Paul’s Letter to the Philippians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary

Book Review

Ben Witherington III, Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2011, 341 pp.

Ben Witherington shares a special insight in the introduction to his 2011 commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. He writes: “Words such as grace, faith, and believe occur rarely, and the verbs for salvation or the terms for hope occur not at all,” whereas “the singularly most frequent word group involves the nouns and verbs for joy” (2). It cannot be lost on a reader that the letter is believed to be authored by Paul while he is imprisoned. Additionally, Witherington makes the reader well aware that sacrifice, whether it be risking prison, risking social status, or accepting a measure of humility is counterculture to the themes of power and status in Greco-Roman communities. Perhaps the most important element of his commentary is his consistent reminder to the reader that to be Christ-like is to suffer, and to suffer on behalf of the Christ is to be considered a joy – and an ethic that allows the church to fulfill its mission in the world.

Witherington identifies Philippi as an important place to start a church. Though we see some evidence of tension in his thinking throughout the book, he states that Philippi was established as sort of Rome in microcosm (5). All laws and customs were thoroughly Roman, as were the customs. Roman citizenship was normative, and these citizens were protected by a significant number of Roman soldiers. Witherington comments that citizenship may have created a distraction for many of the members of the local church who may have spent an ample amount of time resolving differences between the ethics of Christ and the obligations of Roman citizenship.

He begins with an overview of Greco-Roman letter-writing form. By considering the content of Paul’s letter firmly within the social context of the church in Philippi, a reader can begin to participate in the author’s examination of what is undoubtedly an overview of Christian ethics founded in the kenotic behaviors of not only Jesus but Paul himself (76). Witherington’s first evidence of the nature in which Paul identifies himself as relating his own ethical choices to those of Jesus is the manner of letter which Paul writes. It is not a letter between friends, writes Witherington, but a familial letter in which the Apostle is offering parental guidance to a church that is finding its members at odds with one another, with much of the concern centering on status issues. Notably, there is not much of the Paul of Corinthians in this epistle, but a Paul that finds it most useful to use positive images of discipleship (citizenship in heaven) and the joy that arises from being both humble and faithful, or should, all because it is an ethic that will be vindicated. Negative circumstances will ultimately lead to the widespread dissemination of the gospel (74).

Witherington provides readers with a well-written, readable, and informative commentary on Philippians, and most importantly, it may offer some fresh – and refreshing – insights to readers who have tended to shy away from social and  literary commentaries due to what some might deem controversial conclusions of other social/rhetorical commentators. Two aspects of the commentary might make this evident to readers who are familiar with the New Perspective, favor such an understanding of Paul, or are invested in progressive theological outcomes that are perceived to be facilitated through the New Perspective.

One thing that stands out, or should, is the high Christology that undergirds Witherington’s understanding of Paul and the Pauline corpus, authentic or otherwise. He writes with an assumption that Trinitarian thinking is at the center of Paul’s thinking (85, 120, 136), and that Christ has not only a literal “Father – Son” kinship tie but that Jesus as Messiah, in Paul’s mind, means a deified Jesus. A reader who has some interest in Christological variety might identify the next concern for New Perspective thinkers. There is some evidence in the commentary that Witherington will show ambivalence or outright conflict with New Perspective approaches since some such understandings of Paul may conflict with what seems to be a necessarily high Christology if his Trinitarian assumptions are to be maintained with integrity.

This is most apparent in Witherington’s view of Pauline anti-imperialism, a view that ultimately declares that Paul is exhorting the Philippians to be better Roman citizens through the same kenosis that he suggests for healthy church relationships.  In light of the authentic Pauline epistles, it is rather difficult to conclude that Paul felt model citizenship would trump Christian faithfulness. There is no record of Paul’s concern for the health of Rome outside of its being successfully evangelized to accept its new relegated status under Christ. Witherington challenges the trajectory of New Perspective studies of Christ and empire by suggesting that the tensions between the two realms is not properly balanced by many scholars. In fact, he affirms the worth of Roman culture by stating that “there are some things in that culture that are noble, true, and of good repute” and suggests that Paul is indicating such (107).

He consistently vacillates between rightly identifying Paul’s concern for the claims of Caesar, only to be followed by a toning down of the importance of that theme (cf. e.g., 106, 167). In numerous places he seems to identify an anti-imperial strain in Paul’s writing, only to diminish its overall importance to any understanding of the social context in Philippi – even though Paul is communicating from prison for crimes thought to be representative of Christian conflict with the imperial cult. It appears as though Witherington resolves his own tensions by calling the church to an ethic of kenotic relationships within its own community as a means of being  better Roman citizens, a citizenship which will soon become irrelevant upon Christ’s return. At that point, citizenship in heaven will realize its full potential.

Witherington writes best when discussing themes of kenosis as a church ethic, allowing for nuances of the never-ending pistis christou conversations to inform his understandings of the text, though he does not recognize the related contributions of the New Perspective. Witherington reflects the subjective strain of thought when discussing New Testament soteriology within the text (107) and importantly summarizes a theology of suffering that is reminiscent of Yoder when he writes that suffering that is expected of Christians is suffering for the truth of the gospel, and this suffering results in joy. Not only does the nature of the gospel involve suffering; an ethic of kenosis makes such suffering a voluntary notion that is undertaken with a measure of joy (108-9).

There is never a problem in identifying moments and substantial measures of good theology within Witherington’s commentary, and there is always value in scholarship that properly reflects on the matter of “Christ in culture” during the first century of the church. A notable moment in Witherington’s commentary is the manner in which he offers a sort of summation of kenotic understandings among early Christians. He writes: “It would not have been shocking to Gentiles to hear that their god had taken on human form. They had heard such stories about Zeus… But to be told that their God had chosen to become a slave among humans – that was a very different story, a shocking story because it deconstructed everything they thought was written in stone about the hierarchical nature of reality and relationships” (148).

Scot Miller

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