Posted by: religionthink | July 14, 2007

Beware of the Dogs: Paul and the Philippian Opponents

Beware of the Dogs: Paul and the Philippian Opponents

Schmithals, in his text Paul and the Gnostics lays out a compelling hypothesis on who the Apostle Paul labeled as “Dogs” in the text of Philippians. Below we will look at the letter that concerns us and discuss some of the theories of who these people were and why they were causing such an issue for Paul. Given below is Epistle “C” of the Philippian text. Schmithals breaks the text into three separate parts and hypothesizes that the text was written and later woven together. Other scholars also hold this view and with a few differing verses ,1 for the most part, agree with the “three Letter” theory. For this topic we will only be concerned with the Epistle “C”. It is in this Epistle that Paul uses the strongest language against those who were set to undermine his message and theology.

Epistle “C”

3:2-4:3+ 4:8-9 NRSV

Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh! 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— even though I, too, have reason for confidence in the flesh. If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. Only let us hold fast to what we have attained. Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. 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. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. 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.

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved. I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

The above section was possibly written last as Paul has received a gift while in prison and through Epaphras sends a brief note of thanks 4:10-23. Later we find Epaphras falling ill and the Philippians heard of the issue at some point. Paul gets wind of divisions occurring in and od adversaries and writes 1:1-3 + 4:4-7 and send Epaphras back. It is shortly after this he gains more information of the issue and perhaps recognizes similarities to the Galatian issue or that of Corinth and so writes the above “C’ Epistle, 3:2-4:3+ 4:8-9.2 After reading the text above as a whole we can see how well the text coincides with the subject matter, unbroken, and Paul having more information can better combat the issue of those trying to undermine him and his followers.

Before discussing such a topic some preconceived notions about the texts of Paul must first be dispelled. The first is the assumed notion that is was Jewish believers trying to undermine Paul. Many a excellent scholars have erred on this notion without considering the other possibilities. Secondly, and of less importance, the writing of Polycarp to the Philippians, which references to “Letters” appear do not necessarily mean the present writing, which some use to break up the text of Philippians as Schmithals hypothesizes . Many letters may have been circulated and lost. The critical analysis breakup of the text should be looked at from all points of view and as with such studies there are no absolutes.

In identifying these mischievous opponents we turn to a quote in an essay by Darrell J. Doughty from Drew University.

“See W. SCHMITHALS, “Die Irrlehrer des Philipperbriefes,” in Paulus und die Gnostiker. Untersuchungen zu den kleinen Paulusbriefen (Hamburg: Herbert Reich, 1965), 47-88; A.F.J. KLIJN, “Paul’s Opponents in Philippians iii,” NovTest 7 (1964), 278-284; H. KOESTER, “The Purpose of the Polemic of a Pauline Fragment (Philippians III),” NTS 8 (1961/62), 317-332; J. GNILKA, “Die antipaulinischen Mission in Philippi,” BZ 9 (1965), 258-276; R. JEWETT, “Conflicting Movements in the Early Church as Reflected in Philippians,” NovTest 12 (1970) 362-389; P. SIBER, Mit Christus Leben (Zürich: Theologischer Verlag, 1971). The history of the debate concerning the opponents of Paul is summarized by E.E. ELLIS, “Paul and his Opponents: Trends in Research,” in Christianity, Judaism, and Other Graeco-Roman Cults. Festschrift M. Smith (Leiden: Brill, 1975), 264-298.

Schmithals conceives the supposed opponents in Philippi as Jewish-Christian Gnostic libertines, who regarded circumcision as a symbol of their spiritual liberation from the flesh and as the distinctive mark of their Jewish origin, to which they appealed as a sign of their personal authority, but who may or may not have demanded circumcision from the Philippians. Most scholars, however, perceive the opponents as Jewish-Christian Judaizers, who explicitly demanded circumcision and submission to the law as a condition for participation in the promises of salvation. But scholars differ as to the actual identity of these opponents, whether they were similar to those known from 2 Corinthians (Gnilka), or Galatians (Jewett), or perhaps from Colossians (Koester), and whether they were moral libertines (Gnilka), or legalistic perfectionists (Koester), or whether opponents of both varieties were present (Jewett).”3

It is thought by the author of this essay that much of the studies done concerning the opponent of Paul in in Glacia can be applied here. S. Madewell brought forth some strong arguments of the Proto-Gnostic as the opponents. In an essay concerning the topic S. Madewell uses Schmithals to make a compelling argument quoted below:

Schmithals writes, “Circumcision underwent a Gnostic reinterpretation….. The foreskin symbolized the body of flesh (sarx) and thus the – really performed – act of circumcision portrayed the liberation of the pneuma-self from the prison of this body.”*Gospel of Philip, Saying 123, “When Abraham rejoiced that he would see that which he was to see, he cut off the flesh of his foreskin, whereby he shows us that it is necessary to destroy the flesh of the members of the world.”Paul was a proto-rabbinic sage. For Paul, the “pneuma” (spirit) and the “sarx” (flesh) meant the Good Impulse and the Evil Impulse – the two components of the “psyche” (soul). For Paul, what truly mattered was that one become a “new creature” (Gal. 6:15) via the activation of the Good Impulse, which couldn’t be accomplished by the removal of one’s foreskin. (If that were the case, then how could females hope to become “new creatures”…?) However, for those influenced by a Platonic framework the words “pneuma” and “sarx” took on a meaning distinct from Paul’s proto-rabbinic orientation. This is why ascetic proto-Gnostics could glory in their pneumatic attainments, while exhorting others to cast off the sinful flesh. Pop-culture reference? How ’bout Marshall Applewhite?

Schmithals writes, “For Gnosticism … circumcision is an unnecessary action with only symbolic significance, which one could, for tactical external reasons, just as well maintain as abandon. That the cutsom of circumcision among Jewish Christian Gnostics in the Syrian-Palestinian territory was common and was still practiced in Galatia is just as likely as the fact that it was given up as the progress of the Gnostic mission advanced toward the West. Thus the church’s heresy fighters cannot in fact report of any of the later Gnostics that they practiced circumcision.”*

Here are some other points Schmithals* makes:

1. Jewish Christian Gnostics, whose home in any case was not Judea, naturally had no connection at all with the “apostolic counicl” [Acts 15] and its agreements.

2. The church fathers unanimously know to report that precisely in the early, the New Testament, the Pauline era, and precisely in Gentile territory, especially in Asia Minor, [Jewish Christian Gnostics] had preached circumcision.

3. It is most obvious to select the Jewish Christian Gnostic named, Cerinthus, particularly as described by Epiphanius, for comparison with the Galatian adversaries of Paul. In all the accounts of the church fathers we can detect how dangerous Cerinthus must have been to the beginning Gentile Christianity. His appearance in Asisa Minor is historically incontestable. Asia is said to have been his homeland. Epiphanius even reports that his school flourished in Galatia. In any case, he belongs to the early period, to the beginnings of Christian Gnosticism, and without question connects typical Gnosticism with a confession of Christ and with Jewish practices such as that of circumcision.

4. One need not immediately assume that they were Cerinthians who appeared in Galatia, but in no case can on at once attribute the false teachers, because of their circumcision, to the judaizing party. This heretical feature fits at least just as well … at any rate in that time and place, with Jewish Christian Gnosticis, who are conducting a mission in Paul’s tracks.

* – Walter Schmithals, “Paul & the Gnostics,” pp. 13-59.4

Along with this argument, and treading lightly another possibility arises. That these opponents may have been, like those in Glatia Shammite Spies. In another essay concerning Glatians, S. Madewell discusses this theory at length.

I am of the opinion that the pro-circumcision hardliners from Judea, who appeared at the Syrian Antioch – having been sent there by Yeshua’s brother, Ya’akov (James) – were disciples of Bet Shammai and that, having presented themselves to Ya’akov, they claimed to be followers of Yeshua in order to infiltrate their ranks for the purpose of finding something to charge them with. They might have intended to drag Yeshua’s followers before one of the local Judean, Shammaite controlled 23-Man Sanhedrins. Alternately, they might have wanted to dig up some dirt on Yeshua’s followers and turn them over to the Zadokite controlled Political Sanhedrin, if one accepts Solomon Zeitlin’s argument – in “Who Crucified Jesus?” – that such a body did indeed exist. No doubt, Ya’akov (James) perceived the hidden agenda of these Shammaites and decided to get them out from under foot by sending them to the Syrian Antioch, where they would have no recourse to their courts and/or the Zadokites and their thugs. When these Shammaites “from James” arrived at the Syrian Antioch they found Shimon (Peter) conducting a “visitation” of sorts with this mixed community of Jewish and Gentile Believers. Shimon (Peter), as Ya’akov (James) before him, probably realized immediately that these were Shammaites and, with Yeshua’s warning in mind (Matt. 10:17), he grew fearful of these “certain men of Judea” and separated himself from the Gentile Believers, because he was all too aware of the fact that Bet Shammai regarded Pagans and Gerim Toshav (Repentant Gentiles) as inherently impure.” 5

Still after all the research and possibilities scholars are still divided on who the opponents may have been. It is hoped that by going through some of the theories and the historical background that more information can be gleamed from the references in the text. When dealing with such topics, one may never be able to find a definite answer however some make more sense then others. The most common issue is the misunderstanding of Jewish and Gnostic history and theology and how these belief systems evolved.

1. For the different theories on where the letter is separated see Schmithals Paul and the Gnostics. p.79-80

2. Schmithals lays out this hypothesis in Paul and the Gnostics. p.79

3. Darrell J. Doughty “Citizens of Heaven. Philippians 3:2-21 as a Deutero-Pauline Passage”

4. See S. Madewell’s “Paul vs. the proto-Gnostics” at

5. See S. Madewell’s “The Shammite Spies at the Syrian Antiochat

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: