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The Catholic Study Bible A special version of the New American Bible, with a wealth of background information useful to Catholics.

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Philippians

Carolyn Osiek

Before Beginning…

Philippians is one of the most appealing of Paul's letters. Along with Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon, Philippians is traditionally called a “captivity letter” because in all four the author refers to his imprisonment. The authentic Pauline authorship of Philippians and Philemon is never doubted, although there is disagreement regarding the authorship of Ephesians and Colossians.

There are several theories about the location and occasion of the imprisonment from which Paul writes. The oldest and traditional view is that he writes from Rome in his final imprisonment there; this would date the letter to the late fifties or early sixties of the first century. Some have questioned the feasibility of this location, given the apparent frequent exchanges implied in the letter and the great distance from Rome to Philippi. So a second location has been suggested, Caesarea Maritima on the Palestinian coast, during the two years of confinement recorded in Acts 24–26 . Still, that is a great distance, requiring a month or more of travel. A third suggestion is that Paul was imprisoned earlier in his life in Ephesus, and that Philippians and Philemon date from that time, perhaps in the middle years of the fifties. The mysterious references to trouble in Asia (Ephesus was the principal city of the Roman province of Asia) in 1 Corinthians 15, 32 and 2 Corinthians 1, 8–10 support this idea, as does Paul's avoidance of Ephesus on his journey to Jerusalem (Acts 20, 16 ). In that case, travel back and forth from Paul's prison to Philippi would have been much easier and faster.

If the Pauline authorship of Philippians is unquestioned, the unity of the letter poses some challenges. The choppy nature of this letter has led many interpreters to suggest that Philippians was originally at least three letters. A later editor (according to this theory), adapting the initial and final greeting, combined the originally separate messages into one edited “letter” for the purpose of later circulation. On the other hand, many more recent interpreters, using methods derived from the principles of ancient rhetoric, argue for the unity of the letter in spite of the rough edges here and there. Whichever is the case, the end result, the “canonical letter,” provides the rich spiritual legacy called Philippians, so beloved in the Christian tradition.

Important Pauline themes are developed in Philippians, particularly that of unity. We see in the letter the deep love Paul feels for this community. Disregarding the dangers facing him, Paul focuses on the sufferings of the community caused by external persecution and internal divisions. We hear of Paul's gratitude for the material support he has received from the community. We witness his fears about the problems within the community and the pressure from outside, but he subordinates those concerns to expressions of joy for the strength of the Philippians' church. In a surprisingly vehement outburst against those who advocate a return to the Jewish Law, he reminds us that this issue, so central to Galatians and Romans, is not forgotten elsewhere.

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