Top Five Philippians Commentaries

Introduction. The short book of Philippians is a favorite for many Christians. The book contains one of the most important theological texts in the New Testament, the Christ-Hymn in Phil 2:5-11. Exegesis of this incredible piece of theological worship ought to be central to any commentary on Philippians. Ralph Martin wrote a monograph on this text which surveys recent interpretation of the song and is longer than most commentaries on the whole book (A Hymn of Christ, Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarstiy, 1983, 1997).

Commentaries on Philippians usually deal with the suggestion that the letter combines two (or more) shorter letters. There is a rough transition after 3:1, from warm and friendly to a rather strong polemic against Judaizers. There are many suggested solutions to the problem, usually suggesting some sort of interpolation of one or more shorter letters in the book. Just who these opponents are is an issue related to the date of the book. If the letter comes from an earlier point in Paul’s career rather than from Roman imprisonment, then the opponents may be the same people targeted by Galatians.

Peter T. O’Brien, Philippians (NIGTC; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1991). Like most of the New International Greek Text Commentary, O’Brien’s contribution on Philippians is excellent and well worth the price. He finds interpolation theories lacking, causing more problems than they solve. The book was written by Paul during the Roman imprisonment to thank the church for their support and to warn them against Judaizing false teachers. He proceeds through the Greek text of Philippians phrase-by-phrase without transliteration, making both syntactical and lexical comments. He integrates into the body of the commentary theological observations as he interacts with a wide range of contemporary Pauline scholarship. He includes three short excursuses on the Christ Hymn (which he oddly called appendices). His comments on the phrase “taking the form of a servant” and Isaiah 53:12 are judicious, ultimately rejecting a certain connection between the two texts.

Gerald F. Hawthorne and Ralph P. Martin, Philippians. Revised and Expanded (WBC; Dallas: Word, 2004). Ralph Martin updated the original WBC volume on Philippians by adding to the bibliographies and expanding the explanations at the end of pericopes. Martin is the New Testament editor for the series and has written an excellent monograph on the Christ Hymn, as well as a short commentary on Philippians in the New Century series (Eerdmans, 1976). In fact, this section is where the commentary excels. The bibliography is extensive (up to 2003), the comments on the structure of the hymn are detailed and interact well with contemporary rhetorical studies of the hymn. The comments proceed almost word-by-word through this section since virtually every word has theological importance. There is a brief “review” after the main commentary on 2:5-11 summarizing the exegesis of the six verses.

Moisés Silva, Philippians. Second Edition. (BENTC; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2005). Silva’s commentary was one of the earliest in the Baker series, originally a reprint of the 1988 Wycliffe Exegetical Commentary. The second edition adds two sections to the introduction (“Literary Structure” and “Exegetical History”) and the footnotes are expanded to include scholarship since the first edition was printed. The commentary proceeds phrase-by-phrase, with Greek appearing along with transliteration. Text critical notes are included in “additional comments,” which strike me as longer than in other volumes of this series. In fact, at times these notes look more like a Greek-Text commentary than the main body of the work!

Gordon D. Fee, Philippians. (IVP New Testament Commentary; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1999). This is the first volume from this series I have included thus far, although it is not because others in the series are weak. For the most part, this commentary is more brief than the others and perhaps for that reason more accessible for the layman or busy pastor. What sets this commentary apart is Fee’s use of the Greco-Roman ideal of friendship as a model for understanding the letter. In this he follows closely the work of Stanley K. Stowers (“Friends and Enemies in the Politics of Heaven” in Pauline Theology edited by J. M. Bassler [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991]), 105-121 and Ben Witherington, III (Friendship and Finances in Philippi [Trinity, 1994]). The body of the commentary is based on the English text, Greek appears only in transliteration, with only light comments on syntax only when necessary. Fee interacts with other scholars, but for the most part these are his observations on the text. This makes for a very readable commentary which will be quite useful for sermon preparation.

Conclusion. Other commentaries ought to be included I am sure, but I have limited myself to five for this series – what are your favorites? What “classic” should be on every pastor or scholar’s shelf? Moule perhaps?


Index for the Top Five Commentary Series


Introduction to Series on Commentaries

On Using Commentaries 

Matthew        Mark        Luke        John        Acts
Romans        1 Corinthians         2 Corinthians
Galatians         Ephesians        Philippians        Colossians
1-2 Thessalonians        Pastoral Epistles         Philemon
Hebrews        James         1 Peter         2 Peter & Jude 
Letters of John         Revelation

Conclusion:  Last Thoughts on New Testament Commentaries

12 thoughts on “Top Five Philippians Commentaries

  1. Good list, although I only see 4, unless you are using Martin on the Christ hymn as the 5th. AS a classic, I would suggest JB Lightfoot on Phillippians as my classic choice.

  2. Wow, I shorted myself one pick! I wondered when I was reshelving books this morning why I didn’t mention one….perhaps I will edit the list and add the other I wanted to include.

    Lightfoot has to be the ‘classic,” although my copy includes both Colossians and Philippians. I find that a strange combination.

  3. Hi Phillip

    I am surprised you did not include Gordon Fee’s larger NICNT volume on Philippians.

    I own the earlier edition of Hawthorne’s commentary. The second commentary on Philippians that I own is Stephen Fowl’s contribution in the Two Horizons series from Eerdmans. I like it as a commentary because it is exegetically very careful. Unlike a lot of current “theological” commentaries, Fowl gives you the confidence that he has read and digested the modern exegetical commentaries.

    I friend of mine owns the contribution by Markus Bockmuehl in the Black’s series on Phillippians. From what I have read of it, it is excellent.

      • Thanks for your many suggestions, Steven. I’ll just respond here rather than to each one. It has been two years since I finished the series, and I have realized I did not give enough weight to some of the the Hermenia volumes. You suggested several of these, and for the most part they are excellent exegetical commentaries. Luke from Bovon, for example, is on my shelf (although some of the early volumes are not very good, Acts has been replaced). In the last two years I have also found most of the Pillar volumes helpful, and the Sacra Pagina series is always worth a look. I think I did not respect the Black’s series enough either. I guiding factor in my choices was pastoral use, some Hermenia commentaries are excellent for exegesis, but I am not convinced they would be useful for the busy pastor trying to prepare a few lessons each week.

        Part of the problem I set for myself was “pick only five,” although that did allow for some great comments, didn’t it? Thanks for your fine suggestions.

  4. Hi,
    Just bought the PNTC on Philippians by Hansen. Maybe that could be number five, its quite a bit of depth, up to date and has pastoral insights throughout. It would be good for sermon prep.

  5. Thanks Steve. I have enjoyed the other Pillar commentaries I have used, I would expect that Hansen’s commentary follows that standard. thanks for the tip.

  6. Hi this book has produced a cottage industry in commentaries especially at the shorter level. I think Hansen should make the top 5.
    Oakes cambridge monograph gives good background.
    Garland in rebc is 95 large pages of good quality comment.
    Thielman has provided an excellent pastoral work in nivac.
    Still from s&h is very attractive in layout but how good is the content?
    Johnson is a personal favourite in the rec.
    Chapman fob series is an excellent small commentary
    Gwyn Thomas is a lovley devotional read on chapter 4.

    • I am using Lynn Cohick quite a bit in the new “Story of God” series from Zondervan. I like it, although it is not a full exegetical commentary. A non-commentary is Embracing Shared Ministry by Joe Hellerman (link to my review below). Some of the details on Roman culture for understanding Philippians are excellent, although from the title/subtitle you would never choose it as study of Philippians.

      I have mixed feelings about the S&H series overall, I reviewed two for journals some time back and thought the content was not great. But they are not intended as full exegetical commentaries either.

      I agree with you on Hansen, all of the Pillar series I have used have been excellent.

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