We recently featured Mark Keown’s new 1,000 page commentary on Philippians, which covers well both the secondary sources and the language of the text itself. It’s a useful commentary for pastors, especially if you know how to use it wisely, as we’ve suggested.
We noted in our first post about this commentary that it is definitely thorough. The depth of research is really impressive. What’s the story behind your work on Philippians, how long did it take you to research for this commentary, and any tips on executing a big research project like this?
My exploration of Philippians began when I was studying the question of who Paul envisaged preaching the gospel—specialists? All believers? This is an area of contention. As I researched, the thesis became Congregational Evangelism in Philippians, which I published in 2008. I then taught a course on Philippians for which I wrote a rather basic commentary for students. Around 2010, I heard that Lexham were looking for someone to write the EEC commentary, and I offered. I was given the honor.
I set to work editing and amending my draft. It took about five years to write from the time I was asked, but in fact is the result of around twenty years of on and off work. I was given freedom to be unconcerned about length, which meant I could really dig into the background and theological ideas. I was also encouraged to really dig into the background of the language used, and using the Bible Word Study tool and access to the right resources, I was able to explore the language of Philippians quickly across the wider Greek corpus, LXX, Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, Josephus, Philo, and the NT. I also love doing this stuff, and find that the background uses of the language opens up a world of exciting possibilities.
I also sought to engage as much as possible with other scholars. It was a long process, but worth it. One needs a heck of a lot of perseverance, patience, and an eye for connections. One has to have a supporting family, and I have a sensational wife and kids who encouraged me all the way. I also have a wonderfully supportive work space, Laidlaw College in Auckland, NZ, where they supported me in the project.
That’s helpful to know the process, and to know exactly how long it took you. That’s a good lesson for our own endurance with projects.
Now, this commentary is from a distinctively evangelical perspective, so in that spirit, what has God revealed to you through your study of Philippians, either about theological truth or about things you need to apply more to your own life?
The biggest insight is the importance of Phil 2:6-8 in understanding the gospel, Paul’s thought, and the wider NT. In this passage, either with his own words or those of an early church liturgical piece, Paul tells the gospel story. It speaks of the one in the form of God, which for me, is God in full glory and yet invisibility, who enjoys the status of equality and oneness with Yahweh, showed us what true divinity and humanity is in one glorious “fowl” swoop.
There is some difficult and complex Greek in Phil 2:6, but the upshot of it is that Jesus, although he had all the power to do so, did not come to earth in a violent military and political takeover. He did not arrogantly seek power—unlike Satan, Adam, and the rulers of the empires of the world since; whether it be Nimrod, the Pharaohs, Sennacherib, Nebuchadnezzar, Cyrus, Alexander the “Great,” and the Caesars (including Nero, the then nutcase ruler). Even Israel’s central expectation was a Davidic monarch who would impose himself and destroy God’s enemies. No! Jesus came and did not grasp, exploit, take, overpower, etc. Rather, he came in the form of a slave, in the form of a human.
The tenses of the passage show that as he took on human form, he did not ever for one moment cease to be divine. He was, is, and forever will be “in the form of God.” Yet, he poured himself out for us. It is not that he ceased to be divine, or gave up any of his divinity in any aspect, rather, he was God in a bod so to speak. By pouring himself out, we have a metaphor of his crucifixion as his blood was shed for us. It sums up his ministry as he poured himself out healing, feeding, and loving sinners. It speaks of his self-giving for the world.
Amazingly, and in a complete reversal of all humanity’s assumptions of power, he humbled himself to death, even death on a cross. So much was he determined not to violate his MO of coming to earth in love, that he died the most humiliating of deaths, reserved for slaves and criminals, the lowest of the low, crucifixion. How astonishing—our God the Son when he came, by his own volition, died for us.
As I worked through this, I was transformed and for the first time perhaps, understood the heart of the gospel.
I now know that the whole NT is based on this. It comes through Paul’s writings again and again as he identifies with Christ in his suffering and death and calls his readers and us to do the same. This is the basis of ethics, social relationships, and mission. We emulate Jesus, in humility, we leave aside all self-glory and ambition, and we serve! We may die doing so! But that is good, for God speaks through every Christian death.
The whole of Philippians is shaped around this theological centre. Paul appeals to them in a range of ways to emulate Christ and put aside their differences.
It’s encouraging to hear how impactful the process of exegesis was on your spiritual life! Amen to all of that.
Now to turn to one of the issues you propose in your commentary (and in an earlier article), you argue that Paul may have had an escape plan formed in case his trial went south. This was a new view that I hadn’t encountered before. Are you aware of anyone who has argued this previously? How has your argument been received by those who have interacted with you on it?
This is a hypothesis that fits the data—whether it is correct, I am not sure. I have published an article on this with a little more detail in the Journal for the Study of Paul and his Letters 5, no. 1 (2015): 89-108. I have not received many responses although a recent reviewer agreed that it is a possibility. I presented a paper at SBL International in Vienna on it, and the interaction was very positive.
I vividly remember sitting in my study pondering how it is that Paul could speak openly of the possibility of death, and yet be utterly confident of release. I was dissatisfied with the usual explanations like Paul is speaking rhetorically or of his hope. I had noted that some scholars soften the language to remove the seeming contradiction when my enquiry into the Greek rendered their arguments void because the Greek is clear—this is not a hope, oida means a certainty. He knows he will be released.
I had a kind of eureka moment where I sat up and said to myself, “escape!” Then I set to work seeing if it might work with the language and social context. I think it does. Is it certain? No. As a tip to others, if you look and think long enough there are still millions of new things to find in Scripture. It is glorious!
We’ll be interested to see more interactions with this new idea, it does have merit for sure.
As you noted above, you give close attention to the details of the Greek text in this commentary and, given the depth of coverage, you seem to enjoy working with the language. What advice would you give to students and pastors who want to continue to improve their Greek?
The best advice I can give is first, learn the biblical languages. Either do a course, or use the brilliant resources that Logos and other software companies have created. Then, learn how to use the software. I got Logos at the start of my doctorate, and it is my best friend (after my wife and kids and of course, God!). I live in Logos. I love nothing more than right clicking and getting to work. If you get the right resources, you can have a field day and produce original insights—but you must know the language to be sure you are working with it well.
With that said, I know Pastors are so busy! They have to rely on guys like me who can do the work for them. Still, all I can say is when you get through the pain of learning the languages, and pay the big bucks (because it is not cheap), you have made the best investment in time and money you can ever make.
If there are young students and pastors out there reading this, I encourage you to find ways to ensure you have learned the languages and begin building your library. I did that at the start of my doctorate, and it is the best thing I ever did. Then, take time to explore, go deep.
Now that this massive project is complete, what can we look forward to seeing from you in the next 5-10 years?
At the moment I have two big projects near completion. The first is a two-volume commentary on Mark’s Gospel with a couple of twists which is being published in 2018 by Wipf and Stock called Jesus in a World of Colliding Empires: Mark’s Jesus from the Perspective of Power and Expectations. I had another eureka moment one day (I have a lot of these because I take time to dig into the text) that Phil 2:5-8 is like a summary of Mark’s Gospel. I looked into it and realised I had a book. I set about writing a commentary on Mark from this perspective.
I began with the thesis that the whole world at the time of Jesus’ coming was locked into a political, military, imperial mindset. Power was to be sought and expressed usually by warrior men who conquered neighbouring regions. They took wives. They raped and plundered (harpagmos, Phil 2:6). The set up dynasties. Whether this was tribal or imperial, it was much the same. The Jesus story is of the God and King of the world coming in a completely different and previously unthought of way—as a servant, dying on a cross. What a failure?
In the book I establish this by doing a skim over the historical setting of the then known world and showing that from the tip of Africa to Europe, and from Spain through to China and even the USA, it was much the same (from what we know). Wars, empires, emperors, kings, dynasties, and so on. Those figures I mentioned above are this. I do an extensive study of the OT and Jewish literature to show that although the Jesus we know is found in the OT (e.g. Isa 53), unsurprisingly Israel had no idea of such a Messiah or as I call him in the book, The Expected One (Theo). They had a range of expectations and all of them pointed to a military political ruler.
I then exegete Mark showing how the disciples were experiencing Jesus—they were waiting for him to gather the Jewish leader and attack the Romans. He never did, but spoke of service and dying and they were constantly perplexed. The writer, Mark knows all this and writes urging Romans to know it too. So, I show how there is a double play going on through Mark—the disciples are thinking and experiencing one thing, and Jesus has other plans. Mark is the unfolding of this story ending with the women at the tomb perplexed. I then challenge Christians with the implications of this—we must set aside imperial notions (that went with Christendom), and serve the world, living non-violently, bringing God’s love in attitude, word, and deed.
The other project is a three-volume Introduction to the New Testament with Lexham. Volume One looks at the Gospels and Acts. Volume Two, Paul and his letters. Volume Three, the General Epistles and Revelation. Discovering the New Testament is more theological than some Introductions with a lot of my own theological thoughts and ideas gleaned from across my career. As there are three volumes, it will be great for those specifically looking say, at Paul, then they can buy that volume and interact with my ideas. This comes out next year in both electronic (Logos Software) and hard copy. I have to finish vol. 3 first.
I am now writing another book entitled The Gospel and its Proclamation. I have nearly finished Volume One. I look at evangelism in the NT with this thesis: while there is only one Gospel, the NT writers have a range of gospels (their version of the gospels) in the NT and I look at these. This encourages us not to get too locked into one model of the gospel, because it can be articulated in a range of ways. This is important, because as the west is becoming less and less Christian in its thinking, we need to think through new ways of sharing the gospel.
I also look at who and how they shared the gospel, where, when, how verbal communication links with other activities like feeding, healing, casting out demons. I will argue that sharing the gospel is a holistic activity that sometimes will involve one or more of these activities. We need to recognise this as we tend to become enslaved to patterns of proclamation that become outmoded or don’t suit everyone we meet. The whole work is designed as a resource book for those who are really on the front lines. They can delve into it and really allow their imaginations to take them to fresh ideas as we face the crisis of nations turning away from Jesus (what a horrid thought!). I am looking for a publisher, so let me know if you know anyone. Hint hint.
Thanks so much for taking the time to share all this with us Mark. The new books sound useful and even intriguing, and the third one definitely has some potential to help us think through how we speak about the gospel culturally.
Everyone can check out your two volumes on Philippians, which is a fine piece of scholarship, and we’ll look forward to seeing your forthcoming books as well.