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Philippians and Ephesus (2)

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Paul’s Situation in Ephesus

Having defined a template of Paul’s situation from the Philippian letter, we now attempt to put together what we can know of his situation from the letters of Paul’s work in Ephesus.

     1. Opportunity and opposition. It is evident that while there were many people who opposed him, there was also great opportunity, as 1 Corinthians 16:8-9 makes clear: “But I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, for a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries [antikeimenoi].”

     2. Persecution. Paul had come face to face with a desperately dangerous situation: “What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’” (1 Corinthians 15:32, RSV; see a discussion of Fighting with Beasts, below). Somewhat later Paul also faced mortal danger in Asia (probably a reference to Ephesus), which he describes as despairing of life itself, receiving the sentence of death, and a deadly peril (2 Corinthians 1:8-10; see a discussion of the deadly peril episode below).

     3. Work on the collection. From the Corinthian letters we also know that this was a period of work on the collection for the poor saints in Jerusalem. His efforts finally resulted in the completion of the collection from two the three mission areas founded before the Jerusalem conference, i.e. Achaia and Macedonia (Romans 15:26). The collection project in Corinth, begun by Titus, had languished during the increasingly bitter dispute between Paul and the Corinthians, only to be revived with the resolution of the controversy.8 In Macedonia, the project was an unqualified success (2 Corinthians 8), even though it probably did not get under way until the arrival of Paul in Macedonia (2 Corinthians 2:13; 7:5). The project was launched well enough in Galatia (1 Corinthians 16:1), but it was evidently interrupted by the storm of controversy reflected in the Galatian letter, and was probably never brought to completion.9

     4. The founding of the church at Ephesus. Ephesus was a Pauline foundation,10 dating probably from the period after the Jerusalem conference. 1 Corinthians 16:8-9, written after the conference, and referring to a great and effective door which is open in Ephesus (thura gar moi aneôigen megalê kai energês), perhaps suggests that the founding work in Ephesus is still in progress, i.e. that his mission is at an early and active stage.11 

     5. Co-workers. The fellow workers associated with Paul during this period surely include Aquila and Prisca (1 Corinthians 16:19), and perhaps Sosthenes, the co-sender of 1 Corinthians (1:1). Apollos was evidently also present in Ephesus, and working under Paul’s direction (1 Corinthians 16:12). Timothy (1 Corinthians 4:17; 16:10) and Titus (2 Corinthians 2:13; 7:6, 13-14; 8:6, 16, 23; 12:18) were his emissaries at this time.12

     6. The founding of other churches in Asia. We may note that this is perhaps also a period of church-founding elsewhere in Asia, especially in the Lycus Valley, whether by Paul himself or by certain of his associates.13

   8Click on The Collection in Corinth.
   9The silence concerning the participation of Asia/Ephesus in the collection is puzzling. One cannot imagine that, with Paul so recently arrived from the Jerusalem conference, where the collection was agreed to, the Ephesians would have been ignorant of his work on the collection. Nor do we need to suppose that the forces of opposition (the antikeimenoi of 1 Corinthians 16:9) have frustrated work on the project completely, though the kind of tension at Ephesus which is evident may not have been conducive to a successful fund raising project. I would argue that the agreement at the Jerusalem conference to remember the poor was an obligation Paul was willing to undertake on behalf of those churches which had not yet been founded at the time of the conference. Knox, in Chapters 61-5, maintained that Paul had enjoyed an extended stay in Ephesus before the Jerusalem conference, and that Ephesus finally did participate in the collection. On the former point, click on The Founding of the Church at Ephesus; on the latter point, it would be difficult to ascertain the participation of Ephesus in the collection without recourse to the evidence of Acts (20:4).
  10See Knox, Chapters 64-65 for a reply to Gerd Luedemann’s contention (in Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles: Studies in Chronology [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984] 146, n. 16) that there was Christianity in Ephesus before Paul began his work there.
  11The Knox chronology, which in the main I find convincing, certainly allows sufficient time for a pre-conference founding visit to Ephesus; see Knox, Chapters 61-63, 68. But, as I have argued in note 9 above, the best explanation of the presumed silence in the letters on the participation of Ephesus in the collection is that Paul had not founded the work in Ephesus before the conference. Hyldahl (Chronologie 85) supports the idea of Paul’s pre-conference work in Ephesus, but does so on largely speculative grounds.
  12To these, we might add the names of others from Philemon and Colossians. But the problem is that, unless we can be assured of the authenticity of Colossians, Philemon (which is certainly authentic) remains largely unanchored in any sequence of Paul’s activities, whether it is the order of his letters, or the order of his travels and travel plans. Indeed, even the destination of Philemon remains open if we are uncertain of the information in Colossians. But if we date Philemon from the Ephesian period, as is often done, one could well include the names of such other companions, friends and associates as Epaphras, Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke.
  13It is usually supposed, especially on the basis of Colossians, that Paul did not himself found the churches of the Lycus Valley (Colossae, Laodicea, and Hierapolis), but that they came into being through the efforts of a co-worker. While this supposition is not improbable, perhaps it needs to be reexamined, and the possibility left open that Paul himself had founded these churches, either on his way to Ephesus from the latter visit to Galatia, or during a period of labor in the Lycus Valley originating from Ephesus. In Corinthians 16:19, Paul sends greetings from the churches of Asia; does this mean (a) that they were churches which he had founded? or (b) that he has just visited them (so Hyldahl, Chronologie 74)?

The Ephesian Hypothesis for Philippians

With these elements of Paul’s Ephesian work in mind, we now proceed to a consideration of reasons for assigning the composition of Philippians to Ephesus, with special attention to how well the Ephesian hypothesis fits the Philippians template.

     1. Travel plans. One of the most telling arguments for the Ephesian hypothesis is really an argument against Rome, namely, Paul’s travel plans announced in Philippians.14 When writing Philippians, Paul expects to go quickly (tacheôs) to Philippi upon his release (2:24); but from Romans we know that when Paul reached Rome he planned to proceed on to Spain (Romans 15:24). If he were writing from Rome, we would expect him to be planning his visit to Spain, rather than intending to go to Philippi. It is not merely that this discrepancy would involve Paul in a change of plans,15 but that it would mean an abandonment of his missionary strategy, and a return to the territory where he had fully preached the gospel (Romans 15:19-20). Now we know from the Corinthian letters not only that Paul was intending while in Ephesus to visit Macedonia, but that he in fact did reach Macedonia (1 Corinthians 16:5; 2 Corinthians 2:12-13; 7:5). Thus Philippians makes a good fit with Ephesus so far as Paul’s travel plans are concerned.16 

     2. The relative proximity of Ephesus. The second argument for Ephesus is also in effect an argument against Rome. Some three or four trips between Rome and Philippi, a distance of eight hundred miles or more, would tell heavily if not decisively against the composition of the letter at Rome.17 The month or more of travel, at best, between Rome and Philippi compares with little more than a week (seven to ten days) between Ephesus and Philippi. Given these circumstances, one has to assume for the Rome hypothesis prodigious travel, considerable expense, and a quite lengthy imprisonment, in comparison with the Ephesus hypothesis. As Paul in Philippians looks to the future, the proximity of Ephesus to Philippi would enable Paul not only to send Timothy to Philippi, but also to receive a quick assessment of the situation there, hina kagô eupsuchô gnous ta peri humôn (Philippians 2:19). All in all, the relative proximity of Ephesus to Philippi works in favor of the Ephesian hypothesis and against Rome.

     3. The praetorium or praetorian guard and Caesar’s household in Ephesus. This is an argument which does not so much tell for Ephesus as an argument which does not tell against Ephesus. There seems to be little doubt that a praetorium or provincial headquarters would have been located in Ephesus, or that a detachment of the praetorian guard would have been stationed there, if that is what is meant by en holôii praitôriôi (. . . throughout the whole imperial guard, or the whole praetorium, Philippians 1:13).18 In the greetings from the members of Caesar’s household (Philippians 4:22), we have a reference to a sort of imperial civil service, consisting of freedmen and slaves, which could be found throughout the empire.19 This third argument does not require Ephesus as the place of composition, but shows that the Roman hypothesis is unnecessary, and certainly permits Ephesus.

     4. Other considerations. 

The reference to rival preachers in Philippians 1:15 fits well enough with his comment about the many who were opposing him in Ephesus (1 Corinthians 16:9; kai antikeimenoi polloi), and thus provides additional support to the Ephesian hypothesis.


From the letters we may estimate that Paul spent a year and a half to two and a half years in Ephesus,20 surely long enough to allow for an imprisonment of three or more months.21

  14In general, the arguments which tell against Rome tell also against Caesarea as the place of composition for Philippians.
  15F. W. Beare, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Philippians (NY: Harper, 1959) 19.
  16As for Timothy, Paul’s travel plans for him are agreeable with the Ephesian hypothesis, though we cannot trace out Timothy’s movements with much certainty. The attempt by Hyldahl (Chronologie, esp. chs. 2 and 4) to reconstruct the journeys of Timothy in abundant detail goes far beyond what the evidence warrants. Paul did send Timothy to Corinth (1 Corinthians 4:17; 16:10-11), from where he was to return to Paul in Ephesus. In Philippians, Paul was intending to send Timothy to Philippi (2:19-23). Timothy is with Paul later in Macedonia when he writes Letter R/1-9 (the Letter of Reconciliation) to Corinth, joining him as co-sender (2 Corinthians 1:1). Beyond these “sightings” (and not forgetting Paul’s sending Timothy from Athens back to Thessalonica, 1 Thessalonians 3:1-6), we have little but speculation.
  17So G. S. Duncan, St. Paul’s Ephesian Ministry (NY: Scribner’s, 1930) 80-2; and G. Bornkamm, “Der Philipperbrief als Paulinische Briefsammlung,” Neotestamentica et Patristica: Eine Freundesgabe, Herrn Professor Dr. Oscar Cullmann zu seinem 60. Geburtstag überreicht (Leiden: Brill, 1962) 199.
  18Duncan, Eph. Ministry 108-9; G. Friedrich, Der Brief an die Philipper NTD 89 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1962) 94; J. Gnilka, Der Philipperbrief (Freiburg/Basel/Wien: Herder, 1968) 19, 57-8. But see Beare (Philippians 22), “. . . /any detachments found in a provincial capital would be nothing more than a guard of honour for the proconsul.”
  19Duncan, Eph. Ministry 110-1; G. Friedrich, An die Philipper 94-5; J.-P. Collange, The Epistle of Saint Paul to the Philippians (London: Epworth, 1979) 155.
  20This estimate follows Knox (Chapters 62-3, 68) in allowing a period of three to four years between the second and third Jerusalem visits, though it does not follow him in positing a period of work in Ephesus before the conference.
  21The silence in Philippians on the collection is sometimes used against the Ephesian hypothesis; see P. N. Harrison, “The Pastoral Epistles and Duncan’s Ephesian Theory,” NTS 2 (1955-56) 258-9, referred to in Gnilka, Philipperbrief 24. But this silence is more adequately explained by reference to the delay in beginning the collection in Macedonia, a delay which becomes intelligible when we take into account its voluntary character, the deep poverty of the Macedonians (2 Corinthians 8:2-3), and the obligation which Philippi had already undertaken to underwrite Paul’s apostolic labors (Philippians 1:5; 4:15-16).

Here then are the arguments for the composition of Philippians during an Ephesian imprisonment. But is it possible to identify the position of the imprisonment in the sequence of events during the Ephesian period, with a greater degree of precision? We shall undertake an examination of the theories that connect this imprisonment either with the “beasts in Ephesus” episode (1 Corinthians 15:32), or with the “crisis in Asia” episode (2 Corinthians 1:8-10).


Revised February 7, 2003

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