In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Philippians

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Technical Commentaries
  • More-Accessible Commentaries
  • Accessible Commentaries with Modern Application
  • Integrity of the Letter
  • Genre
  • Rhetorical Analysis
  • Jewish Context
  • Philippians and the Friendship Topos
  • Thankless Thanks of 4:10–20
  • Philippians and Politics
  • Ethical Exhortation
  • Submission
  • Other Studies of Philippians

Biblical Studies Philippians
Jerry L. Sumney
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 May 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 June 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0049


Philippians is known for its expressions of joy. While it is written to a community with which Paul has good relations, the letter addresses a significant problem and issues some warnings. A problem of arguments between church leaders is evident in chapter 4. Paul calls these leaders by name, and so it is apparent that they are women. Paul’s acknowledgment and support of these leaders indicates that he encourages women leaders in his churches in ways that are surprising to many who think of Paul as a misogynist. Debated elements of the letter’s occasion include whether Paul addresses problems associated with teachers coming to his church who are imparting ideas that he rejects. Interpreters have found various types of intruding teachers, including those who insist on gentile observance of the law, those with an overrealized eschatology, and those who are antinomians. Some have found multiple groups of intruders. Others find only internal problems and warnings about teachers who may arrive. Some interpreters question the letter’s integrity. The unexpected turn at the beginning of chapter 3 and the delay in thanking the Philippians for the gift they have sent have been crucial factors for those who find multiple letters. Though early-21st-century scholarship has argued in favor of the three-letter hypothesis, most interpreters view Philippians as a single letter. Questions have also been raised about Paul’s exact location when he wrote Philippians, with Ephesus, Caesarea, and Rome as the more popular choices. If the letter is composed of multiple fragments, the parts may have been composed in different places. Philippians 2:6–11 is almost unanimously identified as a preformed piece. Its structure and origin continue to be matters for discussion. Additionally, interpreters continue to propose different hypotheses about how 2:6–11 functions in the argument of the letter. The Christology of this “hymn” has encouraged discussion of Paul’s theology in relation to it. Paul’s interpretation of persecution, calls that he makes to imitate Christ and fellow Christians, and his understanding of Judaism are among the more important issues that arise in connection with Philippians. This short letter has elicited many investigations of its social, political, and philosophical setting. The extent to which the letter employs elements of the friendship topos and how that illumines the letter’s meaning are also issues that have been debated. Investigations include the way Paul thanks the readers for the gifts they have sent him and the use of imitation in exhortation.

General Overviews

Both Fitzgerald 1992 and Saunders 2009 provide reliable and accessible introductions to Philippians. Both also interpret the letter within the framework of a “letter of friendship.” Hooker 2003 expects a bit more of readers and gives more emphasis to the importance of Paul’s imprisonment, in an assessment of the letter’s occasion. Brown 1997 is intended for more-advanced readers. This solid and thorough introduction provides an extensive survey of issues and positions taken on them as well as a significant bibliography.

  • Brown, Raymond E. An Introduction to the New Testament. Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library. New York: Doubleday, 1997.

    A more detailed introduction that is suitable for seminary and graduate students. Brown includes discussion of the issues with arguments for varying positions, an outlined overview of the letter’s content, and a bibliography.

  • Fitzgerald, John T. “Philippians, Epistle to the.” In O–Sh. Vol. 5 of The Anchor Bible Dictionary. Edited by David N. Freedman, 318–326. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

    This accessible introduction traces the earliest history of the church in Philippi and deals with critical issues of the letter. Accepting the unity of the letter, Fitzgerald sees Philippians as a “letter of friendship” probably written from Rome. He sees the “hymn” of chapter 2 as preformed, a piece Paul uses to support his paraenesis.

  • Hooker, Morna. “Philippians.” In The Cambridge Companion to St. Paul. Edited by James D. G. Dunn, 105–115. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL0521781558

    Appropriate for upper-level undergraduates. Hooker discusses both Paul’s circumstances when writing and those of the Philippians. She sets Paul’s description of his imprisonment in the context of imitating Christ’s example. Her treatment of the “Christ-hymn” is set within instructions about how to live as Christians.

  • Saunders, Stanley. “Philippians, Letter to the.” In Me–R. Vol. 4 of The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Edited by Katharine D. Sakenfeld, 503–507. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009.

    Saunders introduces the issue of the letter’s integrity and provides an outline of the letter, with comments about the content of each section. He makes note of Paul’s uses of friendship motifs and of the way Philippians positions believers as inhabitants of two inherently opposed worlds: that of the cultural values of the wider society and that of the values seen in the story of Jesus.

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