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 ) 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.