Michael S. Heiser
We love the letter of Philippians for its uplifting, faith-affirming tone. Although Paul wrote it in prison, it resonates joy. Paul’s circumstances didn’t put him in a bad mood. But something else did.
Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you. Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh (Phil 3:1–3).
We have no trouble understanding Paul when he says, “Look out for the evildoers.” But dogs? People who mutilate their flesh? Did Paul hate puppies and people with tattoos? Not exactly. Like any statement in the Bible, this one requires context for getting inside the writer’s head.
Dogs in the Ancient World
In the ancient world (except for Egyptian and Phoenician cultures), dogs were routinely despised. Their instinctive, base behavior—such as eating dead, decayed flesh or consuming their own vomit—disgusted ancient people (Exod 22:31; 1 Kgs 14:11; Prov 26:11). The appropriate insult to heap on someone you considered worthless was “dead dog” (2 Sam 16:9; see also Deut 23:17–18).
Paul, with his thorough knowledge of the Old Testament, would have been acquainted with the use of the term in the Bible and in his culture. The label makes sense here, since Paul follows it by warning, “Look out for the evildoers.” Paul didn’t hate puppies. He hated evil.
Mutilators of the Flesh
But what about “those who mutilate the flesh”? What sense can we make of that? As odd as it sounds, this phrase is one of the keys to understanding just who Paul is referring to in Philippians 3.
The phrase literally reads, “Look out for the mutilation.” The Greek word behind “mutilation” is the noun katatomē (κατατομή). Paul likely chose it deliberately because it sounds a bit like another Greek word— peritomē (περιτομή), which means “circumcision.” Right after Paul warns the Philippians to “look out for the mutilation,” he adds an explanation in Philippians 3:3: “For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.” Paul was using a satirical play on words to make his point.
Paul wasn’t objecting to circumcision itself. He never characterizes circumcision as something to be abhorred (Rom 3:1–2; 1 Cor 7:18). What he did object to was the insistence that circumcision was essential for salvation—for inclusion in the community of believers. The idea that any ritual could result in salvation or merit God’s favor was incompatible with salvation by grace through faith.
Gentiles who believed according to the faith of Abraham were “blessed along with Abraham” (Gal 3:9), because “in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith” (Gal 3:26). Whether Jew or Gentile, those who believe in Jesus are the spiritual children of Abraham; they are heirs to the promises God made to him (Gal 3:29). His opponents’ perversion of the gospel infuriated Paul. Using the term “mutilation” was his sarcastic way of showing contempt for false teaching.
Paul’s derogatory terms for his opponents weren’t thrown about lightly. They were born out of a deep concern for the gospel message: We cannot merit salvation, nor can we earn grace. Salvation comes through faith in the grace God showed us through Jesus’ work on the cross.
Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version (ESV).