Was Paul trying to say he belonged to the Hebrews or that all the Hebrews belonged to him. Did he mean the phrase both ways when he used it in his expression? What is the right way to interpret Philippians 3:5?

Circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee. (ESV)

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    It simply means that he is a Jew of Jewish descent; see also Acts 23:6. (Of, in this case, translates as out of or from; it is not the genitive article, as the other answers have erroneously suggested). – Lucian Oct 1 at 13:33
  • It is an idiomatic superlative in Hebrew, Greek and English. Possibly other languages as well, though I don't remember it cropping up in my Latin or French school lessons, I must confess. – Nigel J Oct 1 at 15:55
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    @NigelJ: No. It isn't. (The expression that you have in mind would indeed translate similarly into English -hence the prevailing confusion- but that is not what we have here). – Lucian Oct 2 at 6:39
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    @NigelJ: I'm Romanian, hence my reference to the accusative. In Greek, ek, which becomes ex before a vowel, does indeed demand the genitive; nevertheless, the expression you and others had in mind should have been Ebraios Ebraion (as in Asma Asmaton, Song of Songs), not Ebraios ex Ebraion, as I already wrote elsewhere on this very thread. – Lucian Oct 2 at 12:27
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    @NigelJ: My point was that it is not a Hebrew superlative translated into Greek. – Lucian Oct 3 at 13:36

The phrase is used by the Apostle Paul to state that he was the greatest example of someone who attempted to attain righteousness by trying to keep the law. Paul claims to be head and shoulders above his counterparts in the Jews religion.

In 1 Corinthians 15, he states he worked harder that anyone else in their religion.

1 Cor 15: 9-10 (KJV)

9 For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.

In the context of your referenced verse in Philippians 3, Paul states that if any man has any confidence to boast in the flesh (attempting to keep the law) he has the ability to boast more and then he adds his credentials. He ends by saying that as touching righteousness of the law he was blameless, ie, no one did more work to keep the law than he did.

Philippians 3: 3-6 (KJV)

3For we are the circumcision, which worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh. 4 Though I might also have confidence in the flesh. If any other man thinketh that he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more: 5 Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; 6 Concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.

In the above passage, Paul states that his credentials in keeping the law are beyond most because not only did he keep the law flawlessly, he also persecuted the church showing his intense passion and zeal for the Jews religion.

In short, Paul is stating to be the greatest example of how to keep the law but then says in verse 9, that he counts it all dung as compared to the sufficiency of the sacrifice of Christ.

Philippians 3: 7-9 (KJV)

7 But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. 8 Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, 9 And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith:

  • Is the phrase to be taken idiomatically as an hebraism or literally? +1 for the association with Paul's larger polemic. – Ruminator Oct 8 at 10:46
  • I would say idiom; I don't believe he claimed to be the one and only. So, I might then tone down my answer a bit to say "one of the greatest examples". – alb Oct 8 at 21:54
  • Okay, but based on the other answers and comments I think you are taking a minority position. Can you show the evidence that persuades you that it is idiomatic? Thanks. – Ruminator Oct 8 at 21:58
  • Off the top of the head, Galatians 1:14, Paul says that he profited in the Jew religion above "many" equals in my own nation. Seems to be comparative and not superlative. – alb Oct 8 at 22:12
  • Before this excellent question was posted I might have agreed with you but personally, I've become convinced by the answers given and some of my own research that the phrase is to be taken literally. IE: I think it makes the point you are making but without the phrase being anything different from what he literally says. Unlike, I am told, the superlative of "king of kings" etc. – Ruminator Oct 8 at 22:15

To answer this question one must answer what does Ἑβραῖος ἐξ Ἑβραίων mean? Here are examples of how translations have translated it:

a Hebrew of Hebrews (NAS, ESV, NIV, ASV, NET, ISV, Darby, YLT)

a(n) Hebrew of the Hebrews (KJV, NKJV, D-R)

a Hebrew born of Hebrews (HCSB, NRSV)

a Hebrew born from Hebrews (LEB)

a Hebrew of Hebrew parentage (NAB)

I am a Hebrew, and my parents were Hebrews (NCB)

hebreo de hebreos (RVA, LBLA)

עִבְרִי מִן הָעִבְרִים (HNT-Bible Society of Israel)

an Ebrue borne of the Ebrues (Tyndale 1536)

a Hebrew-speaker, with Hebrew-speaking parents (CJB )

a real Hebrew if there ever was one! (NLT)

I am a true Hebrew (CEV)

I’m a pure-blooded Hebrew (GW)

a Hebrew [and the son] of Hebrews (AMP)

a pure-blooded Hebrew (GNB)

If the ἐξ preposition weren’t present this would be the meaning. It’s interesting how many translations translate “Hebrew of Hebrews” that seems to imply this interpretation.

While Paul wrote in Greek, Hebrew of Hebrews is a Hebrew way of expressing the superlative (note Holy of Holies):

(i) The absolute superlative, which manifests the outstanding feature, condition or state of something or someone can be expressed by: a. A singular noun in the status constructus preceding the indefinite plural form of the same word.

הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים vanity of vanities = utmost vanities (Eccl. 1:2)

Van der Merwe, C., Naudé, J., Kroeze, J., Van der Merwe, C., Naudé, J., & Kroeze, J. (1999). A Biblical Hebrew Reference Grammar (electronic ed., p. 236). Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.

If the superlative were the case, Jewish Christians would understand it to mean Paul was the most Hebrew that one could be, and he defends this in the verses that follow.

However, the question is what does ἐξ mean? The simplest meaning is

89.142 ἐκ; ἀπό: markers of the substance of which something consists or out of which it is made—‘of, consisting of, out of, made of.’

Louw, J. P., & Nida, E. A. (1996). Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament: based on semantic domains (electronic ed. of the 2nd edition., Vol. 1, p. 795). New York: United Bible Societies.

However, the translation “Hebrew of Hebrews” is very unclear as shown previously, especially to a Hebrew. Note the Hebrew translation translates ἐκ/ ἐξ as מִן (from) and the Complete Jewish Bible translates it, “a Hebrew-speaker, with Hebrew-speaking parents.”

This is also how Robertson explains the phrase:

A Hebrew of the Hebrews (Ἐβραιος ἐξ Ἐβραιων [Ebraios ex Ebraiōn]). Of Hebrew parents who retained the characteristic qualities in language and custom as distinct from the Hellenistic Jews (Acts 6:1)

Robertson, A. T. (1933). Word Pictures in the New Testament (Php 3:5). Nashville, TN: Broadman Press.

Note that when the translations express the meaning using more than “Hebrew of Hebrews,” they express it as meaning a Hebrew from Hebrew parents.

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    Excellent examples from other scriptures, Perry. – Dieter Sep 30 at 20:30
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    I don't have the heart to down vote your answer, nor I am able to believe my eyes. The only aspect these two completely different expressions have in common is that, by sheer accident, they both translate similarly into English, due to the dual meaning of the English of, which expresses both the genitive (whose ?), as well as the accusative case (where from ?). If by absurd Saint Paul would have wanted to convey what you are implying, he should have written Ebraios Ebraion, not Ebraios ex Ebraion. – Lucian Oct 1 at 13:28
  • @Lucian I have corrected my answer above. – Perry Webb Oct 3 at 8:07
  • @Lucian Thanks for the feedback. It looks like I wasn't the only one who depended too much on English and wasn't careful enough with the Greek. The NLT looks like the superlative in its translation. – Perry Webb Oct 3 at 19:45
  • @PerryWebb: Can't say it's a shocking surprise; those guys at NLT don't exactly strike me as the particularly scholarly type either. – Lucian Oct 4 at 15:18

The context of the passage is an expression of Paul's assertion of his orthodox Jewish roots in the face of "evil workers" who taught that circumcision was a requirement for all male followers of Jesus, specifically gentiles. Paul makes the point here that in terms of qualifications for orthodoxy and adherence to Torah, he is an expert.

The literal Greek in verse 3:5 can be rendered, "a Hebrew from out of Hebrews," which serves as an intensifier---that he was exemplary as far as Judaic knowledge and observance was concerned.

Dieter

  • Are you saying it is being taken literally or that it is to be taken as an idiom/hebraism and not to be taken word for word but as an intensifier? Your answer seems to say both. – Ruminator Oct 8 at 10:43
  • A Hebraism at least, if not also Greek. As Perry Webb aptly pointed out, there seems to be a common pattern in scripture: King of Kings, Lord of Lords, vanity of vanities, Holy of Holies, and eon of eons. So, what evidence can you provide that Hebrew of Hebrews is to be interpreted in a different way than the others? I called it an intensifier, but Perry is probably more precise in calling this a superlative. Paul himself uses similar expressions in I Tim. 6:15, literally in Greek, "King of the ones reigning and Lord of the ones dominating." I prefer the literal expressions, how about you? – Dieter Oct 9 at 1:02
  • That's what I was thinking but because of this question and the answers (and I also reached out to B-Hebrew) I've become convinced that because of the preposition "en" it isn't. But if that your position you would need to show some evidence to support it. Thanks. – Ruminator Oct 9 at 3:06
  • As Perry pointed out, several translations favor that approach. However, in that case, translating it "a Hebrew from Hebrew parents," implies a class system at the time within Judaism that left converts in the lowest tier. I believe that Torah prohibits such discrimination at least implicitly. That's why I think that the CJB prefers "Hebrew-speaking" as the point of pride. You could also argue that the expression amplifies the prior "of the tribe of Benjamin." I think that's a stronger position, but I rest on my argument that Hebrew of Hebrews follows a common pattern in the Bible. – Dieter Oct 10 at 4:45

The TNT seem to catch the flavor of what Paul was saying as it reads

"... The Hebrew son of Hebrew parents."

He seems to be highliting his past pedgree and background to emphasize that being a sefollower of Christ is far greater to him that his rich Hebrew origins for he says in ver 7:-

“Yet all such advantages* I have reckonede as a loss because of Christ"

*His Jewish upbringing etc..

In fact he calls it "worthless rubbish" in verse 8.

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