By Corey Stewart, T'17

Dr. Paul Holloway's calm, unhurried demeanor belies the reality that Holloway, an internationally recognized New Testament scholar, is more in demand than ever. In addition to teaching both undergraduates and seminarians and completing projects on Romans and 1 Corinthians for international publishers, Holloway's translation of Paul's Letter to the Philippians for the New Revised Standard Version-Updated Edition (NRSV-UE) of the Bible will be released in print by the National Council of Churches and the Society of Biblical Literature on May 1, 2022. Based on his recent commentary on Philippians for the Hermeneia series, Holloway’s work on Philippians is sure to impact Pauline scholarship for decades to come.

An Update of Biblical Proportions

The goal of the NRSV-UE is to update the 1989 NRSV in light of our current understanding of ancient cultures; a project that involved over 20,000 revisions and teams of scholars and editors. Announcing the publication, National Council of Churches president Jim Winkler said that the UE's "attention to accuracy and clarity has far exceeded our highest expectations.”

Accuracy and clarity are at the heart of Holloway's work with Philippians, which prior scholarship understood as excerpts from two, or possibly three, earlier letters. Holloway shares the view of many current scholars, based on verbal and thematic parallels, that the letter is one unit, and he believes it was likely written from Rome, during Paul's imprisonment there. It is Holloway's understanding of the letter's genre, however, that provides the key to the nearly 90 revisions he proposed.  

Previously, Philippians was characterized as a letter of friendship, which is an expression of goodwill towards an absent friend, before being classified as a family letter, such as a soldier might write home to assuage the concerns of his loved ones. Holloway believes that while Philippians does reflect some of the concerns of ancient friendship and is similar to certain family letters, the text belongs to a specific genre: the letter of consolation. A letter of consolation was a form of instruction against mental distress, written with the singular aim of restoring the recipient's emotional equilibrium. "This matters for linguistic reasons," Holloway explains, "because if Philippians is a letter of consolation, then the words take on new, and more nuanced, meaning. And it matters for context, because we have an early Christian like Paul appropriating ancient theories of consolation."

In Search of Equilibrium

Most of what we know about letters of consolation comes from Greek and Roman sources, wherein consolation was not concerned solely with bereavement, but with all forms of mental distress. Sympathy was part of consolation, but the letters of consolation might also include practical advice about restoring emotional balance, a reminder to behave responsibly during times of turmoil, a warning not to complain against God, examples of others who have overcome similar hardships, or even a scolding. The message of a consolatory text was always the same: you must find a way to restore the joy in your life. "Joy is emotional equilibrium," Holloway explains, "happiness, satisfaction with life, a positive outlook—the Greeks used the word 'joy' to describe that state. So, when you read Philippians as consolation, joy takes on a lot of nuance, because philosophically, that's a very substantive word. And it's one of the leitmotifs of Paul's letter." Holloway says that his thesis that Philippians is a letter of consolation is bolstered by the fact that "Jerome and John Chrysostom both read Paul's letter to the Philippians as a letter of consolation. I've tried to recover that for the modern interpretive tradition."

Ta Diapheronta
: What Really Matters

Reading Philippians as a letter of consolation allows us to see the threads of Epicurean, Cyrenaic, and Stoic tradition at work in the text, and opens the door to language that more accurately reflects Paul’s use of those traditions. For example, where the current NRSV reads: And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best... (Phil. 1:9-10a), Holloways suggests that "what is best" is more accurately translated as "what really matters," because Paul is urging the Philippians to distinguish between what is important and what is not. "Paul tells the Philippians, 'I want you to abound in knowledge so that you might be able to discern what really matters,'" Holloway explains. "This is Stoic thought, which says that the reason people become upset is that they mistake things that don't matter, ta adiaphora, for the things that do, ta diapheronta." This approach is reflected in the verses that follow, as well, where Paul lists things that do not matter—his imprisonment, whether the Philippians will see him again—and things that do: that the Good News of Jesus Christ is spreading and that the Philippians live in a way that reflects their belief in the Gospel. Read in this light, Holloway concludes, the consolation that Paul offers in Philippians is "Stoic in form and Christian in content."

Understanding Philippians as a letter of consolation also allows us to see the similarities between Paul's letter to the Philippians and De Consolatione ad Helviam Matrem, which Paul's contemporary, the Stoic philosopher Seneca, wrote to his mother after being exiled to Corsica following an accusation of adultery. While letters of consolation are usually written from a person who is not suffering to a person who is, Seneca's letter, like Paul's, was written from one suffering party to another. And just as Seneca assures his mother that he has continued to find joy in exile—largely because exile is, in and of itself, simply a change of locale—Paul tells the Philippians that, despite all that is happening to him, he takes joy in the spread of the Gospel and anticipates further rejoicing when the ordeal he is enduring becomes part of his salvation. "These are letters written within a few years of each other," Holloway says, "and the parallel is striking."


Holloway also seeks to restore the cultural context of Paul's letter, particularly when it comes the ancient fascination with metamorphosis. "Metamorphosis," he explains, "was very important in antiquity, and a huge part of apocalyptic Judaism, mysticism, and early Christianity. Pagans had been talking about metamorphosis since Homer, and in Second Temple Judaism, you have people going up to heaven to look around, and angels coming down to do various things, and all of that required metamorphosis. But because the early Church was wary of the language of metamorphosis, metamorphosis is translated as transfigured, which prohibits the reader from seeing metamorphosis as the master metaphor that it was," Holloway says. "The language and imagery of metamorphosis were mediated from paganism to Judaism to apocalyptic Judaism to Paul, and when Paul imagines the resurrection of believers, for him it's a metamorphosis, just as the incarnation and Christian sanctification are. Mysticism, consolation, metamorphosis—all of these things are present in the letter, but were lost with time and translation," Holloway says. "I've attempted to restore them."

A Most Exciting Time to Study Paul

Holloway's interest in Paul began as a graduate student at Rice University, where he wrote a paper on Paul's Letter to the Philippians for Professor Werner Kelber. He then based his dissertation at the University of Chicago on Philippians, as well. Pauline scholarship was undergoing a sort of renaissance at the time, Holloway explains. "Paul was painted into a corner by Luther during the Reformation, and the tradition of reading Paul as a person obsessed with the Law continued through Rudolf Bultmann. It was E.P. Sanders who finally decimated that idea in his 1977 book Paul and Palestinian Judaism." Sanders, Holloway explains, argued that Luther had read his own problems into the Pauline texts. "Sanders insisted that Paul didn't become a Christian because he failed to keep the Law. He became a Christian because he had an apocalyptic, mystical experience." Around the same time, scholarship on the Qumran scrolls was expanding, along with the study of mystical Judaism. This synergy created a uniquely rich period in which to study the Pauline texts, a period that continues today. "We have better access to Jewish sources now, we know what was going on in the provinces during Paul's life, we're learning new things about Paul all the time," Holloway says. "In my view, this is the most exciting time to be studying Paul."

For Holloway, his work is a labor of love. His passion for ancient language and history, which took root in his second year of college in a class on ancient Egypt that left him "gobsmacked," has never faded.

"Every scholar is interested in creating knowledge," he explains, "and we have a debt to society to share the knowledge we create. At the School of Theology, however, we also strive to support the ministries of the Church. The work I do, teaching and writing, allows me to do both: create knowledge and contribute to the Church. That brings me tremendous joy."