Building a New Testament Library: Philippians – Philemon

Andy Johnson

Although older, two of the most valuable commentaries on Philippians are those of Gordon D. Fee (New International Commentary on the New Testament [NICNT]; Eerdmans, 1995) and Markus Bockmuehl (Black’s New Testament Commentary [BNTC]; 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 equips its hearers to participate in that mission.

Nijay Gupta’s work on Colossians (Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary; Smyth & Helwys, 2013) is the best general commentary for students and pastors. His evenhanded 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. Marianne Meye Thompson’s commentary (THNTC, 2005) also exhibits seasoned and sound exegesis of Colossians in a paragraph-by-paragraph format. A second section offers an incisive treatment of the theology of Colossians within Pauline theology and the Bible as a whole, while also engaging with certain aspects of systematic theology. Her sophisticated treatment of the household codes is noteworthy.

For more detailed, verse-by-verse treatments of Colossians, the commentaries of Scot McKnight (NICNT, 2018) and Paul Foster (Black’s New Testament Commentary; T&T Clark, 2016) are hard to beat. They differ on the issue of authorship. McKnight argues that Colossians is as Pauline as the undisputed letters, none of which are “purely Paul” since all were produced for specific situations with the input of ministry associates and secretaries. Foster concludes that Colossians was written by Paul’s follower after Paul’s death, coopting his apostolic authority to deal with problematic teaching in Colossae. They also differ on the origin and nature of the Colossian opponents/misleading teaching (McKnight: Torah-shaped mystics operating from a Jewish, Christian, Hellenistic, dualistic, and ascetic worldview; Foster: syncretistic religious pluralism derived from Phrygia’s majority culture). Both demonstrate extensive knowledge of Jewish and Greco-Roman backgrounds, impressive familiarity with secondary literature, and sound exegetical judgments. While both are quite accessible to students and busy pastors, McKnight’s commentary has the edge on theological reflection and contains a helpful, up-to-date discussion of currents in Pauline theology (pp. 40–51).

For pastors and students, McKnight’s separate, recent volume on Philemon (NICNT, 2017) takes pride of place. His discussion of slavery in the Roman empire summarizes a large amount of primary and secondary literature efficiently and clearly. Of equal importance, his introductory discussion of reading Philemon in the context of a racialized US society and a world where twenty-one million people remain enslaved alerts those who are beneficiaries of white privilege to the way such privilege can impact one’s interpretation of this small letter. Of the commentaries on Colossians just mentioned, Thompson also treats Philemon. Particularly helpful are her 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 proslavery 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, 2 vols. [Fortress, 2013], 1:3–24) 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 commentary on 1–2 Thessalonians (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament; Baker Academic, 2014) is the standard, full-scale commentary of choice on the Greek text for English readers, particularly for evangelicals. His knowledge of the secondary literature on these epistles is unsurpassed, 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. Although clear and accessible, working through some of the more exhaustive exegetical sections might take more time than some busy pastors can devote. In keeping with the series’ aim, his comments display good theological awareness, but not lengthy, sustained theological discussion.

In my own commentary on these letters (THNTC, 2016), I utilize an 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 sociohistorical 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 these epistles (e.g., eschatology, holiness, election), including an essay critiquing popular Dispensationalism as a particular theological hermeneutic.

The commentaries by Abraham Malherbe (Anchor Yale Bible [AYB]; Yale University Press, 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 are 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 (particularly the Hellenistic moral tradition), he also keeps one eye on the contemporary church; for example, see his evenhanded 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 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 on 1–2 Timothy and Titus include those of A. B. Spencer (two volumes in the New Covenant Commentary; Cascade, 2013–2014) and Thomas G. Long (Belief, 2016). Spencer assumes Paul as primary author whereas Long assumes non-Pauline authorship. Spencer particularly emphasizes how the local contexts of Ephesus and Crete influence these letters and includes numerous sections on fusing the epistles’ ancient and contemporary horizons. Long’s strength is the pastoral sensitivity that he brings to the task of interpreting these epistles, offering a helpful hermeneutical model for retrieving the gift of the gospel for contemporary congregations from some of their more difficult passages (e.g., 1 Tim 2:8–15).

Posted Feb 13, 2019