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Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Philippians, Philemon
By Carolyn Osiek
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2000 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
The address or prescript is in recognizable form: sender to recipient, greetings. The greetings for Paul are the occasion for a brief blessing or wish not just for material but also spiritual prosperity. (For discussion of the structure of the letter through the categories of ancient rhetoric, see the introduction.)
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Paul begins the letter with a greeting from both himself and Timothy, who is with him and known to the Philippian community. His letters often contain another name in the prescript besides Paul's: compare the opening lines of 1 and 2 Corinthians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, and Philemon. In every case except 1 Corinthians, Timothy's name appears, either alone or with another. Timothy was a major and highly esteemed collaborator and assistant of Paul, whom Paul hopes later to send on a brief scouting mission to Philippi, to report back to him (2:19-23). Acts is unclear whether he was part of Paul's first mission to Philippi: 16:3-4 suggests that he was, but in the narratives set in Philippi, his name does not appear alongside those of Paul and Silas. It is also typical of Paul's letters that even though he names a companion or two in the prescript, within a few verses he speaks in the first-person singular, as here in verse 3.
Paul continues in the prescript by calling himself and Timothy douloi, "servants" (NRSV), really "slaves," of Christ Jesus. The term "servants" in English carries a somewhat more dignified connotation, but there are other terms for steward or manager in Greek that Paul could have used to convey that connotation. Instead, he chose the common word for slave—which is not necessarily an expression of humility or debasement. Slavery was a complex and multilayered institution in the ancient Greco-Roman world, by no means to be compared to American colonial slavery except in the common basic injustice of conceiving of human beings as property to be exploited.
In the Greco-Roman world, prisoners of war and condemned criminals in galleys, mines, and public work had a terrible lot, but at the other end of the spectrum, slaves were also trusted and sometimes powerful managers of estates, businesses, and government offices. A slave's status did not derive from the legal condition of slavery, but from the status of his or her owner, the slave's own position, and its importance. Thus for Paul to call himself and Timothy "slaves of Christ Jesus" was to associate themselves closely with the highest-status person available in the social structure of the Christian community. It is a position that demands respect. He will later use the related verb, "to serve" (douleuein) for his and Timothy's ministry in 2:22.
Paul next addresses his letter to "all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons." Unique to the prescript of this letter is the addition to the community of those two titles of leadership. "Bishops and deacons" are not very felicitous translations for the terms episkopoi and diakonoi at this very early point in church history, and the NRSV footnotes the preferred alternative, "overseers and helpers." Modern connotations of the words "bishop" and "deacon" are considerably more institutional than anything that existed in the church of the mid-first century. An episkopos was an overseer or inspector in various Greco-Roman situations from at least classical times (some examples in Lightfoot 1868, 9596). The word is also common in the LXX with the same meaning. Elsewhere in the New Testament, the term presbyteros, "presbyter" or "elder," seems to be synonymous, for example, the presbyteroi of Ephesus in Acts 20:17 are called episkopoi by Paul in 20:28. They are a collegial group in the leadership position in a network of house-churches, perhaps the actual heads of those households.
The term diakonos occurs many times in the New Testament in slightly different contexts. Paul often calls himself and his coworkers diakonoi of God or of Jesus (1 Cor 3:5; 2 Cor 3:6; 6:4; 11:23). In these passages the word probably connotes official representation or agency of an important person, not unlike the title of "slave" as explained above. Only in Rom 16:1; 1 Tim 3:8; and here does the title seem to take on the connotations of some kind of official function in the church, but we do not know what the office entailed. Even the detailed description in 1 Tim 3:8-13, including both men and women, says nothing about what they are actually supposed to do, only about requisite qualities of character.
This verse is one of the earliest indications that Christians have already begun adapting secular leadership terms to life in the church. Other Pauline churches may have used these terms contemporaneously, but if so, it is puzzling that only here does Paul acknowledge persons with these titles. It is more likely that the Roman genius for order and organization has expressed itself earlier in the Roman colony of Philippi than elsewhere. It is likely that the episkopoi are a council formed of the natural leaders of the house-churches in the city. We know that women who were heads of households were also leaders of house-churches from the beginning (Acts 12:12; 16:15, 40; Col 4:15). We also know that there were women diakonoi, notably Phoebe of Cenchrae (Rom 16:1; probably also 1 Tim 3:11). Because of this corroborating evidence, it is simple bias to assume that the episkopoi and diakonoi of Phil 1:1 must be exclusively male. Indeed, Euodia and Syntyche may be among either group.
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Paul calls the community "saints" or "holy ones." This is one of his favorite expressions for a community: compare Rom 1:7; 1 Cor 1:2; 2 Cor 1:1; Col 1:2. The way it is contextualized in Rom 1:7 reveals the meaning: they are "called to be saints" (emphasis added). It is not their own qualifications or character that make them holy, but their identity as ekklesia, those called by Christ's initiative to be his holy assembly, just as in the past Israel was called out from the nations by God.
The blessing that concludes the prescript is simple and typically Pauline. "Grace" (charis) is a word that originally meant "gracefulness" or "favor," but for Paul has taken on the meaning of the special kind of favor that comes only from God. The wish of peace is the shalom that is still the ordinary greeting in spoken Hebrew. But here, grace and peace are those that only God and Jesus can give. The blessing is Paul's more common twofold "binitarian" form rather than trinitarian. While Paul has a very active theology of the Holy Spirit and sometimes includes the Spirit in blessings, the triadic formula is not yet in common use. Triadic patterns do appear outside of blessing formulas in the letters, for example, 1 Cor 12:4-6.
Verses 3-11 constitute the next recognized section of a Pauline letter, expanded from the simple wish for prosperity and health that is characteristic of the hellenistic letter at this point. The general structure follows the thought line: "I thank God for you because ..." (here vv. 3-8), "and I pray for you that ..." (vv. 9-10). This passage in Philippians is the most extended and developed of the thanksgiving sections in the Pauline letters.
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Paul gives thanks using the ordinary verb to convey that meaning, eucharistein. The noun eucharistia has not yet become linked with a ritual meal that Paul refers to as the Lord's Supper (1 Cor 11:20). He is grateful for their koinonia, "sharing" or "partnership," terminology that could be used in business contracts, but that in daily life and especially in Christian usage has a much broader meaning of sharing experience and labor. The idea is repeated in verse 7 using a related noun. Later, he will use the same word to appeal to the recipients to unite in the Spirit (2:1). Another important term that is introduced is phronein, here translated "think" (v. 7). A broader sense of the word could be conveyed by the ideas of having an attitude or an orientation toward something. Later in the appeal to unity at the beginning of chapter 2, this terminology will reappear.
When in verse 8, Paul longs for them with the "compassion" of Christ Jesus, the Greek word so rendered is splangchna, literally the inner organs, including heart, lungs, liver, and intestines. Its literal meaning appears in Luke's description of the death of Judas (Acts 1:18). Paul uses the term in its well-established secondary meaning of feelings, especially those of affection and mercy. This meaning reveals the awareness of ancient Mediterranean people that emotions produce a physiological effect felt in just those organs. The language in this verse is typical language of letters of friendship.
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The thanksgiving sets the tone for the rest of the letter. It is relaxed, expansive, and charged with positive energy. Most of the major themes to be developed in the letter are already present here: Paul's gratitude and affection for the Philippian community, their sharing in the Gospel, his imprisonment, his wish for their "knowledge and full insight to help you determine what is best" (v. 9). Only his explicit concern for their problems about unity is missing, and could well be subtly included in the "knowledge and full insight" of verse 9. The previous RSV translation was "knowledge and all discernment," which may express more clearly what is at stake here, not insight in general but insight about the things of God, and how to recognize the Spirit at work and commit to following the Spirit's bidding.
The sequence of the second part of the passage is interesting: Paul prays that their love may overflow into knowledge and insight that will make them come out well on the day of Christ Jesus. We would expect knowledge to lead to love, but Paul puts it the other way around. It is their response to the love of Christ for them that will give them the right knowledge. This is the process begun in them by God, about which Paul expresses his confidence in God's fidelity to bring completion to the work already begun (v. 6).
The beauty of this thanksgiving section can be better appreciated by comparing it to others written by Paul: the terse Rom 1:8-10; 1 Cor 1:3-9; and 2 Cor 1:37; the more expansive 1 Thess 1:2-10 and Phlm 4-7; and Galatians, where it is completely absent!
Paul's Situation (1:12-26)
This section begins the body of the letter and introduces the reasons for writing by giving some background to the situation. While much of its expression is intensely personal, it is at the same time composed within recognizable rhetorical patterns: reassurance and encouragement of followers, critique of the unworthy motives of others, philosophical reflection on the burdens of life, and anticipation of release (compare for instance 2 Tim 4:1-8). The section consists of three parts. In verses 12-14, Paul gives his perception of the situation: what seems disastrous is not. In verses 15-18, the motives of others are questioned but the outcome is embraced. In verses 19-26, he reflects on his own dilemma about his future.
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Paul begins with an expression, "I want you to know" (ginoskein de hymas boulomai), which is a common construction to impart information. He calls the Philippians "brothers" (adelphoi), as he ordinarily addresses members of his churches. Two different kinds of observations must be made about Paul's use of this title. First, it connotes equality rather than a superior/inferior relationship as is the case with paternal imagery (2:22; 2 Cor 11:2; 1 Thess 2:11) or sometimes maternal imagery (Gal 4:19), which he uses on occasion. While Paul is quite conscious of his authority in the communities he founded, he nevertheless does not address them as social inferiors—and there were many ways in status-conscious ancient Mediterranean culture to do so.
The second observation is that adelphoi is a masculine plural form of address. Besides being heavily status-conscious, Paul's world was decidedly androcentric. Even in public places, the speakers in Acts usually address their audiences as andres adelphoi, "males, brothers." This does not mean that Paul intends to exclude the women of the congregation in his address, nor that Luke thinks that there are no women present in the marketplaces where he situates the speeches of Peter, Stephen, or Paul. Though all models of social interaction are stereotypes that cannot deal with the complexity of real social exchange, it can generally be said that in the ancient Mediterranean world, public space was male space, while private domestic space was that of females, at least at certain times of the day. Even though there are women present in house-churches when Paul's letters are to be read, even though there are women present in the agora of a city when Paul preaches in Acts, they are not recognized in speech and so are socially invisible while physically present. In Philippians, the proof of this linguistic convention is that in 4:2, two women who are significant in the community will be addressed by name.
Paul's imprisonment (literally, his "chains," but which need not mean that he is literally chained), undoubtedly seen by the anxious Philippians as a disaster, has in fact been the occasion of free publicity for the cause. It has encouraged those who might have been hesitant, because Paul has become unexpectedly famous right where he is. Thus the reason for his imprisonment, the advancement of the gospel, has become well known in the whole praetorium, the governor's residence or the military nerve center or prominent location where he is confined (Matt 27:27; Mark 15:16; John 18:28, 33; 19:9; see Introduction for further discussion of the difficulties involving the term).
Every good defense requires an equally good offense. As with the "dogs" of 3:2, the threat of opponents strengthens the cause. The language in verses 15-18 picks up the accusations of persuasive rhetoric: envy and rivalry, selfish ambition, sharply contrasted with those whose motivation is love. He even accuses them of trying to cause him trouble and suffering in his confinement. Some of them may be imprisoned with him and causing dissension within the prison. Clearly, he has no respect for them. We know nothing else about these alternate Christian preachers except what we can learn from Paul's critique of them. They may have been perfectly well-intentioned missionaries whose strategy or way of operating was in disagreement with that of Paul and his companions. Accusation of false motives and even sometimes moral turpitude by "the others" is a stock part of such defense (cf. 2:21). Ignatius, for example, writes that those who believe differently, the heterodox, neglect widows, orphans, prisoners, and the needy (Ign. Smyrn. 6.2). These people of whom Paul is not overly fond were probably not a huge threat. Attacking the outsiders strengthens the boundaries of, and one's position among, the insiders.
One thing that comes through in verses 15-18—as if we did not know it from other sources—is that Paul does not get along with everyone in the churches. But here we see a mellower and more detached side of him than in the fiery defenses of 2 Corinthians. Paul does not try to retaliate against what he experiences probably as the pettiness and jealousy of other Christian missionaries. The language he uses for their conduct, phthonos, eris (v. 15), and eritheias (v. 17) are typical of literary tracts against factionalism and partisanship, and usually imply the imputing of ill will (Winter 1994, 94-95). The first of these words, especially "envy," carries with it a world of social connotation about resentment at the success of others. It is often associated with sorcery, the evil eye, and other ways of actually causing harm to the one envied. On the other hand, to be envied, as Paul says he is, is a mark of honor that one has been sufficiently successful to bring about this reaction.
Even in the middle of this additional unwelcome difficulty, Paul has the freedom to rejoice that Christ is being preached one way or another. Here perhaps "the gentleman doth protest too much," since in 3:1 he will have very definite and very sharp objection to another way of preaching the gospel, and Galatians is an entire letter written to object to just that. Here at the conclusion of verse 18 is the first echo of the theme of joy introduced at verse 4. It is a theme that will pervade the entire letter.
The expression of joy is the transition from one topic to another, from verse 18 to verse 19. Paul rejoices that Christ is preached, and will continue to rejoice for another reason: through their prayers he will see a positive outcome to what he now slowly admits is a grim situation. In verses 19-26 Paul reflects on his plight and its implications for the future. The way it is structured is traditional, yet the person Paul, with his own human doubts and faith, also comes through. He begins with an allusion to Job 13:16, an exact quotation of five Greek words from the LXX text that mean "This will turn out for my salvation." One can only wonder whether these words leapt up to him from childhood Bible memorization, or whether he saw some similarity between his predicament and that of Job, who also longs for vindication and is maligned by those who should be supporters (cf. Hays 1989, 21-24).
Excerpted from Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Philippians, Philemon by Carolyn Osiek. Copyright © 2000 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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