The Historical Jesus on Divorce: An Examination of Mark 10:1-12 vis-a-vis Matthew 19:1-12

The historical Jesus almost certainly never made the comments regarding divorce which the author of Matthew says he made. In the following analysis, I will examine Mark’s Jesus and Matthew’s version of Jesus. We will then compare and contrast the two characters, attempting to figure out what the historical Jesus would have really said regarding the problem of divorce. As all scholars know, the quest of the historical Jesus is a very real and perplexing problem in biblical scholarship; many take seriously the problems posed us by having differing accounts of a single personality. In what follows, I will briefly comment on some general themes in Mark and Matthew before diving into the problematic verses.

The Gospel of Mark was written sometime around the “late 60s or just after 70.”[1] Mark was written for Gentiles with the intent to portray “the person and mission of Jesus Christ for Roman Christians undergoing persecution under Nero.”[2] Given this likely context, Mark has a very suffering Son of God, especially beginning in the 8th chapter of the Gospel and onwards. Jesus’ life is best understood as “victory through suffering.”[3] And Christians should learn from Jesus’ example. This, in sum, is the general thrust of Mark’s thesis.

When we come to our pericope (Mk 10:1-12), we find a story regarding Jesus’ encounter with a group of Pharisees questioning his position on divorce. Jesus, coming out of northern Galilee, entering “Judea beyond the Jordan [=Perea],” finds himself surrounded by “crowds” with Pharisees quickly coming to “test” him (v. 1). The Pharisees ask him if it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife. The Pharisees may have asked Jesus this particular question knowing full well that John the Baptist was beheaded on account of denouncing Antipas’ marriage to Herodias. If this is the historical context—which I think it is—then “Jesus is being asked whether Antipas was justified or not in divorcing the daughter of King Aretas to marry Herodias.”[4] Whatever the context, though, the “test” the Pharisees are performing is practical and existentially applicable to every Jew living in the first-century: does Moses allow divorce? For the Pharisees, divorce was a no-brainer: you find it in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Jesus replies by saying that, in fact, even Moses did not think this was the case; Moses merely allowed it due to their “hardness of heart” (v. 5). Jesus then appeals to Genesis 1:27 and 2:24, saying, “But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female’” and “‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’” (vv. 6-8a). Jesus then adds the additional comment: “So they are no longer two, but one flesh” (v. 8b). After laying out the premises, Jesus reaches his conclusion: “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Jesus essentially gives the Pharisees—and the crowd around him—his answer: No.

After this very dramatic reply, even Jesus’ disciples cannot believe what they just heard. When they reach somebody’s house, a disciple wants to make sure Jesus meant what he, in fact, said. Jesus replies, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (vv. 11-12). The disciples were correct to be worried—for this was a new teaching indeed. During the first-century, the divorce policies were divided essentially into two camps, following two rabbis: Shammai and Hillel. Shammai allowed divorce only on the grounds of unchastity, according to the Mishnah. On the other hand, Hillel allowed divorce for any and every reason—even if a wife burnt a dish![5] Jesus disagrees with these two leading rabbis and says both are wrong: no divorce is permissible. Nada. Never. Ad infinitum.

At verse 12 of chapter 10, Mark concludes Jesus’ lecture on divorce. Immediately after this pericope, Mark has Jesus bless little children. (Continuing the pro-family stance of Jesus.) Writing possibly several decades later, Matthew reworks this Markan tradition of Jesus categorically against divorce and changes things radically.

Matthew wrote his gospel sometime after the year 70, probably between the years 80 and 90.[6] The gospel is 18,300 words (50 percent longer than Mark’s [11,300 words]).[7] Matthew is normally thought to have been written for a very Jewish audience; Jesus is ultimately presented as a type of “new Moses.” The gospel generally tends to follow Mark, so it is inductively thought that Matthew copied Mark and elaborated extensively upon Mark—hence the significantly larger text. Matthew is divided into five sections, mimicking the Jewish Pentateuch.[8] Jesus delivers five “sermons” or “speeches” in Matthew. That is, Matthew typically has Jesus deliver a “sermon,” concluding it with some such phrase as “and it happened when Jesus finished instructing the twelve disciples…” (7:28-29). He does this five times, probably consciously seeing Jesus as a “new Moses.” Our pericope on divorce (following Matthew’s earlier saying on the same subject in 5:31-32) stands as Jesus second statement on divorce, following the so-called “Sermon on the Church” (which is found at 18:1-35). This second statement of Jesus’ on divorce is more elaborate than the first, brief comment found in Matthew 5. In Matthew 19, we find an almost verbatim lifting of Mark 10:1-12, with some very noticeable differences.

Matthew, like Mark, has Jesus (explicitly) leaving Galilee and coming to Judea beyond the Jordan. Large crowds follow him. He is then met by some Pharisees who test him. They ask him if it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason (v. 3). At this point in the text, Matthew adds the phrase “for any reason.” Matthew is probably reflecting Jewish rabbinical tradition at this point—Shammai versus Hillel. This phrase “might serve as a sweeping summary of the Hillelite view, which was probably the more influential among ordinary people.”[9]

Next, Matthew has Jesus quote Genesis 1:27 and 2:24. He reverses Mark’s original order in which Jesus moved from divorce (the negative) to the way God intended marriage to be (the positive). In Matthew, Jesus first begins by dealing with the ideal (the positive), only later moving on to the negative.[10] Also, as evidence that Matthew is indeed following Mark, Mark’s idiosyncratically redundant comment “So they are no longer two, but one flesh” (v. 8b) is repeated in Matthew verse 6. Moreover, in Matthew, the saying regarding a husband leaving his family and clinging to his wife is attributed to God not Adam (as in Genesis 2:24).

Another significant change is going on between Mark and Matthew. In Mark, the Pharisees present the issue of divorce as something Moses “permits”; while Jesus speaks of a “commandment” of Moses. In Matthew, these verbs are reversed: the Pharisees see divorce as a “command,” while Jesus sees divorce as merely being “permitted.”[11] “While the Pharisees refer to Moses’ commandment (ἐνετείλατο), Jesus speaks simply of Moses’ permission (ἐπέτρεψεν)—of a concession in light of the people’s disobedience and ‘hard-heartedness.’”[12] In such a way, Matthew does not have Jesus contradict Moses; rather, the Pharisees, by seeing divorce as a “command,” are the ones contradicting God himself (as seen in Genesis 1:27)!

Some more differences. In Mark, Jesus states that marriage formed a union in which the two became one flesh “from the beginning of creation” (v. 6). Matthew drops the term “of creation” (v. 4) and instead goes with “from the beginning” (a phrase he repeats again in verse 8). Matthew, unlike Mark, also includes the strange sayings of Jesus regarding “eunuchs” (v. 12). In Mark, Jesus allegedly forbids even “wives” to divorce their husbands (vv. 11-12)—a fact that supports the hypothesis that this gospel was written to the Romans; in Rome, it was permissible for a wife to divorce her husband. In Matthew this particular comment of “Jesus” does not appear, as Jesus probably never made it (since he would have been talking to an audience who would not have imagined a wife initiating divorce). Matthew eliminates this (probably) Markan redaction primarily because—for his Jewish audience—the comment would have been meaningless and superfluous. (Despite my observations, some scholars do in fact argue that in Second Temple Judaism [the Elephantine community not being counted] women were allowed to divorce their husbands. However, this is very much disputed.)[13]

Finally, in Matthew, after Jesus is done talking with the Pharisees, the disciples at home conclude that it is better for a man not to marry at all (v. 10). However, this conclusion is not warranted. Had this been the conclusion to Mark’s version of events and sayings, it would have made sense. But something radically different is happening in Matthew: Jesus is not actually forbidding divorce categorically. In fact, Matthew adds the idiosyncratic phrase “except for unchastity” (μὴ ἐπὶ πορνείᾳ)—an “exception clause” which only appears in Matthew’s redaction of Jesus’ sayings on divorce, both here and—with slightly different wording; “except on the account of unchasitity” (παρεκτὸς λόγου πορνείας )—at 5:32. Matthew is certainly the author of this phrase—it only appears in Matthew (twice) and does not feature in Mark, 1 Corinthians 7, or Luke 16:18.

As to why Matthew, in particular, would insert this phrase only seems obvious: the sociological reality of first-century Jewish Christianity was that divorces occurred whether one liked it or not. Jesus notwithstanding.

Matthew probably has other reasons, too. Matthew was certainly written later; probably at a time when the reality of Jesus’ expected sooner-rather-than-later “Second Coming” began to be reinterpreted. People weren’t so sure about an imminent end of the world. This meant that the Christians had to build laws and codes of conduct—not bomb shelters. Matthew’s gospel reflects (almost certainly) this reality. In fact, Matthew’s gospel is the only gospel which explicitly talks about the “church” (ἐκκλησίᾳ) [see 18:17]. This was a gospel written for people who were going to keep living on earth. And on earth there were certain events which occurred commonly. “Divorce was a widespread phenomenon through the ancient Near East and Mediterranean world, just as it is a widespread phenomenon throughout the modern world.”[14]

Jesus’ comments on divorce were spoken to a community which was grounded in the Old Testament—a fact I already briefly touched upon. The Old Testament has very little to say regarding divorce, in fact. A much quoted text by Christian fundamentalists—Malachi 2:16—is actually textually suspect. The text does not say “For I hate divorce”—it only “says” this if reconstructed. In fact, to the utter dismay of fundamentalists, the Qumran community interpreted the text as commanding divorce. Their text—with lacunas—probably read: “[B]ut if you hate [her], send [her] away.”[15]

Contrary to the legalistic and dogmatic stance of the Pharisees, the other much-quoted text (allegedly supporting divorce), Deuteronomy 24:1-4, actually has virtually nothing lucid to say about divorce. Summarizing the Jewish literature thoroughly, Meier concludes, after dealing with Deut. 24:1-4, that “the law codes of the Pentateuch have precious little else to say about divorce.”[16] Deuteronomy 24:1-4 essentially deals with a man taking a wife who ends up having (committing?) “a shame of a thing” (עֶרְוַ֣ת דָּבָ֔ר). This “shame of a thing” has been interpreted to mean, well, anything and everything. The man is instructed to hand her a certificate of divorce. Finally, if she goes away, marries another, gets divorced from the second husband, returns to the first, the first husband is not allowed to take her back. Meier thinks that the phrase “shame of a thing” is “purposefully left vague in order to permit wide latitude for the husband’s judgment within a patriarchal society governed by the codes of honor and shame.”[17]

The historical Jesus almost certainly did not make the “exception clause” statement. Contrary to Matthew, “the historical Jesus was categorically against divorce.”[18] Meier succinctly states: “I think there is sufficient reason for holding that the historical Jesus forbade divorce.”[19] Moreover: “By completely forbidding divorce, Jesus dares to forbid what the Law allows—and not in some minor, obscure halakic observance but in one of the most important legal institutions in society. He dares to say that a man who duly follows the Law in properly divorcing his wife and marrying another woman is in effect committing adultery.”[20] What is significant, however, is that Matthew retains the disciples’ astonishment at Jesus’ “new teaching” on divorce—which he categorically forbade. This reveals an ironic Matthean slip-up; on the one hand, Matthew is editing Jesus, on the other, he is revealing his own editorial hand. Contrary to Matthew, Mark presents us with a more radical Jesus—a Jesus that was crucified by both the Roman elite and the Jewish Sanhedrin. In this particular pericope, Mark is clearly the more original version (excepting his addition relating to Roman divorce law). The theological question for us today is not only “What Would Jesus Do?” but “Do We Agree With What Jesus Really Would Do Anyway?” Are we ready to follow Jesus, the real Jesus?

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev


[1] Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, The Anchor Bible Reference Library (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 164.

[2] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2002), 10.

[3] Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, 126.

[4] Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, 300.

[5] Ibid., 299.

[6] Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, 217.

[7] Ibid., 171.

[8] See Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, 173.

[9] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2007), 715-6.

[10] See France, The Gospel of Matthew, 716. He also notes how Matthew does a similar reversal at 15:3-9.

[11] Ulrich Luz, Matthew 8-20: A Commentary, trans. James E. Crouch, Hermenia (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 490.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Adela Yarbro Collins, Mark: A Commentary, Hermenia (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 459-464.

[14] John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, vol. 4: Law and Love, The Anchor Bible Reference Library (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 74.

[15] Ibid., 82.

[16] Ibid., 80.

[17] Ibid., 79.

[18] Eben Scheffler, “(The Markan and Matthean) Jesus’ Appropriation and Criticism of the Torah: The Question of Divorce,” Hervormde Teologies Studies 67/1 (2011): 3.

[19] Meier, A Marginal Jew, 112.

[20] Ibid., 113.


Brown, Raymond E. An Introduction to the New Testament. The Anchor Bible Reference LibraryNew Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.

Collins, Adela Yarbro. Mark: A Commentary. Hermenia. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007.

Edwards, James R. The Gospel According to Mark. Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2002.

France, R. T. The Gospel of Matthew. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2007.

Luz, Ulrich. Matthew 8-20: A Commentary. Translated by James E. Crouch. Hermenia. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001.

Meier, John P. A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, vol. 4: Law and Love. The Anchor Bible Reference Library. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.

Scheffler, Eben. “(The Markan and Matthean) Jesus’ Appropriation and Criticism of the Torah: The Question of Divorce.” Hervormde Teologies Studies 67/1 (2011): 1-6.


From “Behold the Man” to “Jesus the God”: An Introduction to New Testament Textual Criticism and the Corruption of the Bible

Ancient copies of the New Testament attest to the fact that humans, as always, exaggerate the deeds and actions of their loved ones. Just like George Washington became the man who would not tell a lie—remember, that fictional cherry tree story where George sawed down a tree and admitted it—so Jesus Christ became not just ‘Jesus the Anointed’ (the literal meaning of the Hebrew word we commonly translated “Messiah”)[1] but “[Jesus] Christ, namely God” (as one ancient Old Latin manuscript has it).[2] We went from Jesus the Man to Jesus the God.

You see, it is so difficult to understand this textual change when most of us have grown up in a nation that teaches us from day one that Jesus Christ is God (within the Holy Trinity). Most of us have been taught that Jesus is, in one way or another, God in the flesh. It is precisely because of this that we cannot totally appreciate, and see the impact of, a scribe who changes “Jesus the Messiah” to “Jesus the God.” Most of us would shrug and say, “So what? Big deal. There is no difference between Jesus the Son of God and Jesus the God.” The problem is that there is a difference. A huge difference. Imagine for a second that the biographer of George Washington’s life started his story a bit differently. Suppose, for a second, that Mason Locke Weems— Washington’s first biographer and inventor of the cherry tree fable—started off his biography by calling Washington “the King.” If Washington was Jewish and living in ancient Israel, he would have been labeled, as Cyrus the Great was before him (Isa. 45:1),[3] “Washington the Anointed One.” And no Jew would even flinch. George would be called King.

Let us further speculate, suppose that a later author edited the text of the biography to read “Washington the Son of God” or, even more simply, “Washington, namely God.” What would the effect be? Obviously, we are dealing with some highly problematic textual changes! It is one thing to call George a king (even an “anointed king” at best), but completely another to call him God!

I am not suggesting that Jesus Christ is to be put on par with Washington, far from it. I am only trying to get the reader to understand the significance of such textual changes. According to the textual evidence, Jesus Christ was certainly the greatest Man (if it be appropriate to call Him a Man) who ever lived. In similar words, Flavius Josephus can say, “Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was Christ.”[4] I agree with Josephus on this point. The point that I am stressing here, however, has to do with what I call “progressive exaggeration.” Progressive exaggeration is a part of human nature—we have seen it with George Washington. Early Christians tried to edit the text of the New Testament by making simple statements about Christ cheesier. They would take something as simple as the common name Jesus (also known as “Joshua”) and turn it into “Jesus the Messiah our Lord and Savior.” There is nothing wrong with this per se, but it is most definitely elaborative. Christian scribes would constantly highlight the fact that Jesus was not just an ordinary Joshua, but actually “the Lord.” Where Hebrews 13:20 once read “our Lord Jesus” the Old Latin changed it to “our God Jesus.”[5] One may argue that this is insignificant, but the problem is that it happens throughout the entire New Testament! Almost any space where an additional “Lord” or “God” could be added, it was added. The scribes made sure of it.

The problem with Christian (and heretical) scribes was the fact that they did not just make Jesus sound better—they went the extra mile, as Jesus ironically commanded, and eliminated things that made Jesus look human. One interesting change has to do with the text of John 19:5, the text about Jesus prior to His crucifixion.

Jesus Christ is standing before Pilate all wet in tears, saliva, and deep red blood. He is soaked in His own bodily fluids and is wearing a purple robe. Bearing the sins of the world, this God-Man looks more like a carcass than a once-living human. Jesus is crowned with thorns. He is crowned. Pilate presents Jesus the Messiah to the Jewish crowd by saying, “Behold the man.” Some ancient manuscripts totally eradicate this sentence.[6] It is not in the text. What is wrong with the text? Can anyone guess? Jesus Christ was obviously more than a man, thought a scribe. So, he deleted the fact that Pilate ever said such a thing. Matter of fact, it never happened. One of our oldest Biblical authorities, Codex Vaticanus, reads, “Behold a man.” This appears to have been another reading—it never got a wide audience. Anyone’s guess is as good as mine.

It should be obvious to the reader that Jesus Christ was being shaped by the crowd of scribes. He was being recast, so to speak. A scribe placed his ideas into the biblical text; be it out of love and affection, or out of need for correction (or so he thought…). I want to take a closer look at more such changes in the NT. It is my purpose here to reveal the textual evidence and to try to come to a decent conclusion that can do justice to the text.

The God Who Would Not Be

From the very beginning, if we are to take the Gospels as trustworthy literary accounts, Jesus denied the idea that He was God. The Gospel accounts do state in some places, or at least imply, that Jesus is, in fact, God, but even there we must go by mere implication. Because Jesus was such a radical figure, His image was distorted by the crowds and He was greatly misunderstood. Today, we have four Gospels that present us with slightly modified views of Jesus—Mark’s Jesus is human through and through; Matthew’s Jesus is Jewish and Law-abiding; Luke’s Jesus is a Mother Teresa figure out to help the poor; and John’s Jesus is the most divine figure of all time: his Jesus is none other than God Himself sometimes. But even with the most greatly divine Jesus—as He appears in the Gospel of John—Jesus denies the fact that He is God (the Father?). According to John’s gospel, Jesus tells the Jewish crowds, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30 ESV). But then He also tells them, “[T]he Father is greater than I” (14:28). Obviously, Jesus appears to have some sort of ‘schizophrenic’ existence in relation to God the Father. In no way am I being derogatory here—it, quite frankly, appears that Jesus wants His identity to remain sort of foggy and shrouded in mystery. Even in John’s gospel— which has the highest Christology in the entire NT—Jesus is still not completely and openly God. The text of John 5:18 clearly states that the Jews thought that Jesus was “making himself equal to God.” But even here, again, the disciples do not state openly that He is God; it’s almost as if they do not know exactly what He is—they know He has something divine about Him, but they cannot quite pinpoint it. In John 6:45, Jesus seems to imply that He may be God by stating, “It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me” (ESV). If Jesus is the so-called “Rabbi” and the so-called “Teacher,”[7] is He not, then, saying that He is God? (For they shall be taught by God—and He is the One doing the teaching!)

The problem is more magnified later in John’s gospel—after Jesus’ resurrection. In John 20:17, Jesus tells Mary, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’” (ESV). What is so ironic about this is that Thomas, a few verses later, worships Jesus and calls Him, “My Lord and my God!” (v. 28). Jesus either accepts the honorific titles or seems to shrug them off and ignore them—the text does not tell us what Jesus thought of Thomas’ statement. But, we must not quickly forget—in the air of such elaborate statements as Thomas’—that Jesus just called God the Father His God also!

In such an atmosphere of mystery and controversy, we come to the textual problem of John 1:18. The English Standard Version reads thus: “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” Clearly, in conjunction with John 1:1—“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”—John appears to tell us, on the surface, that Jesus (the Divine Word) is God. The text seems to differentiate between both God the Father and God the Son. Nevertheless, both are Gods. That is the keyword here: God. Both are God(s).

The problem that concerns us is that John 1:18 has suffered damage at the hands of the scribes. To be blunt, the majority of manuscripts read differently. They read: “No one has seen God at any time, but the unique Son who is in the bosom of the Father, that one has made him known.”[8] It is the Alexandrian text-type that the translators of the ESV (and other translations) are following. This is ironic, since many fierce inerrantists—who solely adhere to the Byzantine (Textus Receptus) text-type—follow the “corrupt” Alexandrian text-type when it suits their purposes! This textual variant appears to have been corrupted by later orthodox scribes. Of course, one could argue that it were the heretics who corrupted the “original” text—which read “God” in place of “Son”—but that is not entirely the point. The point is that scribes were modifying the Scriptures to suit their theological beliefs.

We can take a closer look at this passage in light of what we know about the Gospel of John. In John, Jesus and God the Father are sort-of like two Beings that are equal sometimes and at ends with one another at other times. If, according to the text, Jesus was the “unique God” how is it that the Father also existed? By “unique” (Greek: μονογενης) John is trying to say that “God the Son” is somehow unique. The problem is that if God the Son were “unique,” would not that imply that no other God exists? It makes more sense to have “unique Son” in the text because it implies that Jesus Christ is a “unique son”—in the sense that He is not like the other so-called “sons of God” (Rom. 8:14) or “gods” (John 10:34). Matter of fact, for John, then, Jesus is the unique Son of God. Thus, it appears that scribes were taking “Jesus the Son of God” and making Him into “Jesus the Unique God.” And, by the way, there is a world of difference.

We’ve already seen how scribes wanted to exalt Jesus from Man to God (and now to Unique God). This will become more evident as we look at a few more good examples. What is of importance here though is for us to look at how heresy and ‘orthodoxy’ were involved in these scribal changes. It is one thing to talk about changes in the text, but an entirely other thing to see them come to life when you discover the character of their very producer.

Docetic Gnostics and Textual Variants

Many Gnostics believed that Jesus Christ did not actually suffer and die. According to The Second Treatise of the Great Seth, Jesus Christ did not die on the cross. He merely “appeared” to die—the Greek word for “appear” is dokein (“to seem,” “to appear”). We call such Gnostics “docetists”—they are the Gnostics who believed in the absolute divinity of Jesus Christ. Not bad, right? Well, the orthodox did not think so. Christ could not be the human of the Ebionites nor the ultra-divine God of the Docetic Gnostics. Because of such reasons, The Second Treatise of the Great Seth could have Jesus explain His insignificant “death”:

And I did not die in reality but in appearance, lest I be put to shame by them because these are my kinsfolk. I removed the shame from me and I did not become fainthearted in the face of what happened to me at their hands. I was about to succumb to fear, and I (suffered) according to their sight and thought, in order that they may never find any word to speak about them. For my death, which they think happened, (happened) to them in their error and blindness, since they nailed their man unto their death. For their Ennoias did not see me, for they were deaf and blind. But in doing these things, they condemn themselves. Yes, they saw me; they punished me. It was another, their father, who drank the gall and the vinegar; it was not I. They struck me with the reed; it was another, Simon, who bore the cross on his shoulder. I was another upon Whom they placed the crown of thorns. But I was rejoicing in the height over all the wealth of the archons and the offspring of their error, of their empty glory. And I was laughing at their ignorance.[9]

Jesus is saying that He never really died. It was Simon of Cyrene who did! Because the Docetic Gnostics held to this belief relatively strongly, they could not allow Scripture to speak about a Jesus who “died.” More to the point, they could not speak about a Jesus the Christ who died. The Messiah, who was probably the Good God Himself, could not have been bloodily crucified by evil and murderous human beings. This was absolute blasphemy for the Docetic Gnostics.

The orthodox (the so-called “majority” opinion) held to the idea that Jesus died on the cross. They stressed the fact that Jesus not only died human, but He was both human and God. In John 19:40, Jesus’ body is taken from the cross in preparation for burial. According to one of our most ancient authorities, Codex Alexandrinus, Joseph of Arimathea no longer takes the body of Jesus but the “body of God.” Because in ancient manuscripts (1st to 3rd century) the sacred names were contracted, this textual variant may have resulted from an innocent mistake. The nomina sacra (as they are called) would have been a ΘΥ (contracted possessive name of God—theou, Θεοῦ). On the other hand, the nomen sacrum (singular for nomina sacra) for Jesus would have been ΙΥ (contracted possessive name for Jesus—Isou, Ἰησοῦ). Because of the similarities between God (ΘΥ) and Jesus (ΙΥ) this textual variant may have been a mistake, but it is definitely a good mistake; something that makes the text say something completely different! Mistake or no, we now have an authoritative Greek manuscript saying something that is rather radical.

A similar textual variant occurs in 1 Timothy 3:16. Modern translators translate it thus: “He appeared in the flesh, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels…” (NIV). The “he” in the text is translated from the Greek word for “who.” What we have seen with the nomina sacra, we see here again. The “who” in Greek is OΣ (hos) it looks almost exactly like the nominative nomen sacrum for God (theos, contracted to ΘΣ). All that is missing is a “dot” in the center and a dash above the theta and sigma for the name of God. Thus, some manuscripts, most notably Codex Alexandrinus,[10] substitute “God” for “who.” Now, instead of Jesus appearing in the flesh, it is “God appeared in the flesh.” This is a relatively radical idea, once again.

In 1 John 3:21-23 we are told that if we have confidence before God anything we ask will be given us. That is, if we “believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ” and love one another (v. 23). Some ancient manuscripts, like Codex Alexandrinus, lack the words for “son” (in Greek it would be tou uiou). Now the text simply tells us that we must believe in his name, Jesus Christ, and love one another in order to get what we want from God. The text makes Jesus’ name be equivalent to God’s name.[11] This, again, may be an innocent slip of the pen, but that is debatable.

Separationist Gnostics and Textual Variants

In early Christianity there were the “separationists” who believed that Jesus was just a regular born-of-a-woman man and that He was thoroughly fleshly. Some such separationist Christians were found amongst the Gnostic schools of thought. These Gnostics believed that some divine Spirit entered Jesus at His baptism. The spirit was actually a piece of the divine Godhead. It could have been in the form of a dove but, because of the textual variants, no one really knows for sure. The real “christ,” according to the separationists, actually used Jesus’ body only as a vessel—He was not really born or raised human. This “christ,” then, left Jesus prior to His death—that is why Christ said with His dying breath, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” According to the separationists, Jesus (the human) only said that because the “christ” (or that piece of the Godhead) left Jesus right before His death. The Spirit/“christ” that entered Jesus at His baptism had now left Him because the “christ” could not die. Since the separationist “christ” was a piece of the divine Godhead, it was impossible for a piece of God to die.

The reason the separationists stressed this is relatively simple to understand. For them, the Creator was actually a demiurge or lesser/inferior deity[12] who trapped pieces of divine sparks in only some human bodies (carcasses). Some fleshly carcasses contained this divine spark, and the humans that had this spark needed to be saved and freed from this fleshly prison. All the while, a greater god was planning to save us: a piece of this “good god” was someone known as “christ.” The “christ” was here to save the “chosen few” who had remnants of these divine sparks. Therefore, Jesus’ body was only used as a vessel to pass on secret and special divine gnosis to the few elect. The elect would respond positively to Jesus’ message (it was actually the Gnostic “christ” speaking through Jesus). They would respond and in turn be saved from this world and flesh.

It is no wonder that Christ could not have come in the flesh. Yes, He could have been a phantom (as the Docetic Gnostics held) but a Christ who separated Himself from the flesh appeared to be most logical for the separationists—He came and went, so to speak.

The majority of manuscripts for 1 John 4:3 read “every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.” Some ancient witnesses read something vastly different. In these texts, it is “every spirit that looses Jesus is not from God.” The difference in Greek is striking, too—the words are either may homologei ton Iasoun (“not confess Jesus”) or luei ton Iasoun (“looses Jesus”). This is most obviously not a slip of the pen. The problem is that this text which speaks about false spirits “loosing Jesus” is not found in our best manuscripts. It appears to have been corrupted by some proto-orthodox scribes in the second century; Origen, Irenaeus, and Clement all know of this text. But what was the point of the change? It appears that “loosing Jesus” meant something like “separating Jesus.” This is probably a text that was changed in order to attack more openly the separationist claim that Christ entered Jesus, and before His death “separated” from Him.[13]

Another interesting variant is Luke 1:35. According to most ancient authorities, Luke’s gospel reads thus: “the child to be born will be called the Son of God” (NIV). On the other hand, according to some other manuscripts, the text inserts two words ek sou (“from you”). We get our word “exit” from the Greek root word ek (which means “out” or “from”). Now, with this addition, the text reads thus: “the child to be born from you will be called the Son of God.” But why would the text need to be changed to read “from you”? It should be obvious: Jesus was born not “of” Mary, but actually from Mary. Jesus was a flesh and blood human. Because this longer text hardly features in the textual tradition, it is virtually always condemned as addition by the scholarly community.[14]

The orthodox Christians were obviously having a field day with the text of the New Testament. Although such variants may appear to be a burden, they are not much so. Most such variants are quickly recognized as additions and quickly dismissed. Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge these changes and come to terms with them.

The God That Did Not Know

One professor would always begin his lectures by telling his eager conservative students that Jesus was ignorant. He would quote Mark 13:32, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” He would then grin and emphasize how ignorant Jesus was, according to the very Word of God![15] In Matthew 24:36 this phrase is repeated. The textual problem with this verse is rather self-evident: how could Jesus, the very God of orthodox Christianity, not know about the end of the world? Well, the orthodox scribes had a solution: make Jesus more knowledgeable concerning “the times.” Most of our most ancient authorities—Alexandrian, Western, Caesarean traditions—include the phrase “nor the Son” (in Greek that would be oude ho uios). In these most ancient manuscripts, Jesus apparently does not know all things, like the omnipotent god(s) of Greek philosophy. For many Christians, raised in the Greek tradition, this did not, and could not, make any sense. If Jesus was God, even a lesser god, how could He not know something? Greek philosophical presuppositions would not allow such a god to exist. Therefore, orthodox scribes went into the text and changed it—they erased three words: “nor the Son.” This time, no heretic could claim that Jesus was not entirely God by using Matthew 24:36. A good amount of (later) manuscripts do not have this phrase. Even the so-called “inspired” text of the fundamentalist inerrantists—namely, Textus Receptus (almost identical to the Byzantine text-type)—has this phrase, “nor the Son,” omitted. Most of the Byzantine manuscripts lack the phrase, along with most of the Syriac and Coptic texts, including the Latin Vulgate.[16]

A few scribes managed to also delete this phrase from Mark’s gospel (at least two manuscripts have it removed: X and pc). It is almost self-evident that scribes were taking liberties when working with the text of the New Testament. That this phrase “nor the Son” created problems for later (orthodox) theologian-like scribes is more magnified by the textual history of one of our oldest biblical manuscripts: Codex Sinaiticus. The original writer of Matthew’s text in Codex Sinaiticus included this phrase, a second scribe (“Corrector #1”) erased it, and a third scribe restored it (he was “Corrector # 2”). To say that this phrase was not problematic for some Christians would be utterly misleading. In fact, it is still, to this day, extremely problematic—most of us would rather worship a Jesus that did know.

The Heretical Scribe’s Pen

It was not just the orthodox scribes that were focused on correcting and modifying the Scriptures. The heretic had much to offer too. The deletion between Luke 22:42 and 22:45 is still viciously being disputed by scholars today as to whether it is the original text of Luke or not. Bart D. Ehrman argues that it is an addition while von Harnack argues that it is the original text of Luke.[17] To me it appears to be original to the gospel of Luke—it was later edited out early in its textual history due to its portrayal of a human Jesus. Luke 22:43-44 reads, “An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” (NIV). Because Jesus was seen as being in anguish and sweating (human) blood, some scribes felt it necessary to edit out such descriptions of Jesus. For example, a Docetic Gnostic would never accept such a portrait of Jesus; this was impossible. And so, just like Marcion of Pontus, the Docetic Christians deleted verses that appeared to be problematic for them. Nay, they were correcting a mistake that orthodox scribes (obviously) added to the text! (Ehrman argues that Luke 22:43-44 was fabricated by the orthodox in response to Docetic heresy.)

Since Alexandria, Egypt was the breeding ground for Gnostic Christians, it is significant that this deletion features almost solely in the Alexandrian text-type! Clement and Origen, along with some early Greek manuscripts, eradicate this passage. Nevertheless, some very famous ancient manuscripts have the addition (Codex Bezae, for example). What should concern us here is that this passage is not found in the Alexandrian Church Fathers and the Alexandrian manuscript family. Since Gnosticism was the form of Christianity in Alexandria, it is almost certain that the Gnostics of Alexandria edited this passage and made it conform to their ideologies. In the middle of the second-century, both Justin Martyr and Irenaeus were already familiar with this passage.

Nonetheless, because Luke edits his Markan source in a few key places, some scholars believe that Luke could not have envisaged an agonized Jesus. For, where Mark has Jesus praying in agony and distress in Gethsemane, Luke silently omits that. Mark 14:33-34 reads, “He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled. ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,’ he said to them. ‘Stay here and keep watch.’” (NIV). Luke only mentions Jesus leaving the disciples to pray (22:41). Where Mark has Jesus “falling” (14:35) to the ground, Luke has Jesus solemnly “kneeling” (22:41) to the ground. Where Mark has Jesus praying that the “hour might pass” (14:36), Luke, again, has nothing—he simply omits this phrase when copying Mark. When Jesus utters the godless, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” phrase in Mark 15:34, Luke simply has Jesus say, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (23:46 NIV). Because of such variations, and there are many more, some scholars have decided that Luke 22:33-34 is an addition—Luke constantly makes Jesus appear calm and under control, how could he have included a bleeding, agonized, sweating Jesus? These scholars, nevertheless, stress a “relaxed” Jesus where there certainly is no relaxed Jesus. We know that Jesus’ death is horrible and that He does, even in Luke’s narrative, pray to have the cup taken from Him (22:42). Thus, I conclude, somewhat tentatively, that Luke 22:43-44 is a deletion made by the Gnostics of Alexandria.

Summarizing Textual Corruptions

There is no doubt that the New Testament has been corrupted with the passage of time. There is also no doubt that the NT has also suffered negative restoration (a scribe alters a passage because of an assumed previous mistake, which ends up being a mistake nonetheless!). There were scribes altering the text due to their integrity. They firmly believed that some previous scribe made mistakes in the manuscript. They were dead-set on “correcting” those mistakes. If a Gnostic scribe came across the passage in Luke 22:43-44, he clearly knew what happened here (!)—it was the orthodox scribe next door who added that passage into the text! It was that filthy orthodox scribe who wanted to make Jesus look human; as if He really did come in the human flesh! Imagine what the Gnostic scribe would think to himself, “Aha! I got him! That rascal, he must have added this passage. He must have. Jesus could not possibly have bled and sweated. No way!”

But then we must picture the worldview of the so-called orthodox scribe.[18] He, too, must have reacted in similar terms. He must have eyed every “divine,” anti-human passage with utter suspicion. If Jesus appeared to be the “invisible God,” that must have been an addition. If Jesus is called “man,” that must be an addition. The orthodox scribe had a most difficult task, in comparison to the heretical Gnostic scribe. The orthodox had to strike a balance between a divine Jesus and a human Jesus. How do you do that? Do you eliminate a passage that makes Jesus God? No? Maybe? What about a Jesus that is a bit too human? No? Maybe? The questions must have haunted the scribes even in their sleep.

We have already seen the additions. The next question that should be answered is How do we make sense of this data? Should we trust the New Testament? Do we continue to believe that somehow this entire process had been guided by the very Hands of God? Do we believe that the scribes were guided by God? Or do we just lift our hands in surrender and say that we do not know anything? Is it even possible to believe in the unifying Spirit of God when such a mess exists? Do we simply dismiss these textual variants? Do we simply close our eyes and wish that they would disappear? I suppose. Nevertheless, we must remind ourselves that most variants are not entirely important to our faith. In fact, most obnoxious variants can be properly eliminated via textual criticism. I believe that textual variants such as these must have needed to occur. What would we think of a perfect Bible? Would not we just discard it on the grounds that it was “recently compiled”? Would not a coherent text reveal its own youthfulness? I think it would. Had the New Testament been so detached from the fierce theological battles of past eras, it would have been viewed as a “text of recent composition.” Had it not suffered at the hands of human scribes, it would have become quickly disposed of. But because the New Testament was so powerful, so entrenched in history, it suffered. Because the New Testament was written by humans, for humans, and through humans, it suffered. Had the NT come from God directly, it would have been irrelevant to us humans. (I do not mean to say that God is irrelevant.) Much of the NT text can be restored with great certainty—there are those few scattered verses that have been tampered with. In spite of it all, the NT remains God’s Word. In a very real and human sense. In a historical sense.

Because Jesus was seen as super-God by some early Christians and super-human by others, it makes sense for us to allow some room for simple diversity. Maybe this exercise will allow us to be more loving towards other denominations. Maybe we can now understand the difficulty of establishing precisely who Christ was and is. In fact, according to Mark’s “messianic secret,” Jesus wanted His identity to remain a secret. Maybe it is fitting to end a discussion on Jesus identity by simply stating that it is still a secret/parable. “He told them, ‘The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables’” (Mark 4:11 NIV).

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev


[1] מָשִׁיחַ (Māšîaḥ). We transliterate the word into the English “messiah.” In Greek, it was translated as Χριστός (Khristós), which means “annointed one.” The Greek is correct in the sense that the Hebrew originally meant “one who is anointed” (i.e., a king). Later, as some Jews awaited the coming of some King and High Priest that would save them, the term “anointed one” (and Jewish kings were anointed at the “induction ceremony”) came to mean more than just “anointed one” or even “king,” but “messiah” and “savior.”

[2] See Bart D. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effects of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament (New York, NY: Oxford University P, 1993), 85. The Old Latin manuscript ff2 for Luke 2:26 has Simeon being told that he will see “Christ, namely God” before his death.

[3] Cyrus the Great was called “anointed” many times by Isaiah the prophet. He was a gentile king who was viewed favorably by most peoples; being democratic and peaceful in spirit.

[4] Antiquities of the Jews, 18.63.

[5] Bart D. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, 87.

[6] Ibid., 94.

[7] John 1:38; 3:2;8:4; 11:28; Matt. 8:19;26:25 Mk 9: 5,17; Lk 20:39. These verses, and many more, clearly demonstrate that Jesus was known as the “Rabbi” and “Teacher” by both the disciples and His own enemies. It is also interesting to note that in the gentile Gospel of Luke, the name “Rabbi” never occurs—this reveals Luke’s bias.

[8] Ibid., 78-82. This entire exercise is dealt with in-depth by major commentaries and by Bart D. Ehrman. My text closely follows Ehrman.

[9] Selection taken from James M. Robinson, ed., The Nag Hammadi Library, revised edition (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1990), 193.

[10] I will admit that the evidence that Codex Alexandrinus originally read theos instead of hos is relatively poor. If one examines the manuscript closely, one sees that a later scribe used a more modern ink and turned the hos into theos. Nevertheless, this is still relevant to my argument that scribes changed Scripture to suit their purposes—be it in the fourth or fifteenth century.

[11] Ibid., 83-84.

[12] For other Gnostics, the angels were the ones who created us. This view was espoused by Simon Magus, according to most of our ancient sources.

[13] Ibid., 125-135.

[14] Ibid., 139-140.

[15] This anecdote I got from reading Thom Stark’s excellent book on biblical inspiration, The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2011), 160.

[16] This entire argument is more detailed in Ehrman’s, Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, 91-92.

[17] Cf. Bart D. Ehrmann and Mark A. Plunkett, “The Angel and the Agony: the Textual Problem of Luke

22:43-44”, CBQ 45 (1983/3): 401-416. Also Bart D. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, 187-194.

[18] I speak with natural human limitations—there is simply no evidence for a coherent form of Christianity in the first two centuries. No reputable historian should make the claim that “orthodox” Christianity was easily separable from “heretical” Christianity. The NT is evidence itself of the diversity of “unified” Christianity. Paul’s words in Romans 14 must constantly remind us that there will always be those “weak” Christians. Not to mention the fact that 1 Corinthians 12-14 clearly demonstrates the fact that each member had different functions and possibly even beliefs (Rom. 14). I only use the words “orthodox” and “heretic” in extremely vague and general terms. Paul admired diversity, remember the battles between Jewish and Gentile Christians. Here “orthodox” just means what is most likely the “correct” view, and what was eventually considered by the majority the correct view. Thus, “orthodox” is synonymous with “majority opinion.”

Sin, Guilt, and Atonement in Judaism: Why Jesus is Not the (Jewish) Answer

Sin—and its ugly cousins, guilt and atonement—are not very popular topics. Christopher Hitchens called the atonement—that “ancient superstition”[1]—Christianity’s most immoral sin. He succinctly put his thoughts on atonement into clear words, probably reflecting the views of many modern people:

“Once again we have a father demonstrating love by subjecting a son to death by torture, but this time the father is not trying to impress god. He is god, and he is trying to impress humans. Ask yourself the question: how moral is the following? I am told of a human sacrifice that took place two thousand years ago, without my wishing it and in circumstances so ghastly that, had I been present and in possession of any influence, I would have been duty-bound to try and stop it. In consequence of this murder, my own manifold sins are forgiven me, and I may hope to enjoy everlasting life.”[2]

Hitchens is not alone in viewing the vicarious death of Jesus as morally repulsive. Many secular moderns feel very similar emotions. The atonement sounds like a bunch of hogwash. But why are the concepts of atonement, both within Judaism and Christianity, so morally repulsive? I believe this increase in disgust towards religious concepts of atonement is inevitably linked to modern man’s denial of the concept of sin. And the concept of sin is further denied because sin is impossible without God. A secular man who denies God is a secular man who denies sin; a secular man who denies sin is a secular man who denies any such thing as atonement. The Jewish theologian, Michael Wyschogrod, acutely aware of this problem, correctly writes that “sin is so difficult for modern, secular man to accept.”[3] Moreover, those concepts which are most closely related to sin—namely, guilt, punishment, and atonement—are rendered meaningless once sin itself is eliminated. Therefore, there is a “reluctance to speak of guilt and punishment, concepts that many today find psychologically unhealthy.”[4]

In light of the comments made above by Hitchens regarding the idea of atonement—predictably coming from a man who has zero training in theology and is an anti-theist—I believe that a more nuanced approach towards sin, guilt, and atonement must be taken. In what follows, I will look at these three concepts from a Jewish perspective, mostly engaging with Wyschogrod’s illuminating essay “Sin and Atonement in Judaism,” which, I hope, will further deepen our understanding of Christian understandings of these concepts (having sprouted out of Judaism anyhow).

Wyschogrod begins by observing that Judaism has long been on the defensive regarding sin, guilt, and atonement. He sees Jewish theology obsessively slaving away under the pressure of Christians and secular people. The Jewish theologians were too busy trying to make distinctions between that which was Jewish and that which was Christian; that which was Jewish and that which was secular. Instead of taking this approach, Wyschogrod takes a thoroughly Orthodox Jewish approach in which he mostly engages, first and foremost, with the biblical texts themselves. Wyschogrod is mostly trying to address the issues of atonement and sin from a thoroughly Bible-centered perspective.

Regarding sin, Wyschogrod writes that the Jewish theologians had to compose their theology reacting to Christianity’s stance. In Christianity, especially early Christianity, the idea that flourished was the sinfulness of humankind at the expense of God’s mercy. That is, the Christians were more prone to elaborating upon humankind’s absolute sinfulness before God than they were at speaking about God’s mercy and the beauty of God’s creation. In such a way, Judaism was seen to take a more positive view of the world; whereas Christianity took a more negative view towards the world. Where the Christians exalted celibacy, the Jews exalted marriage; where the Christians preached rejection of material goods and their (almost) inherent evil, the Jews saw everything material as being good because God said it was (Genesis 1:31). “[C]ondemnation of the material came to Christianity from Platonic and Gnostic sources which were and are in sharp conflict with the life-affirming realism of Judaism, for which celibacy is not only not a virtue but—if the word can be used—a sin.”[5] Wyschogrod sees Christianity as essentially deviating significantly from its Jewish roots. Moreover, the Jews, by recognizing that the Christians rejected this world (or, at least, that is what the Jews perceived Christians were doing) were rewriting their own theology—they began downplaying the sinfulness of humanity and the goodness of marriage and the material world. Wyschogrod argues that, still later, the Jews accepted secularism’s anti-sin stance hook, line, and sinker. “It is the secular spirit of our time that finds talk about sin objectionable.”[6] in modern times it is this culmination and combination of various factors which have led to modern, liberal Jews taking an anti-sin position—sin no longer is a popular or even a “gentleman’s” topic. Sin is something that our dumb ancestors came up with; it is high time to shed such superstitious beliefs.

But what exactly is sin, and why is it something which “liberal” Jews and secular men find repulsive? Wyschogrod believes that sin is contingent upon God’s existence. Once we eliminate God out the picture (as Hitchens does) it is impossible to speak of sin. No such thing exists. He writes that sin is, simply, a “violation of the command of God.”[7] Moreover, Wyschogrod believes that secular folk commonly assume that sin is to be identified with wrongdoing and vice versa. However, sin is not wrongdoing per se. Sin is only possible when there is a violation of a command which came from a lawgiver. That is, sin is an attack on the personality of God; it is an attack on God’s authority. It is to say to God, “I know you personally, I know what you hate, and I choose to do that which you hate.” Sin is committed only against those who have personalities. On the contrary, the secular folk, who deny God’s existence, simply exchange sin with the word “wrongdoing.” For them, any kind of technical error is wrong and hence is a “wrongdoing.” But this makes “sin” (i.e., “wrongdoing”) analogous to committing an error when solving a mathematical equation. It is paramount to claiming that sin is nothing more than just a human error. Big deal? A man answered the question What is 2+2?with 5.The problem with secular conceptions of sin should now be obvious: the principles underlying such conceptions are inherently atheistic and presume the nonexistence of divine commands coming from a personality. Wyschogrod argues that the secular conception of sin can only lead to “regret” not (religious) guilt. How could a person solving an objective mathematical equation incorrectly feel guilty? Such a person feels mere regret. That’s it. “[S]uch a violation does not constitute sin.”[8]

In what ways does a Jewish conception of sin, which is inherently religious, differ from a secular conception of “wrongdoing”? We have already noted how Wyschogrod makes a distinction between religious sin/guilt and secular wrongdoing/regret. We have also already looked at the importance of God and personality. I will now attempt to synthesize a thoroughly Jewish and biblical perspective on sin—the gospel according to Wyschogrod.

Wyschogrod takes us back to the Garden of Eden. In the Garden, God gave Adam and Eve a divine command which was rooted in Him—rooted in His divine personality—“Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for on the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (Gen. 2:16-17 KJV). Wyschogrod succinctly summarizes this narrative theologically:

“The implication clearly is that eating of the forbidden tree will result in man obtaining knowledge of good and evil. Instead of simply obeying the divine lawgiver, he will then be in a position to know why the good is good and the evil, evil. It seems that God does not wish man to have this knowledge. He is to obey God in order to obey God and for no other reason. And when he disobeys God, he has not violated a law that has an autonomous claim on his conscience and which therefore puts him in the wrong in an objective sense, but he has rebelled against God, whose command he has broken. The violation is, then, directed at God. And because it is directed at God, it constitutes a break in a relationship between God and man and requires remediation.”[9]

Now that Wyschogrod had defined sin according to the Hebrew Bible, he has laid the foundation for us to what will now follow: the concepts of guilt and atonement.

Because sin is a transgression of (1) a divine command issued by (2) God who has (3) a personality, this means that sin inevitably leads to a broken relationship, which further results in (a) guilt and, later, (b) (possible) atonement.

In the Garden, “[m]an’s first sin is thus an act of disobedience whose aim is to obtain a knowledge that will make man God-like.”[10] Apart from this knowledge, prior to the eating of the fruit, humankind was entirely dependent upon God, both for morality and guilt. If God did not tell you to feel guilty, you couldn’t possibly feel guilty. Humankind had been given the choice to live according to God’s idea of right and wrong, and, ultimately, God’s idea of good and evil. However, humans had decided that God was acting capriciously when handing down commands. In this way, “[m]an not only disobeys God but signals his determination not to accept permanently the status of a creature of God dependent on God for instruction as to what is permitted and forbidden. He is determined to make his own judgment as to what is good or bad and thus become God-like.”[11]

Once Adam and Eve decide to make their own morality, not grounded in God but in their own (limited and sin-stained) reason, they discover that they are naked and feel ashamed (i.e., guilty). They start to think that there is something wrong with being naked. But how could they know? “God immediately recognizes that Adam and Eve are making independent moral judgments that are not derived from any divine command, and that can only mean that man has disobeyed God’s command not to eat of the forbidden fruit.”[12] Here is the decisive moment: Adam and Eve had discovered their own morality, grounded in nothing but capricious disobedience to God their Maker. Here they were at the epitome of reason!

On the one hand the seculars have their Platonic doctrine of “sin.” That is, humanity is essentially seen as comprised of knowing beings who act according to what they know. Moreover, they generally tend to do that which they know to be good. In Plato’s conception of reality, sin is merely a person doing that which they do in ignorance or ignorantly, again, confuse the good with the bad. In Plato’s conception of sin, those who commit it are not necessarily “evil,” they are merely “ignorant.” If ignorant, one may not necessarily be punished; rather, one is to be pitied. Clearly, Plato’s conception of sin is not what the Bible has in mind. The Bible does have things to say about sins committed in ignorance (Num. 15:22-24), however, the Bible sees sin as ultimately disobedience to God. God alone is Good and Just; he is the one who ultimately knows what is good for you, for He has made you. Wyschogrod argues that, contrary to Plato’s idea of sin, the Bible’s approach is very different. “The focus of attention is not on the particular nature of the act, its inherent wrongness or immorality. The focus is on the giver of the command and the damage that the sin has done to man’s relationship with the being who is behind the command.”[13] On the flip side, “obeying his command is to honor God, to recognize his authority, and to proclaim oneself dependent on him and subject to his will.”[14]

Now we must ask the simple question which many are probably dying to hear: is God in charge of reality or does man have free will? Wyschogrod makes a brief comment here that tends to give us a sense of what the Bible seems to be saying holistically. “[I]t is difficult to escape the conclusion that the Bile understands that, by and large, people do what they do because they want to do it and that they could have done other than what they in fact ended up doing.”[15] Given this underlying presupposition, it is easy to see why the Bible could place so much punishment upon humankind for their sins. This retributive justice, inevitably, brings to mind feeling of guilt, shame, and remorse. Only a man facing his own very real sin can claim to feel repentant and, ultimately, guilty. In this way, Christianity brings guilt upon humankind in full force and with unabated fury. While Wyschogrod agrees with the Christians that humans are sinful and should feel guilty, he believes that this sort of approach is extreme. He also is weary of the Jewish counter-reaction which resulted in sin being downplayed, along with guilt and shame. Summarizing his views of Christianity, he writes:

“Since the fall, man is naturally depraved and headed for damnation, from which only faith in Jesus as the messiah can save him. The net effect, at least to the Jewish observer, has been that Christianity seems to have emphasized the sinfulness of man far more than does Judaism.”[16]

In this way, “Christianity tends, far more than Judaism, to generate feelings of guilt and worthlessness.”[17] In such a way, the Jews believe that Christians have a “rather unhealthy view of human sexuality.”[18] Because the Jews wanted to present their faith as being different from Christianity, they made sin virtually nonexistent in Judaism (unfairly, according to Wyschogrod). “[S]in in Judaism plays a much less central role than it does in Christianity…”[19] Wyschogrod argues that Judaism’s response was not fair to biblical theology, especially prophetic conceptions of justice, sin, and atonement. “The dreadful possibilities of sin and the catastrophic consequences of sin are integral and fundamental parts of Judaism, both biblical and rabbinic.”[20] Despite Wyschogrod’s comments about the centrality of sin in the Bible, he believes that Jews are, nonetheless, much more optimistic when it comes to thinking about human nature. “The terror of total damnation, of total rejection by God is thus absent, and it is perhaps this, more than anything else, which enables Jewish optimism to coexist with profound understanding of the sinfulness of man and the reality of punishment.”[21]

But is Wyschogrod fair to Christians? After all, as a Christian, I can interpret the Hebrew Bible along the exact lines Wyschogrod does. I can further add that humans are worth so much in God’s eyes that God had sent His only Son to save them. Isn’t that more optimistic than Wyschogrod’s claim that only the Jewish conception can be so “guilt-free” and “optimistic”? Personally, while I agree with Wyschogrod, I do not think his observations regarding Christianity are entirely fair and correct. While he may be right about some (or even many) Christians, his statement is certainly not the last: the Christians can have certainly just as much optimism (if not more) than the Jews. For the Christian has the same Hebrew Bible as Wyschogrod…and then some.

We now come to the subject of atonement. Why is atonement theology in so much disgrace amongst the secular people, liberal Jews, and liberal Christians? The answer, according to Wyschogrod, is relatively straight-forward: we have succumbed to a thoroughly rational ethical system—we love Kant a whole lot. “[B]ecause the moral law is not a person, it cannot forgive anything, just as mathematics cannot pardon those who add incorrectly or drop an integer in a subtraction.”[22] With an objective moral framework, sin simply is impossible. Humans are seen as rational beings who merely make mistakes vis-a-vis the moral law. “The past can be learned from and the repetition of the mistake can be avoided, but the past mistake cannot be erased.” Because this is the case, “there is no place for a doctrine of atonement in autonomous human ethics.”[23] Once a human makes a mistake within a strictly Kantian moral framework, one is simply aware of how wrong one was; one is not obligated to feel guilty or shameful. One merely says, “Oh well, I committed adultery and I do not wish this act to become a universal categorical imperative. Next time I will not commit such an act.” In such an ethical system, there is no need for atonement. In fact, atonement would be impossible where sin does not exist. But with God all ethical systems change. The rules change. The game changes.

With a personal God who has a personality, wrongs committed against Him in disobedience to His divine commands constitute sin. And God, if He so chooses, can, as a personality that has relations to His creatures, forgive. “God tells sinning man that, in a sense, the past can be changed.”[24] According to rational ethics which do not have a personal God with a personality, sin is impossible and hence forgiveness is not really an option. However, in a religious framework, sin occurs and so does forgiveness. But how is one forgiven? How does one atone for one’s sins?

In Judaism, after the destruction of the Temple in the year seventy, the Jews were faced with a dilemma: they could no longer offer sacrifices to God. What were they to do? Wyschogrod shows us that the Jews went back to the Hebrew Bible and found texts which emphasized the point of sacrifices. The point was not the mere external act of offering God a sacrifice; the crux of the matter lie in the issue of whether such sacrifices were offered in a state of repentance. That is, a good sacrifice was good in so far as the heart offering the sacrifice was repentant before God. The Christians, on the other hand, responded by pointing out the contingency of Judaism—being useful only with a standing Temple and endless sacrifices. They thought that Judaism surely would collapse. After all, the Jews no longer had a way to become “at one” with God; without the sacrifices and the Temple, they were always in the wrong with God. The Jews responded to this: “Not so fast,” they said. They began “to stress the power of repentance.”[25] They turned to the “prophetic texts that spoke with very little admiration of sacrifices unaccompanied by the turning of the heart.”[26] In such a way, repentance was sufficient for atonement of sins. God accepted a repentant heart. In this way, the Jews were able to maintain their faith, its distinctions, and were able to refrain from falling prey to the clutches of the Christian Messiah, Jesus Christ. Who needs the atonement of Jesus when one has (sufficient) repentance?

This is the gospel according to Wyschogrod; in short, these are his reasons for rejecting Jesus as the Messiah—Jesus is not necessary for salvation. However, contrary to the opinions of the secular folk, he maintains the existence of sin, guilt, and atonement (by means of repentance). In a very memorable sentence, concluding his article, Wyschogrod writes:

“By pronouncing ‘It was very good,’ God takes responsibility for the totality of his creation in which sin, as well redemption, becomes possible.”[27]

Wyschogrod is content with Judaism, so long as it is grounded in the Hebrew Bible in an authentic way. He believes that dialogue with Christians is possible—and should continue. Likewise, dialogue with those secular folk should continue as well. While he may not convince me regarding the so-called “pessimism” of Christianity, he does partially persuade me that Jesus may not be, by necessity, the answer for Torah-observant Jews.[28]

All in all, Wyschogrod attempts to think both critically, sincerely, and robustly regarding sin, guilt, and atonement both in Judaism and Christianity. He tries to formulate a theology that is relatively fair (with some objections) both to Christians and Jews. In this sense, perhaps, his article is of utmost importance. He engages Christianity, he seems to understand good portions of it, and still stays faithful to his own Jewish convictions. His article is illuminating to Christian readers, those who may find it difficult to understand why a Jew rejects Jesus. Moreover, his clear presentation of the nonexistence of sin and guilt in modern ethics is very brilliantly and succinctly written. For this I do commend him. I have yet to read a better rejection of Jesus as the Jewish Messiah than this.

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev


Hitchens, Christopher. God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. New York: Twelve, 2009.

Wyschogrod, Michael. Abraham’s Promise: Judaism and Jewish-Christian Relations. Radical Traditions: Theology in a Postcritical Key. ed. by R. Kendall Soulen.Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004.


[1] Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Twelve, 2009), 209.

[2] Ibid. Italics original.

[3] Michael Wyschogrod, “Sin and Atonement in Judaism,” in Abrahams Promise: Judaism and Jewish-Christian Relations, Radical Traditions: Theology in a Postcritical Key, ed. R. Kendall Soulen (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), 55.

[4] Ibid., 60.

[5] Ibid., 54.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 55.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 56.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 57.

[13] Ibid., 59.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 63.

[16] Ibid., 67.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid. Italics mine.

[21] Ibid., 68.

[22] Ibid., 69.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., 70.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid., 74.

[28] See his article “”Paul, Jews, and Gentiles” in Abrahams Promise: Judaism and Jewish-Christian Relations, Radical Traditions: Theology in a Postcritical Key, ed. R. Kendall Soulen (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), 188-201.

Philippians 2:6-11: A Creedal Hymn Reflecting Proto-Trinitarian Theology

Introductory Remarks

Philippians 2:6-11 is perhaps the single most written about pericope in the entire New Testament. In it, one finds a tight-packed theological reflection on Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, exaltation and, finally, one finds what it means to reflect Christ’s attitude. It is, in the words of Gordon D. Fee, “the very heart of Pauline theology.”[1] Moreover, being “one of the most exalted, most beloved, and most discussed and debated passages in the Pauline corpus.”[2] This “creedal hymn” has had virtually every aspect of it debated—words, grammar, authorship, structure, redaction, history, etc.—not a single rock was left unturned. Given the fact that such is the fate of this pericope, I will merely selectively mention things that I find of particular importance. I presuppose the pericope to be a creedal hymn that was, in one way or another, either written by Paul or, at the very least, edited by him. Many such things are, at best, speculative, and I will not, therefore, spend much time dealing with them here. My main interest here will be to look at the Greek grammar, syntax, and vocabulary used in the hymn—at times interacting with other scholars, too. I will, finally, reflect on the theological implications of this hymn and how it relates to Christian ethics and Trinitarian thinking.

Verse 6

ὃς ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ ὑπάρχων οὐχ ἁρπαγμὸν ἡγήσατο τὸ εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ

“Who, because of his being in the ‘form’ (μορφῇ) of God, he did not consider equality with God as something to be seized upon.”

Prior to verse 6, Paul admonishes the Philippians to have a certain frame of mind while being Christian. He tells them to have the mindset of Christ. But what is that mindset? What is it like to follow and be like Christ? Verse 6 thus follows on the heels of an imperative (φρονεῖτε, “you all have this mind set”) and begins by laying out what Paul exactly means. Paul begins verse 6 with the relative pronoun ὃς. “The Christ-hymn proper starts here. Its initial word, the relative pronoun ὃς, “who,” recalls the way other hymnlike confessions in the NT begin (cf. Col 1:15; 1 Tim 3:16; Heb 1:3[)]….”[3] Following this is the difficult noun (dative singular feminine) μορφῇ, “form,” which is further modified by the adjectival (descriptive) genitive θεοῦ (“of God”). This noun occurs only twice in Paul (here and verse 7) and once in Pseudo-Mark (16:12). The noun μορφῇ can be translated best as ‘form’ (in quotation marks). Fee argues that it should best be translated as “that which truly characterizes a given reality.”[4] “[I]t denotes ‘form’ or ‘shape’ not in terms of the external features by which something is recognized, but of those characteristics and qualities that are essential to it.”[5] Furthermore, when the hymn will later on say that Christ took the form of a slave, “it is not likely that its author had in mind that Christ merely looked like or had the external appearance of a slave.”[6] That is, μορφῇ does not necessarily retain the simple meaning of “form”—in fact, it cannot. The word should be seen, as Fee suggests, meaning something along the lines of that which truly characterizes a given reality.

            Contra Fee,[7] the author of the hymn—Paul or somebody else—“did not wish to say that Christ was θεός, ‘God.’”[8] Moreover, the author did not say that Christ was “the form of God” (ὃς μορφῇ θεοῦ ὑπάρχων) but rather ἐν (“in”) in the form of God. Clearly, the author is not saying that Christ is the God.[9] Christ is a preposition away from being θεός. At least in this verse. In verses like these, one gets the sense that the author of the hymn was not, by any means, intending for Christ to be identified with God the Father; rather, the intent appears to be to exalt Christ to divine status—as the following verses will reveal—but not at the expense of having the Father lose His place of paradoxical supremacy. Only Trinitarian theology, I believe, can make any systematic sense of this verse, as we will later see.

And, finally, the author’s use of the participle ὑπάρχων “is a widely used substitute in Hellenistic Greek for εἶναι, ‘to be.’”[10] On the other hand, despite this usage, many argue that ὑπάρχων here has a more precise meaning. “[T]hough often simply be, the exact sense is be from the beginning, w[ith] ref[erence] to God would mean being from all eternity.”[11] Fee, noting that the term ὑπάρχων is interchangeable with εἶναι (the infinitive “to be”), further suggests that the term could mean “to exist (really).”[12] He also disagrees with Zerwick’s A Grammatical Analysis of the Greek New Testament and states that “in the koine period the word on its own w[ould] hardly bear that weight [i.e., that the word would imply prior existence].”[13] Because of the disagreements, and the subjectivity of the conclusions, I believe it best to simply translate the participle with the neutral term “being.” There is, however, further ongoing debate about whether the participle is concessive or causal. Concessive participles should be translated with “although” and causal would be translated with the conjunction “because.” “[I]f ὑπάρχων is causal, ἁρπαγμὸν means robbery (“who, because he existed in God’s form, did not consider equality with God as robbery”); if ὑπάρχων is concessive, then ἁρπαγμὸν means a thing to be grasped (“who, although he existed in God’s form, did not consider equality with God as a thing to be grasped”).[14] Daniel B. Wallace believes, grammatically speaking, that “[o]nly the concessive idea for the participle and a thing to be grasped translation for ἁρπαγμὸν fit well with v 7.”[15] Or, if one wants to simply ignore such strict dichotomizing of the grammar, one could—as Fee will below—simply translate the participle as “being”; being preceded with neither an “although” (concessive) or a “because” (causal).

We now come to the difficult term, a hapax legomenon in the NT, ἁρπαγμὸν, which could be translated as “a thing to be grasped” or “robbery.” The noun is from the verb ἁρπάζω, which can mean “I seize spoil,” “I seize a prize by force,” “I snatch away [not in secret]” or “I obtain by robbery”—it can have any of these similar range of meanings. While the verb occurs in both the Old and New Testaments (e.g. Amos 4:11; Zech 3:2; Matt 13:19; 2 Cor 12:2, 4, etc.), with a range of meanings—not all with the implied meaning of “robbery,” as in 2 Corinthians, where Paul describes his ascent into heaven with the aorist passive participle ἁρπαγέντα (“having been caught, snatched away”)—it is, therefore, unclear as to what the noun actually means. Fee mentions C. F. D. Moule’s argument that the noun, being a noun which end in -mos (the noun ἁρπαγμὸν is the accusative singular masculine from the nominative ἁρπαγμός, hence the -mos ending), should be seen not as a noun referring to the “concrete expression of the verbal idea but to the verbal idea itself.”[16] Carrying this line of thought, Fee continues, “In this view harpagmos is not to be thought of as a ‘thing’ at all…Rather it is an abstract noun, emphasizing the concept of ‘grasping’ or ‘seizing.’”[17] Fee also, rather in a syncretic manner, sees the phrase “not harpagmon” as “correspond[ing] to ‘not looking out for one’s own needs.’”[18] John Reumann points out that W. Jaeger saw the entire phrase as being an idiom meaning to “regard something as a stroke of luck, a windfall, a piece of good fortune.”[19] However, this idiom occurs in much later documents (such as Heliodorus’ Ethiopian Story [3rd or 4th century]). Some scholars look for the noun’s meaning in the OT. The phrase τὸ ἅρπαγμα  (Lev 5:23) is used to translate the Hebrew noun  הַגְּזֵלָ֜ה (Lev 5:23), which is from the Hebrew Qal verb  גָּזָ֗ל (“to seize, plunder, steal”). The neuter verb occurs in the singular and in the plural in the OT 18 times (including Sirach [16:13] and the Psalms of Solomon [2:24]). In all the OT contexts, the terms clearly denotes “robbery” and “plundering.”) Finally, the noun could be taken as a synonym of its cognate term harpagma (“booty” or “prey”). If this is the case, it could be translated, in Paul’s context, as “‘a matter to be seized upon’ in the sense of ‘taking advantage of it.’”[20] Adding to the chaos, some scholars see the nouns (harpagma and harpagmos) as being identical; they “were used synonymously in the Hellenistic period.”[21] Despite the difficulties, as it should be obvious by now, the differences between the different approaches are, in some ways, rather negligible. I agree with Reumann’s conclusions: “The difficult (and rare) word harpagmos (6b) is probably to be taken as equivalent of harpagma, ‘a thing seized.’”[22]

It is time for us to look at some interesting grammar issues present in this highly contentious text. In Greek the structure of the clause ἁρπαγμὸν ἡγήσατο τὸ εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ is a double accusative; that is, the verb ἡγήσατο (“he deemed, considered”) has both ἁρπαγμὸν (“robbery, something to be grasped”) and the definite article with the infinitive τὸ εἶναι (“the to be”) as its objects. “[B]y putting ‘not harpagmon’ in the emphatic first position, Paul indicates that the infinitive that follows refers back to the initial participle phrase, in a kind of A-B-A structure. Thus, ‘in his being in the form of God (A), not harpagmon did Christ consider (B) his being be equal with God (A’).’”[23] Fee then also sees the article before the infinitive not as marking out the infinitive as the object of ἡγήσατο but as functioning as “anaphoric.” Thus, the text should be translated as:

“Who, although being in the form of God, did not consider it something to be grasped; he did not consider [τὸ] being in the form of God [the anaphoric definite article functioning here to refer back to “being in the form of God”] to be [εἶναι] equal to God.”

Hence the more paraphrastic translation:

“Who, although being in the form of God, did not consider it something to be grasped; he did not consider his being in the form of God to mean that he was equal to God.”

The above are my own interpretations of Fee’s suggestions. He does, however, offer up his own version, which reads:

Being in the ‘form’ of God as he was

Christ did not consider a matter of seizing upon it to his own advantage,

this being equal with God we have just noted,

but he emptied himself.[24]

Interestingly enough, Martin & Hawthorne’s commentary also takes this definite article preceding the infinitive as anaphoric. In their view, “a function of the definite article here is to point back to something previously mentioned.”[25] That is, this article is not to be identified as an article that stands modifying the infinitive, making it a direct-object articular “substantival infinitive.” Despite the above views, Wallace maintains that “[i]n this text the infinitive is the object and the anarthrous term, ἁρπαγμὸν, is the complement. The most natural reason for the article with the infinitive is simply to mark it out as the object.”[26]  He continues: “This is an example of a direct object infinitive in an object-complement construction. Here the infinitive is the object and the anarthrous term ἁρπαγμὸν is the complement, in keeping with the normal structural pattern of object-complement constructions.”[27] Thus, you have this translation: “He did not consider equality with God as something to be grasped.” In this case, the infinitive is functioning as nothing but a noun, which is then complemented by another noun ἁρπαγμὸν (“something to be grasped”). While both Fee and Martin & Hawthorne’s commentaries argue for taking the definite article as anaphoric to μορφῇ θεοῦ (“form of God”), grammatically speaking, Wallace offers some potent critiques. In the same epistle, Paul uses the articular substantival infinitives as direct objects. For example, in 2:13 Paul writes:

θεὸς γάρ ἐστιν ὁ ἐνεργῶν ἐν ὑμῖν καὶ τὸ θέλειν καὶ τὸ ἐνεργεῖν ὑπὲρ τῆς εὐδοκίας

“For the one working in you all both the willing and the working for his good pleasure is God.”

Notice, then, that in the above citation, Paul is using articular substantival infinitives as the objects of the participle ἐνεργῶν (“working”). The problem with Wallace’s position is that not all substantival infinitives take a definite article. However, from the context, Wallace, Fee, and Hawthorne & Martin are correct in seeing the infinitive as an object. To be fair, in the NT direct-object infinitives are rare. J. L. Boyer only lists two such direct-object occurrences (2 Cor 8:11 and Phil 4:10).[28] Wallace goes on to list, in addition, John 5:26, Phil 2:6, and maybe 2:13. Despite their rarity, it is reasonable that the infinitive in 2:6 is most certainly an “articular-less” direct-object substantival infinitive (the article before the infinitive being anaphoric). Thus, we would translate the infinitive as merely: “to be equal to God”; this being equal to God would, then, be functioning as the object of the verb ἡγήσατο (“he deemed, considered”).

Last but not least, to finish this verse, we must deal briefly with ἴσα θεῷ (“equal to God”). The nominative pleural neuter adjective ἴσα is from the word ἴσος (“equal”). As in John 5:18 the adjective is functioning as a predicate adjective, further telling us something about the noun—the ὃς who is clearly to be identified with Jesus Christ. Already in John, Jesus is accused of calling God his own father, thus making himself equal to God (ἴσον ἑαυτὸν ποιῶν τῷ θεῷ). Following a similar vein of thought, the Philippians hymn is stating that Jesus “although being in the ‘form’ of God” did not attempt to consider equality with God as something to be grasped. On the other hand, Jesus took the road less travelled, which brings us to verse 7.

Verse 7

ἀλλ᾽ ἑαυτὸν ἐκένωσεν μορφὴν δούλου λαβών, ἐν ὁμοιώματι ἀνθρώπων γενόμενος·

“But he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, in the likeness of men becoming, and being found in the likeness as man.”

The fascinating verb ἐκένωσεν is the aorist active indicative third person singular from κενόω (“I empty”). The verb is found five times in the NT (Rom 4:14; 1 Cor 1:17; 9:15; 2 Cor 9:3; and our passage). Romans speaks of those who are heirs if they depend on the law and not on faith—if such is the case, then the promise is κεκένωται (“it has been emptied”). As one can see from the occurrences in the NT, the word is thoroughly a Pauline word. This would support Fee’s position that the hymn originated with Paul (though he does not think it is a hymn!). But of what did Christ empty himself? “[O]n grammatical grounds it is impossible for ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ to be the object of ἐκένωσεν; the former is separate from the verb by the strong adversative ἀλλά.”[29] Those who argue that Christ emptied himself of his divinity (if that is what ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ implies) are arguing from a much skewed theological perspective (not grounded in the Greek text itself). It is best to simply read the text in a straightforward manner and see it as basically stating that Christ emptied himself in the sense that he took on the “form” or “nature” of a servant/slave.

The phrase μορφὴν δούλου (“form of a slave”) is set into direct contradistinction to the earlier phrase μορφῇ θεοῦ (“form of God”). “It is not as though Christ simply took on the external appearance of a slave or disguised himself as such. Instead, he became a slave, adopting the nature and characteristics of one.”[30] It is for this reason that some would be inclined to translate Fee’s ‘form’ (in quotation marks) with nature instead.

Verses 8-11

καὶ σχήματι εὑρεθεὶς ὡς ἄνθρωπος ἐταπείνωσεν ἑαυτὸν γενόμενος ὑπήκοος μέχρι θανάτου, θανάτου δὲ σταυροῦ. διὸ καὶ ὁ θεὸς αὐτὸν ὑπερύψωσεν καὶ ἐχαρίσατο αὐτῷ τὸ ὄνομα τὸ ὑπὲρ πᾶν ὄνομα, ἵνα ἐν τῷ ὀνόματι Ἰησοῦ πᾶν γόνυ κάμψῃ ἐπουρανίων καὶ ἐπιγείων καὶ καταχθονίων καὶ πᾶσα γλῶσσα ἐξομολογήσηται ὅτι κύριος Ἰησοῦς Χριστὸς εἰς δόξαν θεοῦ πατρός.

“And being found in the appearance as a human being, he humbled himself; becoming obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore also God highly exalted him and has granted him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow in heaven, on earth, and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, unto the glory of God the Father.”

The rest of the verses are relatively straightforward. The dative noun σχήματι (“outward appearance”) is to be contrasted with the phrase μορφῇ θεοῦ. The noun means “changeable outward shape, contrasted with morphe” which means, according to Reumann, “sphere” or “inner essential form.”[31] This is as close to Docetism as Paul ever comes.

Some interpreters see the textual variant for this verse, which occurs in Codex A, amongst other relatively late manuscripts (5th century onwards), as being the likely original reading. Most ancient texts have—most notably Papyrus 46—the finite verb aorist active subjunctive indicative (third person singular) ἐξομολογήσηται (“might confess”), whereas the variant is the aorist active future indicative ἐξομολογήσεται (“will confess”).[32] In Romans 14:11, Paul writes that κἀμψει πᾶν γόνυ (“every knee will bow”) and καὶ πᾶσα γλῶσσα ἐξομολογήσεται (“every tongue will confess”), echoing Isaiah 45:23.[33] However, in Philippians, Paul has changed the aorist active future verb κἀμψει (“will bow”) to κἀμψῃ (“might bow”). There is, then, good reason to suppose that Paul changed the second future finite verb to a subjunctive—which further corroborates the idea that Paul wrote this hymn.

Theological Reflections

This creedal hymn is Christian theology in a nutshell. As can be seen from the exegesis, or attempt at such an enterprise (!), one can sense what Paul was trying to do here. First, Paul attempts to place Christ as close to God the Father as possible. He remains a preposition away. Second, however, he goes on to say that Christ while being in the form of God (the only present verb in the pericope), did not think that equality with God is something to be grasped (whether he had it or was in the process of obtaining does not matter much and will probably never be settled). Christ is humble because he is “in the form of God.” Third, Paul, in verse 5, wants the Philippians to attempt to have this frame-of-mind in view. Of course the text is not saying that we, too, should “empty” ourselves by taking on human form—we already are human; rather, the text is saying that if Christ has such a character, what are we to do as his slaves? In this way, Christian ethics are clearly grounded in this passage. Fourth, and finally, Christ is given “the Name” which is above all other names. In his humiliation he is vicariously identified with Yahweh, as in Isaiah 45:23. Thus, though he remains distinct from God the Father, as the preposition so implies, he is, nevertheless, seen somehow as God.

As a side note, theologically speaking, some have seen an Adam-Christ theme being played out in this hymn. That is, unlike Adam, who was made in the “image of God,” Christ, though being in the “form of God,” did not do precisely what Adam did: that is, Christ did not try to be equal to God but, because[34] he was equal to God, Christ humbled himself (actively; he was not humbled by some external means) and emptied himself out. While, theologically, from a canonical perspective, this may make sense—and probably should be seen as a thoroughly possible possibility—as Fee remarks, while this is an “intriguing analogy” it is to be noted that “its basis is altogether conceptual, since there is not a single linguistic parallel to the Genesis narrative.”[35]

Written by Moses Y. Mikheyev


O’Brien, Peter T. The Epistle to the Philippians: A Commentary on the Greek Text. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991.

Fee, Gordon D. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Edited by Ned B. Stone, F. F. Bruce, and Gordon D. Fee. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995.

Martin, Ralph P, and Gerald F. Hawthorne. Philippians: Revised. Word Biblical Commentary. Vol. 43. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2004.

Reumann, John. Philippians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. The Anchor Yale Bible. Vol. 33B. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.

Wallace, Daniel B. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996.

Zerwick, Max, and Mary Grosvenor. A Grammatical Analysis of the Greek New Testament. Rome: Gregorian & Biblical Press, 2010.


[1] Gordon D. Fee, Pauls Letter to the Philippians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, eds. Ned B. Stone, F. F. Bruce, and Gordon D. Fee (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995), 217.

[2] Ibid., 192.

[3] Ralph P. Martin and Gerald F. Hawthorne, Philippians: Revised, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 43 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2004), 109.

[4] Fee, Pauls Letter to the Philippians, 204. Italics original.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Martin and Hawthorne, Philippians: Revised, 110.

[7] Pauls Letter to the Philippians, 204.

[8] Ibid., 110.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Max Zerwick and Mary Grosvenor, A Grammatical Analysis of the Greek New Testament (Rome: Gregorian & Biblical Press, 2010), 595.

[12] Fee, Pauls Letter to the Philippians, 202, n40.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 634. Italics original.

[15] Ibid., 635. Italics original.

[16] Fee, Pauls Letter to the Philippians, 206.


[18] Ibid., 208.

[19] John Reumann, Philippians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, The Anchor Yale Bible, Vol. 33B (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 346.

[20] Fee, Pauls Letter to the Philippians, 207.

[21] Reumann, Philippians, 346.

[22] Ibid., 367. Italics original.

[23] Ibid., 207, n62.

[24] Ibid., 207.

[25] Philippians: Revised, 114.

[26] Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, 186.

[27] Ibid., 602.

[28] Cited in Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, 601, n38.

[29] Peter T. O’Brien, The Epistle to the Philippians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1991), 218.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Reumann, Philippians, 351.

[32] That debate goes on about this textual variant is undeniable, contra the assumption of some scholars, there is certainly a difference between the future and the subjunctive—however tedious the debate may seem, see Reumann, Philippians, 373. Grammatically speaking, does the subordinating conjunction ἵνα [hina] (usually translated “so that”) express purpose (with the subjunctive) and does it later express result (with the future)? Or: should the hina express purpose in both the subjunctive κἀμψῃ and the subjunctive ἐξομολογήσηται. Clearly, the translations would be different.

[33] קְדָמַי תִכרַע כָל בַרַך תְקַיֵים כָל לִישָׁן

[34] Notice my causal translation of the participle.

[35] Fee, Pauls Letter to the Philippians, 209. Italics original.