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Response to Ehrman’s Interpretation of Phil. 2:6-11

Possible parallel to Jesus taking the form of a servant (Phil. 2:7)

We were studying 2 Timothy ch. 3 yesterday. In order to prepare for healthy discussion, I decided to read the chapter through in the Greek (thanks to my Readers Greek New Testament to help me with all of the extremely rare vocabulary). I came across this verse (3:5) which comes across in most English translations like so:

…holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power; avoid such men as these. 

The first clause come from the Greek ἔχοντες μόρφωσιν εὐσεβείας. The opponents, whom Paul is trying to warn his delegate Timothy to avoid, are currently holding to a form of godliness/piety. It is the noun μόρφωσιν which stuck out to me. This noun is closely related to μορφὴ, the debated noun in Phil. 2:6-7. One of the more popular readings of the Philippian hymn argues that Christ formerly had the form of God but later emptied himself and took the form of a servant (and by this, they mean ‘God became a human being’). The implied change, in that interpretation, is that morphe involves one’s very being, so that Jesus was ‘God’ and emptied himself into being a servant human being. I’m sure some nuance of the popular, high christology view which I am attempting to articulate, is certainly needed.  

What makes the supposed parallel in 2 Tim. 3:5 so interesting is that an almost identical word morphosis is the form [of godliness] which Timothy’s opponents are holding to. This appearance of piety is, however, a charade. The opponents are not really godly. It is s fake (like professional wrestling and Te’o’s girlfriend). Yet the change which took place with the opponents was not from some divine being into a godly/religious person. Rather, they are human beings characterized by the vices in 2 Tim. 3:2-4, but they put on the charade of having a form of godliness. In other words, the word morphosis does not suggest the change from one being into another (divine or human), but instead one’s disposition (in this case, from evil to good). This would suggest, as I have argued in previous posts on Phil 2:6-7, that morphe is better understood as one’s outward disposition. In the case of Christ, he existed in the form of God (‘image of God’ language denoting kingly prerogatives reminiscent of the original role given to Adam). In a demonstration of humility, he repeatedly took the form of a servant. However, Jesus was still a human being during both of these phases. Christians are called to emulate this sort of humility (Phil. 2:5). 

Perhaps morphosis in 2 Tim. 3:5 can spark some further discussion into the meaning of the Christ hymn in Phil. 2:5-11.

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Jesus repeatedly took the form of a servant (Phil. 2:7)

Philippians 2:7- but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of humans.

Instead of exploiting his privileges as Messiah, Christ emptied himself by repeatedly taking the morphe of a servant. The form of God is contrasted with the form of a servant (not the form of man). This disposition was repeatedly exercised by Christ, as the participle λαβών indicated. His life was characterized by not using his privileges of Messiah but rather giving them up to live as a servant. Consider these examples:

1. Jesus being tempted in the wilderness to turn stones to bread, to make a spectacle at the temple, and to acquire the kingdoms of the world without suffering (Matt. 4; Luke 4).

2. “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus refused to be take that title (Mark 10:17-18).

3. So Jesus, perceiving that they were intending to come and take Him by force to make Him king, withdrew again to the mountain by Himself alone. (John 6:15)

4. “Or do you think that I cannot appeal to My Father, and He will at once put at My disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matt. 26:53)

5. Jesus, as the teacher and lord, chose to do the slave’s task of washing the disciples’ feet (John 13:13-15).

One must remember that the entire passage was predicated by the ethical command in 2:5 which stated that the Philippian audience was to think like Christ Jesus did. This interpretation of 2:6-7 best answers the practicality of the ethical imperative. Paul could hardly be asking his audience to consider what it might be like for God to stop being divine and instead become human. This is a proposition which would not only be nonsensical but also difficult to relate to on a practical level.

The rest of 2:7 gives more or less synonyms to taking the form of a servant:

-In the appearance of humans (particularly their corruptible and fallen status because of Adam’s disobedience.

-Being found in the appearance of humanity (susceptible of death)

-The theme of the servant echoes the Suffering Servant psalms in Isaiah, particularly:

a. Behold, My servant will prosper, He will be high and lifted up and greatly exalted. (Isa. 52:13)

b. Because He poured out Himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors (Isa. 53:12).

It would seem that Paul understands the victory of Jesus as fulfilling the role of Adam and of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah.

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