I’m very excited to be starting a series on Philippians at church in a couple of weeks, which readers will know is a book on whose themes I have done considerable research and teaching on over the years. So here I shall attempt to keep up with the series and blog my way through the epistle between now and the end of November.
Verses 1 & 2
We tend to gloss past the first couple of verses of the Pauline (and pseudopauline) epistles, partly as they are all quite similar and partly I suppose because the familiarity of the words chosen by our English translations tends to cause them sweep over us. The NRSV renders the opening of the letter like this:
“Paul and Timothy, δοῦλοι of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the ἐπισκόποις and διακόνοις. Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
The Voice paraphrase avoids the transliteration “Christ” and goes for
“Paul and Timothy, δοῦλοι of Jesus the Anointed One, greet you, our friends in Philippi—those set apart by Jesus the Anointed—and we greet the ἐπισκόποις and διακόνοις who serve with you. Grace and peace be with you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus the Anointed.”
Slaves or Servants?
I’m going to start this first post with the three words doulos, episkopos and diakonos. The two translations I have chosen today differ in their handling of douloi – NRSV renders it as “servants” (along with NIV and KJV) while TV chooses “slaves”. With five other NT words for servants of various kinds I think “slave is the better gloss in English, although even this is problematic in the light of the racial slavery of the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries and the legacy of legal and cultural discrimination that has persisted since. In a first century Mediterranean context slavery was a stark fact of life for around 30-40% of the population. Whether forced into slavery by miliarty defeat, economic destitution or kidnapping marauders, many would have experienced the reality of being close to servitude, and at risk of finding themselves in that condition themselves. The massive agricultural economies of Egypt, Greece and Rome were built on slave labour, as were the building projects – including all of the “seven wonders of the ancient world” and other vanity projects which vied for their fame. We shall see echoes of this when we come to our analysis of the Christ-Hymn.
So why did Paul consistently choose that as a ministry title for himself and his apostolic team? Well, I think we need to start with an appreciation of the honour-culture in an Imperial colony such as Philippi. Elsewhere Paul reveals that he is in fact a citizen, but in writing to the churches he takes the title of slave – a title loaded with shame. By taking the shameful label onto himself he neutralises it, giving honour to those who really were slaves in the Philippian gathering.
Caretakers and servers…
Coming onto episkopoi and diakonoi, which the NRSV renders “bishops and deacons” and TV shows as “elders and deacons”, we have several pitfalls lurking ahead of the reader. The first is to read anachronistic fourth century theology of ministry onto the first century text. The second is to treat the nouns as describing something with distinct characteristics. Paul often uses episkopoi and diakonoi, fairly collectively and interchangeably. Interestingly he never uses “presbuteroi” (although the author of the Pastorals prefers that term to diakonoi). The words are always used in the plural – indicating a collective approach to ministry in the local church. The words themselves are odd ones to place as synonyms for “leader”. The NT writers had a very useful word for leader that they used frequently and in a variety of contexts – it is “archon”. Paul allergically refuses to use that word for individuals in the local church – preferring words which speak of manual service, or careful tending. These are not words that the honour-conscious Imperial colony would latch onto – indeed they are somewhat shameful again – so Paul is extending his honouring of the despicable and shaming of the honours system to his beloved friends in the local church.
And what is it that enables him to both see beyond the cultural labels that both blind and separate, and to lift up the lowly under the noses of the mighty – well the grace and peace, which comes from God and is found in the Lord Jesus Christ.