Book Review – BEC Philippians (Moises Silva)

Introduction

This deserves credit for having one of the most engaging introductions of a commentary I have read. In 36 pages, he tackles the book from a wide variety of angles.

He is less certain than most that the Philippian church was in a good state of health. He in particular thinks that there may be some looming danger from the Judaizers – in fact, he thinks that most, if not all, of Paul’s “opponents” can be viewed as heterodox Jewish believers. Quite fascinating was his roundup of other commentaries. Since this is a revision of a commentary originally published in 1988, he deals with some of the new works that have come out since. Whilst there is high praise for O’Brien and Blockmeuhl, his opinion of Fee’s commentary is equivocal. He feels Fee misrepresented his opinions in a few places, and often when Fee is referenced in the footnotes it is to firmly reject his exegesis.

Commentary

The commentary itself follows the usual pattern of the Baker Exegetical Series. First is a section overview, followed by the author’s own translation. Then there are the comments on the text, dealt with usually in groups of about three verses at a time. At the end of each section, Silva provides a large number of additional notes, mainly dealing with translation or manuscript issues (which he clearly has a great interest in), and occasionally interacting with other commentators. Silva’s translation of Philippians is particularly useful, as he inserts a number of clarifying clauses, so that the translation reflects the sense he argues for in the commentary.

While there is plenty of attention given to the Greek grammar and vocabulary, Silva is always careful to move on to theological reflection. Silva demonstrates out that several of the grammatical problems of Philippians are minimized by the fact that many of the possible translations do not substantively differ from one another. In other words, we can often determine the main point being made even if we cannot discern the exact meaning of every phrase.

Points of Interest

Silva argues strongly that the “deliverance” of Phil 1:19 is salvation, not merely release from prison, though he acknowledges there may be some calculated ambiguity. He has some good comments on perseverance, which he sees as a running theme through the letter. He has some helpful theological reflection on suffering in his comments on Phil 1:29 and Phil 3:10. “The stinging reality of Christian suffering is our reminder that we have been united with Christ”.

On Phil 2:1-4 he points out that the true obstacle to unity is not the presence of legitimate differences of opinion but self-centredness. The opposition the Philippians were facing calls for steadfastness on their part, but this is only possible if they have unity, which in turn calls for humility. In Phil 2:6, the phrase μορφη θεου is equivalent to “being equal with God”, though it cannot be pressed to explain exactly how. In the same verse, he acknowledges that while we may not be able to detect the exact meaning of αρπαγμον, the sense is clear – Jesus refused to make a selfish choice with regards to his divinity.

In Phil 2:10, Paul stunningly applies Isa 45:23 to Jesus. Phil 2:12-13 is one of several places in Philippians that express the paradox of human and divine activity in salvation, and Silva offers some good theological reflection on this. The grumbling of Phil 2:14 is likely to be an allusion to the Israelites complaining against Moses. The best commentary on Phil 2:15 is Jesus’ words in Matt 5:14-16: you are already the light of the world – therefore shine.

In Phil 3:2, Paul is ironically (rather than abusively) characterizing these Judaizers as “dogs”. A great spiritual reversal has taken place – these Judaizers are the new Gentiles, while the Christian believers are the new Jews. He effectively rebuts Stendahl’s notion that in Phil 3:6 Paul is referring to his subjective conscience.

In Phil 3:9-11 we see Paul’s doctrine of salvation compressed into just a few sentences – justification, sanctification, and glorification. Silva makes the point that union with Christ, rather than justification by faith is at the heart of Paul’s soteriology. When Paul speaks of experiencing the power of Christ’s resurrection in Phil 3:10, he has in mind our spiritual transformation into the image of Christ.

Silva makes the case that antinomian libertines may not be the opponents in view in 3:12-4:1, and that it makes good sense to read this section as being against the Judaizers. In Phil 3:15, Paul is referring not to differences they may have with him, but differences they have amongst themselves – he paraphrases: “If there continue to be some disagreements among you, I trust that God will soon bring unanimity in your midst.”

About Euodia and Syntyche (Phil 4:2), Silva says “most likely, what we have here is not a personal quarrel between cantankerous old ladies but rather a substantive division within the church leadership, which from the beginning consisted largely of faithful women.” On Phil 4:4-7 Silva notes that “genuine Christian joy is not inward looking. It is not by concentrating on our need for happiness, but on the needs of others that we learn to rejoice.”

Conclusion

Philippians is served by several highly-rated commentaries. I found Fee’s extremely helpful when I read through it about 10 years ago. O’Brien and Blockmeuhl also get consistently high praise for their work. But this one deserves its reputation too. As any good commentary should, it helps you get right to the heart of what is being said and how it fits into the overall flow of the argument, but also brings out the practical and doctrinal application of the text. So even if you already have Fee, it is well worth your money getting Silva as well (especially since they don’t always agree on the interpretation).

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