As Paul tells it ...
Philippians and Ephesus (1)

Home Search Bibliography About the Author

The Scope of the Study*

The hypothesis of the composition of Philippians, or parts thereof, during a presumed Ephesian imprisonment has become a critical commonplace. There are good reasons for such a view, as we shall show. Yet there has been some lack of precision in placing Philippians during Paul’s period of work in Ephesus.

The paper will first set out the evidence from the letter itself as a kind of template against which to assess the various solutions; then it will summarize what we can know from the other letters about Paul’s work in Ephesus; following this it will review the reasons for assigning Philippians to Ephesus; then it will assess the two principal ways which have been proposed for locating the point of the Ephesian imprisonment: the “beasts in Ephesus” episode, or the “crisis in Asia” episode; and finally it will explore other options for identifying the point of composition for Philippians.

This article presupposes the unity of Philippians.1 It employs a methodology based upon the priority of the letters,2 and, in the present instance, based exclusively upon the letters.3 (Click on Letters Based Chronology (1) to (4) for further details.) 

  * This article is a revision of “Paul at Ephesus and the Composition of Philippians,” Proceedings: Eastern Great Lakes and Midwest Biblical Societies 8 (1988), 61-76.
  1Partition theories have enjoyed rather wide acceptance. However, it is possible to argue on the basis of formal analysis that the troublesome third chapter of Philippians is really an extended digression, identifiable by what Burke O. Long calls “framing repetitions;” see his “Framing Repetitions in Biblical Historiography,” JBL 106 (1987) 385-99. See also the important articles by D. E. Garland (“The Composition and Unity of Philippians: Some Neglected Literary Factors,” NovT 27 [1985] 141-73) and D. F. Watson (“A Rhetorical Analysis of Philippians and Its Implications for the Unity Question,” NovT 30 [1988] 57-88).
  2We acknowledge the importance of the work of John Knox, Chapters in a Life of Paul, rev. ed. (Macon, GA: Mercer, 1987). Niels Hyldahl, in Die paulinische Chronologie (Leiden: Brill, 1986) has come to be included in the ranks of those who follow the methodology of Knox, and refers to it as the “new chronology” (p. 2).
  3The seven certainly authentic letters (1 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, Philemon and Romans) are presupposed. Click on The Pauline Legacy

The accompanying chart illustrates the application of this methodology to establishing sequences in the apostle’s relationships with Philippi. By anticipation, it lays out some of the conclusions for which this article will argue.

Jerusalem Visit 1
Syria and Cilicia
Galatia (former visit)



Founding Visit; “. . . in the beginning of the gospel” (Phil. 4:15)
  » Persecution
  » Special financial arrangement with Philippi (Phil. 1:5)
Thessalonica (1 Thess. 2:2)     


  » 1 Thessalonians written
  » Aid from Macedonia, probably Philippi, (2 Cor. 11:9)

Jerusalem Visit 2
(latter visit)     
Agreement on the collection (Gal. 2:10)
Beginning of collection in Galatia (1 Cor. 16:1)     
Ephesus: founding visit
  » Letter P to Corinth, Previous Letter
  » Episode of fighting with beasts in Ephesus, 1 Cor. 15:32
  » Timothy is sent to Corinth: from ? via?
  » Letter L to Corinth = 1 Corinthians           mid-April
  » Travel plan: Ephesus/ Macedonia/ Corinth/ Jerusalem, 1 Cor. 16:3-8

  » Composition of Galatians                           mid-May
(thus, unable to depart after Pentecost for Macedonia, etc., as planned)


The situation in Philippi:
  » Dissension
  » Problem of false teachers


The Philippians learn of Paul’s trouble, Phil. 4:14
  [Trip #1, Ephesus to Philippi]
  » Delivers gift to Paul                                  early July
  » Informs Paul of dissension, and false teachers in Philippi
The Philippians send a gift by Epaphroditus
  [Trip #2, Philippi to Ephesus]


  » Timothy’s presumed return to Corinth       mid-July
(possibly earlier), bringing news from Corinth
Illness of Epaphroditus

Appearance of Onesimus

The Philippians learn of his illness
  [Trip #3, Ephesus to Philippi]
Epaphroditus is distressed that the Philippians have heard of his illness, Phil. 2:26



  [Possible additional trip, Philippi to Ephesus, from which Epaphroditus learns that the Philippians have heard of his illness]
Paul writes Philippians                                mid-August
  » Travel plans: Timothy is to be sent to Philippi, 
Phil. 2:19, to bring word from Philippi; Paul hopes to travel there later, Phil. 2:24

Paul writes Philemon; sends Onesimus back (to Colossae?)
Epaphroditus is sent back to Philippi
  [Trip #4, Ephesus to Philippi]


PAUL, RELEASED FROM PRISON   late August» Sends Timothy on to Macedonia
Paul makes intermediate visit to Corinth, and back to Ephesus, 2 Cor. 2:1; 12:14; 13:1-2

Paul writes Letter H/10-13 to Corinth   mid-September
Travel plan: Titus to Corinth to Troas; Paul to Troas

(Possible) return of Timothy, with news of Philippi

Crisis in Asia (probably Ephesus); escapes death (2 Cor. 1:8)                                                      late September
Paul departs for Troas, 2 Cor. 2:12, but does not find Titus there                                              early October
Paul proceeds on to Macedonia/ Philippi, 2 Cor. 2:13; 7:5                                                           mid-October
  » Finds fighting without, fears within, 2 Cor. 7:5
  » Meets Titus, with good news of reconciliation from Corinth
  » “Voluntary” collection in Macedonia, 2 Cor. 8:1-4
  » Writes Letter R/1-9 to Corinth, with Timothy, 2 Cor. 1:
Paul winters in Macedonia, and proceeds to Corinth in the spring; or to Corinth during mid-winter travels by land 
In Corinth, Paul:                          Spring/early summer
  » Completes work on the collection
  » Writes Romans
Travel plans: to Jerusalem, to deliver collection; to Rome; to Spain

Jerusalem Visit 3 [projected]


Information from Philippians

We begin with a summary of the information in Philippians concerning Paul’s situation as he writes; this summary forms a kind of profile or template against which we can test various theories of the letter’s origin.

     1. Paul is in prison, and he is in danger. As a number of passages make clear, Paul is in prison (Philippians 1:7, 12-14, 17), and his life is at risk (1:20, 29-30; 2:17), the outcome of his trial uncertain, though he is gamely optimistic.

     2. Paul refers to a praetorium or praetorian guard, and the household of Caesar, where he is imprisoned. In outrageously bold assertions, Paul claims that his imprisonment has become well known throughout the whole praetorian guard as an imprisonment for Christ (Philippians 1:12-13), and concludes the letter with greetings from all the saints, especially from the household of Caesar (4:22).

     3. Travel plans. His fate is still in doubt, but he hopes that he will soon be able to send Timothy to Philippi (Philippians 2:19, 23), and that he himself will also, upon his release, come quickly to Philippi (2:24; cp. 1:26).4

     4. Frequent travel between the place of imprisonment and Philippi. The letter presupposes a number of trips and exchanges of information between himself and Philippi. These may be reckoned at some three or four, not including the letter itself:5

The Philippians hear of Paul’s imprisonment;


They send a gift to Paul by Epaphroditus;


Information reaches the Philippians of Epaphroditus’ illness; and possibly


Word reaches Epaphroditus of their concern.6

     5. Opposition. In the midst of a generally hopeful outlook evident in the letter, we pick up a clear note of opposition from Christians in the city where Paul is in prison (Philippians 1:15). They have made things more difficult for Paul in his imprisonment, perhaps by failing to support his defense, or by opposing him in some way.7 It is doubtful whether these opponents are the Judaizers of Galatia, whom Paul could accuse of preaching another gospel, since these do preach Christ. Otherwise, our information is insufficient for positive identification.

  4This might well be the first visit of Timothy and Paul to Philippi since the founding of the church (see Hyldahl, Chronologie 19-20; cp. n. 4).
  5On the hypothesis of the partition of the letter into two or three parts, the number of exchanges naturally increases.
  6This item is perhaps unnecessary, since Epaphroditus might know that if information reached the Philippians they would be concerned.
  7Less likely, they are the cause of his imprisonment and danger.


Revised February 7, 2003

Click Next button below to continue, for Philippians and Ephesus (2)

Previous Home Next


Copyright © 2000-2005 by J. Peter Bercovitz. All rights reserved.
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Articles (as noted) used by permission of
Proceedings: Eastern Great Lakes and Midwest Biblical Societies. Materials on this site may be downloaded for personal study and research, but quotations of this material should be appropriately acknowledged.

Send mail about this site to