Scholarly Power to Walk Through Solid Words

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

One of the more remarkable abilities many Historical Jesus scholars acquire as a result of their specialist training is the skill of being able to make the words they read in manuscripts mean something other than what is written. An intellectual counterpart of turning hard liquor into bootleg wine.

Last night I stumbled across another example that relates to recent posts by Earl Doherty on Bart Ehrman’s treatment of the Philippian Hymn: The scholar wrote that the Bible said X and then explained to readers, presumably to reassure any who may have been a little startled, that what the Bible really meant was Y.

First, he translated the Philippian Hymn . . . .

Christ Jesus who . . . . emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, and becoming in human likeness. And finding himself in human form . . . .

He then discussed the various passages and when he came to the words quoted above, explained:

So Jesus’ self-emptying is portrayed here as having involved his taking a slave-form and being born in human likeness — that is, as a human. (p. 96, How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?)

That’s the sort of transubstantiation of meaning one expects from cultists or fundamentalists. Human likeness does not mean human. Surely conventional assumptions are the only explanation for this scholar’s inability to accept the difference between the two terms in this case.

The change of the Greek genomenos (γενόμενος) from “becoming” to “born” reminds us of the recent attempt by the leading member of The Jesus Project (c) to conveniently avoid the most common meaning of the word in preference for “born” which it can mean in the right contexts. Of course the context in the hymn is about the change of form or likeness of an exalted divinity, so “becoming” is the most apt translation. (There are other words that more regularly and specifically meaning “born”.)

Don’t get me wrong. I like a lot of what Larry Hurtado has written. And I agree with a central thesis of the book the above passage comes from — that visions were central to the foundations of Christianity. But here, like so many others, he walks right over a passage that defies conventional wisdom as deftly as Jesus walked over water.