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Deliberating Life and Death: Paul's Tragic Dubitatio in Philippians 1:22–26

  • Paul A. Holloway (a1)

Dubitatio is a complex figure of speech in which a speaker explicitly weighs her or his options in the course of making a difficult decision. Dubitatio was typically used to display a protagonist's character as revealed in her or his decision-making. In Philippians 1:22–26, Paul uses dubitatio to draw the readers into his deliberations whether to commit suicide in prison. In so doing, he not only reveals to them his own character but their character as well, in as much as it is their inordinate grief over his imprisonment that will ultimately determine Paul's decision. Dubitatio occurs already in Homer, but it was made famous in Greek tragedy, where it largely defined the genre. The tragic dubitatio was parodied in subsequent comedy and, by the Roman period, was beginning to appear in other genres, including political oratory, various poetic genres, history, and epistle. Paul's apt use of dubitatio in Phil 1:22–26 shows an obvious familiarity with the figure. By attending to Paul's use of dubitatio in Phil 1:22–26, we can arrive at a fresh and convincing interpretation of this challenging crux interpretum.

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1 Chrysostom, In Phil., hom. 4 (PG 62.202.53–55).

2 Since the outcome of his trial is not Paul's to choose, he must be contemplating a more immediate action, most likely suicide in prison, though a display of παρρησία or “boldness” in court (1:20) that would have almost certainly proved fatal cannot be ruled out (see Pliny's famous statement at Ep. 10.96.3: Neque enim dubitabam . . . pertinaciam certe et inflexibilem obstinationem debere puniri). The classic example of self-damning courtroom display was Xenophon's Socrates (Apol. 9; see also Epictetus Diss. 2.2.8–17; similarly, CPJ 2:156d.11–12, with discussion by Harker, Andrew, Loyalty and Dissidence in Roman Egypt: The Case of the Acta Alexandrinorum [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008]). Focant, Camille, Les lettres aux Philippiens et à Philémon (CbNT 11; Paris: Cerf, 2015) 77, suggests that rather than a display of “boldness,” Paul was simply contemplating not offering any defense. Suicide in certain circumstances was acceptable in Paul's day, even among Jews (2 Macc 14:37–46; Philo, Legat. 233–46; Josephus, B. J. 7.320–88 [but see 3.362–82]; b. Ketub. 103b). More generally, see Grisé, Y., Le suicide dans la Rome antique (Montreal: Bellarmin, 1982) esp. 34–52; Tadic-Gilloteaux, N., “Sénèque face au suicide,” L'antiquité classique 32 (1963) 541–51. For suicide in prison, see Krause, Jens-Uwe, Gefängnisse im römischen Reich (Heidelberger althistorische Beiträge und epigraphische Studien 23; Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 1996) 302–3.

3 See Wansink, Craig S.’s published Yale dissertation, Chained in Christ: The Experience and Rhetoric of Paul's Imprisonments (JSNTSup 130; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1990) 97102, for a candid account of the various ways interpreters of Phil 1:22 have sought to avoid the plain meaning of Paul's language.

4 Betz, Hans Dieter, Studies in Paul's Letter to the Philippians (WUNT 343; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2015) 28 [italics added]. Both Betz and the NRSV also interpret γνωρίζω differently than I do, as “I do not know” versus “I do not make known” (or more idiomatically, “I cannot say”). Both interpretations are possible, but I have chosen the latter since this is how Paul uses the term elsewhere (Rom 9:22, 23; 16:26; 1 Cor 12:3; 15:1; 2 Cor 8:1; Gal 1:11), including later in Philippians at 4:6.

5 Droge, Arthur, “Mori Lucrum: Paul and Ancient Theories of Suicide,” NovT 30 (1988) 262–86, esp. 279 [italics in original]. See also Chrysostom, In Phil., hom. 3 (PG 62.202.41–42): “Paul was the master (κύριος) of his departure, for when there is a choice (αἵρεσις), we are the masters (κύριοι).”

6 Clayton Croy, “‘To Die Is Gain’ (Philippians 1:19–26): Does Paul Contemplate Suicide?” JBL 122 (2003) 517–31. I would prefer to translate dubitatio “rhetorical doubt” rather than “feigned perplexity.” To be sure, at the time of delivery the speaker had already decided how to proceed. But this need not have been the case when the speech was being composed.

7 See Volkmann, Richard, Die Rhetorik der Griechen und Römer in systematischer Übersicht (2nd ed.; Leipzig: Teubner, 1885, repr. Hildesheim 1987) 496–98; Lausberg, Heinrich, Handbuch der literarischen Rhetorik (3rd ed.; Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 1990) §§776–78. For a more recent discussion, see also Winton, C. L., “Dubitatio Comparativa: A Misunderstood Idiom in Pliny (Natural History 7.150), Tacitus (Histories 4.6) and Others,” CQ 61 (2011) 267–77.

8 This particular form (“what first . . . ?”) goes back to Homer, Od. 9.14.

9 Fantham, Elaine, Cicero's Pro L. Murena Oratio (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013) 193.

10 Croy's decision to define dubitatio as “feigned perplexity” is not without problems. Does he mean by “feigned” that the speaker never had any doubt about how to proceed, say, at the time the speech was being composed? Or does he mean simply that there was no actual perplexity at the time of delivery? I take it that the latter is all that Quintilian means when he writes, “Dubitatio is when we pretend to be at a loss. . . .” But as we shall see, even this more modest interpretation of the figure fails to do justice to its use in epic and tragedy, where the dilemmas faced by the actors are painfully real and their struggles heartfelt.

11 Croy's error was not that he consulted these handbooks, but that he did not adequately take into account that many of the rhetorical figures described in these handbooks had their debut in already-established genres. Croy is not the only NT scholar to make this mistake. I am unaware of any ancient theoretical discussion of dubitatio as a figure in epic and tragedy, but see Macrobius, Sat. 4.6.11; Cicero, De orat. 3.214–217.

12 The following survey derives in part from Bonnet, Max, “Le dilemme de C. Gracchus,” REA 8 (1906) 4046, and Fowler, R. L., “The Rhetoric of Desperation,” HSCP 91 (1987) 538; see also Leo, Friedrich, Der Monolog im Drama: Eine Beitrag zur griechisch-römanischen Poetik (Göttingen: Weidmannische Buchhandlung, 1908). For Homer in particular, see Hentze, C., “Die Monologe in den homerischen Epen,” Phil 63 (1904) 1230. In addition to the Homeric monologues cited below, see Il. 18.5–14; Od. 5.299–312, 355–64, 407–23, and 465–73.

13 All quotations in this paragraph from the Iliad follow the A. T. Murray and William F. Wyatt translation with slight modification, as do the quotations in the following two block quotes (Homer, Iliad [trans. A. T. Murray; rev. William F. Wyatt; Loeb Classical Library 170–71; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1924]).

14 This anticipates Aristotle's theory of προαίρεσις (“choice”), which he defines as voluntary action “preceded by deliberation” (προβεβουλευμένον; EN 3.2–3 [1111b4–1113a15]).

15 To the modern reader this makes Hector a sympathetic character; I doubt that that is the way the first hearers of the epic viewed him.

16 Fowler, “Rhetoric,” 25, 32 n. 57.

17 On suicide, see especially Euripides, Her. 1154–62, where the distraught Heracles delays killing himself for the sake of his friend Theseus, a theme we will see again in Philippians. For deliberations on how to commit suicide, see Frankel, Eduard, “Selbstmordwege,” Phil 87 (1932) 470–73.

18 More often simply τί δράσω (e.g., Sophocles, Phil. 1348; Euripides, Phoen. 1515; Med. 1041); see LSJ s.v. δράω.

19 Other examples include Sophocles, Phil. 1348–72; Euripides, Phoen. 1595–1624; Hel. 255–305; Suppl. 1094–1103.

20 Cf. Gottfried Mader, “Fluctibus variis agor: An Aspect of Seneca's Clytemnestra Portrait,” Acta classica 31 (1988) 51–70.

21 Quintilian, Inst. 9.2.19.

22 This is part of the so-called captatio benevolentiae, which would explain its frequent use in proems.

23 For “What am I to do?” compare Sophocles, Ai. 430 and Isocrates, Pac. 38; for “Where am I to turn?” compare Euripides, Med. 465, and Cicero, Cluen. 1.4; Mur. 88. That these clichés continue to be used even when the dilemma faced is not what to do but what to say is remarkable and demonstrates just how established the dubitatio had become by this point.

24 Croy does not mention these nor are they mentioned in the handbook tradition.

25 As cited by Cicero, De orat. 3.214; see also the speech by the Lacedaemonian general Gylippus in Diodorus 13.28–33, especially 31.1; Sallust, Iug. 14.17–18.

26 Sc. 276–77 Vahlen = Cicero, De orat. 3.217; see also Apollonius, Arg. 3.771–801.

27 See also Ennius, Andr. frag. 27 Jocelyn.

28 A favorite conceit of Ovid's (Metam. 8.469–71; Trist. 1.2.26; Amor. 2.10.9–10; Her. 21.41–42), imitated by Seneca (Agam. 139–40; HF 685; Thy. 697), and Lucan (3.587; 5.602), cited by Tarrant, R. J., in Seneca, Agamemnon (ed. Tarrant, R. J.; Cambridge Classical Texts and Commentaries 18; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976) 201.

29 Cited by Quintilian at Inst. 8.5.18 as an example of one of the newer types of sententia. See also Ovid, Her. 10.59–66.

30 Quintilian, Inst. 9.2.19.

31 Ibid. 9.2.61.

32 That Phil 1:12–26 is consolatory can be seem most clearly from 2:19: “I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you shortly so that I too (κἀγώ) may be consoled when I know how things are with you (γνοὺς τὰ περὶ ὑμν),” the implication being that the earlier report on Paul's “situation” (τὰ κατ᾽ ἐμέ) in 1:12–26 had been for the consolation of the Philippians. Chrysostom paraphrases: “Just as I restored your spirits [in 1:12–26] . . . so I wish to hear news of you so that I too may be consoled” (In Phil. 9 [PG 62.215.47–52]). And he later clarifies: “The expression ‘so that I too may be consoled’ means ‘just as you were consoled’” (PG 62.216.22–23).

33 See also Alexander, Loveday, “Hellenistic Letter Forms and the Structure of Philippians,” JSNT 37 (1989) 95.

34 Here see especially 1:27 and 2:12.

35 The connection between 2:17–18 and 1:22–26 has not always been observed. Here see various astute remarks on 2:17–18 by de Wette, W. M. L., Kurze Erklärung der Briefe an die Colosser, an Philemon, an die Ephesier und Philipper (Leipzig: Weidmann, 1847); Barth, Karl, Erklärung des Philipperbriefes (Munich: Chr. Kaiser, 1928); Lohmeyer, Ernst, Die Brief an die Philipper (KEK 9.1; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1930, rev. 1953), all of whom interpret Phil 1:27-2:16 as a digression and recommend reading Phil 2:17–18 as picking up where 1:22–26 leaves off. Codex Sinaiticus begins a new paragraph with 2:17. Betz, Studies, 133–54, argues that Philippians itself is a kind of praemeditatio mortis. Though this is to my mind an inadequate description of the letter as a whole, there is surely an element of truth in the claim that Paul, who is as it were “on death row” (ibid., 141), writes to strengthen himself as well as others.

36 For a set of more detailed comments on 1:12–2:18 along the lines that follow, see Holloway, Paul A., Philippians: A Commentary (ed. Collins, Adela Yarbro; Hermeneia; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017).

37 “Joy” is a well-known leitmotif in Philippians (1:4, 18 [twice], 25; 2:2, 17 [twice], 18 [twice], 28, 29; 3:1; 4:1, 4 [twice], 10). For Paul, as for many of his contemporaries, it was the opposite of grief and as such a synonym for consolation: 2 Cor 6:10; 7:4, 13; 8:2; Phil 1:18, 25–26; 2:17–18, 27–28; 3:1; 4:4; 1 Thess 1:6; Phlm 7; Rom 12:15; see also Seneca, Ad Marc. 3.4; Ad Poly. 10.6; Ep. 99.3; Plutarch, De tran. an. 469d; Corp. Herm. 13.8; Ambrose, De exc. Sat. 1.3; Jerome, Ep. 60.7; John Chrysostom, Ep. ad Olymp. 9.3.60–67; 12.1.44, 136; 16.1.12 Malingrey. For a recent discussion, see von Gemünden, Petra, “Der ‘Affekt’ der Freude im Philipperbrief und seiner Umwelt,” in Der Philipperbrief des Paulus in der hellenistisch-römischen Welt (ed. Frey, Jörg and Schliesser, Benjamin; WUNT 353; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2015) 223–53.

38 Chrysostom, In Phil., hom. 3 (PG 62.201.36–37).

39 Jerome, In Phil. on 1:12–13 (PL 30.881A); see also Theodoret, In Phil. on 1:12–13 (PG 82.564A): “Since it was with great anxiety that they sent the blessed Epaphroditus, [Paul] comforts them.

40 Seneca, Ad Helv. 4.1–3.

41 “Er [Seneca] ist nicht nur ihr [Helvia's] consolator sondern ihr solacium.” Karlhans Abel, Bauformen in Senecas Dialogen: Fünf Strukturanalysen: dial. 6, 11, 12, 1 und 2 (Bibliothek der klassischen Altertumswissenschaften 18; Heidelberg: Winter, 1967) 54 [italics in original].

42 See especially 2:12: “Work hard (κατεργάζεσθε) to accomplish your salvation.” Contrast this with 1:19: “for I know that this will turn out for my salvation, . . . .”

43 See especially my “Paul as Hellenistic Philosopher: The Evidence of Philippians,” in Paul and the Philosophers (ed. Ward Blanton and Hent de Vries; New York: Fordham, 2014) 52–68.

44 Paul's self-presentation was not lost on Chrysostom: “The great and philosophic soul is vexed by none of the grievous things of this life! Not feuds, not accusations, not calumnies, not dangers, not intrigues. . . . And such was the soul of Paul” (In Phil., hom. 3 [PG 62.197.37–42]); idem, In Phil., praef. (PG 62.179.37–40): “In the beginning of his letter Paul offers the Philippians much consolation (πολλν παράκλησιν) regarding his imprisonment, showing [by his own example] not only that they should not be grieved, but that they should rejoice (χαίρειν).”

45 This is a bold departure—I know of no other instance of dubitatio in which the alternatives are described as competing goods—but it is fully in keeping with Paul's similarly novel consolatory strategy in the letter: not to focus on “the things that do not matter” (τὰ ἀδιάφορα), the traditional Stoic topos, but on “the things that do matter” (τὰ διαφέροντα), and as a result not to focus on overcoming “grief,” again the traditional approach, but recovering “joy” (16 times!). Here again is Chrysostom: “That blessed man had not only the emperor waging war against him, but many others attempting to grieve him in many ways, even with bitter slander. And what does he say? Not only ‘I am not hurt or overcome by these things,’ but ‘I rejoice and I will rejoice!’” (In Phil., hom. 3; [PG 62.197.47–198.32]).

46 Krause, Gefängnisse, 302.

47 Palmer, D. W., “‘To Die Is Gain’ (Philippians I 21),” NovT 17 (1975) 203–18.

48 Wansink, Chained in Christ, 106–12, draws a number of insightful parallels between QFr. 1.3 and Philippians.

49 Strecker, Georg and Schnelle, Udo, Texte zur Briefliteratur und zur Johannesapokalypse (vol. 2.1 of Neuer Wettstein: Texte zum Neuen Testament aus Griechentum und Hellenismus; Berlin: De Gruyter, 1996) 665–66.

50 Since Seneca's Epistulae morales are likely fictive letters (so Cancik-Lindemaier, Hildegard, Untersuchungen zu Senecas Epistulae Morales [Hildesheim: Olms, 1967] and others), the line of causality probably runs the other way: not that Seneca produced these moralisms to address a real situation, but that he fabricated a situation—his argument with Paulina—in order to produce these moralisms.

51 Quintilian would have described Paul's concluding thought in 1:25–26 as a sententia ex inopinato, a statement with a surprising twist (Inst. 8.5.15). For a parallel phenomenon, compare the so-called “sting” in the tail of Martial's epigrams.

52 That grief could cause one to neglect one's duties and obligations was a common theme in ancient consolation; e.g., Cicero, Ad Brut. 1.9.2; Seneca, Ep. 94.39; Ad Poly. 5–6; Ad Helv. 18.7–8. Commenting on Phil 3:1, Chrysostom writes: “Despondency and anxiety, when they strain the soul beyond measure, rob it of its innate strength” (In Phil., hom. 10 [PG 62.255.27–29]).

53 For exhortation in consolation, see especially Chapa, Juan, Letters of Condolence in Greek Papyri (Papyrologica Florentina 29; Florence: Gonnelli, 1998) 3843; see also Malherbe, Abraham J., “Exhortation in 1 Thessalonians,” NovT 25 (1983) 238–56. For exhortation to oneself in ancient consolation, see Zimmermann, Bernhard, “Philosophie als Psychotherapie: Die griechisch-römische Consolationsliteratur,” in Stoizismus in der europäischen Philosophie, Literatur, Kunst und Politik: Eine Kulturgeschichte von der Antike bis zur Moderne (ed. Neymeyr, Barbara, Schmidt, Jochen, and Zimmermann, Bernhard; 2 vols.; Berlin: De Gruyter, 2008) 1:193213, esp. 195–200. At Ep. 94.39, Seneca goes so far as to classify consolation as a “type” or genus of exhortation (cf. Ep. 23.1).

54 Seneca, Ep. 59.14.

55 Seneca, Ep. 23.2; see also 23.3: “This you must do before all else, my dear Lucilius: learn how to rejoice (disce gaudere)”; 23.4: “Believe me, true joy (verum gaudium) is a serious matter (res severa)!” Philo says that “joy is the noblest of the good emotions” (ἡ εὐπαθειν ἀρίστη χαρά; Abr. 156).

56 See also Philo, Praem. 32; Det. 135; Plant. 138.

57 According to Chrysostom, In Phil, praef. (PG 62.179.9–10), one of Paul's principal goals in writing to the Philippians was “to lift them out of their despondency (ἀθυμίας) over his imprisonment.”

58 Focant, Philippiens, 78.

59 The rebuke implicit here is picked up immediately in 1:27 where Paul uses martial language to urge the Philippians to “act in a manner worthy (ἀξίως) of the gospel” (see also Seneca, Ad Poly. 6.3, where Seneca chides the grieving Polybius for acting in a manner “unworthy” [indignum] of his station; similarly, 11.2: “worthy [dignam] of a great man”). Paul returns to his rebuke again in 2:2 where he reveals that it is the Philippians themselves who are keeping his “joy” from being “complete”; and again in 2:12 and 16, where he warns that unless the Philippians now “obey” in his absence as they have previously done in his presence their final “salvation” and Paul's “boasting” rights are in jeopardy.

60 At issue is the difference between modern and ancient notions of consolation. In most modern Western cultures, consolation is essentially sympathy, the sharing of another's grief. In ancient Greece and Rome, however, consolation was a form of exhortation (Seneca, Ep. 94.39; see also 23.1) aimed at defeating grief by rational means. Thus Aristippus (apud Aelianus, Var. hist. 7.3): “I have come not to share your grief but to end it!” Plutarch expresses the ancient notion well at De exil. 599b: “In difficult circumstances we have no need of those who weep and wail with us like the chorus in some tragedy, but of those who speak frankly and instruct us that grief and self-abasement are always useless.” See also Thucydides, 2.44 (Pericles); Plato, Menex., 247c–d; Epicurus, Sent. Vat. 66; Pseudo-Plutarch, Ad Apoll. 118a. A revealing study in this regard is Wilcox, Amanda, “Sympathetic Rivals: Consolation in Cicero's Letters,” AJP 126 (2005) 237–55.

61 Seneca, Ep. 99.2; see also 99.32; Cicero, Ad Brut. 1.9.1; Ad fam. 5.14.2; 5.16.6; Ad Att. 13.6.3; Cassius Dio, Hist. 38.18.

62 See also Chrysostom, Ep. ad Olymp. 17.4.32–43; Jerome, Ep. 39.3–4; Ambrose, Ep. 39.

*I would like to thank Dr. James Dunkly, former theological librarian at the University of the South, Dr. George Parsenios, professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary, and my anonymous first reader at Harvard Theological Review for advising me on this paper.

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