The Opponent in Philippians

In his commentary on Philippians, Gordon Fee pointed out that as many as 18 different suggestions have been made for the identity of the “opponent” in Philippians.  In this case, the identity of the opponent may provide a bit of a hint to the date of the letter.

Paul begins to deal with these false teachers” in chapter three, although those who preach the gospel from impure motives in chapter one are likely the same group.  One of the more common  identifications of the false teaching is that they are Judaizers, similar or identical to those in Galatia.  Certainly circumcision is an issue (3:2), and the fact that Paul boasts in his own credentials as a law-observant Jew might imply that his opponents have a similar boast.  It is possible that these are Jewish teachers trying to re-convert the Jewish Christians or Gentile God-fearers trying to encourage gentile converts to join them in keeping the law.

If the book was written in the early 60’s from Rome, it is surprising that the issue of Gentile conversion is still a major issue.  The issue seemed to be settled after Acts 15; for it to arise again nearly twelve years after the Jerusalem Conference seems unlikely.  As such, this is a good argument in favor of the early date of the book, written from an Ephesian imprisonment (Polhill, P&HL, 166).

On the other hand, if Philippians was written from Rome in the early 60’s, it is only a few years before the outbreak of the war against Rome in Palestine.  This was a time of extreme nationalistic pride and hopes for an independent Israel.  If this period was anything like the Maccabean period, it is possible that circumcision for those within the Jewish covenant was emphasized.  We are on the same sort of ground as Galatians (are the Gentiles converts to Israel)?  If they are, then they must conform to the covenant and be circumcised.  Even as far away as Rome, it is possible that Diaspora Jews saw the boundary markers of circumcision and food laws as non-negotiable for the Jewish people, including those who were ethnically Gentile and sought to align themselves with the Jewish Messiah Jesus.

Another suggestion which has merit is that of David deSilva.  Based on his reading of Philippians as a “letter of friendship” he has suggested that the opponents of Paul in the letter are not actual opponents in the church, but rather Paul is “using a common strategy for building up unity and cooperation within a group: warning about the presence of hostile and dangerous groups on the outside, against whom the Philippians need to present a united front” (deSilva, “No Confidence In The Flesh” Trinity Journal 15:1 (Spring 1994): 31-32)

On balance, I tend to agree with Polhill and date the letter early.  While the evidence for an Ephesian imprisonment is thin, there is enough to lead to me believe Philippians at least was written from Ephesus in the mid 50’s rather than Rome in the early 60’s.  (The other prison epistles were written from Rome, but that is for another time!)

19 thoughts on “The Opponent in Philippians

  1. “On balance, I tend to agree with Polhill and date the letter early. While the evidence for an Ephesian imprisonment is thin, there is enough to lead to me believe Philippians at least was written from Ephesus in the mid 50’s rather than Rome in the early 60’s.” (from Opponent in Phil. Post). To respond to both the post on the dating of Paul’s epistle to the Philippians and the inquiry as to the ‘opponent’ in Philippians, Polhill does in fact go about his findings in a very unbiased and ‘without prejudice’ (158) manner. He presents both sides which have considerable relevancy and can be very easily and persuasively argued. However, it does in fact seem to be a bit ‘thin’ on the evidence for the Ephesian imprisonment. It seems to be a very grand stretching of the text “fought wild beasts in Ephesus” (1 Cor. 15:32) to say that because he suffered in this area that is it the most appealing location and timing. I believe the Acts 28:30-31 is less of a stretch than the I Cor. 15:32 passage, so I would lean toward the later dating. Unfortunately dates cannot be defined as today’s reader would desire. But I truly wonder if all the emphasis that has been placed upon dating the book has hindered our approach to Paul’s work as a whole?

  2. When I read in Philippians about the “men who do evil,” (3:2), I would have to agree with deSilva that the “opponets” are just people we all know are out there that do evil. I think that because Paul is not very descriptive about who these people are, it goes along with deSilva’s argument. When we are teaching a lesson to our youth kids, or whomever, we do not necessarily talk about specific people that do evil. We are very general, because we all have a picture of someone in our lives that could take that place. I think that Paul was simply trying to teach and warn.

  3. “Paul begins to deal with these false teachers” in chapter three, although those who preach the gospel from impure motives in chapter one are likely the same group.” While In Chapter three the idea of the Judaizers does seem to make sense, tying them to chapter one does not. In chapter one, Paul says that those preaching from impure movtives do so “thinking they can afflict me in my imprisonment” (Phil 1:17). This seems to indicate that they were trying to hurt Paul personally, most likely causing trouble that would make him suffer during his imprisonment. In chapter three, Paul starts talking about mutilators of flesh and the circumsised. This would seem that Paul is now talking about people attacking believers. I don’t think that saying they are likely related is supported that well by the text.

  4. In chapter one Paul says that there are people preaching the gospel just to hurt Paul or his reputation. These people don’t sound like Judaizers as much as they do televangelists; people trying to preach the Gospel for thier own gain. As I read chapter three it doesnt sound like it is to a particular opponent. As the verses unfold Paul talks about how he should have a right to “have confidence in the flesh” the implication to me is that the ones who would give the Philippians trouble are trying to persuade them that they are way cooler than Paul. While the people in Chapter 3 sound like external opponants the ones in Chapter 1 seem internal.

  5. In response to Caleb’s point, “But I truly wonder if all the emphasis that has been placed upon dating the book has hindered our approach to Paul’s work as a whole?” I would reiterate the point I made on the other post that I do not think it so much as the location as in City that matters in this letter rather the fact that Paul was in Prison. I may be off base by that but I think the prison part is more impressive than the city. Although to understand the chronology of things it is important to know the city as well.

    As for the opponents. I like all the arguments P. Long posted. They all seem possible in my mind. Is it a slight possibility that more than one of them could be the case? The 3rd point about the hostile and dangerous groups on the outside…well isn’t there always a case of that to some extent anywhere? It seems Christians always had to unite together to withstand a dangerous force from the outside. But I also like the first point as well. P. Long’s bit about the opponent having similar boasting points as Paul was interesting. The Second point is the one I feel the least attraction to, but that is simply just a first glance type of impulse and could be misleading.

  6. I am leaning towards the earlier, Ephesian prison, date as well. The fact that we still have opponents/Judaizers causing trouble about Gentiles being circumcised, possibly 12 years after the issue was settled at the Jerusalem council, seems unlikely. Paul is having to reiterate that “…it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh (Philippians 3:3). That and the argument for the ease of travel between Philippi and Ephesus for at least six trips (Polhill, 166) to me, pose the strongest argument here.

  7. After reading Polhill I am not convinced on any side when the date of when Philippians was written. In C.E. class this last week we learned that there are 25000 different denominations of Christianity you can’t tell me that some of those differences are not because of stupid arguments like when was Philippians written. We have missed the point of the Bible, and we are wasting our time with arguments that do not matter. I suggest that we discuss truth of the Bible that God has made plain to us all and build that foundation. There are many churches today that are setting God’s truths aside that are plain for us all. So they can appeal to a culture that is rejecting truth.

    • >25000 different denominations

      Wikipedia says 38,000. But there is nothing denominational about answering the historical / exegetical question, “from where did Paul write Philippians?” In fact, I’m willing to bet that of the 38,000 denominations, there is not one of them that has made this question the standard for their denomination. I can’t imagine anyone burning a heretic who says Philippians was written from Ephesus or Rome.

      This is a question of historical accuracy which, if answered one way, implies certain things about Philippians, and if answered the other way, implies something else. Neither of which is violently defended in this class, in Polhill, or by anyone that I am aware of. It is a matter of trying to read Philippians accurately. I assume that you want to read the Bible with some level of accuracy, so the question is raised. (and answered, btw, in about a single page of text. Not exactly the most controversial thing ever written!)

      While I appreciate your plea for unity in the church, this is not the issue to get all frothy about Christians burning each other at the stake. By all means, please be remorseful over Calvinists and Arminians taking shots at each other, but not at the handful of scholars trying to help you read the Bible with accuracy.

  8. Jack, I understand where your coming from, believe me I do. When first getting into Jesus & the Gospels a year ago and listening to all the various scholarship, many with seemingly no faith whatsoever at least at plain sight, and ‘form criticism’, I was shocked at what I was being introduced to, and even started to take offense. But I think that scholarship and the intellectual wrestling and struggles that Christian academics has taken on with textual criticism offers something very unique and very valuable. We need to wrestle with our faith in the scriptures and we need to struggle with their criticisms, because plainly put, we discover far deeper truths and far greater understanding of the very faith we claim to believe. Perhaps, it is not for everyone, but certainly someone has to. Blind faith is an incredible attribute, that kind of trust, but the naivety of Christianity that gives no reason, no purpose, and no offer of apologetic for the faith, is and has been a plague in this highly intellectual era. Think about it, if Christianity has not struggled with these intellectual areas of scholarship and criticism, would we believe a Christianity that we believe today? Would we believe what is true? How could we determine what is true? As you said, there are thousands of denominations in Christendom. I bet and would argue that these thousands of rebellious breaks, some good and many not so much, are roughly political, personally opinionated, and agenda driven. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, if I am correct, rewrote their own translation of the Bible because their founder did not agree with tradition at the time. So when someone disagrees, they break off and start their own movement, taking no consideration of anything but their own appalling opinion. Give it a chance, scholarship really does have a LOT to offer Christendom that we can see from a surface glance.

  9. Oh, and I am going to agree with an earlier date as well for sake of engaging the topic here. I think Britalia brings up a good argument with regards to Paul and Silas’ ease of travel. It would seem that the tensions of war, even the tension leading up to such conflict would not allow for such ease of movement.

  10. I’m not sure how I missed the importance of dating the book of Philippians in Wright and Polhill, but I do like the idea that Philippians was written from Ephesus. However, the thing I found to be the most interesting was the ongoing debate concerning circumcision. Because this letter to also address circumcision, it gives a better picture in my mind concerning the challenge Paul faced in bringing believers to the understanding of the freedom they have in Christ. This time, however, Paul seems to have a deeper history with his audience, because his letter takes a tone of a careful reminder instead of rebuke. It doesn’t make sense to for me to think that circumcision made another appearance due to nationalism, because I can’t imagine a Jewish believer trying to persuade a gentile believer to be circumcised for his foreign nation’s pride.

  11. Jack, I would agree to some extent with your frustration, but I disagree with the time and place for the argument. Is the dating of books, or guessing at who the opponents were a point which we should take a bullet for in our faith or force a new believer to decide? NO! But this forum is not discussing these things for a new believer or trying to convert someone. This venue is specifically for intellectual conversation and thoughts about such topics. I do think there is some use in trying to figure things out, even if the best we can do is “guess”. So once again I agree with your comment to some extent, but again I believe it is misplaced. I believe these discussions do no damage to the body of Christ even if opinions are different.

  12. I still like the Ephesians imprisonment theory, I just think it fits really well.

    However, despite for once having an opinion on a matter of chronology/location, I have some real sympathy for Jack’s point. I am occasionally somewhat aggressive about not caring when speculation begins on questions such as these, and these postings are prompting me to identify why that is. I think the answer lies in P Long’s response, “It is a matter of trying to read Philippians accurately.” Is it a fair implication to draw from this statement to say that if one doesn’t properly understand the historical/chronological/geological context of a scripture passage, one cannot read that passage accurately? Because that would mean that a whole lot of people reading their Bibles with no idea of these scholarly debates are in danger of reading them inaccurately. I believe the Holy Spirit took care to include what we needed to understand the Bible…right there, in the Bible itself. If, in our fascination with learning more of the background, we lose sight of the sufficiency of Scripture, then we’re better off not going there at all.

    I don’t think that’s where we’re headed, and I think there’s a lot of usefulness to scholarship. However, I do think there is potential for a…I can’t believe I’m writing this…”slippery slope” here, and that it’s important to be a wee bit careful. The slope goes something like this: we don’t know for sure when/where the book was written; we choose a theory we like; we then read the book as though our pet theory is fact; reading the book in that context changes the meaning of certain themes within it; we reach a conclusion based both upon the text and our own theory rather than upon the text as it stands alone…

    Sorry about the old sliding down hill analogy – maybe I’m just getting mentally ready for ski season. In my own defense, I’ve heard people coming from a strongly “scholarship” background argue the way I outlined above, and it’s not pretty. It is possible to fall in love with one’s own scholarship, and it’s dangerous.

  13. Paul has always had some serious issues with individuals opposing him throughout his ministry. There are some who consider there to be Jewish Christians, as seen in Galatians, while others assume they are likely Gentiles.
    Throughout the several run ins Paul had with Jewish Christians, many of them did not end to his liking. Unfortunately, they had left a sour taste in his mouth, even as early as writing Galatians. Maybe by his writing of Philippians this was no long a core issue for him, as there had been a decision made in Jerusalem. However, he still writes extensively about this issue in Romans, but the church there had a congregation made up of Jews and Gentiles that could have been split close to 50/50.
    However, in Philippians, there is no mention of an exclusively Jewish aspect of the church in Philippi, as there are in other churches Paul has written to by this point. Therefore, it may be regarding immense persecution, as Paul mentions heavy persecution in Macedonia in his writings to the believers in Corinth.
    We may never know exactly what Paul was saying when he was discussing his opponent in Philippians, but what we do know is that Paul wants to ensure the church maintains unity and focus on Christ at all times.

  14. When reading a book of the Bible, any book of the Bible, it is important to try and identify who the author is referring to when they reference a person or group. In the case of Philippians, one of the main things to identify is who the opponents Paul is referring to are. The identity of these opponents effects both the date the book may have been written and subsequently the location the book was likely written. There are a few different suggestions for who the opponents are. Some of the suggestions include Judaizers, Christians preaching a false gospel, Gnostics, and even those who may have reverted to Judaism. One suggestion that I would not have considered is that mentioned both in the notes and he blogs as being presented by David deSilva. His suggestion is that the opponents are not actual people that the church is familiar with, rather that Paul is trying to promote unity by using a strategy that warns of exterior groups that would be opposed to Christianity and persecute them or try to lead them astray. I think the problem with this approach is that it uses a very figurative interpretation of the Bible. To begin with, Philippians is a letter, thus when looking at how to interpret it, we must keep that in mind. If it were prophetic, or if it had many parables, or visions, I might understand taking a figurative approach. As it is, people generally do not do that when reading Philippians. It doesn’t not make sense to me that when reading the rest of the book one would use a much more literal approach, but in determining this detail they suddenly switch to figurative. It does not make sense to switch like that. We must be consistent in our interpretation within a book. It is okay to view Matthew differently than Philippians, because Matthew is a narrative not a letter. To say that the opponents are merely a strategy to promote unity, implies it is not literally an opponent, rather it is a figurative statement. I think this is the biggest deterrent for me pertaining to who the opponents are. This suggestion seems out of place compared to how the rest of the letter is read, which inclines me to think it is probably incorrect.

  15. In the book of Philippians, Paul faces opposition from a group of individuals, who Gordan Fee has noted that as many as 18 different suggestions have been made as for the identity of this group. Paul’s condemnation of this group begins in chapter three, where he describes these individuals as “false teachers”. However, as Long notes, this group is probably the same ones who Paul criticizes in chapter one for teaching the gospel with impure motives. One suggestion for the identity of Paul’s opponents is the Judaizers, similar to the law-observant Jews found in Galatia. The issue of circumcision is in view when Paul addresses this group, which might contribute to why Paul mentions his credentials as a law-observant Jew, as his opponents most likely made similar boasts. Yet, it could also be likely that this oppositional group are Jews who wish to reconvert believers in Christ or gentile God-fearers that new Gentile-believers should follow the law.
    One issue that might help decipher who’s Paul’s opponents are is the date for the book of Philippians. If the book was written in the early 60’s AD, it would be unlikely that gentile circumcision would still be considered an issue, since it was addressed in Acts 15. However, if Phillipians was written earlier, it would be likely that it was written during his imprisonment in Ephesus. This would resolve the issue since it would follow the timeline for Paul’s interaction with the Jerusalem church. Thus, Paul’s opponents could be seen as the same or similar Judaizers who argued that gentiles should observe the law and be circumcised, which Paul promptly argued against in Acts 15.

  16. I find it pretty ironic that there is the thought that the opponents of Paul’s church were just a thing that Paul was using to fire up the church because I feel like that happens a lot today. I remember multiple times growing up in a Christian school where a teacher would talk about how I need to read my Bibles so well because the government will probably take them away in my lifetime. I did, and still do, think that this thought process is insane. In my opinion, the only way Bibles are taken out of America is if America is taken over completely. Looking back, the reason that they were probably telling me this was to inspire me to dive into the word, similarly to how Paul might have been trying to inspire the church of Phillippi.

    On the date of when this was actually written, I am leaning more towards deSilva because I see Paul as a high school football coach trying to inspire his team to beat the odds so he comes up with this story to get everyone going. (I can say that this happens, because my football coach used to do it all the time

  17. The possibility that the opponents were Judaizers like those saw in Galatia is intriguing. This view appears to be supported by the text’s discussion of circumcision and boasting of one’s Jewish credentials. However, the return of such a problem in the early 1960s, particularly in Rome, where the matter appeared to be settled at the Jerusalem Conference, puts doubt on the letter’s dating. The blog post’s exploration of the extreme nationalistic pride and hopes for an independent Israel in the early 60s as a possible explanation for the resurgence of the circumcision issue adds depth to our understanding. The argument that Jewish identity markers like circumcision and food regulations remained non-negotiable even in a diaspora context could explain the framework in which the opponents worked. The argument by David deSilva, which suggests that the opponents may be more of an external threat than an internal one, provides a different viewpoint that is consistent with the approach of developing unity within the Christian community. Given the facts, the blog post’s preference for dating the letter to the mid-50s at Ephesus rather than the early 60s in Rome appears to be well-founded. The debate over the opponents and the context in which they worked provides important insights into the complicated difficulties Paul was addressing in the Philippian community.

  18. When examining the dating of Philippians, it’s crucial to consider the broader historical backdrop. If the letter was penned in the early 60s from Rome, the persistence of the circumcision controversy raises eyebrows, particularly after the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 seemed to have settled this issue. Nevertheless, the potential for nationalist fervor and an emphasis on Jewish identity, especially on the cusp of the Roman-Jewish War, could have reignited debates about Jewish covenant and the necessity of circumcision. This resonates with the concerns raised in the letter to the Galatians, which grapples with questions of Gentile conversion to Israel. In this context, the boundary markers of circumcision and dietary laws might have been seen as non-negotiable even for Gentiles aligning themselves with Jesus, the Jewish Messiah. These are fascinating considerations that shed light on the intricacies of interpreting Philippians and its historical setting.

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