Philippians 2:5-11

The ‘Christ Hymn’ as a challenge to the imperial cult?

Name of the author: 
Paul the Apostle
60 CE
Rome or Caesarea (from prison)
New Testament
Literary genre: 
Title of work: 
The Letter to the Philippians



There have been various suggestions regarding the background and influences upon this famous passage, sometimes known as the ‘Christ Hymn,’ which is possibly pre-Pauline (for the arguments for and against, see John Reumann, Philippians, p. 362-363), and expresses some of the most important early-Christian Christological assertions. Central is the claim that though Jesus was born in the likeness of a human being, he truly existed in the form of God, and because of his humility and willingness to die was awarded great glory by God, and would thereafter be worshipped by the entire cosmos. Some have seen potential influences from wisdom traditions, where the notion of a soul’s descent from and re-ascent to glory are common, and noted parallels with Jesus as a heavenly being who comes down to earth (see, for example, Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, “Christological Anthropology”). Others look to the Adam myth, where the first man, initially perfect, is created in God’s likeness, contrasting Adam’s greed with Jesus’s humility, Adam’s disobedience with Jesus’s obedience, and Adam’s condemnation with Jesus’s exaltation. The suffering servant motif of Isaiah 52-53 has also been understood as lying behind the text, where the servant figure dies and is subsequently exalted (for these latter two suggestions see R. P. Martin, Carmen Christi, on Adam and Christ esp. p. 163-164, and on the suffering servant p. 51-52, 147-148, 182-190, and 211-213). It has also been suggested that Isaiah 45, in which God promises that his chosen (Israel) will receive wealth, slaves, and will be bowed to might also lie behind the text. However, Isaiah 45:23 states that every knee will bow and every tongue will swear by God only, meaning that the rigid monotheism of the Hebrew Bible is relaxed slightly by the early-Christian writer/s of this text in order to give Jesus more glory (for this view, see David Seeley, “The Background of the Philippians Hymn”). For a concise survey of interpretation of the passage, see John Reumann, Philippians, p. 333-339.

Regardless of possibly earlier literary influence, however, in the context of the letter to the Philippians, suggestions have been made that Paul’s use of the text would have evoked Greco-Roman ruler worship. Dieter Georgi, for example (Theocracy in Paul’s Praxis and Theology, p. 73), argues that in the first-century socio-political context of the Philippian church, the text can be understood to be directly in competition with the imperial cult. This argument has since been taken up by David Seeley (“The Background of the Philippians Hymn”), who argues that the text appropriates some of the key claims made about the Roman emperor; particularly worldwide dominion and a claim to divinity. By this point in the first century, the early Christians were beginning to understand themselves as part of a godly kingdom which existed in opposition to all other kingdoms, and Christian authors took pains to explain the precise nature of this conflict (see, for instance, 1 Corinthians 15:24; Mark 11:10; 13:8; 14:25, which each envisage the demise of earthly rulerships and look forward to the coming kingdom of God). Israel’s claim as God’s chosen people gradually came to be overtaken by the emerging church, who saw themselves as the ‘new Israel’ and the inheritors of all that God promised to it (Paul’s writings are particularly pertinent in this regard; see for example 2 Corinthians 3:4-11). This sort of ideology, then, could feasibly lead early Christians to understand Christ as being an outright challenge to the emperor – the representation of the most powerful earthly dominion known to them. The language of the text might not only have felt perfectly familiar to an audience acquainted with the idea of human leaders (i.e. Roman emperors) becoming divine and worthy of worship, but may also have been understood by them as a clear undermining of the emperor’s significance in relation to Christ.

The notion of Jesus as somehow pre-existent, being divine in true form but sent to earth in human likeness can be compared to the idea in Horace, Odes I.2.41-46, where Augustus is understood as a divine being sent to earth in human form to aid the struggling world and avenge Caesar’s murder. Ovid, Ex Ponto II.8.1-16 also discusses the idea of the living emperor as a divine figure which one can pray to (through the medium of a statue), and the apotheosis of Julius Caesar (not an emperor of course, but still a ruler) is described at length in the Metamorphoses XV.745-759; 803-851. An extreme example of an emperor who went to great lengths to present himself as divine is Caligula (reigned from 37-41 CE), who is described by Josephus, Jewish Antiquities XVIII.8 as offending the Jews with this obsession, and is mocked by Philo, On the Embassy to Gaius 93-114, for his frequent dressing up as gods, whom Philo argues cannot be imitated. Suetonius, Caligula 22.3-4 also tells us that Caligula removed the heads of statues of gods and replaced them with his own likeness instead, and had a temple dedicated to his own divinity, where a golden statue would be dressed daily in whatever he was wearing himself. The notion of the emperor as divine, therefore, would have been something well known to Paul’s Philippian audience. When it comes to rulership,  Jesus’s superiority can be detected in comparison to the emperor when one considers texts such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses XV.858-860 and Virgil’s Georgics I.24-42, where Augustus’s power is described as great, yet is limited to the earth while he is alive (for Virgil, he will gain power in the heavens only after his deification; indeed, Augustus and many emperors who followed him did not want to be worshipped as gods while alive) – only Jupiter has dominion over the heavens. Jesus, on the other hand, is described as being given lordship over the earth, the heavens, and everything under the earth.

While Paul’s intention in including the ‘Christ Hymn’ was not necessarily to make a strong political statement against Roman authority (indeed, elsewhere he urges his Roman Christian audience not to oppose Roman rule, and understands it as a tool of God; see Romans 13:1-7), it is hard to imagine that the common ideology and imagery between the portrayal of Christ and the emperor would have been missed. Whatever the original influences on and intentions of the author/s of the text, for a Christian community who saw themselves as belonging to a much greater kingdom than the Roman empire (see Philippians 3:18-21), it is more than possible that this presentation of Christ would have on one level evoked the imperial cult.

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