Building a New Testament Library: Philippians – Philemon

Andy Johnson

Although older, two of the most valuable commentaries on Philippians are Gordon Fee (New International Commentary on the New Testament [NICNT]; Eerdmans, 1995) and Markus Bockmuehl (Black’s New Testament Commentary; Hendrickson, 1998). Both are balanced in their evaluation of interpretive options, clearly written, and theologically sensitive. Bockmuehl, in particular, offers a methodologically reflective, “historically grounded theological exegesis” that pays attention to the ways the letter has impacted its interpreters. Two other commentaries explicitly engaging in theological interpretation of Scripture are by Stephen Fowl (Two Horizons New Testament Commentary [THNTC]; Eerdmans, 2005) and by Daniel Migliore (Belief; Westminster John Knox, 2014). Both are relatively brief and clearly written, and proceed on a paragraph-by-paragraph basis. Fowl emphasizes the theme of friendship in Philippians and offers a particularly rich treatment of the Christ hymn in Phil 2. Migliore, a systematic theologian, offers a solid and balanced exegesis of the letter from a Reformed theological perspective. His “Further Reflections” sections are especially valuable for spurring creative theological and pastoral insights for sermon preparation.

Dean Flemming (New Beacon Bible Commentary; Beacon Hill, 2009) offers an engaging commentary that stands somewhere between those of Fee and Bockmuehl on the one hand, and Fowl and Migliore on the other. His exegetical decisions are reliable and sound, informed by the ancient context and careful theological reflection from a Wesleyan perspective. A strong point is his use of a missional hermeneutic showing how Philippians fits into the overall biblical story of God’s mission and how it equips its hearers to participate in that mission. Finally, Morna Hooker’s commentary (New Interpreter’s Bible [NIB], vol. 11; ed. Leander Keck; Abingdon, 2000), which comes in the same volume as that of Lincoln’s mentioned below, is filled with exegetical and theological insight, especially regarding the inseparability of theology and ethics.

Nijay Gupta’s work on Colossians (Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary; Smyth & Helwys, 2013) is the best general commentary for students and pastors. His even-handed discussion of various critical issues demonstrates up-to-date, top-notch scholarship in readable — even lively and enjoyable — language. His “Connections” sections flow seamlessly out of the exegesis, connecting the text to the best of the church’s past and allowing it to speak in a hermeneutically sophisticated way to the church’s present. For full-scale, more technical treatments of Colossians, the works of James D. G. Dunn (New International Greek Testament Commentary; Eerdmans, 1996) and Douglas Moo (Pillar New Testament Commentary; Eerdmans, 2008) stand out. Although differing on the issue of authorship (Dunn: written by Timothy under Paul’s supervision; Moo: written by Paul) and the origin and nature of the Colossian “false teaching” (Dunn: basic Judaism from the local synagogue; Moo: a syncretism of Jewish and Hellenistic elements), both demonstrate extensive dialogue with secondary literature and sound exegetical judgments. However, Moo is not only more recent, but also easier to use because its main text is less encumbered with distracting detailed references.

Two reliable shorter and less technical commentaries have been written by Andrew Lincoln (NIB, vol. 11, 2000) and Marianne Meye Thompson (THNTC, 2005). Although arguing for non-Pauline authorship, Lincoln’s overall analysis focusing on wisdom in Christ vis-à-vis the false syncretistic teachings of visionary ascetics is clearly written and full of perceptive observations. Thompson’s seasoned and sound exegesis of the Colossians text comes in the first part of her commentary proceeds in a section-by-section format, but differs only slightly from that of other more traditional commentaries like Lincoln. However, her second part offers an incisive treatment of the theology of Colossians within Pauline theology and biblical theology as a whole and engages with certain aspects of systematic theology. Her sophisticated treatment of the household codes is noteworthy.

Joseph Fitzmyer’s full-scale commentary on Philemon (Anchor Yale Bible [AYB]; Yale University Press, 2000) provides a lucid, extensive introduction and an exhaustive bibliography. Of the Colossians commentaries just mentioned, Dunn, Moo, and Thompson also treat Philemon. Particularly helpful are Thompson’s extended hermeneutical and theological reflections regarding slavery in light of Paul’s concept of the new humanity and reconciliation in Christ, body/soul dualism as an assumption funding later pro-slavery interpretations of Philemon, and the nature of human freedom itself. Migliore (mentioned earlier) also devotes about a fourth of his volume to Philemon, shifting to a verse-by-verse approach with frequent, helpful pastoral meditations. Although not a commentary, N. T. Wright has a helpful analysis of Philemon (Paul and the Faithfulness of God [Fortress, 2013], 3-24) that focuses on the way the radical reshaping of Paul’s Jewish worldview works itself out in his embodying “the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:19) by standing between Philemon and Onesimus.

Jeffrey Weima’s recent commentary on 1–2 Thessalonians (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament; Baker Academic, 2014) deserves to become the standard, full-scale commentary on the Greek text for English readers, particularly for evangelicals. Even though his knowledge of the secondary literature on these epistles is unsurpassed and informs his comments judiciously, and though he devotes great attention to historical, political, and cultural contexts, he keeps his primary focus on the Greek text, offering sound and mature exegetical judgments. He writes clearly and accessibly, but working through some of the more exhaustive exegetical sections might take more time than some busy pastors can devote. In keeping with the aim of the series, he demonstrates good theological awareness in his comments but does not engage in lengthy, sustained theological discussion.

In my own commentary on these letters (THNTC, 2016), I utilize the developing interpretive framework of missional hermeneutics to present a theological interpretation that aims to help the church more fully participate in the life and mission of the triune God. The exegetical section proper proceeds verse-by-verse, bringing not only first century socio-historical and political background to bear on the text, but explicit theological concerns as well. The rest of the commentary offers substantial discussion of various theological issues raised by 1 and 2 Thessalonians (e.g., eschatology, holiness, election), including an essay critiquing popular Dispensationalism as a particular theological hermeneutic.

The commentaries by Abraham Malherbe (AYB, 2004) and Gordon Fee (NICNT, 2009) are also good additions to one’s library. Although Malherbe (wrongly in my view) sometimes dismisses the importance of the political background of Roman imperialism, his knowledge of the ancient literary context and the Greco-Roman moral philosophers generally enriches one’s understanding of these epistles. Fee’s commentary represents what one has come to expect from him, namely, thorough knowledge of background material and sound interpretive judgments paired with pastoral sensitivity.

There numerous helpful commentaries on the Pastoral Epistles. As a full-scale, lucidly written commentary on 1-2 Timothy, Luke Timothy Johnson (AYB, 2001) is unsurpassed and contains the best available history of interpretation of the contested issue of authorship. He treats both letters as independent literary entities with distinct genres (1 Timothy as “royal correspondence” and 2 Timothy as parenetic), written by Paul at different times in his ministry. Reading these letters in light of their first-century milieu (especially in light of the Hellenistic moral tradition), he also keeps one eye on the contemporary church, which is illustrated well by his even-handed and hermeneutically deft treatments of women’s leadership and church order.

Robert Wall and Richard Steele collaborate to offer a unique commentary on 1-2 Timothy and Titus (THNTC, 2012). Using a canonical approach, Wall engages in an initial paragraph-by-paragraph theological exegesis of each epistle, then utilizes Tertullian’s expression of the rule of faith to organize further theological reflections on each of the three epistles. The excursus on “the role of Scripture in the formation of a faithful church,” when read together with his exegesis of 2 Tim 3:16, offers sound reflections on the nature and use of Christian Scripture. After Wall’s treatment of each epistle, Steele offers a case study from the history of Methodist leaders and the communities they led that illustrates themes that pervade these epistles.

Other useful commentaries include those of A. B. Spencer on 1 Timothy and on 2 Timothy and Titus (New Covenant Commentary; Cascade, 2013-2014) and that of Philip H. Towner (NICNT, 2006). Both commentators assume Paul as primary author and both offer sound, pastorally helpful exegesis. Both also particularly emphasize how the local contexts of Ephesus and Crete influence these letters and Spencer includes numerous sections on fusing the epistles’ ancient and contemporary horizons.

Posted Mar 09, 2016