Review of Paul’s Letter to the Philippians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, by Ben Witherington III

by Jason Anspach (M.Div., WRS)

Ben Witherington III, Amos Professor of New Testament at Asbury Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, finished his series of commentaries on the New Testament with his treatment of Philippians.

Witherington focuses his interpretation on a number of standard commentary paths. He surveys existing commentaries and provide exegetical notes throughout. What sets Witherington’s work apart from other standard commentaries is his consideration of the social and rhetorical realities of Paul’s epistle.

Witherington examines the social custom of Philippi and sees a Roman colony where all things Roman are held in high esteem. Given Paul’s pattern of being all things in order to proclaim Christ, we should not easily overlook his willingness to employ Roman rhetoric and refer to Roman custom in reaching the people of Philippi.

By taking heed of this Witherington shows Philippians not to be an ordinary friendship or family letter addressed to a beloved congregation, but rather a nuanced oration to be read aloud and shared by those who were accustomed to such. Paul, a practiced speaker of the gospel, used his rhetorical abilities to communicate to the Philippians in the manner appreciated most by them – the Roman way. According to Witherington, “ Analyzing Philippians as deliberative rhetoric with some epideictic features allows the aims and purpose of this discourse to become increasingly clear: Paul wants the Philippians to continue embracing their Christian faith and model themselves on godly examples, especially the example of Christ himself, as Phil. 2 makes evident.”
Witherington also takes time to view the role of woman in Philippi as a means of understanding what the role if any the females mentioned in the letter may have had in the church.

Finally Witherington soundly puts to bed the notion that Philippians is a product of a number of contributions melded together by showing a rhetorical unity that could not be achieved through a copy and paste approach.

This commentary is helpful in appreciating the subtleties of the epistle to the Philippians. It breathes a fresh perspective into the letter as the reader is able to see what was communicated through the original hearer’s eyes. Witherington’s commentary is conservative, and does not shy away from engaging liberal academic assertions where he sees contrary evidence or accepting solid beneficial work from scholars he would not otherwise agree with.

5/5 stars

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