BMCR 2001.12.02

Philippians: From People to Letter

, Philippians: from people to letter. Society for New Testament Studies monograph series 110. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. xv, 231 pages : illustrations, 1 map ; 23 cm.. ISBN 0521790468. $59.95.

Philippians. From People to Letter explores the civic and ecclesiastical composition of Philippi and presents a consistently focused interpretation of key passages from Paul’s letter to the Philippians in light of the model developed for the church. Oakes begins by stating his intention to challenge the commonly accepted description of Philippi as a Roman colony dominated by retired soldiers. He aims to offer a more carefully constructed model of Philippi (chapter 1) in order to focus upon the make-up of the local Christian community (chapter 2) and then assess how Paul’s letter to the Philippians responds to the actual experiences of these early Christians, addressing the themes of suffering and unity (chapter 3), Paul as a model for the Philippians (chapter 4), and Christ as a model (chapters 5-6). This book represents a considerable advance over current studies on Philippi, increasing our understanding of the city, its church, and the importance of Paul’s letter to them. Although the book is aimed at New Testament scholars and advanced students, Classicists with interests in civic and social organization in the Roman Empire will also benefit from its analysis.

In Chapter 1 Oakes outlines four stages in the development of Philippi (see the figures on pp. 16-17). Prior to colonization, the main groups within Philippian society were elite landowners, peasant farmers, those engaged in service occupations, and the poor. The initial period of colonization brought an influx of Roman colonists, who displaced Greek landowners, and a movement into the city of displaced peasants seeking economic support. During the next stage, Greek peasants increasingly lost their land to colonists through various forms of economic pressure and consequently moved to the city; some colonists, in turn, moved to outer villages, which increasingly came under Philippian control. The final stage was characterized by the transformation of formerly modest farms into large, wealthy estates. As Oakes proceeds to assign percentages to each segment of the population, he offers a sharp critique of Bruce Malina’s modeling of the ancient city based on the make-up of a pre-industrial city (pp. 40-50). Oakes rightly argues that a model more specific to the social and economic realities of the ancient world is needed. He ultimately concludes that elites in Philippi comprised approximately 3% of the population, the poor 20%, slaves 20%, commuting peasant colonists 20%, and service groups 37%. Based on this model, Oakes estimates that at most 0.6% of the population would have been veterans. While this would represent a significant percentage of the elites in Philippi, they would have been a “negligible proportion” of those to whom Paul’s letter was addressed (pp. 50-54).

In Chapter 2 Oakes turns to the Philippian church. He asserts that the New Testament (NT) evidence is not sufficiently detailed to allow characterization of the Philippian church as a whole. However, the data of the NT clearly speak against the presence of numerous veteran soldiers since among all the personal names identified with the Philippian church there are no likely candidates for a veteran soldier (p. 56). Oakes does not assume the church to be a microcosm of the city; rather he posits that some sectors of society—those more socially accessible to Paul—would have been more likely than others to join the church. Those from outlying villages, members of the elite, and farmers would have had less potential contact with Paul; by contrast, the poor and members of the service sector of Philippi would have had highest access to Paul. Oakes’s estimates the congregation as 1% elite, 15% community peasant colonists, 43% service groups, 25% poor, 16% slaves (see Table 2 on p. 61).

In Chapter 3 Oakes identifies suffering and unity as the two most important themes of Philippians. Oakes is here in agreement with a number of recent studies. He differs from many exegetes, however, in concluding that the Philippians were under attack from opponents outside the community (others see internal opposition, including a dispute as to whether suffering is a valid aspect of Christian experience). Oakes proceeds to consider what type of suffering might result from a Christian commitment for each of the groups represented in the community. He concludes that economic hardship in the form of lost business contacts and contracts was the most significant, long-term form of suffering. Those in service positions, the poor, and farmers who rent their land or who were in debt are identified as the most vulnerable to negative economic consequences of their Christian identity. Oakes gives a colorful and convincing description of the economic suffering that would result from a baker abandoning pagan worship and joining a secretive community associated with Judaism. The poor, who are always more vulnerable to harsh treatment and whose reliance upon others is always more acute, would naturally be greatly affected by their new set of religious commitments. Less vulnerable would have been farmers who owned land and/or were not in debt.

In Chapter 4 Oakes argues that Paul’s suffering is presented as a model for the Philippians. He marshals persuasive evidence by identifying the common themes surrounding both Paul’s and the Philippians’ sufferings: the command to rejoice, the promise of salvation, the association of suffering with the gospel, and the call to self-sacrifice. Oakes roots his interpretation of imitating Paul’s example in the concrete experience of the Philippians: He sees Paul calling the Philippian Christians to be willing to sacrifice their economic well-being and status for the sake of their fellow Christians.

In Chapter 5 Oakes argues that Paul utilized imperial imagery to describe Christ in Philippians. While previous scholars have focused on the presence of particular titles, e.g., κύριος, σωτήρ (2:11; 3:20) and the phrase μορφῃ (2:6), Oakes argues that the connection to imperial ideology runs much deeper—to the basic thought pattern and structure of the passage. Oakes draws on imperial propaganda on coinage, in inscriptions, and in historical writings to construct a public imperial portrait, and he argues that the description of Christ in 2:6-11 accords well with that portrait. Jesus, like the Emperor, was granted authority by a competent body for the purpose of bringing universal submission to his rule. Granting of auctoritas was based on the Emperor’s moral legitimacy; for Christ it is his concern for others and his lack of self-interest (Phil 2:6-8).

In Chapter 6 Oakes focuses on how Christ the Emperor served as a model to the Philippians. Paul appeals to the Philippians to help others as they have received help from Christ (2:1). As Christ lowered himself from being like God to being like a slave (2:6-7), Paul calls the Philippians to be willing to act in ways that may be considered inappropriate to their current status in society. Christ’s acceptance of his suffering (2:8) calls the Philippians to accept their own suffering as well. In brief, Paul uses Christ’s example to encourage wealthier Philippian Christians to offer concrete aid to poorer Christians by taking them on not just as clients but as peers.

In this study Oakes brings new sophistication to the context of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Oakes is correct that the norm has been to describe Philippi as a city filled with veterans and then to invoke that context only when discussing verses that contain Roman concepts. Thus his project is ground-breaking and a welcome addition to the scholarship on Philippians. This study is also a significant advance over previous attempts by Biblical scholars to study the Greco-Roman context of early Christianity by using sociological models. Oakes deftly critiques Malina’s model of the ancient city—in particular his overestimation of the percentage of elites in the city and his omission of slaves as a significant portion of the population. What he offers in its place—my criticisms aside—is a vast improvement. Oakes’s wonderfully detailed portrait of the groups that made up an ancient city makes one cringe at earlier unsophisticated characterizations. In general Oakes is judicious in his evaluation of ancient evidence, for example, recognizing the limitations of inscriptional evidence for the Greek population (pp. 38-39) and, when constructing the imperial portrait, cautiously avoiding elements found only in literary sources (pp. 172-74). Oakes’s calculation of the percentage of the various populations within Philippi in part demonstrates this care. Percentages of elites and slaves are based on both conservative estimates and alternative calculations (pp. 46-48), but other percentages are less convincing. MacMullen’s estimates of the poor in 14-15th century Europe are lowered substantially based on an unexplained reference to the “nature of Philippi” (p. 47), and the justification for the percentage of the colonist farmers seems arbitrary (“I am inclined to put the figure…”; p. 49). The percentage of those in the service industry is calculated based on the total of the other percentages. So we are left with two well-substantiated percentages, but with the rest rather tenuous. That said, Oakes does offer ranges for the various populations and is realistic about their tentativeness.

Oakes’s criterion of “social accessibility” is useful since the Christian message was carried largely through personal contacts in this period, and I am in complete agreement with Oakes that Paul would have encountered service people most often. I have one minor objection to how Oakes applies this concept and one more serious objection to its use as the sole criterion for moving from city model to church model. First the more minor objection: Oakes lowers the accessibility of slaves of the elite based on the inaccessibility of their masters (p. 60). There is a certain logic here, no doubt. But should not the masters’ inaccessibility be tempered by consideration of the duties of these slaves? Would it not be useful to consider how many slaves in an urban environment would have had duties that kept them in the home and how many would have had duties that required freedom to interact regularly with others in the public sphere? (Oakes seems to take this principle into account in his treatment of the slave-girl from Acts 16 on p. 64; see also p. 95.) The more substantial concern is Oakes’s hidden assumption that those who were more accessible to Paul would, as a group, be equally likely to respond positively to his message. Should not other factors be considered? I think, for example, of Meeks’s use of “status inconsistency” or “status dissonance” as a factor that might incline ancients to the apocalyptic message of early Christianity (Wayne A. Meeks, The First Urban Christians [1983], especially chapter 2). This additional criterion would connect well with three groups that Oakes identifies within Philippi: disenfranchised Greek elites, displaced Greek peasants, and Roman colonist families that had lost their allotment of land.

I also find it odd that gender plays no role in Oakes’s model of the Christian community. This is particularly disconcerting because, as Oakes himself notes, the New Testament evidence for the community at Philippi offers a preponderance of female names (p. 56). It seems that the New Testament data would dictate that gender be an important factor. I am also uncomfortable with Oakes’s dismissal of the importance of the Jewish community in contributing to the make-up of the church. Based on Acts 16 and the paucity of archaeological evidence, he concludes that the Jewish community in Philippi was minute (pp. 58-59). There may not have been enough Jewish males to constitute a formal community, but there were enough women to have a gathering for prayer to the Jewish God. Ancient biases on what forms a “real” community should not affect our models of the ancient world. Oakes is no doubt right that the Jewish community was small, but this speaks to another potential difficulty. The use of models to describe a population as large as Philippi (estimated at 46,000 on p. 46) seems quite reasonable. But how accurate can a model be when the total Christian community was likely no more than 50-100 people (p. 62)? I would have appreciated it if Oakes, who is generally careful to explain the limitations of models (see, e.g., pp. 14-15, 52-54), had spoken to this question.

Oakes, I believe, rightly focuses on concrete life situations rather than doctrinal issues when exploring the theme of suffering in Philippians, and he spells out in detail the economic implications of conversion. I concur that Philippian Christians probably experienced such kinds of economic distress. However, I think he overstates his case when he concludes that this was the primary and most long-lasting form of suffering. The model Oakes developed categorizes people based on economic/occupational status; if the model had been drawn with other issues in mind (gender, religion, etc.), we would discover different kinds of sufferings.

Oakes subtly challenges two dicta of recent scholarship: the composite nature of Philippians and the identification of 2:6-11 as a pre-Pauline Christological hymn. Oakes argues against the first by identifying two pervasive themes in Philippians—suffering and unity; against the second he argues that 2:6-11 was composed for precisely the situation faced by the Philippian Christians. More importantly in my view, Oakes shifts the discourse from an obsession with origins to a concern for how the text would have been heard in its literary context, and it is possible to evaluate his arguments independent of one’s position on the literary origins of Philippians.

I turn now to Oakes’s exegesis of Philippians 2:6-11. I concur that this passage presents Christ as an example for the Philippians, and Oakes rightly probes the imperial imagery as revealed in the thought-structure of the passage. He departs most significantly from traditional exegesis in his interpretation of Phil 2:9, which he argues is about the granting of imperial authority to Jesus, not Jesus’ reward or apotheosis. According to this logic, 2:6-8 is the reason Jesus is granted authority (his lack of self-interest and his concern for others) and 2:9 (“therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name”) is the granting of authority. While Oakes is correct in identifying lack of self-concern as a typical feature of the public imperial persona, I can not think of an example where this concern for others leads an imperial figure to suffer. And it is exactly this suffering that seems to be remedied in verse 9 in a progression from self-abasement in 2:6-7, to death on the cross in 2:8, to exaltation in 2:9. Furthermore, the result of Oakes’s exegesis is that the typical Pauline emphasis on the cross is severely diminished; importance is instead placed upon Jesus’ mandate of universal domination. While this may fit an imperial portrait, I am not convinced this coheres well with Pauline theology.

Oakes seems to assume that an imperial portrait of Jesus would have been positively received by the Philippian Christians. I think a more nuanced understanding of reactions to imperial power (such as in Richard Horsley’s Paul and Empire [1997]) is necessary. Perhaps one could expect the beneficiaries of imperial patronage to receive such an image favorably. Is it not possible that Greeks who had themselves suffered under Rome’s policies—disenfranchised elites and displaced peasants—or Romans for whom their Roman background failed to live up to its economic promise would have interpreted imperial allusions through a different lens, perhaps perceiving Paul’s portrait as a subversive challenge to the (abusive?) power of the Emperor?

In conclusion, I must reiterate the importance of this work in offering a detailed and thoughtful model of Philippi and the Philippian Christian community. Oakes’s model is quite helpful in thinking about the dynamics of relationships inside and outside the church, in recognizing the reality of economic distress experienced by Christians, and in identifying Paul’s encouragement to offer economic help to fellow Christians. Philippians has often been considered a relatively unimportant letter within the Pauline Corpus, and Oakes succeeds in demonstrating how a careful reading of the text within its context can illumine previously unexplored aspects of early Christian experience. My criticisms attest primarily to how engaging I found this monograph. Perhaps for this reason—greedy for ever more sophistication—I have posed questions intended to sharpen Oakes’s work even further.