The Handbuch zum Neuen Testament was founded by the church historian Hans Lietzmann in 1906 to meet the needs of readers—by implication those ordained or in training and likely to be preparing sermons—to develop their own understanding of New Testament writing on the basis of an authoritative exposition of relevant material from the ancient context and on the basis of the history and composition of the text. This programme has been maintained by subsequent general editors but with attention also directed to theological content and arguments in so far as the contextually relevant intentions of the author can be discerned. Initially Philippians was combined with 1 and 2 Thessalonians in a commentary by Martin Dibelius (1911) that went through two substantially revised editions (1925, 1937), growing from 64 to 98 pages. Philippians is now afforded a volume of its own, extending to over 300 pages. It is a testimony to its release from the shadow of theological primacy in Pauline interpretation accorded to the four so-called Hauptbriefe (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians), and to the increased attention to the range of questions it has provoked in recent scholarship. Although the commentary remains firmly within the classic historical- and theological-critical ethos of the series, it also interacts with more recent explorations of the nature of letters and their rhetorical structures and effect, of the imperial setting of the New Testament writings, of the religious heterogeneity of the time, and of the social structures and conventions which are as important a part of the overall context of the letter as conventional explorations of place, history, events and dating. Angela Standarthinger, Professor of New Testament Studies at the University of Marburg, whose research record encompasses, alongside conventional New Testament analysis and exegesis, studies of Hellenistic Judaism, the social and religious-historical context of the New Testament, and gender-related readings, brings together fluently these different perspectives in a tightly argued analysis of the letter and of Paul’s intentions in his interaction with the community.
The commentary itself begins with a lengthy introduction addressing the questions users will expect: the textual tradition of the letter, its Pauline authorship, the history, character and political structures of Philippi, the unity of the letter, its circumstances and themes, and the time and place of its composition. These are familiar topics: perhaps most significant, Standhartinger accepts a redactional theory, with the present “canonical” letter being composed of three fragments ([A] 4:10–20; [B] 1:1–3:1 + 4:1–7, 9b, 21–23; and [C] 3:2–21), reflecting successive stages in Paul’s interaction with the community. The argument is made not only by appeal to the oft-noted disjunctures in structure but also by careful discussion of relevant literary and papyrological evidence for composite letters and letter collections. On this reading, the redaction of these components to form the canonical Philippians may be as late as the early second century, and rather than being a purely archival exercise, deliberately convey a new “persona” for the martyr. The original setting was the Ephesian incarceration of Paul, perhaps c. 54CE, which intersects with the similarly composite 2 Corinthians. Further, in contrast to approaches that start with the identification of the primary genre of the letter, for Standhartinger it is Paul’s prison experience, whose likely conditions are richly illustrated from contemporary sources, that provides the unifying principle of the elements of the letter and the primary hermeneutical lens for interpreting them.
Since this is the text we have, the commentary follows the sequence of the final text within which the theological perspectives of the proposed separate elements are identified alongside their revised function within the integrated letter. The commentary takes the form of an expository exegesis of the argument of the letter divided into sense or topical units and therein by verses and phrases, drawing attention in fluent prose to all that is needed to understand it — both the internal rhetorical structure and against the background of ideas and vocabulary in Scripture, as well as in a wealth of other contemporary religious, philosophical, and socio-political sources, both Jewish and Graeco-Roman. Concluding each section, summary paragraphs succinctly present the development of the rhetoric and of the theology of Paul’s argument.
The presentation of the commentary follows the standard template for the Handbuch series: a translation is provided, although it is the underlying Greek text that receives attention in the discussion; there are no footnotes but each section is complemented by a wide-ranging and comprehensive bibliography, which is also conveniently combined at the end of the introduction; references to primary sources together with other scholars discussed, and cross-references to other parts of the letter and commentary are worked into the text by the extensive use of brackets. Inevitably this produces a somewhat lapidary style, giving the sense that possible diversions and extended arguments are being kept under control in order to maintain the overarching narrative presented by Paul (as mediated through the commentator). Interspersed through the commentary are 18 excurses enabling more detailed discussion of the most important of these potential diversions, including both much debated questions, such as how far 2:6–11 fits the genre of “hymn” and, in extensive detail, its religio-historical background, or the identity of the opponents of 3:18–21, and those reflective of more recent scholarship, such as the relationship between Paul and the Philippian community in the light of Graeco-Roman social dynamics, or the rhetorical background to the call to imitation in 3:17. Both brackets and excurses will enable readers with a more scholarly interest to access everything that is necessary for them to assess the argument and make their own judgement on its persuasiveness, while the reader seeking to absorb and respond to that narrative may seek to avoid being distracted by them.
So much for the mechanics of the commentary; what about its core ethos and character? Since the founding of the Handbuch series, and despite predictions of the exhaustion and demise of the commentary genre, commentaries have multiplied exponentially. Some operate within a specific confessional location, others seek rigorously to restrict themselves to historical and grammatical analysis, while more recently the deliberate adoption of reception-historical, social scientific, narrative, ideological, gender-oriented, or postcolonial perspectives has generated numerous new series. Standhartinger is undoubtedly aware of these more recent trends and sensitive to some of their insights in shaping new questions for the text; in particular, the insights from classical and epistolary rhetoric, and from classical philosophical engagement with some of the key themes of the letter—suffering, endurance, imitation—are consistent threads. But these are embedded within and enrich the series’ foundational commitment to the historical, social, and linguistic context of the text. Yet all this serves the primary goal of reading the letter through the lens of Paul’s own over-riding commitment to the Gospel (Philipp. 1:12). It is this commitment that governs Paul’s response to his current suffering and uncertainties about its outcome, as well as to the lifeline offered by his relationship with the community at Philippi, with classic epistolary tensions between absence and presence; it is the key to the counter-intuitive joy and future orientation, and it also governs his exhortations to them as to how to live faithfully and worthily of Christ in circumstances that may be fraught with risk. Therefore, the commentary is thoroughly theological, certainly not in the sense of subordinating historical questions or upholding a particular set of theological axioms, but in the sense of enabling the theological principles and goals of Paul’s thinking to be more clearly articulated. Standhartinger has inhabited Paul’s theological framework and seeks to enable the reader to do so as well. In so doing she demonstrates why the linguistic and historical hard work is necessary.
Not all will be persuaded by the division of the letter and the arguments for the redactional process that produced the canonical Philippians — a reading more characteristic of German than of anglophone scholarship—although the case is made with care and with a convincing reconstruction of the sequence of events. Yet this should not detract from the value of the commentary. This reviewer has not found a textual, linguistic, logical, conceptual, or contextual issue that is not addressed in appropriate detail, with priority given to primary sources over secondary ones. The volume has absorbed the best of the impressive history of the German exegetical commentary while addressing the expectations of serious readers in the present. While it will not give quick answers or outlines for those wanting to know “what the text means” in pastoral or homiletic settings, and it demands the concentrated attention of and engagement by the reader, such attention and engagement will be richly rewarded.
This newest addition to the Handbuch zum Neuen Testament will surely remain a definitive contribution to the study of Philippians for the foreseeable future. Although one may regret the trends that make this necessary, it is to be hoped that the commentary will be translated into English to bring it to a wider readership.