Building a New Testament Library: Philippians — Philemon

J. Christian Stratton

Interpreters of Paul are blessed with a rich array of commentary on Philippians. The revised work of M. Silva (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament; Baker Academic, 2005) is fully conversant with traditional interpreters of this letter (e.g., P.T. O’Brien [New International Greek Testament Commentary (NIGTC); Eerdmans, 1991] and G.D. Fee [New International Commentary on the New Testament (NICNT); Eerdmans, 1995]) and valuable for its focus on the “thrust” of the letter’s argument. In contradistinction to much commentary, it eschews verse-by-verse exposition in favor of an identification of the paragraph as the basic unit of meaningful thought. The earlier and insightful work of M. Bockmuehl in Black’s New Testament Commentary (Hendrickson, 1998) is a model of erudition, charity in the evaluation of scholarly positions, and clarity in expression. A key theological contribution of this commentary is the way it explores not only “the letter’s history of interpretation” but “equally, the history of its effects upon those who heard and interpreted it” (45).

More recently, the fresh work of G.W. Hansen in the Pillar New Testament Commentary (PNTC; Eerdmans, 2009), even if not explicitly commenting on the Greek text, is a helpful guide to this “family” letter. Hansen’s chastened use of the canons of classic rhetoric wisely avoids the trappings of similar approaches — a “preoccupation with rhetorical form over substance” (14) — and his emphasis on the meaning of theological themes and practical exhortation in the letter is insightful for those preparing for the task of preaching. For a shorter, yet no less lucid, reading of Philippians, the interpreter will delight in the work of T.D. Still in the Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Smyth & Helwys, 2010). Clearly writing for the sake of the church, Still seeks to illumine the letter’s theological import and provides constructive counsel for the tasks of teaching and preaching.

The serious interpreter of Paul’s letter to the Colossians must consult the work of J.D.G. Dunn in the NIGTC (1996). Dunn provides a new translation for the Greek text of Colossians (and Philemon) and explores an understanding of the problems addressed in the letter against the backdrop of Judaism as opposed to gnostic and syncretistic tendencies. In contrast, the work of D.J. Moo (PNTC, 2008) explores the letter’s syncretistic background, though he does not allow this hypothetical framework to overshadow his careful reading of the letter. Moo displays a seasoned and sound approach to exegetical decision-making with a keen eye on matters of faith and practice.

D.W. Pao, writing in the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (ZECNT; Zondervan, 2012), helpfully utilizes a graphical layout (consonant with the series) to assist the reader in visualizing the movement(s) of the original discourse. Pao’s work is eminently readable, critically informed, and acutely focused on the theological aims and application of the letter. In addition to exploring Colossians section-by-section, the work of M.M. Thompson in the Two Horizons New Testament Commentary (THNTC; Eerdmans, 2005) is unique and illuminating — particularly in the way she situates the letter within the context of the larger biblical narrative, the larger framework of Pauline theology, and in conversation with contemporary constructive theology.

Each of the preceding commentaries on Colossians also creatively engages Philemon, Paul’s shortest letter. (See, e.g., Moo’s central emphasis upon the theme of koinōnia over and against slavery, or Thompson’s treatment of various theological issues stemming from the letter like dualism of body and soul, freedom and inner dignity, and the important task of how to read and embody Scripture.) For a solid, traditional (and stand alone) approach, the work of J. Fitzmyer in the Anchor Bible (AB; Doubleday, 2000) explores not only the social background, but also the political and economic realities that stand behind a proper understanding of the letter, and suggests a new way of understanding the relational circumstances of the letter. Both its exhaustive bibliography and its interaction with other interpreters make it a helpful choice for students.

For commentary on 1-2 Thessalonians, the work of G. Green (PNTC, 2002) succeeds in setting forth a framework for understanding the historical, religious, and cultural world of Thessalonica particularly, and Macedonia more generally. This detailed research, coupled with his incisive reading of these letters, produces commentary that is carefully reasoned and appropriately succinct. The work of B. Witherington III (Eerdmans, 2006) explores the letter through both a social (e.g., with abuse of patron-client relationships as the particular backdrop) and rhetorical (i.e., structured according to the rhetorical conventions of the day) lens. Alongside his exegetical analysis, he takes a “closer look” at a number of relevant and insightful themes before helpfully concluding each major section with theological and pastoral reflection. The most recent work of G.D. Fee in the NICNT (2009) and G.S. Shogren in the ZECNT (2012) both warrant a careful reading. As usual, Fee balances exegetical detail with a penetrating engagement of things both theological and pastoral. Likewise, Shogren displays a keen analysis of the discourse with an intentional focus on matters theological and practical. Both prove to be fruitful conversation partners for the interpreter of these early Pauline letters.

There is presently no lack of useful commentary on the Pastoral Epistles. The work of I.H. Marshall in the International Critical Commentary (T. & T. Clark, 1999) excels especially in illuminating the relationship between grammar and exegesis, yet his discussion is limited with respect to the history of exposition and how the epistles inform the theological task for modern readers. The work of W.B. Mounce (Word Biblical Commentary; Nelson, 2000) — standing against Marshall with respect to the issue of Pauline authorship and a traditional understanding of the role of women in the church — excels especially in demonstrating the relationship between theology and Christian living throughout his exposition, yet is less incisive in his exegetical analysis. Stemming from seasoned scholarly engagement with the Pastorals, P. Towner (NICNT, 2006) combines the exegetical strengths of Marshall and the pastoral strengths of Mounce throughout his exposition. Moreover, he works knowledgeably and insightfully with the letters’ social and intertextual backdrops, and even succeeds in his deliberate attempt to allow each of the letters to sound their own distinctive notes. Alongside these fine (more traditional) treatments of the Pastorals, the serious interpreter will now want to engage the canonical approach of R.W. Wall with R.B. Steele in the THNTC (2012). In this innovative commentary, Wall engages in theological exegesis and examines the letters from the standpoint of the apostolic Rule of Faith, while Steele examines three case studies that illumine key themes in the letters. Collaboratively, they demonstrate the overall fruitfulness of this approach to reading sacred Scripture.

Finally, the essential interpretive task of locating a reading of each of the preceding Pauline letters — excluding Philippians — within the context of the early church fathers is helpfully facilitated by the work of P. Gorday in the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (InterVarsity, 2000).

Posted Jul 05, 2013