< October 05, 2014 >

Commentary on Philippians 3:4b-14


During a recent tour of the Holy Land, Pope Francis was accompanied by Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Muslim leader Omar Abboud.

The three men embraced each other before the Wailing Wall (or Kotel, the remnant of the ancient wall that once surrounded the Herodian Temple). They had been working together to foster greater understanding between their religions. Their gesture at arguably the most sacred site of Judaism conveyed the message that peace between Jews, Christians, and Muslims is possible.

The message is much needed. We all know that tolerance or even friendship between different religions is not necessarily the norm today. That is why a text such as Philippians 3:4b–14, today’s lectionary passage, is no popular choice. It does not seem to display much respect toward Judaism. Indeed, too many people have too often read Paul’s words as an example of Christian superiority over Judaism. Yet this is no appropriate interpretation, as I will show.

However, let us first reflect on what Paul writes and provide some explanations. Our passage starts with autobiographical data about the apostle, who mentions his status and achievements within the Jewish tradition. In many cultures of the ancient Mediterranean world, one’s social status was determined by one’s honor.

Such honor could be ascribed honor, which refers to one’s status due to the reputation of family and ancestry. It is about who someone was by birth. People could obviously do little to improve their ascribed honor. On the other hand, honor could be acquired honor, which refers to the improvement of one’s social status through certain achievements.

Paul’s autobiographical data show that he was of enviable social status by either category. In terms of ascribed honor, Paul presents himself in Philippians 3:5 as literally an “eighth-day one” (Greek octa-hemeros) regarding circumcision. He is “of the people of Israel,” belongs to the tribe of Benjamin, and is “a Hebrew of Hebrews.” This means that, for those who cared about a person’s family and ancestry, there was no doubt Paul was a “pedigreed” Jew. As a true Israelite he was, for example, distinguished from Gentiles or God-fearers (non-Jewish sympathizers of, and proselytes to, Judaism).

In terms of acquired honor, Paul presents himself “as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Philippians 3:5–6). Pharisees were known for their affection of the Torah and strict law observance. Therefore, Paul had formerly persecuted the followers of Jesus (see Acts 9:1–2) because they, just as Jesus himself, propagated a somewhat liberal interpretation of certain commandments (see Mark 2:23–28; 3:1–6; 7:1–23; Acts 10, etc.).

Moreover, Paul had taken pride in his ethical blamelessness according to which he had gained righteousness. To summarize: “These seven characteristics of heredity and achievement reveal that Paul’s accepting Christ did not occur because he was marginally Jewish. He had not failed in his own religion” (Richard R. Melick, Jr., Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1991, p. 130).

In what follows, however, Paul states that he regards all attributes of ascribed and acquired honor as “loss” and even “rubbish” (NRSV, NIV; the Greek term skybalon can also mean “dung”). In the framework of the ancient Mediterranean world, the apostle was countercultural. He no longer strives for such “gain;” now his only gain could be Christ (Philippians 3:8).

In particular, Paul now rejects “righteousness of my own that comes from the law;” he hopes for the one “that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith” (verse 9). His new goal is the knowledge of Christ (verses 8, 10); knowing “the power of his resurrection” would help him achieve his own resurrection (10–11).

Paul concludes with another countercultural statement. According to his previous autobiographical data, he had clearly reached his goal, namely a respectable position of honor. Now, however, everything is different. “Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal … ” (verse 12; see also verses 13–14) is what he admits. He finds himself on the way, but that is no problem because the old order of honor and achievement no longer counts in the new eon of Christ.

However, does the stark contrast not amount to a denigration of Judaism? No, it does not. The reason is that we should refrain from seeing Paul as a representative of a different religion. Paul was a Jew who was hoping to bring a new vision to his own religion. His goal was reforming it, to some degree like many of the prophets before him had tried. His reform program followed that of Jesus of Nazareth. It is clear that several important parameters of Judaism, such as righteousness or Torah obedience, were being redefined or questioned along the way.

Yet these differences do not mean that Paul considered himself as the founder of a new religion. He stated that he was once a Pharisee. While this Jewish group believed in the resurrection of the dead, this idea was vigorously rejected by the Sadducees. Yet the Sadducees, who represented the upper economic echelon of Jewish society and oversaw the worship at the Second Temple in Jerusalem, were just as vigorously rejected by another group (perhaps Essenes) that withdrew to the Judean desert to live in a quasi-monastic community.

Now, did Pharisees, Sadducees, or Essenes cease to be Jews because of different opinions or life-styles? No. They all emphasized different aspects of the Jewish tradition. In the end, Judaism was surprisingly multifaceted (and still is today). The followers of Jesus belonged to the versatile phenomenon of Judaism in the first century C.E.; their attitudes, convictions, and practices should be interpreted in this context.

The fact that they recognized Jesus as their Messiah or gradually discontinued obeying traditional purity regulations means that they were scrutinized (and sometimes persecuted) by other Jewish groups. Despite such controversies, however, the followers of Jesus continued to belong to the diverse and complex religion of Judaism. We need to bear in mind that Christianity as a separate religion became manifest only towards the end of the first century C.E., well after the time of Paul.

The apostle’s personal reflections in Philippians 3:4b–14 would be misconstrued if understood as a general statement of disrespect of Judaism or conflict between two religions. Instead, they attest to the diversity within Judaism. Through his message of Jesus Christ and righteousness based on faith, Paul tried to challenge the traditional honor-based culture that dominated much of the ancient Mediterranean world.

Paul envisioned an inclusive society that was open to Jews and Greeks, slaves and free people, male and female alike; he endorsed a society that celebrated differences because all “are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). The result was a passionate invitation not only to respect, but also to love and embrace others.