New Testament Christological Hymns

Exploring Texts, Contexts, and Significance

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Matthew E. Gordley
  • Downers Grove, IL: 
    IVP Academic Press
    , August
     252 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The form and origin of Philippians 2:5-11, Colossians 1:15-20, John 1:1-18, and other New Testament passages resembling elevated prose and rhythmic qualities have been the topic of debate for quite some time. On the one hand, notable scholars including Ernst Käsemann and Ralph P. Martin followed the lead of Eduard Norden who posited that these passages represent preexisting early Christian hymns that came to be embedded in the New Testament texts. On the other hand, recent scholars have critiqued the methodology of “hymn-hunting” (97), instead assessing such passages as necessarily literary and fully enmeshed in their respective books. Into this debate Matthew E. Gordley contributes a milestone work that both convincingly assesses previous scholarship and puts forth an intriguing third possibility: although the aforementioned texts may not represent preexisting hymns, their form and content still embody early Christian hymnody (19). Furthermore, he effectively situates these passages in “their cultural, literary, and theological contexts, [thus yielding] penetrating insights into the ways in which the earliest Christians understood Jesus and his significance for themselves and for humanity as a whole” (8). 

After laying out the standard criteria for identifying Christian hymns in the New Testament, Gordley aptly recognizes that the arguments against such criteria often conflate two separate issues: (A) whether these criteria can detect hymns in the New Testament and (B) whether they also confirm that such hymns preexisted the books in which they are now. Gordley agrees with the critique that criteria involving “unique vocabulary, elevated style, hymnic form, and Christological content do not in and of themselves justify the conclusion that a passage is preexisting material” (25); however, then to disregard their hymnic substance is to throw the baby out with the bathwater. He continues, “when these passages are viewed individually and as a group in light of the conventions of ancient Jewish and Greco-Roman hymnody, it becomes clear that the features of these passages [still] justify calling them hymns” (31-32). 

In chapter 2, Gordley examines the conventions of Greco-Roman hymnody and Jewish psalmody. He argues that Christian hymns functioned similarly to early Jewish psalms in that they were “far more than simple expression of praise to God, or even the expression of theological beliefs in verse form[;] psalms and hymns manifestly inscribe key values of the authors and their communities, providing a vehicle for a deep reflection about the traditions of the community circumstances” (61). However, Gordley goes to greater lengths to show that in terms of content Christian hymns draw more extensively from Greco-Roman hymnody. For example, divine images of Christ in Christian hymns echo Greco-Roman counterparts that “outlined the deeds, accomplishments, and characteristics of the gods in poetic or elevated style, [inviting] the listener or worshiper to embrace a particular view of how the divine and the human worlds engage one another” (59). Likewise, as Christian hymns often reference “thrones or dominions or rulers or powers” (Colossians 1:15-20), so Greco-Roman hymns “addressed not only spiritual or religious matters but also issues of political importance, including human rulers and authorities” (59). Thus, Gordley prepares the reader for later exegesis which compares Christian hymns with both of these traditions.

Philippians 2:5-11, Colossians 1:15-20, and John 1:1-18 are the focus of chapters 3 through 5 respectively, with chapter 6 giving brief treatment to other New Testament hymnic content: Ephesians 2:14-16; 1 Timothy 3:16; Hebrews 1:1-4; and selections of Luke 1-2 and Revelation 4-5. First, readers should not expect to find in these chapters line-by-line analysis as in a commentary; Gordley employs a topical approach, exploring content only as it serves his comparative analyses. Consequently, although I appreciate the contextual picture he crafted for each hymn, more than once I was left wondering how certain verses fit into his interpretations. For each hymn, he examines their structure and content in relation to each one’s book and then to their Jewish and Greco-Roman contexts, and finally the purpose of each hymn within its originating Christian community. Identifying Philippians 2:5-11 as resistance poetry, Gordley reads it as a confession of Christ’s lordship which also subverts Roman imperial ideology (104-105). He interprets Colossians 1:15-20 as “a quasi-philosophical prose hymn ... portray[ing] Jesus in exalted, cosmic terms” (112); in both this case and Philippians 2:5-11, Gordley rightly notes the embedded assumption of Jesus’s preexistence and divinity, thus evidencing a high Christology in the early church. Next, Gordley does well in connecting John 1:1-18 to Second Temple wisdom traditions and regarding it as a community confession “to represent the kind of worshipful response to the news about Jesus that the Fourth Gospel as a whole advocates” (146). However, I was not convinced by his conclusion that John 1:1-18 acts as a resistance poem countering the Roman hymns of imperial propaganda (168-74). Finally, the matters of chapter 6 are too numerous to summarize but his investigation is no less careful in its exegesis and its regard for current scholarly discourse.

When I first opened Matthew E. Gordley’s book, the publication art and the accessibility of the introduction led me to assume that I was reading a survey aiming for a wider audience. However, I am pleased to report that his work exhibits both far greater depth of exegesis than I first expected and a well-informed consideration of the history of scholarship on Christological hymns. Additionally, I value Gordley’s clear prose even amidst complicated matters and debate; there was never any question about what he was attempting to argue or conclude, making this an excellent resource for both scholars and advanced college students. Even though I do not share his interpretation of John 1:1-18, he admirably achieves his purpose to provide “insights into the ways in which the earliest Christians understood Jesus and his significance for themselves and for humanity as a whole” (8) and to contribute a nuanced third possibility for the form and origin of New Testament Christological hymns.

About the Reviewer(s): 

James Yuile is Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies at Hope International University.

Date of Review: 
December 4, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Matthew E. Gordley is Dean of the College of Learning and Innovation at Carlow University and previously taught at Regent University. He is the author of The Colossian Hymn in Context and Teaching through Song in Antiquity.


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