The Letter of Paul to the Philippians - Introduction
Philippi was a major city of Macedonia in northern Greece and a Roman colony on the Via Egnatia, the Roman road linking Byzantium in the East to the western coast of Macedonia, from which ships could easily reach Italy. The Christian community in Philippi was the westernmost Pauline church at the time of its founding (Acts 16.11–13 ). The mutual affection between Paul and the Philippians is evident in the letter and contrasts with the problems he had with other churches.
Paul writes from prison and is uncertain of the outcome for himself (Phil1.12–26 ). The themes of opposition and the possibility of death are therefore prominent. Yet in the midst of suffering and uncertainty, the theme of joy emerges quite clearly and remarkably ( 1.4,18,25; 2.2,17–18,28; 4.4,10 ). The Philippians too are experiencing opposition ( 1.29 ), but Paul's major concern is to bring them together and thus to overcome the threat of internal disharmony. In keeping with that purpose, he uses a hymnic passage that celebrates the self‐emptying of Christ even to death, for which God bestowed on him the name of “Lord,” the “name above all names” ( 2.6–11 ). The hymn was probably composed by a prior author and known both to Paul and the Philippians. Here it is the prime example of why they should be willing also to empty themselves of their own opinions. The example of Paul himself follows and supports the argument ( 3.4–16 ). Paul offers both Christ and himself as examples of courage and self‐surrender in the face of suffering and death. Thus he attempts to turn the Philippians from partisan interest to unity.
Except that Paul was in prison and awaiting trial at the time of writing ( 1.2–26 ), it is impossible to speak confidently of the time and place of the writing of this letter. Because of references to the imperial guard or praetorium ( 1.13 ) and to the emperor's household ( 4.22 ), and also because the situation reflected in the letter bears some resemblance to that described at the end of Acts, the traditional date of the letter has been during the period of Paul's imprisonment at Rome (about 61–63 CE). The indications are by no means conclusive, however, and more recently some scholars have thought that the place of composition is perhaps Caesarea before Paul's arrival in Rome (Acts 24–26 ) or Ephesus at an earlier stage in Paul's career, especially because of the several goings and comings between Paul and Philippi implied in the letter ( 2.19,25–26; 4.10,18 ) are inconsistent with the great distance from Philippi to Rome. The terms referring to the emperor's establishment were used also for provincial government centers and the imperial civil service outside Rome.
The immediate occasion of Paul's writing was the return to Philippi of Epaphroditus ( 2.25–30 ), who had been sent by the Philippian church with gifts for Paul ( 4.18 ), and who had been seriously ill while staying with him. Paul took this opportunity to thank them for their gifts, and to set their difficulties in a wider framework by describing his and their situation in light of the reality of Christ.
The letter follows the usual pattern of Paul's letters, but some seemingly abrupt changes of topic (especially between 3.1 and 2, and 4.3 and 4 ), in addition to the fact that an early Christian writer (Polycarp, Philippians 2.3 ), speaks of “letters” of Paul to the Philippians, has led some scholars to conclude that our present Philippians is composed of as many as three letters that Paul wrote to Philippi. Many scholars, however, find that Philippians is a coherent whole as it stands. After the greeting ( 1.1–2 ) and thanksgiving ( 1.3–11 ), Paul lays out the situation ( 1.12–26 ) and exhorts the community to unity ( 1.27–4.3 ) with many arguments, including proposing Christ ( 2.5–11 ), Timothy and Epaphroditus ( 2.19–30 ), and himself ( 3.4–14 ) as models of self‐giving for the good of the whole. He thanks them for their recent gift ( 4.10–20 ) and concludes the letter ( 4.21–23 ).