Reading Philippians through Roman Eyes

In the previous post I pointed out a few historical details which indicate Philippi was more or less Roman city in the mid-first century. How does this background effect our reading of the letter? There are quite a few things in the letter which are illuminated by this background, let me suggest just three.

First, Paul the Slave vs. Paul the Citizen (Phil 1:1). Paul identifies himself as a slave in the first verse of the letter. The superscription to the letter is unique in that Paul identifies himself solely as a slave and his readers as “overseers and deacons” in the church. Often this is explained either as a reflection of the close personal relationship Paul had with the church (O’Brien) or as a part of the literary genre of “friendship letter” (Fee).

Joe Hellerman sees the titles as a part of Paul’s reconstruction program.  “Paul has a legitimate right to proclaim his apostolic status, but chose instead to refer to himself as a lowly δοῦλος” (Reconstructing Honor, 120).  Paul does not mention his citizenship in Philippians, even though his experience in the city involved his illegal arrest and imprisonment as a citizen. “Citizens who have a citizenship in heaven should live according to the Gospel of Christ. In my opinion, in this verse and in 3:20, Paul contrasts the very desirable Roman citizenship with the citizenship that is connected with heaven” (Verhoef, Philippi, 33).

Second, The Pursuit of Honor (Phil 2:5-11). Jesus considered his equality with God as not “a thing to be grasped.” A “thing to be grasped” (ἁρπαγμός) refers to asserting a title or putting forth a claim for something, or something to be exploited. Think of someone who “makes a claim” for a legal settlement, they think they are entitled to compensation so the “make a claim.” The King James Version had “did not think it robbery,” reflecting the idea of grabbing at something.

In the Roman world, a Citizen of high standing might wear a toga indicating his rank, and expect that others notice it and give him proper deference. Jesus did not consider his rank as God was something he always needed to claim. Paul describes Jesus in this verse as occupying the very highest rank imaginable by anyone in the ancient world, he was in fact God. Yet that position and rank was not something he insisted upon, as the Romans would have done. He set aside that rank in order to humble himself.

The Roman world was based on extreme social stratification. There was a rigid social order in the Roman world, from the extreme minority elites who had virtually all the power to the majority slaves who had absolutely no power. In fact, Roman life can be described as a “Quest for Honor” (cursus honorum).  Hellerman shows the lengths to which a Roman might go in order to gain honor. For example, on the tombstone of C. Luccius (A.D. 134), all of the honors achieved by the man are listed. In contrast to this, Paul offers his own list of honors in Phil 3:5-6, which he considers “rubbish.”

While members of Roman culture were motivated by self-promotion, members of Paul’s churches were to seek the honor of others and to think of others more highly than themselves. This flies in the face of the Roman world, and as Hellerman points out, it flies in the face of power relations within the church (p. 99).

Third, Setting Aside Marks of Honor. In Phil 2:7-8, Jesus emptied himself of his honor and prestige. The meaning of “emptied” is important here. The verb (κενόω) refers to setting the status described in verse 6 in order to be obedient.  There is a great deal of theological weight placed on this word, but the phrase is better understood in terms Roman status, especially in the practice of wearing the toga by Roman elite.

The toga was a sign of elite status in the Roman world. Hellerman makes the point that this would be equivalent to a Roman senator setting aside his toga (his mark of status) and taking on the rags of a slave (also a mark of status). Because of that humble obedience, Jesus is exalted to the highest status imaginable, even above the emperor of Rome! That Jesus is called Lord is counter to a Roman world where Caesar is Lord and worshiped as a god (p. 167). So when he “he emptied himself.” Jesus “divested himself of his prestige or privileges” (BDAG). It is as if he voluntarily set aside his toga, the sign he was the highest ranking Lord in the universe.

Rather than divesting himself of divine attributes, the idea Paul has in mind the humility Jesus had in the incarnation, so much so that the God of the universe could set aside that status in order to serve others.

Rather than having the form of God, Jesus took on the form of a servant. The ESV translates this as servant, but it is the same word as “slave,” the lowest possible social class in the Roman world. Jesus therefore set aside the toga, and picked up the rags of a slave. Think of the Roman emperor stripping himself of the finest clothing available to a Roman citizen and putting on the stained and flea-infested rags of the lowliest slave.

Just as the status of a Roman citizen was evident by what they wore, so too the clothing of a slave signal his status. Even a slave with some social standing would not dress in a toga! The social status of a servant was always viewed negatively in the Roman world.

In modern western culture, a person at a store might say something like “I am at your service” in order to indicate their willingness to help someone. In the Roman world, this would be a shameful expression, a servant was.

Although Jesus was by nature God, he voluntarily took on the nature of a human. In doing so Jesus is the model of humility for the honor-conscious members of the Philippian church.

7 thoughts on “Reading Philippians through Roman Eyes

  1. Even though the modern world is not build on an honor/shame system as much as the ancient world was, Paul’s message of living in humility is prevalent for us as well. It is so easy to get wrapped up in what “I” want or what will put “me” ahead of the rest of the pack, and it does not always have to be in big ways. Pride is not always expressed through vocal means: pride is a heart issue that has the ability to manifest itself outwardly, but it is often the inward whisperings of the heart that tell you that you are better than a certain job or individual. I do not struggle with vocally telling someone else that I am better than they are, but I do have to check my attitude when I start to tell myself that I would not make the same mistake that someone else made, or when I do not come to someone else’s rescue when they are being put down. Paul describes the attitude that we should truly have in Philippians 2:5-11, where he states that even though Jesus possessed the same nature as God, He did not claim equality with God even when He certainly could have done so. Instead, Jesus humbled Himself and died the most humiliating death possible. This is the reason, according to Longenecker, that this passage “has inspired and encouraged both ancient and modern believers” (201). Although it is contrary to our nature, we are to have the same mindset of humility as Christ.

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    • Rachel Smith

      Thank you Mr. P. Long for explaining in some detail the significance of Jesus humbling Himself to die for us, I had not realized that significance before. I cannot imagine what the Philippians were thinking as they realized that their familiar source and means of identity are now 100% different than they were before. By serving and worshiping Jesus, the Philippians now have a new role in life. They are to seek the honor of others before themselves. Jesus, being God Himself, did not consider that honor (which is higher than any other honor imaginable) something to keep and hold onto. He instead took on the form of a slave, a human (cf. Phil. 2:5-11). What a striking example of humility and self-sacrificial love for the Philippians, and us, to follow! This must have come as quite a culture-shock to the Philippians who were accustomed to striving for self honor.

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  2. I think we still live in the ME generation and this actually is in direct correlation with the Philippians who were always striving for self honor, not God’s honor. I think that its easier to be a person who is humble when you are in tune with God and honoring him. It becomes hard to remain humble when your honoring yourself. Jesus was the ultimate humble person, and in being that saved us from our sins.

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  3. Our view of things is often skewed by the fact that we are American’s and that we are American’s who are able to go to attend a university making up more fortunate than most of the country let alone the world. Each of us creates our own view of scripture depending on what all we have been through in our lives growing up. Which is why I liked this post. It really depends on the glasses that you have on while reading through the scripture. Someone in American who is a Christian is going to read it differently than an Atheist American or even a person living in a third world country. The fact that Paul writes Philippians as a slave rather than a citizen speaks a lot as there are times that Paul has used the Roman card in other books. “Often this is explained either as a reflection of the close personal relationship Paul had with the church (O’Brien) or as a part of the literary genre of “friendship letter” (Fee)” (P. Long, blog). We also should take into account the fact that Jesus lived the humblest life possible. He in no way wanted to live His life as He very well could have. He instead wanted to live life so He could gain the most people possible while he walked among us in the world. Often there are times that we need to do the same thing to reach people we normally would not reach but most of us are unwilling to do so. This being because we see ourselves too highly due to the culture we live in, in needing all of the best and newest things when they come out. When in reality we need to let all of those things go as they are all materialistic and our things are not what is going to get us into heaven. So, at times we may need to “empty” ourselves of our honor and prestige as Jesus did for us. “The verb refers to setting the status described in verse 6 in order to be obedient” (P. Long). There are times that we will need to listen to God no matter where it is He wants us to go. This is where our view of ourselves and how we live need to be set aside for the ultimate growth of the eternal life we will have in Christ.

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  4. I was doing so good reading your post (and will have to come back to finish reading it) until I saw the picture you used. Something about reading a serious article and seeing a pic of John Belushi…..

    Thanks for the article!

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