New Testament Words and Verses
Philippians 3:1-7, Two: How Paul Became Paul
In the previous essay I introduced this section of the letter (3:1-7), paying particular attention to the deft way that Paul denounces some circumcisors (the κατατομή) before appropriating the concept for himself (“we ARE the circumcision," v 3), and finally denying its importance. But this rather deft intellectual move is all a prelude to an autobiographical statement that will lead to the centrality of Christ over the institution of circumcision. This essay will focus on what Paul claims about himself in vv 3-7 before he turns to his wholehearted embrace of “knowing” Christ (v 8).
Talking About His Past
Paul excoriates his opponents for having undue confidence in “the flesh.” That is, they probably emphasize the importance of circumcision for faith, but Paul denies its centrality. Yet one of the reactions to Paul’s denial might be, ‘Well, you are not a really committed Jew anyway!’ It is to deflect this possible allegation that Paul launches into his autobiographical recitation in vv 4-6. In understanding these verses it might be helpful to differentiate between his pedigree, parental performance, and personal practice— if that doesn’t leave you spppputtering. .
First, then, Paul mentions his background or pedigree. He is doing this for two reasons; first to tell people his status as a Jew but also to emphasize that this pedigree is superior to that of others. Once he has established this point, and tries to get the reader marveling, he will then deny its importance for him. It is as if he is saying, ‘Everything that the world, and my religious world, considers so sacred, I HAVE—more than anyone, but I have learned its unimportance, or even its worthlessness next to what I have discovered in Christ.’ It is like Warren Buffet saying that the ultimate lesson of his life is that money doesn’t matter. Yeah, but. . .
So, the things he mentions in pedigree are his tribal association and the fact that he is “pure-bred Jew.” Though Benjamin was among the smallest tribes, it was the home of the first King, Saul. It is located in the heart of the land, a sort of “Kansas” of Israel. But also important is his parental performance—they circumcised him on the eighth day. He was a full member of the Israelite assembly. But then, he adopted conduct that flowed from this commitment. He became committed to the law, joining up with the Pharisees; his zealousness increased as he persecuted the fledgling church. In a word, Paul wants to emphasize his practice: that his Jewish bona fides was second to none.
Is This True?
There really is no way to confirm or disconfirm this except by reading the rest of his letters and trying to determine if this brief picture in Philippians seems to “match” the thought patterns presented in his other letters. There are two reasons why it is difficult for me fully to credit Paul’s explanation about his past. First, a person who claims what he claims would have had the concepts of Judaism sticking very deeply to him. We especially would have seen more discussion of what you might call the “minutiae” of the law, some of whose debates one sees in the Mishnah, published the century after Paul’s death. Of course, there is a raging debate among scholars of Judaism of late antiquity whether one can “retroject” some of the Mishnaic debates into the 1st century CE, but I think that at least some of the issues discussed there would have bulked large even a century or more before they were codified. It isn’t as if I think Paul would have been required to deal with festivals or women or purity or the agricultural calendar, but something of the language and conceptual framework of that Jewish world would naturally have entered into his theological reflection had it penetrated deeply into the marrow of his being. But it doesn’t.
Especially noteworthy is the very brief mention of the idea of purity (Paul will use the word “blameless” once, but that is all). Purity is central to the Pharisaic attempt to define themselves in the first century, as Jacob Neusner and several other scholars of Judaism of Late Antiquity have shown. Purity is necessary both to differentiate yourself from others but also to present yourself acceptably before God. Any attempt to redefine one’s theological orientation would have had to pay particular attention to this concept—if, indeed, one was steeped in it.
The Suppleness of Autobiography
The second reason it is hard for me to accept Paul at face value is when I consider the nature of autobiography. Autobiography (and I have written three) allows or even encourages the plasticity of memory. What that means is that autobiography tells a story in a certain way for a specific reason. I have argued in my own autobiographies that the first one is written primarily as a defense mechanism and only secondarily to tell your story. That is, the first time a person writes an autobiography it is to justify choices that have been made or to “make sense” of some of the bewildering particulars of life. Only in the second or third autobiographies, I have found, does one have the confidence to begin to unpack not only a few of the ambiguities of life but honestly to begin to discuss the way that life really doesn’t “add up” after all.
All of Paul’s life “adds up” a bit too neatly for me. That is, he has all the right credentials, all the right experiences, all the right commitments to have become a Jewish religious STAR but somehow it was so unattractive to him because of the surpassing value of Christ and his experience of Christ. Stardom was within his grasp and he gave it up! If HE gave it up, what ought YOU, who no doubt don’t have the experience, commitment and Jewish pedigree of Paul, to do? Of course, you ought to trash your background so thoroughly that it becomes unrecognizable, join with the Philippian church, and embrace the deep knowledge of Christ.
The reason this may sound a bit cynical is that I have done the same thing with my autobiography(ies). That is, I have manipulated them for the sake of my audiences. I won’t go into detail on that here, lest I divulge all my secrets, but I am really good at playing up my “pedigree.” I am a “descendant of New England Puritans.” Well, that may be an ambiguous appellation for most people, but for many, they will give a knowing nod and realize that this movement not only shaped America in the 17th century but still does today. But then I will emphasize my “rich” or “financially secure” origins. I stress how I came from money (though it isn’t true), and then I just say two words: Darien and Atherton—the places where I spent the first eighteen years of my life. I don’t have to say much more, but people will instinctively think that I not only of good breeding (I will say that my relative was on the founding company of the town of Stratford CT in 1639) but that somehow I come from “old money.” Then, when I pile up Ivy League degrees and European study, I will have said all that needs to be said.
My sense is that Paul does something similar to this. He wants to convince people that he is a certain kind of person. We can’t show it to be wrong, just like no one really can refute my pedigree, but it functions to give the person a kind of sense of self—whether to use the description for one’s advantage, which I have tried do in my life or to deny its importance, which is what Paul tries to do. But for Paul, as we will now see, that great advantage was really worth nothing. And we are supposed to think, ‘What a guy!’
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