The Letter of Philippians: Author, Date, and Themes

The letter to the Philippians is nearly universally accepted by scholars to have been written by the Apostle Paul. 

This letter was written while Paul was in prison (1:7, 12-18) and writes to inform the Christians in Philippi of his imprisonment. He wishes to express gratitude to the Philippian Christians for their support and to praise Epaphroditus and commend Timothy.  

Date of Philippians

The date of Philippians depends on which prison Paul was held captive. Unfortunately, Philippians never informs the reader of the prison, which means the scholar needs to speculate. If Paul wrote this letter from a Roman prison, then a date between 60 and 62 CE is possible. However, if Paul wrote from Caesarea, then a date between 57 and 59 CE can be held.

Themes and Characteristics

It is difficult to know what problems in the church in Philippi Paul addressed in this letter. He mentions concerns only in passing and evidently does not write the goal of correcting error, as is apparent in his other epistles. A problem one does discover, however, is the strife between Euodia and Syntyche, the two leaders of the community (4:2). Paul wishes for Euodia and Syntyche to be of the “same mind in the Lord.” In chapter 3 (v. 2-3), Paul takes objection to Judaizers, namely those imposing circumcision and law observance on gentiles. 

Philippians is unique in its tone in the context of the Pauline corpus. The tone evidences warmth and friendship. Paul has much praise for the Christians in Philippi and he is thankful to them for their “partnership in the gospel from the first day until now” (1:5). Paul thanks God every time he remembers them (1:3). Paul says that he holds these communities members in his heart. They too “are all partakers with me of grace” (1:7). Paul also has a strong yearning for them. He yearns for them “with the affection of Christ Jesus” (1:7-8). A little later Paul calls the Philippians his “brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown” (4:1).

There is a theme of encouragement. The Christians are to be united with Christ. They are to be like-minded in their faith and love to make Paul’s joy complete. The Christians in Philippi are exhorted not to conduct their behavior “out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves” (2:3). They must do this without grumbling or arguing, so that they may be blameless and pure. Paul encourages the Christians to follow his example, to live like him, who eagerly awaits the return of Christ, and not like the enemies of Christ (3:17-19). Toward the conclusion of the letter, Paul encourages the Christians to contemplate that which is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and admirable: “if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (4:8).

Joy and death are additional themes in Philippians. It is a letter of joy that “passes all understanding” (4:6). The letter uses the verb “rejoice” nine times and thus more often than any other letter in the Pauline corpus. The noun “joy” is used five times. Paul does not let his imprisonment take away his joy. Although there is the possibility of facing death, Paul desires that Christ be honored in his body, “whether by life or by death” (1:20). He then writes that “to die is gain” and that it is his desire “to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (1:21–23). Death is not the end but an entry into a new life with Christ. Paul informs the Philippians about his experience in prison (1:12-26). He thanks them for their material support (4:10–20), praises Epaphroditus for his work (2:25-30), and commends Timothy (2:19–23). 

The Christ Hymn (2:6-11) is perhaps the most important for its doctrinal significance:

Who, being in very nature God,  did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

This is an important text because many scholars believe Paul is quoting an early Christian hymn describing Christ’s incarnation and exaltation. We find in it a three-stage Christology: pre-existence, incarnation, and exaltation. According to theologian Donald Hagner, “Jesus comes from heaven to earth, accomplishes his work, and then returns to heaven. It thus encapsulates the story of salvation and expresses the heart of the Pauline gospel… the christological statement of 2:6–11 provides the spiritual focus, assurance and incentive for the letter’s various instructions”. For example, the humility exhibited in Jesus is also to be exhibited in the Christian (2:3).

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