Saturday, June 24, 2017

Hurtado, Philo and Morphe Qeou (Form of God)

Larry Hurtado has suggested that a particular occurrence of μορφή in Philo might comprise "certain virtues, a way of being, not simply outward/visual appearance." The passage he discusses is Embassy to Gaius (110-114). He then tries to ascertain whether there is a possible link (conceptually or linguistically) between Philo's text and Philippians 2:6.

I find the question interesting because of the work I've done on Phil. 2:6ff. Granted, the Philippians text is vexed with exegetical issues and one has to concede that μορφή could denote "status" rather than "external appearance" in Philippians, one has to ask whether the Philo text has any bearing on what Paul wrote. Secondly, how should Philo be interpreted?

One translation of Philo reads: "What connexion or resemblance was there between him [Gaius] and Apollo, when he never paid any attention to any ties of kindred or friendship? Let him cease, then, this pretended Apollo, from imitating that real healer of mankind, for the form of God is not a thing which is capable of being imitated by an inferior one, as good money is imitated by bad."

Hurtado also quotes Embassy 114: "Have we not, then, learned from all these instances, that Gaius ought not to be likened to any god, and not even to any demi-god, inasmuch as he has neither the same nature, nor the same essence, nor even the same wishes and intentions as any one of them"

From these passages, Hurtado extracts the idea that Philo has moral/ethical attributes connected with a deity in mind. But does he?

The late Dr. Rodney Decker writes:

Lightfoot is a classic example of those who base the meaning of μορφή on Greek philosophy. He explains that it refers to "the specific character" (129); that "μορφή must apply to the attributes of the Godhead" (132). "In Gk philosophical literature, μορφή acquires a fixed and central place in the thought of Aristotle. For him the term becomes equal to a thing's essence (οὐσία) or nature (φύσις).”1

However, Decker provides ample reasons to reject this understanding of μορφή in Philippians 2:6. We also learn that Hurtado's suggestion isn't new at all. Lightfoot thoroughly plumbed Philo, Aristotle, and other writers to examine the potential denotation of μορφή. His view of the word fell along similar lines as Hurtado's. Yet Lightfoot was almost surely mistaken as I have pointed out in the first volume of Christology and the Trinity and so has Moisés Silva, in his Philippians commentary.

For Decker's analysis, see

Concerning "the specific character" understanding of μορφή, Lightfoot himself maintains that the ancient Neoplatonists and Philo both knew and utilized the word in this manner. See Lightfoot's analysis at

Nonetheless, I emphasize that Paul likely did not use μορφή this way.

Hurtado's discussion is here:


Alethinon61 said...

Hi Edgar,

While I have no objection to Hurtado's proposal on theological grounds, it doesn't really seem to fit or flow, does it? To paraphrase:

"Although he existed in God's form (i.e. had the moral character of the deity), he did not consider (this?) equality with God as something to exploit, but emptied himself and took the form (moral character again, I assume?) of a slave."

Surely one must assume a literary correspondence between the two uses of MORPHE, which would mean that the Son emptied himself by taking the moral character of a man, correct? Such an odd expression may come easily to a modern Christian's mind, as explorations into the moral character of God are part of the modern theological conversation, but how likely is it that Paul would have come up with such an expression?

And, of course, there are also the problems that you noted. J.C. O'Neill once gave the game away when he said (to paraphrase again) that Expositors are all "sure that the text is orthodox". Set aside that presupposition and one will be able to discern interpretations that are much more plausible, biblically and historically.


Edgar Foster said...

Hi Kas,

I agree that Hurtado's proposal seems to interrupt the textual flow, although he might restrict the moral character understanding of morphe to the form of God. I don't know for sure, but it is a possibility..

It does make sense to draw a parallel between form of God and form of a servant, and I think that is a common approach by exegetes of Phil. 2:5-11. Moreover, from a philological standpoint, it is highly unlikely that Paul used morphe to simply denote the moral character of Christ. So many studies have dispelled the idea that "specific character" or any such idea is meant in Philippians 2 that it is amazing some cling to these ideas. Not only did Silva refute an idea along this line, but Daniel J. Fabricatore's interesting study does also. It is an entire book about the form of God and the form of a servant. See

I would like to write a review essay of his book. One other point is that Paul's concept of morphe was probably shaped by the Tanakh and we find morphe in Egyptian papyri.

As always, thanks for your helpful input.

Alethinon61 said...

I just read Decker's article, and he makes a sound judgement about MORPHE. His "discussion" of John 5 was insufficient and problematic, however, which caused him to reach a conclusion that seems unsound.

What I find interesting about Trinitarian exegetes is how they insist that at John 5 the "equality with God" involved Jesus' "nature" and that Jesus' opponents made a correct inference in judging that Jesus made himself ontologically equal with God. As Decker put it:

"Augustine comments to the effect that the Jews understand what the Arians [and their descendants the J.W.s!] cannot seem to grasp: that Jesus claimed to be truly God."

So both Jesus' opponents and his followers misunderstood him at just about every turn, but when the opponents judged that Jesus was making himself God ontologically, that they god right, right? Um...probably not!


Edgar Foster said...

Hi Kas,

I primarily wanted to show how Decker refutes the Lightfoot understanding of MORPHE just like Fabricatore does. But then most of these scholars find a way to preserve their Trinitarian beliefs, and John 5:17 is an interesting example of this Tendenz.

Most argue that 5:17 proves the divinity of Christ, although some have even asserted that Christ showed himself to be equal to God by not claiming he was. Heads I win, tails you lose.

Thanks for the link. See also

In the second link, please note the quotes from Rogers/Rogers and Paul Anderson.



Edgar Foster said...

Hi Kas,

I am just going to post these links; you can read them at your own leisure. The first is the commentary of John 5:17 by John Chrysostom--the second link is from ecatena: