In working on my dissertation chapter concerning Philippians I was reminded of a problem that I find especially interesting.  Why doesn’t Paul describe his opponents in Phil 1:15-17 with harsher language?

In Philippians, Paul informs the community that despite his current imprisonment, the gospel has continued to spread. First, he informs them that his imprisonment has become known throughout the entire praetorium (of course there has been endless speculation as to what precisely Paul means by this word) and to everyone else. However more interesting, Paul also informs the Philippians that Christian preachers have become more bold in their preaching, some from “goodwill” but others from envy and rivalry. Additionally, those preaching out of envy and rivalry “proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment.” (NRSV Phil. 1:17).

It seems likely that one could anticipate Paul’s response to these “opponents” based on similar situations in Galatians, 2 Corinthians, and even Philippians 3. For instance, the opponents in Philippians 3:2 are described as dogs, evil workers, and “those who mutilate the flesh” (NRSV Phil. 3:2) Additionally, in Galatians Paul states that some teachers have come and perverted the gospel and that “even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed.” (Galatians 1:8) These are strong words indeed. Thus, one would anticipate that Paul would have harsh words for those that preach the gospel out of envy, strife, and with the intention of making Paul’s life more difficult.   However, this is not the case!

Despite what we might expect Paul, does not describe his opponents in 1:17 in similarly negative terms. In fact, Paul rejoices because “Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true” (NRSV Phil. 1:18)  Paul’s unusual stance concerning those who oppose him has led to a myriad of proposals concerning who these opponents might be.  The most thorough and concise summary  concerning Paul’s opponents in 1:15-1:17 is found in Reumann’s new Anchor Bible Commentary on Philippians.  Reumann lists the following possibilities: pagan agitators, Jews, Judaizing Christians, zealot Christians, Christians jealous of Paul, itinerant Christians missionaries with a divine man theology, Gnostic Christians, Christians angry with Paul for asserting his Roman citizenship, and a faction within the community concerned with financial matters, friendship, and enmity. 

In part 2 of this series I will examine some of the various proposals listed above concerning whom Paul’s opponents might have been in Philippians 1:15-17.  If anyone wants to defend one of the proposals beforehand please do so in the comments section.