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The Epistle to the Philippians[a] is a Pauline epistle of the New Testament of the Christian Bible. The epistle is attributed to Paul the Apostle and Timothy is named with him as co-author or co-sender. The letter is addressed to the Christian church in Philippi. Paul, Timothy, Silas (and perhaps Luke) first visited Philippi in Greece (Macedonia) during Paul's second missionary journey from Antioch, which occurred between approximately 49 and 51 AD. In the account of his visit in the Acts of the Apostles, Paul and Silas are accused of "disturbing the city".
There is a general consensus that Philippians consists of authentically Pauline material, and that the epistle is a composite of multiple letter fragments from Paul to the church in Philippi.: 17 These letters could have been written from Ephesus in 52–55 AD or Caesarea Maritima in 57–59, but the most likely city of provenance is Rome, around 62 AD, or about 10 years after Paul's first visit to Philippi.
Starting in the 1960s, a general consensus has emerged among biblical scholars that Philippians was not written as one unified letter, but is rather a compilation of fragments from three separate letters from Paul to the church in Philippi.: 17 According to Philip Sellew, Philippians contains the following letter fragments:
In support of the idea that Philippians is a composite work, scholars point to the abrupt shifts in tone and topic within the text. There also seem to be chronological inconsistencies from one chapter to the next concerning Paul's associate Epaphroditus:
Another argument against unity has been found in the swiftly changing fortunes of Epaphroditus: this associate of Paul is at the point of death in chapter two (Phil 2:25–30), where seemingly he has long been bereft of the company of the Philippian Christians; Paul says that he intended to send him back to Philippi after this apparently lengthy, or at least near-fatal separation. Two chapters later, however, at the end of the canonical letter, Paul notes that Epaphroditus had only now just arrived at Paul's side, carrying a gift from Philippi, a reference found toward the close of the "thank-you note" as a formulaic acknowledgement of receipt at Phil 4:18.— Philip Sellew: 18
These letter fragments likely would have been edited into a single document by the first collector of the Pauline corpus, although there is no clear consensus among scholars regarding who this initial collector may have been, or when the first collection of Pauline epistles may have been published.: 26
Today, a number of scholars believe that Philippians is a composite of multiple letter fragments. According to the theologian G. Walter Hansen, "The traditional view that Philippians was composed as one letter in the form presented in the NT [New Testament] can no longer claim widespread support." Nevertheless, many scholars continue to argue for the unity of Philippians.
Regardless of the literary unity of the letter, scholars agree that the material that was compiled into the Epistle to the Philippians was originally composed in Greek, sometime during the 50s or early 60s AD.
It is uncertain where Paul was when he wrote the letter(s) that make up Philippians. Internal evidence in the letter itself points clearly to it being composed while Paul was in custody, but it is unclear which period of imprisonment the letter refers to. If the testimony of the Acts of the Apostles is to be trusted, candidates would include the Roman imprisonment at the end of Acts, and the earlier Caesarean imprisonment. Any identification of the place of writing of Philippians is complicated by the fact that some scholars view Acts as being an unreliable source of information about the early Church.
Jim Reiher has suggested that the letters could stem from the second period of Roman imprisonment attested by early church fathers. The main reasons suggested for a later date include:
In Chapters 1 and 2 of Philippians (Letter B), Paul sends word to the Philippians of his upcoming sentence in Rome and of his optimism in the face of death, along with exhortations to imitate his capacity to rejoice in the Lord despite one's circumstances. Paul assures the Philippians that his imprisonment is actually helping to spread the Christian message, rather than hindering it. He also expresses gratitude for the devotion and heroism of Epaphroditus, who the Philippian church had sent to visit Paul and bring him gifts. Some time during his visit with Paul, Epaphroditus apparently contracted some life-threatening debilitating illness. But he recovers before being sent back to the Philippians.
In Chapter 3 (Letter C), Paul warns the Philippians about those Christians who insist that circumcision is necessary for salvation. He testifies that while he once was a devout Pharisee and follower of the Jewish law, he now considers these things to be worthless and worldly compared to the gospel of Jesus.
In Chapter 4, Paul urges the Philippians to resolve conflicts within their fellowship. In the latter part of the chapter (Letter A), Paul expresses his gratitude for the gifts that the Philippians had sent him, and assures them that God will reward them for their generosity.
Throughout the epistle there is a sense of optimism. Paul is hopeful that he will be released, and on this basis he promises to send Timothy to the Philippians for ministry, and also expects to pay them a personal visit.
Chapter 2 of the epistle contains a famous poem describing the nature of Christ and his act of redemption:
Who, though he was in the form of God,
- Did not regard being equal with God
- Something to be grasped after.
But he emptied himself
- Taking on the form of a slave,
- And coming in the likeness of humans.
And being found in appearance as a human
- He humbled himself
- Becoming obedient unto death— even death on a cross.
Therefore God highly exalted him
- And bestowed on him the name
- That is above every name,
That at the name of Jesus
- Every knee should bow
- Of those in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth.
And every tongue should confess
- That Jesus Christ is Lord
- To the glory of God the Father.
Due to its unique poetic style, Bart D. Ehrman suggests that this passage constitutes an early Christian poem that was composed by someone else prior to Paul's writings, as early as the mid-late 30s AD and was later used by Paul in his epistle. While the passage is often called a "hymn," some scholars believe this to be an inappropriate name since it does not have a rhythmic or metrical structure in the original Greek.
The Christ poem is significant because it strongly suggests that there were very early Christians who understood Jesus to be a pre-existent celestial being, who chose to take on human form, rather than a human who was later exalted to a divine status.
Importantly, while the author of the poem did believe that Jesus existed in heaven before his physical incarnation, this does not necessarily mean that he was believed to be equal to God the Father prior to his death and resurrection. This largely depends on how the Greek word harpagmon (ἁρπαγμόν, accusative form of ἁρπαγμός) is translated in verse 6 ("Something to be grasped after / exploited"). If harpagmon is rendered as "something to be exploited," as it is in many Christian Bible translations, then the implication is that Christ was already equal to God prior to his incarnation. But Bart Ehrman and others have argued that the correct translation is in fact "something to be grasped after," implying that Jesus was not equal to God before his resurrection. Outside of this passage, harpagmon and related words were almost always used to refer to something that a person doesn't yet possess but tries to acquire.
It is widely agreed by interpreters, however, that the Christ poem depicts Jesus as equal to God after his resurrection. This is because the last two stanzas quote Isaiah 45:22–23: ("Every knee shall bow, every tongue confess"), which in the original context clearly refers to God the Father.