Philippians and Bad Endings

Posted on August 29, 2018

Philippians reads like a really bad sermon. One of those ones where the guy tells you he's got 3 points but then hides 4 extra points in his conclusion. And keeps saying "finally" or "lastly, let me just say..."

Paul says 'finally' in ch.3 :1 but then goes on to talk about quite a few things for 20 verses. It all ends with a therefore in 4:1 so you think he's wrapping up there. Especially because he starts mentioning people's names in 4:2 and he always does that at the end of his letters. And he finally gives a blessing at 4:7 - the perfect Pauline closing remark...

(At this point everyone has closed their bibles and is ready to stand for the last hymn, wondering if they'll have custard creams with the tea and coffee today or just digestives...)

But then there's another 'finally' in verse 8! And then he goes on for 12 more verses until he eventually says amen at verse 20 (And even then he squeezes in an extra blessing at the end for good measure at vs.21-23)

All this dragging on of the ending leaves it looking like quite a mess. Philippians does not have the same tight structure that you see in other letters by Paul. What are we to make of it all? And should it affect how we read it? Did Paul go to finish his letter many times and then remember something else to say? Is Philippians his 'ditsy' letter?

Or, is there something else going on? Perhaps these endings are all endings; portions of other letters from Paul to the Philippians, which an editor has tried to combine together to make it seem like one big letter? There's plenty of Christian Bible scholars who think so.

The one thing we can and probably should say more often is that nobody knows for sure. Anyone who tells you otherwise is making very big assumptions (and we all know what assuming does)

Nobody knows for certain. We are dealing here with the authorative word of God and yet we don't know if Philippians is one letter or a few bunched together. Some people feel very uneasy thinking that someone might have 'edited' the letters sent by Paul to one of the 1st century churches but unfortunately uneasiness is not a grounds for saying it didn't happen. There's a lot in the text to hint at it, and there's also external evidence too.

One piece of evidence in favour of thinking of Philippians as a composite, is because a 2nd century bishop, Polycarp, refers to the 'letters' to the Philippian church. He uses a plural, implying that he was aware of more than one letter to the philippians. Now that's a lot to hang on just one plural. But it's enough to make you think.

One of the big themes of the letter to the Philippians is humility. The great crescendo occurs in Ch.2 when Paul describes to what lengths Jesus humbled himself so that the church might be saved (or so that we might all bow the knee, which is the same thing)

Jesus did not place himself on a pedestal, but humbled himself, taking on the weakness and frailty of humanity. And it was only in the depths of that humanity and servitude, that God raised him up.

I'll be bold and make a similar connection with the scriptures. That we should not put it on a pedestal and treat it like some perfect untouchable sacred text. Instead we should treat it like it is... A humble collection of documents crafted by human hands. And it is God who elevates it to something more. It is God who exalts Jesus through the scriptures.

So perhaps Paul was just feeling tired and his Philippians letter was less formally structured then all of his other letters. Or maybe someone took sections of his many letters to Philippi, removed the duplication and combined it to form a coherent whole. Regardless, the history of the Church testifies that God the father, through His Spirit, has spoken through the letter to the Philippians and He continues to do so.

And if God can raise up Jesus' humanity, then he can raise up the humanity of scripture too

And while he's at it, he can raise up my humanity too.