Literary Integrity of Philippians
A number of scholars regard Philippians as a collection of two or three separate letters.1 In some places there is an awkward break in the sense, e.g. 2:19; 3:1-2; 4:9-10. Epaphroditus is reported to be very ill in 2:25-30 but not in 4:18. The attack on false teachers in 3:2-4 is unexpected and does not fit into the positive thrust of other parts of the letter. Appropriate endings are discernable at 4:1-9, 20-23, indicative of separate missives. Polycarp (Phil. 3.2) made reference to “letters” (plural) that Paul wrote to the Philippians, and distinct writings have since been identified as (a) 4:10-20; (b) 1:1–3:1; 4:4-7, 21-23; and (c) 3:2–4:3, 8-9. Nevertheless, how and why these hypothetical letters came to be joined together in the present form of Philippians is inexplicable.
Seemingly awkward breaks are not unusual in a dictated letter from someone like Paul (cf. 1 Cor. 4:17–5:1; 5:13–6:1; 8:13–9:1; 16:12-13; 2 Cor. 9:15–10:1; Gal. 5:15-16; 6:10-11; et al.). It was not necessary to refer to Epaphroditus’ illness every time his name was mentioned, and the letter could have been written over an extended period of time. Varied topics and tones are not uncommon in Paul’s writings (cf. 1-2 Corinthians). The apparent conflict between Eudia and Syntyche (4:2-3) shows that even in Philippi there were negative situations to face. Discerning potential endings does not mean that they were intended to be endings, and even if they were, Paul may very well have decided to say more after these words were penned. While 1 Cor. 4:16-21 may sound like an ending, it certainly does not conclude the letter in which it is written!
While Polycarp is not an infallible source, assuming the observation above is true and has been accurately transmitted (cf. Phil. 3:1), Paul wrote letters that are no longer extant (e.g. 1 Cor. 5:9; Col. 4:16),2 but this does not suggest that any were combined to form a single document. The various compilation theories, while interesting to consider, are less than convincing and offer no rational explanation for the letter’s current form. There is no legitimate reason to regard Philippians as anything but a literary unity.3
The ancient document we call “Philippians,” addressed to a group of first-century Macedonian Christians, has remained especially relevant and practical to all who have encountered it through the centuries, even to this very day. “Finally, brothers, whatever things are true, whatever things are honorable, whatever things are right, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovable, and whatever things are commendable, if there is anything virtuous and praiseworthy, reflect on these things” (Phil. 4:8).4
--Kevin L. Moore
1 Among those who view Philippians as a collection of up to three letters are C. J. Pfeifer, “Three Letters” 363-68; J. Murphy-O’Connor, Letter-Writer 8, 32; B. D. Rahtjen, “Three Letters” 167-73; P. Sellew, “Fragments Hypothesis” 17-28; “Revisited” 327-29; and J. Veitch, Origins 123-28, 193-204. For a concise overview of the discussion, see E. D. Freed, Introduction 300-301; D. A. Carson, D. J. Moo, and L. Morris, An Introduction to the NT 325-26; L. A. Jervis, Purpose 65-68; R. E. Brown Introduction to the NT 496-98; cf. L. M. White, From Jesus to Christianity 189-94.
2 See The Missing Letters of Paul.
3 Those who argue in favor of the letter’s integrity include M. Bockmuehl, Philippians 20-25; F. F. Bruce, Philippians 16-19; W. J. Dalton, “Integrity” 97-102; G. D. Fee, Philippians 21-23; H. Gamble, Textual History 145-46; D. Garland, “Composition” 141-73; K. Grayston, Letters 1-4; G. F. Hawthorne, Philippians xxix-xxxii; W. Hendrikson, Philippians 31-37; P. Holloway, “Apocryphal” 321-25; T. E. Pollard, “Integrity” 57-66; R. Russell, “Pauline” 295-306; M. Silva, Philippians 14-16; R. C. Swift, “Theme” 234-54; and D. F. Watson, “Rhetorical Analysis” 57-88.
4 Scripture quotations are the author’s own translation.