“Citizenship” in Heaven

Be my imitators, brothers, and see that you go about in such a manner as the blueprint you have in us. For many go about, those whom I was often telling you—and even now I’m screaming it—are the opponents of the cross of Christ. Destruction is their end, the gut is their god, and glory is in their shame—those focusing on the earthly. Our politeuma, however, exists in heaven, from which we are also eagerly expecting our savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall transform the body of our lowliness into something compatible with the body of his glory, in accordance with the power of the fact that he is able subordinate everything to himself.[1]

In the last post, we considered some features of early Christian discourse that might or might not have struck a political chord in the first few centuries. Here’s another verse that we often draw into the same discussion, Philippians 3:20. Typically, the first part of the verse is quoted as something like, “our citizenship is in heaven,” and overwhelmingly, English translations follow suit. A quick scan shows only the KJV and Douay-Rheims as the only real holdouts, rendering politeuma as “conversation” (NKJV has “citizenship”); the Aramaic in Plain English (the English translation of the Syriac translation of the original Greek) reads, “our business is in heaven,” where the Peshitta has the term pulḥānū (“work,” “working,” “employment”).

This variation should already alert the reader that the notions of citizenship or citizenry might not spring up so obviously from the Greek word politeuma after all. So what gives?

At the outset, it bears stating emphatically that one can easily see why many translators would opt for a more explicitly political translation. That is, I see no evidence of intentional monkeying with the text so as to reach a preferred theological conclusion, which is an accusation sometimes lobbed at translators. Still, the translators did face a semantic fork with politeuma. A glance at BDAG, one of the standard Christian Greek lexicons, shows this immediately through both the noun politeuma and the corresponding verb politeumai. Both can refer to explicitly political or civic functions, how one behaves in the context of a political community, state, commonwealth, etc. On the other side, those explicitly civic connotations are not always present or even implied. Thus, earlier in the same letter (1:27), Paul employs the same terminology to encourage the Philippians to “conduct themselves” in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, again without any politics in view. In the following few centuries, some Christians will even use the word to refer to officers in the church itself.

Likewise, in a slightly trickier but still instructive case, Acts 23:1 has Paul use the same verb before the Sanhedrin, to say that he has “conducted himself” well in respect both to conscience and God. It is trickier because Paul here isn’t in trouble on straightforwardly “political” lines. After all, Paul the Roman citizen is not really in strict legal jeopardy with Sanhedrin, as the rest of his story amply shows. It is much more like Paul is claiming to have conducted himself well insofar as he remains a faithful Jew in good cultural standing.

Much like the more classical-sounding word, politeia, which (in my view) moderns sometimes have unhelpfully translated too flatly as “constitution” or “regime,” politeuma and politeumai refer to the holistic life of a particular community or commonwealth. All these words indicate much more than the simple workings of the state apparatus, offices, laws, and administration. Rather, they have in mind the entire, integrated way of life originally in the classical polis, which in modern terminology extends into matters both social and cultural. That I can think of anyway, there is no good Greek term adjective for “social” or “societal,” as per modern “sociology” or “social history,” which means Greek writers often use terms as above that have more explicitly political or civic meanings to our ears. But by modern or even Roman standards, the classical poleis were small and tightly-knit communities with their own distinctive cultures (think of the differences between an Athens and a Sparta). Some of this civic world still existed into the first century, though of course, the broader Roman oikoumenē rather dwarfed them by this point. In any event, politeuma and its cognates might convey both a particular way of life and the institutions that administer that way of life; the two go together.

Paul, then, is not, as it might seem, randomly injecting a line out-of-the-blue about politics or the Roman order or whatever in Philippians 3:20. Instead, he has the same kind of thing in mind as the prior verses regarding how one “goes about” (peripateō) one’s life or one’s business, so to speak, and while this might involve the world of “politics” as we think of it, it probably does not in most concrete instances. So too before the Sanhedrin, Paul’s language means to communicate that he remains a good member of the larger community of Israel and its broad consensus about its obligatory mores (though, of course, he wants to redefine these in light of Christ).

Moreover, as Peter Oakes notes in his study on politeuma and Philippians 3:20, it is unlikely in the first place that the Greek Philippians of the ekklesia were enfranchised Roman citizens in that Roman colony.[2] Looking at similar usage of politeuma in a Jewish papyrus from Egypt, Oakes further suggests the term might be translated something like “governing institution,” one which is not in competition with imperial or local, civic citizenship. Think again of Paul and the Sanhedrin, or the church officers in later patristic usage.

If there’s a mental block here for us as twenty-first-century readers, it may exist in that individualism on one side and statism on the other have together largely gutted many intermediate institutions: the idea that some non-political, extra-legal body or organization might oblige us or else have some sort of recognized social authority over us is now out of fashion, if not offensive.

Paul, then, likely does not intend to challenge Rome or radically redefine civic belonging—at least, not in particular. A much broader target, his real concern hovers over those who align their hearts and conduct along the “earthly” axis. All sorts of institutional or social pressures could enter the equation here, some more subtle and the implicit (e.g., “the gut is their god”). Others are more gross and obnoxious. As he says in 1 Cor. 8:5, “there are many ‘gods’ and ‘lords,’” some of whom indeed played a direct role in the imperial cult, but not all or even most. The Philippians should not practice this modus vivendi but rather that of Paul’s own example, or more grandly, that of heaven itself.

  1. My off-the-cuff translation of Philippians 3:18–20.
  2. Peter Oakes, “The Christians and Their Politeuma in Heaven: Philippians 3:20 and the Herakleopolis Papyri,” in In the Crucible of Empire: The Impact of Roman Citizenship upon Greeks, Jews and Christians, ed. Katell Berthelot and Jonathan J. Price, Interdisciplinary Studies in Ancient Culture and Religion 21 (Leuven ; Bristol, CT: Peeters, 2019), 141–63.


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