GORDON ZERBE. Philippians. Believers Church Bible Commentary. Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2016. Pp. 349. $29.99.
Imagine you are in an art museum, admiring a painting of a beautiful woodsy landscape. Suddenly, magically, the painting comes alive and three-dimensional, and you can walk right into it and explore the countryside! If you have had a surface understanding of Paul’s Philippian letter as warm, joyful, and encouraging in spite of Paul’s imprisonment, Gordon Zerbe’s commentary will be the three-dimensional transformation that invites you to explore this letter at a much deeper level.
Beginning with the author’s preface, we learn that Zerbe received his assignment to write this commentary while teaching at a seminary in the Philippines. Spanish conquerors had named this country after King Philip of Spain, who in turn was named after Philip II of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great, who conquered and named the city of Philippi in 355 BCE. Both Philippi and the Philippines were colonized, resulting in oppression and rigid social hierarchies.
Zerbe brings to light the suffering of both Paul as a political prisoner (probably in Ephesus) and those of the Jesus-community in the now-Romanized city of Philippi in ancient Macedonia. From his address to “all the saints” in the letter’s greeting (1:1) and throughout, Paul stresses his partnership (koinonia) with them in the work of the gospel and in giving mutual aid. Although the struggles of both are similar (1:30), Paul does not specify what they are; it may be too dangerous to put into writing. Paul’s co-worker from Philippi, Epaphroditus, will carry the letter back with further verbal explanations.
Zerbe’s use of current empire-critical research methods helps readers fill in the gaps and understand how social stratification and the marriage of religion and politics within the Roman Empire has led to suffering for Paul and the Philippian house churches. Essays at the back of the book, such as “Roman Imperial Cult” and “Gospel of Augustus,” help explain the political trouble believers get into when they worship Jesus Messiah rather than Roman gods and divinized emperors.
Zerbe prefers the term “loyalist” to “believers.” One can have a set of beliefs, but to be loyal, or faithful, to Jesus Messiah reflects a deeper level of commitment. This connects with Paul’s emphasis on citizenship, the major focus of this letter. “Drawing on the language and imagery of Greek political theory,” asserts Zerbe, “the body of the letter (1:27-4:9) is carefully developed around the theme of a devoted, singular, messianic citizenship” (p. 32). From the Greek term polis (meaning a city-state or citizen body), Paul uses the verb politeuomai (a practice of citizenship, 1:27) and the noun politeuma (polis administration, regime, or citizenship, 3:20).
In Paul’s time, only ten percent of the Empire’s population were Roman citizens, most of them within Italy itself. However, Julius Caesar had previously settled some of his retired soldiers in Philippi, so the elite class in this city had inherited the same rights and privileges accorded to elite Italians. Greco-Roman culture being extremely class-conscious, the Philippians were very proud of their citizenship status.
Paul uses citizenship terminology to remind the Philippian loyalists that they are citizens of an alternate political entity, owing allegiance to Messiah Jesus and not the emperor—hence, their suffering. Zerbe centers his commentary around two sets of exhortations, which he calls “Practicing Messianic Citizenship: Parts 1 and 2’ (Phil. 1:27-2:18 and 3:1-4:9). The literal meaning of 1:27a is “politicize (Gr. politeuomai) worthily of the gospel of Messiah.” The meaning of this verb was lost in translation, although the recent TNIV does include the term “citizens.” The NRSV translates the noun, politeuma, accurately as “our citizenship is in heaven” in 3:20. Zerbe clarifies, however, that loyalists don’t go to heaven to get it; they live under this regime on earth, and is it from heaven that the savior and Lord Jesus Messiah will come.
The centerpiece of this letter is Philippians 2:6-11, a political encomium (public tribute) to Jesus whose chose to live exactly opposite from the way upwardly mobile Roman citizens strove to succeed (128-145). The “pathway of humiliation will one day be victorious” and Jesus’s “self-sacrificing pattern of life poses a model for all who will claim allegiance to this Savior” (32). Because this hymn or poem fits so well with Paul’s theology in this letter, Zerbe challenges the assumption it was a pre-Pauline hymn about Christ’s pre-existence. Although it contains elements of “a Wisdom Christology, a second-Adam Christology, or suffering-servant Christology,” they are part of the background. In the foreground is “a pointed exposeˊ of Roman imperial rule and ideology,” a “parody of ‘the gospel of Augustus’” (143).
As Jesus models social inversion in Part 1 of “Practicing Messianic Citizenship,” so Paul uses himself in Part 2 as a current model for the Philippians to imitate (3:17).
Using his own outline, Zerbe follows the typical structure of Believers’ Church Commentaries, with Explanatory Notes, The Text in Biblical Context, and The Text in the Life of the Church in each chapter. The essays that follow the commentary provide detailed background information that I would recommend reading earlier rather than at the end. Also included is a substantial bibliography and an index of ancient sources. Missing, however, are a subject index and Zerbe’s own translation of the letter.
This commentary demonstrates mature insight, spiritual depth, and thorough research. However, lay readers may find some parts dense and slow going if they are not familiar with current historical-critical interpretive methods. I suggest carefully reading the introduction first before examining comments on a chosen passage. All in all, this is a fine addition to the Believers’ Church Commentary series!