Beware of the dogs (part 1)

Some have said that there are two kinds of people in the world: dog people and cat people. But that, of course, is much too simple. I like both — but am allergic to cats. And my wife is most definitely in a third category: she is neither a dog person nor a cat person, thank you very much. She grew up in a country where animals were not kept as pets, and dogs were wild and traveled in packs.

The dogs she experienced didn’t roll over for belly rubs.

In many cultures, dogs are not the pampered and beloved creatures they are here. To call someone a dog is to call them mangy and disgusting. And in biblical times, it was an epithet Jews used for Gentiles (though not always to their faces).

It should surprise us, then, that the apostle Paul — who was raised as an exemplary Jew and trained as a Pharisee — should use the word to insult some Jewish Christians.

Paul has repeatedly struck the note of joy in his letter to the Philippians. He does it again at the end of chapter 2, referring to the Philippians’ joy at the return of Epaphroditus. And he quickly speaks of joy again at the beginning of chapter 3, though in a way that’s a little puzzling:

Finally, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is not troublesome to me, and for you it is a source of steadfastness. 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—even though I, too, have reason for confidence in the flesh. (Phil 3:1-4a, NRSVUE)

The word “finally” makes it sound like he’s about to bring the letter to a close — but we’re only halfway through. And didn’t he just tell them to rejoice just a few verses ago (2:17-18)? Didn’t he say that they would rejoice to have Epaphroditus back (2:28)? Why, then, does he start chapter 3 with “Finally…rejoice in the Lord”?

Some scholars, puzzled by the word “finally” here, followed by what seems like a sudden introduction of an entirely new subject, have suggested that what we have here is a conglomeration of texts, a bit of first-century cut-and-paste. But others insist that this is too complicated and unnecessary. The word “finally” doesn’t have to be translated that way. In the New International Version, for example, it’s rendered “Further…”; in the Common English Bible, it’s “So then…” These translators don’t see Paul as ending the letter, but moving on to the rest of what he wants to tell them.

But what about the repetition of the theme of rejoicing? How is this something new? In some ways, of course, it’s not; joy has already been an important theme in the letter. Moreover, when he says “To write the same things is not troublesome to me,” it suggests that he knows he’s repeating himself. If it sounds like he’s harping on the same things over and over, it’s for their benefit, as “a source of steadfastness.”

“A source of steadfastness”? Frankly, that’s a little stodgy for me. A more literal translation might be, “it’s safe,” in the sense of not stumbling over something and falling down. Paul, in other words, purposes to play it safe by repeating himself as often as needed, so that Philippians won’t get tripped up.

Tripped up by what, or by whom? And how does rejoicing help?

The answer to the first question, apparently, is the “dogs” and their teaching. The answer to the second question is not merely “rejoicing” per se, but rejoicing in the Lord — because that is the opposite of what the dogs would teach the Philippians to do, whether they know it or not.

We’ll explore these ideas further in part 2 of this post.

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