Monday, November 16, 2015

More on Philippians 2:6

In my reading of the Bible I treat the text with great respect. With the obvious exception of parables and clearly Gnostic passages in the writings of John, I take it that the text means what it says and says what it means.  And as an atheist I have no reason to do otherwise.  I have no doctrinal position to defend. My interest is historical.  I like to get back to what the text actually says and ignore the often pagan interpretations that have been laid on it by centuries of Christian writing.

And Philippians 2:6 is one of those passages that have been much subject to interpretation -- which is why I recently tried to point out the plain and simple meaning of what was being said there.

A reader has however drawn my attention to what the theologians  and exegetes say on the subject so I thought it might be useful to comment on that.

In my initial comments, I started out with the passage as given in the KJV, which laboured under the fact that a critical Greek word -- harpagmon -- in the text was quite rare and therefore of unclear meaning. Following the precedents they had, the KJV translators rendered it as "robbery", which has caused much debate.

Ever since the Revised Standard Version came out, however, something of a consensus has emerged that harpagmon means more or less the opposite of robbery.  I quote the RSV passage:

"Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped"

So it DENIES that Christ was equal with God -- much as John 14:28 does and directly in contradiction to the borrowed pagan doctrine of the trinity.

But you can't win 'em all, so the RSV translation of the Greek "isa" (as "equal") in that text is contentious.  A word in one language often has no exact equivalent in another language but the Liddell & Scott lexicon gives "is" as the normal prefix for indicating that two things are LIKE one another.  So a straightford translation of the text that fits in with Paul's use of "morphe" in the same sentence would be:

"Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count being LIKE God a thing to be grasped"

But you can see why they did not use that translation. It once again says that Jesus was NOT God.  He was both in the "morphe" of God and "isa" God.

And "grasped" is still a bit ambigouous, which is why I originally suggested "hang on to" as the clearest and most straightforward translation.

So the in-context meaning of the text is that a godlike being became a human being -- which is, of course, the central Christian claim and in accord with the rest of the NT:  In no way a strained claim, a perfectly straightforward claim.

Paul is however vague about in exactly what way Christ was Godlike.  He spoke of Christ having the "form" ("morphe" in Greek) of God but what exactly did he mean by that?  The most common more explicit meaning of "morphe" is "shape".  But does God have a shape?  That was surely not what Paul meant.  Elsewhere in the NT, Paul is big on there being a spirit world with many inhabitants so once again context can guide us to the view that Paul was speaking of a spirit form.  And that makes perfect sense of the text: Paul was saying that a spirit being became a human being.

So, on to the theological points raised by my correspondent:

I see Paul's letter as a pastoral one -- a letter explaining things to a Christian congregation, not some fancy bit of Greek philosophy. But some commentators dispute its classification as pastoral and call it "a basic Greco-Roman 'letter of friendship'".  As Paul was a learned man in Greek thinking, that could be -- and complex interpretations of it in terms of Greek philosophy might  be justified.  But that is not what Paul actually said.  In the opening verses of the epistle, he is perfectly clear what his letter is. From the NIV:

"Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons.  Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God every time I remember you.  In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy  because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now"

There is nothing formal in that.  It is a humble greeting to the whole congregation.  And he goes on throughout the letter to give advice, which is what "pastoral" means.  So the letter is meant to be understood by the whole congregation, not just by learned men.  Interpretations of it as anything other than simple are therefore unwarranted.

Discussing what is meant by Jesus having the "form" ("morphe") of God, J.B. Lightfoot, however says:

"It remains then that morphe must apply to the attributes of the Godhead.  In other words, it is used in a sense substantially the same which it bears in Greek philosophy"

As it happens, however, I think Lightfoot's interpretation is unusual even in the context of classical Greek.  Liddell & Scott is the usual authority on classical Greek meanings and the synonyms for morphe that they give are: form, shape, figure, fashion, appearance, kind, sort.  And all of those synonyms make clear that Jesus had something in common with god. They do not allow an interpretation that Jesus WAS god.

So I can see no reason to inject Greek philosophy into an interpretation of the text.  Once the confusion caused by the mistranslation of "harpagmon" etc. is cleared away, the passage is quite straightforward.

It is however something of a wonder that, in such a short text, three Greek words can be mistranslated.  It shows how ready people have been to twist scripture to fit their doctrinal preconceptions.

Incidentally, the translation in the New English Bible is quite good. The NEB aims at elegance so the translation is a rather free one but it conveys the overall meaning well.  It reads "For the divine nature was his from the first; yet he did not think to snatch at equality with God".  Once again we see that Jesus was like God but not God.

Posted by John J. Ray (M.A.; Ph.D.).

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