Monday, July 23, 2007

Fresh light on Philippians

I finished re-reading Peter Oakes' Philippians: From Letter to People (Cambridge 2001) last night. And what a wonderful book it is.

It's a revision of his Oxford DPhill completed under Tom Wright in the mid-90s, so in places it's very demanding. yet it has a lightness of touch and sure-footedness that lots of dissertations lack. I learned tons from it the first time I read it and a whole load more the second time.

I've always been drawn to Philippians - its passion, realism, portrait of Jesus and the life of faith have hooked me from early in my Christian life. But Peter's book took me to a whole new appreciation of the letter.

His thesis is centred on a fresh reading of 2:6-11 but before we get there, he treats us to a fascinating recreation of the Philippian churches within the city and environs of the Roman colony. He rejects the notion that Paul's original readers were Roman citizens, preferring to see them as Greeks rather than Romans, subject people from the lower strata of society.

It was reading this book for the first time that rekindled my interest in New testament social history and has led to me signing up to write an MA on an aspect of it - probably something to do with the social status of the early Christians and how that affects the way we read the NT.

One of the things Peter really helpfully all through his dissertation is to keep asking 'how did the first hearers hear this letter? what did it mean to them?'

This is why he sees 2:6-11 as a complex interaction between Isaiah 45 and Roman Imperial ideology and in particular sees the portrait of Jesus in those verses (which Peter thinks were composed by Paul for the occasion) as offering an example of how to view suffering. In short, he argues that Paul is urging his first hearers to embrace the loss of status that accompanies standing alongside brothers and sisters who are suffering in the interests of maintaining the unity of the church. It is as these believers stand together in mutual support of one another that they will stay strong and faithful in the teeth of opposition.

So thanks to Peter for his hard work and elegant prose. He is a model of faithful scholarship.

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