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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.

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  • “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”. Apr 14 at 1:24

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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.

References
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/

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