Was Paul Suicidal?

This entry comes from a 2011 item I did in reply to a YouTube Skeptic who called himself "ReligionFreeDeist". He has long since closed down his channel, but the issue he raised is still a live one. So to speak.


Today’s entry is composed as a supplement to a YouTube video I uploaded today in which I analyze the claims of one there styled “ReligionFreeDeist” (RFD) that Paul’s words following from Phil. 1:19-22 indicate that he was giving consideration to suicide:

For I know that this shall turn to my salvation through your prayer, and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, According to my earnest expectation and my hope, that in nothing I shall be ashamed, but that with all boldness, as always, so now also Christ shall be magnified in my body, whether it be by life, or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if I live in the flesh, this is the fruit of my labour: yet what I shall choose (haireo) I wot not.

We will not here be engaging the related issue of whether suicide is a sin. I will say only that Biblical peoples, as members of an agonistic society, did hold to a somewhat more tolerant view of the act under certain circumstances we would not accept. In this regard, they were closer to the Japanese samurai who might choose honorable suicide over public shame. But again, that is an issue we will reserve for another time. Here, we will only consider whether Paul, in this passage, indicates a serious consideration of suicide as an alternative.

Nothing New. RFD does not indicate whether he believes he is uncovering something new in arguing that Paul is seriously contemplating suicide. But it is indeed not a new idea. D. W. Palmer, in his article “To Die is Gain” (Novum Testamentum 17 [1975], 203-18) did not argue this, but did connect Paul’s phrase “to die in gain” to a Greco-Roman rhetorical topos that death is “gain” because it is a release from the burdens of life. More directly, Arthur Droge in “Mori Lecrum: Paul and Ancient Theories of Suicide” (Novum Testamentum 30 [1988], 262-86), like RFD focused on Paul’s use of the word “choose” (as well as Paul’s lack of expectation of execution) to argue that Paul “not only contemplates suicide before rejecting it, but leaves the door open to a verdict in favor of suicide” if necessary. [Croy, 521] Droge would argue in another article in 1989 that Paul did commit suicide later.

Separately from Droge, Rodney Reeves in a 1992 article also suggested that Paul was considering suicide. The question has been considered in other sources as well, including a chief source for this essay, N. Clayton Croy’s “To Die is Gain” (Journal of Biblical Literature 122 [2003], 517-531), and Craig Wansink’s Chained in Christ, which is our other primary source here.

Choose or Prefer? Croy and Wansink both discuss whether the word haireo should properly be rendered “choose” or “prefer”. I have chosen (or preferred) not to argue RFD’s claim that “choose” is the better rendering, though in English, the words can carry so much of the same nuance at times that it may make little difference to most readers; even saying Paul could “prefer” death could be read by some as a positive view of suicide as an option. [Wansink, 101]
That said, readers may wish to consult the discussions of the sources, including Croy, who notes that three manuscripts (including P46) offer a different grammatical reading which would render the statement as, “What would I choose?” Wansink has an extended discussion [96f] as well.

Feigned Perplexity. Croy’s article treats this matter in depth, although as he notes, some have previously suggested that Paul is indeed using this rhetorical trope, which is referred to as dubitatio, but which we will refer to in shorthand as FP. Others have suggested that Paul’s question is rhetorical even if they did not identify the question in terms of FP.

Croy offers several examples of FP from Greco-Roman authors. A simple version, with only one option explicitly stated (but a second implied) as Croy quotes it, comes from Cicero by way of Quintilian:

As for myself, I know not where to turn. Shall I deny that there was a scandalous rumour that the jury had been bribed?

More closely akin to Paul’s expressed dilemma is an example of FP from the speech of Andocides in On the Mysteries:

Now I am wondering at what point to begin my defense, gentlemen. Shall I start with what ought to be discussed last and prove that the prosecution disobeyed the law in lodging information against me?...Or shall I tell you the story right from the beginning?

A critical point here is that Andocides “knows full well that he will rehearse the entire story” before he asks this question. However, “feigning perplexity heightens the drama of the speech and adds credibility to his defense.” [Croy, 527] Speech (and writing) in this time being as much art as information, a good rhetor was expected to use techniques like this to address their audience.

Croy also offers an example of FP used to make a speaker appear more deferential, and make his eventual choice seem more well-reasoned. But the closest example to the structure used by Paul comes from Isocrates’ speech in On the Peace (38-9). Here is the quote from Isocrates, with parallel conceptual phrases from Paul inserted in parentheses for contrast, per Croy’s analysis:

…but if they mean those who at Marathon conquered the barbarians, then they are of all men the most brazen, if, that is to say, they praise those who governed Athens at that time and in the same breath would persuade us to act in a manner contrary to theirs and to commit blunders so gross that I am at a loss (“I do not know”) what I should do—whether I should speak the truth as on all other occasions or be silent out of fear of making myself odious to you. For while it seems to me the better course to discuss your blunders, I observe that you are more resentful towards those who take you to task than towards those who are the authors of your misfortunes. Nevertheless I should be ashamed if I showed that I am more concerned about my own reputation than about the public safety. (“your progress in joy and faith”) It is, therefore, my duty (“this to me is gain from the labor”) and the duty of all who care about the welfare of the state to choose (“What will I choose?”), not those discourses which are agreeable (“better by far”) to you, but those which are profitable (“more necessary”) for you to hear. And you, for your part, ought to realize, in the first place, that while many treatments of all kinds have been discovered by physicians for the ills of our bodies, there exists no remedy for souls which are ignorant of the truth and filled with base desires other than the kind of discourse which boldly rebukes the sins which they commit…

As Croy points out, Isocrates “fully intends to speak and not be silent. But by framing the choice as he does, he shows that what he intends to do is unquestionably the more noble and civic-minded choice.” [528]

I believe Croy’s option is a secure one, but for the sake of completeness, we will add more (which in the video is my “bonus round”). Wansink [107f], though he does not identify Paul’s phrasing with FP (nor discuss the option that I found), does identify it with similar rhetorical tactics used by Cicero in a letter to his brother Quintus. Like Paul, Cicero discusses the choice between life and death, and sides in the end with life for the sake of his family (or in Paul’s case, those in his fictive kinship group, the church). However, unlike Paul, Cicero explicitly refers to suicide as his option, including a past choice to not commit it, and the future possibility of doing it.

In the end, Wansink finds similarities between Cicero and Paul in that both used the choice of life or death as a “call to action” [112]. However, he does not argue that Paul was considering suicide, but rather…

Voluntary Death. Croy fairly well defeats any argument that Paul is here seriously contemplating suicide. But if we did indeed take Paul's suggestion of a choice for death literally, it is likely not suicide that he has in mind.

Wansink [96f] notes that many commentators assume that Paul doesn’t have any real choice in the matter of whether he will be executed, and discusses various attempts to resolve the issue. However, in Paul’s circumstances, something more subtle would have been in mind, if his consideration of a choice for death were real and not rhetorical.
Socrates was condemned to death by the court, though he could have escaped his death sentence by obliging his judgers and saying what they wanted to hear. This would, however, have been at the cost of not being true to his convictions. Paul’s choice for death could have been a matter of not cooperating with those judging him, or refusing to abandon his convictions in the face of death; but his death, unlike Socrates’, would not have been at his own hand.

Would this be suicide? Some Skeptics (though not RFD that I have seen) expand the range of this word tendentiously, so as to even include Jesus’ own death under its rubric. The discussion then becomes a semantic one. Is it “suicide” for a soldier to throw himself on a grenade to save others (especially if he likely would have been killed anyway)? Were firefighters who entered the World Trade Center committing suicide? Did later Christians who refused to renounce Christ under threat of execution commit suicide? Indeed, since it would have been dishonorable for Socrates to have been forced to drink his poison, and his was a sentence of death, is his death really a suicide?

Whether one says yes or no may depend on one’s will to turn “suicide” into a pejorative term implying delusion (especially with respect to religious fanaticism). Paul’s noble self-sacrifice for the Christian is perhaps a deluded death wish for the Skeptic. One can debate whether the implied force in Socrates’ sentence makes it a suicide, or a state execution, or something in between. However, if Wansink is correct, using the word “suicide” to describe Paul’s potential choice seems inappropriate to his dignity and purpose, given associations of the term today with mental disorder and despair. Whether we take Croy’s view or Wansink’s, Paul is holding himself up as an example for the Philippians to follow, a model of obedience and sacrifice for the greater good.

In all of this, the question is not whether Paul ever considered suicide at any time, which, as Croy observes, is beyond our capacity to know apart from his letters. As Wansink notes, people who were locked up in ancient jails did sometimes choose suicide, for a variety of reasons: To escape torture or shame; out of despair, or to avoid confiscation of their property. [Wansink, 58] So the mere possibility that Paul might have gotten similar ideas is not being ruled out. The question is whether Phil. 1 indicates such a consideration… and the evidence is clear that it does not.


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