I’m seeking an understanding of the list in Philippians 3:3-6 ESV, especially vv 5-6

3 For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh- 4 though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: 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; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

I have two primary questions, which have not been answered by the thread on “Hebrew of Hebrews”, even though that is at the centre of my inquiry.

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; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”

In setting it out like this I am suggesting a reading of “Hebrew of Hebrews” as the centre of a chiasm.

Paul’s presentation of himself as a Hebrew of Hebrews seems to be in a classical Hebrew form, as found in the Psalms and poetic passages of the OT and some songs and poetic passages in the NT. My question: is this a valid way to read this sentence?

There are three qualifications for being considered a Hebrew of Hebrews before the phrase itself, followed by three descriptors of how that worked out. Paul is that rare thing, a Hebrew of Hebrews, and he ramps up the emphasis towards the centre.

Like all Jews, he is circumcised, but not just that, it was on the eighth day, as per Genesis 17:12; he is, of course, a member of the people of Israel; he is of the tribe of Benjamin, the smallest tribe of Israel, an exclusive club, that cannot simply be joined.

Thus he is a Hebrew of Hebrews.

Then he sets out how it shows in his life.

In regard to the law, he is a pharisee, one of those who take the line, developed in exile (the name is linked to the Hebrew for Persian—think, “Pharisee/Farsi"), that the law must be followed punctiliously in every respect, as the Pharisees who dogged Jesus’ steps demanded that he and his disciples should do. His zeal was such that not only did he verbally demand law-keeping as a Pharisee, but sought to enforce it, by coercive use of force if necessary. His Torah-keeping righteousness was such that, so far as anyone could be, he was free of blame for any retribution that might come from heaven to the Jews.

So is this a valid reading of this pair of verses, vv 5-6?

I’d also like to ask, why does he choose to describe himself as a “Hebrew”? He could also have used “Israelite,” or “Jew.” Either of those would have identified him with his ethno-religious cohort. Why “Hebrew”? The only other time he uses the term “Hebrew” is in 1 Corinthians 11:22, where he makes a similar list of qualifications to be considered to be, in religious terms, a paragon among his people.

What is it about “Hebrew” that epitomises this particularly?

I look forward to comments and clarification of these questions.

  • “the name is linked to the Hebrew for Persian—think, “Pharisee/Farsi"”— That is unequivocally incorrect. Pharisee is related to the Hebrew verb פָּרַשׁ (parash). Parush is the [singular, masculine] passive participle; perushim is the plural [masculine] passive participle. Perushim means “separated ones” or “distinguished ones”. Commented Apr 14 at 1:24

3 Answers 3


There is a list of seven qualifications. You want to see the middle one as the most significant, but fail to actually find any greater significance in it as compared to the others.

So maybe the middle one relates to all the others in a form of chiasm, but instead of being the most exclusive is the most comprehensive. “Hebrew” is possibly broad enough to be an umbrella for all the other claims. In contrast, the other suggested terms are not mutually exclusive. “Israelite” specifies his ancestry but does not indicate his religion; “Jew” would specify his religion but does not indicate ancestry. These specifics are presented appropriately to convey a completeness of all seven credentials and not focus on one aspect.

Besides giving special attention to the middle item in a list, it is common to express the most significant thing first; or sometimes last. You might give consideration to this perspective.

Alternatively, I find it most natural just to view all the items in the list as somewhat equal and distinct. They build on themselves to convey a completeness.

  1. Circumcision relates to being part of a covenant with God.
  2. Israelite relates to his linage as a descendant of Jacob.
  3. Tribe of Benjamin lends merits you describe as well as being the tribe (along with Judah) that maintained faithfulness after the other tribes turned to idolatry.
  4. The epitome of a Hebrew speaks to the cultural heritage he inherited from both parents.
  5. A Pharisee speaks his diligence in observing the law.
  6. An example is given to demonstrate enthusiasm and intensity.
  7. As far as the law could make one righteous, he had a good reputation – this is what he believed himself to be on the inside.

(I study God's Word from the perspective of gaining spiritual Truth. I am not an expert in Greek or Hebrew.)

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It seems like this is what you are proposing as chiasm:

  1. 1a) Circumcised on the eighth day: This is a reference to the Jewish rite of circumcision, which was performed on male infants on their eighth day of life as a sign of the covenant between God and Israel.
  2. 1b) Of the people of Israel: Paul is talking of his Jewish heritage.
  3. 1c) Of the tribe of Benjamin: This would be a further specification of Paul’s Jewish identity, showing his affiliation with one of the twelve tribes of Israel.
  4. central axis) A Hebrew of Hebrews: This is your proposed central point of the chiasm. As I will cover later, this shows Paul’s deep connection to his Jewish roots and traditions.
  5. 2c) As to the law, a Pharisee: This would need to mirror the third point of the chiasm. What this shows is Paul’s strict adherence to Jewish law.
  6. 2b) As to zeal, a persecutor of the church: This would need to mirror the second point. This is showing Paul’s fervor in upholding his beliefs, even to the point of persecuting those he saw as threats to Judaism.
  7. 2a) As to righteousness under the law, blameless: This would need to mirror the first point. This is displaying Paul’s claim of having lived a life in accordance with Jewish law.

If we interpret it as a chiasm, we need to explain where it is a mirrored structure. This to me seems like the lines don't mirror each other well. It’s seems to be more of a straightforward enumeration of Paul’s credentials as a devout Jew: his circumcision on the eighth day, his lineage from the tribe of Benjamin, his status as a Pharisee, his zeal in persecuting the church, and his blamelessness under the law.

However, I would not say that the chapter lacks Chiasm. Take for example:

Phi 3:4-9

  1. 1a) Phi 3:4-6, Paul’s works of righteousness through the flesh;
  2. 1b) Phi 3:7, What things were gain to me, I have counted loss for Christ;
  3. 1c) Phi 3:8a, I count all things loss;
  4. central axis) Phi 3:8b, For the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord;
  5. 2c) Phi 3:8c, For whom I have suffered the loss of all things;
  6. 2b) Phi 3:8d-9a, I count them as rubbish that I may gain Christ and be found in Him;
  7. 2a) Phi 3:9b, The righteousness from God by faith.

As well as:

Phi 3:15-19

  1. 1a) Phi 3:15, The mind the mature set on eternal things;
  2. 1b) Phi 3:16a, Let us walk by the same rule;
  3. central axis) Phi 3:16b, Let us be of the same mind;
  4. 2b) Phi 3:17, Note those who so walk;
  5. 2a) Phi 3:18-19, The mind of enemies of the cross set on earthly things.

As for your question about why Paul describes himself as a “Hebrew”: I want to note that the term “Hebrew” carries a specific cultural and linguistic sense. A “Hebrew” was a Jew who maintained traditional Jewish customs and language, even while living among non-Jews. This is in contrast to Hellenistic Jews, who adopted Greek language and culture. So, by identifying himself as a “Hebrew of Hebrews”, Paul is talking about his adherence to traditional Jewish customs as well as his fluency in the Hebrew language. Take this quotation for example:

Barnes' Notes:

An Hebrew of the Hebrews - This is the Hebrew mode of expressing the superlative degree; and the idea is, that Paul enjoyed every advantage which could possibly be derived from the fact of being a Hebrew. He had a lineal descent from the very ancestor of the nation; he belonged to a tribe that was as honorable as any other, and that had its location near the very center of religious influence; and he was an Hebrew by both his parents, with no admixture of Gentile blood. On this fact - that no one of his ancestors had been a proselyte, or of Gentile extraction - a Jew would pride himself much; and Paul says that he was entitled to all the advantage which could be derived from it.

In terms of the term “Hebrew” showing the superlative degree of Paul’s religious qualifications, I want to note that Paul was not just a Jew by birth, but also by practice and belief. He was circumcised on the eighth day (according to Jewish law), a member of the tribe of Benjamin (one of the original tribes of Israel), and a Pharisee (a member of a strict Jewish sect). In fact, his zeal for the law was so great that he even persecuted the church. All these factors contribute to his self-description as a “Hebrew of Hebrews”.

However, Paul’s purpose in listing these qualifications was not to boast, but rather to show that he considered them worthless compared to the surpassing worth of knowing Christ. Saying he was a "Jew" or an "Israelite" would not carry these same connotations.

Philippians 3:5 Commentaries: circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; (n.d.). Biblehub.com. Retrieved May 13, 2024, from https://biblehub.com/commentaries/philippians/3-5.htm‌
philippians 3 chiastic structure. (n.d.). www.alittleperspective.com. Retrieved May 13, 2024, from https://www.alittleperspective.com/philippians-3-chiastic-structure/

Is this [a chiastic reading] a valid reading. Yes, I think so. But, let me make your chiastic alignment a bit more explicit. Hopefully, this will satisfy @Jason_ comment of "If we interpret it as a chiasm, we need to explain where it is a mirrored structure." I hope I've captured your intent. Please comment if in any way needed.

A  circumcised on the eighth day,                     - Qualification of being under the law
  B    of the people of Israel,                       - Qualification of being an Israelite
    C      of the tribe of Benjamin,                  - Qualification of being a special son
      D        a Hebrew of Hebrews;                   - The qualifications worked out in practice
    C'     as to the law, a Pharisee;                 - Working out my special-ness by being a Jewish Separatist
  B'   as to zeal, a persecutor of the church;        - Working out my Israelite heritage by removing the unclean from Israel
A'   as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”   - The blameless working out of being under the law

Something that is typically not discussed when Chiasmus is considered is macro structures. In this case, a paragraph. A chiasmus is often used to structure an ancient text.

How does English paragraph a text?

It uses space between the paragraph structures. We used to indent the first line. We who use modern languages aren't self-conscious of this. This is so true that any perusal of a Greek New Testament will immediately show paragraph breaks. But, that space was not in the originals. Interestingly, the Greek text comes pre-translated relative to paragraph structure. Yes, the spacing is translation, too. It means something!

But, there's a more basic question: Why paragraph at all?

Because the human mind chunks meaning. It's the 7 plus or minus 2 rule. Here's a quick definition I grabbed off the Internet:

A chunk is a meaningful unit of information built from smaller pieces of information, and chunking is the process of creating a new chunk. Thus, a chunk can be seen as a collection of elements that have strong associations with one another, but weak associations with elements belonging to other chunks. Chunks, which can be of different sizes, are used by memory systems and more generally by the cognitive system. (see Chunking mechanisms and learning)

One thing I find fascinating about chunking is it's naturally recursive. That is, chunks are made up of chunks that are made up of chunks...

This Wiki article explains the "7 plus or minus 2" research. This is the original paper.

The point is that the human mind can't hold every item it's reading in a cognitive holding space all the time. It has to chunk it. That is, it synthesizes the meaning as the words, phrases, clauses, et al, are decoded. This is why the recursion is necessary. The recursive nature removes any limit on the length of a text.

English formalizes that chunking by size of clauses, number of sentences in a paragraph, etc. And, as mentioned above, the formalization is done by adding space.

But, how does Greek paragraph a text? It doesn't use space.

One way of paragraphing a text in ancient Greek was the Chiasmus structure. I can't go into it here, but it's actually a recursive chunking technique, which is fascinating and, as a communication mechanism, a very powerful one!

When you read, do you self-consciously notice the spaces around the paragraphs? You didn't here, did you? At least, not until I mentioned it. It's automatic. The English mind is wired to simply process it. Unlike the "looking up of a word" or "retrieving something from memory".

I say that to ask, why would we think the ancient Greek mind formulated their texts as simply a stream of words? Or, to say it positively, the ancient Greek mind automatically thought in terms of chiasma. And this is not to say that chiasma was the only way of paragraphing (or sectioning). Inclusio is another technique. There are other ways, for the ancient Greek, generally more semantic than syntactic. My point here is to say that chiasmus came to the ancient Greek mind effortlessly; the same as we effortlessly process the space between paragraphs.

So, I think that Philippians 3:5-6 presents a rather obvious chiasmus. Philippians has a rich set of chiasma. So, it's no surprise that Paul uses yet another one there. Philippians 1:12 - 3:1 is a case in point--the whole first exhortative section of the letter. The dead-center of that chiasmus is the phrase θανάτου δὲ σταυροῦ ("a cross-kind of death") in Philippians 2:8. The illustration of Paul's trials (an imitation of Christ) prefix the imitating Christ song, which is then followed by two more illustrations (who imitate Christ) about Timothy and Epaphroditus.

Chaisma were quite natural.

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