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Good Thinking: Good Behavior – Imitating “Excellence”?

Intermingled with writing these comments is a lingering memory of President Obama’s State of the Union address, sprinkled with references to ideals, virtues, discipline, and sacrifice. Some in the audience were living examples of the ideas and ideals espoused in the speech. It not only reviewed the past, commented on the present, but its purpose was to vision-cast, to picture a future state for the American people. Obama’s imperative statements were intended to move his audience to grasp that vision of renewal and ideals – by action. No matter our political views, the rhetoric was a call to restoration of excellence.

The primary passage of this week’s lesson is Philippians 4:8. Philippians is primarily a letter written to a Roman city, and predominantly uses Greco-Roman thought and social conventions. Philippian’s comments remind of past events, addresses present circumstances, but also casts a visionary future. Two points of interest impact interpretation of the passage (4:8-9) in relation to this audience. First, are the Roman social conventions and virtues which shape textual interpretation. Second, is the intriguing practical application of 4:8 implied in 4:9.

The Virtue List

Paul’s virtue list in 4:8 is widely recognized as drawn from Greco-Roman sources, familiar to a Philippian audience resident in a Roman colonia. (1) The list draws directly on language descriptive of moral philosophy and Roman virtues debated and lived across the Greco-Roman world. Virtues were intended to be internalized, practiced – and what one was willing to die for.

Paul’s summation begins with, “whatever is alethe (true).” The word conceptualizes Greek philosophy as early as Plato and Aristotle, yet captures the essence of the Roman veritas – of being truthful and honest within oneself and also towards others in all aspects of life. Veritas was not just what one said – it was what one was. (2)

“Whatever is semnos” has a wider spectrum of meaning for a Philippian audience. If translated into Latin as augustus, in a Roman sense, it may have alluded to the historical foundation, of the colony by Octavian Augustus, and the core of Philippian communal perception.(3) As a virtue, semnos/augustus conceptualized a mix of “what is revered, holy, majestic, and ultimately – honorable,” since the pursuit and attainment of honor was the highest virtue in Roman experience.(4)

“Whatever is dikaios” reflects a wider meaning than “just” or “right,” for it captures the essence of a Roman virtue with a range of meaning from duties in accordance with law, observance of cultural and social custom, meeting one’s obligations, to being in right relationship with all persons, and in a Christian perspective – with God. It was certainly intentional that the audience perceived the Latin equivalent of another of Rome’s core cultural virtues – Iustitia. The audience would also not miss the interplay espoused by Cicero, that being righteous and pious were “virtually the same thing.”(5)

“Whatever is agnos” – translated as “pure”— constricts initial audience conceptualization, for its Roman meaning included being chaste, modest, associated with proper sexual virtue and being holy. It reflects the essence of another deified Roman virtue – Pudicitia. Its seriousness in Roman life becomes starkly apparent in Valerius Maximus’ books on Roman morals.

“Whatever is prosphile” or “lovely” again understates the broader Philippian perspective, for prosphile captures what is pleasing, amiable, lovable, or in a sense – that which builds friendships, and if interpreted by Diodorus Siculus’s use, could intend something “most dear to the gods”. (6) The term links Greek ethics and values and Roman virtue – the pursuit of what is the finest beauty, not only of the eye, but the heart.

“Whatever is euphemos” receives a range of English translation, from “good report” (NKJV), “good repute” (NASB) to “commendable” (NET). The challenge is that each captures something of the spirit of “well-speaking,” as literally translated. However, for a Philippian reader, the term embodied the importance of rhetoric, on the one hand, and on the other, whether one was well-spoken about, which reflected one’s character and status in society. If Paul intended the latter, then he reflected a concern about how Christ-followers might be spoken about in Philippi, their fama or reputation.

“If there is any arete” (excellence), may represent our perspective, yet in the Greco-Roman world and this passage, the intended meaning is quite clear. This should be translated “virtue.” Paul’s purpose has been to use a “virtue list” as a summation of his letter, to draw his readers to Christ in language that represented the highest moral and ethical values of Greek society, as argued by Socrates, Plato, and Stoics, and Roman society as espoused by Cicero and other Latin moral philosophers.

The restatement, as “if there is anything epainos,” (praiseworthy) captures some sense of the practice of public commendation inherent in Philippian life. Public or communal recognition increased the status of a person, association, or community – in this case, all these might be intended. The attainment of commendation built up relationships in the church, and in relation to non-Christ-followers in Philippi, relationships with those who may be attracted to Christ as the lives of Christ-followers made evident their holding to the highest moral and ethical standards of Roman society.

The Greek logizomai, translated “think” (NIV) or “meditate” (NKJV), in the phrase “think/meditate on these things” misses the richness of Roman life application. For while we may presume the intention is urging internalization of Greco-Roman virtues from this word, the Greek comes closer to a call to action as the outflow of virtue. Virtues were not just internalized – they were lived, and from Cicero’s perspective lead one to a heavenly home. (7) Thus “take these things into account,” comes closer to expression of the ongoing flow of  recording gifts, obligations, and duties performed, noting the acts and memories of others to oneself or one’s own “acta” or deeds in relation to others – which was the interactive living representation of one’s virtues in relations to others. This becomes clear in Phil 4:9.

Imitate me

The promotion of virtues in 4:8 is personalized in 4:9 as Paul positions himself as an example of what he called Philippian Christ-followers to live. Whatever Paul has been or said, he calls them to practice. It is a call to imitation, to “do” the values and pursuits of Paul’s life, and his letter. It is a call to “good behavior” or “being the good” as taught in Greco-Roman philosophy as much as “good thinking,” as he already admonished in 3:17. It is a call to follow their founder and mentor in Christian experience, including his tireless pressing on “toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” in 3:14.

Conclusion: Imitating Excellence?

So what do we take from this bit of Paul’s Philippian correspondence? Perhaps we too should place ourselves in Paul’s audience, to consider how we are called to live the highest moral virtues or ethics of our own societies. It is not only in what we might think or say as Christ-followers discussing this lesson – but also in what we practice in our homes, businesses, churches, on Facebook, in blogs, and communities, that will make being a Christ-follower attractive to others.


1 John Reumann, Philippians: A new translation with introduction and commentary, (New Haven, CT: Yale University, 2008), 639.

2 Carlin A. Barton, Roman Honor, The Fire in the Bones, (Berkeley, CA: University of California, 2001), 67-69.

3 Joseph H. Hellerman, Reconstructing Honor in Roman Philippi: Carmen Christi as cursus pudorum, SNTS 132 (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2005), 185, (fn 15-16).

4 Barton, Roman Honor, 34-38.

5 Philodemus, De pietate, On Piety, Dirk Obbink, (ed.), 2 Vols., (Oxford: Clarendon, 1996), Vol. 1, 78.2261-2265.

6 Reumann, Philippians: 618.

7 Cicero, like other Roman authors, upheld the  worship of virtues as divine characteristics, embedded within Roman culture and ethnic identity, as personal religious experience, with an invocation to worship not only “those who have always lived in heaven” but also “those qualities through which an ascent to heaven is granted to man: Intellect, Virtue, Piety, Faith.” See Cicero, Laws 2.19.9; and Emma Stafford, Worshipping Virtues: Personification and the Divine in Ancient Greece (London: Duckworth, 2000), 20-21.

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