‘Thankless Thanks’: The Epistolary Social Convention In Philippians 4:10–20 -- By: Gerald W. Peterman

Journal: Tyndale Bulletin
Volume: TYNBUL 42:2 (NA 1991)
Article: ‘Thankless Thanks’: The Epistolary Social Convention In Philippians 4:10–20
Author: Gerald W. Peterman


‘Thankless Thanks’: The Epistolary Social Convention In Philippians 4:10–201

Gerald W. Peterman

E. Lohmeyer believes that in Philippians 4:10–20 Paul should have given thanks for the Philippians’ gift, yet, any direct word of thanks is absent. He therefore labels this pericope as ‘thankless thanks’, in keeping with earlier scholars.2 M. Vincent sharply disagrees with this view, saying that ‘only the most perverted and shallow exegesis’ can describe Paul’s words as ‘thankless thanks’, yet he admits ‘It is characteristic that there is no formal expression of thanks’ beyond Paul’s recognition of the spiritual significance of the act.3 G. Hawthorne defines the problem specifically: ‘it is remarkable that in this so–called ‘thank you’ section, Paul does not use the verb εὐχαριστεῖν, and argues that in 4:10–20 Paul rebukes the Philippians for infringing on his self–reliance.4 In fact the absence of εὐχαριστεῖν has lead some to argue that 4:1–20 was originally part of a separate letter.5 These conclusions have been

made without taking cognizance of first century social conventions related to gratitude.6

It is being argued in this essay that verbal gratitude, as a social convention, was withheld from those who were socially intimate; that gratitude in the form of repayment was of primary significance; and that when verbal gratitude was offered it took the form of an expression of debt. In order to demonstrate these assertions it is proposed to discuss (I) the ‘thankless thanks’ convention from a first century letter, P.Merton 12, (II) other papyri which further illuminate this convention and (III) Paul’s acknowledgement of the Philippians’ gift in light of these conclusions.

I. P.Merton 12 (29 August Ad 58) And ‘Thankless Thanks’

A certain Chairas writes in response to a letter received from a friend and provides an important example of social conventions relating to friendship and gratitude.

Chairas to his dearest Dionysius, many greetings and continued health. I was as much delighted at receiving a letter ...

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