Is Philippians “anti-Imperial”?

The SystemPaul’s letter to the Philippians is one of the most fruitful for studying Paul’s “anti-imperial” comments.  Lynn Cohick offers three reasons why Philippians fertile ground for Empire studies (Jesus is Lord, 169).  First, inscriptional evidence indicates that the imperial cult was present in first century Philippi.  Second, there is a great deal of citizenship language in Philippians as well as the usual “Jesus is Lord.” Third, there are studies on Philippians that describe Paul as “colonialist and imperialist” (Joseph Marchal) as well as those who see Paul as critiquing the Empire (N. T. Wright).

It is not insignificant that Philippians is the only letter in which Paul call Jesus a slave (2:6) and the only letter in which Paul describes himself only as a slave (1:1; Rom 1:1 has both slave and apostle). This is obscured in most modern translations, the NIV 2011, for example, uses “servant” in both cases. Christians are so used to the language of servanthood that we miss this culturally disruptive language. In Joe Hellerman’s recent Embracing Shared Ministry (Kregel, 2013) he points out that social status was the dominant factor in determining honor and shame in the first century. Since Paul is a Roman Citizen, he has a level of honor that came with certain privileges and expectations. Yet he does not identify himself as a citizen of Rome, but rather a slave of Jesus Christ. Rather than a citizen of Rome, he is a citizen of Heaven and equal in status with all the other citizens of Heaven (3:20).

It is even possible to read Philippians 2:2-6 as saying something like, “Jesus set aside his imperial status symbols and became a slave.” In the Roman world, one’s status was usually clearly evident at all times by how you dressed.  A member of the most elite of the Roman class dressed in a way that intentionally drew attention to their class. For an elite Roman citizen to remove their toga, for example, and but on the rags of a slave, was unthinkable.

But is Philippians intentionally anti-imperial?  Cohick is not convinced by most of the post-colonial or post-feminist readings of Philippians (p. 171), but does think that there may be a kind of implicit anti-imperialism in the letter that is a part of the typical Jewish and Christian critique of oppressive actions in general. Cohick concludes that if Paul is anti-imperial, it is part of his Jewish context.  Certainly there is a challenge to the power of Rome, but that is not very different than any Jew living in the middle of the first century.

It is possible that a Roman Citizen might hear Paul’s words as attacks on the social structure of the Empire. For a citizen to identify themselves as a slave might be dishonoring, but for a person in the Roman world to claim to be a citizen of a superior kingdom is an affront to Roman superiority. While Paul might not have intended a direct attack on Rome in the letter to the Philippians, the social structure of early Christianity was so different from Rome that it could not help but be interpreted as an offense to the Roman worldview.

To me, this is the major challenge of reading Paul’s letters with an anti-imperial method. Whatever Paul said, he was understood as challenging the social order in a way that could be described as “turning the world upside-down” (Acts 17:6).  Honestly, does Christianity really challenge contemporary American culture? A recent church plant in my area sent a flyer to my home inviting me to their first service, promising me that I would not be judged; there was no dress code, etc. That particular church was challenging a social order, but it was the established church that was wrong, not the pagan world. The flyer looked like an invitation to a new micro-brewery – come join us at the pub for some judgment-free good times. I am no fan of the old line denominations, but perhaps the pub culture is not good either.

Is the American church missing the radical nature of the gospel by attacking established churches?

Honor, Citizenship, and Philippians

It is remarkable that the issue of Paul’s citizenship first arises in Philippi in Acts 16.  Citizenship was not common in the first century, not everyone was guaranteed the privilege of being a citizen of the Empire.  In 28 B.C. there were approximately 4.9 million citizens, by the time of Claudius there were 5.9 million. Most of these lived in Italy or were serving in the army. That Paul was a Roman citizen was significant, but even more so in the city of Philippi.

TogaPartyThe city of Philippi was a re-founded as a Roman colony in 42 B.C. after supporting Octavian in the Roman civil wars. Rome settled a number of retired soldiers there in 42 and again after the battle of Actium in 31 B.C.  As Polhill observes, the city was an impressive Roman city when Paul visited it (P&HL, 161).

One of the most striking features of the city of Philippi was civic pride.  Joe Hellerman summarizes this “the Romanness of Philippi,” citing the catalog of inscriptions now available to scholars. He comments that compared to other cities in the Greek world, Philippi had a “preoccupation with honorific titles and offices which characterized the social priorities of both elite and non-elite persons in the colony.”  Titles mattered to this colony of retired soldiers, since titles were a sign of social significance.  To be a citizen of Rome was to have a higher social standing than the non-citizen.

Paul’s use of citizenship terminology in the letter suggests “that Paul sought intentionally to mimic the honor inscriptions that confronted his readers on a daily basis throughout the colony” (Hellerman, 783).  In fact, Paul uses citizenship as a metaphor only in Philippians.  In 3:20 he describes the believer as a “citizen of heaven” (πολίτευμα).  In 1:27 Paul states that one’s “way of life” ought to be worth of the Gospel.  The word translated “way of life” is πολιτεύομαι, to “be a citizen” (BDAG).

Paul’s point in using this language in Philippians is to show his readers that being “in Christ” is far superior to being “in Rome.”  You may be a citizen of Rome, but that does not matter at all if you are a “citizen of Heaven.”  I imagine that someone in Philippi might have judged a person who was merely a “citizen of Philippi” as socially inferior.  The members of the church, according to Acts 16, included a business woman (Lydia), a retired soldier (the jailer) and perhaps a slave girl (formerly possessed).  That “mix” of social strata is radical in the world of first century Philippi, yet Paul describes them as all citizens of a kingdom far superior to Rome.

If this reading of the citizenship metaphor is correct, then it will change the way we read Paul’s boasting in chapter 3, but also how we read the “Christ Hymn” in 2:5-11.

Bibliography:  Joseph H. Hellerman, “Μορφη Θεου As A Signifier Of Social Status In Philippians 2:6,” JETS 52 (2009): 778-797. This article draws out the implications in the Christ Hymn in detail.

Paul and Anti-Imperialism (Introduction)

This summer I reviewed a collection of essays edited by Scot McKnight and Joseph B. Modica, Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2013). (Click here for part one of that review, click here for part two.) The book is an introduction “anti-imperial” or “Empire Criticism” approaches to the New Testament from a decidedly Evangelical perspective. These sorts of approaches have been around for a number of years, Evangelicals have been slow to interact with them.  This volume of essays is a first step toward bringing some of the value of studying Empire to a more conservative audience.

GWB as AntiChristAs McKnight and Modica comment in their introduction, one of the problems with some of the work done on anti-imperial rhetoric ends up sounding “too much like one’s personal, progressive, left-wing, Neo-Marxist, or whatever, politics” (p. 19).  This sounds something like the standard criticism of the nineteenth century “lives of Jesus” movement; all of those studies turned Jesus into a nineteenth century Protestant German liberal. McKnight admits that Empire studies grew in popularity during the Bush administration and many were not-so-veiled attempts to criticize growing fears of an “American Empire.”

But I could see how an ultra-conservative reader of this book in 2013 could easily import their own fears of “big government” demanding complete loyalty. With the recent health care debate and current government shut-down, it would be easy for either side of the political debate to latch on to these sorts of anti-imperial observations in the Pauline letters and hear them as applying to the current administration or congress (depending on your political leanings). Anti-Imperialism is not just for Marxists anymore.

Over the next few posts I want to interact with two Pauline texts using the interpretive lens of anti-Imperialism.  First, I want to look at the charges made against Paul in Thessalonica (Acts 17). Why is Paul charged with “defying Caesar’s decrees” as he preaches the gospel? Does 1 Thessalonians offer any support to understanding Paul as Anti-Rome?

Second, I will look briefly at the letter to the Philippians, the only letter in which Paul call Jesus a slave, and the only letter in which Paul describes himself as a slave. Is the citizenship language of Philippians intentionally “anti-Imperial”? Lynn Cohick contributed on Philippians in the McKnight and Modica collection, her comments are instructive. But there are a number of recent (evangelical) studies that might be used to read Philippians as a politically radical letter in the Roman world.