Review in: JOURNAL OF THE EVANGELICAL THEOLOGICAL SOCIETY 41/1Review door: G. W. Peterman
Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. By Gordon D. Fee. NICNT. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995, xlvi + 497 pp., $34.99.
Fee’s commentary on Philippians is the first volume to appear in the NICNT under his editorship and the second to appear with the new format and design. The larger pages and margins make the commentary easier to handle and more likely to stay open on a desk.
More significantly, Fee’s commentary is a much-needed and welcomed addition to the NICNT, replacing the volume by Müller done in 1955, thus bringing us up to date with recent literature on Philippians.
Some of the strengths and advantages of Fee’s commentary are as follows. First, Fee is one of the first commentators to read Philippians in light of recent research into Greek and Roman social practices regarding friendship and money, in particular the practice of social reciprocity. Greco-Roman social reciprocity basically worked this way: If someone gives you a gift or does you a favor, you now have a special relationship with them and are obligated to repay them. Since Paul has received financial help from the Philippians, this background is helpful to illumine our understanding of his relationship with this congregation. In explaining Greek and Roman practices, however, Fee makes several references to Cicero, Plutarch, Seneca and other ancient authors without identification or dating. Some readers might find this information heavy and opaque.
Second, and despite the shortcomings of the Greek and Roman material, Fee’s introductory section is longer than one might expect, and enlightening. He covers Philippians and ancient letter writing, Paul’s use of rhetoric and of the OT, and matters of vocabulary (not found in many commentaries). In short, if one studies Fee’s introduction, it can help one to read Philippians in a new light.
Third, although the recent commentary by O’Brien in the NIGTC is more thorough and superior in theological discernment, Fee’s work for the NICNT is better for most pastors since only the notes are technical.
Fourth, Fee writes well, is easy to follow and shows a concern for application. His sections on 1:18–26 and 2:5–11 are full of well-reasoned and practical insight. I found his re˘ections at the end of these passages (and many others) to be insightful, pastorally sensitive and helpful for the pastor who asks, “What should be my theme as I preach this passage?”
Fifth, Fee does not lose sight of the big picture while he is in the midst of exegetical details. His analysis is strong on contextual concerns, on themes and on understanding the purpose of the letter as a whole.
There are some unexpected weaknesses in Fee’s work. First, his choice and use of the NIV as the basis for the commentary is a bit frustrating. Hawthorne (WBC, 1983), O’Brien (NIGTC, 1991) and Silva (WEC, 1988) provide their own translations. Certainly Fee’s fresh approach to the letter would have made his own rendering very helpful. Second, and following on from the above, although Fee uses the NIV, he alters it at least thirteen times. He does not alter the NIV when it leaves untranslated a connective in 2:1. He does not alter the unnecessary epistolary aorist in 2:25 or the unwanted paragraph break at 3:12. After the first couple of alterations the reader can see the rest coming: When Fee alters the NIV, he does so only to make it gender neutral. Perhaps I might be forgiven for thinking Fee displays his egalitarian bias here. Also, his alteration of the NIV is not consistent. His first alteration (at 1:12) adds sisters to the text in brackets. Then at 3:17 he puts sisters into the text without brackets, then at 4:8 he puts both brothers and sisters in brackets even though brothers is original to the NIV. In my view, either Fee should have stayed with the NIV and made alteration suggestions in the footnotes or he should have provided a gender-neutral translation.
Third, and still on the gender issue, Fee departs from his otherwise careful exegesis in his treatment of 4:2–3. It seems clear that Euodia and Syntyche exercised some sort of leadership in the Philippian congregation. Fee asserts that “to deny their role in the church in Philippi is to ˘y full in the face of the text” (p. 398). He is correct, but only because we cannot deny a role we cannot define. Moreover, we cannot conclude on the basis of 4:2–3, as Fee does, that the Holy Spirit is “gender blind” (p. 398). His statement is inappropriate for a commentary, which must draw conclusions from the evidence found in the letter being expounded.
Fourth, Fee introduces us to the concept of Greco-Roman social reciprocity in his introduction, but he has not fully grasped its working nor let it inform his exegesis of the whole letter as much as he could. For example, Paul gives thanks for the Philippians’ partnership in the gospel (1:5). We would have been better served if Fee had told us at 1:5 that partnership (koinonia) was a common subject in the first century and that it was always considered on a human level: It involves mutual obligations between two parties. God or gods do not enter Greco-Roman partnership. Paul, in contrast, says that his giving and receiving with the Philippians has established them in an enterprise far bigger than the two of them, an enterprise with God. To his credit, Fee does begin to draw out some of the implications of this partnership, and the resulting three-way bond, in his treatment of 4:15–17. Even there, however, his statement that Paul accepted patronage while in Philippi (p. 444) is misleading and fails to take into account the nuances of Greco-Roman reciprocity as well as Paul’s own practice.
Also, Fee misunderstands Greco-Roman gratitude, a concept important for our understanding of 4:10–20. He asks how Paul could express a genuine thank-you so reluctantly in 4:10–20. Despite the fact that scholars have recently shown that an expression of gratitude would have been inappropriate from a first-century perspective, Fee still seems eager to rescue Paul from the charge of ingratitude. He says that Paul gives thanks for the Philippians’ gift at 4:10a, 14 and 18. But we should ask: Thanks by what standard? Twentieth-century western standards for gratitude (which it appears Fee is using) are inappropriate standards by which to judge Paul’s thanks.
Fifth, in his recent commentary O’Brien argues cogently that Phil 1:3 should be rendered: “I thank my God for all your remembrance of me.” The compelling support for this rendering is the fact that, in the extant Greek literature, every time the verb eucharistein is followed by the preposition epi with the dative case, the dative gives the reason(s) for thanks. Fee waters down this evidence and dismisses it in a footnote. We do not expect such neglect from a scholar of Fee’s caliber.
Despite these shortcomings, I can highly recommend Fee’s commentary for the pastor or layperson. It is more exegetically sound than Hawthorne, more thorough than Silva and less technical than O’Brien. It fills a needed gap in Philippians commentaries. As a final note, for a similar approach to this letter one should also consider the recent commentary by Ben Witherington, III (Friendship and Finances in Philippi, Trinity Press, 1994).
Osceola Evangelical Free Church, Osceola, IA