Ancient Answers

Guidance for Today from Scripture and Early Christianity

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Philippians 1:1-2

I begin here a commentary on Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians. I will be using the Greek text as given in the 28th edition of the Nestle-Aland critical text. For the English text I will be using whatever translation seems closest to the Greek, and I will make my own modifications wherever appropriate to get even closer to the Greek text. I have done a fair amount of reading in commentaries, but this is basically my own interpretation of the Epistle, verse by verse, word by word; so I will not make many references to specific commentaries. However, the one resource that I will be using quite consistently as a guide through the Greek text is Philippians, by Joseph Hellerman, in the series Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament, published in 2015. I also make reference to the volume on Philippians by John Reumann in the Anchor-Yale Bible Commentaries series (2008). I own this volume, but it is so large that my few references to it are based more on Hellerman’s references to it.

Paul and Timothy, slaves of Christ Jesus, to all the holy [ones] in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the overseers and deacons: grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.


Παῦλος καὶ Τιμόθεος δοῦλοι Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ – Paul and Timothy, slaves of Christ Jesus

  • Σαῦλος was Paul’s “synagogue name” from birth, Παῦλος his name in the Greco-Roman world. Jews in the Greek world adopted names that sounded similar to their Hebrew names. Acts 13:9 is the first instance where he is referred to as Paul. Note the casual way this is done: But Saul, also known as Paul…)
  • Τιμόθεος was a common Greek name: “one who honors god.” He was Paul’s young protégé, first introduced in Acts 16:1, as the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer; but his father was a Greek.
  • Δοῦλοι – slaves, servants. Most of the times that Paul used the words δοῦλοι or the singular δοῦλος, it was with the customary secular meaning. But in a few of his letters (Romans 1:1, 1 Corinthians 7:22, Galatians 1:10, Ephesians 6:6, Colossians 4:12, Titus 1:1) he uses one or the other of these two words in the same way as here in Philippians 1:1. Let us not fail to remember the incident in Philippi (Acts 16:17) of the slave girl who referred to Paul and his companions as “slaves of the Most High God,” δοῦλοι τοῦ θεοῦ τοῦ ὑψίστου.
  • Paul instead refers to himself and Timothy as δοῦλοι Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ, offering no possibility of confusion with any pagan “most high god”! Paul is the “slave of Christ Jesus” Christ of course is the Greek version of the Hebrew Messiah, both meaning “the anointed one.” But it is very possible that Paul could have been using it in the sense of the personal name or title ascribed to Jesus, since his readers most likely were not familiar with the Hebrew background of the title. Thus, Christ Jesus analogous to Caesar Augustus? That possibility has been raised by some scholars, and I’m inclined to agree.

But without indulging in linguistic or mystical extrapolations, the word δοῦλος for Paul was simply a maximalistic synonym for disciple. A disciple is a δοῦλος of Jesus Christ. Interesting that in all Orthodox liturgical practice, we use the word δοῦλος to describe every member of the church – e.g. at communion, at all other sacraments, at funerals, at many of the prayers of the Liturgy, etc. However, the English translations we use all say “servant” or “servants”. Servant is an accepted translation of δοῦλος, less radical than “slave” to be sure. But how shocking would it be if we started saying “The slave of God _____ receives the body and blood of Christ”? Slavery was perhaps less shocking in the ancient world than it is today, but Paul’s language is bold any way we look at it.

But here is something else to consider. In John 15:15, Jesus says to his disciples: “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” (RSV translation) The words translated as “servants” and “servant” are precisely δοῦλοι and δοῦλος. Was Paul violating the intention of Jesus. Should Paul have written, “Paul and Timothy, friends of Christ Jesus”? No, I think Paul was completely correct. Jesus was referring to “servants”; Paul wrote “slaves”! There is a profound difference. A servant is not bound; he or she merely serves. A slave is bound/bonded – in Paul’s case to Christ. The two lexical meanings of δοῦλος come in very handy when translating John 15:15 and Philippians 1:1.

πᾶσιν τοῖς ἁγίοις ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ τοῖς οὖσιν ἐν Φιλίπποις σὺν ἐπισκόποις καὶ διακόνοις – to all the holy ones [saints] in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi with the overseers and deacons

  • The adjective πᾶς is used eight times in this letter, surely an acknowledgment of the unity that existed in the Philippian church.
  • He addresses the ἁγίοις – the holy ones, the saints, carrying also the Old Testament meaning of “set apart” as a people special to God. This was customary language for Paul when he addressed fellow believers. In his other letters he uses the word by itself, but here, perhaps to draw a verbal parallel with δοῦλοι Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ, he writes τοῖς ἁγίοις ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ. This can be seen as another indication of how close to his heart he held the Philippian Christians. It is extremely important to note that he only uses the word ἁγίοις in the plural when referring to believers in Christ, never in the singular, ἅγιος. The singular is only used to refer to God. Christians are not holy as individuals; they are holy as a community/communion in Christ Jesus. The communitarian commitment and vision of Paul is impossible to miss. Note the persistence of this language in the Liturgy: Εὐλογημένη ἡ εἴσοδος τῶν Ἁγίων σου – Blessed is the entrance of your saints (holy ones); Tα Ἅγια τοῖς Ἁγίοις – the holy [gifts] for the holy [people of God].
  • ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ further articulates how Christians are “holy” – as a community “in Christ Jesus”. Of course every individual believer’s life is “in Christ”, as Paul often says about himself as well. But only as a community can believers be “holy in Christ”!
  • σὺν ἐπισκόποις καὶ διακόνοις, literally “with the overseers and deacons.” The word ἐπίσκοπος in the decades after Paul came to mean “bishop”, and that has remained its meaning for over 1,900 years. But Paul is not talking about bishops and deacons in the way we use those titles; he is talking about church leaders and ministers/servants/assistants. Deacons were first introduced in Acts 6, where their primary duty was to distribute food! Overseers, as the name implies, were the leaders of a local community – nothing to do with the later office of bishop. These were functions, not titles of privileged status. What was forgotten when “bishops” became privileged rulers over the church was what Jesus had said: The truly great is the one who is servant, διάκονος, and the one who is really first is the one who is slave, δοῦλος, of all (Mark 10:43-44). Nevertheless, this letter is the only one in which Paul singles out “overseers” and “deacons” – perhaps indicating that already some form of organization was emerging in some of the early Christian communities.


χάρις ὑμῖν καὶ εἰρήνη – grace to you and peace

  • This is Paul’s standard greeting in ALL his letters (with slight modification in his two letters to Timothy).
  • Χάρις meant “a beneficent disposition toward someone” according to a standard lexicon; in other words, kindness. As summarized by Reumann in his commentary, in the Greco-Roman world, this beneficence was bestowed by the gods and the Roman emperors. “Grace” is the straightforward literal translation of χάρις, but even some Reformed and Protestant scholars caution against reading “grace” with the theological weight the Protestant Reformation gave to that one word.
  • The word εἰρήνη, peace, in the Greco-Roman context meant pretty much what it means today. As Reumann sums up, the pacification of the world by the Roman armies was called the pax Romana. The ideology of universal peace and prosperity under Rome and the emperor was disseminated throughout the empire by coins bearing the terms Securitas, Salus, Concordia, and Libertas (“security”, “safety”, “concord”, and “freedom”). In the Hebrew background of the New Testament, the word for peace is shalom, a state of wholeness and well-being, both spiritually and physically, as well as materially. Both the Greek and Hebrew senses were important in Paul’s messages to all his congregations.

ἀπὸ θεοῦ πατρὸς ἡμῶν καὶ κυρίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ – from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

  • I adopt the customary capitalization of god, father and lord when used in the Christian sense of God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. This is customary in English, but it is not in the original texts. There was no capitalization in the Greek text of the New Testament. Even in modern Greek, capitalization is not always adopted.
  • Here is where Paul parts company with the Greco-Roman attributions of χάρις and εἰρήνη. They don’t come from the Roman Empire or the godds of the empire or the Emperor himself – but from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. The interplay and opposition of Roman and Christian terminologies and theologies are constant factors in Paul’s thinking.

It has been understood for a long time that Paul intentionally used language that opposed imperial terminology with the lordship of Jesus Christ. And that is important in today’s context, where the Bible gets so easily confused with nationalist slogans, where flag and cross so easily co-habitate in the mental and visual horizons of so many Christian churches in Europe and, notably, in the United States; despite the fact that there is no national church in this country and no establishment of religion in the Constitution.

The question that hits me as I end this instalment of my commentary is simply this: Am I a “servant” or a “slave” of Christ Jesus? I drew a distinction in this commentary between these two translations of the Greek δοῦλος. What do they mean to me personally? How am I servant? And to whom or what am I a servant? How am I a slave of Christ Jesus?