Thursday, September 25, 2008

Explanatory Notes: Philippians 3:2-6

3:2 Watch out for the dogs. Watch out for the evil "workers." Watch out for the mutilation (katatome).
As we mentioned in relation to the final verses of Philippians 2, some scholars have suggested that we are reading an excerpt from a different letter of Paul to the Philippians at this point. The end of Philippians 2 reads a bit like the usual end of Paul's letters, and with 3:2 Paul's train of thought suddenly takes an unexpected turn to a topic that does not connect to the rest of the book.

This argument makes sense, although we do not seem to have compelling evidence to conclude in its favor. It could be the case, but it just as well might not be. Philippians reads fine as it is. So we should probably presume that Paul sent the letter as it is in the absence of compelling evidence to the contrary.

These comments are rife with sarcasm, an attitude on Paul's part that might give us pause. "Dogs" is a term that Jews used in derision of non-Jews, of Gentiles. Dogs were uncircumcised, like Gentiles. And "dog" was a term of great derision, a trace of whose tone has survived in the English slang word that refers to a female dog. Dogs were not cuddly pets to the common person of the ancient world, but scrounging scavengers.

So when Paul refers to certain Jews as "dogs," he is turning a term of derision they use toward Gentiles on its head. He is saying that they are the truly uncircumcised ones because they are uncircumcised in heart (cf. Rom. 2).

Some debate exists over whether Paul is talking about Jews in general or about other Jewish Christians. Given the other comments in this verse, it seems likely that Paul is referring to Jewish Christians who insisted that Gentiles must be circumcised in order to be justified before God. In other words, he has in mind "Judaizers" such as those he addresses in Galatians.

Indeed, in our preferred dating, Paul writes Galatians from Ephesus less than a year prior to writing Philippians from Ephesus. Both of these dates and places are debated of course, many dating Galatians some 5 years earlier from Antioch and Philippians some 5-7 years later from Rome. In our reconstruction, however, Paul includes these comments to the Philippians not because he actually knows of such influences at Philippi but because he has this issue on the brain from his encounters with the Galatian church and he wishes to warn the Philippian church well before they might encounter such teaching.

The mention of evil "workers" (ergates) quite possibly echoes his ongoing debate with this segment of the church, since they are urging that "works (erga) of Law" are necessary to be justified before God. Paul's position is that works of Law like circumcision are not necessary for acceptability before God. In fact, Paul considers them a hindrance for Gentiles who should rather rejoice in the gracious gift of God's justification.

We favor that interpretation that does not see Paul merely referring to the idea of earning your salvation, even though he surely agreed you could not earn acceptibility with God. But the context of Paul's "works of Law" discussions almost always focus on those aspects of the Jewish Law that most distinguished Jew from Gentile--circumcision, food laws, Sabbath observance, and so forth.

When Paul says to beware of the "mutilation" he uses the word katatome, which is very close to the word for circumcision, peritome. The play on words is similar to those who called "television" "hellovision" when it first began to take hold in American culture. He derides the "circumcision," those in his Christian circles who especially emphasize the necessity of circumcision for justification, by calling them the "mutilation." The word reminds us of Galatians 5:12, where Paul expresses a wish that those urging the Galatians to circumcise might cut a little further up and emasculate themselves.

3:3 For we are the circumcision (peritome), those who serve by the Spirit of God and who boast in Christ Jesus and have not put confidence in flesh,
This comment solidifies our interpretation of 3:2. Paul is contrasting true circumcision with merely physical circumcision. The "real" circumcision serve God in spirit rather than in flesh. In Romans and Galatians Paul makes it clear that the Spirit empowers believers to be victorious over the temptations of their flesh. "Walk in the Spirit and you will not fulfill the desires of the flesh" (Gal. 5:16).

Those who serve God by His Spirit thus are the true people of God. These individuals boast in what Messiah Jesus has done for them and they are indeed "in Christ." These individuals do not put their confidence in their weak bodies, susceptible to Sin, but in the empowering Spirit within them.

3:4 ... although I myself also have [reasons for] confidence in flesh.
Paul wants to make it clear that he could take this angle on confidence if he thought it was appropriate. He had a very good resume as a devout Jew, better than any of those who might boast in these sorts of credentials.

3:5 If someone else thinks [they] have [reasons for] confidence in flesh, I [have] more: in circumcision on the eighth day, from the race of Israel, the tribe of Benjamin...
Identity in the Western world today is largely a matter of an individual. Sometimes we do take note of a person's family or religion, but we generally give much room for an individual to make their own choices in these areas. Americans have the myth of the "self-made man" as one of their cultural stories, the person who started with nothing and made themself into something important.

Our individualism is especially seen in the way the Western world approaches marriage. We date, often for long periods of time, in order to decide whether or not we want to make a life commitment to another individual. It is important for us to see if we are compatible with one another, whether we "fit."

By contrast, the ancient world was a "group" culture, where one's identity was primarily a function of the groups to which you belonged and was relatively fixed even before you were born. In group cultures, marriages can be arranged long before the couple in question are even born, for the main features of identity are already known. One needs to be a male and the other a female. Both families need to be compatible in terms of their social status and identity within the culture. Finally, there is the general assumption that the two be from the same race.

When Paul identifies himself as someone circumcised the eighth day, he thus indicates both his gender and his race, two key identity markers. He is an Israelite, the people of promise. He may strongly believe that the Gentiles can be part of the people of God as well, but he holds firm Jewish credentials. He can even identify the tribe from which his family comes, the tribe of Benjamin. If as Acts presents, one of his names or nicknames was "Saul," he was not unlikely even named after the most famous Benjamite in the Old Testament, King Saul.

... a Hebrew of the Hebrews, according to the Law, a Pharisee...
If Paul is using the term "Hebrew" in the same way as Acts 6, we should probably infer that he identified himself more as an Aramaic rather than Greek speaking Jew. Certainly his letters indicate that he was fluent in Greek and that he operated as much from the Greek translation of the Old Testament (Septuagint) as from the Hebrew. But in an earlier phase of his life he identified more with Aramaic speaking Judaism.

Whenver he came to Jerusalem, in the period before he joined the Christian movement, we can say with some certainty that he operated in Aramaic there and identified with Aramaic speaking Jews there rather than Greek speaking ones. We can speculate that Aramaic might also have featured regularly in his home in Tarsus as well.

By identifying himself as a Pharisee in relation to the Jewish Law, he indicates the stream of Old Testament interpretation he followed. He would thus distinguish himself from the interpretations of other groups like the Sadducees and the Essenes. Of the three groups, the Pharisees would appear to have had the greatest popular influence and to have commanded the greatest numbers.

The precise origins of the Pharisees are a matter of some debate, but certainly it is not controversial to suggest that they may have served in some way as the heirs of the hasidim of the Maccabean crisis (e.g., 1 Macc 2:42). They may not of course have been the sole heirs of the hasidim or in some fixed lineage from them. The Jewish historian Josephus speaks of the three best known Jewish sects as rising in the time of Jonathan Maccabeus (ca. 150BC).

The word Pharisee may mean "separated one," although the Dead Sea Scrolls likely refer to them negatively as the "smooth ones." They are best known in the New Testament for their belief in a coming resurrection of at least some of the dead, an idea that the Sadducees rejected (cf. Acts 23:6-10). By resurrection they meant a point in the future when the dead would be reimbodied in some way. Essenes seem to have had some sense of an afterlife, but not nearly so dominated with the idea of reimbodiment at a specific future point in time.

Different schools of thought existed even among the Pharisees. The best known are the schools of Hillel and Shammai. From what we can tell, the school of Hillel took a more fatalistic approach to God's will, such as that we see embodied in Gamaliel's "let God take care of it" approach in Acts 4. They also took a looser position on the issue of divorce. The school of Shammai, on the other hand, seem to have taken a more activist approach to God's will, that Jews should work to bring it to pass. Their view of divorce was also much stricter as well.

While the book of Acts explicitly connects Paul with Gamaliel, a Hillelite (Acts 22:3; indeed, Jewish tradition would eventually consider him to be Hillel's grandson), Paul's own depiction of his prior attitudes and actions fits better with that of the school of Shammai. Of course it is certainly possible that Paul studied with Gamaliel and then somewhat went his own way later on. He seems to have worked with the high priest in his persecution activities, rather than representing the Pharisees in some way.

The Pharisees were strict in following their understanding of the Jewish Law, although the Essenes seem to have been a stricter sect. Many Pharisees likely belonged to groups called the haberim, dining clubs that ate together at a high level of purity. If Paul belonged to such a group prior to becoming a Christian, we can understand his difficulty in taking Peter's actions at Antioch very seriously (Gal. 2).

3:6 ... according to zeal, persecuting the church,
We do not know for certain why Paul persecuted the Christians of Judea and beyond, but he did. His personal motivations may have been different from the reasons he had official political authority to do so. As a strict Pharisee, we can imagine that he detested a movement that seemed rather to obliterate the boundaries rather than keep them well defined. The gospels present us with a Jesus who was far from scrupulous in his keeping of Jewish purity laws. Indeed, he seems deliberately to disregard them in many instances.

The pre-Christian Paul likely found such attitudes abhorrent, perhaps even potentially harmful to Israel if God visited His wrath on it for such defilement within. If as is possible the Greek speaking Jewish believers of Jerusalem were even more inclusive than the original apostles, we can see why he might be personally motivated to do as much damage to this group as possible.

His official sanction for such persecution, however, seemed to stem from the high priest. Here we suspect that it was not ideology but politics that empowered him. If Stephen's sermon in Acts 7 is at all representative of the types of attitudes Greek speaking believers had toward the Jerusalem temple, we can imagine that the high priest might have been motivated to track down these people as subversive types.

We do not have evidence that Paul actually brought about the deaths of any Christians, however. Acts 8:1 portrays Paul as approving of Stephen's death, but does not indicate that he was an instigator of it. Similarly, neither Acts nor Paul's own writings ever mention him as actually bringing about the death of someone.

3:7 ... according to righteousness that is in Law, having become blameless.
Paul of course does not believe that a person can attain a standard of righteousness by keeping the Jewish Law that is sufficient to "justify" you before God. No one will be found "innocent" on the Day of Judgment because of how well they have kept the Law. Paul's comments elsewhere and his hints here indicate that not even those who focus so much on "works of Law," the finer points over which Jewish groups argued among themselves, would be able to attain blamelessness in their own power.

However, Paul indicates here that to the extent that one could be righteous by way of the Law, he had accomplished it. One of the reasons the Pharisees had so many traditions about keeping the Law was so that you could actually keep it, concretely. So if the commandment says not to work on the Sabbath, what exactly did that mean for concrete living. How far would you have to walk on the Sabbath, for example, before you had worked? Because they had laid down the concrete particulars of the Law so extensively, a person could actually keep it blamelessly.

Paul's comment here should put to rest those who see his turn to Christ as a consequence of a long standing struggle with guilt. Paul gives us no evidence that he struggled with a guilty conscience before he came to Christ. Rather, he more likely resembled the Pharisee in the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in Luke 18:9-14. The picture of Paul as someone who struggled so much with his sense of guilt that he found the doctrine of justification by faith is far more appropriate of Martin Luther than of Paul himself.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

I think when you say Jewish Christians, instead of Christian Jews, there is a presupposition of conversion from Judiasm to Christianity. It would be a cultural shift away from Judiasm's ethical teachings and be about lifestyle. This would be what Reformation theology would underline, whereas a Christian Jew would maintain their own cultural form, while understanding that faith is not about this or that religion, but about faith in a transcendent God.
I did a paper in undergrad for Dr,Lo on correlating Judiasm with the Catholic Church and how their sacraments correlated, but Luter's undermining of that was due to his emphasis on faith and not the sacraments. Philosophically, isn't this the anti-realist position? Whereas, the Jewish and Catholic tradition would be a realist one?
I can understand why many would shy away from Luther due to the philosophical implications for the Church, but that doesn't resolve the problem to hide one's head in the sand.

Ken Schenck said...

There is a lively debate about what terms are most appropriate. When I am writing for scholarly circles, I prefer to use "Christian Jews." When I use "Jewish Christians" as here in a more popular context, I don't mean anything different. Different people have used this expression in different ways this last century. Most of them likely did understand Paul's coming to Christ to have been a conversion. I tend to avoid this language myself, although I don't think it is inappropriate in the sense of changing from one form of Judaism to another.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Jewish Christian would maintain that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, as the Messianic Jews do. Whereas, the Christian Jew would be a sect of Judiasm itself. I still believe that Paul was teaching that the true "son of god" was not under law, meaning religion or culture(as it is defined by law), as far as an ultimate identification(of self). Maturity had attained to a selfhood that was irrespective of all the other identifying factors...
(And it is not Reformation theology that had the problem of lifestyle, as any lifestyle was appropriate as faith was what mattered. This is an anti-nomian position. But, one can understand the anti-nomian position as one that obeys one's boundaried community, but understands that that is not what puts one right with God, as the law is irrelavant except as distinguishing one group from another.)