Eve-Marie Becker (University of Muenster) has published an excellent book on the concept of humility in Paul and early Christianity (German edition published in 2015; ET 2020). This is a wide-ranging study that looks at the ancient meaning of tapeinophrosynē (“humility”), Paul’s usage in Philippians and other letters, other uses in the New Testament, and also in the Apostolic Fathers and Patristic writers. Marie-Becker is also interested in what the ethical concept of humility contributes to modern European societies today (see pg. 14).
Here a few parts of the book that I found especially interesting:
Outside of Paul’s use of tapeinophrosynē, this term only appears in Epictetus and Josephus in the first and early second centuries CE. Paul seems to have invested theological and rhetorically in tapeinophrosynē especially in Philippians, giving rise to a kind of “humility” movement in early Christianity.
Inspired by the Septuagint and Jewish tradition, Paul may have coined tapeinophrosynē himself in Philippians: “He bulds on Israel’s religious conception of lowliness and advances—in contact with the so-called pagan outside world—the program of a productive and consistent ‘reversal of all values'” (58).
What is humility according to Paul? Becker repeatedly emphasizes that (1) it is communally-oriented and (2) it imitates the example of Christ. But I found a succinct statement on humility on page 111: “humility realizes itself concretely as individual…renunciation of one’s own status possibilities in the service of the community…The guiding framework is the ecclesia.”
Becker notes that Christians after the first century appear to have used the term “humble” or “lowly” as a title, as in the 3rd century graffito from Dura Europos: “Sisaeus, the humble” (Siseon ton tapinon) (see pg. 2). This underscores the theological importance of humility in Christianity and also the impact of Paul’s formation of how believers think about life together in the community.
Becker has packed lots of information and insight into a relatively short book (150pp.). If you want to do a deep dive into the concept of humility in Paul and early Christianity, this is a must-read book.