My friend Steve Boint called it “the dumb semite theory”: the view of some people that the ancient Hebrews were so simple minded that their holy text is a line-by-line collection of various sources, almost randomly edited together. Many scholars, such as Robert Alert and E. Theodore Mullen have written on how ancient Hebrew and Canaanite writing works.
Without repeating all of that, it is worth describing doublets in Hebrew literature, escalating parallelism in Hebrew poetry, and how St. Paul combines both in two lines of the Letter to the Philippians.
Ancient Hebrew Literature
One of the bad consequences of the “dumb semite theory” is one of the greatest works of ancient literature, the Book of Samuel, is read only by academics who believe that complexity is a result of random editing.
For instance, the phrase “Is Saul, too, among the prophets” occurs twice in the Book of Samuel. There are actual scholars who believe this is because the ancient Hebrews were so illiterate they actually included the same incident twice, and later on had to change the details to cover their tracks.
The first time, Samuel says that Saul will be seized by a spirit, “prophecy” (act like a mad man), and this is a proof of his kingship:
“After that you shall come to the hill of God where the Philistine garrison is. And it will happen, when you have come there to the city, that you will meet a group of prophets coming down from the high place with a stringed instrument, a tambourine, a flute, and a harp before them; and they will be prophesying. Then the Spirit of the Lord will come upon you, and you will prophesy with them and be turned into another man. And let it be, when these signs come to you, that you do as the occasion demands; for God is with you.
1 Samuel 10:5-7
Sure enough, the spirit seizes Paul, he acts like a mad man, and he is the true king of Israel
When they came there to the hill, there was a group of prophets to meet him; then the Spirit of God came upon him, and he prophesied among them. And it happened, when all who knew him formerly saw that he indeed prophesied among the prophets, that the people said to one another, “What is this that has come upon the son of Kish? Is Saul also among the prophets?” Then a man from there answered and said, “But who is their father?” Therefore it became a proverb: “Is Saul also among the prophets?” And when he had finished prophesying, he went to the high place.
1 Samuel 10:10-13
But later, we learn the truth. This is brought home as David’s war against Saul begins and Saul seeks a meeting with Samuel to perhaps end it
But he can’t keep his composure. He acts like a mad-man, tearing off his clothes, embarrassing himself and showing Samuel — the man who anointed him — the horror of that anointing. The same phrase — Is Saul, too, among the prophets — is used again. The reader remembers happier times and the heart breaks
Then he also went to Ramah, and came to the great well that is at Sechu. So he asked, and said, “Where are Samuel and David?”
And someone said, “Indeed they are at Naioth in Ramah.” So he went there to Naioth in Ramah. Then the Spirit of God was upon him also, and he went on and prophesied until he came to Naioth in Ramah. And he also stripped off his clothes and prophesied before Samuel in like manner, and lay down naked all that day and all that night. Therefore they say, “Is Saul also among the prophets?”
1 Samuel 19:22-24
Samuel misread the signs. Saul was crazy from the beginning. Samuel anointed a Mad King.
Ancient Hebrew Poetry
The poetry of the Hebrew Bible is based on parallelism, where the first incident of a concept is in some way magnified by what comes after
The form is used three times in perhaps the oldest poem in the entire bible, in inexplicable Song of Lamech – a story of killings further removed from Paul than Paul is from us
Lamech said to his wives,
“Adah and Zillah, listen to me;
wives of Lamech, hear my words.
I have killed a man for wounding me,
a young man for injuring me.
If Cain is avenged seven times,
then Lamech seventy-seven times.”
The is used in the Writings, such as Psalms
Yet you brought me out of the womb;
you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast.
From birth I was cast on you;
from my mother’s womb you have been my God.
Verse 9 uses two concepts of a mother’s body, womb and breasts, and escalates, from the physical location of the infant before birth (the womb) to the plcae the child is loved, all of its life (the breast, or heart).
Verse 10 does the reverse, taking an abstract concept “from birth” and emphasizing its concrete reality (“from my mother’s breast”).
… and Job, with a parallel between lips and tongue, going further inward to emphasize the inwardness of the sufferer
my lips will not say anything wicked,
and my tongue will not utter lies.
It is used in the Latter Prophets
Kings will be your foster fathers,
and their queens your nursing mothers.
They will bow down before you with their faces to the ground;
they will lick the dust at your feet.
Then you will know that I am the Lord;
those who hope in me will not be disappointed.”
They “bow” — but then they “lick the dust.” The same concept of submission is paralleled, but its manner is escalated
as it was in the Former Prophets..
The waves of death swirled about me;
the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me.
The cords of the grave coiled around me;
the snares of death confronted me.
2 Samuel 22:5-6
… from waves to torrents, from cords to snares.
Saul’s Reuse of Biblical Literature and Poetry
Saul — the other Saul, Saul of Tarsus — was a “a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees” (Acts 23:6). That is, unlike the Sadducees, he believed the entire Hebrew Bible, including the Prophets and the Writings. Thus he was more exposed to the use of ancient Hebrew literature and poetry than Sadduccees, and would have been more influenced by that tradition than even many other educated Jews.
Saul uses the same literary technique of escalating parallelism, combined with the ‘twist ending’ used in the Book of Samuel, in the Letter to the Philippians. The letter is short, and mostly retreads themes of letters presented earlier in the Bible.
In the first chapter of the Letter to the Philippians, there’s this odd line:
I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole praetorium and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ;
That word “praetorium” is tricky. It might be a reference to the imperial jailers or guards (fitting, as Paul is under a sort of house arrest while during a long appeals process in Rome), or palace guard, or even imperial palace.
Perhaps Paul has attracted sympathizers with his jailers.
But in the second to last verse of the letter, the meaning is clarified.
All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household.
Paul literally has sympathizers in the headquarters of the military. And in the household of the Emperor himself.
The twist ending – Paul has access, not just to his jailers, but to those close of the head of government.
And he showed this through two lines of Hebrew poetry, wrote in Greek, which bookend his letter to the Philippians
It has become known throughout the whole praetorium
All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household.
The Good News
What has become known, the greeting of the saints, is the Gospel, the good news. As Paul writes:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
The LORD has become Man!
The Creator has become a Creation!
He suffers with us, He dies with us, He lives with us.
With us He is hung on a tree. With us He weeps.
With us – with Paul, with you, with me – He despairs
For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.
With us He is not understood
About the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” that is, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” And some of those who were standing there, when they heard it, began saying, “This man is calling for Elijah.”
With us — even with Nero, the Caesar of Casear’s household — He has a mother
With us He drinks milk!
With us He drinks wine!
With us, even when we don’t see Him!