February 12, 2023

The Ambiguous Punctuation of Philippians 2:7-8b


The Ambiguous Punctuation of Philippians 2:7-8b

Philippians 2:6-8 is perhaps the most contested passage in the New Testament. It has significant Christological implications and also a high level of syntactical ambiguity that presents a conundrum for interpretation.  

Robert Calhoun noted in his paper on Christological Punctuation, A note on Phil 2:3, the syntactical ambiguity in the construal of three successive participial phrases in verse 7b-d. A punctuation variant in Phil 2:7 noted in the critical text of the 25th edition of the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Grace (NA-25, 1964) was deleted in the 26th (NA-26, 1981), as well as the 27th and 28th editions. The deleted note says that Tischendorf puts a comma after ὡς ἄνθρωπος instead of a colon after γενόμενος. In fact, a closer inspection of modern printed editions of the Green NT reveals seven punctuation schemes of Philippians 2:7-8a, six of these devised prior to Lohmeyer's study in 1928. More recently, Joachim Jeremias’s rendition of the poetic structure in 1963 has gained scholarly acceptance. The various renderings that are permitted by this ambiguity have significant consequences for the passage's Christological implications. 

Let's look at the Jeremias rendering that opens a path to explain the Christology in Neo-Aramaic terms, as Charles Talbert has done in his paper, The Problem of Pre-Existence in Philippians 2:6–11 (JBL 86 (1967) 141–153). Jeremias proposes three strophes of four lines each, and he punctuates the end of the first strophe (6a–7b) with a period as follows.

Philippians 2:6-7b, Greek, Jeremais punctuation

ἀλλ’ ἑαυτὸν ἐκένωσεν μορφὴν δούλου λαβών· 

ἐν ὁμοιώματι ἀνθρώπων γενόμενος καὶ σχήματι εὑρεθεὶς ὡς ἄνθρωπος ἐταπείνωσεν ἑαυτὸν κτλ.

Philippians 2:6-7b, English, Jeremais punctuation

but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant.
Being born in the likeness of men, and being found in human form, he humbled himself.

Charles Talbert noted how dramatically this can impact interpretation. By accepting Jeremias's placement of a period after 7b, he presses the case that what is not being described are successive stages in a chronological narration, but rather the two strobes of 6a-7b and 7c-8b are parallel. Christ emptied himself by taking the form of a slave by becoming obedient to the point of death, not by setting aside a celestial form and adopting a terrestrial one as those who read incarnation into the passage assume. Rather the passage exhibits a Christology that can be explained in neo-adamic terms. That is, the Adam Christology that Unitarians affirm. 

Several other scholars adopt or adapt this punctuation. Including Jeremias, these include:

  • J. Jeremias, “Zur Gedankenführung in den paulinischen Briefen,” in Studia Paulina in honorem Johannis de Zwaan septuagenarii (ed. J.N. Sevenster and W.C. van Unnik; Haarlem: Bohn, 1953) 146–155, 154; idem, “Zu Phil ii 7: ἑαυτὸν ἐκένωσεν,” NovT 6 (1963) 182–188, 186.
  • L. Cerfaux, Christ in the Theology of St. Paul (New York: Herder & Herder, 1959) 382– 383;
  • J.M. Robinson, A New Quest of the Historical Jesus (SBT 1/25; London: SCM, 1959) 50–51
  • C.-H. Hunzinger, “Zur Struktur der Christus-Hymnen in Phil 2 und 1. Petr 3,” in Der Ruf Jesu und die Antwort der Gemeinde: Exegetische Untersuchungen Joachim Jeremias zum 70. Geburtstag gewidmet von seinen Schülern (ed. E. Lohse, C. Burchard and B. Schaller; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1970) 142–156;
  • O. Hofius, Der Christushymnus Philippier 2,6–11: Untersuchungen zu Gestalt und Aussage eines urchristlichen Psalms (WUNT 2/17; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1976), 4–12
  • U.B. Müller, “Der Christushymnus Phil 2 6–11,” ZNW 79 (1988) 17–44, 19–20; idem, Der Brief des Paulus an die Philipper (THKNT 11/1; Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 1993) 89
  • J. Reumann, Philippians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (AB 33B; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008) 333, 369–372

Calhoun noted in consideration of this passage is one of the contested, “with practically every word the subject of its own history of scholarly dispute, minor decisions regarding punctuation can have significant interoperative ramifications.” Calhoun makes the following conclusion:

"The punctuation of Phil 2:7 in critical editions of the NT steers interpreters toward certain christological channels and away from others. Editors of future editions ought to restore or revise the punctuation variant from NA-25, in order to warn readers not to overlook the syntactical conundrum presented by the participial phrases in 7b–d, and to encourage consideration of the exegetical implications of whichever solution is chosen." (Robert Calhoun, Christological Punctuation, A note on Phil 2:3, Novum Testamentum 61 (2019) 409–422)

For more on the correct understanding of Philippians 2, see https://FormofGod.com 

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