Pauline Epistles


Given the strong break after Php 3:1 (noted by Goodspeed and others), and the shift from general to a singular recipient in 4:2-3 ("true yokefellow," my suggestion), forbid our regarding Philippians as a single document. It must instead be a conflation of several letters held by the church at Philippi, plus at least one note addressed not to the church at Philippi, but to one of Paul's coworkers then in Philippi. It also contains pre-Pauline material: a hymn (Php 2:6-11) quoted by Paul in approaching Alpha believers at Philippi. This origin of at least the longest and most consecutive of the original letters was probably Ephesus, though many (including Beare) argue for Rome. That such arguments even occur is a remarkable fact. One gets the impression that Paul's genuine letters have been intentionally left vague in this respect. One thinks of Pliny, from whose correspondence with Trajan Suetonius removed the conventional indications of date when editing it for a literary posterity. One possibility for Paul's editors was to leave open the possibility of some writings from Rome, in support of the idea (also implied by the end of Acts) that Paul was later released from Rome, and did further missionary work (the editorial team favored Spain, as the symbolic completion of Paul's career) before being finally executed later in the 60's.

The three letters distinguished by Beare, in what he considers their order of composition, plus the fragment mentioned above, are here outlined.

Beare declines to follow Michael and others in distinguishing Php 2:19-24 as a separate letter fragment; it is indented above for those who wish to consider it. Once we distinguish Php 3-2-4:3 as inserted, the placement of this section certainly becomes less problematic. The key to the ordering of the Beare fragments is the treatment of Epaphroditus. He has arrived with a gift in Letter B, and has fallen sick and is being sent back in Letter C.

All told, and with some latitude as to details, the case for conflation seems strong. There are differences of tone, but no obvious theological inconsistencies, and all the fragments may be taken as genuine. It is their combination into a single letter (compare the case of 2 Corinthians) which alone seems dubious. Their historical value is enhanced by considering them separately.

Beare finds the argument for a Roman location strong. We feel on the contrary that Ephesus has the better case, the strongest point being the difficulty of repeated travel between Philippi and Rome (800 miles vs 200 miles). The supposed two-year house arrest of Paul in Rome (Acts 28:30-31) is not to be relied on as allowing sufficient time for the Rome/Philippi journeys; that passage is part of the Second Imprisonment myth.

If any or all of the indented sections above are actually conflation products, then we must say that the conflation has not been accomplished with any great skill. As a precedent for other cases, however, we note the tendency in Philippians to crowd the extraneous material toward the end of the longest of the fragments. There is no doubt that the conflated Philippians is easier for readers to manage than the separate letters would have been, One thing the conflation accomplished was to tune down the history in the separate letters, in favor of emphasizing their doctrinal value.


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26 April 2012 / Contact The Project / Exit to Texts Index Page