Saturday, November 14, 2009

Commentary Reviews: Philemon

There is an overabundance of excellent commentaries available on Philemon, especially of more advanced commentaries. Regrettably, I had to omit several outstanding commentaries from my arsenal. So, just because I don't review Dunn, Harris, Wilson, or Fitzmyer doesn't mean I don't think they're worth consulting. It just means that I didn't have the time to incorporate all of them into my study, and given the audience of my studies, lay Bible study leaders at my church, it was best to omit commentaries that are more technical in nature.


With that said, my favorite commentary, without question, was Doug Moo's in the Pillar series. I originally read through it about a year ago and I wasn't overly impressed. This time around, when I really dug into it, I found it to be extremely helpful. One thing I liked was that he confined most of his discussion on the issue of slavery to the introduction. This is a good move because the issue of slavery is not a primary in Philemon. His conclusions on slavery also were more satisfying than those of the other commentators that I read. In the commentary proper Moo does an excellent job of following the argument and discerning Paul's rhetorical strategy. You can tell that he is a very seasoned interpreter of Paul, and his experience is a huge plus. His introductions to each section, which are prior to the verse by verse notes also are top notch.

I also found this commentary to be a little more advanced than some in the Pillar series. Moo works through the text, very methodically, verse by verse, phrase by phrase, explaining in a very fair manner the different exegetical possibilities. His conclusions are sound and well supported. For most pastors, who have an average grasp of Greek, Moo's commentary is at just the right level of thoroughness and difficulty. It will be a great aid in preaching or teaching through the text of Philemon. 5 stars out of 5.


Marianne Meye Thompson's commentary in the Two Horizon's series is a very interesting commentary. In the commentary proper she achieved the goal of the series, to produce a theological reading of Scripture. I was very encouraged and edified by it. The essays following the commentary were mostly good, especially the ones on 'The New Humanity.' When reading the commentary proper, one can see how she weaved the results of most of these essays back into the notes. The final essay, on 'How Do We Read Scripture?' is very thought provoking and all theologians and pastors should wrestle with it. Even though I probably wouldn't place the same stresses she does in interpreting Scripture, I think Thompson picks up on the most helpful strands of the post-modern critique of the way we traditionally have interpreted Scripture. Readers of all levels will benefit from Thompson's work, but pastors especially will as this is the best commentary I've seen in its engagement with the theology of Philemon. 5 stars out of 5.

I really like the concept of the NIV Application Series, I just find that too often, the individual commentaries are not as well executed as I hope. This is not the case with David Garland's commentary on Philemon. I am a big fan of Garland's commentary on 2 Corinthians so I had high expectations for this commentary, and he delivered. This commentary has two major contributions, first, Garland poignantly draws out, moreso than the other commentators I read, the corporate dimension of the letter, that Paul, by including the entire house church in the correspondence, is expressing his belief that living the Christian life is a community endeavor.

The other helpful aspect of Garland's commentary was his lengthy section on slavery. Even though it runs the danger of making it seem like slavery is the main point of the letter, in this series, I think it is appropriate to deal with it at length, which he does in the appropriate section, 'Bridging Contexts.' It's a very helpful introduction geared towards the lay person which will help them understand what slavery was like in the Roman empire. I do think at times, though, that Garland does push his conclusions a bit far related to the issue of slavery and perhaps pushes the text further than we can actually go. I also would say his sections on the 'Original Meaning' are just adequate, and the lay person should supplement this commentary with the work of N.T. Wright and the pastor should pair it with Moo's commentary. Even with that said, Garland bridges the gap between the ancient context to ours magnificently, so I feel that I can highly recommend this commentary to readers of all levels, 4.5 stars out of 5.

The Tyndale series is a little unique in that it primarily seeks to lay out the original meaning of the text but is geared towards the laity. Hence, I usually skip it, because there are other commentaries out there that do the same thing (lay out he original meaning) but at much more depth. Sometimes, though, the author of the commentary is so good that you have to read it, even though it will probably be a bit sparse for your liking. That is the case with N.T. Wright on Philemon. One thing that surprised me, is that I didn't find myself desiring a lot more detail, but perhaps this should not have been a surprise. N.T. Wright is known for doing a lot in a short space. There also were times where he simply said things better than anyone else did, such as in his comments on vs. 17-20. I highly recommend this commentary as well, especially to any lay person studying Philemon. 4.5 stars out of 5.

Peter T. O'Brien is my favorite commentator on the New Testament, so I fully expected to fall in love with his Philemon commentary, the way I did with his works on Ephesians and Philippians. This wasn't the case. This certainly wasn't a bad commentary, but it wasn't outstanding. He is at his most helpful in the 'form/structure/setting' section of the commentary, especially, as one might expect, when discussing the introductory thanksgiving. These sections helped me orient my reading. However, the 'comment' and 'explanation' sections were weak in my opinion. They contained helpful information, especially on grammatical issues, but I did not see the depth of thought in this work like I did in his other commentaries or the commentaries I reviewed earlier in this post. It's solid, but I wonder if there might be better advanced commentaries for the study of Philemon. 3.5 stars out of 5.

1 comment:

  1. It's funny, I don't think I've ever used a Philemon commentary connected to a Colossians one. I've actually only used Fitzmyer and Barth/Blanke. I appreciate your review, gives me another reason to get Moo's. Now I have to convince my wife...

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