Sometimes when you come to the end of something, it’s a relief, like finishing a marathon. Sometimes it’s a joy. And sometimes it’s sad. I must confess to having all these feelings in regard to writing my last New Testament commentary, this one a full-dress socio-rhetorical commentary on Philippians. After twenty-five years writing commentaries on each NT book it is hard to believe I am done. Yes, I wrote a very small commentary on this subject before entitled Friendship and Finances in Philippi for Trinity Press Int. That was a long time ago, and this new commentary is not a mere revision of the earlier one, but a fresh new effort at the task, especially taking into account the scholarly literature written since the first commentary came out in the mid-90s. I frankly was astounded by what a huge body of literature had sprung forth on ‘the jewel of the Pauline corpus’ since about 1995.
Like the previous volumes in the socio-rhetorical series, this commentary attempts to look at Paul’s letter to the converts in Philippi especial from a social and a rhetorical point of view. This is a natural and fruitful approach for several reasons: 1) Philippi was a Roman colony city where all things Roman including rhetoric ruled the day; 2) in this congregation there were leading female members and knowing about the roles of women in Philippi since the time of Alexander the Great helps with the understanding of several key things going on in this discourse; 3) the unique references to the Praetorium and the household of Caesar not only tell us something of the provenance of Philippians but also about the social situation Paul finds himself in— under house arrest, but with the real prospect of gaining his freedom again; 4) when one analyzes Philippians as deliberative rhetoric with some epideictic features the aims and purpose of this discourse become increasingly clear. Paul wants them to continue embracing their Christian faith and model themselves on examples, especially the example of Christ himself as Phil. 2 makes evident; 5) at the end of the discourse, Paul must address the delicate issue of ‘giving and receiving’ that is of reciprocity, for the Philippians had once again sent some monetary support to Paul. How does one politely thank the audience without it sounding like a request for more, and in fact tell the audience ‘you’ve done enough’ without sounding ungrateful and without raising the hackles of the givers and hurting perhaps the closest and most intimate relationship Paul had with any congregation? Rhetoric helps us as well see that the arguments that we have several letter fragments in Philippians is not merely weak, it is simply wrong, and of course there never was any textual evidence anyway that we had multiple fragments welded together in Philippians. Finally, the many major themes of importance in this discourse— joy in the Lord, suffering for Christ, following good examples, resolving differences, ignoring barking dogs that would lead one in wrong theological and ethical directions, building on the fellowship one already has in Christ, bearing witness even within the inner sanctums of Roman power— to soldiers and those who work for Caesar in various ways raises issues of power and purpose and unity and Christ-likeness that seem powerful and poignant and pertinent for us today, at the cusp of the 21rst century. Philippians is not a dead letter, it is a living rhetorical discourse just as much for our own day and time as for Paul’s.