Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

Paul’s Hebrew Heritage – Philippians 3:4-8

Philippians Bible Study, Week 14

Paul’s Hebrew Heritage: Philippians 3:4-8

. . . though I myself have reasons for such confidence. If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.

But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ.  Philippians 3:3-8

Things to think about?

What have you given up to follow Jesus Christ?  How did you feel about giving it up?


As mentioned last week, the Judaisers insisted that Gentile converts to Christianity be circumcised in order to “be saved.” Paul, on the other hand, insisted that salvation is achieved through faith and grace alone, and that Gentile Christians did not need to follow Jewish traditions or Old Covenant stipulations. Accordingly, Paul has just told the Philippians that true Christians do not place their confidence in the rite of Jewish circumcision, because their confidence and glory is in Jesus Christ alone who is worshipped spiritually and not through Jewish religious rites (Phil. 3:2-3).

In Philippians 3:4-5, Paul argues his point further by temporarily adopting the position of his adversaries for rhetorical effect. Paul states that, compared with most Jewish Christians, he actually did have considerable grounds for putting confidence in his Jewish heritage and traditions. Furthermore, his impressive Jewish credentials give Paul “the right to speak” on this issue. (Barclay 2003:72)

Paul was a Hebrew of Hebrews

“. . . circumcised on the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews . . .”

Paul was not a proselyte (a convert to Judaism); he had been born a Jew and was circumcised when he was eight days old, as prescribed in Leviticus 12:3. He belonged to the tribe of Benjamin, a fact that Paul, whose Hebrew name was Saul, proudly announced on a few occasions (Acts 13:31: Rom. 11:1; Phil. 3:5). Of all the tribes of Israel, only Benjamin was loyal to the house of Judah when it split from the northern ten tribes. Benjamin was the only son of Jacob to be born in the Promised Land, and he was a son of Jacob’s favourite wife, Rachel. Israel’s first king (who had the same Hebrew name as Saul) was a Benjamite, as was Mordecai a respected figure in Jewish history. Moreover, the Holy City, Jerusalem, is situated on land that has been allocated to the tribe of Benjamin.

Paul was a Hebrew of Hebrews. His Hebrew ancestry probably came from both his father and mother’s side. His family lived outside of Israel, in Tarsus, the capital city of the Roman province of Cilicia, and yet they had maintained elements of Jewish culture. Paul could speak Hebrew or Aramaic, the ancestral Jewish languages, as well as Greek, the lingua franca of the first-century Roman Empire (Acts 21:40, 22:2-3).

Paul was a Pharisee

“. . . in regard to the law, a Pharisee . . .”

Paul had been an enthusiastic member of one of the stricter Jewish sects, the Pharisees (Acts 22:3, 23:6, 26:5). The word “Pharisees” means “separated ones.” Luke tells us that Paul had studied and trained under the famous and highly respected Rabban Gamaliel (Acts 22:3 cf. Acts 5:4).[1] Paul’s father had also been a Pharisee (Acts 23:6). Paul had devoted his life, separated himself, to the rigorous observance of the Old Testament Law taught and practised by the Pharisees.

I have heard people say that Paul was a member of the Sanhedrin, the supreme judicial and ecclesiastical council of ancient Jerusalem.[2] However, I cannot find anything in the New Testament (or elsewhere) to back this claim. This is despite more than a few passages where Paul emphasised his Hebrew credentials: here in Philippians 3:4-6 and also in Acts 22:3; 23:6; 26:4-5; Romans 11:1; 2 Corinthians 11:22; and Galatians 1:13-14. If Paul had been a member of the Sanhedrin one would think it would have been mentioned in at least one, or some, of these passages.

Paul was Zealous

“. . . as for zeal, persecuting the church . . .”

Passion and enthusiasm can be wonderful assets in ministry. People who are enthusiastic and zealous about God and his work will have greater motivation and resilience in ministry, and their ministry and message is usually more attractive. Boring ministry is often delivered by bored ministers.

History shows, however, that some zealous and sincere people have also been dangerously misguided. Paul had been one of these people. Before his conversion, Paul had seen Christianity as a heretical Jewish sect. He zealously searched for Christians, and had them arrested and imprisoned, hoping to destroy the church (Acts 8:3, 9:14; 1 Cor 15:9; Gal 1:13 & 23; 1 Tim 1:13). He had even approved of the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7:58-8:1). Paul was on his way to Damascus with the express purpose of finding and arresting more Christians when Jesus met him on the road (Acts 9:1-5).

Many years later, standing before Herod Agrippa, Paul explained his fanatical attempts to persecute Christians:

On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the Lord’s people in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. I was so obsessed with persecuting them that I even hunted them down in foreign cities.  Acts 26:10-11 (NIV 2011).

Paul’s reputation as a persecutor of the church was well-known. To the church in Galatia, he wrote,

For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. Galatians 1:13 (NIV).

Paul was Blameless

“. . . as for legalistic righteousness, faultless [blameless].” 

As an earnest Pharisee, [Paul] had paid meticulous attention to the requirements of the Mosaic Law, and no one could have charged him with failure to keep it. Of course a distinction needs to be drawn between external conformity to the law in areas where men can judge and inflict legal penalties, and the perfect spiritual conformity to it that God alone can truly assess, and by which “no man can be justified” (Gal. 2:16; 3:11). (Kent 1978:140)

Unlike Paul, most modern Christians are keen to distance themselves from adjectives such as “blameless” and “faultless.” Stegner makes this interesting comment.

The uneasy, guilt-ridden conscience of the West, as seen particularly in Martin Luther and his age, should not be read back into Paul’s psyche . . . The anxieties of one age are not those of another. Paul’s biographical statements are best taken at face value – like the Pharisees in the Gospels he understood himself as zealous and righteous. (Stegner 1993:504)

Profit and Loss, Win and Lose

Paul uses the Greek words kerdos (that which is gained or earned—a profit, win, gain, advantage) and zēmia (a loss, forfeit, damage, disadvantage) to compare his present life in Christ with his former life and religion.

Paul had invested many years and much effort in strenuously studying and following Pharisaical Judaism. He had achieved an excellent reputation and standing as a Pharisee. However, he willingly relinquished and forfeited all the advantages and privileges of his training. In fact, Paul saw the advantages as disadvantages and the privileges as liabilities. Paul had come to realise that human effort and following the traditions of Judaism could not earn him salvation and could not help him to gain Christ.

Interestingly, “The contrast between gain and loss is a rabbinic one, and underlies the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 16:26; Mark 8:36. The words of the Master may very well have been in the apostle’s mind as he saw their fulfilment in his past life.” (Martin 1983:144)

For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?  Matthew 16:26 (NIV)

Following Jesus Christ is a journey of sacrifice but the reward is the surpassing greatness of really knowing Christ Jesus our Lord! Anything that we forfeit or lose for the sake of a closer walk with Jesus, and a greater experiential knowledge of him, will seem like refuse or garbage.[See postscript.]


[1] The title of “rabban” is a rare and exceptional honour. Gamaliel’s father (or grandfather) was Hillel, also a famous and highly respected rabbi.

[2] Definition of “Sanhedrin” from:  WordNet. Princeton University. 2010.

© 2nd of September 2010, Margaret Mowczko

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Postscript: December 19 2021
Does skubala mean dung or refuse in Philippians 3:8?

The King James Bible translates the Greek word skubala in Philippians 3:8 as “dung.” The entry on skulaba, in Liddel, Scott and Jones’s exhaustive Greek lexicon, here, has “dung” as one possible meaning. Greek expert Gary Manning surveys ancient literary sources, here, where “dung” is sometimes the meaning and he argues that skubala was not a swear word or even a crude word.

In financial accounts recorded in surviving Greek papyri, skubala often refers to the waste that falls from harvesting, threshing, or sifting hay, straw, flax, sesame, etc. This waste was often recovered and sold, and could be used as fodder. Two accounts include the sale value of grain skubala. In one papyrus, skubala is rotten hay.

Skubala also occurs in other papyrus documents such as formal complaints and even in a formal fire report to a local official. One papyrus complaint (dated September 28, 39 CE) was about local shepherds who broke into a person’s field and let their flocks eat the skubala of the person’s vegetable-seed. He complains because he could have sold it.  (Source: Gary Manning) (Papyri.info)

Sirach 27:4 uses skubala when applying a metaphor of sifted gain to a person’s faults: “When a sieve is shaken, the refuse (kopria) appears; so do a person’s faults (skubala) when he speaks” (Sirach 27:4 NRSV). Interestingly, Sirach uses two words in this verse that can both mean either dung or refuse.

I’ve relied on the work of Gary Manning, Professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Biola University, for much of this information. He has blog posts on skubala here and here.

Image Credit

Excerpt of a portrait of St Paul by Rembrandt c. 1657 (Wikimedia)

Week 13: The Judaisers and Circumcision – Philippians 3:1-3
Week 15: Righteousness and Justification – Philippians 3:9

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