Humility in the modern world is neither well understood nor well received. Many see it as a sign of weakness; others decry it as a Western construct whose imposition onto marginalized persons only perpetuates oppression. This skepticism has a long pedigree: Aristotle, for instance, pointed to humility as a shameless front. What then are we to make of the New Testament’s valorization of this trait?
Translated from German into English for the first time, Paul on Humility seeks to reclaim the original sense of humility as an ethical frame of mind that shapes community, securing its centrality in the Christian faith. This exploration of humility begins with a consideration of how the concept plays into current cultural crises before considering its linguistic and philosophical history in Western culture. In turning to the roots of Christian humility, Eve-Marie Becker focuses on Philippians 2, a passage in which Paul appeals to the lowliness of Christ to encourage his fellow Christians to persevere. Becker shows that humility both formed the basis of the ethic Paul instilled in churches and acted as a mimetic device centered on Jesus’ example that was molded into the earliest Christian identity and community.
Becker resists the urge to cheapen humility with mere moralism. In the vision of Paul, the humble individual is one immersed in a complex, transformative way of being. The path of humility does not constrain the self; rather, it guides the self to true freedom in fellowship with others. Humility is thus a potent concept that speaks to our contemporary anxieties and discomforts.
Editors’ Preface Author’s Preface to the English Edition Author’s Preface to the German Edition 1 Approaching the Topic: "Humility" in Cultural Discourse 2 "Humility" in Past and Present 3 Philippians 2: Text and Interpretation 4 Before Philippians: Paul and "Humility" in 2 Corinthians and Romans 5 The Pauline Concept in Philippians 2: ‘Humility’ as Christian Practical Wisdom and Literary Practice 6 After Paul: ταπειν-in the Beginnings of Christianity 7 Prospect: Ambiguity and Clarity of a Theological-Ethical Term
Eve-Marie Becker is Professor of New Testament at the University of Muenster.
Wayne Coppins is Professor of Religion at the University of Georgia.
Many early Christian virtues were already recognized as virtues elsewhere in the ancient world, but some were not. Tapeinophrosune, ‘humility,’ was not, making it something of a puzzle in ancient moral philosophy. No one has done more to solve this puzzle than Eve-Marie Becker, whose excellent 2015 Der Begriff der Demut bei Paulus appears here in Wayne Coppins’ elegant translation. Thanks to Baylor University Press and Mohr Siebeck, English-language readers now have convenient access to Becker on Paul on humility. Because of Becker’s work, we can now better understand this remarkable early Christian virtue.
~Matthew Novenson, Senior Lecturer in New Testament and Christian Origins, University of Edinburgh
This timely work is provocative and hopeful. By tracing the concept of humility as a constructive, rather than prescriptive, mode of communitarian existence that has its origins in Pauline discourse, Eve-Marie Becker raises a series of challenges and questions with which students of Paul and early Christianity would do well to engage. Those interested in the intersections of cultural history, philosophy, ethics, and theology will herein find much to appraise and consider.
~Davina C. Lopez, Professor of Religious Studies, Eckerd College
In this erudite and lively study, Eve-Marie Becker sets Paul’s concept of humility in its Greco-Roman, Jewish, and Christian contexts. In so doing, she shows how his creation of the neologism tapeinophrosune (‘humility’) in Philippians 2:3 reveals his fully developed ecclesial ethos of humility as communitarian and political, not individual and systematized as in classical (and later Christian) understandings of virtue ethics. Paul’s turn to the Christ model in Philippians 2:6–11 aims, she argues, to unite the community in the ‘one mind’ (2:2) of humility, seeking the common good over individual interests, thereby to serve as a sign of the coming justice of God. Becker’s concern is not merely antiquarian. Beginning with the modern ambivalence toward Christian ‘humility’ (think Nietzsche), Becker calls for ‘cultural memory work’ (Kristeva) to recollect the ‘new impulses of thought set in motion by Paul,’ now overlooked or forgotten, but critical to the conversation about justice in contemporary Western culture. Readers who wish to connect Pauline exegesis with both ancient and contemporary political thought will be richly rewarded by this volume.
~Alexandra R. Brown, Fletcher Otey Thomas Professor of Bible, Washington and Lee University
Eve-Marie Becker’s learned, sophisticated study on humility with special respect to Paul and his Letter to the Philippians is an especially timely piece of New Testament scholarship, and it is a gift now to have this rigorous, groundbreaking work available in English translation. In a time, not unlike Paul’s own, when the ‘nobility of humility’ is frequently given short shrift and is often in short supply, we are wise and do well to clothe ourselves therein and thereby embrace Christ Jesus’s habit of mind and model his way of life. This good book helps us toward that good end.
~Todd D. Still, Charles J. and Eleanor McLerran DeLancey Dean & William M. Hinson Professor of Christian Scriptures, George W. Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor University
This is a theologically and ecclesiologically rich understanding that recovers something central to Paul’s thought and fruitful for the contemporary church. This is an invaluable contribution to Pauline studies.
~Jeff De Waal Dryden, Bulletin for Biblical Research
Becker brings together a wealth of information ranging from discussions of ancient philosophy to contemporary ethical theory. While the study is primarily focused on Paul, her argument that humility is community-oriented has far wider implications. The availability of this volume in English is a great benefit to scholarship.