Louden Downey, εκφρασις, and Phil 3.13-14

For a multitude of reasons, one of my favorite movies is “A Few Good Men.” Jenn and I, for a while, watched it as a weekly (or at least bi-monthly) ritual. Along with eating pizza. And quoting the entire movie. One of the more tragic exchanges in the movie is the cross-examination of Pfc. Louden Downey, especially right near the very end of it, which goes like this:

Ross: Now you say your assault on Private Santiago was the result of an order that Lt. Kendrick gave in your barracks room at 16:20, am I right?
Downey: Yes sir.
Ross: But you just said that you didn’t make it back to Windward Barracks until 16:45.
Downey: Sir?
Ross: If you didn’t make it back to your barracks until 16:45, then how could you be in your room at 16:20?
Downey: You see, sir, there was a blowout…

And it goes downhill from there (fast). I say it’s tragic because Downey quickly realizes that he’s put himself in an inescapable position, one that has dire consequences, all the while believing he’s done the right thing. You’d have to see it, if you haven’t already.

In 2011, I attended the famed British New Testament Conference, that year held at the campus of University of Nottingham. For those unfamiliar with it, the Conference holds a handful of main sessions on random (but profound) topics and a number of seminar-like sessions devoted to specific topics in the NT. In the latter, the sessions could involve 1) seasoned scholars communicating their recent findings on a given subject or 2) doctoral students seeking an audience (and feedback) for their research topic.

One difficulty with these sessions is making choices, for a handful of topics might all sound interesting but their respective times overlap. I remember that year illustrating that very problem–i.e. there were a lot of good-sounding topics and many of them conflicting with each other, thus making my decisions difficult. One of the decisions, however, was easy to make and it fortunately did not overlap with another session. The topic (or, title of the paper): “Pressing on Towards the Goal: Ekphrasis in Phil 3:13-14 and the Aim of Philippians.” For us nerdy NT folk, such topics can be enticing.

The gist of the presentation was: 1) εκφρασις is a rhetorical device used as “a descriptive speech which vividly brings before the eyes [of the audience] the subject shown [by the speaker]”; 2) Paul’s letter to the Philippians elucidates a particular message for its audience, one that is to be grasped and implemented; 3) while the metaphor of Phil 3.13-14 is brief, it is used by Paul to illustrate concisely his overarching point; 4) thus, Phil 3.13-14 is an example of εκφρασις. Or to quote the presenter: “Paul is using vivid language to bring before the eyes of his audience an image of himself as a runner aiming his life singularly at the goal of gaining Christ.”

I have no real issues with the first three points of the argument, especially points 2 and 3. In fact, I appreciate what this reading does for understanding the letter as a whole. My beef, however, is with the final point. “Why?”, do you ask? Two related reasons: provenance and chronology. A third reason might be, weak (or unsubstantiated) assumptions, but I’ll leave those alone for now.

Throughout the presentation, the speaker (we’ll call him, “Joe”) used εκφρασις as though it were common-coin in the ancient world, especially among rhetoricians and thus knowable (and usable) by Paul. However, the above definition comes from a chap called, Aelius Theon and it is found in his book entitled, Progymnasmata. I should point out that “Joe” knows this to be the case, for he cites Theon’s work when he gives the definition. My problem is that “Joe” nowhere argues a case for Paul’s knowledge of Theon’s definition; he simply assumes that Paul uses it.

Moreover, what “Joe” does not disclose is that, on best guesses, Theon’s teaching (and writing) on rhetoric–and thus specifically the rhetorical use of εκφρασις–post-date Paul’s letter to the Philippians. So, if (according to the presenter of the paper) Theon’s teaching on the rhetorical use of εκφρασις post-dates Paul’s letter to the Philippians, how can we accept the conclusion that Paul uses εκφρασις–as defined by Theon–in his letter? This, to me, looks a lot like the Louden Downey problem all over again. My hope is that “Joe’s” (full) dissertation spells things out a bit more, thus avoiding this dilemma. I’ll have to wait and see, once he finishes it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s