(Mis)Understanding Philippians—Part 2: Is Philippians a “Letter of Friendship”?

(Mis)Understanding Philippians—Part 2: Is Philippians a “Letter of Friendship”? June 23, 2020

In the 1990s, it became popular to classify Philippians as a “letter of friendship” as this genre was outlined by ancient epistolary theorists. Gordon Fee was a strong advocate for this and the idea received additional support by a number of recognized biblical scholars and historians in a Brill volume edited by John Fitzgerald called Friendship, Flattery, and Frankness of Speech: Studies on Friendship in the New Testament World. Much good came out of academic study of the nature of friendship in the Roman world during that time, but the links to Paul and his letters were somewhat tenuous or inconclusive. Yet by 2010, it seemed that labelling Philippians a “letter of friendship” was almost taken for granted. My fear is that a number of commentaries simply carried forward this idea without much question. That is a problem.

For our New Cambridge Bible Commentary on Philippians, Mike Bird and I re-evaluated the evidence for this theory. It is lacking for a number of reasons, and we were pleased to see some recent pushback in scholarship to this view (see the work of David Briones). Here are two important concerns.

  • Paul does not use the common Greek words for “friendship” (philos, philia) at all in this letter. That seems strange to me and really hurts the case for treating Philippians as a “friendship” letter. Now, one might argue that this is a mere coincidence and that other features (“my beloved”) replace philos. Perhaps, but keep in mind philos/philia are extremely common Greek words and they were used on a constant basis by ancient writers (e.g., Philo used philos 200+ times). But not only does Paul not use these words in Philippians, he seems to avoid them in all of his letters! Yet, for example, Luke and James had no trouble with this language (Acts  10:24; 19:31; James 2:23; 4:4). That is, it wasn’t “off-limits” for Christians or anything like that.

 

  • Paul’s language of “fellowship” (koinonia) has been identified as a marker of friendship language in Philippians. The problem with this is that koinonia is a very general term for “sharing” or “partnership” and can involve cooperation or mutuality on a variety of levels. It would be similar to how we use the language of “relationship” today. I have a “relationship” with my friends of course, but I also have a “relationship” with my wife, neighbors, co-workers, accountant, postal worker, and grocery store cashier! This is too generic of a term to do the heavy-lifting for the “friendship” theory.

The fact of the matter is that the hunt for Paul using a single epistolary genre is futile. We don’t know that Paul sought to replicate the literary conventions of the day formally. What is more likely is that Paul freely borrowed from rhetorical and epistolary tools and devices and “mixed and matched” as he found beneficial. This is an important caution against putting Paul’s letters in rigid categories. When we do that we fall into this trap:

Philippians shows some similarities to friendship discourse in the Greco-Roman world

Philippians, therefore, is a letter of friendship

Let’s read Philippians through the lens of letter of friendship

Once you do that, you end up in a loop, and this constrains the reading of the letter where all material now is pressed into that “letter of friendship” mold.

If not a “letter of friendship”—then what? I hesitate to limit Paul to one neat category. And I just don’t find that it leads to a more profitable reading to restrict Paul to any one category. I like Loveday Alexander’s proposal that Philippians is closer to a “family letter,” but again this locks Philippians up.

Mike and I decided to land on the notion that Philippians is a warm and “friendly” letter, written to encourage a troubled church, but—sorry folks— not a formal “letter of friendship.”


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