning in Paul’s letters (2 Cor 4:11; 10:3, etc), though he gives to the expression a further ethical-religious and theological significance, influenced by his distinctive use of the noun sa/rc (“flesh”)—with its decidedly negative connotation of the inclination to sin and opposition to the will of God. For the most part, the Johannine writings do not use the word in this negative (antithetical) sense, a sense which is expressed by the noun ko/smo$ (“world-order, world”) instead.

The noun sa/rc occurs 13 times in the Gospel, where it refers to human life and existence, in a general (and neutral) sense. The juxtaposition between flesh and Spirit is important (3:6; 6:63 [cf. in relation to vv. 51-56]), but the contrast is quite different from the ethical-religious contrast intended by Paul’s use of the same word-pair. In the Johannine writings the focus is spiritualistic, emphasizing the role and place of God’s Spirit for the (true) believer.

Interestingly, in the only other occurrence of sa/rc in the Letters (apart from here in 4:2 [par 2 Jn 7]), 2:16, the author approaches something like the Pauline (negative) ethical-religious use of the word. As I see it, this is the only such use of sa/rc in the Johannine writings. In 4:2 (also 2 Jn 7), the word has the more general meaning that we find in the Gospel, referring simply to the life and existence of a (mortal) human being (1:13; 3:6; 17:2; cf. also 8:15). In two places this usage is specifically applied to the person of Jesus:

    • In the Prologue (1:14), where it is stated that the Logos “came to be flesh” (sa\rc e)ge/neto)—that is, became a human being. The use of the verb of becoming (gi/nomai), like the related genna/w, is probably alluding to a human birth (cf. 3:3-8; 18:37).
    • In 6:51-58 (vv. 51-56), Jesus repeatedly uses sa/rc in reference to his death—that is, his sacrificial death as a mortal human being, presented (within the Gospel Discourse) in eucharistic language (cp. Mk 14:22-24 par). Commentators continue to debate the extent to which the word sa/rc in v. 63 relates to the usage in vv. 51ff; I have discussed the matter in prior notes and articles.

In my view, this pairing of the concepts of a human birth and death relates to the pairing of the motifs of “water” and “blood” in 5:6ff. This point will be discussed further in an upcoming note.

Thus, we can say with relative certainty that the expression “in (the) flesh” here refers to Jesus’ existence and life as a human being.

What of the verb form e)lhluqo/ta (“having come”)? It is a verbal noun (participle), in the perfect tense, and is the only such occurrence of this particular form in the New Testament. The parallel in 2 John 7 has a present participle (e)rxo/menon, “coming”); the present form is more in keeping with Johannine usage, being applied to Jesus in Jn 1:9, 15, 29-30; 3:31; 11:27 (cf. also 6:14; 12:13). The perfect tense specifically indicates a past event, the effect of which continues into the present.

As a related textual note, Codex Vaticanus (B) reads a perfect infinitive (e)lhluqe/nai, “to have come”), rather than a participle. This variant is explained as a grammatical ‘correction’ that more properly phrases the Christological point—i.e., confessing Jesus to have come in the flesh. Polycarp, in quoting 4:2 (Philippians 7:1), has the same reading. The same meaning can be expressed by the particple—viz., confessing Jesus as having coming in the flesh.

The common verb e&rxomai (“come/go”), has a special theological meaning in the Johannine writings, and functions as a distinct Johannine keyword. Of particular importance are the references to Jesus (the Son) coming to earth (from the Father), and also of his return to the Father. The noteworthy references in the Gospel are: 1:9, 11, 15; 3:31; 8:14; 9:39; 10:10ff; cf. also 4:25; 6:14; 7:27, 31, 41-42; 11:27, where the reference is to the coming of the Messiah. Jesus refers (or alludes) to his coming, using the perfect tense of e&rxomai (as here), in 3:19; 5:43; 7:28; 8:42; 12:46; 16:28; cf. also the specific references to his death and exaltation in 8:20; 12:23; 16:32; 17:1. Of particular importance is the declaration to Pilate in 18:37:

“Unto this [i.e. for this purpose] I have come to be (born) [gegennh/mai], and unto this I have come [e)lh/luqa] into the world…”

With this usage in mind, we can better determine the significance of the perfect participle of e&rxomai (here in v. 2), the present participle in 2 Jn 7, along with the aorist participle in 5:6—all of these instances carry the comparable idea of Jesus’ coming into the world (as a human being), and thus the participle has the same connotation as the expression “in (the) flesh” (on which, cf. above). In the next daily note, we will explore this point a bit further, along with a brief consideration of the final component of the statement in verse 2.

October 23: Philippians 2:8

Philippians 2:8

e)tapei/nwsen e(auto\n geno/meno$ u(ph/koo$ me/xri qana/tou
qana/tou de\ staurou=

“he lowered himself, coming to be (one who) hears under to the point of death, even (of) death at (the) stake.”

Following the interpretive difficulties of vv. 6-7, verse 8 is relatively straightforward by comparison. We must not read it in isolation, however, for it is closely bound, both conceptually and syntactically, with verse 7. This can be illustrated through the following chiastic outline (repeated here from a previous note):

    • e(auto\n e)ke/nwsen (“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”)
      • sxh/mati eu(reqei/$ w($ a&nqrwpo$ (“being found in shape as a man”)
    • e)tapei/nwsen e(auto\n… (“he lowered himself…”)

e)tapei/nwsen e(auto/n—The phrase e)tapei/nwsen e(auto/n (“he lowered himself”) is clearly parallel with e(auto\n e)ke/nwsen (“he emptied himself”), and are similar in meaning, as well as having structural significance, being the first two (of the four) primary aorist verbs which govern the hymn. The verb tapeino/w means “make/bring low, lower”, sometimes in an ethical sense connoting humbleness and humility. That is how the verb tends to be used in Jesus’ teaching, in the context of a dualistic contrast with the verb u(yo/w (“make high”). Believers are to make themselves low, in meekness and humility, and through a willingness to sacrifice oneself in service to others (cf. the core saying par. in Matt 23:12; Lk 14:11; 18:14; also Matt 18:4, and note James 4:10). Paul’s uses the verb in a similar manner (2 Cor 11:7; 12:21; Phil 4:12).

While the same sort of context prevails in chapter 2 of Philippians (cf. the earlier note on 2:1-4), the specific use of tapeino/w here in the hymn has a deeper Christological meaning as well. It refers, not just to the example of Jesus’ humility and self-sacrifice, in a practical sense, but to its supreme manifestation in his becoming a human being (i.e., the incarnation). Jesus not only “emptied himself”,willing to give up his exalted position alongside God in heaven, and become a human being, he also “lowered himself” still further, going even beyond the lowly position of a human slave.

geno/meno$ (“coming to be”)—this same aorist participle (of the verb gi/nomai, “come to be, become”) was used in v. 7c, and, indeed, functions the same way in relation to the phrase “he lowered himself” as the participial phrases in v. 7 (in relation to “he emptied himself”). The remainder of v. 8 describes what it means for Jesus to “lower himself”, just as the phrases in v. 7 explain what his “emptying” entailed.

u(ph/koo$ (“hearing under”)—this predicate adjective, used here in a substantive manner (i.e. characterizing a person who is u(ph/koo$), should be considered in light of the parallelism with v. 7c:

    • “coming to be in (the) likeness of men” (e)n o(moiw/mati a)nqrw/pwn geno/meno$)
    • “coming to be (one who) hears under…” (geno/meno$ u(ph/koo$)

The phrase in v. 7c is also subordinate to that of v. 7b, and so “coming to be in the likeness of men” must be understood in relation to the idea of “taking the form of a slave“. This helps to explain the important aspect of Jesus’ humanity expressed in v. 8. A slave is one who “hears under” (i.e., following the commands, etc, of) the authority of a superior; God, of course, is the superior of all, but Jesus willingly submitted (like a slave) to human authorities as well, sinful and wicked though they may be. The adjective u(ph/koo$ is derived from the verb u(pakou/w (“hear under”), and generally refers to one who listens obediently, in submission, to a figure in authority. The sort of submission described here is elsewhere expressed vividly in the Gospel tradition—most notably, in the three Synoptic predictions by Jesus of his Passion (Mark 8:31; 9:30-32; 10:32-34), and in the Passion Narrative itself. The Jewish and Roman authorities equally play a central role in the suffering and death of Jesus. He submits to them, in meekness and humility, scarcely saying a word in his defense (in the Synoptic narrative, at least), effectively fulfilling the prophecy of Isa 53:7-8 (cf. Acts 8:28-35).

me/xri qana/tou (“to the point of death”)—The adverb me/xri (used as a preposition) indicates the point of termination for a time (or place), i.e. “up to the point of, until”. The common noun qana/to$ (“death”) is in the genitive case here, governed by the preposition me/xri. Jesus submitted to the wicked human authorities, no less than to God Himself, as part of his self-sacrificial, redemptive mission on earth. Such submission meant his death, which signifies a position even lower than that of a slave. A slave may possess only limited rights or freedom, but he/she can still live in some measure of comfort and security, under the authority of others. While for an oppressed slave, death can, at times, be seen as a kind of freedom, most slaves still value life, and would seek to avoid the threat of death.

qana/tou de\ staurou= (“even of death of [the] stake”)—This qualifying phrase shares the same governing preposition me/xri, i.e. “even to the point of death at the stake”. The conjunctive particle de/ (“but, and”) is used in a continuative (and emphatic) sense—i.e., even to death at the stake. Any death might be feared, but death by crucifixion in ancient times (and as practiced by the Romans) was especially horrific. It tended to be reserved for the worst criminals, and for members of the lower classes (slaves, etc) as a punishment for treason and other high crimes. Jesus’ death by crucifixion is well-established in the Gospel tradition, though depicted with relatively little detail in the narrative (even the gruesome scourging prior to hanging is barely mentioned). It was an especially painful and humiliating manner of death, and one which created tremendous obstacles for early Christians in their attempts to convince fellow Jews, especially, that Jesus was the promised Messiah. Paul fully understood the weight of this apparent contradiction (Gal 3:10-14, etc), and yet embraced the fact of Jesus’ crucifixion (“the cross”) as a central part of the Gospel message (1 Cor 1:17-18; Gal 5:11; 6:14; Col 1:20; 2:14).

The noun stauro/$ literally means “stake, post, pole”, set upright in the ground, and which could be used then for various forms of punishment, etc. It is usually translated “cross” in the New Testament and other early Christian writings; but, while “cross” captures the idea of crucifixion (with the cross-piece for supporting the arms of the victim), it is inaccurate as a translation of stauro/$.

In the next daily note, we will summarize the results of our study on vv. 6-8, before moving on to examine verse 9 and the second half of the hymn.

October 22: Philippians 2:7d

Philippians 2:7d

kai\ sxh/mati eu(reqei\$ w($ a&nqrwpo$
“and in sxh=ma being found as a man”

This is the third of the three participial phrases, containing aorist participles, subordinate to the main aorist verb in 7a (e)ke/nwsen, “he emptied [himself]”); each successive phrase serves to describe and explain what it means that Jesus “emptied himself”:

    • “taking [labw/n] (the) form [morfh/] of a slave” (7b, note)
    • “coming to be [geno/meno$] in (the) likeness [o(moi/wma] of men” (7c, note)
    • “being found [eu(reqei/$] in sxh=ma as a man” (7d)

The predicate (object) for each participial phrase involves a noun referring to the outward, visible appearance of something—morfh/, o(moi/wma, sxh=ma. The first two terms were discussed in the preceding notes; the latter (sxh=ma) will be studied today. Following the approach taking thus far in these notes, each word in the phrase will be considered in turn.

kai/ (“and”)—the force of the conjunction here serves to pivot between the third and fourth phrases, leading (syntactically) to the main clause of verse 8, and joining with it. In English punctuation, we would probably indicate this with a semicolon:

“but he emptied himself, taking (the) form of a slave, coming to be in (the) likeness of men; and, being found in sxh=ma as a man, he lowered himself…”

On the chiastic structure of this portion of the hymn, cf. my outline in the previous note.

sxh/mati—a dative form, equivalent to the prepositional phrase e)n sxh/mati (cp. e)n o(moiw/mati in v. 7c), i.e., “in sxh=ma.” I have left the noun untranslated above to avoid prejudicing the analysis; it also happens to be a word that is difficult to render with precision in English. The noun sxh=ma is ultimately derived from the verb e&xw (“hold”) and its irregular future form sxh/sw, and thus fundamentally refers to the way that something “holds (together)”, specifically, in its (outward) shape or appearance. A suitable English approximation to the noun might be “bearing”, though this still only captures a portion of the semantic range; it is variously translated as “form, shape, figure, fashion, constitution,” etc.

To gain a proper understanding of its meaning and significance here, we would naturally turn to occurrences of sxh=ma elsewhere in the New Testament; unfortunately, there is only one other occurrence (also by Paul, in 1 Cor 7:31, discussed below). It is equally rare in the LXX (just once, Isa 3:17), and thus occurs just 3 times in the entirety of the Greek Scriptures. It is more common in the contemporary Jewish authors Josephus and Philo of Alexandria, who each make varied use of the term in their writings. For Philo, it generally refers to the forms of things as they are perceived by the senses, and then understood by the intellect in their essential character.

Paul’s use of the term in 1 Cor 7:31 is of the utmost importance for our study, regardless of one’s view regarding the Pauline composition of the hymn itself. The word occurs toward the end of his long discussion on marriage (and marital relations) in chapter 7. An important point of emphasis, running through the discussion, is that, it is best if believers remain as they are currently; if already married, to stay married, even if joined with a non-believer; and, if single, to stay single, unless one is unable to do so safely (i.e. chastely). Paul offers several reasons for this, one of which is eschatological—the point he makes here in vv. 29-31, that all things in the present Age are “standing together” at this moment, and the current order of things (in this Age) is in the process of passing away. Here is the exact wording in verse 31:

“for the sxh=ma of this word-order [ko/smo$] leads (the way) along [i.e. passes along]”

The noun sxh=ma applies to the entire ‘order of things’ (world-order) in the present Age; in English idiom, we might say “the shape of things”, i.e., the way things are (and appear) right now. Most human beings live, act, and think in accordance with the way things seem to be in the world, valuing and responding to the outward appearance of things; only believers in Christ are aware of a deeper reality, the promise of a New Age, manifest now only through the presence and activity of the Spirit. Thus, we are to live according to the Spirit, and not according to the form and fashion of the current world-order.

If we now examine the use of sxh=ma in Phil 2:7, in light of the above analysis, we would have to posit two main points of significance:

    • In every aspect of his appearance—including how he lived and conducted himself—Jesus was a human being (a&nqrwpo$)
    • It also refers to a ‘mode of being’, living and acting in the world (of human beings), according to the standards and patterns of the current Age (i.e., eating, drinking, sleeping, working, socializing, etc)

In other words, if we were to see Jesus (objectively) during his life on earth, in his appearance and ordinary behavior, he would look more or less like any other human being. This is what is mean by the last expression w($ a&nqrwpo$ (“as a man”).

As mentioned in the previous note, this emphasis on the outward, visible appearance—reinforced by the trio of terms, morfh/, o(moi/wma, and sxh=ma—could easily be interpreted in a docetic sense. In other words, Jesus was not truly a human being, but only looked like one, merely appearing to be human. However, I see no evidence in the hymn, when judged in its mid-first century context, for anything like the Docetism of the 2nd-century; nor does the hymn serve as an apologetic against such a view of Jesus. How, then, should we understand these terms in context?

First, we must keep in mind the basic significance of the noun morfh/, used in the parallel, contrastive expressions “form of God” (v. 6a) and “form of a slave” (v. 7a). In the prior notes, I have argued that the main point of contrast is one of status and position—i.e., between the exalted position of God in heaven and the lowly position of human beings on earth. The morfh/ is the visible distinction between God and man—the traditional splendor (glory/honor) that surrounds God in visions and theophanies vs. the limitation, weakness, and suffering of the mortal condition. Jesus “took on” (vb lamba/nw) this mortal condition, with its weakness, when he united with humankind (“came to be”, vb gi/nomai), to the point of being born as a human child (implied in the hymn, cp. the use of gi/nomai in Gal 4:4; Rom 1:3). When other people saw him during his earthly life, he “was found” (vb eu(ri/skw, passive), i.e., he appeared, to be just like any other human being (“as a man”, w($ a&nqrwpo$).

Second, there is a definite progression in the lines of vv. 7-8 which needs to be recognized:

    • “he emptied himself” —willingness to give up his exalted (highest) position with God in heaven
    • “taking the form of a slave” —taking on the lowly (lowest) position of humankind on earth
    • “coming to be in the likeness of men” —union/participation with the human condition, implying an actual birth as a human being
    • “being found in form/shape/bearing as a man” —his earthly life, among other human beings
    • “he lowered himself” —suffering and death, and his willingness to endure it

The trio of terms ultimately serve, simply, to refer to Jesus’ earthly life (and death) as a human being.

Finally, these terms can also be seen as part of an early attempt to express what we might call the ‘mystery of the incarnation’. Jesus was a human being—just like all others (in appearance), but different from all others in his unique relationship to God the Father (and in his identity as Messiah and Son of God). This uniqueness was originally understood (almost entirely) in terms of the resurrection, through which Jesus was exalted to a position at the right hand of God the Father in heaven. Eventually, however, believers came to the recognition that Jesus must have held this position (as Son of God) even prior to his earthly life (i.e. the pre-existence Christology expressed in vv. 6ff of the hymn). At the time the hymn was composed, Christians were only just beginning to explore what this divine pre-existence meant in terms of Jesus’ earthly life. We cannot expect to find in the hymn a systematic and fully developed Christological statement that dealt with all of the implications of this belief. We can, though, glimpse a powerful Christology taking shape—in some ways, all the more vibrant and compelling for its expression within the limitations of this poetic and hymnic form.

October 21: Philippians 2:7c

Philippians 2:7c

The remaining two phrases of verse 7 build upon the second (discussed in the previous note, on v. 7b), further describing what it means to say that Jesus “emptied himself” (7a). All three descriptive phrases that follow are participial phrases, clarifying and explaining the aorist indicative e)ke/nwsen (“he emptied”). Correspondingly, they are aorist participles, a verbal form that is a bit difficult to translate exactly in English; however, the main point is that the participles are subordinate to the main aorist verb e)ke/nwsen:

    • e)ke/nwsen (“he emptied”)
      • labw/n (“taking…”, active)
      • geno/meno$ (“coming to be…”, middle)
      • eu(reqei/$ (“being found…”, passive)

It is possible that the shift from active to passive could itself be meant to illustrate the “emptying”, in grammatical terms. Such an illustrative structure is made more likely when we consider how the phrases in v. 7cd serve to pivot the syntax (and thought) of the hymn to the next aorist verb, in the main clause of verse 8 (e)tapei/nwsen, “he lowered”). This verbal expression (e)tapei/wsen e(auto/n, “he lowered himself”) forms a precise parallel with e(auto\n e)ke/nwsen in v. 7a. The parallelism is carefully constructed within the poetry of these lines, as the following chiastic outline demonstrates:

    • e(auto\n e)ke/nwsen (“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”)
      • sxh/mati eu(reqei/$ w($ a&nqrwpo$ (“being found in shape as a man”)
    • e)tapei/nwsen e(auto\n… (“he lowered himself…”)

There is thus a beautiful symmetry in this portion of the hymn which is easily lost or obscured in translation.

In the previous note, I pointed out that the contrast being established was not between “God” and “man” per se, nor between the divine and human “nature” as such; rather, it is primarily a question of status and position—between the exalted position of God in heaven and the lowly status of a human slave. The contrasting expression is “form of a slave” (morfh\ dou/lou), not “form of a man” (morfh\ anqrw/pou). However, the word a&nqrwpo$ (“man, human [being]”) does feature in the last two phrases of the verse, making it clear that we are dealing with a human slave, and of Jesus’ status as a human being. We begin here with the phrase in 7c:

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

The key element, however, is not the noun a&nqrwpo$, but the prepositional expression e)n o(moiw/mati. The noun o(moi/wma is derived from the verb o(moio/w, “to be like (one), be the same”, i.e., “be (or make) similar, resemble”. It thus refers to the likeness or similarity of one thing (or person) to another. Much like the noun morfh/ (“[visible] form, shape”, vv. 6-7), o(moi/wma is rare in the New Testament, occurring just 6 times; four of the other five occurrences are also by Paul (in Romans, 1:23; 5:14; 6:5; 8:3), cf. also Rev 9:7. It is somewhat more common in the LXX (41 times, Exod 20:4; Deut 4:12, 15-16, et al). In Rom 1:23 and 5:14, as also in Rev 9:7, the word is clearly used in reference to the image of something, rather than of the thing itself. Based on this usage, the phrase here could be taken to mean that Jesus did not truly become a human being, but only resembled one. This will be discussed further below.

Romans 6:5 and 8:3 provide a closer contextual parallel to the use of o(moi/wma here in Phil 2:7. First, let us consider Rom 6:5:

“For if we have come to be [gego/namen] (one)s planted together in the likeness [tw=| o(moiw/mati] of his death, then also shall we be (in the likeness) of (his) standing up (out of the dead) [i.e. resurrection]”

We have here the same combination of the verb of becoming (gi/nomai) and the dative (prepositional) expression [e)n tw=|] o(moiw/mati. While the ‘death’ and ‘rising’ of believers is not exactly the same as Jesus’ own, we are united with it in such a way that, through the Spirit, we share in its very power and essential reality. Thus, in this instance, o(moi/wma signifies something more than a mere “image” or “likeness”. Romans 8:3 is even more to the point, as it refers to Jesus as a human being, just as here in the hymn:

“…God (did), sending his own Son in (the) likeness [e)n o(moiw/mati] of flesh of sin [i.e. sinful flesh], and, about sin, brought down judgment on sin in the flesh”

The similar wording in Gal 4:4f makes clear that Paul understood God’s “sending” of Jesus to entail his birth as a human being. The verb gi/nomai (“come to be”) sometimes can mean specifically “come to be born,” though this is better expressed through the related verb genna/w; it has such a connotation in Gal 4:4, as also in Rom 1:3, referring to the real (physical/biological) birth of Jesus as a human being. Thus, it is very possible that a human birth is implied here in v. 7c as well, though, on the whole, a better parallel is found in Rom 6:5, where the motif is one of a transforming, participatory union, rather than coming to be born.

The use of the noun o(moi/wma in our phrase could easily be understood in a docetic sense—that Jesus did not truly become a human being, but only seemed to be one in appearance. Our interpretation might further point in that direction when we consider how Paul uses the term in Rom 8:3, where he seems to indicate that Jesus did not come to be a human being in every respect—that is, not in the sinfulness of humankind, its bondage under the power of sin (cp. 2 Cor 5:21). Jesus only resembled sinful human beings (in their sinfulness); by extension, could not the same usage apply in Phil 2:7—viz., that Jesus only resembled human beings?

From an orthodox Christological standpoint, such a view is referred to as Docetism. There is little evidence of docetic tendencies in the New Testament itself, and it is unlikely that a docetic view of Jesus’ humanity could have become widespread among believers until the end of the first century, after a pre-existence Christology had been developed and firmly established. The hymn in Phil 2:6-11 is an early example of pre-existence Christology (c. 60 A.D.), and was not intended to support the weight of later (orthodox) Christological concerns. It certainly is no witness to 2nd century docetic Christology, nor does it serve as an apologetic against such a view of Christ. We must read and study the hymn in its mid-1st century context.

How, then, are we to understand this pointed emphasis on outward, visible appearance, when it comes to Jesus’ humanity, with the use of terms such as morfh/ (“[visible] form, shape”), o(moi/wma (“likeness”) and sxh=ma (“bearing, shape, form, appearance”)? This will be examined further in the next daily note (on v. 7d).

October 20: Philippians 2:7b

Philippians 2:7b

Our analysis on the first phrase of verse 7 (cf. the previous note on 7a), a)lla\ e(auto\n e)ke/nwsen (“but he emptied himself”), can be summarized with the following two points:

    • The adversative particle a)lla/ (“but”), and the main point of contrast, relates primarily to the phrase a(rpagmo\n h)gh/sato (cf. the discussion below)
    • The figurative use of the verb keno/w (“[make] empty”), in common with the other 5 NT occurrences of the verb (all by Paul), is applied here to a person (Jesus); it should be understood in the sense of make him(self) to be of no significance or importance.

The following phrases in the verse are subordinate and explanatory, beginning with v. 7b:

morfh\n dou/lou labw/n
“taking (the) form of a slave”

That is to say, this phrase explains what it means that Jesus “emptied himself”, and indicates what this “emptying” entailed. Our analysis again will look at each word in detail.

morfh\n (“form, shape”)—the noun morfh/ in the accusative (object of the following participle labw/n). The same noun was used in verse 6a, and the expression morfh\ dou/lou (“form of a slave”) is clearly intended as parallel with morfh\ qeou/ (“form of God”). The noun was discussed in detail in the prior note (on v. 6a). The two instances of the noun here in vv. 6-7 are the only occurrences in the New Testament (apart from the ‘long ending’ of Mark [16:12]), and it is equally rare in the LXX (occurring just 8 times). A related verbal noun mo/rfwsi$ is also rare (Rom 2:20; 2 Tim 3:5), along with the verb morfo/w (only in Gal 4:19); neither word is used in the LXX. The fundamental meaning of the morf– word-group is that of the (external) form or shape of something—often specifically of human beings or animals, but it could apply to any object or feature of the visible world. It is important to keep in mind that the emphasis is on the visible form or appearance of something.

doulou/ (“of a slave”)—The noun dou=lo$ refers to a slave; related is the corresponding feminine noun dou/lh (for a female slave), the more abstract noun doulai/a (“slavery”), adjective dou=lo$ (“enslaved, [act]ing as a slave”), and verb douleu/w (“be a slave”). It is a common noun, occurring 126 times in the New Testament, including frequently in the Pauline letters. Paul sometimes uses it in reference to people who are actually slaves (in Greco-Roman society), but just as often it is used figuratively or metaphorically, either in a negative (e.g., human beings enslaved to the power of sin) or positive sense (e.g., believers bound in service to God). Of particular importance is the idiom of believers (esp. ministers of the Gospel) as “slaves” (dou=loi) of God and Christ (Rom 1:1; Phil 1:1, etc).

How should the word be understood here? We must bear in mind, first, that the expression “form of a slave” is set as a contrastive parallel with “form of God” in v. 6, with “slave” (dou=lo$) forming a precise contrast to God. As a contrast, this can be taken two ways:

    • By “slave” is meant primarily a human being, in contrast with God
    • The term signifies a lowly status and position, contrasted with the exalted status/position of God (in heaven)

If the former were intended, we would perhaps expect the parallel to be with “form of a man” (morfh\ a)nqrw/pou), rather than “form of a slave”. The noun a&nqrwpo$ does occur in the final two phrases of v. 7 (to be discuseed), making it clear that we are dealing with a human slave; however, this does not change the fact that the wording carefully avoids making a precise contrast between deity (God) and humanity (man) per se. The further terminology (in vv. 8ff), of “making low” and “making high,” strongly suggests that the point of the contrast here is one of status and position. God in heaven has the highest, most exalted position, while a human slave has one of the lowest.

Given the early Christian usage of the noun dou=lo$ to refer to believers (esp. ministers) as “slaves” of God and Christ (cf. above), is it possible that the term is meant to indicate Jesus’ position as a slave (or servant) of God? Some commentators have thought so, even suggesting that the Isaian “Servant of the Lord” motif is in view, by way of the “Servant Songs” of (Deutero-) Isaiah (esp. 52:13-53:12). There is no doubt that Jesus, as the Anointed One (Messiah), in his earthly life and ministry, and all the more in his sacrificial death, was seen by early Christians as fulfilling these Isaian Servant Songs (Acts 8:30-35, etc). Moreover, there does seem to be a certain similarity of theme between, for example, Isa 52:13-53:12 and our hymn. However, an emphasis on Jesus as the “slave of God” here, in my view, defeats the force of the contrastive parallel. The point is that Jesus went from the highest position to the lowest, which is symbolized by the motif of a human slave, a person with limited rights and freedoms, dependent entirely on the power and control of one’s human master(s), which could (at times) be harsh and cruel.

labw/n (“taking”)—an aorist active participle of the common verb lamba/nw (“take, receive”). It is clearly epexegetical to the main aorist verb e)ke/nwsen (“he emptied”); the only real interpretive question is whether the participle should be understood as a consequence of Jesus’ “emptying”, or characteristic of it. In other words, does his “taking the form of a slave” describe the emptying, or is it the result of a prior action? I believe the participles of v. 7 are best understood as descriptive—i.e., what Jesus’ “emptying” of himself entailed. It was an action, not of seizing/holding to an exalted heavenly/divine status (v. 6), but of taking on a lower and humbling status instead. This will be discussed further in the next note.

This may be an appropriate time to consider again the three lines of interpretation I put forth for understanding the term a(rpagmo/$ (“seizing, [something] seized”) in v. 6b (cf. the earlier note):

    • Though Jesus had an exalted position alongside God, he was not equal to God in all respects; he might have been inclined to seek this greater status, this equality, but he chose not to grasp after it. Some commentators see here a contrastive parallel between Jesus and Adam, who was tempted by the promise of becoming just like God.
    • Jesus did possess this equality with God, but not as something which one grasps hold of in an ambitious way, or to protect one’s position; he was willing to let go any attachment to his divine status for the sake of his redemptive mission on earth.
    • The exalted position of Jesus alongside God, by which he shares equal rule with the Father, is not characterized by a grasping after power, such as ambitious human rulers do; rather, it is characterized by a willingness to sacrifice oneself for the good of those over whom one rules.

The analysis above suggests that the second view is closest to what is being expressed in the hymn—viz., a willingness by Jesus to give up his exalted divine position (equal to God) and take on the low position of human “slave”. At the same time, the contrast between God and “slave” suggests the natural contrast between the slave and a lord or master (i.e. ruler). This, indeed, would frame the contrast even more sharply: ruler with God in heaven vs. lowly slave among human beings on earth. Thus, I believe, there is also an implicit emphasis in the hymn on Jesus’ willingness to abandon his ruling position for the sake of his redemptive mission on earth. The idea, common to many strands of developed orthodox Christology, that Jesus became a human slave while still maintaining his ruling position in heaven, is foreign to the hymn and should not be read into it. Indeed, I would assert that such a Christological interpretation, while legitimate in its attempt to balance the full weight of the theological implications brought about by the New Testament witness, actually contradicts (and defeats) the thematic structure and thought of the hymn itself. This will be discussed further in the upcoming notes.

“…Spirit and Life”: 1 John 5:6-8

1 John 5:6-8

The two central themes of 1 John—trust in Jesus and love of believer for one another—are brought together again at the start of chapter 5. Just as they represented the two aspects of the two-fold command, or duty, for the believer in Christ, so here they define one’s Christian identity—as a son/child of God, one who has come to be born of God. This is stated clearly in verse 1:

“Every (one) trusting that Yeshua is the Anointed (One) has come to be (born) out of God, and every (one) loving the (One) causing (one) to be (born) [also] loves the (one) having come to be (born) out of Him.”

The articular perfect participle o( gegennhme/no$ (“the [one] having coming to be [born]”) serves as a title for believers in the Johannine letters. Apart, it would seem, from the second occurrence in 5:18, the verb genna/w in 1 John always is used of believers, referring to our spiritual birth “out of God” (e)k tou= qeou=)—cf. 2:29; 3:9 (twice); 4:7; 5:4, 18; also Jn 1:13; 3:3-8. It is always used in the passive, i.e. the so-called “divine passive”, where God (and the Spirit of God) is the implied subject; only in the second occurrence here in verse 1 is God indicated as the active subject.

Love is the aspect emphasized in vv. 2-3, while faith/trust in Jesus is given emphasis in vv. 4ff. Indeed, in verses 4-5 it is stated that our trust in Jesus is that which gives us victory over the world:

“(For it is) that every (one) having coming to be (born) out of God is victorious [nika=|] (over) the world; and this is the victory [nikh/] th(at) gives victory [nikh/sasa] (over) the world—our trust. [And] who is the (one com)ing to be victorious (over) the world, if not the (one) trusting that Yeshua is the Son of God.”

In the Johannine writings the word ko/smo$ refers, according to the fundamental meaning of the word, to the current world order—i.e. the arrangement of things as they have come to be for created (spec. human) beings, governed and dominated by sin and darkness. In John 16:33, the closing words of the Last Discourse proper, Jesus declares “I have been victorous [neni/khka] (over) the world!” Presumably it is the completion of Jesus’ mission on earth—the e)ntolh/ given to him by the Father—culminating in his sacrificial death (cf. 19:30) which is in view. This same duty or “command” (e)ntolh/) is expressed for the believer in terms of trust in Jesus and love for fellow believers, as we have seen. The word e)ntolh/ appears again here in verse 3, connected specifically with the duty to love, but it would apply just as well to the trust that is emphasized in vv. 4ff. Just as Jesus was victorious over the world, so, too, are we through our trust in him.

This “trust” (pi/sti$) is not left unqualified. For the author of the letter, true trust or “faith” in Jesus means something definite—a specific recognition (and confession) of Jesus’ identity as the Anointed One (Christ/Messiah) and Son of God. Of particular interest for the author is the Christological belief that Jesus was the Anointed One and Son of God who came to earth in the flesh (e)n sarki/). This is the test given in 4:2-3, and any message which denies, or is unwilling to admit, this about Jesus, is “against the Anointed” (a)nti/xristo$, i.e. “antichrist”). From the context, we may fairly assume that such a Christological view characterized those who separated from the Johannine congregations. It may also explain why the author begins the letter as he does (in 1:1), emphasizing the (concrete) hearing, seeing and touching of Jesus. Such a view (denying Jesus’ coming “in the flesh”) would seem to reflect some early kind of “docetic” Christology—i.e., that Jesus was not a true flesh-and-blood human being (in the ordinary sense), but only seemed to be so. It must be admitted, as many commentators have noted, that it would not be difficult for such a Christological outlook to develop from the Gospel of John itself with its “high” Christology. By comparison with the Synoptic Gospels, and other early strands of Gospel tradition, the portrait of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel gives relatively less emphasis on certain aspects of Jesus’ human nature—i.e. his experience as a true human being.

It is particularly in regard to Jesus’ experience of human suffering that the Gospel of John differs considerably from the Synoptics. Consider that:

    • There is no institution of the “Lord’s Supper” in the Last Supper scene; as a result, the breaking of his body and shedding of his blood is not emphasized (or even mentioned) in chapters 13-17. By contrast, earlier references to Jesus’ upcoming death stress his (divine) authority in laying down his life, and taking it up again (cf. 10:17-18, etc).
    • In the Garden scene (18:1-11f), there is no account of any suffering by Jesus such as we see in Mk 14:34-39 par; [Lk 22:43-44] (but note Jn 12:27). By contrast, Jesus is depicted as being fully in control of events, speaking with such authority to his captors that they fall to the ground (v. 5-8).
    • Similarly, Jesus speaks with divine authority to Pilate (18:33-38; 19:9-11), while in the Synoptics he says virtually nothing.
    • There is no “cry of dereliction” by Jesus on the cross, nor any loud cry at the moment of his death; nor is there any account of people standing by mocking him. By contrast, Jesus is surrounded by his mother and close disciples, and appears to speak calmly, depicted as being in control of events, even at the very moment of his death (19:25-30).

Clearly, the Gospel writer has a very different side of the story he is telling, one which, while drawing upon many of the same fundamental historical traditions as the Synoptics, is presented in different manner, with themes and points of emphasis unique to the Johannine Tradition. One especially important tradition—that of the blood and water emerging out of Jesus side (19:31-37, vv. 34, 37)—would seem to relate in some way to 1 John 5:6-8. Here is how this passage begins:

“This is the (one) coming through water and blood—Yeshua (the) Anointed—not in the water only, but in the water and the blood; and the Spirit is the (one) giving witness (to this), (in) that [i.e. because] the Spirit is the Truth.” (v. 6)

The initial (emphatic) pronoun (“this”, ou!to$) picks up from the end of verse 5, and refers to Jesus, the Son of God (“…that Yeshua is the Son of God”); the same identification is specified parethetically in v. 6, thus combining the two titles marking Jesus’ identity:

    • “Yeshua…the Son of God
    • “Yeshua the Anointed (One)

As in the case of the declaration in 4:2-3, it is not enough to trust/proclaim Jesus by these titles, but also to recognize (and confess) that Jesus came “through water and blood”. This phrase, and the statement in v. 6a, has long perplexed commentators—how exactly should this phrase be understood, and what, indeed, does it mean? The first clue lies in the obvious parallel with 4:2-3; note the specific belief regarding Jesus which was the point of contention between the author and the “antichrists”:

    • Jesus…has come in the flesh [e)n sarki/] (4:2)
    • Jesus…is the one (hav)ing come through water and blood [di’ u%dato$ kai\ ai%mato$] (5:6)

While the preposition dia/ (“through”) is different, that it may be understood as synonymous with e)n (“in”) is clear from the phrasing which follows: “in water and blood” (e)n tw=| u%dati kai\ tw=| ai%mati). Thus the parallel is even more precise:

    • in the flesh
    • in water and blood

In other words, to say that Jesus came “in water and blood” is generally the same as saying that he came “in the flesh”. At the same time, the phrase in 5:6 also appears to build on that in 4:2, indicating a development of thought. If “in the flesh” indicates that Jesus was born as a real flesh-and-blood human being, taking on the human condition, then the expression “water and blood” must relate to this in some way. This will be the focus of the discussion in the next note.