The Paul of Philippians

The New Testament book of Philippians is the third “authentic” Pauline letter our small study group has worked through. Let me preface my comments by remarking on the position taken by Paul Nanos, who describes himself as a New Testament scholar with an alternative approach to understanding the apostle Paul. Nanos wants to read the Pauline corpus as though Paul were a Torah-observant Jew. Now, I am having a difficult time with this approach on two counts. First, doesn’t this beg the question of what the first century Paul’s attitude might have been toward Jewish law? Second, I am left to wonder whether Nanos and I are reading the same texts. I cannot fathom how he finds support for a Torah-observant author (whatever that might mean given the first century CE context). Philippians is a case in point for my argument that the Paul who wrote this letter, and the previous two letters we have read, has no interest in upholding even the rudimentary requirements of Jewish law let alone presenting himself as “Torah-observant”.

In antiquity male Jewishness was inextricably connected to ritual circumcision on the 8th day. It is the physical mark of belonging to the ethnic group we call the Jews (Ioudaioi), and to the religious covenant that they believed marked Israel from the nations. By Paul’s own admission, he was a properly circumcised, properly lineaged “Hebrew of Hebrews” when he apostatized from the what he calls the tradition of his fathers. If anyone could have “confidence in the flesh,” writes Paul, it would be him. Yet he deliberately chucks whatever benefits, social or religious, might have been his as a member of the Jewish nation in the Roman empire. This in favor of a new faith and a new kind of belonging with like-minded believers in a resurrected Jesus in the ekklesia of Jesus Christ. Anything Paul might have benefited from being a Jew he now regards as filth (dung, garbage, refuse).

One of the most striking negations of Jewish belonging that recurs consistently in these Pauline letters is the rite of ritual circumcision. Either it is anathema for non-Jews in the ekklesia, or it is meaningless for ekklesian Jews. Paul vehemently opposes other Jewish ekklesians who advocate incorporating Gentiles into the covenant of Moses (and thus into the recognized Jewish polity in the empire) through circumcision; something that must have been happening with increased energy in Paul’s absence while he was incarcerated in Rome. But even more troublesome for Nanos’s contention is Paul’s derogation of the very act of circumcision, or “mutilation of the flesh” as Paul calls it.

Further, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord! It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you. Watch out for those dogs, those evildoers, the mutilation . . . .

You might soften the brunt of this passage by merely regarding it as an instance of exaggerated rhetoric. I think, however, that this obscures the visceral angst the author continued to suffer at the high cost of his apostasy. Nevertheless, it is precisely because he denies the social or religious need for Jewish ritual circumcision in “in the flesh” in his letters that I see Paul’s relationship to the law as apostate rather than sectarian—and his incorporation into the ekklesia as belonging to an entirely new religious community rather than a subgroup of 1st century Judaism.

Image credit: from Philippians 4:1


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