"Christ Became Poor:" Preexistence, Poverty, and the Patristic Reception of 2 Cor 8:9

"The question concerning the identity and divinity of Christ is one born and raised in controversy."[1] Much of this ancient and modern debate centers on the variants of 'low' and 'high' Christology and subsequently most modern commentators have centered their attention on Pauline texts such as Phil 2:5-11, 1 Cor 8:4-6, 15:20-28 and Col 1:15-20[2]—among others.[3] Although modern New Testament scholars have also pursued understanding ancient economics and poverty in relation to Paul's thought,[4] the terrain is ripe for integrative theological reflection on reception history in light of both his Christology and ancient conceptions of poverty. The goal of this essay is simple: to assess the patristic reception of an often-overlooked Pauline text (2 Cor 8:9) with intent to synthesize a modern reading informed by earliest Christianity.[5] To accomplish this, I will begin by briefly surveying modern scholarly opinion on 2 Cor 8:9, and then I will provide an additional survey of the economic topography that modern scholarship has unearthed in relation to Paul's own theology before evaluating the reception history of Paul. As I will show, the patristic consensus of 2 Cor 8:9 is fertile ground for modern interests in merging ancient poverty and Pauline Christology into a coherent theological worldview.[6]

1. Incarnation or Not?: Modern Scholarship on 2 Cor 8:9

In recent New Testament scholarship, a debate has emerged concerning this specific text, and whether or not Paul is alluding to the incarnation of the Son. A well-known representative of a 'non-incarnation' reading of 2 Cor 8:9 is James Dunn. He believes that "the most obvious way to take 2 Cor. 8:9 is as a vivid allusion to the tremendous personal cost of Jesus' ministry and particularly the willing sacrifice of his death."[7] Hence, for Dunn, Paul is about the historical life of Jesus as opposed to Jesus' forsaking divine rights in a preexistent state of equality with God the Father. Calvin J. Roetzel also seems reticent to affirm a form of preexistence in 2 Cor 8:9, as he thinks the relationship between Phil 2:6-11 and 2 Cor 8:9 are "faint."[8] He does affirm preexistence in the Philippians text but seems to object to a similar reading in the text under discussion. He offers several reasons why, including a lack of commentary on the exaltation of Christ to the Father, and also a lack of Christ becoming 'poor' in Phil 2:5-11.[9] Similarly, Jerome Murphy-O'Connor states, "such a meaning [incarnation of 2 Cor 8:9], however, has no basis either in Paul's theological perspective or in the immediate context."[10] For Murphy-O'Connor, the text under question refers to "the radical impoverishment" of Christ as human.[11] Christ, in essence, is the ideal human being for this view, and thus the incarnation is placed outside the scope of interpretive options. There are objections to these arguments. For instance, the phrasing of Phil 2:7a (ἀλλὰ ἑαυτὸν ἐκένωσεν μορφὴν δούλου λαβών) appears to contradict Roetzel's claim, as slaves in the ancient world were not known for being wealthy. Indeed, wealth itself was restricted to the elites.[12] Also, Paul's referring to Christ as becoming a δούλου emphasizes in a holistic way the poverty he was "born" (2:8a: γενόμενος) into. The exchange of status symbols thus makes Roetzal's claim highly unlikely.[13] Also, Murphy-O'Connor relies too much on equating "image of God" and "form of God," an exegetical fallacy that has been persuasively challenged.[14] Despite their well-constructed arguments, Dunn and Murphy-O'Connor appear to be within the minority of New Testament exegetes. Most modern commentators[15] on the Greek New Testament have pushed back against this thesis, and Margaret Thrall is the best representative. She states that the "traditional interpretation [i.e. the preexistence son becoming poor through the incarnation] of the verse is preferable to the other possibilities suggested,"[16] and Dunn's 'non-incarnational' option is indeed excluded by her critique. Thrall concludes:

[Christ's] self-impoverishment in the whole event of incarnation was for the spiritual enrichment of believers. We have the same principle of interchange as in [2 Cor] 5:21. The riches are not further defined, and are probably to be understood in a comprehensive sense as all the blessings of eschatological salvation.[17]

In summation, the incarnational reading of 2 Cor 8:9 appears to be the preferable option amongst modern exegetes, illustrating continuity with the history of interpretation, especially as we now consider the socio-economic context of the ancient world.

2. The Economic Landscape of the Ancient World

The economic terrain of the Greco-Roman world was largely contingent upon who controlled what. Walter Scheidel and Steven Friesen have demonstrated "that the vast majority of the population lived close to subsistence but cumulatively generated more than half of overall output [of wheat]."[18] As the Roman Empire was the largest force in the ancient during the time of the New Testament, it stands to reason that this economy affected the majority of early patristic sources, at least implicitly if not explicitly as we shall see. Juvenal writes, "most people who lived in Rome could not afford to own a house and therefore lived in rooms or apartments that they might own or rent" (Satires 3.193-202).[19] An economic elitism seems to lie at the heart of the ancient Roman economy,[20] with a majority of the population living at or beneath the level of subsistence:[21] this also includes Paul and a vast majority of first-century Christians.[22] When we talk about poverty, then, we are not talking about merely symbols of status, but of actual life and death.[23] The issue of poverty as a self-imposed state in "Late Antiquity and early Byzantium" is also reflected in the literature, [24] which is a concept that will be explored later. For instance, Schachner writes concerning this period, "Chosen poverty was an ideal to follow one's quest for spirituality and eternal salvation."[25] Thus, when patristic writers interpret Paul's epistles, they are indebted to their socio-economic context, and this comes out quite clearly in their reception of 2 Cor 8:9. The scope of poverty is nearly universal and concentrated. The self-impoverishment of the Son of God will now be examined through the lens of Paul's earliest recorded interpreters.[26]

3. Impoverishment and the Son of God: The Patristic Reception of 2 Cor 8:9

The majority of allusions or direct citations of 2 Cor 8:9 come from a later period, as the literature from the Apostolic Fathers does not appear to contain any direct reference to the text in question.[27] The records of the early Apostolic Fathers are silent regarding any citing or alluding to this text as far as can been seen, although there are deep echoes of the Trinity therein.[28] The majority of references recorded are in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. We begin with Gregory Thaumaturgus.

For the rest of my paper, enjoy it here.


[1] Chris Tilling, Paul's Divine Christology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 1.

[2] For a reframing of several of these texts, see Wesley Hill, Paul and the Trinity: Persons, Relations, and the Pauline Letters (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015).

[3] For a fascinating exploration of Paul's divine Christology that does not focus on the standard biblical texts, see Tilling, Paul's Divine Christology.

[4] C.f. Bruce W. Longenecker, Remember the Poor: Paul, Poverty, and the Greco-Roman World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), Justin J. Meggitt, Paul, Poverty and Survival (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998) and David J. Downs, The Offering of the Gentiles: Paul's Collection for Jerusalem in its Chronological, Cultural, and Cultic Contexts (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016).

[5] For an excellent and expansive treatment of Pauline soteriology through a patristic lens, see Ben C. Blackwell, Christosis: Pauline Soteriology in Light of Deification in Irenaeus and Cyril of Alexandria (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011). The scope of my proposal is far more modest, although my intent is similar. 

[6] The totality of Patristic evidence on this verse cannot be displayed. I have limited myself to key representatives and interpretations that appear to be consistent, revealing an interpretive thread that links all of these sources together.

[7] James D.G. Dunn, The Theology of the Apostle Paul (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 292. It must be said that this 'non-incarnational' view may not represent Dunn's personal view, only his view on what Paul said and believed.

[8] Calvin J. Roetzel, 2 Corinthians (Nashville: Abingdon, 2007), 46.

[9] Roetzel, 2 Corinthians, 46.

[10] Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, The Theology of the Second Letter to the Corinthians (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 83.

[11] Murphy-O'Connor, Theology, 83.

[12] C.f. Meggitt, Paul, Poverty and Survival, 99

[13] It also may be said that the human life of utter impoverishment of Christ (the emphasis pressed by both Dunn and Murphy-O'Connor) does not necessarily rule out his incarnation. Indeed, contra Murphy-O'Connor (pp.83-84), it highlights the 'emptying' of the Son, who forgoes his divine status on behalf of those who are indeed impoverished. Murphy-O'Connor has missed the entire point of ancient theories of economics and status, and how this plays in Christ's self-abandonment of his status.

[14] See D. Steenburg, "The Case against the Synonymity of Morphē and Eikōn," Journal for the Study of the New Testament 34 (1998): 77-86; Larry W. Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 121-122.

[15] C.f. Linda L. Belleville, 2 Corinthians (Downers Grove: IVP, 1996), 215-217; Raymond C. Collins, Second Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 171-172; George H. Guthrie, 2 Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015), 406; Murray J. Harris, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 578-579; Ralph P. Martin, 2 Corinthians (Vol. 40: Waco: Word Books, 1986), 263-264; Mark A. Seifrid, The Second Letter to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 330.

[16] Margaret E. Thrall, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Second Epistle to the Corinthians. Vol. 2 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000), 534.

[17] Thrall, 2 Corinthians, 534.

[18] Walter Scheidel and Steven J. Friesen, "The Size of the Economy and the Distribution of Income in the Roman Empire," Journal of Roman Studies 99 (2009): 61-91, 62-63.

[19] Reference found in Jo-Ann Shelton, As the Romans Did: A Sourcebook in Roman Social History. Second Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 63.

[20] This appears to be the case in Corinth during Paul's time. The social context of the Corinthians should be contrasted by their "pride in their economic status," per Hans Deiter Betz, 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1985), 63.

[21] Longenecker, Remember the Poor, 45.

[22] See specifically Steven J. Friesen's table (1.3) in his article "Injustice or God's Will?:" Early Christian Explanations of Poverty" in Wealth and Poverty in Early Church and Society (ed. Susan R. Holman. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 17-36, 29. Paul's placement in Friesen's "poverty scale" (PS) in section 6 appears to best explain the data in the New Testament.

[23] See the documentation in Meggitt, Paul, Poverty and Survival, 53-57.

[24] Lukas Amadeus Schachner, "Social Life in Late Antiquity: A Bibliographic Essay" in Social and Political Life in Late Antiquity (Edited by William Bowden, Adam Gutteridge and Carlos Machado. Volume 3.1. Boston: Leiden. 2006), 48-50, 48.

[25] Schachner, "Social Life," 48.

[26] All of the sources I cite occur, most probably, before the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 CE. The relevance of these sources is they are by prominent members of the early Christian community.   

[27] The text consulted was Michael W. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers in English. Third Edition (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006).

[28] C.f. Stephen M. Hildebrand, "The Trinity in the Ante-Nicene Fathers" in The Oxford Handbook of the Trinity (ed. Gilles Emery and Matthew Levering; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 95-107.