In my previous post I answered, in short order, a series of questions that a reader had about the “original” text of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. I will now take several posts in order to address some of the questions at greater length. Here was the first one:
QUESTION: Would you agree that the letter written to the Philippians was an original writing of Paul?
The short answer is Yes – it is one of the undisputed Pauline letters. The longer answer is, well, complicated. Scholars have long adduced reasons for thinking that this letter of Paul was originally *two* letters (or parts of two letters) that were later spliced together into the one letter we have today. I explain the reasons for thinking so in my textbook, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. Here is what I say there. (If you want to follow the argument particularly well, I’d recommend reading the short letter of Philippians, and then reading what follows by looking up the passages referred to. But my comments should make decent sense if you don’t have the time or inclination to do that much work…)
The first two chapters of Philippians sound very much like a “friendship” letter written by Paul to his converts. The occasion of the letter is reasonably evident (see esp. 2:25-30). The Philippians had sent to Paul one of their stalwart members, a man named Epaphroditus, for some reason that is not yet disclosed (and won’t be until chapter 4). While there ministering to Paul, Epaphroditus had taken ill; the Philippians had heard of his illness, and had grown concerned. Epaphroditus in turn had learned of their concern and became distraught over the anxiety that he had caused. Fortunately, his health had returned, and he was now set to make his journey back home to Philippi. Paul wrote this letter to keep the Philippians informed of his situation and to express his pleasure that all had turned out well.
He sends the letter from prison (1:7). We do not know where he is imprisoned or why, except that it is in connection with his preaching of the gospel. He uses the letter to comment on his adversity and to reassure his congregation that it has turned out for the good: as a result of his bonds, others have become emboldened to preach (1:12-18). Paul uses his own situation to explain that suffering is the destiny of Christians in the present age (1:29-30) — a message comparable to that which he proclaimed in the Corinthian correspondence. He continues by providing some general words of admonition (as was common in friendship letters): the Philippians are to be unified, serving one another rather than themselves, and thereby following the example of Christ (2:1-11).
One of the most striking features of this letter comes after these general exhortations. For the friendly and joyful tone that characterizes the letter’s first two chapters shifts almost without warning at the beginning of chapter three. Indeed, if one didn’t know that there were two more chapters left in the book, it would appear that the letter was drawing to a close at the end of chapter two.
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