Meaning of κοιλια
The word used here is κοιλια. Bauer (BDAG) lists three primary meanings1:
- the organ of nourishment
- womb, uterus
- seat of inward life, of feelings and desires (functionally equivalent to English heart)
Significantly, Phil 3:19 is explicitly listed under meaning 1, not 3. So according to BDAG, it means stomach as in a organ, not desire.
Based on a quick review of the usage in the New Testament, it does appear that the vast majority of occurrences are in reference to a physical body part (stomach or womb):
- Stomach: Matt. 12:40; 15:17; Mk. 7:19; 1 Co. 6:13; Rev. 10:9f
- Womb: Matt. 19:12; Lk. 1:15, 41f, 44; 2:21; 11:27; 23:29; Jn. 3:4; Acts 3:2; 14:8; Gal. 1:15
Although less common, I did find some references that do not seem to be addressing a physical body part (English translation of κοιλια in bold):
- Jn. 7:38 “and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, 'Out of the believer's heart shall flow rivers of living water.'” (NRSV)
- Rom. 16:18 “For such people do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the simple-minded.” (NRSV)
Meaning in Context
If BDAG is accepted, the question of course is what aspect of the stomach Paul has in mind. The question suggested one possibility related to the stomach: “overeating and gluttony.” However I’ll throw out another option: Paul could be referring to Judaizers who demanded adherence to certain dietary laws.
Verses 2 and 3 read: “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…” (NRSV). Based on the references to ‘those who mutilate the flesh’ and ‘circumcision,’ Judaizers seem to be in view. This is further supported by verses 4b – 6, where Paul explains that he actually has more reasons for confidence in the flesh than they do. He justifies his claim by touting that he is a model Jew, even claiming that he is legally blameless.
Although Philippines does not get into much detail about this group, it is a common theme throughout his letters, and Paul is often opposing those who relied on ‘works of the law’ instead of faith in Christ.2 Paul’s primarily concerns with the Judaizers’ included their insistence on Jewish dietary restrictions, circumcision, and following festivals.3
In verses 12 through 16, Paul urges his readers to move forward in pursuit of resurrection, following the path of faith instead of the Judaizers’ rightness through the law. If verses 17 through 21 are a continuation of Paul’s line of thought, then these verses are closing out his discussion by again specifically address the Judaizers. He emphasizes that the they are “enemies of the cross of Christ” (3:18, NRSV), potentially because they relying on works instead of faith (similarly in Romans 11:28 Paul calls non-believing Jews enemies). Unlike the Judaizers, who establish their identity through the works of the law, Paul reminds his readers that their “citizenship is in heaven” (3:20, NRSV).4
Müller also takes this view:
(2) Their god is the belly: although such a description could suit sensualists, people of dissolute character, Paul in Rom. 16:18 designates people like the Judaists, who sow dissension in the churches and are the cause of offence against the doctrine, as people "who serve their own belly." While the New Testament nowhere describes licentiousness as "serving the belly," the Judaists were the people who enforced the observance of all kinds of laws relating to meat and drink, by which they did not do justice to the all-sufficient merits of the cross of Christ. "Touch not and taste note-eat and eat not" became religion to them...(4) They mind earthly things: By this not necessarily carnal sins are meant, but the direction of their thoughts towards earthly things, worldly-mindedness, a lige order according to worldy measures. The Judaistic piety makes a god of the belly...for nothing else but earthly-mindedness...5
If these “enemies of the cross of Christ” (NRSV) in Philippines 3:18 are the same “dogs” (NRSV) in verses 2 and 3, then it could follow that 3:19 is addressing the ‘works of the law’ that these Judaizers demand, namely dietary restrictions and circumcision. In this context, “their god is the belly” (NRSV) could be referring to Jewish dietary laws. The Judaizers are treating their stomach like a god - a god who is either appeased or angered by consumption of certain foods - instead of following Paul's God, who alternately seeks faith. Thus, Paul concludes “their minds are set on earthly things” (3:19, NRSV) - food and circumcision - instead of heavenly things - specifically salvation through Christ and resurrection (3:20f).
- Bauer, Walter, Frederick W. Danker, William F. Arndt, and F. Wilbur Gingrich. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000, page 550 (BDAG).
- Galatians 2:16: “yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.” (NRSV)
- For example: Colossians 2:11, 16 : “In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ…Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths.” Similarly, Galatians 2:11f: “But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction.” Galatians 5:6,11: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love... But my friends, why am I still being persecuted if I am still preaching circumcision? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed.”
- This is argument is easier to buy if one accepts the new perspective.
- Müller, Jac. J. 1988. The Epistle Of Paul To The Philippians, in The New International Commentary On The New Testament, edited by F. F. Bruce, 130-132. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company: Grand Rapids, Michigan. Italics original.