Building a New Testament Library: Romans – Ephesians

Timothy Gombis

It is fair to say that more commentaries are published on the letters of Paul from Romans through Ephesians than most other biblical books. This is a blessing but also presents a challenge as students and pastors strive to discern what are the most helpful expositions of the biblical text.

N. T. Wright’s commentary on Romans, which is found in vol. 10 of The New Interpreter’s Bible [NIB] (ed. Leander Keck; Abingdon, 2002), maintains a balance between the overarching argument and the steps Paul takes in building it. His treatment of the text is more thematic, though he engages the Greek text at many points. Each section closes with reflections where Wright integrates his exegesis with larger theological concerns and contemporary cultural challenges. Douglas J. Moo (New International Commentary on the New Testament [NICNT]; Eerdmans, 1996) carefully tracks Paul’s unfolding argument and his footnotes are filled with the exegetical detail that inform his theological exposition. Moo is a judicious interpreter and at times will offer a timely word of application.

Colin G. Kruse’s recent addition to the Pillar New Testament Commentary series (Pillar New Testament Commentary [PNTC]; Eerdmans, 2012) is theologically engaged in its exposition while offering less intense exegetical engagement with the Greek text than Moo. This is in keeping with the aims of the PNTC and his volume represents the series well. But Kruse converses with a wide range of commentators, giving readers a good sense of the interpretations of others and pointing readers to other helpful secondary literature. Charles H. Talbert (Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary; Smyth & Helwys, 2002) grapples with the biblical text in a lively manner but also surveys the history of interpretation and sets Romans in conversation with contemporary literature in a way that illuminates Paul’s argument. He, too, provides sections of theological and practical appropriation called “Connections,” which can be quite a treasure for pastors.

Interpreters of 1 Corinthians are well served with some excellent commentaries. Anthony Thiselton (New International Greek Testament Commentary [NIGTC]; Eerdmans, 2000) thoroughly and expertly handles the Greek text and also discusses social and cultural issues so that readers properly grasp the strategic importance of Paul’s instruction and exhortations. His treatment of the socio-economic disparities that created many of the tensions in the Corinthian church illuminate many passages and will provide pastors with a good idea of how to address the cultural realities their congregations face. He discusses exegetical issues at length, seeming to leave no stone unturned, and maintains a constant concern to integrate exegetical conclusions in theologically creative and fruitful ways. Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner co-authored the PNTC volume (Eerdmans, 2010) and the result is probably the most exegetically rigorous and theologically insightful volume in that series. Their exposition is well-grounded in solid reasoning and is also highly readable.

A third excellent exegetical commentary is that of David E. Garland (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament [BECNT]; Baker Academic, 2003) who, because of the aims of the BECNT series, engages the Greek text more directly than Ciampa and Rosner. Any pastor wrestling with the argument of 1 Corinthians could hardly do better than to enjoy the conversation between these three volumes. Perhaps the only way to improve the situation would be to add Richard B. Hays’s brilliant volume in the Interpretation series (Westminster John Knox, 1997). Hays’s work is expositional rather than exegetical, but his treatment of the text and his suggestions for appropriation by ministers should not be missed.

George H. Guthrie’s recent commentary on 2 Corinthians in the BECNT (2015) is especially welcome in light of how relatively neglected 2 Corinthians is in comparison to Romans and 1 Corinthians. Guthrie thoroughly treats the Greek text and provides a satisfying exposition focused on the history of Paul’s relationship to the Corinthians. Murray J. Harris (NIGTC, 2005) treats the Greek text in great detail, discussing exegetical options and offering grammatical insights. He delves into the text-critical issues more deeply than other commentators. Paul Barnett (NICNT, 1997) offers more exposition than the exegetical detail of Harris, though his careful treatment of the text is elaborated with exegetical detail in the footnotes. Frank J. Matera’s commentary (New Testament Library [NTL]; Westminster John Knox, 2003) is particularly insightful and powerful as he discusses the theme of the cross and how that orients Paul’s life. Scott J. Hafemann (NIV Application Commentary; Zondervan, 2000) includes more exegetical detail than one would expect in this series and the result is a theologically compelling work. Because of the focus of the series on application, Hafemann offers plenty of practical counsel for integrating Paul’s teaching in ministry settings.

It seems to have been some time since an exegetical commentary appeared on Galatians, but this has been rectified by the appearance of several new volumes. Romans and Galatians are the ground over which many of the recent lively discussions have taken place regarding competing perspectives on Paul. Douglas Moo’s volume in the BECNT (2013) is written from a somewhat traditional Lutheran perspective on Paul. Moo, however, treats the text fairly, and while he levels critiques against “new perspective” interpretations of Paul, he is not unfairly polemical and his theological commitments are subservient to a thorough treatment of the text. Richard Hays’s contribution appears in vol. 11 of the NIB (2000). His theological exposition is clear and compelling and he often engages competing interpretations. He cannot easily be pinned down with reference to recent debates on Paul, which is commendable. His handling of the text is succinct but thorough, and the manner in which he brings the text into contemporary life in his sections dedicated to reflection is a model of pastoral appropriation of biblical texts.

James D. G. Dunn’s work (Black’s New Testament Commentary; Hendrickson, 1993), now reprinted and published by Baker Academic, was one of the first commentaries to be written from an explicitly “new perspective” angle of approach. He offers a careful and clear exposition and integrates the letter into the wider drama of the early church’s struggle to integrate Jewish and non-Jewish Christians into the one body of Christ. Martinus C. de Boer’s contribution to the lively debates over Paul appears in the NTL (2011). It is exegetically based and takes an “apocalyptic” approach to Galatians and Pauline theology, stressing the gospel’s radical interruption of a cosmos dominated by the powers of Sin and Death. While I have noted that de Boer, Dunn, and Moo each come from a particular interpretive angle, they are marked by fair and expert handling of the text and by a fair treatment of those with whom they disagree.

Clinton E. Arnold’s volume on Ephesians in the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Zondervan, 2010) is succinct and clearly written. In addition to a detailed exegetical treatment, he provides a helpful structural analysis for each section, along with theological and pastoral reflections. Arnold’s strength is his drawing on the cosmic context of Paul’s field of vision in this letter, including the role of the powers and authorities and their bearing on Paul’s exhortations. Frank Thielman’s commentary (BECNT, 2010) appeared at the same time as Arnold’s, greatly enriching the resources available to pastors. Thielman’s treatment combines readability, ease of use, and exegetical rigor in a way that rewards readers looking for a thorough treatment.

Peter T. O’Brien (PNTC, 1999) provides reliable and pastorally fruitful exposition throughout his commentary, supported by extensive exegetical engagement in the footnotes. Readers will find in Thielman and O’Brien two exegetically rigorous and well-reasoned approaches to the question of whether Paul has in mind mutual submission in Eph 5:21. This obviously affects how one reads the rest of the household code in Eph 5:21-6:9. Thielman argues that it is mutual and O’Brien contends that Paul has in mind the submission of wives to husbands. Thomas R. Yoder Neufeld (Believers Church Bible Commentary; Herald, 2002) analyzes Ephesians from a unique and theologically refreshing lens. He recognizes that the powers and authorities play a prominent role in the letter, as does Paul’s portrayal of God as the divine warrior. This cosmic frame of reference leads to fruitful reflection on the church’s task of peacemaking. The commentary engages the text less directly than the other three exegetical commentaries mentioned, but because of its unique approach, it will be used with great benefit alongside the others. Each section includes integration with theological themes in Scripture, along with practical suggestions for application. The volume closes with essays on biblical-theological topics found in Ephesians.

Posted Feb 10, 2016