Studying the Christ Hymn in Colossians with Michael F. Bird

Academia is abuzz this year about Michael F. Bird’s Evangelical Theology, which sold off SBL’s tables as quickly as N. T. Wright’s latest. Dr. Bird brings more than one top-notch resource to the table however. In 2009 he published Colossians and Philemon as part of the New Covenant Commentary Series with Wipf and Stock. It’s a wonderful commentary set, with Bird’s volume alongside others by Lynn Cohick, Gordon Fee, and Craig Keener. Regarding Dr. Bird’s volume, Scot McKnight wrote the following:

Every generation needs to grapple anew with the Bible, and every pastor needs a series that pushes the text into the community. This commentary series accomplishes these tasks. May God bless these commentaries to yield communities that live out God’s gracious covenant with us.
—Scot McKnight, Karl A. Olsson Professor in Religious Studies, North Park University

The origins and implications of the Christ Hymn

To get a taste of Michael Bird’s commentary, let’s look at his approach to studying the “Christ Hymn” in Colossians 1:15–20.

As Bird immediately notes, scholars have debated about this particular passage for centuries. Regardless, he dives headlong into the fray, not afraid to take a stance based on his interpretation of the evidence. He suggests that the passage in question is most likely a hymn or poem, and works from that perspective. He cites numerous occasions in the New Testament where confessional or hymnic material is is quoted or alluded to, supporting the simple notion that liturgical material already existed, to some extent, when the New Testament books were being written.
Having established the reasonableness of assuming that this is based on an already-existing hymn, Bird goes on to discuss three possibilities of its origin. He cites as improbable the idea of a gnostic redeemer myth, as well as the personified Wisdom concept (along with other mediator figures from Hellenistic Judaism). However, he deems it most likely that this passage was based on a christological interpretation of the first chapter of Genesis. He notes that the strong connections in language with “image” and “beginning” particularly reinforce this point.
Bird does note that “links with wisdom traditions are simply too plain to ignore.” He cites C. F. Burney’s proposal that Colossians 1:15–20 “understands the figure of Wisdom in Proverbs 8:22 in light of Genesis 1:1.” Bird suggests that “it is precisely because Jewish wisdom theology was so indebted to Jewish views of creation that links between Colossians 1:15–20 and Sirach, Proverbs, Philo, and Wisdom of Solomon can be found.”
Dr. Bird notes that, at it’s heart, the goal of this passage is to display a “christological monotheism,” affirming Jesus as the image of God, the “eldest child of creation” (designating sovereignty over creation), and as the “prototype and provision for God’s renewed humanity.”

The mileage one gets from this poem is not merely to make sure Christians believe the right stuff about Jesus, but to see Jesus and ourselves as part of the story of creation and reconciliation. The story of the church and of individual Christians themselves is written up in a narrative of a world made good, gone wrong, and being put right. It is part of a narrative tapestry related to the promises made to Abraham coming true at last in the cosmopolitan people belonging to Israel’s Messiah. It encompasses human rebellion and divine reconciliation. It is a drama of despots and tyrants, spiritual and human (they were not always distinguished in the Bible), being defeated through the blood of the cross. (Bird, Colossians and Philemon, 59)

The New Covenant Commentary Series

You can add all four volumes to your Logos library for $89.95, or simply order Colossians and Philemon for $18.95. For a full introduction to the NCCS, head over to Michael Bird’s blog. The line-up of contributors is outstanding, and we are eagerly awaiting additional volumes to this excellent commentary set. Here’s the full list, taken from Dr. Bird’s blog:

Joel Willitts (North Park University, Chicago)
Kim Huat Tan (Trinity Theological College, Singapore)
Jeannine Brown (Bethel Seminary, St. Paul)
Jey Kanagaraj (Hindustan Bible Institute & College, India)
Youngmo Cho (Asia Life University, South Korea)
Craig Keener (Palmer Seminary, Philadelphia)
1 Corinthians
Bruce Winter (Queensland Theological College, Australia)
2 Corinthians
David deSilva (Ashland Theological Seminary, Ohio)
Brian Vickers (Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville)
Lynn Cohick (Wheaton College, Wheaton).
Linda Belleville (Bethel College, Indiana)
Colossians, Philemon
Michael Bird (Highland Theological College, Scotland)
1–2 Thessalonians
David Garland (George W. Truett Theological Seminary, Texas)
Pastoral Epistles
Aida Besancon-Spencer (Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Masschussets)
Tom Thatcher (Cincinnati Christian University, Ohio)
Pablo Jimenez (Pastor, Puerto Rico)
1 Peter
Eric Greaux (Winston-Salem State University, North Carolina)
2 Peter, Jude
Andrew Mbuvi (Shaw University Divinity School, North Carolina)
1–3 John
Sam Ngewa (Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology, Kenya)
Gordon Fee (Regent College, Canada)

Get the four NCCS volumes in Logos from Bird, Keener, Cohick, and Fee, and dive into the New Testament with these top scholars. Add them to your library today!

Written by
Jonathan Watson

Jon Watson is a minister in training with St. Columbia's Free Church in Edinburgh, Scotland.

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Written by Jonathan Watson
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