Discover more from Still More to Say
Segments of Paul’s letters provide glimpse of earliest Christian beliefs
Brief passages may be hymns or creedal statements
Small sections of Philippians and Colossians may include some of the oldest words or creeds of Christianity.
Students of the Bible have long noticed that two segments of Paul’s letters — Philippians 2:6-11 and 1:15-20 — seem to be quotations of older material that Paul incorporated into the text. They differ in language and style from the rest of his writing, and seem to be fairly inclusive statements of belief that don’t include themes that were important to Paul, namely salvation and the Resurrection. Modern translations frequently put the passages in a poetic format or otherwise set them apart from the rest of the text.
Still More to Say is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
The passage in Philippians is one of the most well-known passages in the New Testament explaining the nature of Christ. Excerpts include:
[Christ Jesus], who, existing in the form of God,
didn’t consider equality with God a thing to be grasped
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men. ...
God also highly exalted him,
and gave to him the name which is above every name
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow ...
that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Scholars have often referred to this passage as a hymn, although that doesn’t necessarily mean it was sung. It might have been recited, perhaps something like a creed. In any case, the way Paul used the hymn suggests that it was already known to his readers.
The Colossians passage isn’t quite as famous, although portions are used by some churches in creeds that are used today. It begins:
He is the image of the unseen God,
the firstborn of all creation.
For by him all things were created
in the heavens and on the earth,
seen things and unseen things,
whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers.
All things have been created through him and for him.
In his book How Jesus Became God, theologian Bart Ehrman theorizes that words such as these might date to the first half-decade of Christianity as the earliest Christians grappled with their nascent faith.1 These words don’t come close to including theological innovations such as that of the Trinity that were developed in the coming few hundred years, but they do include some basic theological facts that Christians were believing by the time Paul wrote his letters.2
These beliefs include:
Jesus was divine but took on human form.
He existed before he was born.
Jesus fulfilled his mission through his death on the cross.
God was pleased with Jesus.
It is not known to what extent Paul modified these passages for his purposes. But they nevertheless provide a glimpse at how the earliest followers of Jesus may have viewed his divinity.
This commentary on Philippians and Colossians is part of our Bible for Modern-day Saints series, published to roughly coincide with the schedule of the Come, Follow Me curriculum of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Views expressed are solely those of the author. Biblical quotations are adapted from the World English Bible, which is in the public domain.
Although Ehrman does not believe in the historicity of the Resurrection, it is clear to him that the earliest followers of Jesus saw the Resurrection as a reality and were forced to develop an understanding of how such a miraculous event related to what they already believed about God.
Paul probably wrote his letter to the Philippians in the late 50s CE. His letter to the Colossians may have been written in the early 60s, although some scholars have theorized that it was written in the name of Paul a few decades later by an anonymous author.