Book Note | The People Beside Paul: The Philippian Assembly and History from Below

by Jennifer Quigley in


Joseph A. Marchal, editor. The People beside Paul: The Philippian Assembly and History from Below. Atlanta: SBL Press, 2015.

From history and religious studies to journalism and political science, numerous fields have struggled to better understand and describe the lives of ordinary people. New Testament and Early Christian studies continue to make strides in the study of ordinary people living under Roman rule, the people who would have comprised the earliest assemblies of Christ followers. Joseph A. Marchal’s edited volume The People beside Paul: The Philippian Assembly and History from Below represents a significant addition to this trend, offering a glimpse into current scholarly conversations about the people in Philippi who corresponded with Paul. How does an orientation towards “a people’s history,” following Howard Zinn, help scholars ask new questions about the context and content of Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, a brief but important text in the Pauline corpus? Eight scholars take up this task to describe “the variety and specificity that would characterize communities composed of such people” from the “underside of the Roman imperial world” (p. 15-16). These chapters from Valerie Abrahamsen, Peter Oakes, Eduard Verhoef, Angela Standhartinger, Joseph A. Marchal, Mark D. Nanos, Robert L. Brawley, and Noelle Damico and Gerardo Reyes Chavez vary in methodological approaches and topics, but all participate in a project which focuses on the people in Philippi beside Paul. This decentering of Paul allows Paul to be read “alongside and among the people in this movement, making hymns and managing suffering and imprisonment” (p. 16). Responses from Richard S. Ascough, Antoinette Clark Wire, and Richard A. Horsley draw out common themes and points of connection from each of the three sections of the book.

In the first set of essays, Abrahamsen, Oakes, and Verhoef explore a variety of material evidence for the people who lived in the Roman colony in and around the first century CE. Abrahamsen focuses on the demographics, status, and participation of women in cultic and civic life at Philippi, including a monument to the deified Livia and four of her priestesses in the Roman forum, the forum temple to Faustina the Younger and Marcus Aurelius with its female cultic participants, and records of women’s leadership in cults to Artemis/Diana, Dionysos, Isis, and the emerging Christian movement. From this evidence, we learn that not only could elite, wealthy women participate in civic and cultic leadership but that non-elite women participated and led in groups such as voluntary associations, exercising “what influence they could have within the important religious context to fulfill their duties and serve their communities” (p. 62). Oakes’ chapter expands upon his work in demographics in Philippi to argue for the centrality of considering economic matters in writing history from below. Oakes convincingly demonstrates that the “economic profile of the Philippian and Thessalonian Christians was below average for Paul’s experience of first-century society and below that of the Corinthian Christians” (p. 81). Verhoef explores the proximity of the early church at Philippi alongside a hero cult of Euephenes in Philippi in the fourth century CE, arguing that the archaeological evidence strongly suggests the cohabitation if not collaboration of the two cults. Ascough’s response highlights the common economic themes throughout this section, offering as a working definition of economics for a project tackling history from below as the “control [of resources] by those in positions of power” (p. 100).

The second set of essays focuses on the people who might have read/heard from Paul. Standhartinger’s chapter focuses on the Philippians as people who corresponded with and offered support to a prisoner. Her exploration of literary and papyrological evidence about Roman prisons helps to situate Philippians as a letter written in a context that “must reckon with [it] being read by more than the immediate addressees, namely, by the prison guards, police personnel, and judges” (p. 113). Marchal draws upon feminist and queer resources to consider how to read the letter “if Euodia, Syntyche, and/or Epaphroditus are (freed) slaves” (p. 149). Marchal argues that this context helps explain the letter’s rhetoric “mixing of affection and obedience [and] the availability of an unmanned or wo/manly body like Epaphroditus as an instrument to be sent back and forth” (p. 175). The response from Wire highlights the way in which these essays explore the limitations placed by social structures and practices upon disadvantaged persons.

The last collection of essays explores the people who received correspondence from Paul at Philippi, reconsidering some of the letter’s exegetical challenges in light of the people’s history. Nanos makes a fascinating and convincing argument against the paradigm first offered by F.C. Baur to read Pauline polemics (including in Philippians), as a conflict between Petrine/Jewish Christianity and Pauline/Gentile Christianity. Re-reading Philippians 3, Nanos contends that Paul opposes local “pagan” influences, especially Cynics. Brawley’s essay explores whether we can find traces of the alternative communities and narratives of the politically and socially marginalized recipients of Paul’s letter. From language used for roles within the community to the invocation of a heavenly citizenship, the Philippians “envisaged a subaltern assembly that lived out a creative alternative to imperial systems” (p. 238). Damico and Reyes Chavez offer a comparative project, exploring the assembly at Philippi in light of the authors’ experiences working with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a community organization working in agriculture and low-wage jobs in Florida, which launched the Campaign for Fair Food. “Drawing on … experiences with corporate infiltration, slavery investigations, and the exercise of leadership,” the authors “highlight themes in Paul’s letter that provide clues to the context and challenges facing the burgeoning assembly at Philippi” (p. 249). Richard Horsley’s response closes the volume by noting the ways in which these essays (and the entire volume) embody a “history from below” which moves “well beyond the way that scholars of the previous generation applied concepts of ‘social stratification’ … to the Hellenistic urban world in general…[and] pursue an approach more appropriate to the distinctive situations of the assemblies of Christ loyalists in particular cities of the eastern Roman Empire” (p. 292). This volume is a significant contribution to scholarship about the distinctive situation of the emerging Christ assembly in the Roman colony of Philippi.

Jennifer A. Quigley is a Th.D. candidate in New Testament and Early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School

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