Seeing Rape and Robbery: ἁρπαγμαός and the Philippians Christ Hymn (Phil. 2:5-11)

In: Biblical Interpretation
Katherine A. Shaner Wake Forest University, USA

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In the first century ce, images of Roman imperial figures subduing foreign, sexualized women were installed throughout the civic spaces of the Empire as a celebration of victory over other nations. The well-known reliefs on the Sebasteion in Aphrodisias are just one example. Images like these dominated the visual fields of ancient people, working to persuade viewers of certain ideals about power, beauty, and authority. This article argues that setting the Philippians Christ hymn (Phil. 2:5-11) in the context of this visual culture and rhetoric helps solve a significant lexical problem: the meaning of ἁρπαγμός in Phil. 2:6. Methodologically, I argue that reading the Christ hymn in conversation with the visual rhetoric of the Aphrodisian reliefs, and other images like them throughout imperial cities, significantly shifts the interpretative framework for the hymn. The use of sexualized women’s bodies to depict conquered peoples suggests that ἁρπαγμός means “rape and robbery” rather than “something to be exploited or grasped” as most major lexica and biblical translations suggest. Theologically, Phil. 2:6 thus fits with first-century discourses around the image and power of divine emperors rather than later inter-Christian arguments about pre-existence. The result is a hymn that simultaneously critiques Roman practices of “rape and robbery” and also draws on imperial power structures.

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