Table of Contents of Latest Issue
Index of All Issues
Index of Book Reviews
Instructions for Contributors
Subscribe to
Australian Biblical Review


ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 60, 2012

JOHN PAUL HEIL, Philippians: Let Us Rejoice in Being Conformed to Christ (Early Christianity and its Literature 3; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2010). Pp. xii + 205. Paperback. $US25.95.

John Paul Heil has been working consistently on the Pauline letters in recent years, issuing in a number of studies exploring chiastic patterns of argumentation in Ephesians (Ephesians: Empowerment to Walk in Love for the Unity of All in Christ [2007]), Colossians (Colossians: Encouragement to Walk in Wisdom as Holy Ones in Christ [2010]), and now Philippians. The subtitle of the present volume summarises Heil’s view of the main theme of Paul’s letter. This theme, Heil argues, is clearly discerned once the interpreter detects the larger and smaller chiastic patterns—10 ‘macro’ units, each of which is a part of the overall chiastic structure of the letter, as well as being arranged in chiastic structure itself—that are the focus of the exegetical work in this book.

Heil’s discussion of chiasm in Philippians has the merits of being clear. He begins by identifying the “rigorous criteria” that must be met if we are to have any confidence that “the chiasm has not been subjectively imposed upon the text, but actually subsists and operates objectively within the text” (10). Notwithstanding the hermeneutical questions that such an approach begs, it is clear that the success of the exegetical discussion will depend to a large degree on the extent to which Heil is able to meet his own criteria.

And this is the book’s main weakness. Criterion number 1, namely that there “must be a problem in perceiving the structure of the text in question which more conventional outlines fail to resolve” (10), is rarely applied to any significant degree. There are a number of plausible structural analyses of Philippians available, based on epistolary and rhetorical criteria. The notion that 1:1–2 might relate closely to 4:21–23 (not least through the use of inclusio, see pasin tois hagiois, 1:1b / panta hagion, 4:21, pantes hoi agioi, 4:23 and chariskuriou Iesou Christou 1:2 / charis tou kuriou Iesou Christou, 4:23) is nothing new. It is what one might expect in letter openings and closings that make regular use of epistolary formulae. While this kind of observation prompts the quest for further parallel material, at crucial points the proposed relationships are not convincing. Criterion number 3 is that “Linguistic (or grammatical parallelism) as well as conceptual parallelism should characterize most of not all of the corresponding pairs of subdivisions” (10, emphasis mine). Heil makes a lot of this point, but immediately redefines it. On the next page he states that his proposals are based on “precise linguistic parallels found objectively in the text, rather than on thematic or conceptual parallels, which can often be subjective” (11, emphasis mine). The analysis often fulfils the latter version of the criterion, but at exactly this point the argument becomes less than persuasive. For example, in Heil’s section D (Philippians 1:19–30) Paul speaks about Christ being magnified in the apostl’s body (soma), equivocates between life in the flesh en sarki or death which is gain (kerdos), and then proceeds to exhort the Philippians to stand firm for the faith (pistis) of the gospel in the face of opponents who face destruction apoleia. This analysis (which incidentally rides roughshod over the crucial monon of 1:27, and thereby runs up against Heil’s criterion number 7) highlights those words which parallel the section D' (Phil 3:1–21: see soma [3:21]; en sarki [3.3–4]; kerdon/kerdeso [3:7]; pistis [3:9]; apoleia [3:19]). But it can hardly be concluded that the two sections are conceptually related by means of such parallels, and to be fair, Heil, in contravention of the first version of criterion 2, never states that they are. The closer one gets to the centre of the macrochiasm, the more problematic the proposals become, and the handling of sections E (2:1–16) and E' (2:17–30), the supposed “centre” is especially unconvincing. Of course, one needs to add that if Philippians is composed according to the objective chiastic structure that Heil proposes, it would make it unique in ancient literature, especially within the Greco-Roman epistolary tradition.

All that said, however, Heil’s study repays careful attention. In many places, especially in the analysis of smaller units of the letter, the identification of linguistic connections invites a consideration of just what the main theme of Philippians might be. In many ways the exegetical sections are textbook examples of what a close reading of Paul’s argumentation can produce by way of insight into the details of the text, and a coherent explanation of how the different parts of the letter relate to one another. In this, Heil’s book is yet one more blow against partition theories for Philippians. Once the letter’s integrity is demonstrated, there is more work to be done on just how Paul’s argument develops and to what purpose. But chiasm is not the key to unlock that particular door.

Review by
Whitley College, MCD University of Divinity