The historical background of Philippians is traditionally gathered from two main primary New Testament sources: informative internal data from the letter itself, and related information garnered from the rest of the New Testament Canon, especially from the Acts of the Apostles and the other Pauline Epistles. Other primary information is also derived from external historical sources related to the chronological connections between Paul’s association with Philippi, its political and economical setting, and its social and religio-philosophical context.
According to the document itself, the Philippians had sent Epaphroditus, their envoy (“messenger [apostolon] and minister [leitourgon]” Phil 2:25), with contributions as an expression of their “partnership” and “concern” to meet the needs of Paul (Phil 1:3–5, Phil 2:30, and Phil 4:10–19).
During the execution of his responsibilities of travel to deliver their “gift” (Phil 4:17), Epaphroditus contracted some life-threatening debilitating illness (esthenese, cf. Phil 2:26–27). At some point he recovers. It is at this time, whether premeditated or due to an extended stay with the apostle, various internal matters are revealed to Paul on the part of Epaphroditus (Phil 1:27–30, Phil 2:19–24, Phil 3:2–3, Phil 3:17–20, Phil 4:2–3, and Phil 4:9).
Upon Epaphroditus’ return to health, Paul sends word to the Philippians through Epaphroditus of his upcoming sentence in Rome and of his optimism in the face of death (1:18b–26), along with exhortations to imitate his capacity to rejoice in the Lord despite one’s circumstances (2:14–18). Moreover, Paul sends counsel regarding spiritual adversaries among the Philippians (3:1–21), and conflicts within their fellowship (4:2–3). Lastly, he provides receipt of both Epaphroditus’ heroism (2:25–30) and the arrival of “the gift” (4:10), along with his promise of a divine accounting (4:17–20).
Within the letter is also found an optimism where Paul’s belief of his release is the basis upon which he promises to send Timothy to them for ministry (3:19–23), and an anticipation to also pay them a personal visit (2:24). With this communication Epaphroditus sets out on his homeward journey (2:28–29).
There has been ongoing debate regarding where Paul was when he wrote this letter (and therefore the date of the letter’s composition). Internal evidence in the letter itself points clearly to it being composed while Paul was in custody (Philippians 1:7,13), but which period of imprisonment is highly debated. Some suggest the Roman imprisonment at the end of the Book of Acts (chapter 28:30,31). Others suggest the earlier Caesarean imprisonment (Acts 23–26). Still others suggest an earlier imprisonment again, and postulate an Ephesian imprisonment during Paul’s lengthy stay in that city (Acts 19). Until recently no one seems to have advocated the second period of Roman imprisonment (after the end of the book of Acts, but attested to in the writings of early church fathers). Jim Reiher considered and speculated on this theory in a 2012 article. The main reasons suggested for a later date, include:
The letter’s highly developed Ecclesiology
An impending sense of death permeating the letter
The absence of any mention of Luke in a letter to Luke’s home church (when the narrative in Acts clearly suggests that Luke was with Paul in his first Roman imprisonment)
A harsher imprisonment than the open house arrest of his first Roman imprisonment
A similar unique expression that is shared only with 2 Timothy A similar disappointment with co-workers shared only with 2 Timothy.
This second Roman imprisonment theory is still to be rigorously debated in the wider theological community.
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