1. Background Information
When it comes to the book of Philippians, there is little doubt that Paul wrote the letter. Both internal and external evidence lead to this fact. For example, the theology of the letter is consistent with what we know of Paul’s theology, the many personal references point to intimate knowledge between Paul and the church at Philippi, and the testimony of the early church confirm Paul as the author. The only part of this letter that may be non-Pauline is the hymn in Philippians 2:5-11. If he did not write this section, he simply employed preexisting material to make a theological point. Similarly, the author of Acts has Paul quote the Hellenistic poet, Aratus, in Acts 17:28.
b. The City of Philippi and Paul’s Church Plant
Philippi was a place of considerable importance. It was the sight of the historic battle where Octavian defeated Cassius and Brutus for the murder of Julius Caesar in 42 BC. In addition, Octavian settled a number of Roman veterans after the battle of Philippi in 42 BC, and again in 31 BC after the battle of Actium. As such, Philippi had the status of a Roman colony. In short, Philippi was in essence an extension of Rome. The city had the privilege of Roman law and most likely was exempt from taxes and tribute. Judging from inscriptional evidence and archaeological remains, Philippi was an urban center of importance. It was the leading city of Macedonia. In the light of this, it is no wonder that Paul’s first foray into Macedonia and Europe was the city of Philippi. Paul’s missionary strategy was consistently urban. Acts 16 describes Paul’s missionary journey into this region, the conversion of Lydia, and his subsequent imprisonment and release.
Theater at Philippi
It is certain that Paul was in prison when he wrote the letter (Philippians 1: 12, 13). However, it is not certain where this imprisonment was. Traditionally, scholars have conjectured that this place was Rome, but there are problems with this theory. A close reading of the letter will show that there was a good amount of contact between Paul and the church at Philippi. For instance, the church heard of Paul’s imprisonment, the church sent Epaphroditus to Paul with a gift, the Philippians heard of Epaphroditus’ illness and finally Epaphroditus heard of the church’s concern for him. To add to this,
Paul expects to send Timothy shortly. Therefore, there must have been at least four exchanges of communication. This is problematic, because the distance between Rome and Philippi is about 1,200 miles. For this reason, scholars have proposed either Caesarea or Ephesus as alternatives places for Paul’s imprisonment. Some favor Caesarea, because there is evidence that Paul was imprisoned there (Acts 24:27), but there are still problems of distance. Others favor Ephesus, because of the closeness to Philippi, but even this hypothesis is not without issues.
The chief objection to the Ephesus hypothesis is that Paul never mentioned explicitly an imprisonment in Ephesus. However, this objection is not as strong as it might first appear. Paul was in Ephesus for three years according to Acts 19 and 20. So, there was ample time for Paul to have been imprisoned at some point and certainly many reasons for him to have been imprisoned – think of the Artemis episode in Acts 19. In addition, there is evidence that there was at least some correspondence between Paul and the inhabitants of Macedonia where Philippi was located in Acts 19:22. Finally, Paul speaks of many imprisonments in 2 Corinthians 11:23. So, until there is better evidence, Ephesus is the best conjecture.
As with provenance, it is best not to be dogmatic. Paul probably wrote the letter in the late 50s or early 60s.
e. Occasion for Writing
Paul had many reasons for penning this letter. First, he wanted to thank the Philippians for the gift that they sent him (Philippians 4:14-18). Second, he wanted to commend Epaphroditus to the Philippians for a job well done. Third, he desired to inform the Philippians of his own circumstances. Fourth, he wanted to protect the flock against false teachers. Fifth, he wanted to commend Timothy as a future leader to whom the church could look up.
f. Paul’s Opponents and False Teachers
In Philippians 1:17, Paul speaks of people preaching Christ out of envy and rivalry. It seems that these people in view are Christians, otherwise Paul would not rejoice in the fact that Christ is being preached (Philippians 1: 18). What Paul criticizes here is motivation, not so much content. However, in Philippians 3, he speaks of another group. He calls them “dogs” (3:2) and “enemies of the cross” (3:18, 19). From the change in Paul’s tone, it appears that a heretical group is in view. Most likely, this group emphasized the law at the expense of a teaching based on grace. It is also possible there was another set of false teachers, who emphasized a theology of “perfection,” or to put it in theological terms, an undue emphasis on overrealized eschatology. Perhaps, this is precisely why Paul emphasizes that he has not been made perfect yet. (Philippians 3:12-14).
Tags: Bible study, christianity, Paul, Philippians, Theology