Epistles to the Philippians

W. C. Van Manen

"Philippians (Epistles)," in Encyclopaedia Biblica (New York: Macmillan, 4 Vols., 1899-1903), Vol. 4, 3703-3713. In the following text EB page numbers appear in brackets.

There fall to be considered two Old-Christian documents — those bearing the names of Paul and Polycarp respectively.


1. History of Criticism

The first of the two constitutes one of the NT group of "epistles of Paul" (epistolai Paulou), "to Philippians" (pros Filippêsious) being the shortest form of the title. Down to 1845—or, shall we say, to 1835?—no one had doubted its right to this position. Men saw in it an expression, greatly to be prized, of the apostle's love for a church which he had founded, written while he was languishing in prison, probably in Rome, and sent by the hand of Epaphroditus who had been the bearer of material and spiritual refreshment for Paul, had fallen sick, and was now on the point of returning to his home in Philippi. The only point on which doubt seemed possible was as to the place of composition—whether Caesarea or Rome.

Paulus (1799), Böttger (1837), Thiersch, and Böhmer declared for Caesarea; elsewhere the voice was unanimous: "the apostle's testament; written in Rome" (Holtzmann). "The testament of the apostle and the most epistolary of all epistles." Then came F. C. von Baur with his thesis that only four of the epistles of Paul (Gal, 1 and 2 Cor, Rom) could be accepted as indisputably genuine — a thesis that he employed as a criterion in determining the genuineness of all the rest (Die sogennante Pastoralbriefe, 1835, p. 79; Paulus, 1845). Tried by this standard Philippians had, in Baur's view, to be at once rejected (Paulus, 458-475).

The replies of Lünemann (1847), B. Brückner (1848), Ernesti (1848 and 1858), de Wette (1848), and others were not effective. Indeed, the support given to Baur by Schwegler (1846), Planck (1847), Köstlin (1850), Volkmar (1856) did not advance the question more than did Baur's own reply to Ernesti and others published in Theol. Jahrbb. 1849 and 1852, and afterwards incorporated in Paulus (1866-7), 2.50-88. [3704] Hoekstra (Th.T, 1875) and Holsten (JPG, 1875-6) sought to base the Tübingen position as to Philippians upon the solid foundation of a more strict and searching exegesis, rejecting all that in their judgment could not be relevantly urged, and adding such other arguments as seemed to them to have weight. Both these critics. however, still started from the genuineness of the four "principal epistles." So Hitzig, Hinsch, Straatman, Kneucker, Biedermann, and various others ranged themselves more or less decidedly upon the same side.

At the same time, not merely among thoroughgoing apologists, but also among friends of the Tübingen school, such as Hilgenfeld, Schenkel, Pfleiderer, Lipsius, Hatch (Ency. Brit., 9/1885), S. Davidson (Intr. 3/1894), and others, there were very many who found themselves unable to accept the result of Baur's criticism so far as the Epistle to the Philippians was concerned.

Without realising it very clearly, both advocates and opponents of the genuineness found their stumbling-block, from the beginning, in the axiom of the genuineness of the "principal epistles" of Paul. Of necessity, however closely attached to Baur and his school, or however little bound to one another by common principles, they at once fell into two groups — each of them, in itself considered, most singularly constituted — which felt compelled to maintain or to reject the Pauline origin of our epistle, in the one case because it did not appear to differ from the principal epistles as a whole more than did these from each other, in the other case because assuredly, whether in few or in many respects, it seemed when compared with them to breathe another spirit, and in language and style to betray another hand.

A way of escape has been sought — but unsuccessfully — by means of the suggestion, first made by le Moyne in 1685 and afterwards renewed by Heinrichs (18O3), Paulus (1812), Schrader (1830). and Ewald, that the Epistle was not originally a unity.

C.H. Weisse (Beitrag z. Kritik der Paul. Briefe, 1867) saw in it, besides some later insertions, two epistles: Phil 1:1-3:1a and the fragment 3:1b-4:23. Similarly Hausrath (NTliche Zeitgeschichte, 3, 398f) saw one letter written after the first hearing, and a second some weeks later after the gift of money from Philippi. W. Brückner (Chron. Reihenfolge, 1890) assumed various interpolations; Völter (Th.T., 1892) a genuine and a spurious epistle which have been fused together in that which we now possess. Names and titles will be found more fully in Holtzmann, Einleitung (1892), 266-272; S. Davidson, Introduction (1894); Vincent, Commentary (1897); Zahn, Einleitung (1900), 1, 369-400; and other writers of introductions and commentaries.

A newer way, at first allowed to pass unnoticed, was shown by Bruno Bauer (Kritik der paulinischen Briefe, 1852, 110-117; cf. Christus und die Cäsaren, 1877, 373f.), when he determined to make his judgment upon this epistle independently of that upon the four "principal epistles," his main conclusion being that it was not earlier than the middle of the second century. He was followed, so far as his leading principle was concerned, by Loman, Steck, and van Manen. Loman, however, did not go more closely into the question of the origin of Philippians. Steck intimated his adhesion in an incidental statement in his Galatians (p. 374) that in Philippians we hear some "echoes" of the controversy between Paulinism and the older party of the followers of Jesus. Van Manen's view was set forth in his Handleiding, 3, §§ 34, 36).

Thorough criticism has no other course open to it but that of condemning any method which ties the hands in a matter of scientific research. Before everything else it demands freedom. Exegesis must not be content to base itself on results of criticism that have been arrived at in some other field; rather is it the part of exegesis to provide independent data which may serve as a foundation for critical conclusions. The epistle to the Philippians, like all other Old-Christian writings, requires to be read and judged entirely apart and on its own merits, independently of any other Pauline epistles, before anything can be fitly said as to its probable origin.

2. What Philippians Seems to Be [3705]

The writing comes before us as a letter, not of course of the same type as those commonly written at the period, of which we have recently received so many examples in the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, but as a letter of the sort that we know from the New Testament, and especially from the Pauline group (see Van Manen, "Old Christian Literature", § 18; also "The Pauline Writings"); a letter, to judge from the opening sentence, written by Paul and Timothy, but, to judge from all that follows, by Paul alone. In it we find Paul speaking, as a rule, as if he were a free man, yet sometimes, particularly in 1:7-17, as if he were a prisoner. He is full of sympathetic interest in those whom he is addressing. He tells them that his thoughts are continually about them and their excellences (1:3-11; 2:12), how he yearns to see them once more (1:8, 26; 2:24, 26), how they are properly speaking the sole object for which he lives, his joy and his crown (1:24; 4:1). The epistle purports to be addressed to all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi with the bishops and deacons (1:1; 4:5), known and loved brothers, disciples, and friends of the apostle; still, the impression it gives is rather as if it had been written for a wider circle of readers, among whom the Philippians play no other part than that of representing the excellent Christians addressed, who nevertheless required to be spoken to seriously about many and various things that demanded their unremitting attention.

3. Contents

The writer, as Paul, declares his thankfulness to God for the fidelity of his readers to the gospel, and his earnest yearning after them all and their continued spiritual growth (1:3-11). He refers to the misfortunes that have recently happened to him and to that which in all probability lies before him, Pointing out how his bonds have served to promote the cause of Christ both amongst unbelievers and amongst the brethren, and how Christ to his great joy is being preached, whatever be the reasons and however diverse be the ways; how he is in a strait between his desire to be released and his desire to go on with life, whilst in any case hoping to be able to glorify Christ in his body (1:12-26).

Next, he exhorts his readers, whether he be present or absent, and especially in the latter case, to let their manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, after the example of him who, being in the form of God, had humbled himself by taking the form of a bondservant, being found in fashion as a man, and becoming oliedient even to to the death of the cross (1:27-1:18).

He then proceeds to speak of his intention to send Timothy—joint author of the epistle, according to 1:1—whom he highly commends, and Epaphroditus his "brother," "fellow-worker" and "fellow-soldier," and at the same time the "messenger" (apostolos) and "minister" of the Philippians to the need of Paul. Epaphroditus has been sick nigh unto death, and sore troubled because they had heard he was sick, and yet he is recommended to the Philippians as if he were a stranger (2:19-30).

The writer, as Paul, goes on, abruptly, to a vigorous onslaught on his enemies, prides himself upon his Jewish birth, glories in his conversion, describes his unremitting effort towards the Christian goal, and exhorts to imitation of his example. For those whom he addresses he is himself is a "type," his conversion a "conversation in heaven" (3:1-4:1).

Lastly, comes a new series of exhortations, to Euodia and Syntyche, Synzygus and all the other brethren, to conduct themselves in all things in accordance with the word and example of Paul who is addressing them (4:2-9); an expresion of thanks for the gift, received from them by the hanid of Epaphroditus, which has recalled the memory of previous kindnesses, and has been welcome at this time, although not indipensable (4:10-20); greetings to and from all the saints, and a benediction (4:21-23).

4. Difficulties

Some things here are certainly not easily intelligible or very logical, whether we regard the form or the substance. We may point, for example, to the unusual although genuinely "Pauline" "Grace to you and peace from God our Father and (the) Lord Jesus Christ" in the exordium (1:2), and "Now unto our God and Father be the glory for ever and ever, Amen" at the close (4:20), followed by the prayer "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit" (4:23) instead of the well-known customary formula of salutation and greeting. The address, moreover, to "all the saints of Christ Jesus at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons" (1:1) seriously raises the question, Who are they ? Where do they live? Contrast, too, the double authorship (Paul and Timothy) of the Epistle as seen in 1:1 with the fact that from 1:2 onwards Paul [3706] alone speaks and in 2:19 speaks of Timothy as if he had nothing to do with the Epistle. Observe also the peculiarly exaggerated manner in which the Philippians are addressed, as if they and they alone were by way of exception Christians, worthy to absorb the apostle's every thought, and as if it was for them alone that he lived and endured, and how, once more, towards the end (4:5) he names them in a singularly lofty tone as "ye Philippians." How he again and again praises himself, holds himself up as a pattern, as the best example that can be given for the imitation of his disciples and friends: not only when he speaks so ecstatically of his thanksgivings and prayers, the significance of his sufferings and possible death, the tie between him and his present or absent readers (1:2-30; 2:1, 12, 16f., 27f.), but also when he boasts of his pure Hebrew descent, his faith, his unceasing effort to be perfect, and to walk as an example (3:5-21; 4:9-14).

Note how the writer salutes "every saint in Christ Jesus" and sends greetings from "all the saints, especially those that are of Caesar's household" (4:21f), he being a prisoner yet apparently in free communication with the people of the Praetorium, the imperial guard in Rome to whose charge he had been committed (1:7, 13f., 17). Consider how impossible it is to picture clearly to oneself his true relation to the supposed readers at Philippi, the circumstances by which he and they are surrounded, the occasion for writing or sending the epistle, unless a considerable part of its contents be left out of account. All is confused and unintelligible as long as one thinks of it as an actual letter written in all simplicity and sent off by Paul the prisoner at Rome to his old friends at Philippi after he has been comforted and refreshed by their mission of Epaphroditus to him. Wherefore, in that case, the bitter attack and the self-glorification so intimately associated with it (4:2-21)? Wherefore the Christological digression (2:6-11), with the substance of which (on the assumed data) one might presume the reader to have been already long familiar? Why the proposal to send Timothy "shortly" (taxeôs), whilst yet the writer himself hopes to come "shortly," and Epaphroditus is just upon the point of setting out (2:19, 24f.)? Could not Epaphroditus, if necessary by letter, have sent the wished-for information touching the Philippians which is spoken of in 2:19? What was Epaphroditus in reality? a fellow-worker of Paul? or a messenger of the friendly Philippians (2:25)? Why did he need to be warmly recommended to the Philippians as if he were a stranger, though they had already been full of solicitude on account of the illness from which he has now happily recovered (2:26-30)? How can this give occasion for the exhortation to hold "such" in honour (2:30)? Even Euodia and Syntyche, Synzygus and Clement (4:2f), simple though they seem, have long been the subjects of various perplexing questions. Who were they? symbolical or real persons? In what relation did they stand to one another, to Paul, to the community addressed ? Why the reminiscence of what Philippi had previously done for the apostle (4:15f.)? Only to give him an opportunity to say that he valued the good-will of the givers more than their gift (4:17)?

5. Not a Letter

The solution of these and other riddles of a like nature raised by the Epistle lies in the recognition that it is not really a letter, in the proper sense of that word (see above, § 2), but an edifying composition in the form of a letter written by Paul to the church of Philippi and intended to stir up and quicken its readers. Or rather, let us say, its hearers; for epistles of this sort were designed first and foremost to be read in the religious meetings of the congregation. No more precise determination of the occasion for the composition and sending of the epistle—such as is usually sought in the receipt of the gift alluded to (for the first time) in 4:10-18 (cf. 2:25, 30)—can be given. The writer knows the proper form of a Pauline epistle' and he follows it without troubling himself [3707] as to whether everything that he says exactly fits its place or not.

Hence his naming of Timothy as joint writer of the Epistle (1:1) although he makes no further mention of him, apart from 2:19, 23, where he speaks of him as if he were a third person. Hence, too, his vague expression "all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi" and the strange addition, explicable only from 1 Cor 1:2 and 2 Cor 1:1 "With the bishops and deacons" (1:1 ), his benedictions (1:2; 4:23), his greetings (4:21f.), his thanksgiving for, and high praise of, the church he is addressing, which yet has to be admonished with such earnestness; his exaltation of Paul and his relation to "the whole Praetorian Guard and all the rest" (1:13), his intercourse with them that are of Caesar's household (4:22); his praise of Timothy (2:20-22), of Epaphroditus and of the always attentive Philippians (2:25-30; 4:10-18); in a word, everything that strikes the reader as strange and perplexing as long as he is endeavouring to regard the epistle as a genuine letter of Paul to the church he had founded at Philippi. His "Philippians" are ideal Christians of the good old times to which the living generation may acceptably have its attention directed, and at the same time they are the "you" amongst whom are found faults and shortcomings, and even "dogs," "evil workers," and "concision" (3:2). The aim of the writer is no other than to edify, to incite to patience and perseverance by pointing to the example of Paul and others, including the church addressed, with its illustrious past.

6a. Composition

The author is acquainted with the canonical epistles to the Romans, the Corinthians, the Galatians, perhaps also the Ephesians, as is shown by the "parallel" pass-words and allusions, to which defenders as well as assailants of the "genuineness" are accustomed to point in order to prove either the identity of the writer with the author of the "principal epistles" or his dependence on those writings. A careful examination makes it evident that many of the phenomena can be accounted for only by imitation.

For example: the naming of Timothy (1:1) as a joint writer of the epistle although its further contents show that he was not so (cf. 2 Cor 1:1); the expression "with the bishops and deacons," alongside all of the saints at Philippi (1:1; cf. 1 Cor 1:2; 2 Cor 1:1); the expression "Jesus Christ" on 1:2 after "Christ Jesus" in v. 1 (cf. Rom 1:7; 1 Cor 1:3; 2 Cor 1:2; Gal 1:3; Eph 1:2); the calling of God as a witness of the sincerity of Paul's desire towards his readers (1:8; cf. Rom 1:9); the expression "test the things that differ" (dokimazein to diaferonta, 1:10), elsewhere only in Rom 2:18 (cf. 12:2); the bonds (hoi desmoi) of the prisoner, who nevertheless seems to walk at liberty (cf. ho desmois, Eph 3:1); the strange word (and therefore unexplained by elpis) "expectation" (apokaradokia) in 1:20, elsewhere only in Rom 8:19; the great importance attached, without any apparent reason, to Paul's coming (1:26; cf. Rom 1:10-13).

In addition, the expression "the same love etc." (tên autên agapên...) in 2:3-4 as compared with the exhortation, originally standing by itself, "to mind the same thing" (to auto fronein) cf. 2 Cor 13:11; Rom 12:16; the use of such words as morfê ("form"), arpagmos ("robbery," or "a thing to be grasped"), isa ("equality"), kenousthai ("empty himself"), huperupsoun ("greatly exalted") in 2:6-11, even though perhaps not borrowed from our existing Pauline epistles; the likeness of men (2:7), cf. the likeness of sinful flesh in Rom 8:3; the words in 2:10f. borrowed from the OT in accordance not with the text of Is 45:23 LXX but with that of Rom 14:11; the stringing together of purely Pauline expressions (such as hôste , hupêkousate, pollô mallon, hê parousia, and hê apousia mou) in 2:12 for which no reason is apparent from the context; the echo of Rom 7:18 in 2:12f.; the expression "to run in vain," "to labour in vain," "praise the day of Christ" in 2:16 (cf. Gal 2:2; 4:11; 2 Cor 1:14).

Also the sending of Timothy and the praise accorded to him in 2:19-22 (cf. 1 Cor 4:17; 16:10); the assurance in 2:24, very strange in the connection in which it occures, that the writer himself will speedily come (cf. 1 Cor 4:19); the "supposed to be necessary" and "speedy" sending of Epaphroditus in 2:25, 28 (cf. 2 Cor 9:5; 8:22); the unintelligible imperative (prosdechesthe) in 2:19, with reference to the highly appreciated Epaphroditus (cf. Rom 16:2); the deviation after "such" (toioutoi) in 2:30 (cf. ta auta in 3:1) otherwise than as referring to what occurred wlsewhere in some previous passage in the group of epistles to which this originally belonged; the keenness of the attack in 3:2-6, 19, which is fully in harmony with much in 2 Cor 10-13 and Gal, but not with the present epistle; the unintelligibleness of the assurance "for we are the circumcision" in 3:3, so long as we do not bear in mind such words as those in Rom 2:25, 28f.; the necessity for explanation of "glorifying in Christ Jesus and not trusting in the flesh" (kauxômenoi en Christou 'Iêsou kai ouk en sarki pepoithotes) in 3:3, by referring to such texts as Rom 2:17, 23; 11:1; 2 Cor 11:21-23; Ga 1:13f., and so forth.

[3708] Perhaps the special features connected with Paul's sojourn as a prisoner in Rome, as also the allusion to succour previously received by him from the Philippians according to 4:5f., may be both borrowed from some written source; if this be so , the source in question cannot, in view of the discrepancies, be the canonical book of Acts, but must be rather a book of "Acts of Paul" which underlies it (see Van Manen, "Pauline Epistles," § 37).

6b. Not Patchwork

However many the traces of the writer's use of earlier materials, it does not seem advisable, and certainly in no case is it necessary, to regard his work as a chance or deliberate combination of two or more epistles or portions of epistles. The epistle as a whole does not present the appearance of patchwork. Rather does it show unity of form; we find a letter with a regular beginning and ending (1:1f., 4:20-23); a thanksgiving at the outset for the many excellences of the persons addressed (1:3-12; cf. Rom 1:8-12; 1 Cor 1:4-9) not withstanding the sharp rebukes that are to be administered later; personalia; exhortations relating to the ethical and religious life; all mingled together yet not without regard to a certain order. Here and there some things may be admitted to interrupt the steady flow of the discourse; 3:1 or 3:1b raises the conjecture of a new beginning; the "things" spoken of here are not different from those which we meet with elsewhere in other Pauline epistles—even in Rom, 1 and 2 Cor, Gal. There also, just as here, we repeatedly hear a change of tone, and are conscious of what seems to be a change of spirit. Yet even apart from this, to lay too great stress upon the spiritual mood which expresses itself in 3:2-6 as contrasted with that of 1:3-11 or, on the whole, of 1-2, would be to forget what we can read in 1:15-17; 2:21 and the calm composure shown in chs. 3f.

No unmistakable trace can be shown of conjunction or amalgamation of two or more pieces of diverse origin, apart from what admits of explanation from use having been made of existing writings—say, the reading of certain Pauline epistles. Rather does everything, even that which has been borrowed. reach the paper through the individual brain and pen of the writer. Witness the unity of language and style which becomes all the more conspicuous whenever we compare the work with, for example, a Johannine epistle or a chapter from the synoptical gospels.

There is but one so-called conclusive proof that there were originally more than one epistle—whether genuine or not genuine—of Paul to the Philippians: the much discussed testimony of Polycarp (Pol.Phil. 3.2). There we read of Paul that he had not only in his time orally instructed the Philippians but also written them "letters, into which if you look carefully you will be able to have yourselves built up into the faith that has been given you" (epistolas, eis as ean egkruptête, dunêthêsesthe oikodomeisthai eis tên dotheisan humin pistin). It is not necessary, however, as is done by some scholars, to explain the plural number (letter[s]) by reference to Latin idiom (epistolae), or, with others, to think that Polycarp is exaggerating. The text in 13.2 clearly shows that he well knows the difference between epistolê and epistolai; in 11.3, (qui estis in principio epistulae ejus) that he knows of but one epistle of Paul to the Philippians; in 11.2, that he regards 1 Cor 6 as belonging to the instruction given by Paul to the Philippians, whilst we moreover meet with other traces of acquaintance with Pauline epistles. The inference lies to our hand: the plural form (epistolai) in 3.2 is to be explained by the writer's intention of pointing to a group of epistles by Paul which his readers might read for edification, and [which] the Philippians also might regard as written for them. A remarkable evidence indeed, not of the earlier existence of more than one epistle of Paul to the Philippians, but of the way in which in the [3709] middle of the second century the group of Pauline epistles was regarded—not as a chance collection of private letters, but as one destined from the first for the edification of various churches.

After what has been said it is hardly possible to think of Paul as the writer of Philippians.

7a. Paul Not the Author

In itself considered it is possible indeed that the apostle should have written in the form of a letter to a particular church a composition which was in truth no real letter, but a writing designed for purposes of general edification. This is not impossible; but it is hardly at all probable. The same remark applies to the writer's method of borrowing one thing and another from extant "Pauline epistles" even if sometimes the borrowing amounts perhaps to no more than a slight unconscious reminiscence of what he had at some time read. Possible also, but still less probable, is it that he should have written in so impalpable a manner regarding his then surroundings—his recent vicissitudes, what might be awaiting him in the future, his relation to the community addressed, what was happening within it—and above all that he should write in so exalted a tone of himself as an "example" whose sufferings are significant for them all.

What finally puts an end to all doubt is the presence of unmistakable traces of the conditions of a later period. Amongst these are to be reckoned in the first instance all that is vague and nebulous in the supposed historical situation, the firmly held conception of "Paul," his "bonds," his presence and absence. More particularly, everything that points to a considerably advanced stage in the development of doctrine. Christianity has freed itself from Judaism. "Saints" may be called so, not because of their relation to the law, nor as children of Abraham, but in virtue of their standing "in Christ Jesus" (1:1; 4:21). Righteousness, or the fruit of righteousness, is attained not through the law but "through Jesus Christ" (1:11; cf. 3:9). Not the Jew but the believing Christian belongs to the true Israel (3:3).

It is no longer Jesus who is by preference spoken of—the expression occurs only twice (2:10, 19; according to Tischendorf's text); usually it is "Christ Jesus," or "Christ," sometimes "Jesus Christ." God is in a special sense his father (1:2). His "day" is spoken of (1:6, 10; 2:16), the righteousness obtained through him (1:11), the abundance that is had in him (1:26). He can be the subject of preaching (1:15, 17f.); the life (1:21); his spirit a stay for believers (1:19), and he himself glorified in the body of the apostle (1:20). In him is comfort (2:1), he is the highest object of human striving (2:21), whose work must be done (2:30), in whom alone can there be glorying (3:3), for whom everything may well be sacrificed (3:7), the knowledge of whom is worth all else (3:8), who lays hold of those who are his (3:12), in whom is the calling of God (3:14), to be hostile to whose cross is the saddest of all things (3:18), who is to be looked for from heaven as Lord and Saviour (3:20), who shall make us like unto himself (3:21), in whom we must stand fast (4:1), whose "thoughts" (noêmata) we must have (4:7), through whom or in whom God blesses us (4:19), whose grace may be invoked upon us (4:23), our Lord at whose name every knee must bow (2:10f.), who came down from heaven, who was in the form of God and who humbled himself, became man, suffered and died, and was glorified above all (2:6-11).

The church already possesses its "bishops and deacons" (1:1), its factions, its parties and schools (1:15, 17; 3:2), its good old times (1:5; 2:12). The unity of the faith is in danger (1:27f.; cf. 2:2f.), there is suffering on account of the faith (1:29f.), there is an aiding of prisoners (2:25, 30), with regard to which we find a testimony in Lucian's De Morte Peregrini.

In a word: all points back to an Old-Christian development that cannot at so early a date as 64 A.D., the assumed death-year of Paul, have attained to such a degree of maturity as we see it here possessing. Let it [3710] not be said, however, on this account, that the unknown writer who conceals himself behind the name "Paul" or, if you will, "Paul and Timothy," was a forger or fraudulent person. Nothing gives us the smallest title to cast any such imputation on his character. He simply did what so many had done before him, and so many others were to do after his day; more from modesty than from any arrogance or bluntness of moral sense did such men write under the name of some one whom they esteem, in whose spirit they wish to carry on their labours, and under whose spiritual protection, as it were, they wish to place their literary efforts. The "Paul" whom this author brings before his reader is the motive—indispensable or at least desirable—for glorying over against those who are accustomed to exalt themselves over well-known predecessors, as we learn from 2 Cor 5:12.

7b. The Real Author

The author himself lived at a later date; we know not where. Presumably in the same circle as that in which the "principal epistles" had their origin, and not long after the production of these, probably in Syria or Asia Minor, about the year 125 A.D.  In any case not earlier than the beginning of the second century and not later than the testimony of Polycarp already cited, dating from the middle of the century, or indeed, when we bear in mind Marcion's use of the letter, not later than 140 A.D. What we can securely infer from the epistle itself is no more than this: that it appeared after the "principal epistles," and in dependence on them, yet by another hand than any of those which we find at work there, as is shown by the divergences by which, not withstanding many things they have in common, its language and style are distinguished. Our author, like the writers of the "principal episties," belonged to the Pauline school. Yet he was, so far as we can judge, less dogmatically inclined than these writers, or at least than the authors of Rom and Gal. Rather was he one who directed his thoughts by preference to the practice of the Christian life. He knows well of conflicting tendencies and divergent schools and parties, yet he glides lightly over them and in the character of Paul unhesitatingly places himself above them all (1:18), if only his readers are obedient and adhere to that which has once been taught (2:12; 3:16f.; 4:9). Questions of doctrine leave him unmoved, if only his readers will bear in mind the watchwords: struggle. ceaseless struggle (3:12-16); a walk in accordance with the gospel of Christ, in unity of the spirit (1:27); after the pattern given by Paul (passim, especially 1:21-26; 2:17f.; 3:'17; 4:9-13), Timothy, Epaphroditus (2:19-30), and other Philippians of the good old days (1:3-11; 4:10-18), only thinking the thoughts which were in Christ Jesus (2:5).

8. Value

The historical as distinguished from the abiding religious and ethical value of this writing, even though it makes no contribution to our knowledge of the life of Paul, is not slight. It throws light for us upon the history of Paulinism and the course of this quickening practical movement within Christianity during the first half of the second century.


10. Text [3711]

The Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians has long held a place, by universal consent, among the writings of the "Apostolic Fathers." Its title in that group (according to Zahn) runs: tou agiou Polukarpou episkopou Zmurnês kai hieromartuos pros Philippêsious epistolê. In Lightfoot it is simply pros Philippêsiuos. Neither the longer nor the shorter title can be regarded as original. The epistle is now extant in its entirety only in a faulty Latin rendering by the same hand as that which translated the longer recension of the Ignatian epistles. We know the Greek text of chs. 1-9 from nine MSS, which all go back to the same ancestor, and are usually called akefaloi because they contain the Greek text of the acephalous "Barnabas" 21—i.e., of Barn 5:7 ( ... ton laon k.t.l.). Ch. 13 is found in Eusebius HE 3:36.14-15.

11. Form and Contents

The work is in the form of an epistle written by "Polycarp and the presbyters who are with him," or by Polycarp alone, to the church of God at Philippi which had invited him to write the epistle (3.1; 13.2), we are not told how or why. The "presbyters" are mentioned as joint writers of the epistle only in the exordium; for the repeatedly recurring "we" elsewhere does not necessarily imply them. "Polycarp" speaks in chs. 1-14 to "brethren," to whom his attitude is after the manner of "Paul" in his epistles. He declares his joy at their friendly reception of Ignatius and his companions on their journey to Rome (1), gives some exhortations (2), declares that he cannot compare himself with Paul (3), gives directions and precepts for married women and widows (4), for deacons, youths (i.e., laymen) (5), presbyters, himself and others (6). He warns against Docetism and exhorts to faithful adherence to the views that have been handed down (7). He points to the perseverance of Christ Jesus, the blessed Ignatius, Zosimus, Rufus, Paul and the rest of the apostles (8f.), urges his readers to follow their example (10), laments the falling away of the former presbyter Valens and his wife, yet desires that they should be gently dealt with (11). He incites to the examination of the scriptures, to a holy walk, to prayer for others (12). He will take care, on the request of the Philippians and Ignatius (see Ign. Poly. 8), that letters should be sent to Antioch in Syria, and says a word in commendation of the epistles of Ignatius accompanying his own; also of Crescens, the bearer, and his sister (13f.).

12. Is Polycarp the Author?

The author of this epistle, according to tradition, was Polycarp, a disciple of the apostles, especially of John, who made him bishop of Smyrna, where about 166 or 167-168 A.D. he suffered martyrdom at an advanced age. The difficulties, however, in the way of our accepting this tradition are insuperable.

In the first place, it has to be asked what motive was there for Polycarp. the bishop of the church at Smyrna, to address such an epistle at all to the church at Philippi—with which, so far as we can trace, he had nothing to do? What is said in 3.1 (cf. 13.2) about the epistle having been invited is manifestly invention.

Further, we must not overlook that, though doubtless the writing gives itself out to be a letter, it is in reality nothing of the sort, but rather, in the author's own language, a treatise "concerning righteousness" (peri tês dikaiosunês, 3.1; cf. 9.1). The form is taken from the Pauline "epistle," on the whole coinciding most with that of the pastoral letters, or those of Ignatius, though also now and then showing affinities with the first Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians. Its dependence on all these continually strikes the eye.

Now, it is, in itself considered, certainly possible, [3712] yet at the same time it is not at all likely, that Polycarp, under his own name or as "Polycarp and the presbyters that are with him," should have written a treatise "concerning righteousness" in the form of an epistle to the church at Philippi. Rather does it lie in the nature of the case that a third person should have made use of his name in this manner.

The same observation has to be made upon the circumstance that the writer, in the character of Polycarp, refers to the charge laid upon him by Ignatius. Ignatius himself, however, in his letter to Polycarp (8.1) had said that on account of his hasty departure from Troas for Neapolis he was no longer able to write to all the churches, wherefore he, Polycarp, must now instead send letters "to the churches in front"—a fiction upon which the real Polycarp could hardly have proceeded, though for a third party this would have presented no difficulties. Or if it be held that we are not at liberty to speak of fiction in this connection because Ignatius had really said what we read in the passage cited above, how then could his friend Polycarp have passed over his words, have written a treatise in an epistle to the Philippians, and in the socalled letter assume the appearance of having written, not to please Ignatius, but because the writing had been called for by the persons addressed (3.1; cf. 13.2)?

There are other difficulties also. The date of Polycarp's death is unknown.

The tradition that speaks of 166 or 167-8 as Polycarp's death-year rests upon some indications of Eusebius (Chron. and HE 4.14f.; 5.5, 20), yet it appears to be inadmissible. The same authority, however, speaks (HE 3.36) of Polycarp not only as a contemporary of Ignatius and Papias, but also as already in the third year of Trajan (98-117) bishop of Smyrna and at that time in his full vigour. For this reason many scholars—such as Hase, Wiseler, Duker, Keim, Uhlborn [et. al.]—have during ever so many years not hesitated to use their freedom in this connection, and have assigned as the death-year of Polycarp various dates between 147 and 178. More particularly, however, many scholars since Waddington (1867)—such as Renan, Aubé, Hilgenfeld, Harnack, Völter, Lightfoot, and Zahn—have fixed upon the year 155-6 as the date, basing their conclusion on what they read in the martyrium Polycarpi, ch. 21. Unfortunately it is not possibIe to place reliance even on this passage. The purport of the supposed statement is uncertain; it requires a number of guesses to be made before it can be taken in the sense that is desired; and in the most favourable event yields a statement that stands and falls with the twofold, far from probable, view (1) that ch. 21 is an integral part of the main work, although it was still unknown to Eusebius. and Jerome; (2) that the Martyrium itself is as old as it claims to be, and was written within a year after the martyrdom of Polycarp (see Van Manen, Old Christian Literature, § 14).

The oldest tradition we possess regarding the date of Polycarp is that given by Irenaeus (AH 3:3-4, written about 180), who speaks of him as one whom he had known in his earliest youth (en tê prôtê hêmôn hêlikia), who at that time was bishop of the church of Smyrna, and of whose successors "down to the present time" (hoi mexri nun diadedegnenoi ton Polukarpon) he is able to speak. To what is said by Irenaeus here and elsewhere, as also in the Epistle to Florinus wrongly attributed to him (see Van Manen, Old Christian Literature, § 25). Eusebius has nothing new of any consequence to add, beyond his indications as to the death-year in 167-8. which are certainly not to be accepted. Irenaeus names no such year.

We should certainly not go very far astray if, in view of what Irenaeus tells us about Polycarp, we were to seek his death about the middle of the second century. At that date the Ignatian letters, with which our present epistle is connected, had not yet been written (see Van Manen, Old Christian Literature, § 22), and thus the latter cannot have been the work of Polycarp.

It is of no avail to attempt, as some scholars have done, to meet these difficulties by assuming our present epistle to be greatly interpolated, so that in its original form it can still be regarded as older than the Ignatian Epistles. The [3713] assumption of the many interpolations required finds no support in the MS tradition nor yet in the textual phenomena or in external testimony—as has been rightly pointed out by Zahn and Lightfoot among others.

13. Author Unknown

The conclusion remains—notwithstanding Zahn and Lightfoot, who (albeit supported by Harnack) have not succeeded in proving the "genuineness"—that our "Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians" is the work of an unknown hand, in the spirit of the epistles of Ignatius, though not, in view of the differences in style and language, by the same author, as a sequel to that group, and not, as has been conjectured, with the object of recommending them, or of controverting Docetism. The "Pauline" epistles are much more strongly recommended (3.3) than the Ignatian (13.2); and the polemic against Docetism in ch. 7 comes too little into the foreground for us to be able to regard it as one of the main objects of the writing. The epistle is a well-meant, though by no means important, composition of the edifying order, made up in great part of borrowed words, and in no respect showing much independence, written after Polycarp's death about the middle of the second century, and before Irenaeus, who (AH 3.3.4) praised it as "an able epistle" (epistolê ikanôtatê)) from which we can learn the manner of Polycarp's faith and how to preach the truth; probably, therefore, about 160 A.D.

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Copyright © Institute for Higher Critical Studies, 1996

Darrell J. Doughty
Institute for Higher Critical Studies
Drew University, Madison, NJ, 07940