Secular Sam’s Guide to the Old Testament: Preexistence

Ol’ Sam was a little amazed to note that the lesson for this week included no biblical passages on the preexistence of Jesus. Sounds like a natural opportunity to complement the existing lesson, so here we go…

Philippians 2:5-11, one of the authentic Pauline epistles:

Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus,

Who, though he was in the form (morphē) of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be grasped (harpagmon).

Rather, he emptied (ekenōsen) himself,
taking the form (morphē) of a slave,
coming in human likeness;

And being found in the likeness of a human,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient unto death, the death of the cross.

Wherefore, God has greatly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name
that is above every name,

That at the name of Jesus
every knee should bow
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

And every tongue confess (exomologēsētai)
that Jesus Christ is Lord
to the glory of God the Father.

Text, Genre, Form, and Context

The text looks pretty solid. One point of mild disagreement seems to be whether exomologēsētai (confess) should be in the future indicative (Alexandrinus, Ephraemi, Bezae) or aorist subjunctive (P46, Sinaiticus, Vaticanus). NA27 opted for the later.

I have structured the text to show its potential as poetry. This indicates the presence of an important christological point, because lots of significant christological passages in the NT appear as either poetry or elevated prose. Many think that this passage was originally a hymn, pre-dating even Paul’s use in the present context.

In its present context, however, it lies in a paraentic section, in which Paul urges the Philippians to live a life worthy of the gospel (1:27-2:18). This means that the preexistence of Christ is not the point of the passage, but a premise on the way to the point. The competent reader will watch for some indication of how, exactly, Jesus is an example to the Philippians, noting also how Jesus’ preexistence contributes to this argument.


The passage has two distinct parts. In the first, Jesus is said to have humbled himself to the point of dying on the cross. In the second, God is said to have vindicated Jesus by giving him a name, the name “Lord,” which requires the indicated obeisance from all creation.

What is not clear are the precise claims made about Jesus by the words morphē and harpagmon. First, morphē is almost always translated “form.” The impact of this word, however, is far more than appearance. Most students of this passage agree that Paul is indicating that Jesus possessed divine status. This establishes the all-important contrast between what Jesus was, divine, and what he became, a slave. This should be thought of in terms of real status and position, rather than incidentals.

Although Jesus had divine status, he did not consider equality with God harpagmon. This term is, and has been, highly contested. Although both the Greek and the Latin fathers agreed that Jesus had equality with God, the Latin fathers understood harpagmon in terms of robbery or usurpation. For them, equality with God was Jesus’ by right, not something stolen. The Greek fathers thought of harpagmon in terms of a treasure. For them, Jesus’ divine status was something that he did not greedily cling to.

For my part, I think the Greeks have the right of it. Jesus did not regard his divinity as something he had to cling to.

Next, we read that Jesus emptied (ekenōsen) himself. This should not be understood to mean that he divested himself of his divinity, but that he did not insist upon, or take advantage of his status. This distinction is important because it establishes continuity between the inner reality of the preexistent One and the inner reality of the One who died the death of a slave.

And in these sentences, Paul has presented the ideas of preexistence and incarnation, but he has not explained them – indeed, they are taken for granted!

Finally, we read that God vindicated Jesus, exalting him above every creature. To better appreciate this point, consider Is 45:22-23:

Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. By myself have I sworn, from my mouth has gone forth in righteousness a word that shall not return: “To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear.”

Thus God has given Jesus the name “Lord,” requiring that all creation render also to him what is properly rendered to God.

And the point? Humility. Humility is one of the central lessons Paul derives from the cross. This instance is unusual, however, because the humility took place in two stages, not one — first in the preexistence, and then again as a man. To live worthy of the good news of salvation, Paul urges the Philippians to live in imitation of the humility that brought them that salvation, a humility first exercised in the preexistence, then brought to completion on the cross.

19 Replies to “Secular Sam’s Guide to the Old Testament: Preexistence”

  1. For the sake of completion, there are actually three “takes” on this passage: (1) preexistence, (2) Adam christology, and (3) none of the above. The first is probably the more popular.

    For the Adam christology approach, see James D. G. Dunn, The Theology of the Paul the Apostle, pp. 281 – 288.

    For a good, solid, layman’s intro to NT christology, including a broader perspective on all the NT passages which speak to preexistence, see Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to New Testatment Christology.

  2. Mogget,

    Sweet. Love it, love it, love it.

    Raymond Brown — one of my faves, and one of your Catholic homies too, right? His John stuff is… amazing.

    My favorite take on Phil. 2 is N.T. Wright’s wherein he states that the “Lord” language and the “every knee bending and tongue confessing” language was typically applied to Caesar — here now being used of Christ, the man who suffered the most ignominious and disgraceful form of death known in the Roman empire. He shows how radical it is for Paul to be saying this stuff — using the exalted language generally reserved for Caesar for such a despicable man as Jesus (born in a manger, killed on a cross — could anything be more humiliating and repulsive to a Roman citizen?). Paul’s devotion to Jesus over and against Caesar, then, being an example to the Philippians of how radically they ought to live their lives as Christians. Especially from the lips of a bona-fide citizen. Cool stuff.

    Did the manual run off on the Jeremiah 1:5-6 thing? I don’t think that’s a pre-existence verse myself, but I also don’t mind it when other folks use it. And what about John 1? Sheesh.

    brought to completion on the cross

    Thanks for not saying garden. Oops, I said it.

  3. Another thought: maybe Correlation doesn’t know there are pre-existence scriptures outside of Restoration scripture that discuss Jesus???

  4. Yeah, Raymond Brown, Roland Murphy, and Joseph Fitzmeyer are my “homies,” all right… Unfortunately, Brown died before I any classes from him. The other two were fantastic. And can you believe–that “John stuff” has held up for 40 years? Yup, the AB volumes were publised in 1965, IIRC.

    N. T. Wright’s (Climax of the Covenant, no?) point about shifting the language of majesty from Ceasar to Jesus is well-taken. I agree that it would have been strong language to the Philippians. For Paul himself, the shift from God to Jesus may well have been the longer bridge. Christological monotheism and all that…

    I confess myself genuinely surprised about what was, and was not, in that lesson manual. The two biblical citations were from the Abominable Branch, Isa 14:12-15, and the War in Heaven, Rev 12:7-9. Both, incidentally, having to do with Satan in LDS thought. Once I got over my astonishment, Jesus was a natural response.

    I don’t know the minds of the folks who do correlation, so I hesitate to guess, but my thought is that both of those passages demonstrate the presence of others besides God, Jesus, and Satan in the preexistence. In Is 14:13, there’s the phrase “mount of the congregation” and in Rev, there’s Micheal and his angels.

    So it may be that the “draw” was the opportunity to show that all of us were there in the preexistence. And I don’t have a problem with that idea, but I’m not so sure that the OT/NT are, from the standpoint of a critical reading, clearly making the point.

    Anyway, if you /anybody else has something on the tip of your tongue, I’d like to know more about the “mount of the congregation” and about how we got “Lucifer” from the root hll in Isaiah 14. I’m thinking that the Vulgate to Dante might be behind the latter…

  5. Oh yeah. One more thing. As I was starting to fiddle around with this, I was talking to some of my other homies in the library. We got into the question of why there’s so very little modern work on the question of a preexistence for the rest of us.

    Our thought was that humanism has so thoroughly permeated the scholarly world that the very idea of an eternal soul, or whatever, is no longer considered a rational position.

    I’ve sort of decided that this position reflects a lack of courage. However, the guy standing behind me at the time wanted you to know that he thinks it reflects a lack of something a little more…physical…

  6. What is it about the Philippians 2:5-11 passage that suggests premortal existence over Jesus merely emptying himself for the specific work of the cross?

  7. Hm, well. First, I’m a little leery of the expression “premortal existence” when used with respect to NT christology. I’m not totally sure what it means, and LDS theological ruminations are so inchoate that I never mix them with anything else. In any case, I’d like to stick to just the expression “preexistence.” But perhaps my buddies here on FPR have a better idea about how to handle the “crossover” effect.

    Second, and more closely tied to your question, is the phrase “emptying himself for the specific work of the cross.” Reading more precisely, the “emptying” is associated with the transition from “being in the form of God” to “taking the form of a slave,” which is further explained as “coming in human likeness.”

    The most natural reading for “coming in human likeness” is birth. This reading is reinforced, over against an act of self-abasement that takes place during the life of Jesus, by the tenses and language of v.7 The use of the use of the aorist for (ekenosen) implies that the “emptying” was a one-time act, while the following participle suggests that this resulted in “human likeness.”

    After this, there is a second stage, a humbling, which results in death on the cross. (And “humble” is also aorist, so the two are a matched set.) It is, in my opinion, very hard to create a close and consistent reading of this passage that does not involve two stages: one of “emptying” and the other of “humbling.”

    Now we know when the humbling took place, but when did the “emptying” occur? Can we get by without a preexistence?

    The Adam christology folks envision a mythic prehistory in which Adam himself makes the transition from adam = humankind to adam = progenitor. Jesus then, first embraces the lot of humankind, as a slave to sin and death, then accepts the consequences of Adam’s disobedience in death on the cross, a two stage process. So far, so good.

    And when did this choice to become a man take place? It is very hard to escape the ideas of preexistence and incarnation. Even the most vocal of the Adam christology folks, James Dunn, writes

    “It is precisely the function of such allusive poetry to set in motion such a sequence of reflections and parallels [to Adam]. But the fact remains that it has also set in motion the thought of Christ’s preexistence. And a commentator could hardly draw out the one while disallowing the other. The problem would then remain of filling out that thought of preexistence. Is Christ Jesus then to be envisaged as making an Adamic choice at some time (!) in eternity? A choice in effect to become a man? That is the almost inevitable corollary.” (Dunn, Theology of Paul,p.288)

    So…thanks for asking. I love to talk about this stuff and explore these questions. And if you have a more specific idea, outside of either preexistence or an Adam christology, feel free to post and we’ll take a look at it, too.

  8. I can see where MahNahvu is coming from with this. I agree with you, Mogget, but I think his/her (who are you, MahNahvu? Reveal yourself this instant before we look up IP addresses!) head-scratching stems from what seems to be a lot of explanation in order to arrive at a pre-existent witness of Jesus from this passage; which is great for us, but not so hot for the layperson/Correlation committee (who usually likes big doctrines all wrapped up in one nice, cute, little verse that everyone can quote — Moses 1:39, anyone?). Don’t get me wrong, I think JC’s pre-existence is there too, but it’s just not as “in your face” or “here it is” or plain for most folks to see. It hinges on deep inflection, insight, and Greek grammar/syntax–this is the Mormon church we’re talking about here.

    There’s also the genre of the passage — if indeed it is a hymn, one might be cautious about pulling such a funky doctrine as Jesus’ pre-mortal life out of it–a doctrine not so common in the Bible. Maybe I’m wrong on that (most likely). But I’ve read a lot in Psalms and even in our own hymnal that ought not to be the prime go-to source for doctrinal sources; although as a secondary proof they function quite well. (Another case in point — if you want funky doctrine from the Psalter, read Phillip Johnston’s Shades of Sheol where he discusses the underworld in the Psalms).

    Again, I’m amazed the prologue to John isn’t in the manual. I thought John 1:1-14 was the standard “Jesus lived before he was born” proof-text (I’m not using that term pejoratively here). What gives? Did Correlation think that John 1 was too Stoic to mention? 😉

    Mogget — one more thing — could you recommend any graduate-level introductions or monographs on Adam Christology (not necessarily Catholic ones, either)?

  9. Hm. You know, preexistence in Philippians actually looks like something of a no-brainer to me. I have a dickens of a time trying to figure out how to avoid it. It’s the whole Adam christology thing that I find counter-intuitive.

    (But we all know how easy it is to read the things we grew up with into these passages, and that’s what I grew up with. I don’t think MaNahvu is being ridiculous by any means. I just went into excruciating detail to show the existence of excruciating detail.)

    Now, as Dunn says, what that preexistence, or that decision-making moment, consists of is quite another matter… And, for the record, Dunn is the reference you want. He’s not Catholic. It is actually very hard to determine the confessional choices of a first-class exegete, unless they deliberately reveal themselves in a preface or something.

    Have you internalized the Catholic /Protestant “thing?” You do know that that protestant sola scripture stuff is rather thin when push comes to shove. I’ve taken pains to avoid the whole issue. Sometimes I go one way, sometimes another. I did “get into it” with Fr. Fitzmyer over the Real Presence in 1 Cor 11:24-26, once. He’s a great guy, and I hated to disagree, but I just couldn’t find a rational entry to the idea so I could find a way to appreciate it.

    As for poetry and fugurative language in general: Contrary to what I learned in seminary / institute, I don’t think that expression in a poetic genre empties or weakens a passage of meaning. That’s a very modern idea, not appropriate for ancient literature. Or, as I tell my poor SS class, “Your brains have been ruined by the Enlightenment.”

    On the contrary, I agree with Bullinger, that to a certain extent, figurative language lends power to an idea. I do think that it precludes the exegete from getting too dogmatic about what that idea might be, from demanding that it mean just one thing, or from pushing the metaphor beyond its limits. And of course, this means that there’ll be discussion, which if it’s not carried out with grace, will mean some head-banging, which is to be avoided in church…

    And I guess that’s what you meant by not using it as “primary source.” My point is that in avoiding it as a primary source, it tends to get totally lost. There’s kind of an attitude like “If it’s not in propositional form, with all the syllogistic steps filled in, in prose, in flat language, with no possibility for misconstrual, then we’re not playin’!”

    I shall pick up Johnston directly and check out Sheol…and maybe I’ll do bit on John 1:1 this evening when I get home. I kinda like C.H. Dodd’s translation from the early 20th century.

  10. pushing the metaphor beyond its limits

    That was my whole point in mentioning genre. Pre-existence in Phil. 2? For Mahnahvu, it’s not so apparent. And for many others. I’m fine with it, but I was actually quite surprised that this was your first inclination for a proof for Jesus’ pre-mortal life. Mine was John 1, so it’s just differences of one’s thought and/or training and/or something else that doesn’t really matter all that much. Again, for the scholar/academic, it’s right there. For the potential audience, not so much.

    Again, my point above in knocking Correlation with Moses 1:39 is because our people are taught to think like that: the plan of salvation (or, insert the doctrine of your choice) plainly given for all to understand. Maybe that’s how the BofM works (I don’t really study the BofM much), but the Bible is more difficult. Again, I understand where mahhanahvuu is coming from (dude, seriously, pick a better pseudonym). Oh, and why doesn’t anybody ever dwell on Moses 1:38? It implies much more hairball stuff than 39 does, IMO.

    You know, preexistence in Philippians actually looks like something of a no-brainer to me

    I hope Mahnahvu isn’t offended by that statement. He/she could be. Easily. Hence his/her question in the first place.

    sola scriptura

    Theologians. I guess maybe terms like this are why theologians and biblical studies folks aren’t on speaking terms a lot? There’s been a bunch of articles in JBL the past few years on this, most notably Joel Green’s work on it. I don’t know. What’s funny is that in my “protestant” training I hear of sola scriptura a lot, but I really never got into it. I have no idea what it is. Hasn’t applied to what I do (exegesis) just yet. I consider my work on a text to be, as you stated, something terribly difficult for one to pin down what I’m really thinking and what I really believe. I have to be that way, given the sticky situation I’m in anyway (a few of you understand what I’m really saying there). And from those around me, who are considered “conservative” within their own tradition, I’m actually quite liberal, and probably (accurately) labeled as such (theologically). And yet no clue what this is, so if there is intimation that it influences my take on things, it’s purley coincidental. It has to be. But from my shotty Latin knowledge, I can tell that “only writing” would not fit what I think (I’m a Mormon, for God’s sake). Even the pseud. has “scriptural” value from me, and I engage it a lot.


    My wife says in SS today (I was filling in for s/b in primary), they used Acts 17:28-29, but something about it didn’t sit right with her. Were they being fair to that passage? Anyone?

    I’ll be taking a vacation from FPR for a few days. Too many “David J”s in the right margin.

  11. head-banging, which is to be avoided in church

    So, I’m not to listen to Metallica on my iPod while in church then. Okay.

    Sorry, sorry, I couldn’t resist…

  12. Goodness. I hope I didn’t offend you, MaNahvu. I was just saying that for me, preexistence is easier to get out of Phil 2 than other things. Perhaps it’s because that’s how I first understood that passage.

  13. I don’t think that non-LDS read these NT references to pre-existence as LDS pre-existence because they refer to (to their mind) the 3 personed god. It is the pre-existence of folk like us that is uniquely LDS.

  14. Mogget, thanks for taking the time to clarify the Phil. passage. And I have to say that the Dunn quote is a winner.

    Now, about me. Your blog is of particular interest to me, as I have older copies of the JBL as well as most of the Anchor Bible on my library shelves. But I have long since left academia and am rather rusty on these matters. Nevertheless, I do think I will enjoy visiting this blog from time-to-time.

    The screen name is one that I adopted in the mid 90s when I was active in the LDS AOL forums that ultimately evolved into FAIR. The name is, of course, Hebrew, and comes from Isaiah 52:7. It really wasn’t a good choice for a man’s screen name, but since many pals from those AOL forums are active in the Bloggernacle, I figured I’d keep it and use it here. (Incidentally, I probably chose MahNahvu because I was so delighted to stumble upon it one day as the obvious source of Joseph Smith’s “Nauvoo.”) You can also call me Steve.

    My background is in Hebrew studies. No Greek. I have tended to spend a lot of time with Isaiah and biblical poetry.

    And on that note, I will offer a perspective on this statement:

    “I don’t think that expression in a poetic genre empties or weakens a passage of meaning. That’s a very modern idea, not appropriate for ancient literature.”

    James L. Kugel, in his 1981 work, The Idea of Biblical Poetry, devotes an entire chapter discussing the distinction between poetry and prose in the Bible. I think that Kugel would suggest that the presence of poetic language sets a passage off as having been carefully worded and of special significance. I’ll try to quote the essence of his conclusion:

    “Biblical parallelism . . . appears in a great variety of contexts. While it is concentrated in the so-called ‘poetic’ books, it is to be found almost everywhere.” (p.59) “. . . what is called biblical ‘poetry’ is a complex of heightening effects used in combinations and intensities that vary widely from composition to composition even within a single ‘genre.’ No great service is rendered here by the concept of biblical poetry, since that term will, if based on the various heightening features seen, include compositions whose genre and subject are most unpoetic by Western standards, and since it will imply a structural regularity and design that are simply not there. . . . Biblical authors were certainly aware of heightening features, but (judging by the text themselves) they did not see them as requirements to be applied in prescribed strengths for particular genres and rigorously avoided for others. The rhetoric of the Bible is far simpler. It consists of a few characteristic features that, singly or in combination, mark a sentence as special, lofty, carefully made. Such sentences appear consistently, fairly regularly, or here and there.” (pp. 94-95)

  15. John C–

    As far as I know, there is no reference to a preexistence for the rest of us in the NT. Just Jesus. So I agree — the LDS ideas of a more general preexistence are not found in the NT. I hit on the Phil passage for this exercise because it implies an act of volition on the part of Jesus in his preexistence which, it seems to me is also part of LDS thought.


    I thought your name came from “Nauvoo” and, since you used the word “cross” rather than “atonement” in reference to the death of Jesus, I suspected you had some wider interest / activity in these matters. And I am glad you were not offended!

    I, too, like Kugel. His work was required reading for Hebrew poetry as we were getting started. Thanks for the quote, it adds something to the discussion. Please do drop by when you have the time and inclination.

  16. David,

    I lived 40 years in SLC and the past 10 in the Portland, Oregon area. I did undergraduate work in Middle East Studies/Hebrew at the University of Utah, but never used that training professionally. For a living I currently retouch all the jewelry images used in advertising for Fred Meyer/Littman Barclay Jewelers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *