Were the Opponents at Philippi Necessarily Jewish?

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Bibliotheca Sacra 155 (January-March 1998) 39-61.

Copyright © 1998 by Dallas Theological Seminary. Cited with permission.



Herbert W. Bateman IV
Paul's allusion in Philippians to a group or groups of oppo-

nents has resulted in a myriad of suggestions. "One of the most

hotly debated issues in the contemporary study of Philippians is

that of the nature and identity of the opponents to whom Paul al-

ludes in his letter."1 Some suggest the opponents (or at least one

group of opponents) were Jews who went to Philippi in order to

"reconvert" Gentile Christians.2 Most writers, however, contend

they were Jewish Christian missionaries whose mission was to

influence Gentile Christians to adopt Jewish rituals.3 Yet should
Herbert W. Bateman IV is Associate Professor of New Testament Studies, Grace

College and Seminary, Winona Lake, Indiana.

1 Peter T. O'Brien, The Epistle to the Philippians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,

1991), 26-27. Similar sentiments are expressed by Fee, who observed that "the sec-

ondary literature on this issue is second only to the huge output on 2:6-11" (Gordon

D. Fee, Paul's Letter to the Philippians, New International Commentary on the

New Testament [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995], 7).

2 Beare refers to them as "Jewish propagandists" (F. W. Beare, A Commentary on

the Epistle to the Philippians, Harper's New Testament Commentaries [New

York: Harper, 1959], 3-4, 100-102). Peter Richardson suggests they were Jews from

Thessalonica (Israel in the Apostolic Church [Cambridge: Cambridge University

Press, 1969], 111-17). The Jews in Acts, however, are generally depicted as perse-

cuting Christians, not reconverting or proselytizing them, especially in Thessa-

lonica (17:5-9; cf. 9:1-3). Yet this is not to deny Jewish "missionary" activity. The in-

crease of the Jewish population seems to argue that some form of proselytizing was

taking place (Salo W. Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews [New

York: Columbia University Press, 1952], 1:370-72). Also see A. F. J. Klijn, "Paul's

Opponents in Philippians iii," Novum Testamentum 7 (1965): 278-84; Ernst

Lohmeyer, Der Brief an die Philipper (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1974),

124-26, 153; and Gerald F. Hawthorne, Philippians, Word Biblical Commentary

(Dallas, TX: Word, 1983), xliv-xlvii, 122-23.

3 Ellis refers to them as "a segment of the ritually strict Hebraioi in the Jerusa-

lem Church [who] with variations in nuance continued to post . . . a settled and

persistent ‘other’ gospel" (Earle E. Ellis, "Paul and His Opponents," in Christian-

ity, Judaism and Other Greco-Roman Cults, ed. Jacob Neusner [Leiden: Brill,

1975], 264-98, esp. 298; 280-81, 291-92, 298). Also see R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpreta-

tion of St. Paul's Epistles to the Galatians, to the Ephesians, and to the Philippi-

40 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January—March 1998

these opponents—who are typically called "Judaizers"—be lim-

ited to Jewish Christians or perhaps even non-Christian Jewish

"missionaries"? Is it possible that they were merely local Gen-

tiles who sympathized with and practiced Judaistic rituals?


Located about ten miles from the Aegean Sea on the eastern end of

the Via Egnatia, Philippi is identified as a Macedonian city


a Greek settlement known as Krenides (from krhnh

and under Thracian control.4 In his quest to strengthen Macedo-

nia's situation in the east, Philip II (Alexander the Great's father)

managed to seize control of the flourishing Greek gold-mining

town of Krenides. After he drove the Thracian ruler Ketriporis

from the city, Philip promptly repopulated Krenides with Mace-

donians, renamed the city Philippi, and incorporated the city into

his ever-growing Macedonian state in 356 B.C.5 Thus Philippi's

earliest history indicates that it was a Greek city-state, populated

by Greeks.6

ans (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1961), 828–30; Jean-Francois Collange, L'epitre de

saint Paul aux Philippians, Commentaire du Nouveau Testament (Neuchatel:

Delachaux & Niestle, 1973), 28–30, 110; O'Brien, The Epistle to the Philippians; 33;

Moises Silva, Philippians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament

(Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992), 3–5, 168–71; Mikael Tellbe, "The Sociological Factors

behind Philippians 3:1–11 and the Conflict at Philippi," Journal for the Study of

the New Testament 55 (1994): 97–121; and Fee, Paul's Letter to the Philippians, 9,


4 Krenides was founded as a result of Greece's expansion activities during the

sixth century B.C. Paros initially colonized Thasos, a large island in the north

Aegean Sea, which in turn secured gold and silver settlements on the mainland.

These mainland settlements, however, were not without struggles against the

warlike Thracians. Krenides was one such settlement (Strabo, Geography 7.34;

Diodorus, Bibliotheca Historica 16.3.7; Michael Grant and Rachel Kitzinger, eds.,

Greece and Rome, vol. 1 of Civilization of the Ancient Mediterranean [New York:

Charles Scribner's Sons, 1988], 215; Oswyn Murray, Early Greece, 2d ed.

[Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993], 102–23, esp. 115–17).

5 Diodorus, Bibliotheca Historica 16.8.6–7. When Berisades, the Thracian ruler

of the Pangaion mining area, died, his children divided their father's kingdom

among themselves. Ketriporis received the Greek gold-mining town of Krenides.

However, a dispute arose between Ketriporis and the people of Krenides. Erring-

ton describes how "Philip executed his program of aid for Krenides with his usual

uncompromising persistence" (R. Malcolm Errington, A History of Macedonia

[Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1990], 45–48; cf. Paul Collart,

Philippes, ville de Macedoine depuis ses origines jusqu' a la fin de l'epoque ro-

maine [Paris: de Boccord, 1937], 157-60).

6 Murray has suggested that Greeks may have intermarried with Thracians dur-

ing their early expansion activities on Thasos. After the colony was established,

however, the practice was discouraged or prohibited (Murray, Early Greece, 115).

If this is true, it may explain Thracian carvings of the so-called Thracian Horse-

Were the Opponents at Philippi Necessarily Jewish? 41
Although Philippi was part of the Macedonia state for nearly

190 years, Rome's aggressive activities in the east eventually

terminated Macedonia's autonomy. After the Battle of Pydna

(Third Macedonian War) in 168 B.C., Rome dismantled the

Macedonian state and eventually annexed Macedonia as a Ro-

man province in 148 B.C.7 With its gold mines exhausted,

Philippi's population declined to a small Greek settlement. How-

ever, because of circumstances in Rome, Philippi eventually rose

to a place of prominence as a Roman city. Octavian and Antony,

who desired to avenge the assassination of Julius Caesar (on

March 19, 44 B.C.), pursued and defeated Cassius and Brutus

(Julius Caesar's assassins) on the plains of Philippi in 42 B.C.8 As

a result of this victory, Octavian refounded Philippi as a military

colony, repopulated it with retired veterans, and named it Colonia

Victrix Philippensium. After his defeat of Antony at Actium in 31

B.C., Octavian further colonized Philippi with veterans, this time

discharged veterans from Antony's army, and renamed the city

Colonia Julia Philippensium. In 27 B.C. when Octavian was des-

ignated August, he once again lengthened Philippi's name—

Colonia Augusta Julia Philippensium. He also bestowed Roman

citizenship on the people of Philippi.9 Thus Octavian (Augustus)

man (a Horseman/Hero cult comparable to Asklepios, a Greco-Roman healing god)

on the acropolis—a hill near Philippi that served as an open-air shrine for pagan

cults. Abrahamsen suggests that Thrace "deeply influenced Philippi's religious

development" (Valerie Abrahamsen, "Christianity and the Rock Reliefs at

Philippi," Biblical Archaeologist 51 [March 1988]: 46-56). Perhaps this influence

began on Thasos and was transported to Krenides when Thasian Greeks expanded

to the mainland. Regardless of these archaeological findings, Philippi was a Greek-

speaking, Greek-populated, Greek-cultured city-state.

7 Errington, A History of Macedonia, 216-17; and Pliny, Natural History 4.10.39.

Although Macedonia functioned as an independent Greek state after the Second

Macedonian War, the Battle of Cynoscephalae in 197 B.C. led to Macedonia's becom-

ing a Roman province. Errington contends, "The external spheres of dominion and

influence that had turned Macedonia into a great power had been abolished, and

the Romans took care that they were never reestablished" (Errington, A History of

Macedonia, 204).

8 Plutarch, Lives 6.38.1-52.5; Cassius Dio, Roman History 47.42.1-49.4; and

Collart, Philippes, 191-219.

9 Julius Caesar and Octavian (Augustus) are credited with establishing most of

the military colonies for veterans and civilian settlers. Paul visited and estab-

lished churches in five such military colonies: Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:13-50),

Lystra (14:4-20), and Troas in Asia Minor (16:8-11; 20:6-12; 2 Tim. 4:13); Corinth in

Achaia (Acts 18:1-18); and Philippi in Macedonia (16:11-40). See A. N. Sherwin-

White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (Grand Rapids:

Baker, 1963), 176-78. During New Testament times Roman citizenship outside of

Rome was rare. Even Caracalla's extended Roman citizenship in A.D. 212 was lim-

ited to male free (nonslave) people (Chris Scarre, Chronicles of the Roman Em-

perors: The Reign-by-Reign Record of the Rulers of Imperial Rome [London:

Thames & Hudson, 19951, 136-46, esp. 146). For archaeological discussions see Col-

42 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January-March 1998
transformed the ancient Greek city-state Philippi into a Roman

municipality with significant rights and privileges granted only

to Roman citizens (i.e., it possessed lex Italicum). In essence

Philippi was a Greco-Roman city with clout.

By the time Paul came to Philippi in A.D. 50/51 the city was

populated by both Greeks and Romans. In fact the few people

Scripture specifically mentions in connection with the Philippian

church had Greek (Lydia, Acts 16:14-15; Euodia and Syntyche,

Phil. 4:2) and Roman (Clement, Phil. 4:2) names. Although the

"frequent theme of Acts," might support Schwartz's claim that

"Paul's accusers in Philippi are Jewish not Gentile,"10 Acts

clearly indicates that no significant Jewish population existed in

Philippi. When Paul, Silas, Timothy, and Luke arrived at

Philippi, they went outside the city gate to the Gangites River,

where they expected to find a "place of prayer" (proseuxh<, Acts

16:13a).11 Traditionally ten men were needed to establish a syna-

gogue (Pirke Abot 3.7). Philippi's Jewish population, however,

seems to have been unique in that it consisted of women only;

Luke wrote that he and the others spoke "to the women who had as-

sembled" at the place of prayer (16:13b). Thus the Jewish popula-

tion at Philippi was not only scanty in number,12 but also it seems
lart, Philippes, 240–41; and Marcus N. Todd, "Notes on Two Published Inscrip-

tions," Annual of the British School at Athens 23 (1918–19): 94–97.

10 Schwartz believes the accusers in Acts 16:20–21 were Jewish. He cites three

reasons in support of this. (1) "Acts frequently shows born Jews, who are now

Christians, practicing and teaching non-Jewish practices (and beliefs)—and at

times attacked by Jews for doing so" (Acts 4:1–3; 5:17–18; 6:8–14; 7:52, 57–58; 8:1–4;

9:1–2, 23; 12:3; 13:6–8, 45, 50; 14:19; 17:5, 13; 18:6, 12; 19:9; 20:3; 21:11, 27; 22:22; 23:12–15,

30; 28:19). (2) "Conversion to Christianity was not forbidden by law until the mid-

second century, well after both the incident and the composition of Acts." (3) Paul

and Silas were charged with teaching Christianity, not Judaism (1 Thess. 2:2). Con-

sequently Schwartz suggests translating Acts 16:20–21 in the following manner:

"And they brought them to the magistrates, saying: ‘Although they are Jews

( ]Ioudai?oi u[pa

they are teaching practices which are unlawful for us (i.e., Jews) to accept or do, be-

ing Romans'" (Daniel R. Schwartz, "The Accusation and the Accusers at Philippi,"

Biblica 65 [1984]: 357–63). Although Schwartz's rendering of Acts 16:20–21 is gram-

matically possible, the historical and immediate context does not support his

translation. In addition Gentile insurrection against Paul in Philippi is not an iso-

lated event in Acts, as Schwartz suggests. Gentile insurrection occurred in Eph-

esus (16:23–34) and insulting Gentile reaction against Paul occurred in Athens

(17:18, 32).

11 Although "place of prayer" (proseuxh<) can mean a synagogue, Conzelmann con-

tends that "it is strange that the author then says ou$ e]nomi

posed there was a place of prayer.' It is even stranger," he continues, "that only

women were there" (Hans Conzelmann, Acts of the Apostles, Hermeneia

[Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987], 130).

12 "To the scanty numbers and feeble influence of the Jews," Lightfoot believes, "we

may perhaps in some degree ascribe the unswerving allegiance of this church to

Were the Opponents at Philippi Necessarily Jewish? 43
to have been composed exclusively of women. Hence no syna-

gogue or large population of Jews existed in Philippi.

Before Paul's visit, Philippi was composed of Greek and

Roman Gentiles, with some Jewish women, and at least one

woman, Lydia, who was a God-fearer or "worshiper of God"

(sebomen qeo

gogue, the presence of a small Jewess population, or the mention

of only Gentile conversions in Acts 16 does not eliminate the pos-

sibility that Paul's opponents there were Jewish. Nevertheless it

helps to know that historical reconstructions are necessary to

support Jewish ethnicity of the opponents typically referred to as

Judaizers. Two reconstructions are noted.

One reconstruction is that Jewish missionaries followed

Paul to either "reconvert" or to further convert Gentile Chris-

tians. However, the Jews in Acts are depicted as following Paul

not to reconvert or proselytize Christians but to persecute them

(14:19; 17:5-9; cf. 9:1-3). In addition Jewish Christian Judaizers,

whose supposed mission was to follow Paul and "further convert"

Gentile churches, seem to have limited their appearances to

Galatia, Corinth, and Philippi. Why? Why not Ephesus and

Colossae as well? Also lexical parallels frequently made with

Galatians and 2 Corinthians to support the Jewish Judaizer view-

point13 overlook the different tones and emphases that exist be-

tween Philippians, Galatians,14 and 2 Corinthians.15

the person of the Apostle and to the true principles of the Gospel" (J. B. Lightfoot,

St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians [London: Macmillan, 1913; reprint, Grand

Rapids: Zondervan, 1953], 53). Also see Robert C. Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of

Luke-Acts: A Literary Interpretation (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1990), 2:196, n. 4; and

F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, New International Commentary on the New Testa-

ment (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), 331.

13 Several plausible arguments have been presented to connect Galatians and 2

Corinthians with Philippians in an attempt to identify Paul's opponents as Jewish.

See Ellis, "Paul and His Opponents," 264–98; Fee, Paul's Letter to the Philippians,

294–97; and O'Brien, The Epistle to the Philippians, 355–56.

14 According to Lea the teachings of the Jewish Judaizers in Galatia were viewed

as "a threat to the spiritual condition of his converts" (6:12) and "if legal obedience

were a method of salvation, the death of Jesus was unnecessary (Gal. 2:20–21 [sic] )"

(Thomas D. Lea, "Unscrambling the Judaizers: Who Were Paul's Opponents?"

Southwestern Journal of Theology 44 [1994]: 23–29). In Philippians, however, the

opposers were not a threat to the spiritual condition of the saints in Philippi nor

was their method of salvation based on obedience to the Law. It seems that despite

their motivation for preaching Christ, Paul rejoiced in that Christ was being

preached (Phil. 1:15–18); mentioning the opponents' eternal doom, Paul encouraged

the saints to maintain an unwavering and unified stance against them (1:27–28);

and Paul used them as an object lesson to encourage the community to avoid mixing

the ritualistic practices of Judaism with Christianity (3:2). Thus differences in

tone mitigate against identifying the opponents in Philippians with those in Gala-


44 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January—March 1998
A second historical reconstruction speculates that Paul

merely addressed a potential problem. It is argued that Paul,

though absent at the time of his writing, prepared the Philippians

for a potential conflict with Jewish Christian Judaizers.16 Yet

Paul's letters usually, if not always, addressed real—not poten-

tial—problems that required immediate instruction or guidance.

Thus with these and similar reconstructions many writers con-

clude that the opponents in Philippi were mission-minded Jews—

whether propagandists, Christian, or Gnostic17—who followed

Paul and sought to supplant his message.

A third historical reconstruction less frequently argued is

that the opponents were “Gentile Judaizers.”18 Perhaps a group of

professing Christians existed in Philippi who entertained Jewish

practices (e.g., circumcision), but they were Gentiles and hence

were local Gentile Judaizers. This suggestion raises several

questions. How could a Gentile be circumcised or observe Jewish

15 According to Garland, "the parallels between Phil. 3 and 2 Cor. 11 are by no

means precise." After noting the fact that Paul was not on the defensive in Philip-

pians and his apostleship was not in dispute as it was in 2 Corinthians, Garland

points out that "there is no hint of circumcision in 2 Corinthians; nor is there any

hint in Philippians that the church has fallen prey to intruders (see 2 Cor. 11:4) or

that they would even be received sympathetically" (David E. Garland, "The Compo-

sition and Unity of Philippians," Novum Testamentum 27 [1985]: 141-73, esp. 168, n.

94). In fact 2 Corinthians 10–13 is more of an apologetic against clear accusations.

Again differences in tone mitigate against identifying the opponents in Philippi

with those in Corinth.

16 Lightfoot suggests that Paul's flow of thought was "interrupted." "He is in-

formed," Lightfoot supposes, "of some fresh attempt of the Judaizers in the

metropolis to thwart and annoy him. What if they should interfere at Philippi as

they were doing at Rome, and tamper with the faith and loyalty of his converts?

With this thought weighing on his spirit he resumes his letter" (St. Paul's Epistle

to the Philippians, 69–70). Fee argues, "There is no suggestion in the text that they

(i.e. ‘[apparently] Jewish Christians’) are actually present in Philippi" (Fee,

Paul's Letter to the Philippians, 9, 293).

17 Koester describes them as Jewish Christian Gnostics who preached a message

of perfectionism that was part of a "radicalized spiritualistic eschatology" (Helmut

Koester, "The Purpose of the Polemic of a Pauline Fragment," New Testament Stud-

ies 8 [1962]: 317–32; cf. Ralph Martin, Philippians, New Century Bible Commentary

[Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982], 22-34, 124–26). Holladay agrees but refers to their

eschatology as an "over-realized eschatology" (Carl R. Holladay, "Paul's Opponents

in Philippians 3," Restoration Quarterly 12 [1969]: 77–90). Also see Joseph B.

Tyson, "Paul's Opponents at Philippi," Perspectives 3 (1976): 82-95. For a discus-

sion of the weaknesses of this view see O'Brien, The Epistle to the Philippians, 27-

29, and Chris L. Mearns, "The Identity of Paul's Opponents at Philippi," New Tes-

tament Studies (1987): 194–204.

18 Grayston argues that they were "a Gentile semi-gnostic group who had adopted

ritual circumcision in a manner which Paul regarded as outrageous and shameful"

(Kenneth Grayston, "The Opponents in Philippians 3," Expository Times 97 [March

1986]: 170-72).

Were the Opponents at Philippi Necessarily Jewish? 45
practices, and still be considered a Gentile? Antiquity reveals,

however, that circumcision is not the sine qua non for Gentile

conversion. Nor is the observance of Jewish rituals an indication

of one's proselytism. If this is true, then what in antiquity differ-

entiated a Jewish sympathizer or semi-Jew from a Jewish prose-


The pervasive influence of Judaism throughout the Mediter-

ranean during the first century cannot be ignored easily. On the

one hand Josephus lauded Judaism's influence in the Mediter-

ranean area. "The masses have long since shown a keen desire

to adopt our religious observances; and there is not one city,

Greek or barbarian, nor a single nation, to which our custom of

abstaining from work on the seventh day has not spread, and [in

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