New Advent
 Home   Encyclopedia   Summa   Fathers   Bible   Library 
 A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  X  Y  Z 
New Advent
Home > Catholic Encyclopedia > P > Epistle to the Philippians

Epistle to the Philippians

Please help support the mission of New Advent and get the full contents of this website as an instant download. Includes the Catholic Encyclopedia, Church Fathers, Summa, Bible and more — all for only $19.99...

Historical circumstances, occasion, and character

(See also PHILIPPI).

The Philippians, who were much endeared to St. Paul (i, 3, 7; iv, 1) had already on former occasions and under various circumstances sent him pecuniary aid, and now on learning of his imprisonment at Rome (Acts 27-28) they sent to him Epaphroditus, one of their number, to bear him alms and minister to his needs (ii, 25-29; iv, 18). St. Paul received him gladly, rejoicing in the affectionate and Christian sentiments of the Philippians (iv, 10-19), and in the generally satisfactory condition of their Church as reported to him by Epaphroditus. It may be that Epaphroditus had been the Apostle's companion and assistant at Philippi (ii, 25); at least he became such at Rome (ii, 30), but he fell dangerously ill and was at the point of death (ii, 27). This news was distressing to the Philippians, and as soon as he recovered he was eager to return home (ii, 26). Paul therefore hastened to send him (ii, 26-28) and profited by the opportunity to confide to him a letter to the faithful and the heads of his Church. In this letter, probably written by Timothy at his dictation, Paul expresses the sentiments of joy and gratitude which he cherishes in regard to the Philippians. This is the keynote of the letter. It is an outpouring of the heart, breathing a wholly spontaneous and paternal intimacy. In it the loving heart of the Apostle reveals itself completely, and the affectionate tone, sincerity, and delicacy of the sentiments must have charmed its readers and won their admiration and love. Hence, this letter is much more epistolary in style than the other Epistles of St. Paul. Familiar expressions of joy and gratitude are mingled with dogmatic reflections and moral exhortation, and it is useless to seek for orderly arrangement or strict sequence.

On the other hand, although the general condition of the Church of Philippi was excellent and St. Paul did not have to deal with grave vices, there were nevertheless certain things which were not altogether satisfactory or which aroused apprehension. Paul had heard that the pride and vainglory of some, especially of two women, Evodia and Syntyche, had aroused misunderstandings and rivalries. Moreover a greater and more serious danger threatened them, perhaps on the part of Judaizers, who, though there is no need to assume their presence or propaganda at Philippi itself, had, it seems, disseminated their baneful doctrines throughout the neighbouring regions. Hence the exhortations to fraternal charity and concord as well as to disinterestedness; these exhortations (i, 8, 27; ii, 2, 3, 14, 16; iv, 2 sq.) Paul bases on exalted dogmatic considerations taken from the example of Christ, and he also proposes to them the example of his own way of thinking and acting, which had but a single object, the glory of God and Christ. But when he warns the Philippians against the Judaizers he returns to the tone of deep sorrow and unmitigated indignation which characterizes the Epistle to the Galatians.


For the reasons stated above a definite plan or clear division must not be sought in this Epistle. The Letter is a succession of exhortations and effusions which may be collected under the following heads:


After the superscription, in which he addresses himself to bishops, deacons, and faithful (i, 1-2), St. Paul rejoices in the excellent condition of the Church of the Philippians and gives thanks that by their alms they have shared in the merits of his captivity and the spread of the Gospel (3-8); he loves them with an intense love, ardently desiring and urgently entreating that God would deign to complete in them the work of perfection (9-11).

Body of the epistle

(1) Paul begins by giving news, as a whole very satisfactory — with regard to his own situation and that of the Church in Rome. But what he relates concerning himself must have been meant for a tacit but no less eloquent appeal to abnegation and detachment, for Paul depicts himself as seeking in all things not his own glory or personal advantage, but solely the glory of Christ. His captivity becomes to him a cause of joy, since it avails for the propagation of the Gospel (i, 12-14); what does it matter to him that some preach the Gospel out of unworthy zealotry, provided Christ be preached? (15-18); given a choice of life and death he knows not which he prefers, life which permits him to do good for souls, or death, which shall be a testimony for Christ and shall unite him to Him (19-25). He thinks, however, that he will be set free and may still labour for the spiritual progress of the Philippians.

(2) he exhorts them more directly to lead a life worthy of the Gospel (i, 27a), and especially to concord and abnegation (i, 27b-ii, 4) (i) by the example of Christ Who being in the Divine form and possessing supreme independence nevertheless, for our good, annihilated himself and assumed the condition of a slave, even undergoing death; (ii) by the desire for a heavenly reward, such as Christ received (ii, 5-11). He concludes by repeating his general exhortation to Christian perfection and by affirming that to procure them this perfection he would gladly sacrifice his life.

(3) The Apostle tells the Philippians that as soon as he knows the outcome of his affairs he will send to them Timothy, his devoted companion, who is so well-disposed towards the Philippians (ii, 19-24); in the meantime he sends them Epaphroditus, his fellow-labourer and their delegate to him (see above); he asks them to receive him with joy and to honour him greatly, because of the love which he bears them and the danger of death to which he was exposed while fulfilling his mission (25-30).

(4) Desiring to end or abbreviate his Epistle Paul begins the conclusion (iii, 1a, the To loipon), but suddenly interrupts it in order again to put the Philippians on their guard against the Judaizing teachers, which he does by once more presenting to them his own example: Has he not all the benefits and titles in which the Judaizers are accustomed to glory and much more? But all this he has despised and rejected and counted as dung that he might gain true justice and perfection, which are secured, not by the works of the law, but by faith (iii, 1-11). This perfection, it is true, he had not yet attained, but he never ceased to press toward the mark and the prize to which God had called him, thus refuting by his own example those who in their pride call themselves perfect (12-16); he incites his readers to imitate him (17) and not to follow those who loving the things of this world, have depraved habits (18-iv, 1).

(5) To this general exhortation Paul adds a special admonition. He binds two women, Evodia and Syntyche, to concord (iv, 2-3), and exhorts all to spiritual joy, urging the observance of goodness and gentleness among them (5), bidding them be disturbed by nothing, but have recourse to God in all their anxieties (6-7), and endeavour to attain to Christian perfection in all things (8-9).


Paul concludes his Epistle by a more explicit renewal of thanks to the Philippians for their alms, using the most delicate expressions and making his manner of acceptance a final exhortation to detachment and abnegation (11-19). This is followed by the Doxology and salutations. Especially noteworthy are his salutations to those of the household of the emperor (20-23).

Authenticity, unity, and integrity

The authenticity of the Epistle as a whole, which was generally accepted until the middle of the nineteenth century, was first denied by the Tübingen School (Baur, 1845; Zeller; Volckmar). Their arguments, namely lack of originality, the evidence of a semi-Gnostic idea, a doctrine of justification which could not be that of St. Paul etc., were triumphantly refuted by Lünemann, Brückner, Schenkel etc. But other contradictors subsequently arose, such as van Manen and especially Holsten (for their chief arguments see below). At present the authenticity may be said to be universally admitted not only by Catholic exegetes but also by most Protestants and Rationalists (Hilgenfeld, Harnack, Zahn, Jülicher, Pfleiderer, Lightfood, Gibb, Holtzmann).

External criticism

Arguments from external criticism permit no doubt on the subject. We will not deal with the quotations from or reminiscences of the Epistle which some authors profess to find in early ecclesiastical writers, such as Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Epistle to Diognetus etc. (see Cornely, "Introductio", IV, 491; Jacquier, p. 347; Toussaint in "Dict. De la Bible", s.v. Philippiens). About 120 St. Polycarp speaks explicitly to the Philippians of the letters (or the letter, epistolai) which Paul has written to them, and some passages of his letter prove that he had read this Epistle to the Philippians. Subsequently the Muratorian Canon, St. Irenæus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and the Apostolicon of Marcion attribute it expressly to St. Paul. After Tertullian the testimonies become numerous and incontestable and the unanimity was maintained without the slightest exception until the middle of the nineteenth century.

Internal criticism

The difficulties drawn from the Epistle itself, which some authors have urged against tradition, are misleading, as is now admitted by the most prominent Rationalists and Protestants.

(a) Language and style. The hapax legomena (which occur about forty times) prove nothing against the Pauline origin of the Epistle, since they are met with in almost the same proportion in the certainly authentic Epistles. Moreover, certain words (about twenty) quite peculiar to the Epistles of St. Paul, certain forms of expression, figures, methods of style (i, 22, 27, 29; iii, 8, 14), and repetitions of words demonstrate the Pauline character of the Epistle.

(b) Doctrine. The two chief objections brought forward by Holsten (Jahrb. Für Prot. Theol., I, 125; II, 58, 282) have found little credit among exegetes, while Holsten himself in a more recent work ("Das Evangelium des Paulus", Berlin, 1898, II, 4) concedes that the theology of the Epistle to the Philippians is thoroughly Pauline. In fact (a) the Christology of the Epistle to the Philippians, which portrays Christ pre-existing in the form of God and made man through the Incarnation, does not contradict that of the First Epistle to the Corinthians (xv, 45), which depicts the Risen Christ as a heavenly Man, clothed with His glorified body, or that of the other Epistles which, in a simpler form, also show us Christ pre-existing as a Divine Being and made man through he Incarnation (Galatians 4:4; Romans 7:3; 2 Corinthians 8:9). (b) The doctrine on justification by faith and not by works set forth in the Epistles to the Romans and the Galatians, is not contradicted here (iii, 6); if indeed St. Paul speaks here of legal justice it is obviously to show its powerlessness and nothingness (7-9).

The unity and integrity of the Epistle have also been denied or doubted by some authors. Völter and Spitta maintained that this Epistle is a compilation of another authentic Epistle to the Philippians and an apocryphal one written about A.D. 120. Clemen saw in it a compilation of two authentic Epistles. These theories met with little success while the arguments which have been brought forward in their behalf, viz. The double conclusion (iii, 1, and iv, 4) mingled with personal details, moral counsels, doctrinal instructions etc., are sufficiently explained by the familiar and consequently free and unrestrained character of the Epistle.

Place and date

There is not the shadow of a doubt that the Epistle to the Philippians was written during the Apostle's captivity (i, 7, 13, 14, 17; ii, 24). Moreover, it is certain that it was written not at Cæsarea, as some have maintained, but at Rome (A.D. 62-64). Such is the nearly unanimous opinion even of those who claim that the three other Epistles of the Captivity were written at Cæsarea [see i, 13 (the prætorium); iv, 22 (the house of Cæsar); i, 17 sqq. (this supposes a more important Church than that of Cæsarea)]. Critics do not agree as to whether the Epistle was written at the beginning of the sojourn at Rome or at the end, before or after the other three Epistles of the captivity. Most of them incline towards the second view (Meyer, Weiss, Holtzmann, Zahn, Jülicher etc.). For the arguments pro and con see the works of the various critics. The present author, however, is of the opinion that it was written towards the end of the captivity.


The following are general works and commentaries, in which the reader will find a more extensive bibliography, and information concerning earlier works and commentaries.
BEELEN, Commentarius in Epistolam S. Pauli ad Philippenses (2nd ed., Louvain, 1852); IDEM, Het nieuwe Testament (Bruges, 1892); BISPING, Erklärung der Briefe an die Epheser, Philipper und Kolosser (Münster, 1866); LIPSIUS, Brief an die Galater, Römer, Philipper (Handcommentar zum N. T.), adapted by Holtzmann (2nd ed., Freiburg, 1892); MOULE, The Epistle to the Philippians (Cambridge, 1895); CORNELY, Introductio specialis in singulos N. T. libros (Paris, 1897); MÜLLER, Der Ap. Paulus Brief an die Philipper (Freiburg, 1899); VAN STEENKISTE, Commentarius in omnes S. Pauli Epistolas (Bruges, 1899); FUNK, Patres Apostolici (Tübingen, 1901); VINCENT, The Epistles to the Philippians and to Philemon (2nd ed., Edinburgh, 1902); HAUPT, Die Gefangenschaftsbriefe (8th ed., Göttingen, 1902); JACQUIER, Historie des livres du Nouveau Testament, I (Paris, 1904); SHAW, The Pauline Epistles (2nd ed., Edinburgh, 1904); CLEMEN, Paulus, sein Leben und Wirken (Giessen, 1904); BELSER, Einleitung in das neue Testament (2nd ed., Freiburg, 1905); LE CAMUS, L'œuvre des Apotres (Paris, 1905) PÖLZL, Der Weltapostel Paulus (Ratisbon, 1905); LIGHTFOOT, St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians (16th ed., London, 1908); FILLION IN VIGOUROUX, Dict. De la Bible, s.v. Philippes; TOUSSAINT, ibid, s.v. Philippiens; IDEM, Epitres de S. Paul (Paris, 1910); PRAT, La Théologie de S. Paul (Paris, 1909); FOUARD, Saint Paul, ses dernières années (Paris, 1910); VIGOUROUX-BACUEZ-BRASSAC, Manuel Biblique, IV (Paris, 1911).

About this page

APA citation. Vander Heeren, A. (1911). Epistle to the Philippians. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Vander Heeren, Achille. "Epistle to the Philippians." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 12. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Paula J. Eckardt. Dedicated in loving memory, and with deep gratitude, to my father, Paul A. Eckardt, 1917-2000.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. June 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

Contact information. The editor of New Advent is Kevin Knight. My email address is webmaster at Regrettably, I can't reply to every letter, but I greatly appreciate your feedback — especially notifications about typographical errors and inappropriate ads.

Copyright © 2023 by New Advent LLC. Dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.