Philippians in Greek, Part 1: Epistolary Greeting, 1:1-2.

In June I finished first-year Greek.  Though a fellow student and I read half of Pseudo-Lucian’s The Ass last summer, it has now been almost three months since I really looked at a Greek text.  And despite my original desire to read Greek for the New Testament, it has been never since I looked at a biblical text.


So for the next 3-4 weeks, I will work my way through Philippians with my friend Brian, using Jerry Sumney’s useful reader and Reumann’s Anchor commentary.  Philippians is ideally short.  And not knowing it very well, I won’t be able to fake my way through remembering what it says.

Part of the terror – and thrill – of blogging as I read is that I don’t know what will come next.  But I have faith in the fact that every section, even the most prosaic, contains nuggets of linguistic insight.

With that confidence in mind, let us move to the first part, Paul’s greeting to the Philippians.

1  Παῦλος καὶ Τιμόθεος, δοῦλοι Ἰησοῦ χριστοῦ, πᾶσιν τοῖς ἁγίοις ἐν χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ τοῖς οὖσιν ἐν Φιλίπποις, σὺν ἐπισκόποις καὶ διακόνοις·

2 χάρις ὑμῖν καὶ εἰρήνη ἀπὸ θεοῦ πατρὸς ἡμῶν καὶ κυρίου Ἰησοῦ χριστοῦ.

My translation:

1 Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all the holy ones in Christ Jesus in Philippi with overseers and assistants,

2 grace to you and peace from God our father and the lord Jesus Christ.

Even in this innocuous greeting, I found some linguistic nuggets.

First, “ἐπισκόποις καὶ διακόνοις.”  The KJV translates these as “bishops and deacons.”  At first glance it is an easy choice.  But ἐπισκόπη in Greek was used to refer to any officials in government or officers in an organization.  The word goes all the way back to Homer and Sophocles.  And διακόνος, though it is cognate with the English word “deacon,” could refer to any intermediary, assistant, or agent in a transaction.  Cynic philosophers used it to refer to themselves.  Josephus used it to refer to Rachel in her role as an intermediary introducing Jacob to Laban.

As tempting as it is to translate “ἐπισκόποις καὶ διακόνοις” as “bishops and deacons,” it is inaccurate.  It might lead a reader to think that the Philippians in the 50s A.D. had bishops and deacons just as we do now.  They did not.  The NRSV rightly translates this “overseers and helpers.”

Also, thanks to Brian for pointing out that this word is related to the verb σκοπέω: to look at, examine, oversee.  So an ἐπισκόπη was someone who literally watches (σκοπέω) on or at (ἐπί) someone or something.

Second, the term δοῦλος.  When I was learning Greek, I thought δοῦλος could refer to a servant or a slave.  But it very clearly only refers to a slave.  We know from the letter to Philemon that the earliest Christians included both slaves and slaveowners.  Reumann notes that there was no real questioning or criticism of slavery in the ancient world.  He also notes:

In a tiered hierarchy among slaves, “middle-level” douloi with managerial skills (as in Matthew’s parables) could control property and achieve upward social mobility and status by association with the upper class in a patron-client system. (56)

So a δοῦλος, while a slave, was a higher-class slave, perhaps like the house slaves in American history.  Speaking of America, BDAG notes that early American Bible translations tend to render δοῦλος as “servant,” despite all good philological sense.  Interesting.

Probably not one of the saints of Philippi.  Source:

Probably not one of the saints of Philippi. Source:

Third, the ἁγίοις that Paul writes to, usually translates “saints.”  I am wary of this translation because it runs the risk of (like “bishops and deacons” above) making the reader project onto the past, as if first century Philippians (or any Christians) had a canonization process.

In the Septuagint, ἁγίος is the translation of קדוש, literally someone who is holy or set apart by God.  So perhaps we should translate ἁγίοις as “holy ones.”  But that is so vague in English, I am not sure what it refers to.

How fascinating that even the most (seemingly) simple words can have unexplored nuances and meanings in the original tongue.  I hope you can join me as I continue with the next few verses.

5 thoughts on “Philippians in Greek, Part 1: Epistolary Greeting, 1:1-2.

  1. Brian

    Jonathan, would you consider writing transliterations for those who can’t read Greek? I know that you and I can read Greek letters just fine, but the truth is that most people will not be able to read any Greek. I suspect that transliterations would ultimately be pretty useful for your audience. Most books for a general audience on ancient Greece do not use Greek letters for Greek words, but rather transliterations; I think you might want to use a similar convention. You could place the transliteration next to the original, if you want. Most Greek letter transliterate easily into English, except the eta, which is probably just an “e” with a macron over it. Also, I cannot read Hebrew, so a transliteration would definitely help there.

    Question about the word doulos and the “slaves of Jesus Christ” translation: I thought the word slave here did not mean a literal slave, but a slave as in one who serves Christ. Am I incorrect in thinking this?

    1. Post author

      That’s a good idea Brian. It would open my blog up to a broader audience, maybe people who just want to read through the text and play with Greek/Hebrew rather than learning it in-depth. As a student, I won’t pretend to write from the same perspective (or the same audience) as some of the blogs on the right column of this page. Ideally I’d like other students to find this blog useful.

      Hebrew transliteration is messy, because unlike in Greek there are letters that have the same sound. The word above meaning “holy one” is pronounced “qadosh.”

      You’re correct. But the word is being used metaphorically. Its basic meaning is slave – a stronger meaning than just “servant,” which in English makes me think of Jeeves rather than someone in bondage.

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