Things are less resplendent in a filthy stable. There has been a change, not of nature though the nature of
humanity was joined to that of deity, but a change of circumstance. There is
a dimming of visible glory, reversible though, as in the transfiguration.
No one could trace out a wider arc through the skies: this is a roller-coaster ride, from the
heights of heaven to the humblest of human circumstances, homelessness.
It is embarrassing to admit it, but the Jehovah's Witnesses will
sometimes interpret the "form of God" by resorting to that great
sage and theologian, the witch of Endor: "And the king said unto her, Be not
afraid: for what sawest thou? And the woman said unto Saul, I saw
gods ascending out of the earth." (1 Samuel 28:13). They think
'gods' are disembodied spirits, such as this necromancer saw. So when Paul
speaks of the "form of God," he means what the witch of Endor might
have meant by the phrase. When you plug 'monotheism' into the
equation however, the result comes out rather differently. There are not
after all so many who are or could conceivably ever be in the "form
of God;" the realization the Jesus was in that condition is a recognition of
Robbery, Contemplated or Attempted
Some who hope to escape the implications of this passage play
upon ambiguities in some English translations — ambiguities not present in
the Greek. Here's the word by word rendering of the NASB, one of the less
than stellar modern English translations:
hos en morphe
who in [the] form
He existed (lit. being, existing) not
a thing to be grasped [did] regard
to einai isa theo
equality (lit. to be equal) [with] God
Notice that one word, 'harpagmon' gets a big five-word translation: "a thing to be grasped".
This noun comes from the verb αρπαζω,
meaning 'to snatch away, carry off. . .to steal, be a thief. . .to seize
hastily, snatch. . .to plunder." (Liddell and Scott). The word means
'booty,' a thing plundered, a prize, or possibly the act of thievery; the merchandise carried off in a
burglary, 'loot.' Even those struggling mightily against a proper
translation admit the word refers to thievery: "But in reality, the word
(and words related to it in Greek) is almost always used to refer to
something a person doesn't have but grasps for — like a thief who snatches someone's purse."
(Bart D. Ehrman, How Jesus Became God, p. 263). Notice that the passage
very clearly says that this is what equality with God the Father is NOT:
it is not thievery. The bad interpretations will find it necessary to drop
that "not:" "And he is not — most definitely not —
'equal' with God before he becomes human." (Bart D. Ehrman, How Jesus
Became God, p. 262). Hmmm. . .a passage that literally says equality is
not thievery really means that He is NOT, "most definitely not," equal? Putting the pieces back together, we get ". . .who, although He
existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to
be grasped. . ." Jesus, existing in the form of God, did not consider
equality with the Father as plunder or ill-gotten gains to which He was
not entitled by right.
The Jehovah's Witnesses interpretation of this passage recalls the 'theomachies' or battles of the gods in pagan mythology. The Watchtower conforms this passage to a
'warfare-in-the heavens' battle plan by playing on tenses and moods not found
in the Greek, but suggested by some translations. The word 'hegesato' ('hegeomai') means 'count, reckon,
esteem', not 'ponder' or 'contemplate'. Yet here is the New World
Translation: "Keep this mental attitude in you that was also in
Christ Jesus, who, although he was existing in God's form, gave no
consideration to a seizure, namely, that he should be equal to God."
(Philippians 2:5-6 NWT). This reads more like a creative
transformation of the King James Version's language rather than a
translation of the Greek. In this version, Jesus "gave no consideration"
to a daring, day-light theft of equality rather than did not count or reckon
equality as stolen goods. We are now evaluating a plan,
not assigning weight or meaning to a thing or circumstance. The reader's
thoughts are immediately channelled toward what it would mean to
'give consideration' to such a plan, though there is no plan at all,
a future-tensed concept, in view in the original.
The Jehovah's Witnesses explain that Jesus, relegated in their
pantheon to a 'subordinate god', might well have contemplated a 'coup' modelled after Satan's failed attempt,
but drew back through cowardice, and it's this hesitation which is recorded in Philippians
2:5-11. The 'equality' with God the Father of which this passages speaks,
which is plainly explained as not plunder or robbery, thus becomes.
. .plunder and robbery! He didn't do it, though: this raiding expedition was not undertaken, because Jesus did
not dare to follow in the footsteps of Satan's bold strike. In this
interpretation, the 'not' has somehow been lost, and the meaning has
been turned around by 180 degrees: 'equality,' which begins as 'not'
'plunder,' becomes in the hands of these translators just what it
was not, 'plunder,' but, what a relief, the plundering expedition
was only contemplated, not carried out. John Milton composed one of the great poems in the English
Language, 'Paradise Lost,' on the framework of a similar scenario of a
Satanic failed putsch, the
Bible evidence for which is a bit thin. Is it possible that Jesus ever
pondered or contemplated a coup attempt like that of Satan in 'Paradise
Lost,' but drew back?
To answer, widen the focus. What is under consideration in this
passage? Paul is commending humility. Humility is not the characteristic
displayed by an underling who refrains from unlawful rebellion. Prudence
or an instinct for self-preservation may be all that is on display.
A crime not committed does not prove humility, though some underlings might
obey the laws in good-will and loyalty, not only from fear. But Jesus' voluntary
entering into the incarnation does provide a model of humility
which Paul encourages us to emulate.
The first transformation is of ηγησατο, which is tweaked away from
'account, deem, think,' toward 'evaluate a plan.' The same word had
occurred just above in verse 3, "Let nothing be done through strife or
vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem [ηγουμενοι] other better than
themselves." Finding an instance in the New Testament where this word
does mean 'evaluate a plan' is a fool's errand. Secondly, they play on the fact that some translators render the one word, 'harpagmos',
a noun, by verbal phrases like 'a thing to be grasped.' They then 'tweak' these
verbs toward future tense, optative mood: Jesus could've, would've, might have liked to,
seize 'equality', but didn't, see. In English, 'to be grasped' sends the
mind into the future, down a rabbit trail. There is no verb there to begin with, and nouns don't have tense or mood!
Unlike the English 'robbery', 'harpagmos' can describe either the act of robbery, as rendered
in the KJV, or the spoils gained in a robbing expedition. Thus the meaning of the Greek is that
Jesus did not 'count, deem, reckon' equality with God the Father to be the 'spoils of robbery'. . .because
He held that equality by native right!
My own personal theory is that Charles Taze Russell was a
man undone by paying attention in English class. They used to read
John Milton's 'Paradise Lost' in school, and some readers, I
suspect, were lulled by the majesty of the language into thinking
they were reading something like scripture, though this great work
of the imagination is more
aptly classed in the fantasy genre: