Search the Site


Is Phillipians 2 a Hymn to Christ?

Philippians 2:6-11 is a tale of metamorphosis composed by Paul to highlight Christ’s exemplary humility and obedience.

Colin McCahon
Many scholars believe that in Phil 2:6-11 Paul quotes an early Christian hymn describing Christ’s incarnation and subsequent exaltation [as Lord].

Was Philippians 2:6-11 an early Christian hymn?

Scholars who interpret Phil 2:6-11 as an early Christian hymn point out that it contains a rich vocabulary, a number of poetic elements (e.g., parallelism, paradox, climax), and that, with only one or two small changes, it can stand alone as an independent composition. They also note that, although it speaks of Christ’s death and exaltation, it fails to mention his resurrection, a central theme in Paul’s letters (e.g., Rom 6:1-11; 1Cor 15:3-4), suggesting that Paul did not compose it.

These are not insignificant observations, but they have not convinced everyone. In fact, a recent trend has been to argue along traditional lines that Paul wrote this “hymn” himself and that he did so precisely for his letter to the Philippians. In favor of this view is the fact that there are other passages in Paul’s letters, such as his famous ode to love in 1Cor 13, that display similar poetic features and a similarly rich vocabulary. And while it is true that Phil 2:6-11 is a distinct unit, it is also true that it contains a number of verbal ties to its context, such as the reference to humility in Phil 2:8a echoing Phil 2:3, and to obedience in Phil 2:8b anticipating Phil 2:12.

What is Philippians 2:6-11 about?

But if Phil 2:6-11 was written by Paul and thus presumably tells his version of the Christ story, why does it make no reference to Christ’s resurrection? Part of the perceived problem here is the assumption that Paul told only one version of Christ’s story. It is true that Paul frequently plotted Christ’s story around the motifs of death and resurrection, a scheme he most likely inherited from Jewish martyr stories such as 2Macc 7. But Paul also imagined Christ’s story along “incarnational” lines, beginning with Christ’s heavenly origins (compare Rom 8:3), which is clearly the plot line in Phil 2:6-11. This latter scheme is borrowed not from Jewish martyr stories but from what Paul’s contemporaries would have called tales of metamorphosis, according to which a divine being adopts a mundane “form” before returning to his or her original exalted state. The classic example of this story is Euripides’s popular Bacchae, in which the god Dionysus introduces himself to the audience with these words: “Here I am, having
changed form [morphēn] from that of a god to that of a man.” Paul uses identical language in Phil 2: “though he was in the form (morphēi) of God … he emptied himself, taking the form [morphēn] of a slave.” Language remarkably similar to Phil 2 can also be found in Jewish texts, such as the Life of Adam and Eve, where the archangel Satan descends to Eve “taking the form of an angel,” a story that Paul apparently knew: “for even Satan transforms himself into an angel” (2Cor 11:14).

  • holloway-paul

    Paul A. Holloway is University Professor of Classics and Ancient Christianity at Sewanee: The University of the South. He holds a PhD from the University of Chicago. In 2017 he published a commentary on Philippians for the Hermeneia series published by Fortress.