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Philippians (Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament)

Joseph H. Hellerman. Philippians (Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament).  Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2015. 368 pp. $29.99.

EGGNT PhilThough B&H Academic’s Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament (EGGNT) is a fairly new series with only 5 volumes released so far out of a projected 20, it has already established itself as an essential resource for seminary students, pastors, and biblical scholars alike. Written and edited by some of the finest Evangelical New Testament scholars of our day, these volumes are crucial supplements to conventional commentaries for those who have a working knowledge of Koine Greek and desire to exegete the Greek NT text. During my Greek Exegesis courses (Colossians & Philemon and 1 Peter) last year I always consulted the EGGNT after doing my own work in the text and consistently found my understanding of what’s going on grammatically and syntactically to be enriched by these exegetical guides.

One of the newest volumes in the series is Philippians by Joseph H. Hellerman (pastor and professor of NT language and literature at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University). Like the rest of the volumes in the series (and unlike typical commentaries), the introduction is just a few pages and provides a very brief summary of basic introductory issues such as authorship, provenance, occasion, etc. In keeping with the aim of the series to bridge the gap between the Greek text and the available tools, the introduction of these volumes also addresses important grammatical features of the respective NT books when present (e.g. the introduction to the volume on 1 Peter addresses the imperatives and imperatival participles; the introduction for the present volume on Philippians addresses time and aktionsart in the Greek verb). The EGGNT is designed to do what commentaries do not accomplish (provide robust exegesis of the Greek text), not duplicate what can be found in any good commentary. These volumes also provide recommended commentaries at the beginning and an exegetical outline in the end. Each section of exegesis of the Greek text begins with a basic sentence diagram and concludes with recommended resources for further study as well as homiletical suggestions, providing valuable aids for both study and preaching.

A look at how Hellerman handles one of the most beloved (and most academically debated?) passages of Philippians, the Christ-hymn, will provide a good windown into his perspective. Interestingly, Hellerman argues that Paul’s argument here is primarily sociological and not ontological, i.e. less about Christ’s divine nature and more about Christ as a model for relationships among members of the Philippian church. While Hellerman believes it likely that Paul composed Philippians 2:6-11 himself, he explains why nothing is at stake exegetically even if the text is a pre-Pauline hymn. His expertise in Roman history also comes out as he illuminates the cursus ideology that was central to the cultural values and social codes of Philippi as well as expressions of honor/shame found in the Christ-hymn. All of this enlightening and perhaps less well-known background information is contained in a robust introduction to the section.

Regarding verse 5, Hellerman summarizes the arguments for the two main interpretations of ὃ καὶ ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ (Christ’s mind-set in the incarnation and crucifixion versus the believer’s mind-set in union with Christ); while affirming the difficulty of the decision and the maintenance of Paul’s paraenetic aims on either reading, Hellerman prefers the former with some reservations. He takes ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ in verse 6 as referring to Christ’s preincarnate “social status”; while he has no problem with a secondary argument for the deity of Christ from this clause, Hellerman believes that making this theological corollary primary underemphasizes the sociological thrust of Paul’s argument. He argues for taking the following ὑπάρχων concessively, noting why its preferable to a causal interpretation (espoused by, e.g., O’Brien). Similarly to his argument for μορφῇ θεοῦ, Hellerman contends that εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ should not primarily be taken ontologically.

Pertaining to the controversial doctrine of kenosis derived from verse 7, Hellerman notes that it is erroneous to assume that ἐκένωσεν needs a modifier; rather, he contends that the ensuing participial modifiers demonstrate that ἐκένωσεν “is intended metaphorically to signify a lowering of rank (vis-à-vis v.6) by means of the incarnation” (114). In verse 8 Hellerman notes that “humiliated” is a better translation that “humbled” for ἐταπείνωσεν because the latter denotes an attitude or state of mind, whereas the former signifies action performed in a social context with social implications. He argues for reading τὸ ὄνομα τὸ ὑπὲρ πᾶν ὄνομα in verse 9 as referring to public acclaim rather than the name of YHWH.

Though I mainly highlighted some of Hellerman’s notable exegetical conclusions and decisions, he provides robust word studies and grammatical/syntactical analysis. Like the other volumes in the series, on points of debate the arguments for every side are presented fairly before Hellerman offers his own conclusion. One unique aspect of this volume is the emphasis on the sociocultural background of the Epistle to the Philippians. I have gained much insight that opened up greater depths to my understanding of certain texts, but there are also areas where Hellerman’s arguments initially made me uncomfortable (e.g. the Philippian Christ-hymn). Hellerman argues for a sociological interpretation for many of the elements in which I saw a primarily ontological argument, and I feel a bit like one of the pillars of the early high/divine-identity Christology argument is crumbling! So, in addition to looking forward to exegeting through Philippians with Hellerman’s exegetical guide, I feel I need to study the Christ-hymn again!

Joseph Hellerman’s Philippians (Exegetical Guide on the Greek New Testament) is an essential resource for students of Greek exegesis as well as teachers and pastors who work from the Greek text.

Thanks to B&H Academic for the review copy!

Purchase: Westminster | Amazon

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4 Comments

  1. Nathanael

     /  August 4, 2016

    Why would Hellerman play the ontological and sociological against each other like that? It sounds to me like he is imposing a false contrast on the passage. Does Hellerman spend any time justifying his dichotomy? If “form of God” and “equality with God” are social statuses, would that not also imply an ontology? In other words, how can one be equal to God without being God?

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    • He doesn’t spend time justifying it…since this is a Greek handbook and not a commentary it would have probably been outside the scope/purpose of the series to address it at length. If he would develop these ideas into an article it would be helpful (maybe he has but I’m unaware?). I don’t think he’s saying that ontology can’t be implied, but that the primary sense in the text is social.

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