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More Cutting and Pasting? Paul’s Letter to the Philippians

I have been discussing instances in the New Testament where letters appear to have been cut-and-pasted together.  The key example is 2 Corinthians, but one could make the case (and many have!) that something similar is true of Philippians.  Here is how I explain it in my book The New Testament:  A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings.



The Unity of the Letter

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 especially 2:25–30). The Philippians had sent to Paul one of their stalwart members, a man named Epaphroditus, for some reason that is not disclosed (until chap. 4). While there ministering to Paul, Epaphroditus was taken ill; the Philippians had heard of his illness and grew concerned. Epaphroditus in turn learned of their concern and became distraught over the anxiety that he had caused. Fortunately, his health 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.

Paul sent the letter from prison (1:7). We do not know …

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Were Cut and Paste Jobs Common in Antiquity? Guest Post by Brent Nongbri
My Long Favorite Pauline Letter: Philippians



  1. Avatar
    ask21771  January 8, 2018

    Was the empty tomb a story created by those who knew Jesus or was it created decades later

    • Bart
      Bart  January 9, 2018

      I’d say neither of the above.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  January 9, 2018

        I’d have to respectfully disagree. I think the core of the empty tomb narrative, much of what we read in Mark, comes from the Jerusalem church itself, which was made up of Jesus’ immediate disciples. There are some parts that are questionable. The Joseph of Arimathea part may have come from outside the Jerusalem church, as well as the part about the guards posted at the tomb. The women going to the tomb to anoint the body and finding it empty, I think that part comes from those who Paul calls the pillars of the Jerusalem church. That isn’t to say the story is true. I think it was made up. But it was made up by those people who personally knew Jesus.

  2. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  January 8, 2018

    Hence, the editor of this letter could have made things easier for us by putting chapters 3 and 4 ahead of chapters 1 and 2. Perhaps, the author/editor could have used some better divine guidance. I am not trying to be sarcastic here, but I am just trying to raise, yet again, the question of why it is assumed by so many that books with such problems are divinely inspired or, in this case, divinely edited? I actually think it is a good and a very important question because the very first premise of the southern Christianity, in which I was raised, is that the Bible is divinely inspired and if that premise cannot be really supported, then all that follows from that premise is difficult, for me, at least, to grasp. Actually, I have always deeply wanted for Christianity to make sense, but a lot of it just needs to be explained better…. The heart just cannot believe what the brain just doesn’t get….

    • Bart
      Bart  January 9, 2018

      I suppose many of those who hold this view of the letters don’t assume they are inspired! Or if they do, they assume so on other grounds than their compositional history! (Hey, maybe God directed the process!)

      • Avatar
        AnotherBart  January 9, 2018

        It all depends on one’s definition of ‘inspired’. I’m one who believes in their divine inspiration, but not the, “HUSH! I’m on the phone with God!” kind.

        The New Testament gets its divinely inspired authority based on the apostolic witness. Peter, Paul, & the others saw themselves as authorized by Jesus, who they believed was God incarnate. They believed, not just that they wrote, but that they spoke the words of God, having been personally, directly given this responsibility.

        So, regardless of the editorial process, even if Philippians was a cut and paste job, whether drafted one month, revised the next, finished a year later, parts injected by Timothy, whatever, however they chose to express themselves, they represented God.

        The letters from Clement of Rome might be seen as better than Jude in many ways, but Clement didn’t make the cut, because he wasn’t an eye witness. It’s true that Mark wasn’t an eyewitness, and neither was Luke, but Mark’s authority was based on Peter, and Luke’s comes from Paul who was uncontested as an Apostle by ‘those esteemed as pillars’ (Peter, John, James).

        That is my muddled, non-canonical, perhaps inspirational but not inspired, non-apostolic, view at this time, parts of which may be subject to change.

    • Avatar
      Silver  January 10, 2018

      RonaldTaska. I greatly appreciated your final statement in your comment. It is very much how I have increasingly come to feel. It reminds me of what, I believe, your compatriot, Mark Twain said, “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”

  3. Avatar
    mannix  January 8, 2018

    The NAB analysis is the three letter hypothesis (who knew Catholics were such “radicals”?): (1) 4, 10-20 is a letter of appreciation for help sent through Epaphroditus. (2) 1,3 -3,1 news of imprisonment and Epap’s illness along with exhortations on conduct, and (3) 3,2-21 a warning of threats to the Philippian community.

    The NAB scholar posits that, if the letter is a unity, there was probably a break in the writing between 3,1 and 2, possibly due to receiving some kind of bad news fro Philippi.

  4. Avatar
    anthonygale  January 8, 2018

    Do you think that maybe someone had multiple letters, or fragments of letters, and assembled/reassembled them out of order? Perhaps someone was able to tell they addressed the same community and were regarding the same individual, so thought they should be put together? Perhaps they even thought they were assembling what was once one letter? I am sure there are other explanations and don’t know if that is the most likely. It makes me think though, since editing what someone else write might seem like a bad thing to many, perhaps this is a case of someone trying to do what they thought was right and simply making a well intended mistake.

  5. Avatar
    Silver  January 8, 2018

    Re Paul: Could Paul realistically claim the right to be judged PERSONALLY by Caesar as appears to be his demand in Acts 25 or did he just wish to appear before a court in Rome? Surely Caesar would not deal with every case.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 9, 2018

      I’m not sure exactly how it worked, but my sense is that an appeal to Caesar could be handled by an underling. Maybe someone else on the blog knows for sure?

      • Avatar
        AnotherBart  January 9, 2018

        My picture is that Seneca, the brother of Gallio, (Acts 18:12-17) may have been handling it. Nero was an irresponsible, incompetent, 23 year old who was both manipulating and being manipulated. Seneca and Burrus were his advisers holding things together, but their influence was waning (Poppea) before Paul’s trial, and he had to have known it. In 60 A.D. Nero may not have ever been face to face with Paul. I imagine that he was busy playing footsie with Poppea, or rehearsing lines for a play, or painting.

        Only a year or so prior, Nero’d had his own mother murdered close to the place where Paul, Luke and Aristarchus landed in Italy, c. 60 AD.

        I edit my comments so much that it will take a redaction critic to figure out all the control-X, C, & V and mouse clicks to understand my hither thither and yon train of thought…. good luck and my apologies.

      • Avatar
        AnotherBart  January 15, 2018

        “The literae dimissoriae or apostoli stated the simple fact of the claim made by the appellant.

When the appeal was made to the Emperor, the letter was called relatio.

The report thus sent included all the depositions necessary for the elucidation of the case. 

        (( Roman law and history in the New Testament by Buss, Septimus, published 1901. 
399. https://archive.org/details/romanlawandhist00bussgoog )) 

        “Usually there were two Praetorian Prefects, but since 52 a.d. 
Sextus Afranius Burrhus had held the sole command. 

        “His appointment was due to Agrippina, who wished to have a man she could trust at the head of the Praetorian Guard on the death of Claudius. 

        “He was a worthy, straightforward man, who with Seneca exercised a great influence for good upon Nero during the first five years of his reign, the quinquennium Neronis, which the Emperor Trajan is reported to have praised above any other period in the reigns of his predecessors.

Burrus was shortly after this to fall into disfavour. 

        “He died in 62 a.d.

Some said he was poisoned by the Emperor, and his death was followed by Seneca’s retirement. 

        “After Burrhus’ death two Praetorian Prefects were appointed, one of them the notorious Sofonius Tigellinus, a cruel, venal, and vicious man, who pandered to all Nero’s lusts and extravagances. ”

        –page 99 “The Church in Rome in the first Century” George Edmundson, 1913 The Bampton Lectures https://archive.org/stream/cu31924029214918#page/n117/mode/2up

    • talmoore
      talmoore  January 9, 2018

      It’s doubtful that Paul, or any lesser citizen for that matter, would actually get an audience before the Emperor himself (in Paul’s case, I think it would have been Nero), so when he appealed to “Caesar” he was appealing more to the institution than specifically to the man himself. If anything Paul would probably get an audience before an imperial official in lieu of the Emperor. And that official’s ruling would have the force of an imperial decision.

  6. Lev
    Lev  January 8, 2018

    Brilliant! I love this analysis – it’s very convincing and very helpful in understanding Philippians better. Thank you, Bart!

    You note: “We don’t know exactly where he was when he was writing this letter, or series of letters (Rome? Ephesus?), only that he was in jail.”

    In 1:12-13 Paul states: “I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard [praetorium] and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ”

    Does the mention of the “praetorium” help us locate Paul? I think I remember reading somewhere that these palaces or tents existed in Roman colonies, but not Rome itself. I understand Jerusalem had a praetorium, but also Ceaseria, where Pilate normally resided and where Paul was imprisoned for two years. Perhaps they had one in Ephesus also?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 9, 2018

      It’s been debated. The praetorian guard was present in various cities throughout the empire, including Rome.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  January 9, 2018

      Praetoria could be found where ever there was a Roman administrative center, which could be any number of cities in the empire. So, unfortunately, it’s not of much help in determining where Paul was.

  7. Avatar
    Tony  January 8, 2018

    Here is a nice softball question.

    The NRSV translates Phil 1:1 as follows: “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons (episkopos kai diakonos):”

    Is “bishops and deacons” not anachronistic? Does this not point to a post-Pauline church period?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 9, 2018

      It’s been much debated. The words simpy mean “overseers” and “those who minister” and so could be used generically here, rather than as a reference to distinct church offices as developed later.

  8. Avatar
    AnotherBart  January 9, 2018

    It was 62 AD, Rome. The writing of Acts had kept them plenty busy enough. This wasn’t a ‘thank you note’ in our modern sense of the word. Paul was well financed, and well connected. He’d been building his network for years. At this point it likely reached into some of the highest offices of the Roman Government itself whether in secret or not. If Theophilus was from Philippi, a convert from his first journey there ten years ago, and a ranking official, then his network building was a success.

    I believe it was during the last leg of their two year stay, shortly before being released when Philippians was penned. I do not see any unnatural shift within the letter. I see the train of thought typical for Paul that takes us here there and yon.
    2:3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit…….(4) value others above yourself.
    2:14 Do everything without grumbling or arguing,
    4:1Therefore, adelphoi, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends!
    4:2 I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.

    The “flesh mutilators” had been around a long time, and were still causing problems. Charging cash for circumcision, they had an interest in infiltrating and profiting from gentile converts.

    As far as the timing for response, there was plenty enough going on during that stay in Rome. Luke, Paul, Timothy, and likely Peter were there with lawyers (if Luke wasn’t the lawyer himself) preparing for the trial of Paul’s life. It wasn’t just Paul’s life on the line, but the church as a whole. Whether or not they made it beyond a few hearings, whether or not they were acquitted before trial, they succeeded, if only for 2-3 years.

    “The timing of his response is puzzling. If Epaphroditus has been with Paul for such a long period of time—long enough for him to become deathly ill, for the Philippians to get word of it, for him to learn that they were distressed, and for him then to recover—why is Paul only now writing to tell them that he has received the gift? Surely he was in communication with them before this (since they have heard that Epaphroditus arrived and that he later became deathly ill).”

  9. dschmidt01
    dschmidt01  January 13, 2018

    Sorry totally off subject. At mall of america watching all the very different people made me think of this question. What were you taught would be the fate of all the non Christian people’s souls? Only about a third of the world’s population is christian. Surely if their culture is not Christian a loving new testament God would not condemn them all to he’ll? The mean old testament God might though lol. Thanx

    • Bart
      Bart  January 15, 2018

      When I was a fundamentalist I believed they were all going to hell. (!)

      • Avatar
        AnotherBart  January 15, 2018

        Did you ever consider 1st Peter’s section, where Jesus went, after the crucifixion, to preach to the ‘souls in prison’?

        • Bart
          Bart  January 16, 2018

          Do you mean in print? No. Do you mean have I ever studied and thought about it??? I’m a New Testament scholar!!!

          • Avatar
            AnotherBart  January 16, 2018

            I meant to ask — “When you were a fundamentalist and believed the non-Christian souls were all going to hell, had you considered / how did you explain 1st Peter’s ‘Souls in prison’?

            I’ll add Ist Corinthians 15:29 to the question:

            “Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them?” (NIV)

          • Bart
            Bart  January 17, 2018

            We thought that it meant the righteous people who were in Hades. On 1 Cor. 15:24 there are about 438 interpretations, and I’ve never had a clear idea of which is right….

  10. Avatar
    AnotherBart  January 17, 2018

    Did you ever connect the two? “proclaiming to the souls in prison” and “baptizing for the dead”?
    Seems easily connectable to me. I imagine that Paul had been asked many times by God fearers “What about my Aunt Bessie? She died a year ago and never got to hear this message” to which Paul might have replied, “Well, lets get Susan over here to be baptized for her.”

    I’m not LDS. I’m not Catholic. I’m not Universalist, either. I know many who would raise their eyebrows bigtime over this, but I cannot imagine these, in light of certain other passages in the New Testament in any other way.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 18, 2018

      No, I’ve never connected the two. For one thing, they are by different authors who didn’t know each other’s work. Interesting idea though.

      • Avatar
        AnotherBart  January 24, 2018

        “No, I’ve never connected the two. For one thing, they are by different authors who didn’t know each other’s work. Interesting idea though.”


        Dr. Ehrman, I’d give my right arm for you to see the connectivity, the relationships, the early dates of authorship, the realness of Paul, Luke, Aristarchus & Timothy on the boat together etc. etc. that I see.

        It took me two years of getting to know Acts 16-28, & the Pauline epistles in depth, before I could.

        But see it I do.

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