A Roman Commentary on St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians

Written by Richard J. Cassidy Reviewed By Isaac D. Blois

Richard Cassidy’s name should already be familiar to those invested in studying Paul’s letter to the Philippians, since his 2001 monograph on Paul’s imprisonments (Paul in Chains: Roman Imprisonments and the Letters of St. Paul [New York: Herder & Herder, 2001]) treats the letter extensively. Still, a full-scale treatment of the epistle from Cassidy’s unique and powerful perspective was something that many scholars have been eagerly awaiting. Unfortunately, Cassidy’s Roman Commentary doesn’t quite rise to meet those expectations. At many points in the work, Cassidy’s insights are astute and provocative, so there is much to be admired in the present volume. The problem is that Cassidy’s overall treatment of the letter lacks consistent engagement and leaves wide swaths of Paul’s statements untouched apart from the slimmest of interaction. Hence, the value of Cassidy’s contribution really does remain solely in his fronting of the Roman elements of the letter (as is indicated in the title of the volume, where one should pay close attention to the “Roman” adjective modifying what otherwise might be considered a full “Commentary”), particularly the twin issues of the Roman imperial system and the Roman slave system. But if we can get past this lack of a total engagement with Philippians, then we can indeed marvel at the provocative claims offered in Cassidy’s volume.

A couple of particularly unique (and one might say radical) claims about the letter emerge early on in the commentary. First of all, Cassidy draws on Philippians 1:14, in conjunction with evidence from Pliny’s letters about a neighboring Macedonian town, to claim that the community of Christ-followers at Philippi is growing “in epidemic-like fashion” at the time that Paul writes to them (p. 27). This seems to go against the tide of scholars positing a much more meager and slight depiction of the number of Christ adherents in this community (Richard S. Ascough argues for somewhere around twenty—“Response: Broadening the Socioeconomic and Religious Context at Philippi,” in People Beside Paul, edited by Joseph A. Marchal [Atlanta: SBL Press, 2015], 100). Next, Cassidy intriguingly claims that Paul’s intention in “magnifying Christ” through his upcoming Roman trial (Phil 1:20) is to press for Jesus’s acquittal (from his past, wrongful execution), rather than to push for the apostle’s own acquittal from the crime of maiestas (“treason”) for which he himself is on trial (p. 59). Finally—and this connects to the author’s view of the temporal and geographical provenance for the letter, Cassidy believes that Paul’s situation in Rome after a long period of imprisonment has given the apostle an inside view, by way of his proximity to the imperial guard, of Nero’s atrocious character and also the horrible situation of slaves in the Roman world. This new perspective causes Paul in this last letter he writes to change his stance towards these twin aspects of the Roman world, causing him to fiercely counter the claims of the emperor (even to the extent of refusing to accept financial support in the form of coins that bore the emperor’s visage) and to boldly envision slaves as full members of the Christian community. Cassidy nicely argues that what Paul took up for treatment in Philemon at the private level of discussing how one particular Christian slave should be treated, the apostle now takes up at a more universal level in Philippians, discussing how all Christian slaves should be treated and how they all possess heavenly citizenship (p. 51).

Cassidy also makes the interesting claim that Paul intended for the letter to be performed before the Philippian community in a clandestine setting. The setting needed to be clandestine because of the inherent risks involved in countering the imperial dogma that such a performance would have highlighted. In addition to careful intonation coupled with probable explanation from the bearers of the letter (Epaphroditus, Timothy, etc.), Cassidy envisions the community co-opting Christian actors to perform the letter, even at times chanting sections in a way that would have recognizably lampooned the emperor and glorified Christ in his place (the chanting section is for Phil 3:18–20). This chanting of dispraise in Philippians 3:19, Cassidy claims, is specifically meant to respond to Nero’s sham claims to divinity, such that it is Nero and the officials in his government whom Paul denigrates as “enemies of the cross of Christ” in 3:18.

As I indicated above, despite the problem that much of Philippians is left untreated in the commentary, that which Cassidy does manage to discuss provides ample fodder for fresh engagements with the letter. For instance, while I appreciate the interesting claim that in addition to the apostle’s influence upon his Roman guards Paul may have also been receiving information (about Nero) from them, I still find it hard to agree that “Nero and his confederates” (p. 64) are the ones over whom Paul weeps as “enemies” of Christ’s cross. It would seem to me that Paul is so emotionally distraught over these individuals (and I think Paul is legitimately sorrowful for them, rather than shedding “tears of frustration” as Cassidy has it, p. 122) because they are somehow connected to the Christian community. I find it hard to see why Paul would be so distraught about a Roman emperor who fails to accept the way of thinking characterized by the cross—why should he? But for a group of believers to claim adherence to Christ but then to shun the very thing that characterizes him most (“even death on a cross,” Phil 2:8), this would understandably be cause for lament.

On the whole, Cassidy provides a host of unique claims that force readers of Philippians to rethink key elements of the epistle. His facility with the Roman background materials (which comes through in the commentary itself as well as in the numerous appendices at the end of the book) allows for him to uncover new and welcome insights into Paul’s ideas in the letter.

Isaac D. Blois

Isaac D. Blois
Biola University
La Mirada, California, USA

Other Articles in this Issue

J. I. Packer’s theological works have wielded remarkable influence on the landscape of North American evangelicalism...

Several modern Bible versions do a disservice to John’s use of numbers in the book of Revelation...

J. I. Packer (1926–2020) first came to the attention of the reading public with a 1953 essay in the second printing of the New Bible Commentary...

The purpose of this article is to help the reader conceptualize and imagine the Holy Spirit as a real person with a distinct and knowable personality—a person of the Trinity more accessible to our faith, reading of Scripture, and worship...

What are good sexual acts? It is not that surprising when cultural voices, without reference to God, argue for the inherent goodness of all “unharmful” sexual desires and acts...