Ben Witherington III, Amos Professor of New Testament for Doctoral Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary, has written many socio-rhetorical commentaries on New Testament books — including a forthcoming volume on Philippians. Here he celebrates the culmination of this great labor, and he explains why his socio-rhetorical approach is such a “natural and fruitful way” to interpret Philippians.
Sometimes when you come to the end of something, it’s a relief, like finishing a marathon. Sometimes it’s a joy. And sometimes it’s sad. I must confess to having all these feelings in regard to writing my last New Testament commentary, this one a full-dress socio-rhetorical commentary on Philippians. After twenty-five years spent writing commentaries on each New Testament book, it is hard to believe I am done.
Once, a long time ago, I wrote a very small commentary on this subject, entitled Friendship and Finances in Philippi, for Trinity Press International. One might think that tackling the book a second time would be easier. Yet this new commentary is not merely a revision of the earlier one, but rather a fresh, new effort at the task, one that takes into account all the scholarly literature written since the first commentary came out in the mid-90s. I frankly was astounded by the huge body of work that has sprung forth on “the jewel of the Pauline corpus” since 1995.
Like the previous volumes in the socio-rhetorical series, this commentary attempts to look at Paul’s letter to the converts in Philippi especially from a social and a rhetorical point of view. This is a natural and fruitful approach for several reasons, some of which I will list.
1) Philippi was a Roman colony city where all things Roman — including rhetoric — ruled the day, so reading Philippians with an eye for rhetorical strategy makes good sense.
2) In this congregation there were leading female members. Knowing about the roles of women in Philippian society since the time of Alexander the Great helps us to understand several key things going on in this discourse.
3) The unique references to the Praetorium and to the household of Caesar not only tell us something about the provenance of Philippians but also shed light on the social situation Paul found himself in — under house arrest, but with the real prospect of gaining his freedom again.
4) Analyzing Philippians as deliberative rhetoric with some epideictic features allows the aims and purpose of this discourse to become increasingly clear: Paul wants the Philippians to continue embracing their Christian faith and model themselves on godly examples, especially the example of Christ himself, as Phil. 2 makes evident.
5) At the end of the discourse, Paul addresses the delicate issue of “giving and receiving” — that is, of reciprocity — as the Philippians had once again sent monetary support to him. How could he politely thank the audience without it sounding like a request for more? How could he tell the audience, “You’ve done enough,” without sounding ungrateful, raising the hackles of the givers, or hurting in any way the closest and most intimate relationship he had with any congregation?
6) Rhetorical analysis helps also us see that the argument claiming that Philippians is actually made up of several letter fragments is not merely weak — it is simply wrong. There is no textual evidence to support the assertion that multiple fragments were welded together in Philippians.
7) Finally, the many major themes of importance in this discourse — joy in the Lord, suffering for Christ, following good examples, resolving differences, ignoring “barking dogs” that lead in wrong theological and ethical directions, building fellowship in Christ, bearing witness even to soldiers and those who work for Caesar within the inner sanctums of Roman power — raise issues of purpose and unity and Christ-likeness that are powerful and poignant and pertinent for us still today, at the cusp of the twenty-first century.
Philippians is not a dead letter. It is a living rhetorical discourse just as much for our own day and time as for Paul’s. Reading Philippians with an awareness of the social and rhetorical issues and implications at play in Paul’s epistle makes this truth abundantly evident.
Click here to preorder Paul’s Letter to the Philippians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary.