The Small Group Bible Study of the Anglican Church of St Thomas met last Thursday (June 16, 2021) and read through the whole of the letter. We made some general observations about the “who, what, where, why, when, and how”, as revealed by the text. Here they are, with a few additions, in summary form.
Paul’s Letter to the Philippians comes to us as a “book” in the printed, translated Bible. According to one source, it is 2183 words long, in one-hundred and twenty-four verses spread across four chapters. In my NRSV large-print Bible it takes up five pages of double columns. We read it aloud in English, as a group, in about twenty minutes, I think. So it is not long – about the length of this blog post, in fact!
Originally the Letter to the Philippians was not in English, nor did it have chapters, verses (a medieval addition), and section headings. For the first 1400 years of its existence it was not typeset, but rather it was copied laboriously by hand.
Above you can see one of the oldest manuscripts preserving part of it. It is likely a copy of a copy, many times over, and just as a photocopy starts to degrade over multiple copies, so errors and omissions enter in. Textual scholars, comparing many old versions, note the presence of several copying errors already in this manuscript.
The text is in Hellenistic Greek (also called Koiné Greek), and it is undoubtedly the language in which it was composed. If you can read the Greek alphabet you may be able to make out a few words of the first two lines in the photograph above. It reads,
οὖν αὐτὸν ἐν κῷ μετὰ πάσης χαρᾶς,
καὶ τοὺς τοιούτους ἐντίμους ἔχετε ὅτι
or in English translation
him then in the Lord with all joy,
and honor such people because
In the manuscript the words all run together, there is no punctuation, it is all in capitals, and the script uses abbreviations such as κῷ for common words like κυρίῳ. Nevertheless, it is plainly from Philippians 2.29-30.
Scholars and preachers today use printed critical editions, such as the United Bible Societies Greek New Testament. While such critical editions notes variant readings across hundreds and thousands of manuscripts, they do express opinions on what the original reading probably was. The English translations we use today are based on these critical editions, and generally seek to express the sense of the Koiné Greek as directly as possible.
As 1.1 states, it is a letter from Paul and Timothy to the church in Philippi, σὺν ἐπισκόποις καὶ διακόνοις (“with the bishops/overseers and deacons/helpers”). In all probability the church to which Paul wrote was small, perhaps no bigger than our own church at St Thomas’s. They likely met in private homes, or maybe a rented hall, or a courtyard. You can see that we are already into issues of translation with this first verse – do we see the words used by Paul for leadership in Philippi as technical terms, early versions of our own orders of ministry, or as something different?
Philippi, about 160 km east of Thessaloniki and 20 km inland from the sea, is now in ruins, but in Paul’s time it was a major city in eastern Macedonia. It had been founded in the 4th Century BCE by settlers from Thasos, itself a colony from the Cycladian island of Paros in the 7th Century BCE. Its original name was Krenides, meaning “fountains” or “springs”, but it was almost immediately renamed by Phillip II of Macedon after he conquered it in 360 BCE. Philip II was the father of Alexander the Great, and consolidated Macedon and extended his control over Greece. It was on a strategic route between the Adriatic and the north Aegean, and after the Romans conquered Macedon, they rebuilt the road as the Via Egnatia (parallelled today by the modern highway E90, the Egnatia Odos). It was also close to gold mines, making it a wealthy city. Octavian (later known as Augustus) fought a major battle here against Brutus and Cassius, the assassins of Julius Caesar. He then settled many legionnaires there, and it was rebuilt as an echo of Rome. While the population probably spoke mostly Greek, in Paul’s time I imagine that there were still many there whose first language would have been Latin. In the course of time Christians did build structures in Philippi, but they date from centuries after the time of Paul.
While the letter is from Paul and Timothy, it is very much in Paul’s voice. Timothy was with Paul, and Paul talks about someone named Epaphroditus who had travelled from Phillipi to wherever they were. Paul mentions Clement as well, who is not much more than a name in the New Testament; he appears to be in Philippi with two women named Euodia and Syntyche.
Why is Paul writing the Philippians?
- Essentially, the letter is a thank you note. In 4.18 he notes that the church there has sent gifts to Paul.
- The verse at 4.2 reads, “I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord” and this echoes 2.5, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” It may be that Paul had heard from Epaphroditus of some minor disagreement between the two women, and in as positive a way possible was trying in the letter to help them get along.
- The Philippians are worried about Paul, and so he writes to try and reassure him that he is fine. He is quite ambivalent about whether he lives or dies: “my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.” (1.23-24).
- In chapter 3 there is some invective against “the dogs, . . . the evil workers, . . . who mutilate the flesh” who are probably conservative Jewish Christians who believe that Gentile followers of Jesus must become Jews, and the males must be circumcised. These opponents of Paul also show up in the letters to the Galatians and in 1 & 2 Corinthians. Some scholars have suggested that this is a fragment of another letter that got inserted here, but the change in tone may just be Paul trying to say to the Philippians what he has said to other churches.
- Finally, this is a letter full of joy. Paul was simply expressing his joy in Christ and the fellowship he had with the church in Philippi.
We know where Philippi is, or at least where it was. But where was Paul when he wrote the letter?
In 1.13 he refers to the good news of Jesus becoming known τῷ πραιτωρίῳ to the Praetorium, or the “Imperial guard” as the NRSV translates it. It originally referred to the tent of the commander of a Roman army in the encampment. It is derived from the word”praetor”, which in Latin was the equivalent to “general”. As the Romans established a permanent presence in various territories, it also referred to the governor’s headquarters. Thus, in the gospels, Pontius Pilate rules from the Praetorium in Jerusalem. The penultimate verse of the letter reads, “All the saints greet you, especially those of the emperor’s household.”
In 1.7 he describes himself as being imprisoned, and in 4.14 he describes his situation as being “in distress”. This is no metaphor, then – he is a “guest” of the Roman army – in a prison. He is awaiting judgement; prison was not punishment, put the prelude to it. Punishment involved a different range of things – it might have involved physical beating, execution, exile, loss of property, and so forth – but not jail time. As well, the Romans would not have done much to make Paul comfortable, so the gifts sent by the Philippians by Epaphroditus undoubtedly did much to make Paul’s situation livable. Presumably it was money, and so Paul was probably able to have food brought to him by Epaphroditus and Timothy.
Where was he? Some have suggested Ephesus, in what is now the south-west coast of Turkey. Another suggestion is that he was in Caesarea Maritima, the great Roman port built in Judea by Herod the Great for his imperial overlords. Acts tells us he went to Rome for judgement by Caesar, and that
He lived there two whole years at his own expense and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance. (28.30-31)
So, he may have been in Rome. We cannot be sure, but he was in prison, and while he depreciates how horrible it is for him, the reality is that wherever he was it was awful.
We are so used to sending messages by email or SMS that we forget that it would have been difficult to communicate in the 1st Century. There was no internet, no telephone, and no Royal Post or ΕΛΤΑ to carry letters and packages. Rather, if you wanted to get something like money or a letter to someone, you had to personally engage someone do it for you, and to make the journey. In this case it is obvious that Epaphroditus was the person who carried the money, and it is likely that he brought the letter back with him to Philippi.
Paul probably dictated the letter, as he expressly did in other cases. In one or two of the letters he notes that he is writing he conclusion with his own hand, in big, big letters. Perhaps this indicates a visual problem, or just that he is not that used to writing compactly. While the original letter is long gone, it undoubtedly looked much like the copy in the photograph above. This made it challenging to read, so Paul probably coached Epaphroditus in how to read it aloud to the community, if he was in fact the person who read it to them there on his delivery of the letter.
The letter would have been read aloud to the community when they assembled, presumably on the Lord’s Day when they gathered for their communal meal held in memory of Jesus’s death and resurrection. While a fair percentage of the population may have been literate, books were expensive, and most interactions were done orally. So one must imagine this being read aloud.
I do not know enough to know whether this would have been on a scroll, written on one side of a long strip of paper, or on several pieces of papyrus, using both sides. Certainly by the the time that the earliest copies we have were made, dating from more than a century after it was written, the letters were already collected together and being published in bound manuscripts, or codices, and not scrolls.
Establishing a timeline for Paul is fraught. It used to be that scholars would fit the historical evidence of the Letters into the Acts of the Apostles. Then, as historico-critical methods were applied to the New Testament, it was pointed out that the Letters are the primary historical documents, and Acts is the secondary history, written thirty to forty years later. It would be like reading a history of the Second World War written in 1980 and ignoring things written in the 1940s, such as Churchill’s directives and other archival documents. You don’t get the full history from the archival documents, but if the 1980 book is to be accurate, it should be based on those pieces of paper. The author of Acts seems to have based his narrative on oral traditions, and gives no indication of knowing that Paul wrote letters. Because of the gap in time, there are a number of discrepancies.
The good news is that most of this is irrelevant to the interpretation of the Letter to the Philippians. Interestingly, the letter does not seem to be aware of the collection that is being taken up for poor Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, which is mentioned in Galatians and in 1 & 2 Corinthians. So, either Paul is writing before the Jerusalem Conference (Acts 15), during which he was asked to “remember the poor”, or he is writing some time after he went to Jerusalem to deliver the money.
We know that Paul is an adult, and a contemporary of Simon Peter and James the brother of the Lord. Thus, he might be roughly the same age as Jesus, perhaps younger, perhaps older, had Jesus not been crucified. Paul was not in Jerusalem when Jesus was crucified, which suggests that he was a younger man, having not yet left Tarsus to make his name in the City of David. However, we really don’t know.
Jesus was executed in the year 30 CE – maybe 33. The Jerusalem Conference was held around 49 CE or 50 CE. If Paul was writing before it, then he was writing in the mid to later 40s, perhaps. If he was writing after it, it would have been in the 50s, probably.