Conflict in Paul's Philippi: Identities of the Opponents

For centuries, the consensus interpretation of three “conflict” passages in Paul’s letter to the Philippian Christian community has taken the identity of the opponents or agitators to be the so-called judaizers.

Introduction and thesis

For centuries, the consensus interpretation of three “conflict” passages in Paul’s letter to the Philippian Christian1For brevity, the word “Christian(s)” in this paper albeit anachronistic denotes the community of Jesus-followers in Philippi. The use of this appellation does not imply a one-to-one correspondence between the Jesus-followers in Philippi and the communities that subsequently formed in other locations in the Mediterranean. See Zetterholm (Zetterholm, 2010) for definitional problems engendered by the term “Christian” to refer to Jesus followers in the first-century. community has taken the identity of the opponents or agitators to be the so-called judaizers2The term “judaizers” technically applies to non-Jewish Christians who seek to adopt a Jewish way of life (Cohen, 2002). Strictly speaking, a “judaizer” is a proselyte. See Nanos, footnote #3, p450 (Nanos, 2009). The appellation has taken on a wider meaning to include Jewish Christian missionaries who attempted to impose Jewish tradition and way of life on Gentile Christians, e.g., dietary laws and circumcision. See Tellbe, pp 99-100 and footnote 13 (Tellbe, 1994). In this essay, the wider meaning of the term “judaizer” is used..

These three passages are:3Except where indicated, Biblical text cited is from the NRSV. Greek text is from the Greek New Testament SBL Edition (Holmes & Society of Biblical, 2010).

Phil 1:27-30
(27) Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, (28) and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing. (29) For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well— (30) since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.

Phil 3:2-3
(2) Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh! (3) For it is we who are the circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and boast in Christ Jesus and have no confidence in the flesh.

Phil 3:18-21
(18) For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. (19) Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. (20) But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. (21) He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.

In the last couple of decades, an emergent stream of inquiry has challenged the consensus interpretation that the agitators opposed to the Philippian Christians were judaizers. Since Paul in his text did not explicitly define the profile of these agitators, e.g., religion, ethnicity, provenance, Nanos has argued that the data must at least be revisited in order the test the validity of what has been conventionally held to be true (Nanos, 2009, 2015). Nanos’ thesis is that the agitators opposed to the Philippian Christians were local practitioners of the polytheistic cults: The Philippian Christians were in conflict with the majority non-Christian populace of the city.

The aim of this essay is to examine the plausibility of the thesis that the referents of the three conflict passages cited above were not judaizers but instead were the local devotees of the polytheistic cults practiced in Philippi in the time of Paul.

Philippi: the Roman colony of colonies

The Roman character of Philippi and its residents in the time of Paul is relevant to the backdrop that informs the opposition to its Christian community.  The history of Philippi is outlined in several commentaries (Fee, 1995; Hawthorne, 1983; O’Brien, 1991; Thielman, 1995; Witherington, 2011; Zerbe, 2009).  The city was established by Philip of Macedon in 356 BCE.  In 42 BCE, Philippi was where Octavian and Mark Antony in alliance defeated the Roman Republican forces of Brutus and Cassius, the assassins of Julius Caesar.  In 31 BCE, Octavian (later, Augustus) defeated Mark Antony at the battle of Actium.  These two historically significant battles were important factors in the shaping the “Roman-ness” Philippian culture.  The Roman character of Philippi would have also been accentuated by its geographical location: The city straddles the Via Egnatia.  Built in the second century BCE, the Via Egnatia was Rome’s primary artery to the east, facilitating the movement of the Roman army throughout the empire.

Several data point to a highly Romanized society in Philippi and this to a higher degree than all other Roman colonies or settlements at the time (Hellerman, 2003; Oakes, 2001, 2005; Tellbe, 1994).

The epigraphy indicates that the city was administered in a “Roman way” in that extant inscriptions are predominantly in Latin and rarely in Greek. City planning was modelled after Rome. A Roman-style forum was erected in the centre, complete with a prominent temple to the imperial family and large monument to the cult of Livia who was deified by Claudius (Oakes, 2005). A drama troupe that performed in the city catered to Roman tastes. Coinage beginning around 30 BCE connected the Roman goddess Victoria with Octavian (later Augustus) after the latter’s war victory in Actium. This meant that after the war in Actium, Philippi took on an “Augustan character”, Augustus styling himself as “the initiator and overseer of a new world order” (Hellerman, 2003). Finally, the citizens of Philippi were also citizens of Rome (O’Brien, 1991). The government operated under the ius Italicum which conferred on Philippi the legal status of being on Roman soil itself, Rome being the “mother city” (Martin, 1987; O’Brien, 1991).

The nature of the colonization of Philippi was perhaps the reason why this city was more “Roman” than the other colonies of the time such as Pisidian Antioch and Iconium (Hellerman, 2003).

For the latter two, Roman society was imposed on an already thriving Greek cities/cultures. The colonization of Philippi was particular in that Roman elites, high-ranking army veterans, dispossessed and displaced the original landowners who were relegated to non-citizen status. Thus, Philippi became a mirror of what Rome was as conceived by the settled veterans.4“Only in Italy could one find a Roman settlement comparable to Philippi.” (Hellerman, 2003)

In Roman world, social stratification was vertical and rigid (Stewart, 2010). The population was grossly segmented into two classes: the minority elites and everyone else. The elites owned most of the land, controlled most of the food supply, possessed most of the wealth and wielded authority over the armies and city governments. In glaring contrast, the majority non-elites were peasants, artisans, slaves and the unemployable or those unable to work. Since the elites controlled the flow of goods, the majority non-elites had to have a way to obtain the necessities of life. This took the form of patronage, an asymmetric system (Neyrey, 2005) for the exchange of goods and services between non-equals, between the elite and the non-elites. The patrons from the ranks of the elites looked after the welfare of their beneficiaries or clients, also known as retainers. For their part, the retainers were expected to cater to their patrons’ relentless pursuit of public recognition, as well as the preservation and defense of familial honour.

As in Rome, social stratification in the Philippian society was also rigid and vertical during the timeframe of Paul’s letter.

It has been barely a century after the colonization by army veterans. The army being by nature rigidly hierarchical, the settling of the veterans correspondingly produced a vertically stratified society (Hellerman, 2003). Land allotments were according to rank (pro portione officio) and the degree of meritorious-ness of service (pro merito). As a result, the high-ranking veterans would have been granted the most land and therefore wealth. They became the elites of the city who qualified for high-ranking veterans for public office, e.g., decuriones, pontifices and augurs. The pursuit of public honour on the part of Roman elites took the form in Philippi of a pervasive concern to publicly declare Roman and Philippian citizenship. In Rome there was a relentless desire to claim descent from the primary citizen tribe. Correspondingly in Philippi, the premier tribe was the tribus Voltinia, accounting for the epigraphic data that the abbreviation VOL is found in half of the first and second-century CE inscriptions.

It is clear that the residents of Philippi mirrored the ethos in Rome itself. The Romans at the time of the empire were ethnocentric and xenophobic (Cosgrove, 2006; I. McLaren, 2016).

It is probable that Philippians, particularly the citizens, would consider the appearance of a new religion as an important perturbation, an affront to their polytheistic sensibilities and a movement to be opposed. The account of Paul and Silas’ troubles in Philippi is an example (Acts 16:20-22).

This perspective would be consistent with the thesis that the opponents of the Philippian Christians came from the local non-Christian polytheistic cult practitioners. On the other hand, ethnocentrism was also a characteristic of Judaism in the Second Temple Period (Yee, 2005) which informs the account of the debate in Acts 15. From this, it is equally probable that the said opponents could have been judaizers.5Gombis elaborates: “First-century Judaism… had an ethnocentrism (author’s italics) problem. The first followers of Jesus were all jewish, and had difficulty imagining that the God of Israel who sent Jesus Christ as their Savior (sic) could possible save non-Jews without requiring them to convert to Judaism…” (Gombis, 2011).

Unity and message of the letter

Opinions diverge on the unity of the text of the letter. For example, Koester favours a partitioning of the text of Philippians into three smaller segments which he believes were all written from Ephesus (Koester, 2007). In his scheme, the first letter is contained in 4:10-20, the second in 1:1-3:1, and the third in 3:2-4:1. This structure would separate the instances of the agitators in 1:27-30 from those described in 3:2, 18-19.

O’Brien (O’Brien, 1991) and Holloway (Holloway, 2001b) took the opposite view. Reviewing the arguments for and against partitioning, O’Brien offered his own conclusion:

“The case in favour of an interpolation hypothesis for Philippians raises more problems than it solves. The least one could say is that the burden of proof clearly lies with those who claim that the letter does not hang together as a literary unit. More positively, it can be argued that the evidence is not ambiguous but supportive of the letter’s integrity, a conclusion endorsed by at least one recent exponent of rhetorical criticism.” (p18)

Holloway (Holloway, 2001b) added (p33): “At present, there is no cumulative argument for the partitioning of Philippians.” For the purposes of this essay, the unity of the letter will be assumed.

Rhetorical analysis of the text has led to at least two streams: friendship-consolation (Holloway, 2001a) and political-subversive (Zerbe, 2009). If the letter’s purpose is one of friendship-consolation to a community that was experience a certain degree of suffering, the identity of the opponents who were causing the suffering would be secondary. If on the other hand Paul intended to map out an anti-Rome political-subversive message to the Philippian Christians the denouement of which is a present and future citizenship in heaven, then the identity of the opponents would form a relevant background to the text.

Core to rhetorical analysis is an apprehension of the circumstances of the community and of the rhetor. The Philippians text indicates the following:

  • Paul wrote the letter while in prison (1:7, 13-14, 17, 30)
  • Paul could die (1:20-23)
  • The Philippians have supported Paul’s material needs (4:15-16, 18)
  • There was a conflict within the church6For the sake of brevity, “church” in this essay means the community of Jesus followers. between two women (4:2-3)
  • There must have been some disunity or trouble in the church that prompted Paul to send words of advice and encouragement (1:27; 2:1-4, 12-16)
  • There were opponents or agitators creating trouble for the church (1:27-30; 3:2, 18-19)
  • Paul was uncertain if he would see the Philippians again (1:26-27; 2:12, 24)
  • There is some anxiety in the church which prompted Paul to encourage not to worry (4:6-9)
  • The Philippians were distressed upon learning of Epaphroditus’ illness (2:26-30)
  • The Philippians had been partnering with Paul’s ministry (1:5; 4:15-16)
  • The Philippians saw their church as the beginning of the gospel: ἀρχῇ τοῦ εὐαγγελίου (4:15-16)
  • Paul recognized the Philippians as unique among the churches (4:15-16)
  • The Philippians displayed enthusiasm in their support of the mission of Paul (4:16)

From the list above, we surmise that the Philippian church was experiencing discouragement, anxiety and tension arising from: (1) Paul’s imprisonment and likelihood of death; (2) Epaphroditus’ illness; (3) Probability of not seeing Paul again; (4) opposition from agitators; and (5) some degree of disunity within the church.

If the list above completely describes the circumstances of the Philippian church, then it makes sense that Paul’s aim would have been to dispel the anxiety, bring encouragement and advocate for unity, i.e., a friendship-consolation rhetoric.

In this scenario, the identity of the opponents, the subject of this essay, takes on less importance in the rhetorical situation: the cause of the discouragement that has befallen the church is not so important as the fact that the church is discouraged.

What if the letter were political-subversive in intent?

A complete picture of the circumstances of the Philippian church must include a profile of the Philippian populace from sources external to the biblical text. The city’s Roman character, the rigid vertical stratification of its residents and the patronage system were highlighted above. The non-elites of Philippian society emulated the stratification in their own voluntary associations (Hellerman, 2003). It is highly likely that the Philippian Christian community, one of the voluntary associations, were majoritarily of the non-elite class (Zerbe, 2009). In these circumstance, a certain degree of tension would have arisen between the privileged ethos of status building as among the elites, against the newer ethic of humility, lowliness, neighbourliness and unity as would have been taught by Paul to the nascent Christian community.

Paul’s challenge in his letter would have been to craft a convincing text, effectively exhorting the Philippian Christians to remain steadfast in their new faith despite living in μέσον⸃ γενεᾶς σκολιᾶς καὶ διεστραμμένης (2:15).

The theme of steadfastness against the pressures of Philippian Roman-ness is couched in language that communicates unified resistance against a common foe, a combination of military-athletic language that would have been easily discerned by the Philippians. First, there is the image of standing side by side in military formation against a foe (1:27b): “…ὅτι στήκετε ἐν ἑνὶ πνεύματι, μιᾷ ψυχῇ συναθλοῦντες τῇ πίστει τοῦ εὐαγγελίου.”7The word “στήκετε” would stand on firmer ground as a military allusion to unity against an outside foe if the phrase that follows, “ἐν ἑνὶ πνεύματι,” is read as “community spirit” rather than “Holy Spirit” (O’Brien, 1991). This interpretation has been debated, in view of the use of “πνεῦμα” in multiple meanings in multiple locations in the New Testament. For example, Pauline usage of the prepositional “στήκετε ἐν” is always locative pointing to the location of the action of the verb, “ἑνὶ πνεύματι,” most often read as the one Holy Spirit (Fee, 1995). The debate notwithstanding, whether by unity in community spirit or by unity that is rooted in the Holy Spirit, the phrase “στήκετε ἐν ἑνὶ πνεύματι” in both cases evokes a military image of unit cohesion necessary for effectively standing firm on and united in a common purpose against an external foe. Paul’s use of the word συναθλέω uniquely in this letter (the word does not occur anywhere else in the New Testament) further adds to the image of unity against external elements. Its cognates are ἀθλέω and ἄθλησις, words that in the ancient Greek-speaking world most often meant athletic competitions and contests but may also mean “to contend in battle” (Liddell, Scott, Jones, & McKenzie, 1996). The prefix “σúν” adds the meaning of “together” or “side by side.” Thus, συναθλέω communicates the idea of contending or competing together as one against an external element, particularly if read together with “μιᾷ ψυχῇ.” Second, Paul referred to Ephaphroditus as συστρατιώτην μου or “fellow soldier.” Third, Paul’s exhortation in 3:16 alludes to marching in step as in a battle formation: τῷ αὐτῷ στοιχεῖν. As per the Liddell and Scott (Liddell et al., 1996), στοιχέω does have the sense of stepping or marching in line as in a battle formation.

The political-subversive thesis does deny the friendship-kinship tone of Paul’s letter. For example, the text contains highly personal and emotive family language (2.12, 4.1) and phrases concerning personal affairs (1.12, 1.27, 2.19, 2.20 and 2.23) that appear in only two other places and only then in the disputed Pauline epistles, Colossians 4.8 and Ephesians 6.21-22. Of note is the frequent use of ἀδελφος (9 occurrences) six of which are in the vocative (1.12, 3.1, 3.13, 3.17, 4.1, 4.8) as well as the use of “σύν -” words that have a sense of working together, sharing and commiserating. As to tone, the letter is personal and relational from beginning to end. However, interwoven in the kinship-friendship language is the overarching and persuasive exhortation to stand against Rome and its values. It is first communicated in 1:27-2:18, and then reprised in 3:1–4:9. In this sense, the theme of the letter would be the practice of citizenship not in the Roman manner but in the new Christian life. It is stated thus: Μόνον ἀξίως τοῦ εὐαγγελίου τοῦ Χριστοῦ πολιτεύεσθε (1:27a).

The citizenship theme becomes more pointed in the recapitulation, 3:1-4:9. While 1:27-2:18 would have been an unexpected twist to Paul’s audience, i.e., joy in suffering and humiliation, the upending of the Roman proclivity for elevated status, 3:1-4:9 sharply contrasts the perverse (Βλέπετε τοὺς κύνας, βλέπετε τοὺς κακοὺς ἐργάτας, βλέπετε τὴν κατατομήν, 3:2) with the future sublime (τὸ πολίτευμα ἐν οὐρανοῖς ὑπάρχει, 3:20). The practice of citizenship in 1:27, πολιτεύομαι, culminates in citizenship in heaven, 3:20, πολίτευμα, where

“He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.” (3:21)

Christ will make all things subject to himself, Caesar included. The Roman ethos will be upended in favour of the Christian ethic. Seen this way, the text was politically subversive, intensified further if the opponents in 1:27-30 and 3:2, 18-19 were indeed the non-Christian polytheistic cult practitioners, not judaizers, local nor missionaries.

The opponents

Much has been written on the identity of the agitators in 3:2, 18-19.8See for example Tellbe (Tellbe, 1994), Bloomquist (Bloomquist, 2007, 2016), Nanos (Nanos, 2009, 2015). The consensus interpretation has been that these were judaizers.9See Footnote 2 for the technical as well as wider meaning of the term and the definition used in this essay. The arguments for this interpretation take two forms: (1) a claimed parallel of 3:2 to the text in Gal 2:1-1410In Gal 2:14, Paul accuses Peter of compelling Gentiles to live like Jews. In a strict technical sense, Peter being a Jew was not a judaizer. In the wider meaning adopted in this essay, he was. The text itself, Phil 3:2, does not explicitly point to judaizers.; (2) that the epithets in 3:211τοὺς κύνας and τοὺς κακοὺς ἐργάτας. referred to judaizers, whether Christian Jews or Gentiles, and that τὴν κατατομήν was a pun on περιτομή, which is the usual New Testament word for circumcision.

With respect to the epithets, there is indeed a long tradition in Christian interpretation of assigning the epithet “dog” in 3:2 to Jews (Stow, 2006)12Note the confusion with respect to judaizers as proselytes or Jews..  The text in 3.2 is ostensibly a reversal of a Jewish slander directed to Gentiles. Nanos explains (Nanos, 2015):

“Paul’s warning in verse 2 to beware of the ‘dogs’ is taken to be a reversal of supposedly stereotypical Jewish slander of non-Jews as dogs, thus Paul’s denunciation of Jews and their influence is from a perspective calculated to appeal to his audiences’ resentment toward Jewish ethnoreligious arrogance.” (p190)

Tradition has it that the Jewish slander “dog” for Gentile originated from Matthew 15:26-27,13Also in Mark 7:27-28. an exchange between Jesus and a Canaanite woman:

“But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

Nanos (Nanos, 2009) traces this view to Chrysostom. He cites Homily X in Chrysostom’s “Homilies on the Episte of St. Paul to the Philippians.”

“But whom does he style ‘dogs’? There were at this place some of those, whom he hints at in all his Epistles, base and contemptible Jews, greedy of vile lucre and fond of power, who, desiring to draw aside many of the faithful, preached both Christianity and Judaism at the same time, corrupting the Gospel. As then they were not easily discernible, therefore he says, “beware of the dogs”: the Jews are no longer children; once the Gentiles were called dogs, but now the Jews. Wherefore? because as the Gentiles were strangers both to God and to Christ, even so are these become this now. And he shows forth their shamelessness and violence, and their infinite distance from the relation of children, for that the Gentiles were once called “dogs,” hear what the Canaanitish woman says, “Yea, Lord: for even the dogs eat of the crumbswhich fall from their masters’ table.”

However, Philippians predates Matthew. For Paul to have reversed the referent in Matt 15:26-27, he would have known about the event in question, either via oral tradition or from written material that is no longer extant. There is no data to validate this possibility. Further, there appears to be no evidence that Jews had been slandering gentiles as “dogs” prior to Paul as there is also no evidence in rabbinic tradition (albeit anachronistic) that describes Christian or non-Christian gentiles as “dogs” (Nanos, 2009). Despite the lack of data, the “reversal” thesis nevertheless became entrenched in the mainstream.14See Hawthorne’s commentary on Philippians (Hawthorne, 1983): “The Jews were in the habit of referring contemptuously to Gentiles as dogs – unclean animals with whom they would not associate if such association could be avoided… Paul now hurls this term of contempt back ‘on the heads of its authors’.”

As for circumcision, κατατομή in 3:2 is a hapax legomena that literally means “cutting into.” Circumcision is περιτομή15Περιτομή appears 36 times in the New Testament and is consistently translated into English as “circumcision.” or “cutting around.” Κατατομή would have had to have been a paronomasia in order to force it to mean “circumcision.”

Irrespective of the textual problems, the consensus interpretation must have had some persuasive points for it to have been accepted through centuries of scholarship and rarely without question until the late twentieth century. Zetterholm (Zetterholm, 2010) traces origins of the consensus to anti-Jewish bias on the part of Christian theologians in the second-century. While not stating it explicitly, Cohen (Cohen, 2002) would also agree with Zetterholm. Cohen analyzed a puzzling passage taken from Ignatuis’ To the Philadelphians 6:1-2, and interpreted it thus illustrating the anti-Jewish position of the early second-century church father (Cohen’s glosses in italics enclosed in parentheses):

(6.1) But if anyone expounds Judaism to you (that is, if anyone within the Christian community should attribute too much authority to the Jewish scriptures), do not listen to him; for (it is so much better to hear Christianity than Judaism that) it is (even) better to hear Christianity from a man having circumcision than from Judaism from a foreskinned man (not, of course, that there really is among you a circumcised man preaching Christianity or a foreskinned man preaching Judaism – this is simply my way of telling you that it is always and everywhere better to hear Christianity than Judaism); both of them (the would-be preacher of Judaism and the would-be preacher of Christianity), if they do not speak of (the real) Jesus Christ, are to me tombstones and graves of the dead on which nothing but the names of men is written. (6.2) Flee, then, the evil arts and plots of the ruler of this age, lest, wearied by his scheming, you grow weak in love; but all of you, come together with undivided hearts.

Zetterholm situates this anti-Jewish bias historically, speculating that it might have developed following the Jewish War when it would have seemed propitious for non-Jewish Jesus followers to distance themselves from their Jewish counterparts within the movement. He adds that church history witnessed the entrenchment of this viewpoint, that is, the intensification of the gap between Judaism and Christianity, the former taken to be inferior and superseded by the latter.16Augustine; Martin Luther and the Reformation. The Enlightenment further systematized this gap, e.g., the application by Ferdinand Christian Baur of Hegelian dialectic to trace the progression of Christian theological constructs.17Petrine versus Pauline Christianity the synthesis of which was taken to be the ideas of the Reformation, thus widening the Judeo-Christian gap. Within this perspective, Paul’s polemic in his letters was understood to be manifestations of his rejection of the Torah, for him and his followers. If this were true, then it would add credence to the identification of the opponents of 3:2, 18-19 as judaizers.

Tellbe takes what he calls a sociological-historical approach to rationalize the consensus interpretation (Tellbe, 1994). However, for his proposal to have merit, it must be taken as a premise that the 1:27-30 refers to opponents who were non-Christian polytheistic cult practitioners of the city, in other words, the practitioners of the legal Roman cults/religions versus the nascent Christian community. Further, he must also negate the possibility that the agitators in 3:2, 18-19 were non-Christian Jews. He does this by pointing out that: (1) there is no data to suggest that non-Christian Jews sought to have Gentile Christians circumcised; (2) there is no indication in the text that the agitators were denying Christ as non-Christian Jews might have; (3) there is no indication in the Pauline corpus that Paul presented non-Christian Jews as a danger to the well-being of the church; (4) that in view of his directness in 1 Thess 2:14-16, it is odd that Paul would use veiled language to refer to Jews. From this, he begins to give reasons why the opponents in 3:2, 18-19 must have been judaizers. Tellbe’s elaborated argument begins with questioning why the judaizer doctrine would have attracted Gentile Christians in Philippi, thus prompting Paul to pen a warning in the letter. He offers theological and sociological reasons. Theologically speaking, the Philippian Christians, steeped in the patronage system of their Roman-like city would have viewed God as the beneficent patron and the church body the clients.18For example, see Neyrey (Neyrey, 2005). Since clients in the patronage system are expected to identify with their patrons, Tellbe posits that the Gentile Philippian Christians would be favourable via circumcision to identify themselves with their new patron, the God of the Jews. From a sociological perspective, Tellbe posits that the Gentile Christians would desire to be identified with the Jewish community, because Jews in the Greco-Roman era were afforded a certain degree of tolerance and safety in the practice of their way of life within the Roman Empire.19See footnote 46 in Tellbe (Tellbe, 1994). See also McLaren (J. S. McLaren, 2005) who raises the possibility that in Herodian times, certain sectors of the Jewish community would have been permitted to offer sacrifices to Caesar in temples that Herod had built for that purpose. If true, this could have possibly been a motive for the Roman authorities to accord a degree of tolerance and safety to the Jewish community. The point therefore is that the Gentile Christians’ receptiveness to judaizer teaching was motivated by the desire for self-preservation in a hostile environment as per 1:27-30. To put it bluntly, an overt Jewish way of life, e.g., dietary laws and circumcision, would have essentially “fooled” the agitators of 1:27-30 into thinking that the Christians were Jewish and thus tolerated by the Empire. One wonders if the small number of resident Jews in Philippi20Acts 16, Paul and Silas in Philippi, does not mention the existence of a synagogue in the city. The implication is that Jewish presence in the city was minimal. would diminish the plausibility of this thesis.

If 3:2, 18-19 were not judaizers, who might have they been? Nanos (Nanos, 2015) offers some intriguing connections with biblical text, with the practice of certain Roman religious cults, and with the culture of Greek philosophers.

First, Nanos connects 3:2 with the account of Elijah’s confrontation with the prophets of Baal in the time of Ahab and Jezebel:

“Paul is drawing… from 1 Kgs (sic) 18:1-22:40 in order to evoke God’s action by way of the flesh with which Paul contrasts his and his audience’s behavior (sic) in verse 3. In this story… ‘evil working false prophets’ (1 Kgs (sic) 18:19-19:1) ‘mutilate themselves’ in order to ‘persuade’ the gods (1 Kgs (sic) 18:28, which uses a verbal form of the same word used by Paul), and the house of Ahab and Jezebel is condemned to be eaten by dogs (1 Kgs (sic) 21:22-29).” (pp192-103)

Second, albeit anachronistic, Nanos suggests a connection between “evil workers” with Acts 16:16-21, the story of the slave girl who had a spirit of divination (πνεῦμα ⸀πύθωνα, literally, a python spirit) and was engaged in fortune-telling (μαντεύομαι). Nanos explains that the spirit of python means that the slave girl was able to speak in an alternate voice (when in a state of divinination), and this was called “belly-talking.” This then connects with Paul’s extended description of the opponents as “their god is the belly” (3:19). Lastly, Nanos raises the possibility that the epithet “dogs” in 3:2 were directed against the Cynics who in their practice emulated doggish behaviour and ethic of public shamelessness.21An exposition of Cynic philosophy is outside the scope of this essay. Of note is a certain similarity in the methods Cynics espouse to attain self-mastery to those of Paul’s stance on military and athletic style disciple and endurance necessary in the way of Christ.22See Nanos (Nanos, 2015), p 209. Indeed, it is plausible that Paul had the Cynics in mind in penning 3:18-19. In sum, the connections of 3:2, 18-19 to the Gentile culture in Philippi with respect to cultic practice and philosophy, as well as to other loci in biblical text apart from references to judaizers, cannot be ignored.


This essay set out to explore the possibilities for the identities of the opponents referred to in 1:27-30 and 3:2, 18-19. Consensus interpretation has held that judaizers were the referents in 3:2. There is less agreement on the identity of the opponents in 1:27-30. The consensus interpretation may have possibly originated in anti-Jewish sentiment that arose in the second-century CE consequent to the Jewish War, the Christians desiring to distance themselves from the Jews. The Matthean and Markan account of the encounter between Jesus and the Cananaanite (or Syro-Phoenician in Mark) was held by the church fathers as the Scriptural support for Jews slandering Gentiles as “dogs.” Through the centuries, the view evolved that 3:2 is a reversal of the epithet “dogs” from the Gentiles to the Jews. In parallel, “the mutilation” in 3:2 was also comprehended as a pun on “the circumcision.” The two views reinforced each other such that “evil worker” in the middle of the three warnings in 3:2 for the sake of consistency also had to be understood to refer to the Jews. From this, it was not a difficult extrapolation to posit that 3:18-19 also referred to judaizers, albeit the imprecise use of the term.

There is data and merit to pursuing an alternate path, proposed within the past two decades, that the agitators in 1:27-30 and 3:2, 18-19 all referred to non-Christian residents of Philippi who opposed the nascent Christian community in their city.

This approach would stretch the rhetoric of the letter from beyond friendship-consolation to political-subversive. The result could possibly be a more profound understanding and thus a more complete reconstruction of the character, motives and methods of the Apostle Paul not to mention theological implications. Further scholarly work from the “Paul within Judaism” movement should prove extremely interesting.

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