(fi-lip' ee-uhnz. Gk. Pros Philippêsious. “To the Philippians.”)

Canonical Status.

Philippians is the sixth of the thirteen letters attributed to Paul and the eleventh book overall in the New Testament canon. Since Paul notes his incarceration (1:7, 13–14), Philippians is designated with Paul's “prison” or “captivity” epistles, the others being Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon.


Although customarily referred to as having been authored by Paul himself, the letter opening names both Paul and Timothy as writers. A few nineteenth-century scholars and a handful of modern scholars question Paul's authorship based on the appearance of “Gnostic” ideas and the lack of distinctive Pauline ideas (see the summary in O'Brien 1991, pp. 9–10). Nevertheless, the vast majority of modern scholars ascribe the letter to Paul.

Date(s) of Composition and Historical Contexts.

The letter is written to the Jesus-believers in the city of Philippi, a Roman colony in the northeastern province of Macedonia. Although Romanized in its dominant culture, vestiges of its Greek heritage continued through the first century C.E. (see Oakes 2001). According to Acts 16:11–15 and 40, the believing community was established at Philippi by Paul in the household of Lydia, a dealer in purple dye and purple goods, although no mention is made of her in the letter itself.

When writing Philippians Paul is in prison (1:7, 12–13) and awaiting trial (1:19–26). Although he is not expecting imminent death, he suggests that he would prefer to die “to be with Christ” (1:23B–26). He notes, however, that he will soon be released and plans to visit the Philippians (1:25–26). The location of the imprisonment is not specified and a number of places have been suggested, each of which would presume a different date of composition. A key factor in establishing Paul's location is consideration of the short timeframe to complete the letter's presumed four quick trips between Paul and Philippi and the implication that four successive trips will take place in the near future, including Paul's own visit soon after his release from prison (see outline in Martin 2004, pp. xlviii–xlix).

Although proposed by a few scholars, there is no evidence for Corinth as Paul's place of incarceration and not many accept this hypothesis or its early dating of the letter to 50 C.E. Caesarea Maritima has more evidence in its favor since Paul was said to be incarcerated there around 58–60 C.E. while he was awaiting transfer to Rome (Acts 23:23—26:32). As Caesarea was the seat of the Roman governor in the province of Palestine, one may well have found there members of the “imperial guard” (praetorium) and the “emperor's household,” which are referenced by Paul in Philippians (1:13 and 4:22). Against Caesarea, however, is the clear lack of any threat of imminent death or a coming verdict regarding Paul, both of which are indicated in Philippians (1:21–24 and 2:24). More important, the distance of more than 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) between this city and Philippi makes it difficult, albeit not impossible, to account for the presumed number of trips taking place in short succession.

Most commentators are split between locating Paul in Ephesus and in Rome. Nevertheless, many of them rightly note that it makes no significant exegetical difference in interpreting the letter. Incarceration in Rome (Acts 28:16–30, ca. 61–63 C.E.) provides the most immediately understandable reference point for mention of the praetorium and the emperor's household as there is no doubt about the presence of members of both in the imperial city. This hypothesis also has on its side the strength of tradition, which goes back at least to the second century C.E. The most problematic aspect is the distance between Rome and Philippi, which is 700 miles (1,100 km) by land or 900 miles (1,450 km) by sea. It would also seem that if Paul is in Rome, his intended trip to Philippi (2:24) contradicts his plans not to return east once he arrived at Rome. Paul claims to have completed his work in the east (“from Jerusalem to Illyricum,” Rom 15:19) and has a new calling to work in the western areas of the empire (Rom 15:24, 28).

An Ephesian provenance has in its favor its proximity to Philippi (about 100 miles [160 km]), which allows for frequent travel between the two cities. While Acts does not indicate imprisonment in Ephesus, neither does it preclude it since Paul ran into considerable political trouble there (Acts 19, cf. Acts of Paul 8). An Ephesian imprisonment around 55 C.E. is inferred from Paul's claim of severe affliction in Asia (2 Cor 1:8–10) and his (metaphorical) claim that he “fought with wild beasts at Ephesus” (1 Cor 15:32). Ephesus had a Roman military presence, and as an imperial administrative center the city had many members of the imperial civil service (“the emperor's household”).

Literary History.

The literary unity of Philippians has been the subject of much debate among commentators since the seventeenth century. At the heart of the debate are the clear transitional phrase and the shift in tone at 3:1, where Paul begins with the word “finally” (to loipon), indicative of a letter closing, but then continues with strong invective against opponents. This same word appears again later (4:8), and it is possible to bridge 3:1 with 4:4 without any noticeable omission in the flow of the letter, suggesting that the intervening material is an insertion. In addition, the inclusion of a thanksgiving at 4:10–20 is curious since such material generally occurs early in an ancient letter. The warmth and friendliness of this thanksgiving fits with much of the rest of the letter, with the exception of the strong attack and defensive tone of 3:2—4:1.

All of this evidence is brought to bear on the argument that the canonical form of Philippians is a composite work of either two or three letters written by Paul to the believers at Philippi and merged by a later editor. The first letter (4:10–20) contains Paul's immediate acknowledgement of the monetary gift he received. The second (1:1—3:1; 4:4–7, 21–23) followed shortly thereafter and urges the Philippians to unity in the face of external pressures (in the two-letter hypothesis this section is combined with 4:10–20). The third letter (3:2—4:3, 8–9) was written at a later period, perhaps following Paul's release and visit to Philippi (cf. 2:24; 1:26; Acts 20:1–2), and addresses the imminent arrival of opponents.

In defending the letter's unity commentators primarily point to the overall coherence in the rhetorical flow. Internal verbal parallels such as “emptying” (2:6–11/3:4–14) and “citizenship” (1:27–28/3:20—4:1) and thematic connections that span the proposed divisions, such as joy, unity, partnership, suffering, and contentment and confidence in facing trials (see Garland 1987) indicate unity. The sharp break at Philippians 3:1 has parallels in other Pauline letters (i.e., Rom 16:17), and is more likely explained by Paul's writing style than by an editor leaving such careless seams.

The case for and against the literary unity of Philippians is not clear and no doubt the debate will continue among commentators. At present there is perhaps a slight preference for the unity of the letter (e.g., Martin; Bockmuehl 1998; O'Brien), although the three-letter proposal continues to have its proponents (e.g., Reumann 2008).

Structure and Contents.

Philippians reflects the common epistolary conventions of antiquity in its opening (1:1–2), thanksgiving (1:3–11), body (1:12—4:20), and final greetings (4:21–23). The specific epistolary genre is most often identified as a “friendship letter” due to the preponderance of friendship expressions and language, although the words “friendship” (philia) and “friend” (philos) do not occur, suggesting “friendship” is the overall theme and ethos rather than a formal epistolary designation.

The rhetorical strategy of Philippians fits with deliberative rhetoric in using argument, exhortation, and persuasion while urging particular courses of action, although it could also be designated “epideictic” due to the presence throughout of the language of honor/shame and praise/blame. Overall, commentators are divided on the exact rhetorical structure of the letter, although are in general agreement concerning the topical divisions:

I. Opening

A. Salutation (1:1–2)

B. Thanksgiving and prayer, emphasizing Paul's connection with the believers at Philippi (1:3–11)

II. Body

A. Paul's present status, which, although lowly, has served to spread the gospel and bring honor to Christ (1:12–26)

B. Paul's core concern: an appeal for unity on the basis of the gospel (1:27–30)

C. Exemplars of unity: Christ's self-emptying, Paul's suffering, Timothy's ignoring of self-interests, and Epaphroditus's near death in the service of God (2:1–30)

D. Warning of imminent threats to unity: “mutilators of the flesh” and “enemies of the cross of Christ” (3:1—4:1)

E. Urging of conflict resolution between two women leaders and exhortations to stand firm (4:2–9)

F. Expression of appreciation for the monetary gift sent from the believers to Paul (4:10–20)

III. Closing: Greetings and final blessing (4:21–23)


A key interpretive issue in Philippians is the language of leadership and whether it applies to women. In Philippians, Paul identifies community leaders as episkopoi (“bishops”) and diakonoi (“deacons”; 1:1), Paul's only use of these titles together and the only use of the former in the undisputed Pauline letters. Nothing in the letter itself indicates the roles of these officers, although the former may indicate a supervisory role while the latter one of service. Elsewhere in the letter Paul points to male leaders: Epaphroditus, an “apostle” who has assisted in his ministry (2:25–30), and an unnamed “true yoke-fellow” (“beloved companion” NRSV) and Clement, both mentioned in 4:3. Paul also appeals to two women whose difference of opinion has implications for the unity of the believing community (4:2–3). In noting their importance working with him in his ministry and calling them “fellow workers” (synergoi, 4:3), Paul presents them having leadership roles both inside and outside the Philippian group, and possibly numbers them among the aforementioned episkopoi and diakonoi (see further Ascough 2003, pp. 129–138).

A second key issue concerns the number and nature of opponents faced by Paul and the Philippian believers. Four separate groups seem clearly to be identified in the letter. The first group is not resident in Philippi but in the city of Paul's imprisonment, where they proclaim Christ in order to cause Paul more affliction (1:15–18). A second group threatens the unity of the Philippians themselves and has caused considerable fear, although Paul promises their eventual “destruction” (1:27–28). A third group receives Paul's most intense attention and critique: the “dogs,” “evil workers,” and “flesh-mutilators.” In contrast, Paul indicates that he and the Philippians are the “true circumcision” (3:3), suggesting to some that he has in mind here a group of Judaizing Christians he anticipates coming to Philippi, not unlike those that preached among the Galatians (Gal 1:6—5:1) or the Corinthians (2 Cor 11:1–6). Paul identifies a final group of opponents at Philippi as populated by “enemies of the cross of Christ” whose focus is earthly pleasures (3:18–19), perhaps a reference to the many civic associations extant in the city (Ascough, pp. 146–49).

Reception History.

Many different themes in Philippians have caught the attention of commentators throughout Christian history. None, however, have been given a greater amount of exegetical and theological attention than Paul's use of the self-emptying (kenosis) of Christ Jesus as a means to exhort the Philippian believers to the renunciation of self-interest, status, and power in favor of Christ-like servanthood and suffering (2:5–11). This text is clearly poetic and may reflect an earlier hymn used by believers, at Philippi or elsewhere, to articulate their belief in Jesus. The exact meaning of the claim that Jesus “was in the form of God” yet “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” (2:6) has fueled speculation as to the ontological nature of the human Jesus, eventually working its way out in the Trinitarian formulations of later church councils.



  • Ascough, Richard S. Paul's Macedonian Associations: The Social Context of Philippians and 1 Thessalonians. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament II/161. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2003.
  • Bockmuehl, Markus. The Epistle to the Philippians. Black's New Testament Commentaries. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1998.
  • Garland, David E. “The Composition and Unity of Philippians: Some Neglected Literary Factors.” Novum Testamentum 27 (1987): 141–173.
  • Martin, Ralph P., and Gerald F. Hawthorne. Philippians. Rev. ed. Word Biblical Commentary 43. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004.
  • Oakes, Peter. Philippians: From People to Letter. Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series 110. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press. 2001.
  • O'Brien, Peter T. The Epistle to the Philippians: A Commentary on the Greek Text. New International Greek Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans. 1991.
  • Reumann, John. Philippians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Anchor Yale Bible 33B. New Haven, Conn., and London: Yale University Press. 2008.

Richard S. Ascough