Adding to the solid list of contributors to the B&H Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament (EGGNT) series, Joseph H. Hellerman has written the newest volume on Philippians. Hellerman, professor of New Testament language and literature at Talbot School of Theology, received his Th.M. in Hebrew and his Ph.D. in the social history of early Christianity. Upon starring as a professor at Talbot, Hellerman began to focus his studies on Philippians, the fruit of which has grown into this commentary.
In keeping with the aim of the series, Hellerman’s book accomplishes two primary services for the reader. First, the commentary is solely based on the Greek of the New Testament from the fifth edition of the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament (xvi). 1 Peter is divided into pericopes by its Greek text, block diagrammed and then exegeted phrase-by-phrase. A good grasp of New Testament Greek is required to benefit from this book as well as an ability to understand the grammatical abbreviations used in the book. Second, as a guide, the series goal is to list and discuss all of the grammatical/exegetical possibilities for the translation of each word, construction of the grammar, and possible meanings. They are doing the work of giving you options so you can focus more time on other work.
What is particularly striking about Hellerman’s work on Philippians is his focus on the social-historical aspects of the book (though he does attend to the theological issues at hand as well). This social-historical focus comes to light when discussing the occasion of the letter. The occasion for the book gives way to the social-historical focus of the commentary. First, regarding the translation of 1:3, Hellerman believes that “the immediate occasion for Philippians was a gift Paul received from the church through their emissary Epaphroditus.” (4) Thus, contra the traditional translation of 1:3 as stating that Paul was remembering them, Hellerman believes the better translation should be “because of your every remembrance of me,” thus making Philippians a book of Paul thanking them for their gift to him (2 Cor. 11:9; Phil. 4:15).
This opportunity to express gratitude to the Philippians for their gift is used by Paul to speak truth about the church “in a highly Romanized sociopolitical environment.” (4) There was acursus honorum (“race of honors”) that pervaded the Roman society which Paul took the occasion to resist (4). He notes that,“The apostle recognized that a stridently Roman honor culture had the potential to seriously undermine the radically different relational ethos that Jesus intended for his community of followers.” (4)
For example, Hellerman notes that while “traditional interpretations of Philippians 2:5-11 focus upon ontological Christology,……Paul’s agenda, however, is primarily sociological, not ontological.” (105) Paul is showing how Jesus used his universal status, which superseded any sociopolitical status on earth, to serve others, rather than lord it over them. “Instead of using social capital to gain more honors and public recognition, Christ leveraged his status in the service of others. Such utilization of power – indeed, a voluntary relinquishing of rank and prestige – would have stuck Roman elites as abject folly.” (107) Jesus is the ultimate example for how to serve those whom the world may see as less than us.
As with all of the books in the EGGNT series, Hellerman’s work on Philippians is a welcome addition that follows in the tradition of Murray Harris’ inaugural volume on Colossians and Philemon. This will serve pastors and teachers well for decades to come.
I received this book for free from B&H for this review. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”