Colonies of heaven: Christianity as a Roman religion in Philippians

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

Christianity might have been born in a thoroughly Jewish home, but it quickly got sent to a Roman boarding school. In Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi, we see something of that happening. Philippi, like Corinth was a Roman colony, and Paul draws rather more positively on that heritage to shape his language when he writes to the Philippians, than he does in his more troubled relationship with Corinth. Indeed, it may well have been the Philippian church Paul had in mind when he spoke of the generosity of the Macedonian churches (2 Corinthians 8:1-7), appealing to the competitive spirit at Corinth, and trying to get them to up their game in the generosity stakes.

Paul envisages in Philippians that his death might be a very real possible outcome of his imprisonment. The picture is the traditional site of Paul’s burial in Rome.

Certainly there is a strong note of thanks in the letter, not least for the practical help the Philippians have sent Paul via Epaphroditus (Phil 2:25; 4:18). This practical, probably financial, help also appears to be included in what he means by their “sharing in the gospel” (Phil 1:5) He returns at the end to more thanks for their support even in the earliest days of his mission (Phil 4:15-19).

At Corinth he turned down financial support, fearful of being tied to the richer factions of the church (1 Cor 9:3-18). From the Philippians he accepted it, and saw it as more than enough to reciprocate what God had given them through his ministry. It is in reciprocal gift-giving that both divine and human relationships are created and sustained. In this letter, we see Paul making much of that.

Much of the letter is read in the Sunday lectionary, especially in Year A, yet if gratitude expressed in thanksgiving and joy provides the frame for the letter, and the subject of some of those readings, there are still problems Paul needs to address. One of those problems seems to be coming from outside the church, from those who continue to commend Torah observance (Phil 3).

Whether that is a serious problem at Philippi, or whether Paul has it on his mind because of dealing with it elsewhere is unclear. Combatting such views allows him to rehearse his characteristic themes of Christ as the model of faithfulness (Phil 2:6-11), of the overwhelming value of God’s gift in Christ devaluing by comparison all human achievement (Phil 3:2-10), and of the transformation of our physical reality by the coming of Christ (Phil 3:17-21).

One difference in the way he addresses this future transformation seems to be occasioned by Philippi’s status as a Roman colony, refounded by Augustus Caesar after his defeat of Mark Anthony at the battle of Actium some 90 or so years before Paul writes. It may be that he shows off a little bit to this pro-Roman city, that through his imprisonment (probably in Rome towards the end of his life) his message is known both to the imperial guard (Phil 1:13) and to the imperial civil service, where he has made converts (Phil 4:22)1

The most significant use Paul makes of this Roman context (his imprisonment and the Philippian heritage) is, however, the metaphor he picks to describe the future appearance of Christ. Augustus had appropriated the title Saviour of the World for himself as emperor, and Paul and other early Christians applied it to Jesus. It has always been political as well as religious language. Moreover, in theory at least, if a Roman colony was beleaguered, it could expect the army to come to its rescue. Paul now uses that imagery to talk about what we typically call “the second coming” but the New Testament tends simply to speak of as the arrival or presence of Christ.2

If the point of a Roman colony was to have Roman citizens staking Rome’s claim to a foreign land, Paul’s use of this language portrays the church as heavenly citizens staking God’s claim to a presently alienated world. And if they are beleaguered by this world’s powers, the true Saviour of the world is coming from the heart of God’s heavenly realm to their rescue. (Phil 3:20-21) Paul is quite comfortable in appropriating imperial language for Christ, as for God. It is one of the early steps that made it easier later on for Christian emperors to borrow religious language in turn for their own purposes.

As always, Paul also wants to urge unity on all his churches. One practical reason, and perhaps the dominant one for this letter, is that, as so often, Paul has to respond to a divided church, urging them to have one mind, and reject the all-too-Roman pattern of competition. It is in this context he produces one of his most famous passages, the poem-like verses celebrating Christ as the exemplar of putting God and others before oneself in faithful and humble service (Phil 2:6-11).

He returns near the end of the letter to what may be the heart of the dissension, an argument between two leading women in the church, Euodia and Syntyche (Phil 4:2-3). It is worth noting that he asks someone else to help them reconcile, rather than giving orders. That may reflect that they are high status in both society and the church: another example of women in leadership in the earliest churches. Paul certainly seems to want to get to this important point in a fairly roundabout way. The importance of unity, whether for quarrelling individuals, or for the whole church, is never far from Paul’s mind.


  1. The phrase Paul uses, “the household of Caesar” has, particularly since the ground-breaking work of Wayne Meeks (The First Urban Christians New Haven and London: Yale University and Press, 1983) been regularly seen as referring not to literal relatives of the emperor, but to the extended family of slaves and freedmen, whom Augustus and especially his successors, used to carry out imperial business.
  2. The word “presence” (Greek parousia) is not a technical term at this early stage: even in Philippians Paul simply uses the same word to mean his own presence again with the Philippians (Phil 1:26; 2:12).

One thought on “Colonies of heaven: Christianity as a Roman religion in Philippians

  1. Pingback: King of the universe: Colossians – Liturgica

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