(Mis)Understanding Philippians—Did Paul Borrow a Roman Virtue List? (Phil 4:8)

(Mis)Understanding Philippians—Did Paul Borrow a Roman Virtue List? (Phil 4:8) July 30, 2020

Did Paul borrow a Roman virtue list in Philippians 4:8?

Prior to my research for a Philippians commentary, I had repeatedly heard that in 4:8 Paul drew from a “Roman virtue list”:

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Phil 4:8)

But when I actually looked at this in closer detail, this doesn’t appear to be the case for several reasons. First and foremost, while it is true Paul uses the word for “virtue” (aretē; “excellence”), he does not actual list very many virtues. If that were the case, we might expect some of the cardinal virtues  to appear like temperance, prudence, or courage. True, Paul refers to what is “just,” but the list here as a whole is less about doing right and more about reflecting on and pursuing what is good and beautiful, what we might call a Christian aesthetic.

We find nothing parallel to this in Greek or Roman philosophy. And if we did, it would come closer to ancient views of beauty than it would virtues or notions of moral probity. Notice that Paul wants such things pondered, this is about something that shapes the mind and leads to certain habits and dispositions. Virtues are, of course, good habits, but many popular and classical virtues just don’t appear on this list.

So, if this is not a Roman-style virtue list, nor a virtue list at all…what is it? I would say it is something like a “moral-aesthetic list,” though suggestive and evocative versus comprehensive. Paul’s purpose was to inspire, not inform per se.

It should be said again there is nothing especially “Roman” about Paul’s statement. One can find similar appeals to justice, truth, and honor in Jewish writings such as the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs. Put another way, Paul does not appear to be borrowing from any particular source or tradition, nor does it seem that he was trying to say something “Roman-like” for the sake of the Philippians.

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