Philippian Math (12.9.17)
You might not think it, but sometimes math can be a helpful Bible study tool! I used some basic arithmetic to verify something I suspected as I read Philippians recently, finding that the numbers did indeed confirm a significant difference in the ways Paul used his words in this letter. Since I think the results have implications for our reading of this and other epistles, I thought I’d share the process I followed and the results I came to, and then I’ll leave you with some questions to ponder.
In all of Paul’s epistles you will find elements of theological instruction, imperatives (or marching orders), as well as some personal notes. If I asked you which of these verbal styles were most prevalent in his writing, you’d probably guess instruction, followed by imperatives, with personal notes a distant third. Not so in Philippians.
As I began reading this letter a couple of weeks ago, I decided to interact with the text in a brand new way. Sometimes a familiar book or passage demands a novel approach, if we’re going to make sure we’re paying attention to it and not just skimming because we think we already know what it says. So this time, I gathered two pens and a pencil and set about copying out the whole epistle, bit by bit, color coding the different kinds of writing that I encountered.
My black pen recorded the theological indicatives. But I realized quickly that the old categories of “indicative” and “imperative” weren’t especially helpful after all, because only some of the indicatives in this letter are generalizable instruction about God and his ways; other writing that is technically in indicative form gives information about people and events personal to Paul and his contemporaries (e.g., “Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will.”). I wanted to distinguish the personal information from the general, so for this category I only counted theological instruction that would be as relevant to believers today as it was in the first century.*
I also discovered that some of Paul’s theological writing did not fit easily into any of my original categories. How are we to label his written prayers for his original readers? They are not marching orders; they are certainly personal, but they also point to unchanging truths about God and what he loves and is capable of doing for his people. I decided to count Paul’s prayers among the theological indicatives, noting that they indicate things that any Christians at any time may reasonably ask of God to do for them or for others.
My green pen copied out the marching orders. Here again I had need to distinguish between very personalized commands (“I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord”) and those that could be generalized to all believers (“Rejoice in the Lord always”). This required some judgment on my part, and others might have categorized some of the verses differently.
Finally, I scribed with pencil the personal notes that Paul conveyed to his friends in Philippi. Some of these messages, like the entreaty mentioned above, named specific people that Paul and the Philippians knew in common, while others rehearsed Paul’s own personal history and recent experiences as an imprisoned missionary. Often Paul’s words explored the emotions associated with his relationship with these believers (“It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart”) or with the Lord (“My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better”).
Having set myself this task, I was delighted by the challenge of sorting and identifying various kinds of writing, even within a single sentence. For example, here’s how Philippians 3:15 came out in my notebook:
I judged that the first line, an “invitational” (first-person) imperative, could apply to Paul’s later readers as well as to his contemporary ones. The second phrase seemed to be personally addressing his specific audience, and the third told me something that God was capable of doing (and indeed was pleased to do) for believers. Again, someone else may have made different judgment calls about these words and the kind of writing they represent. At any rate, by pursuing this tri-color analysis, my attention was certainly caught and held by this familiar little letter in a way it had never been before.
So where does the math come into the picture?
As I mentioned above, our assumption about the New Testament epistles is that they are there to teach us what we need to know about our Trinitarian God and about being the church. So, given this overarching purpose, we’d expect that theological indicatives and general imperatives would have precedence in Paul’s writing, because these two styles address our needs as later readers. But as I transferred this brief letter into my notebook, I found that I was using my pencil more than either of my pens. Was it possible, I wondered, that in Philippians Paul’s personal notes to a specific church took priority over instructing and directing the church in general?
To verify my suspicion that this was so, I used the online resource Bible Gateway to copy and paste the words of Philippians (in the ESV translation) into a Word document, arranged according to the same categories that I had designated by my three handwritten colors. I eliminated the verse and chapter numbers (because Word registered these as individual words), took a word count of each section, and did a little math. Here’s what I found:
Theological Indicatives: 673/2165 = 31% of total words
Marching Orders: 327/2165 = 15% of total words
Personal Notes: 1165/2165 = 54% of total words
Even granted differences between translations or in the judgment of readers regarding the three categories, you can clearly see that there is a significant jump between the number of words Paul devotes to Christian instruction and the number of personalized words he offers to his friends.
Why does the math matter here? An awareness of what Paul purposed to do with his words in this epistle should lead us to ask some follow-up questions, if not consider some implications for ourselves as readers. For example, how does the distribution in Philippians compare with other epistles? Is our general assumption about epistles—that they are primarily intended to instruct and direct Christians at all times and in all places—gathered from those other letters, while Philippians is the anomaly?
Also, how shall we process all of the personal messages in Philippians (and in the other NT epistles)? Here personal notes make up 54% of what we read whenever we study this letter. Is there any take-away for me from that 54%, or am I just expected to look on these sentences as artifacts of a distant place and time? Can I learn from these words indirectly something that I should know or do for my Christian walk, or is there no purpose to these personal notes other than Paul’s original connection with his friends, leaving me to take away only what I can get from the other 46% of the letter?
I won’t attempt to answer these questions definitively here, but I leave them for your consideration. It’s possible that we may need to adjust our assumptions about what the words are doing in a NT letter. If the personal notes are just meant to tell us about history, then we should not put too much weight on them for guidance in our individual lives as Christians. That’s not what they were primarily intended to do.
Yet here are these very personal messages, preserved for us to read and for our benefit. At the very least, they reflect a reality of relationship that we too have come to know in the family of God. Paul’s affection for his Philippian friends is an expression of the tenderness of Christian friendship that we have experienced as well, and his desire to let them know all about his internal and external struggles is echoed many centuries later by our own sharing of our very lives with our brothers and sisters.
So at the very least, that 54% of the letter to the Philippians humanizes the great Apostle for us, and affirms our own humanity.
* It’s certainly a possibility that people in other times and places might likewise “preach Christ from envy and rivalry” or “from good will.” However, there is no question that when Paul wrote the words he was referring to people right there and then. I therefore categorized this statement as a “personal note,” rather than a general indicative, because of Paul’s specific reference to historically contemporary individuals.
All biblical quotations taken from the ESV. Verses quoted in this post come (respectively) from Philippians 3:15, 4:2, 4:4, 1:7, 1:23, and 3:15.
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