Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Gentile Dogs and Hallucinating Exegetes

I want to call attention to Mark Nanos' important essay, "Paul's Reversal of Jews Calling Gentiles 'Dogs' (Philippians 3:2): 1600 Years of an Ideological Tale Wagging an Exegetical Dog?", just put up on his website. Nanos opposes the common idea that Paul is reversing a supposed Judean invective against Gentiles in Philip 3:2 by calling his opponents "dogs". Furthermore, Nanos doesn't think Paul's opponents are Judean in any case. They represent, rather, "some kind of pagan entity or threat" (p 8).

The first part of the argument is so strong it can be deemed conclusive. Nanos points out that the only place we can find a Judean equating Gentiles with dogs is in Mk 7:24-30/Mt 15:21-28 -- the case of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman (or Canaanite woman in Matthew) -- and the gospels postdate Paul. But even if historical, this is a single text on which many commentators have rested an incredibly strong assumption, that Judeans often equated pagans with dogs. Going through the Hebrew Bible, Nanos shows that there are in fact no texts -- none at all -- which denounce Gentiles as dogs for being Gentile. "Dog" was a general insult used to put down rivals, sinners, and fools -- and in most cases against other Israelites (see p 12). In the few cases where an Israelite calls a pagan a dog (I Sam 17:43; II Kings 8:7-13), it's not for being a pagan, but for being typically hostile, foolish, servile, or whatever (pp 12-13). There is no literary evidence predating Paul that points to the apostle using a "reversal of invective" in Philip 3:2. Even the later rabbinical texts have been overblown regarding "dog" insults (see pp 14-18).

The second part isn't quite as convincing. Nanos argues that in warning the Philippians to "beware dogs" Paul was expressing opposition to "pagan alternatives" rather than Judean circumcision. I think we need to look at Philip 3:2-11 comprehensively:
"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, a Hebrew born of Hebrews... [etc]

"Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as a loss because of Christ. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as shit, in order that I may gain Christ... [etc]"
This is Nanos' commentary on the first part:
"Note that Paul does not write what commentators universally read, that is, he does not write that 'we are the true circumcision', 'the circumcision of the heart', 'the spiritual circumcision', or some such thing [as he does in Rom 2:28-29]. By writing 'we are the circumcision', he emphasizes the contrast between circumcision identity and identity associated with other kinds of the flesh... The contrast is with the uncircumcised, the pagan world of the addressees, about which Paul is expressing a specifically Jewish -- i.e. circumcision-oriented -- point of view. Rather than warning his audience to beware of Jews or the values of Judaism, the opposite is the case: Paul is warning his audience to eschew the pagan options to which they might be expected to be drawn, or from which they are encountering opposition." (pp 29-30)
Nanos is right that Paul doesn't explicitly qualify "circumcision" with the word "true" or "spiritual" in Philip 3:2. Many bible translations do supply the qualifier "true" and they are wrong to do so. But the qualifier is implied just the same. Paul's point is much like in Rom 2:28-29 (where the qualifier is made explicit). Otherwise the rest of Philip 3:2-11 makes no sense. If Nanos were right, Paul would essentially be saying as follows:
"(A) Beware of those pagan mutilators. For it is we circumcised Judeans who are righteous (B) and have no confidence in the flesh, even though I have every reason to be to confident in the flesh. I was circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the house of Israel. But I have come to regard this as shit for the sake of Christ."
But that's a non-sequitur. (B) doesn't follow from (A). Paul can only be saying:
"Beware of the Judean mutilators (circumcisers). For it is we spiritually circumcised Judeans and Gentiles who are righteous and have no confidence in the flesh, even though I have every reason to be confident in the flesh. I was circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the house of Israel. But I have come to regard this as shit for the sake of Christ."
That makes perfect sense and squares with Paul's explicit remarks about "spiritual circumcision" elsewhere.

So I think Nanos if half right. Judeans were not in the habit of equating Gentiles with dogs, and so Paul could not have been reversing a standard invective in Philip 3. But he was insulting Judeans just the same. He was using a common insult ("dogs") that wasn't usually associated with any particular group of people, and doing so quite offensively in a polemical passage against Judean advocates for circumcision.

By the same token, I think Nanos is half right about the "shameless hussy" text of Mk 7:24-30/Mt 15:21-28. It's not just the only possible place where a Judean (Galilean) equates Gentiles with dogs -- it's a definite place where it happens. Nanos suggests that Jesus' insult could be an interpolitical one which doesn't target Gentiles per se (pp 19-24), but I don't see it. I think Jesus is clearly scorning the woman as a Gentile dog, to which the woman embraces the insult and bests Jesus at his own game. If the account is historical, it shows that Jesus was offensive on his own right. Neither he nor Paul needed precedent for their insults.

Be sure to read the paper. Nanos is one of the best Pauline scholars for thinking outside the box in important ways.

4 Comments:

Blogger Chris Petersen said...

My sentiments exactly. I too feel that Nanos was correct concerning the first half of the article and less convincing concerning his suggestion that certain "pagan" religions were in view in Phil. Nevertheless, another wonderful study by Nanos.

11/29/2007  
Blogger Jim Deardorff said...

It's interesting that in your mention of the use of "dogs" in Mk 7:24-30/Mt 15:21-28, the comparison of the two gospels points towards Matthean priority over Mark. In Matthew its usage definitely implies dogs = gentiles, since elsewhere in Matthew gentiles are to be considered as lowly as tax collectors and unworthy for discipleship, and the woman in question was a Canaanite -- a gentile.

In Mark the woman is a Greek. This indicates that its writer, who was not very knowledgeable on Jewish traditions (as detailed by Pierson Parker), did not understand what Matthew's "dogs" meant in this context -- he just wanted Jesus' ministry to apply to gentiles. So he altered the woman into a Syrophoenician.

The argument doesn't work well in the opposite direction of Markan priority.

11/30/2007  
Anonymous Mark D. Nanos said...

Loren,
Thanks so much for making folks aware of my essay and for your own interaction. I would like to challenge the logic to which you appeal in disagreement. I would also like to offer some additional argument for your consideration. This paper was but part of a larger project. Let me cite you and then comment.
You write:
"If Nanos were right, Paul would essentially be saying as follows:
"(A) Beware of those pagan mutilators. For it is we circumcised Judeans who are righteous (B) and have no confidence in the flesh, even though I have every reason to be to confident in the flesh. I was circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the house of Israel. But I have come to regard this as shit for the sake of Christ."
But that's a non-sequitur. (B) doesn't follow from (A). Paul can only be saying:
"Beware of the Judean mutilators (circumcisers). For it is we spiritually circumcised Judeans and Gentiles who are righteous and have no confidence in the flesh, even though I have every reason to be confident in the flesh. I was circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the house of Israel. But I have come to regard this as shit for the sake of Christ."
That makes perfect sense and squares with Paul's explicit remarks about "spiritual circumcision" elsewhere. "

B does not need to follow a in the sense of being a deduction from A, but it needs to make sense of how Paul could argue both B and A. Let me explain how I believe he does so.
In A, the point is that Paul refers to his audience inclusively as "the circumcision": "we are the circumcision," and then defines that to be those who live for Israel's God, rather than for pagan gods. As I note, that is surprising, if he wants to communicate what most suppose, namely, that Paul and his audience as Christ-believers are no longer a part of Judaism and its circumcision as-a-sign-of-covenant thinking. He should have at least modified what he means by circumcision in the direction that interpreters have thereafter. But it is problematic as stated and interpreted by myself, nevertheless, because his audience consists (presumably) mostly if not entirely of non-circumcised Christ-believers, although he is a part of the "we" and actually circumcised too.
Then B follows, for Paul needs to explain, since he is actually circumcised and the rest of the "we" are (presumably) not, that this does not give him any higher honor among themselves as Christ-believers, because he does not ground his honor rating in that aspect of his identity, but in seeking to know and be known by God in Christ, which they share with him in equally.
I think Paul is using circumcision for the "we" here as a metonym for "Judaism," those who are not "pagans," from which his addressees have come, and in which environment they are used to looking for identity and honor, which Paul now wants them to dismiss, to be on the watch out for. They have become a part of Judaism, although without becoming Jews, and are understandably confused, and in his absence, looking for models from the world they know best, the pagan world. They know they have joined a counter-cultural group, e.g, and might look to "dogs = Cynics" to understand what that should mean for themselves. They know they have joined a group involving spiritual powers, so they might look to magicians, ecstatics, and other "evil workers." They know they have joined a group that pagans decry as mutilators, so they might look to groups like the Cybele or Hekate cults to gain some understanding of what spirituality looks like. Paul wants them to beware of any such models or groups or associations that could be drawn. They have joined something very different, Judaism, "the circumcision," which he defines in contrast to these in the rest of the verse.
I suppose that Paul perceives something at work in Philippi to which he believes them to be vulnerable. And there are likely many forces and groups, but the rest of his rhetoric in this chapter and throughout the letter does not suggest the threat to be Jews, Judaizers, or Judaism. All the rest of the descriptions suggest a "pagan" environment.
Anyway, I do not see the problem you see here. As for the verses following, wherein Paul denounces the relative honor-rating of his impeccable Jewish credentials, I see that as the same kind of relative denunciation that any who seeks to relate to those who would be classified as lesser because they do not have those credentials, when seeking to proclaim that they are nevertheless all equals here.
Note that Paul says he dismisses as crap "everything" else. That implies also his rank as apostle, which he pulls, e.g., in Galatians, but here renounces relative to his desire to know and be known by God in Christ. Why is that never mentioned when his rhetorical intention here is being decoded? In other words, Paul's language in Phil 3 is situation, not to be universalized, for it is plain that he does often in other situations/letters appeal to his credentials to persuade to his point of view. He is, of course, also doing that here in our passage, when he lists these to claim that he is not claiming them, which (presumably) his audience cannot match! So he is doing what he says he does not do to persuade them not to do it. One must also make sense of that.
Peace,
Mark D. Nanos
marknanos.com

12/02/2007  
Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

I had written:

If Nanos were right, Paul would essentially be saying as follows:

(A) Beware of those pagan mutilators. For it is we circumcised Judeans who are righteous (B) and have no confidence in the flesh, even though I have every reason to be to confident in the flesh. I was circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the house of Israel. But I have come to regard this as shit for the sake of Christ.

But that's a non-sequitur. (B) doesn't follow from (A). Paul can only be saying:

Beware of the Judean mutilators (circumcisers). For it is we spiritually circumcised Judeans and Gentiles who are righteous and have no confidence in the flesh, even though I have every reason to be confident in the flesh. I was circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the house of Israel. But I have come to regard this as shit for the sake of Christ.


Mark responded:

B does not need to follow A in the sense of being a deduction from A, but it needs to make sense of how Paul could argue both B and A. Let me explain how I believe he does so. In A, the point is that Paul refers to his audience inclusively as "the circumcision": "we are the circumcision," and then defines that to be those who live for Israel's God, rather than for pagan gods. As I note, that is surprising, if he wants to communicate what most suppose, namely, that Paul and his audience as Christ-believers are no longer a part of Judaism and its circumcision as-a-sign-of-covenant thinking. He should have at least modified what he means by circumcision in the direction that interpreters have thereafter.

Think of liberal 60s protesters, or those who advocate burning the American flag, who say "we're the Americans", or "we're the patriots". They don't always spell out the obvious -- that "we're the 'true' Americans or patriots" -- but certainly no one misses the implication. Paul is doing the same thing by saying "we're the circumcision". Just as one can burn a flag, the most sacred symbol of American values, and be construed a (true) patriot, so too (in Paul's view) can one bring down circumcision and be part of the (true) circumcision. Sometimes Paul spells out the spiritual qualifier (like in Rom 2), but not always, because he really doesn't need to.

I think Paul is using circumcision for the "we" here as a metonym for "Judaism," those who are not "pagans," from which his addressees have come, and in which environment they are used to looking for identity and honor, which Paul now wants them to dismiss, to be on the watch out for. They have become a part of Judaism, although without becoming Jews, and are understandably confused, and in his absence, looking for models from the world they know best, the pagan world.

Then he is confusing things even more by insisting in the same sentence that "we are the circumcision... and have no confidence in the flesh". That would mean he's saying that we're good Judeans who have no confidence in fleshy rituals (?), even though I too have reason to be confident in such rituals since I was circumcised. It just doesn't follow.

They know they have joined a counter-cultural group, e.g, and might look to "dogs = Cynics" to understand what that should mean for themselves. They know they have joined a group involving spiritual powers, so they might look to magicians, ecstatics, and other "evil workers." They know they have joined a group that pagans decry as mutilators, so they might look to groups like the Cybele or Hekate cults to gain some understanding of what spirituality looks like. Paul wants them to beware of any such models or groups or associations that could be drawn. They have joined something very different, Judaism, "the circumcision," which he defines in contrast to these in the rest of the verse.

But given that Paul's point in v. 3 is that his readers should have no confidence in the flesh, why would he contrast all of this pagan mutilatation with Judean circumcision? Both are just as "fleshy".

As for the verses following... Note that Paul says he dismisses as crap "everything" else. That implies also his rank as apostle, which he pulls, e.g., in Galatians, but here renounces relative to his desire to know and be known by God in Christ. Why is that never mentioned when his rhetorical intention here is being decoded?

Because Paul doesn't mention it; it's not what he has in mind here. Everything mentioned in the catalog of rubbish in Philip 3:4b-6 is "Judean-fleshy" stuff. That's what Paul wants to underscore as rubbish (albeit relatively) because, well... that's what he's opposing. As far as I can see, the traditional reading makes perfect sense of the text every step of the way.

In other words, Paul's language in Phil 3 is situation, not to be universalized...

I'm not sure the situational necessarily opposes a universal. I think Paul means what he says in Philip 3 and consistently represents this view (whether explicitly or implicitly) elsewhere -- even in Romans (9:30-10:4). But in Romans he's trying to dig himself out of so many holes: trying to show that God always acted for the good in giving a useless law that can't save; that Israel's place is preeminent despite appearances to the contrary; etc. What I take as "universal" about Paul's sentiments in Philip 3 is the fact that they reflect a general patronal synkrisis (on which see Zeba Crook's Reconceptualizing Conversion). In his world converts often felt compelled to compare their superior present (to the credit of the new patron) to an inferior past, regardless of how they felt about that past previously. But in cases where that patron (or patron deity) stays the same, that poses an obvious problem. So now the stakes get raised even higher. Now the convert must improve on an already excellent past (Philip 3:4b-6) which in comparison to the present is actually even worse than worthless (Philip 3:7-11). Again, Paul's rank as an apostle has no relevance here, since his apostleship would be associated with the superior present, and not the older "rubbish" he needs to denigrate.

So I think Paul's statements are universal enough. Meaning he always represents his Judean heritage to be excellent-yet-worse-than-worthless, whether explicitly or implicitly. But by the time of Romans he was avoiding the rhetoric of synkrisis as much as possible, as he struggled to find more and more continuities between his native convictions and Christological ones. Time works wonders, as they say. :)

Thanks for responding, Mark.

12/03/2007  

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