Mutual Boasting in Philippians: The Ethical Function of Shared Honor in Its Biblical and Greco-Roman Context

Written by Isaac D. Blois Reviewed By Trevor A. Clark

Mutual Boasting in Philippians, by Isaac D. Blois of the Torrey Honors College, is a welcome addition to studies on Pauline boasting, Philippians, and Paul’s self-understanding.

In the introduction, Blois blends three strands of scholarship: studies on Pauline boasting, his use of Scripture, and κοινωνία in Philippians. He does not define boasting; rather, “the present study will employ terms from the language of honor—for example, glory, majesty, praise, boasting—not as technical terms but as various designations referring to the broad semantic field of positive value judgment” (p. 5). This breadth is one factor allowing him to trace the intertextuality of Paul’s boasting language in the mode of Richard Hays and N. T. Wright, and it also enables him to study boasting in connection with the theme of κοινωνία in Philippians, yielding the concept of “mutual boasting.”

In part 1, Blois shows that the concept of mutual boasting (or shared glory) encapsulates the blessings of the covenant as expressed in Deuteronomy (ch. 2, pp. 41–56), and that the concept is developed in Isaiah to include the figure of the servant, who restores the shared glory of YHWH and Israel and participates in that glory as well (ch. 3, pp. 57–74). Both Old Testament texts employ the language of boasting (Deut 26:16–19 LXX; Isa 60:19 Aquila). Significantly, Paul alludes to these texts in Philippians.

In part 2, Blois highlights mutual glory in Greco-Roman conceptions of relations between family members, friends, and between teachers and pupils (ch. 3, pp. 79–91). This context suggests itself to Philippians, given the theme of κοινωνία in the letter. Greco-Roman letter writers such as Cicero, Seneca, and Fronto appealed to shared honor when persuading recipients of certain course of action (ch. 5, pp. 93–108). Something akin to mutual boasting served as a “motivational spur” within parenetic letters.

In part 3, Blois studies the Philippians’ boast in Paul in Philippians 1:25–26 (ch. 6, pp. 113–28), his boast in them at 2:14–16 (ch. 7, pp. 129–50), and the interplay between the two (ch. 8, 151–62). Paul envisions believers as a new covenant version of the Deuteronomic community, with himself as the Isaianic servant who both restores and participates in the shared glory between God and God’s people. This “triple mutuality of honor” (p. 153) recasts the believers’ understanding of what it honorable and motivates them to remain steadfast when persecuted. Thus, mutual boasting is a “motivational spur” in Philippians.

This monograph advances the conversation on Pauline boasting in at least three ways. First, Blois gives the most extensive review of studies on boasting to date, including the lesser-utilized studies of Ragner Asting (“Kauchesis: Et bidrag til forståelsen av den religiøse selvfølelse hos Paulus,” NoTT 26 [1925]: 129–204) and J. Sánchez Bosh (“Gloriarse Según San Pablo: Sentido y Teología de Καυχάομαι [Barcelona: Biblical Institute Press, 1970]). Second, by considering boasting in Philippians, he diversifies a conversation that typically centers on the Corinthian correspondence. Finally, he takes the well-known synthesis of Jewish and Greco-Roman elements of Paul’s boasting in new directions. This last point is worth exploring at length.

Duane Watson has said,

Paul’s understanding of boasting is a unique mix of boasting as understood within Judaism and within the dominant Greco-Roman culture. Paul uses boasting in the situations prescribed as appropriate by the Greco-Roman culture, and he uses boasting according to its conventions for those situations. However, his understanding of the content of boasting itself is borrowed from his Jewish heritage and his newfound faith in Christ. (Duane F. Watson, “Paul and Boasting,” in Paul in the Greco-Roman World: A Handbook, ed. J. Paul Sampley, 2nd ed. [New York: Bloomsbury T & T Clark, 2016], 1:108)

At first glance, Mutual Boasting in Philippians seems like a larger version of Watson’s synthesis, but Blois argues not that Paul’s boasting language came from his Greco-Roman context, but that it was “culturally intelligible” within it. Because he considers the hortatory function of mutual boasting, he does more than ask whether it was culturally acceptable.

Blois’s monograph contributes to studies on Philippians by shifting interpretation from the Roman character of the colony to the Jewish character of Paul’s theology. This somewhat polemical shift depends in part on the validity of intertextual interpretation, so scholars critical of this methodology may not be convinced (p. 1).

Finally, other works have discussed connections between Paul and the Isaianic servant and between the church and the new covenant; what Blois does especially well is to discuss the two in tandem, and to provide a solid exegetical framework for doing so.

There are four areas that might have been improved. First, the division between Paul’s Jewish and Greco-Roman contexts is sometimes too neat. For example, Blois notes connections between shared glory and kinship in both covenantal and Greco-Roman familial contexts. The implication is that Paul’s what made sense to Paul would have proven intelligible to his audience, even if they lacked his theological framework. But is this all that can be said?

Second, Blois references the Aristotelian rhetorical triad toward the end of the book: “Hence, whereas the reference to the Philippians’ boast in 1:26 establishes ethos, the reference to Paul’s boast in 2:16 garners pathos” (p. 157). While interesting, this is a departure from the author’s typical analysis and could have been developed at length independently or integrated into the rest of the volume—and does Paul’s boasting language not also build the logos of his argument?

Third, Blois intentionally does not focus on the relationship between boasting and judgment (p. 17), nor, fourth, on that between boasting in Philippians 1–2 and chapter 3. Although dissertations necessitate limitations, our understanding of boasting in Philippians remains partial if we do not consider the aforementioned relationships. Blois himself cannot completely avoid the issue of judgment (see pp. 1, 5, 7, 16–17, 44, 59, 70–71, 119, 122, 131–39, 153), and he turns to Philippians 3 briefly (pp. 153–54). The author’s forthcoming volume on emotions in Philippians will likely provide a fuller treatment of some of these issues.

Mutual Boasting in Philippians has an elegant structure and makes a strong case. The criticisms raised are minor compared to the helpful and compelling contributions it makes to studies of Pauline boasting, Philippians, and Paul’s apostolic self-understanding. Blois’s scholarship throughout is meticulous, charitable, and worthy of emulation.

One last note: this book reminds readers that ministry unites minister and congregation such that the eschatological destiny of one is intertwined with that of the other. Pastors, missionaries, and others may be encouraged, roused, and alarmed to discover that they share in “Paul’s dangerous mutual boasting” (pp. 160–61).

Trevor A. Clark

Trevor Anthony Clark
Gateway Seminary
Ontario, California, USA

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