In this week’s discussion we were asked to look at Philippians 3:2-11 and try to define what Paul meant by “blameless” in v. 6. I said that Paul began this section warning the Philippians of “evil workers” seeking to enforce circumcision on Gentile Christians, so his bragging in vv. 4-6 was merely an outline of what should be done away with. But in discussing the word “blameless,” we must address that instinctual assumption indicating Paul meant “sinless.” James D.G. Dunn “[doubts] if the term amemptos, ‘blameless,’ should be understood as equivalent to ‘sinless,’ that is, never having breached any commandment in the slightest degree.”[1]

Although I didn’t raise the question in our class discussion, I wanted to raise it here. Paul is talking about fulfilling all the little requirements for when one does commit a sin – all the atonement sacrifices and signs indicating his repentance. In terms of covenantal nomism, Paul is declaring himself as the best at “staying in.”[2] As best as I can tell, this is what he means by “blameless.” Yet, our language changes slightly in regards to Christ’s sinlessness, so I feel I must ask: How do we know that this sense of “blameless” was not how Jesus’ sinlessness was understood – that, in fact, early Christians saw Him as blameless in regards to “righteousness under the law,” like Paul?

I only ask this question because I’m trying to better understand where Christ’s sinlessness came from. My gut instinct is telling me to believe it, but oftentimes my “gut instinct” is really only my “fundamentalist reflexes” kicking in, as my former roommate described that feeling. I’ve found various passages rather explicitly saying Christ was sinless, which I discuss below, but I’m wondering if this was how it was understood or if it was more like Paul’s blamelessness?

Hebrews 4:15, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.”[3]

2 Corinthians 5:21, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

John 7:18, “Those who speak on their own seek their own glory; but the one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true, and there is nothing false in him.”

Other related verses are John 8:48; 14:30 (kind of); 1 Peter 1:19; 2:22; 3:18; 1 John 3:5, 7. I quoted the ones I think convey the aspect well enough. I’m sure there are other verses or passages that could be discussed as well.

All these passages strongly indicate Christ was as sinless as many of us believe Him to be. Yet in light of Paul’s words in Philippians 3:6, I can’t help but wonder if this might have been how the early church thought of Jesus. Heb. 4:15; 2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pet. 1:19; 2:22; and 1 John 3:5 seem to be echoing Isaiah 53:9 with their “no sin was found in him” tone. Yet Isaiah 53:9 has a little different wording: “They made his grave with the wicked/ and his tomb with the rich/ although he had done no violence/ and there was no deceit in his mouth. After reading this passage, Christ’s sinlessness seems less explicit.

Is there good reason to believe Christ’s sinlessness was understood more in terms of Paul’s blamelessness? Or am I misunderstanding these various texts? Do you think they’re drawing from Isaiah 53:9? If so, are they still reading the Isaiah passage correctly?

[1] James D.G. Dunn, The New Perspective on Paul: Collected Essays (Mohr Siebeck, 2005), 473

[2] E.P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (Fortress, 1977), 17

[3] All Scriptural quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version