Friday, June 10, 2011

The Unity of Philippians

This post supplements a video released today on TektonTV addressing ReligionFreeDeist’s own video arguing that the letter to the Philippians is a composite product. We should note that while I was in the process of making my response, RFD placed his channel on “private” mode, so that his material is no longer accessible at large, including his original video.

Summary of Arguments for Division

RFD’s video argued two major reasons for a split in the letter: Paul’s abrupt change in tone at Phil. 3:2, and the perception that the dealings with Epaphroditus (2:25-30, 4:18) were out of chronological order. Not surprisingly, this thesis is not a new one; Hawthorne [xxix] finds suggestions for partitioning Philippians as early as the 17th century, and both of these arguments have been suggested as reasons for the partitioning. Some have even suggested that the letter should be divided into three parts, the third being the latter part of our Ch. 4. These days the scholarly tendency is to recognize it as a single letter. [Reed, 130]

Other arguments not made by RFD include an appeal to Polycarp, who says Paul wrote “letters” (plural) to the Philippians, though of course this may refer to otherwise unknown letters not saved and later canonized. (Why this happened is beyond our scope here; suffice to say that I follow Trobisch in thinking Paul himself initially selected from his own letters for a collection to survive as an anthology.)

Other lesser arguments have been made which are based on perceptions of compositional oddity, but none has the stark power of the appeal to 3:2.

Secondary Arguments Against Division

Even without the answer we give below, there are several reasons to doubt that Philippians is a composite product [W27f].

Textual evidence is lacking. All copies of Philippians represent it as a unity. Of course, this does not mean a thesis of partition is impossible, but as William Walker observes in his work on Pauline interpolations, one must provide sufficiently strong argumentation for any sort of conjectural emendation, and RFD’s two points alone are not sufficient. Additionally, sudden shifts like the one in 3:2 can be detected in other Pauline letters,

Links between the two sections. 3:20-1 “recalls, develops, and applies” the material in 2:6-11, while 4:10-20 alludes to 1:4-5 and 2:25. There is also “special vocabulary” linking the two sections, and certain themes like “being of one mind.”

Motive: There is frankly little sensible motive for two letters to have been spliced together in such a way. Reed and Hawthrone both point out that if a redactor thought these seams looked good together, then it is just as sensible to think Paul would as well.

The Place of Rhetoric

The key to answering RFD’s claims is understanding that Philippians, like all of Paul’s letters, uses certain conventions of Greco-Roman rhetoric. There are number of excellent sources on this subject, but a good starting point is a chapter on Paul as a rhetor in Ben Witherington’s The Paul Quest.

Generally, the elements of Philippians in terms of rhetorical format are as follows, according to Witherington [18]:

Prescript 1:1-2

Exordium 1:3-11

Narratio 1:12-26

Propositio: 1:27-30

Probatio: 2:1-4:3 –the “meat” of the rhetoric, where arguments are presented. As noted in the video, Paul provides both positive examples for the Philippians to emulate, and negative examples for them to avoid emulating (or, just plain avoid!). Some authorities class the “negative” parts of the probatio as being a subsection which is called a reprehensio. This, again, is why the first mention of Epaphroditus is where it is. While this may confuse modern readers like RFD, it is appropriate within the conventions of Greco-Roman rhetoric.

Peroratio 4:4-20 – a sort of recap in which emotional and heartfelt appeals are made to inspire the audience. The appeals can be positive or negative, though typically, as here, the rhetor closes with a positive example, and that is why the second mention of Epaphroditus is here: Paul’s thankfulness at receiving the gift from the Philippians Is the sort of thing that would ideally end the letter on a positive, heartfelt note.

Closing 4:21-3

Authorities may differ slightly on the beginnings and ends of these sections. Reed [165] offers a chart of various views in which the probatio is seen to vary from 2:1-3:21, 1:18b-4:7, 2:1-4:3, and 1:27-3:21, for example. However, all of the analyses cited agree that the critical verses in 2:25-30 and 3:2 are part of the probatio, and most place 4:18 in the peroration, though one places it in what is called a narratio – which would still serve our purpose sufficiently.

Due caution is also noted inasmuch as no one argues that Paul had before him a book on rhetoric and made a “checklist” of each part, being sure to include it. Rather, rhetoric would have been something he learned and incorporated into his practice; thus the likeliest reason for scholars’ inability to reach unanimous consent on the “edges” of each section is that it reflects Paul’s comfort and proficiency with the practice; or else, these conventions were part of what Reed calls a “culturally-shared means of argumentation” which was formalized by rhetors [444]. Rhetoric should be used primarily descriptively, as something that illuminates Paul’s compositional procedure, and Philippians might be best described as a personal letter in which Paul makes informal use of certain conventions of rhetoric.

An additional point closely related to the change in tone in 3:2 is the seeming “conclusive” nature of 3:1, though RFD does not make much of this apart from a somewhat sarcastic comment directed towards Paul. In this regard, Reed [229f] provides a helpful analysis of 3:1 as an example of a “hesitation formula,” a type of epistolary transitional tool. We need say no more of that since it was not raised as an issue; suffice to say that perceptions by modern critics of a problem are anachronistic.


The bottom line: RFD’s arguments for division in Philippians – which are not “news” in any sense – are rooted in an evaluation of the text in terms of modern perceptions and conventions.


Ben Witherington, Friendship and Finances in Philippi

Gerald Hawthorne, Philippians

Jeffrey Reed, A Discourse Analysis of Philippians. It should be noted that Reed has some dispute with identification of Philippians in rhetorical terms on a macro level. However, he does not offer any dispute of it on a “micro” level, on the level with which we are here concerned, and offers his own thesis based on discourse analysis in which he concludes that the weight of the evidence points to Philippians as a single letter.

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