BUILDING A NEW TESTAMENT LIBRARY: PHILIPPIANS—PHILEMON
If library-building is the goal, a great place to start is the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary (NIB; ed. L.E. Keck; Abingdon, 2000), to which the more advanced volumes recommended below can be added. The NIB does not aspire to be a technical and detailed commentary, and for that reason, perhaps none of the entries quite ranks as a “top three” for any of the books. Yet all are the work of leading scholars (including M. Hooker on Philippians, A.T. Lincoln on Colossians, A. Smith on 1 and 2 Thessalonians, J.D.G. Dunn on the Pastorals, and C.H. Felder on Philemon), and the format is both attractive and useful for an entry-level commentary. Those who preach will appreciate both the accessibility of the discussion and the interest in the biblical texts’ contemporary relevance.
For serious exegetical engagement with Philippians, the commentaries of P.T. O’Brien in the New International Greek Testament Commentary (NIGTC; Eerdmans, 1995) and G.D. Fee in the New International Commentary on the New Testament (NICNT; Eerdmans, 1991) still have not been bettered. O’Brien’s characteristic attention to the text is consistently reliable and helpful, a model of judicious scholarship. The NIGTC format allows direct engagement with the Greek text, whereas with the NICNT—a series not presupposing its readers have competence with Greek—Fee’s no-less-detailed arguments require extensive footnotes often running a third to a half of a page. What is lost in economy is gained in accessibility, and Fee’s commentary enjoys a verve and passion one rarely finds in the genre, including an overt interest in the contemporary relevance of the text for theology and life. A less daunting alternative with many similar virtues can be found in M. Bockmuehl’s volume in the current incarnation of Black’s New Testament series (Hendrickson, 1998), perhaps page for page the best option of all. Among its many virtues is Bockmuehl’s helpful, if brief, introductory hermeneutical reflections in which he calls for self-awareness of our location in the history of interpretation, a theme not infrequently illustrated in the commentary itself. In addition to these fine volumes, it would be a shame not to mention in passing the updated work of M. Silva in the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (BECNT; Baker, 2005) and the pioneering volume of S. Fowl in the new Two Horizons New Testament Commentary (THNTC; Eerdmans, 2005) which promises a self-consciously theological exegesis of the text.
Though now almost 25 years since publication, P.T. O’Brien’s entry in the Word Biblical Commentary (WBC; Thomas Nelson, 1982) still remains a model for thorough and careful engagement with the Greek text of Colossians. O’Brien defends Pauline authorship while maintaining an appropriate agnosticism regarding the “Colossian heresy,” though granting that the letter intends, among other things, to correct a false teaching. But the strength of this commentary is in its attention to exegetical detail rather than an over-arching historical hypothesis or methodological breakthrough. A worthy and useful counterpart, also based on the Greek text, is that of J.D.G. Dunn in the NIGTC (1996). Dunn rejects Pauline authorship, primarily on stylistic and theological grounds, though he regards the letter to have originated within the Pauline circle (perhaps Timothy) within the lifespan and with the blessing of the apostle, and even surmises that it was carried along with or in near proximity to Philemon. In a refreshing application of Occam’s razor, Dunn’s account of the Colossian philosophy finds all of the apparent elements already resident in the Jewish synagogue, without recourse to a hypothetical syncretism, whether of a Hellenistic or Gnostic sort. A wealth of learning can also be found in the classic commentary of E. Lohse (Hermeneia; Fortress, 1971) and the more recent collaboration of M. Barth and H. Blanke in the Anchor Bible (AB; Doubleday, 1994), but for a third recommendation, I suggest complementing this exegetical density with the theological reflection found in M.M. Thompson’s inaugural contribution to the THNTC (2005).
Since its apparent companion, Philemon, is adequately served by most Colossians’ commentaries, a stand-alone volume for a mere 25 verses might seem like overkill. But J. Fitzmyer’s little gem in AB (Doubleday, 2000) more than justifies its existence, not only with insightful commentary on the text but with neat introductory essays and nearly exhaustive bibliographies. But this extravagance is altogether modest when compared to the 560-page commentary of H. Blanke and M. Barth (Eerdmans Critical Commentary; Eerdmans, 2000), a benchmark of scholarship, to be sure, but probably too massive in scope to serve a wide readership.
Just a decade ago, it might have been adequate to name the contributions of British evangelical NT scholarship for the Thessalonian correspondence: F.F. Bruce (WBC), I.H. Marshall (New International Bible Commentary; Hendrickson), L. Morris (NICNT), and E. Best (BNTC). While these continue to be worthwhile, several others now advance the discussion in new directions, especially methodologically. The work of C. Wanamaker sets a new standard (NIGTC; Eerdmans, 1990), not only with his sure-handed treatment of the Greek text, but by offering a rhetorical analysis of both letters and by proposing quite plausibly that 2 Thessalonians actually preceded 1 Thessalonians. Another fine, more recent contribution is G. Green’s addition to the Pillar New Testament Commentary (Eerdmans, 2002). Based on the English text, Green’s commentary is easier to manage than Wanamaker’s, but he still manages a substantial engagement with the major exegetical issues. Methodologically, Green makes profitable use of historical backgrounds and social science categories, especially the patron/client relationship. Finally, pride of place must go to A. Malherbe’s outstanding AB volume (Doubleday, 2000), the mature fruit of decades of scholarly engagement with the social environment of the NT, much of which has focused on these letters. Though the AB commentaries eschew Greek fonts and are thus not pitched as technical commentaries, this volume more than holds its own with any of the most scholarly treatments.
Until recently the Pastoral Epistles left a gap in many of the leading commentary series. Happily this is no longer the case, such that choosing the best among them is no simple matter. For direct engagement with the Greek text, the entries of I.H. Marshall and P. Towner (International Critical Commentary; T & T Clark, 1999) and Marshall’s one-time student, W. Mounce (WBC; 2000) make a fine pair, not least because on several key issues, they go in different directions (e.g., Mounce defending Pauline authorship and Marshall preferring “allonymity”; Mounce defending traditionalist roles for women and Marshall arguing otherwise). But it may be that the most recent commentary on the Pastorals, P. Towner’s contribution to the NICNT (Eerdmans, 2006), will prove to be the most useful of all. Towner, also a student of Marshall’s, but here forges his own path by venturing more boldly into plausible socio-historical backgrounds and by locating the letters in their Jewish and intertextual settings. Though a large-scale, critical commentary, Towner’s remains accessible to a broad audience, and consistent attention is given to the letters’ contemporary application. Lest there be an Aberdeen monopoly on the Pastoral Epistles, the superb recent commentaries of two Roman Catholic scholars deserve more than this passing mention: L.T. Johnson on the letters to Timothy (AB; Doubleday, 2001) and R. Collins on the Pastorals (New Testament Library; Westminster John Knox, 2002), both of which are richly informed by the letters’ ancient setting and outstanding models of clarity.
By Garwood P. Anderson, Asbury Theological Seminary—Orlando.