I want to call attention to Mark Nanos’ important essay, “Paul’s Reversal of Jews Calling Gentiles ‘Dogs’ (Philippians 3:2): 1600 Years of an Ideological Tale Wagging an Exegetical Dog?”, just put up on his website. Nanos opposes the common idea that Paul is reversing a supposed Judean invective against Gentiles in Philip 3:2 by calling his opponents “dogs”. Furthermore, Nanos doesn’t think Paul’s opponents are Judean in any case. They represent, rather, “some kind of pagan entity or threat” (p 8).
The first part of the argument is so strong it can be deemed conclusive. Nanos points out that the only place we can find a Judean equating Gentiles with dogs is in Mk 7:24-30/Mt 15:21-28 — the case of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman (or Canaanite woman in Matthew) — and the gospels postdate Paul. But even if historical, this is a single text on which many commentators have rested an incredibly strong assumption, that Judeans often equated pagans with dogs. Going through the Hebrew Bible, Nanos shows that there are in fact no texts — none at all — which denounce Gentiles as dogs for being Gentile. “Dog” was a general insult used to put down rivals, sinners, and fools — and in most cases against other Israelites (see p 12). In the few cases where an Israelite calls a pagan a dog (I Sam 17:43; II Kings 8:7-13), it’s not for being a pagan, but for being typically hostile, foolish, servile, or whatever (pp 12-13). There is no literary evidence predating Paul that points to the apostle using a “reversal of invective” in Philip 3:2. Even the later rabbinical texts have been overblown regarding “dog” insults (see pp 14-18).
The second part isn’t quite as convincing. Nanos argues that in warning the Philippians to “beware dogs” Paul was expressing opposition to “pagan alternatives” rather than Judean circumcision. I think we need to look at Philip 3:2-11 comprehensively:
“Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh. For it is we who are the circumcision, who worship in the spirit of God and boast in Christ Jesus and have no confidence in the flesh — even though I too have reason for confidence in the flesh.
“If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, a Hebrew born of Hebrews… [etc]
“Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as a loss because of Christ. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as shit, in order that I may gain Christ… [etc]”
This is Nanos’ commentary on the first part:
“Note that Paul does not write what commentators universally read, that is, he does not write that ‘we are the true circumcision’, ‘the circumcision of the heart’, ‘the spiritual circumcision’, or some such thing [as he does in Rom 2:28-29]. By writing ‘we are the circumcision’, he emphasizes the contrast between circumcision identity and identity associated with other kinds of the flesh… The contrast is with the uncircumcised, the pagan world of the addressees, about which Paul is expressing a specifically Jewish — i.e. circumcision-oriented — point of view. Rather than warning his audience to beware of Jews or the values of Judaism, the opposite is the case: Paul is warning his audience to eschew the pagan options to which they might be expected to be drawn, or from which they are encountering opposition.” (pp 29-30)
Nanos is right that Paul doesn’t explicitly qualify “circumcision” with the word “true” or “spiritual” in Philip 3:2. Many bible translations do supply the qualifier “true” and they are wrong to do so. But the qualifier is implied just the same. Paul’s point is much like in Rom 2:28-29 (where the qualifier is made explicit). Otherwise the rest of Philip 3:2-11 makes no sense. If Nanos were right, Paul would essentially be saying as follows:
“(A) Beware of those pagan mutilators. For it is we circumcised Judeans who are righteous (B) and have no confidence in the flesh, even though I have every reason to be to confident in the flesh. I was circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the house of Israel. But I have come to regard this as shit for the sake of Christ.”
But that’s a non-sequitur. (B) doesn’t follow from (A). Paul can only be saying:
“Beware of the Judean mutilators (circumcisers). For it is we spiritually circumcised Judeans and Gentiles who are righteous and have no confidence in the flesh, even though I have every reason to be confident in the flesh. I was circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the house of Israel. But I have come to regard this as shit for the sake of Christ.”
That makes perfect sense and squares with Paul’s explicit remarks about “spiritual circumcision” elsewhere.
So I think Nanos if half right. Judeans were not in the habit of equating Gentiles with dogs, and so Paul could not have been reversing a standard invective in Philip 3. But he was insulting Judeans just the same. He was using a common insult (“dogs”) that wasn’t usually associated with any particular group of people, and doing so quite offensively in a polemical passage against Judean advocates for circumcision.
By the same token, I think Nanos is half right about the “shameless hussy” text of Mk 7:24-30/Mt 15:21-28. It’s not just the only possible place where a Judean (Galilean) equates Gentiles with dogs — it’s a definite place where it happens. Nanos suggests that Jesus’ insult could be an interpolitical one which doesn’t target Gentiles per se (pp 19-24), but I don’t see it. I think Jesus is clearly scorning the woman as a Gentile dog, to which the woman embraces the insult and bests Jesus at his own game. If the account is historical, it shows that Jesus was offensive on his own right. Neither he nor Paul needed precedent for their insults.
Be sure to read the paper. Nanos is one of the best Pauline scholars for thinking outside the box in important ways.