Thursday, December 13, 2007

Blamelessness? -- Part II

This is the second post in response to a question from my friend Garrett in the comments to a previous post. In this series I hope to gain a better understanding of what Paul meant by "blameless" in Philippians 3.6. In this post (Part II) I will give a truncated view of how I understand the immediate context -- specifically Phil 3.2-11 -- of Paul's usage of this word.

This sub-unit begins with Paul warning the Philippian church of an impending threat that is not yet present. The usage of blepete here seems to indicate this point. A translation of "look out for" or the likes would be better than "beware of," since "look out for" better captures the meaning of the imperative of the verb for "to see."

This threat seems to be Jewish in nature, whether from Jewish Christians or non-Christian Jews, and so Paul decides to engage this impending threat on its own terms. In vv. 4-6 Paul lays out his impeccable Jewish heritage and his personal achievements in his particular brand of Jewish religion. It is also clear that Paul is comparing his resume with those who represent this impending threat (3.4b "If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more").

All of these things, these privileges (circumcision, Israelite, Benjamite, Hebrew) and achievements (Pharisee, zealous, blameless), do not mean anything to Paul in light of the new life he has found in Christ (3.7). The things that were once gains to him (i.e., his Jewish past) are now all one big loss. As a matter of fact, Paul considers all things loss, so much so that he is willing to call all that is not Christ skubalon (3.8 "dung," "refuse," "rubbish," "crap").

Next is one of the most hotly debated passages in Philippians: (3.9 "...not having my own righteousness which is from the Law, but that which is through the faithfulness of Christ, the righteousness which is from God on the basis of faith"). It appears here that Paul is saying that in the past he thought he had his own righteousness from the Law but that through the faithfulness of Christ (or faith in Christ, a huge issue another day!) he now has a righteousness which is not his own, but is in fact from God.

In the verses that follow (10-11), Paul talks about three sorts of knowledge which are the results of the righteousness that is from God: knowing Christ, knowing the power of his resurrection, and knowing the partnership of his agonies, being conformed to his death. These phrases all have a participatory tinge to them, a tinge that should be understood clearly as a subsequent reality to being brought into proper relationship with God (v.9).

To sum up: Paul thought that some sort of a Jewish threat was on its way to Philippi and he wanted to warn the church about it. Paul seemed to know that these enemies would use their Jewishness to their advantage, so Paul compares his Jewishness to theirs; and Paul finds his to be better than theirs. All of this is in the past, however, because Paul has encountered something better -- Jesus -- and has a better righteousness -- that which is from God.

With regard to the word "blameless," a question comes to my mind: How could Paul be comparing himself with those who comprise this impending threat with the word "blameless"? Paul seems to say that while his enemies have x, y, and z, he has 2x, 2y, and 2z. But how can being blameless be a comparison? Was Paul saying that he was more blameless than they were? That does not seem possible; one is either blameless or they are not. Right?

What is going on then? Perhaps the solution is found in the full phrase: "according to righteousness which is in the Law, having become blameless." It appears that Paul is comparing his pre-Christian standing with respect to the Law to that of his opponents; and Paul seems to say that he was in better standing than they were. Also, this state of blamelessness appears to be something that occurred through a process ("having become blameless" aorist/middle/participle), perhaps through repentance and sacrifice (which we'll talk about in more detail in the next post).

The problem, however, is that his opponents would have been able to say this same thing had they also repented and made sacrifice, two quite common practices among Jews of this period (especially very religious Jews). Thus, is Paul saying that he had less need to repent and make sacrifices than these enemies? Or is that conclusion reading way too much into this text? I am not finished thinking about this question by any means, but this conclusion seems to fit with the comparative nature of the rest of the list in vv. 5-6. Paul was more blameless than they before his encounter with Christ, i.e., he had less need to become blameless again and again through repentance and sacrifice.

I guess it is also possible that Paul was trying to indicate that they were not blameless in accordance to the Law and that he was. This would mean that he always took great care to take care of every sin, not matter how minute. Thus, the comparison would be that Paul took more care in making atonement for his sin than they did, meaning that they had blemishes still on their record. I suppose that this reconstruction also preserves the comparative nature of the section.

We will have to leave any final thoughts to later, when we have completed more work on this subject. However, the important thing to remember as we continue is that in this passage Paul obviously compares his pre-Christian standing to that of his enemies.

In the next post we will examine how the notion of blamelessness was understood during this period. To do so we will look at some texts from the Hebrew Bible, the LXX, the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, and the Mishnah, as well as some relevant data concerning the Greco-Roman understanding of this idea.

Blamelessness? -- Part I
Blamelessness? -- Part III A


Anonymous said...

I stumbled onto your blog. I am looking forward to your next post on blamelessness,

J. Matthew Barnes said...

Thanks! It should be coming this week at some point!