The Unity of Philippians

There has been little discussion of the unity of Philippians until the 1950’s. Since that time there has been a discussion of the sudden change in Paul’s material in 3:1 and the hymn material in 2:6-11. Three letters have been identified, in the following chronological order:

  • 4:10-20 – a letter thanking the Philippians for their gift,
  • 1:1-3:1, 4:4-7, 21-23 – a warning against divisions
  • 3:2-4:3, 8-9 – an attack on false teachers

These three letters were written by Paul but placed together in the present arrangement by an unknown editor. We will want to look at the most commonly addressed break in the text that is interpreted as an interpolation and indication of a compilation, then attempt to explain how this section is related to the unity of the Philippian letter.

The abrupt change of material in the third chapter of the Epistle to the Philippians has caused some scholars to see an interpolation in the text.  It is argued that an addition, from the hand of Paul, has been made to the epistle in the middle of verse three at a later date and is not part of the original letter to the Philippians.  The epistle itself implies that another letter was sent to the Philippian congregation (3:1) and there is reference in the Apostolic Fathers to a second Philippian letter. It is suggest that this interpolation is that second letter to the Philippians.

The interpolation idea is difficult to accept because there is no textual evidence that there was an insertion made.  If the insertion were made much later than the first century there would be some textual tradition that preserved the letter without the addition.    Even the implication from Polycarp is weak because in the same letter Polycarp also refers to the “letter” Paul wrote in the singular.  A problem exists in Philippians chapter 3, but the interpolation of a “previous letter” does not satisfactorily solve the problem.

While it is certain that Paul does change from “warm” to “hostile” in the space of a few verses, this change in tone is not sufficient cause to suggest an interpolation.  There are several occasions in Paul’s letters where he shifts from a loving tone to a hostile tone.  The Corinthian Epistles have several examples of this shift from warmth to a scathing condemnation.  In addition to this, the break in 3:1 is not very severe.  Finally, the verb blepete is imperative, but it does not have a strong connotation of warning.  Thus the translation “beware” may be too strong.  A translation of “observe” or “consider” may be more accurate.

Duane F. Watson (“A Rhetorical Analysis of Philippians and its Implications for the Unity Question,” Novum Testamentum 30 [1988]) makes a convincing argument that the letter to the Philippians is a well-written piece of rhetoric conforming to the standards of Greco-Roman rhetoric  He attempts to show a logical progression of thought through the whole epistle.  This rhetorical analysis makes it clear that there is a unity and a flow to the whole epistle that is lost if it is broken up into several smaller pieces.   Watson says “In the most general sense, the unity of Philippians in matters in invention, arrangement, and style speak highly for its original unity.”

It seems best, then, to see Philippians as a single letter written by Paul with a rhetorical structure, indicating unified thinking throughout.  The alleged break in 3:1 is a sharp transition in order to regain and focus the attention of the readers.

18 thoughts on “The Unity of Philippians

  1. I think that Philippians is one letter. Yes, there may be change of tones or changes in moods, but I think that is normal. When I write letters, my mood/tone does not stay the same throughout the whole letter. WHen I talk about different things, it changes. Also, another thing that could of happen was he left the letter and came back to it at a later date. There are times when I write letters I do not fully complete them. I come back to them later and my whole mood is different. We do not know what he was thinking or feeling at the time when he wrote them. I also like the statement were you said that he could of just changed his mood to get the readers attention. That he could of also done because he wanted them to stay focus. God repeats stuff to get our attention. So it seems like Paul could have done the same thing. But I stick to that Philippians is one whole letter.

  2. What some examples of the rhetorical device in other literature? You told use that Watson gives convincing evidence that Paul as using a rhetorical mechanism in the letter. When you say that the letter matches up with Greco-Roman rhetorical devices. What are the devices being used? You kind of glaze over it and just give us a simple “the starch contrast can be explained as re-shifting the focus”. Is that the defense for a unified letter? Or is the argument more sophisticated?

    When I read Philippians 3, I’m not sure I sense the “scathing” criticism that Polhill finds. I think it’s a case of “what you look for, you will find”. I think after reading Polhill, we’re looking for the contrasts and we’re looking for the inconsistencies when there isn’t any to begin with.

    I could be wrong. I read Philippians before I read Polhill so I had a different read of it apart from his own evaluation. Polhill obviously studied it longer than I have, and more degrees than I do (I have none currently). Still, I don’t think that just because there is a supposed “break” means there is any to begin with. To be sure there is a shifting of topics, and that normally Paul saves his personal greetings for the end of his letters for the most part but I don’t think that it’s valid to say that they’re are then obviously different letters.

    Maybe Watson can shed more light on this. What else does he have to say? Or what other evidences can you supply?

    • In defense of Polhill, he is arguing for the unity of Philippains, as am I. I’ll can give you more on Watson’s article, it is available in the Library as well.

    • I agree with John when he makes the observation that “what you look for, you will find”. In many of Paul’s letter he has change in mood or tone in writing. My question is what is the motive for arguing that there are two different letter. How dose that change your theology. It also makes me ask myself how often I read in to the Bible what I am looking for.

      • It is very true that we often do “find what we are looking for,” this is a fact of life. This is why it is humanly impossible to come to the Bible or anything without ANY bias. I do believe that we get close with the help of the Holy Spirit but no matter how we try we will be reading our doctrine and our pre-conceived opinions into the text.

        This is something that my prof at Moody discussed when we had Philosophy. He stated that we are a product of the system that we were under and he had very good reasoning. He asked us who were Armininists and then he said that their mentor or pastor was most likely one as well, and just the same with the Calvinists.

        We do tend to align ourselves with what we have been taught. The question becomes how do we learn truth and do we now have an excuse for not knowing the truth since we learn what we are told? Will God hold us to the ultimate standard of truth when we learn from our teachers? And what does that say about how we teach and how much fear and trembling we should approach our ministries?

        Just as the words in James 3:1, desiring to be a teacher is not for everyone. There is a standard that God will hold us to since we are shaping and molding the minds of His people and this task should not be taken lightly.

        “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” [James 3:1]

    • There are a couple of things that I would like to comment on here. The first is this: Look in a mirror. Just a glance, or a quick look. Did your face look symmetrical? I know mine did. Your mind has a tendency to see what it likes. Our brains like symmetry, so they make our faces look symmetrical when they are actually not. Just a little illustration to put the ‘you find what you are looking for’ statement into perspective.

      Second, I would like to comment on the mood change of the letter. To me, the most logical answer is that it was a change in order to get the attention of the reader. I mean think about it, what better way to get someone’s attention than to build them up, build them up, and then slam them down? Contrast is what people notice. It is even indicated in the fact that people are trying to say that Phil. was two separate books. Paul did such a good job of using the contrast to get people’s attention, that they let it take away from what the book is actually saying.

      I think Jack has somewhat of a point. Would your theology change if Philippians was two books instead of one? Or do we let the contrast get in the way of what Paul was actually trying to say?

  3. I agee with Jessica when she talks about when we write letters, we may stop and then start up again on the same letter, hours/days later. We really do not know the circumstances to which Paul was writing this letter.
    I am not sure though if I think it’s all one letter or several. I have never thought of it being more than one letter, but I think that it could be possible. I am not ruling it out, but if it came down to a question on the quiz, I would have to say that it was one letter.
    What sways me to this side is the fact that because they are next to each other, God wanted us to read Philippians with the whole book in context. Another observation, although it is so simple and someone may have a legitimate answer for me, is that why do we not see the greetings that Paul writes at the beginning of each letter at every section? Would that have been omitted if they were seperate letters, and they thought it the book only needed one?

  4. I definitely agree that Philippians is in fact one unified and flowing work from 1:1 to 4:23. No one knows the mind except God, so who is to say that someone can or cannot have a change in attitude as one expounds in writing. The in-depth research of the interpolation is indeed a demonstration of thought, great questioning and a deep desire to understand the text which is admirable. However, what does this imply of our focus on the inspired word of God? What are these questions of disunities in Philippians saying of Paul’s inspiration as he wrote? It is good to question and keep a sharp mind, but has scholarship crossed bounds by trying to find fault? What does this say of our understanding of the inerrant Word of God? Again I think that Polhill may have used too much effort looking at areas that could have been answered logically and appropriately in less time and words. I find that there is much more that could have been said with regards to the content of Philippians rather than the scholarship around Philippians.

  5. It almost makes sense that Paul would be writing these letters, not in one sitting, but in multiple. I think there are too many factors in determining how Paul wrote the letter for there to be any real concrete evidence. I agree with the majority in that Philippians was definitely one letter and that Paul could have written this letter on multiple occasions.

    Beef – I don’t think this was an issue of inerrancy of scripture, but I do get that same vibe from Polhill that I think we need to be very careful about our focus being much more than just scholarship. Maybe P. Long or someone could explain the implications of what would happen if this letter was indeed multiple ones?

  6. All of the other things aside what are we saying if we were to say that it is three letters put into one? It would mean that someone other than Paul would have to have manipulated his letters and changed them so that they all went together. This to me would be a gross dilusion of the inspiration of the Bible. If we are to believe that this is the case it would mean that we should allow other changes to what the original authors wrote. There are no other places in scripture that fit this pattern as far as I am aware of. When I read the Bible I find that usually the most practical answer that fits with everything else tends to be the right answer and that is why I go for Phillippians as being one letter.

  7. hm, I understand everyone’s frustration on the importance of the date and multiplicity of the letter, but I do understand why Polhill and others address such questions. This is not just something that P. Long is having us do and no other schools of thought (Polhill) think like this. At Moody we discussed how many letters this could have been as well.

    We are in an academic day and age that can question these differences in the letters and entertain ideas and possibilities even if it does not have a great theological implication. I would argue that if we study other subjects and history and how it came to pass intensely should we not go in depth with what the Scripture has to say and all the possibilities it has? We are going to be held to a higher standard than others, especially the teachers (James 3:1).

    Now addressing Paul’s letter, I do not think that I see substantial evidence to point me to saying that he did not write this as a whole. Like others have said, we change our moods even within our own sentences much less papers (although I think this may be the result of too much TV)! However, there are a lot more writers that have had a much more drastic change of pace in their writings. Take Jeremiah. He was a prophet to the Jews while they were about to be exiled. His ministry was intense and he cried out to God a lot. In Jermiah 20 he demonstrates a slight change of pace in his mood.
    In verses 13-14 we see a shift from praise to slightly pessimistic view of life…

    13 “Sing to the LORD!
    Give praise to the LORD!
    He rescues the life of the needy
    from the hands of the wicked.

    14 Cursed be the day I was born!
    May the day my mother bore me not be blessed!

    15 Cursed be the man who brought my father the news,
    who made him very glad, saying,
    “A child is born to you—a son!”

    A slight change in heart, no? Jeremiah cureses the day that he was born and even wishes that he died in his mother’s womb! Wow! In the words of John Spooner: “Jeremiah was messed up!”

    My point is that even if we have a change in mood we do not necessarily need to say that this a new letter.

  8. I agree this is one letter. The arguments against it being one letter don’t seem convincing. People don’t always keep the same tone throughout their letters all the time, and it is not a shocking idea that Paul might put something that is slightly out of the ordinary like a hym in part of his letter. Taking these and using them as arguments that this letter is actually three seems like a crazy jump in logic based on little evidence. So the letter doesn’t flow as wonderfully as we think it should, there is still obvious themes and points throughout the entire letter and more reason to believe it is in fact the single letter it is presented as than three.

  9. I do not see much of a sharp transition in 3:1. There doesn’t seem to be much of a transition in Paul’s words from “warm” to “hostile”, but perhaps this is just how I am reading it. I think that Watson argues a very valid point with regards to a logical progression being made through out the entire epistle. The theme of “rejoicing” is found quite often up until 3:1. The theme, or at least the usage of the term, is not returned to until 4:4. It would seem to me that Paul is summing up his emphasis on rejoicing with an exclamation mark. When Paul writes, “Finally my brothers,” it is a rather obvious indication of a sum-up and the transition of leaving one issue and heading towards another. He does turn to another issue that is deemed important enough by him to address to the Philippians. After saying what should have been said regarding it, he then returns the the theme of rejoicing nearing his final remarks and closing of his letter. A simple, logical progression through the epistle as one and complete epistle, undivided and without interpolation.

  10. Phillip,

    I also argue for the unity of Philippians (as well as 2 Corinthians). See my short piece here:

    In summary, I follow those who think that Paul wrote chapters 3 and 4 in his own hand. I suggest that he saved his sternest remarks for this post-script because he did not want to jeopardize the relationship between the Philippians and Timothy, who was his co-sender and would have been held accountable for the first two chapters.

  11. I don’t think it would be impossible that the epistle is a composite – I wouldn’t suddenly feel a need to distrust all of Scripture if this were proved to be the case – but I honestly don’t see a convincing argument for that view. Like others who have commented, I don’t see such a drastic shift in 3:1. Yes, it’s a change of subject, and of tone, but…why not? We get to do that when we’re writing letters, especially very personal ones like this one undoubtedly is. I suspect that if we gave ourselves the exercise of writing a letter to a beloved family or group of friends, and that letter had to say everything we wanted them to know for the foreseeable future…we’d each one of us have some pretty diverse topics to cover.

    And, I add my voice to the others who ask what changes when we see the epistle as numerous letters in one? The only result I can see is one of undermining Scriptural authority by questioning the trustworthiness of its origins. And while, as stated, I don’t feel my faith in the inspired nature of the Bible would be shaken if this theory proved true, I think unless it can be proven it isn’t a particularly useful line of argument, but rather is detrimental.

  12. While looking and reading through Philippians a little bit, and the passages given by P Long, we find out that most of the Philippian letters become one as they all merge into each other. We don’t see too much of this in our own lives today with the issue of not being unified. Most people agree that everyone Is alike whether that is by gender, race, etc. Others believe that most don’t agree and that everyone sees people of color and different genders in different ways than they see others. We can use this while looking at Philippians because although we see that this whole letter merges as one, there are many different emotions and mood swings that we see. In many of Paul’s letters there are lots of places that we see Paul go from a loving tone to a hostile tone. Most of the passages that were given by P Long, we can read and relate to our recent lives with a lot of things shifting to ungodly forms.

  13. It is very easy to see Philippians as a single letter and we as readers should look at it as such. There could be evidence that Paul is writing is writing these letters in multiple sittings rather than just one single go. If we are to look at the letters as different aspects of each other such as someone changing them in a way that would flow better for the delivery that would not be what the God would have wanted because it would then mean scripture is not God breathed. If we are going to assume that the letters are written and manipulated by different people that would allow so many other writings to be possibly manipulated and skewed to fit what they wanted to give to use rather than what God wanted us to read. There is not a single bit of evidence in the Bible that would give us a sense of this happening which is why it is hard to believe that these letters were changed upon Paul writing them. Considering that no other part of scripture has any evidence being changed I do believe that it is one letter written by Paul.

  14. I do believe that Paul wrote chapters three and four, I see Philippians as a single letter myself so the people saying the same things as me I can see where you are coming from. I believe that Paul may have broken these writing up because just like anyone who has a problem with keeping still and just doing work he got up and did something and then came back to writing or maybe he had to stop writing because God stopped speaking at the moment. And as far as the changes in his tone of writing there were probably instances where he was really passionate about a certain line or he really wanted to emphasize a topic inside the letter. There is no real evidence in Paul not being the author to all of Philippians so I do believe Paul wrote it.

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