Philippians 2:6-11 - hymn theory ?

Steven Avery

Posted on CARM - April 30, 2021

Doctoral Thesis of Interest: Phil 2:6ff

My post is in response to:

A lot of interest in this passage by folks on this forum:

The Interpretation of to einai isa theo in Phil 2:6: "Equality with God"?
Benjamin Karleen, 2021



Hymn theory is assumed.
(When and by who did it first begin for this Epistle section? 1700s? 1800s?)

Lawrence Hurtado (1943-2019) is written about in the context of accepting this theory. Even in his 1984 paper Jesus as Lordly Example in Philippians 2:5-11 Hurtado would often write of the "hymn" in quotation marks. In the last decade or so, he was quite skeptical of hymn theory, in various blog posts, such as one in 2015:

Are Philippians 2:6-11 and Colossians 1:15-20 Christ-Hymns?

A recent journal article offers a new reason for reconsidering whether Philippians 2:6-11 and Colossians 1:15-20 are (as many scholars have thought) remnants/adaptations of early Christian hymns/odes: Benjamin Edsall & Jennifer R. Strawbridge, “The Songs We Used to Sing? Hymn ‘Traditions’ and Reception in Pauline Letters,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 37 (2015): 290-311.

They are by no means the first to raise this question, and to suggest a negative answer.[1] Indeed, as the authors readily indicate, in recent decades several scholars have raised objections to these texts as deriving from “hymns/odes” sung or chanted in earliest Christian circles. Previous critiques have focused on the criteria typically cited as justifying the notion that these passages reflect hymnic phrasing. For example, there is no clear metrical structure, and the parallelism of the phrases is disputed as well.

The new contribution by Edsall & Strawbridge is to cite the uses of these passages in early Christian writings (of the pre-Nicene period), drawing on the results of Strawbridge’s 2014 DPhil thesis.[2] They judge that excerpts from Philip 2:6-11 and Col 1:15-20 “are amongst the most frequently cited Pauline texts in the whole of early Christian literature” (300). Both passages are cited several hundred times in the controversies over the person and nature of Jesus and the nature of God.

But, and this is their key point, in no case does any early Christian writer refer to either passage as a hymn (or as deriving from one). The authors contend, therefore, that early Christian readers of Philippians and Colossians didn’t see either passage as hymnic, and (barring some other strong reason to the contrary) neither should we.

[1] E.g., Gordon D. Fee, “Philippians 2:5-11: Hymn or Exalted Pauline Prose?” Bulletin of Biblical Research 2(1992): 29-46.

As far as I can see, the paper by Benjamin Karleen totally ignores this, de facto painting Hurtado as a full-blown hymn theory supporter, writing from his 1984 paper on p. 85:

Jesus as Lordly Example in Philippians 2:5-11 (1984)

More recently, Hurtado has suggested that while potential allusions to the Greco-Roman context should not be ignored, the most fruitful approach to understanding the conceptual background to the content of the hymn is to place it in the context of the early church’s apostolic terminology.232 He particularly focuses on the meaning of Jesus’ actions as a servant in the life of the early church and its proclamation, particularly that of Paul as seen in his letters. Rather than discovering in the hymn a background either from another historical time period or from the ambient culture, we should first of all understand Jesus’ actions in their immediate historical Jewish-and Hellenistic-Christian context as the supreme pattern of humble service.

232 L. Hurtado, “Jesus as Lordly Example in Philippians 2:5-11,” in From Jesus to Paul: Studies in Honour of Francis Wright Beare, eds. P. Richardson, J. C. Hurd (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1984), 113-125

It seems that Benjamin Karleen is not really up to date on the Larry Hurtado scholarship.

And, worse, it looks like the ultra-dubious hymn theory is presumed throughout the paper. Hymn theory generally means that Paul was not giving us his writing (perhaps in a poetic or exalted prose) but was actually taking a pre-existing Christian hymn and using it in his Epistle.

Karleen gives us a hint of this difficulty:

"But we would counter that whether the hymn is a Pauline or an early church composition .. " p. 233

Steven Avery


Chapter 4: τὸ εἶνα ιἴσα θεῷ in the Fathers......
p. 105-173
Looks like a very interesting section.


On the plus side:

Chapter 4: τὸ εἶνα ιἴσα θεῷ in the Fathers......
p. 105-173
Looks like a very interesting section.

And the comments of our members above look helpful! :)

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Steven Avery

When William Bates, Lecturer of Christ's College, later Rector of Burnham (1811/2-1877) reviewed hymn theory in 1845 and gave a solid review, there was no mention of the Philippians section.

College Lectures on Christian Antiquities and the Ritual of the English Church; with Selections from the Ancient Canons, and the Cambridge, Dublin, and Durham University Examination Papers (1845)
William Bates


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