Gift Guide

Paul's Letter to the Philippians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary


Interprets Paul's letter in light of its rhetorical content and cultural context

Skeptical of the trend among many biblical scholars to analyze Paul's short, affectionate letter to the Philippians in light of Greco-Roman letter-writing conventions, Ben Witherington instead looks at Philippians as a masterful piece of long-distance oratory — an extension of Paul's oral speech, dictated to a scribe and meant to be read aloud to its recipients. Witherington examines Philippians in ...

See more details below
Other sellers (Paperback)
  • All (5) from $23.84   
  • New (4) from $23.83   
  • Used (1) from $29.58   
Sending request ...


Interprets Paul's letter in light of its rhetorical content and cultural context

Skeptical of the trend among many biblical scholars to analyze Paul's short, affectionate letter to the Philippians in light of Greco-Roman letter-writing conventions, Ben Witherington instead looks at Philippians as a masterful piece of long-distance oratory — an extension of Paul's oral speech, dictated to a scribe and meant to be read aloud to its recipients. Witherington examines Philippians in light of Greco-Roman rhetorical conventions, identifying Paul's purpose, highlighting his main points and his persuasive strategies, and considering how his original audience would have heard and received Paul's message.

Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802801432
  • Publisher: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
  • Publication date: 8/28/2011
  • Pages: 312
  • Sales rank: 542,570
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Ben Witherington III is Amos Professor of New Testament for Doctoral Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, Kentucky, and is on the doctoral faculty at St. Andrews University, Scotland. Witherington has twice won the Christianity Today best Biblical Studies book-of-the-year award, and his many books include We Have Seen His Glory: A Vision of Kingdom Worship and socio-rhetorical commentaries on Mark, Acts, Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philemon, Colossians, Ephesians, and 1 and 2 Thessalonians. He writes a blog at and can also be found on the web at
Read More Show Less

Read an Excerpt

Paul's Letter to the Philippians

A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary
By Ben Witherington III

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2011 Ben Witherington III
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8028-0143-2

Chapter One

Epistolary Prescript (1.1-2)

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all the holy ones in Christ Jesus, those being in Philippi with overseers and deacons, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

In ancient letters it was indeed the normal practice to mention the addressers first, and then the addressees. Paul is not totally alone, but his long-time coworker Timothy is with him in Rome and is listed as addressing the Philippians as well. Timothy is also listed in prescripts in 1 Thess. 1.1; 2 Thess. 1.1; and Phlmn. 1. He seems to have been the most constant of Paul's companions. To judge, however, from the Greek pronouns in Philippians, Paul is in fact the sole author of this document (to which we may contrast the plural pronouns in 1 Thessalonians, for example). But Timothy is mentioned here not only to let the Philippians know that Paul is not totally alone, but also probably because Timothy was involved in the evangelization of Macedonia (Acts 16–18) and provided support for Paul's time of house arrest (Phil. 2.20-22), which is why Timothy is mentioned in the prescripts in Colossians and Philemon as well. To judge from Phil. 2.19-30, the Philippians may well have a close relationship with Timothy, and so adding Timothy's name at the outset may provide a sense of reassurance to the audience, not only that Paul was telling them the truth, but also that the situation was not hopeless. These captivity letters (not "prison letters") were all written during Paul's house arrest in Rome in A.D. 6062.2 2.19 indicates that Timothy will continue to be Paul's emissary to the Philippians as Paul continues to strengthen the social networks between himself and his converts.

It is always noteworthy how Paul labels himself in the prescript, and here as in Rom. 1.1 he calls himself a "servant" or "slave" of Christ Jesus, and not "apostle." The latter omission is also seen in 1 and 2 Thessalonians: Paul avoids "apostle" when addressing his Macedonian churches. This may reflect Paul's warm and close relationship with both the Thessalonians and the Philippians. The problems either of these congregations faced did not involve challenges to Paul's apostolic authority, so perhaps he felt no need to assert it in these letters. But we should concentrate on the term Paul does use of himself (cf. Gal. 1.10) and Timothy — doulos.

Some scholars have suggested that the use of "servant" here reflects the use of "servant (of God)" for the OT prophets (Jer. 25.4) or the Isaianic "servant of Yahweh." But neither is likely to be alluded to here, precisely because Paul will go on in ch. 2 to tell the story of how Christ took on the form and function of a "slave" or "servant," which does not refer to Christ taking on the form of a prophet. In a letter that calls for emulation of both Christ and Paul, the connection between Christ as servant and Paul as servant is close and should be allowed to have full weight.

Paul is, then, modeling servant leadership here, a model he wants Euodia and Syntyche, among others, to follow. He interjects the note of humility and humble service, of having the same mind and attitude as Christ, at the outset of this discourse. Paul is happy to call other leaders his fellow servants of Christ (see Col. 1.7 and 4.7), and here he shares the title with Timothy. What we see here already is a trans-valuation of values. While many Greco-Romans would despise and see as shameful being called a slave or a servant in light of the character and example of Christ, the title takes on just the opposite nuance — it is an honor because Christ took it upon himself (see, e.g., Mark 10.45). This is part of the countercultural values that Paul is trying to reinforce for and in the Philippian community. He does indeed seem to believe that the key to human freedom is serving the right master—in this case Christ rather than any of the gods of this world. The Book of Common Prayer puts it right: "in his service is perfect freedom." Paul is not suggesting that being the servant of Christ is somehow exclusive to his own calling. "Paul's use of the title of slaves for himself and Timothy points to their total subjection to the will of their master: they were not autonomous; they were subject to the claims of the one who owned them."

A Closer Look: Paul's Right-Hand Man Timothy

There is perhaps no figure who better illustrates the way Paul did ministry in tandem than Timothy (Timotheos, "one who honors God").He is mentioned more frequently than any of Paul's other coworkers and is mentioned in letters that span the Pauline corpus chronologically. He is frequently listed as a co-sender of letters (1 Thess. 1.1; 2 Thess. 1.1; 2 Cor. 1.1; Col. 1.1; Phil. 1.1; Phlmn. 1).He is called Paul's beloved and faithful child in the Lord (1 Cor. 4.17; cf. 1 Tim. 1.2), "our brother" (1 Thess. 3.2; 2 Cor. 1.1; Phlmn. 1), and "our coworker" (1 Thess. 3.2; Rom. 16.21). Paul and Timothy had a close relationship (cf. Phil. 2.20-22; 1 Tim. 1.2, 18; 2 Tim. 1.2; 2.1). It is even possible that in 1 Thess. 2.6 Timothy is called an apostle.

We learn a good deal about Timothy from Acts, unlike Titus, who is not mentioned there. Acts 16.1-2 indicates that Timothy was the son of a Jewish woman and a Greek man. He would therefore be seen by many, such as Luke, who mentions his Jewish mother first, as a Jew. This might explain why Paul chose to have Timothy circumcised— so that he, like Paul, could work effectively with Jews as well as Gentiles, being a Jew to the Jews and a Gentile to the Gentiles like Paul himself (1 Cor. 9.20-21). Paul did not have many associates who could do so, which made Timothy especially valuable.

Timothy was a native of Lystra, a small Lycaonian town that Paul visited twice on his first missionary journey. His Jewish mother Eunice and his grandmother Lois became Christian believers perhaps a bit before Timothy did since Paul credits their Christian influence on Timothy (2 Tim. 1.5). One should not conclude, however, that these women were not observant or devout Jews before their conversion simply because Timothy had not been circumcised before Paul met him (Acts 16.3). Timothy's Greek father may well have forbidden circumcision, as it would have been a cause for ridicule at the gymnasium and baths in the city and for a loss of honor for the family. Such were the issues a religiously mixed marriage had to face in a Greek city with a Jewish minority. Perhaps Timothy's father was deceased by the time Paul had Timothy circumcised. Acts 16 does not tell us precisely when Timothy came to Christian faith and under whose direct influence.

Timothy joined Paul's entourage not long before Paul first visited Philippi. Along with Silas, he accompanied Paul on the second missionary journey through Asia to Troas and on to Macedonia. At Philippi there was some sort of conflict, but only Silas and Paul were brought before the politarchs (1 Thess. 2.2; Acts 16.16-40). Had the Philippians hidden Timothy? There was further trouble at Thessalonike and perhaps in Beroea as well (Acts 17). The precise chronology of events is not completely clear, but it appears that Paul sent Timothy from Athens back to Thessalonike to check on the fledgling congregation (1 Thess. 3.2), and later they met in Corinth, where Paul heard the good report and wrote 1 Thessalonians (1 Thess. 3.6; Acts 18.5). This appears to be the first time that Timothy was sent out on his own as an apostolic legate, but it was certainly not the last.

Timothy's tasks on that mission were to encourage and further establish the Thessalonians in their faith (1 Thess. 3.2), to explain why Paul was unable to come to them though he longed to do so (2.17), most importantly to assess carefully how the congregation was doing under pressure and persecution, and then to report back to Paul. The terms used of Timothy in 1 Thess. 3.2-7 make it clear that Timothy had Paul's full trust and authorization. He is treated as a full coworker even at this early date, perhaps even as a fellow apostle if the "we" in 2.6 is a literal plural. The prescript in Philippians emphasizes Timothy's equal footing with Paul as a minister of the Gospel, which will become important later when Paul will say he is sending him as his agent or ambassador to Philippi (Phil. 2.19-23).

After having returned to Paul in Corinth, perhaps bringing with him questions that Paul seeks to answer in 1 (and 2) Thessalonians, we get the impression that Timothy played an important role in helping establish the congregation in Corinth in the early 50s. 2 Cor. 1.19 suggests that along with Paul he preached Jesus as the Son of God in that place. Timothy's movements after Paul left Corinth, after the trial before Gallio, are unclear for the next few years. Timothy was in Ephesus during Paul's rather lengthy stay there during his third missionary journey in the mid-50s, and Paul sent Timothy to Corinth, possibly with 1 Corinthians in hand, to help resolve some problems there. This sending is referred to in 1 Cor. 4.17, but one must decide whether we have an epistolary aorist ("I sent" from the point of view of the recipients, "I am sending" from Paul's point of view) or not, in which case Timothy had been sent to Corinth before 1 Corinthians was sent, though it seems more likely that he went with the letter. In any case this is probably the sending of Timothy referred to in Acts 19.22, which says that he was accompanied by Erastus and that they went to Macedonia on the way to Corinth.

In 1 Cor. 16.10-11 we probably learn something about Timothy's temperament and personality. There Paul tells the Corinthians they must put Timothy "at ease," orders "let no one despise him," and enjoins them to "send him on his way," which refers to the providing of supplies and financial support for the upcoming journey (cf. 1 Cor. 16.6 and 2 Cor. 1.16). What are we to make of these remarks? They suggest perhaps that Timothy was young and so would not immediately have appeared to be the authority figure Paul was, which may be yet another reason why Paul would include Timothy in the prescript to several of his letters, including Philippians. But the material in 1 Corinthians also suggests that Timothy was somewhat uneasy or timid when dealing with people, and perhaps was reticent or shy about asking for help.

We cannot be sure, but this may be why thereafter Paul sent Titus, perhaps a stronger personality, to deal with the Corinthians. If one reads 2 Corinthians 1–2 and 8–9 carefully, one not only gets the impression of how difficult the Corinthians were, but also the impression that it would take a very forceful person to sort them out in the end. This person was apparently not Timothy, but rather Titus, and then finally Paul himself. Nevertheless, in A.D. 57 when Paul writes Romans from Corinth, it appears that Timothy is once again (or still?) in Corinth, and Paul sends greetings to Christians in Rome (Rom. 16.21), in which Timothy is identified as "Paul's coworker," which presumably means something like the best known coworker in the Pauline mission on an ongoing basis. The high regard that Paul still has for Timothy is evident.

According to Acts 20.4, when Paul set out for Jerusalem after his third missionary journey, Timothy was with him, at least as far as Troas. It is not clear whether he continued on with Paul to Jerusalem, though it is certainly possible. As we have just noted, Timothy is mentioned in the prescript to several of Paul's later letters—Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon—which indicates that Timothy was certainly with Paul during his house arrest period, an event that likely transpired during 60 to 62 in Rome. Particularly poignant is Phil. 2.19-22, where Paul is sending Timothy on yet another mission, this time to Philippi, and says "I have no one like him, who will be genuinely anxious for your welfare.... Timothy's worth you already know, how as a son with a father he has served with me in the Gospel." Whatever personality deficiencies or timidity may have characterized Timothy, there was no questioning his pastoral heart or willingness for hard work for the sake of the Lord. To judge from the even later Pastoral Epistles, Paul continued after the writing of Philippians to entrust Timothy with important apostolic tasks.

Jesus is called Christ Jesus here, with the title before the name (like Caesar Augustus). There are some thirty-seven references to Christ in Philippians alone, as a part of some 400 references in the whole Pauline corpus on about 140 or so pages of Greek text, which is to say between two and three references per page to Christ. To say that Christ is the main subject of Paul's discourses is an understatement. Paul can of course reverse the order of these two words, and clearly there is no difference in meaning (cf. 1.1, 2, 6, 8, 11). What Paul is careful not to do is cluster two titles without a proper human name, so for instance we do not find him speaking of "the Lord Christ." If two titles are used, the personal name is used as well: "Lord Jesus Christ," and this threefold formula comes close to the threefold imperial formula: Imperator Caesar Augustus and variations thereof. Paul's avoidance of two titles together without the name of Jesus shows that Paul was well aware that "Christ" was a title, not a name.

The addressees are "all the saints/holy ones in Christ Jesus, those being in Philippi with the overseers and deacons." The use of "all" here is interesting, and one wonders if it is meant to distinguish all the non-leaders in Philippi from the leaders, who are called "overseers and deacons." The term hagioi is used of Christians in general in this case and probably just carries the connotation of their being the "set apart ones" rather than being a comment on their level of sanctification. As such this is simply a continuation of the way Israel was spoken of (Exod. 31.13; Lev. 11.45; 19.2; Dan. 7.18, 27), but their set-apart status of course includes an implicit call to be holy, as God is holy.

The phrase "in Christ Jesus" is a crucial one for Paul, serving in some cases as his substitute for christianoi, which could have a pejorative edge ("partisans of Christ" or less polemically "those belonging to Christ"). As with Paul's use of the term "Christ," we should not assume that "in Christ" is a mere label for Paul. He does indeed believe that Christians spiritually dwell in Christ or, to put it more expansively, dwell in the body of Christ (see 1 Corinthians 12). It is possible then to take "the holy ones in Christ Jesus" as the counterpart to "the holy ones in/of Israel." For Paul, the people of God are now defined as Jew and Gentile united in Christ. It is probably true as well that "in Christ" indicates Paul's divine theology about Christ, namely that, like the omnipresent God, God's people can be said to be "in Christ." It may be significant that "in Christ" precedes "in Philippi." This order indicates the primary and second sources of the Philippians' identity. They are Christians first and foremost, part of the whole body of Christ, and Philippians secondly. Their birth, or original and primary social identity, has become secondary now that they are in Christ and citizens of his domain.

The phrase "with the overseers and deacons" is important, and there is no basis for regarding it as a later interpolation into the text. It is true, however, that several witnesses (recensions of B and D, also K and some minuscules and church fathers) join syn and episkopois as one word — "fellow bishops"— implying that the writers are also bishops. As B. M. Metzger points out, the letter is obviously addressed to the whole church in Philippi, not just to its leaders, and so the construction "with the overseers and deacons" is surely correct, as was already recognized by Theodore of Mopsuestia. Who are these leaders and why are they uniquely referenced here at the outset of the document? This has been frequently debated, and it seems the best suggestion is that this honors the leaders in the local house churches in Philippi and prepares for the discussion in ch. 4 dealing with the two women leaders who are having a disagreement. Here we probably have the earliest reference to episkopoi in all of Christian literature.


Excerpted from Paul's Letter to the Philippians by Ben Witherington III Copyright © 2011 by Ben Witherington III. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Read More Show Less

Table of Contents


Preliminary Considerations....................1
Consistency and Change....................11
Partition Theories....................15
A Letter of Friendship or a Family Letter?....................17
Social Analysis: Dead Ends and Promising Pathways....................30
Epistolary Prescript (1.1-2)....................41
A CLOSER LOOK: Paul's Right-Hand Man Timothy....................43
Exordium: Prayers and Previews (1.3-11)....................51
A CLOSER LOOK: Joy, the Elixir of Faith and Effervescence of Hope....................58
BRIDGING THE HORIZONS....................67
Narratio: Proclamation's Progress (1.12-26)....................71
A CLOSER LOOK: Imitation, the Highest Form of Education....................76
A CLOSER LOOK: Honor, Shame, and Apostolic Life....................87
BRIDGING THE HORIZONS....................93
Propositio: Lives Worthy of the Word (1.27-30)....................96
BRIDGING THE HORIZONS....................107
Probatio: Four Positive Appeals (2.1–4.3)....................110
1. The Prime Paradigm: Christ (2.1-18)....................116
A CLOSER LOOK: E. A. Judge and the Social World of Early Christianity....................123
A CLOSER LOOK: The Christ Hymn in Recent Discussion....................132
BRIDGING THE HORIZONS....................165
2. The Paradigm's Partners (2.19-30)....................169
BRIDGING THE HORIZONS....................178
3. Paul and the Dogs (3.1–4.1)....................181
A CLOSER LOOK: Synkrisis When There Is No Crisis....................191
A CLOSER LOOK: Social-Scientific Criticism—Will Meeks Inherit the Earth?....................220
BRIDGING THE HORIZONS....................225
4. An Appeal to the Leaders (4.2-3)....................233
Peroratio: The Value of Virtue and the Joy of Jesus (4.4-9)....................242
A CLOSER LOOK: Paul among the Ancient Moralists....................249
BRIDGING THE HORIZONS....................260
A Postscript: "On Giving and Receiving" (4.10-20)....................264
Final Greetings and Grace (4.21-23)....................282
A CLOSER LOOK: Caesar's Household and the Household of Faith....................285
BRIDGING THE HORIZONS....................288
Scripture and Other Ancient Literature....................302
Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Be the first to write a review
( 0 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star


4 Star


3 Star


2 Star


1 Star


Your Rating:

Your Name: Create a Pen Name or

Barnes & Review Rules

Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

We highly value and respect everyone's opinion concerning the titles we offer. However, we cannot allow persons under the age of 13 to have accounts at or to post customer reviews. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.

What to exclude from your review:

Please do not write about reviews, commentary, or information posted on the product page. If you see any errors in the information on the product page, please send us an email.

Reviews should not contain any of the following:

  • - HTML tags, profanity, obscenities, vulgarities, or comments that defame anyone
  • - Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • - Single-word reviews. Other people will read your review to discover why you liked or didn't like the title. Be descriptive.
  • - Comments focusing on the author or that may ruin the ending for others
  • - Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • - Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • - Advertisements or commercial solicitation


  • - By submitting a review, you grant to Barnes & and its sublicensees the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use the review in accordance with the Barnes & Terms of Use.
  • - Barnes & reserves the right not to post any review -- particularly those that do not follow the terms and conditions of these Rules. Barnes & also reserves the right to remove any review at any time without notice.
  • - See Terms of Use for other conditions and disclaimers.
Search for Products You'd Like to Recommend

Recommend other products that relate to your review. Just search for them below and share!

Create a Pen Name

Your Pen Name is your unique identity on It will appear on the reviews you write and other website activities. Your Pen Name cannot be edited, changed or deleted once submitted.

Your Pen Name can be any combination of alphanumeric characters (plus - and _), and must be at least two characters long.

Continue Anonymously

    If you find inappropriate content, please report it to Barnes & Noble
    Why is this product inappropriate?
    Comments (optional)