This is a little game of what if
, in five steps, just exploring various options in the (at least potentially) early epistles.
) we were to take the Christ hymn in Philippians more literally when it says that Christ took the form of a slave? That is, in early Pauline circles, Jesus was not thought of as the free peasant he appears to be in the gospels, but was regarded as actually in servitude of some kind and as actually having died the kind of death one might die in such servitude. Philippians 2.5-11 NASB:
5 Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant [μορφὴν δούλου], and being made in the likeness of men. 8 Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross [θανάτου δὲ σταυροῦ]. 9 For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Martin Hengel writes of this passage on page 62 of Crucifixion in the Ancient World
This basic theme of the supplicium servile also illuminates the hymn in Philippians 2.6-11. Anyone who was present at the worship of the churches founded by Paul in the course of his mission, in which this hymn was sung, and indeed any reader of Philippians in ancient times, would inevitably have seen a direct connection between the 'emptied himself, taking the form of a slave' (ἑαυτὸν ἐκένωσεν μορφὴν δούλου λαβών) and the disputed end of the first strophe: 'he humbled himself and was obedient unto death, even the death of the cross'. Death on the cross was the penalty for slaves, as everyone knew; as such it symbolized extreme humiliation, shame and torture. Thus the θανάτου δὲ σταυροῦ is the last bitter consequence of the μορφὴν δούλου λαβών and stands in the most abrupt contrast possible with the beginning of the hymn with its description of the divine essence of the pre-existence of the crucified figure, as with the exaltation surpassing anything that might be conceived (ὁ θεὸς αὐτὸν ὑπερύψωσεν). The one who had died the death of a slave was exalted to be Lord of the whole creation and bearer of the divine name Kyrios. If it did not have θανάτου δὲ σταυροῦ at the end of the first strophe, the hymn would lack its most decisive statement. The careful defence of its unity from both poetical and theological criteria by Otfried Hofius can therefore be supported also from its content, the supplicium servile: 'If the climax of the first strophe lies - in terms of both language and content - in the mention of the death of the cross, the assertion that in the pre-Pauline hymn the incarnation was understood as the real saving event and the death merely as its unavoidable consequence can no longer be held to be credible. On the contrary, we are forced to suppose that the hymn already presupposes a firm view of the saving significance of the death of Jesus.
(The phrase supplicium servile
means slave's punishment
, a common epithet for crucifixion, since crucifixion was a common means of executing rebellious or otherwise troublesome slaves. Hengel makes a case here for μορφὴν δούλου λαβών
being original to the Christ hymn, and I have to admit that the hymn has more kick with it than without it, but whether it came to Paul as part of the hymn or Paul added it in himself does not really matter for my purposes here.)
One can easily imagine Roman or other rulers crucifying suspected members of a slave rebellion, so perhaps that is what we find in 1 Corinthians 2.6-8 NASB:
6 Yet we do speak wisdom among those who are mature; a wisdom, however, not of this age nor of the rulers of this age, who are passing away; 7 but we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God predestined before the ages to our glory; 8 the wisdom which none of the rulers of this age [τῶν ἀρχόντων τοῦ αἰῶνος τούτου] has understood; for if they had understood it they would not have crucified the Lord of glory....
), however, we also take seriously the apparent tension between Jesus being crucified by human rulers and the seemingly naïve Pauline statement (assuming it is not an interpolation) to the effect that rulers are a source of fear only for wrongdoers? Romans 13.1-7 NASB:
1 Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. 3 For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; 4 for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. 5 Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. 7 Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.
For Paul, after all, Jesus was no wrongdoer; 2 Corinthians 5.21 NASB:
21 He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.
), then, we adopt the view that the rulers in 1 Corinthians 2.6-8 are the demonic powers and then take up the option, the availability of which I have argued for elsewhere
, that those demonic powers are standing behind human agents of some kind? Now, it does our attempts to satisfy Romans 13.1-7 no good to replace human rulers with demons standing behind
human rulers, since in neither case are human rulers a threat only to wrongdoers. But elsewhere I have laid out evidence
that masters held the power of life and death over their slaves in the days of the Roman republic and early empire.
), in other words, Jesus was imagined in Pauline circles as a slave who was unjustly put to death by his own master(s), with no duly appointed state officials involved in any real way?
The picture that would emerge from this game of what if
looks like this:
|Heavenly Aspect||the rulers of this age||the Lord of glory|
Finally, what if
) this picture were confirmed in the main in another epistle altogether, one not written by Paul? 1 Peter 2.13-24 NASB:
13 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, 14 or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. 15 For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men. 16 Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God. 17 Honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king.
18 Servants [οἱ οἰκέται], be submissive to your masters [τοῖς δεσπόταις] with all respect, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are unreasonable. 19 For this finds favor, if for the sake of conscience toward God a person bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly. 20 For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God. 21 For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, 22 who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth; 23 and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously; 24 and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed.
Notice that the discussion of earthly rulers evinces the same apparent naïveté that we find in Paul: rulers punish evildoers and praise who do right. Notice also that the suffering and crucifixion of Christ is not
mentioned in the section about earthly rulers.
No, the crucifixion appears only in the section about masters and servants, only after, in fact, it has been admitted that not all masters are good and gentle; some are unreasonable.
Is it possible that a very early layer of Christianity imagined Jesus as having been an actual slave, crucified by a cruel master (at the behest of demonic powers)? What do you think, pro or con?