Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Book Review: Philippians and Philemon

This month there was nothing that grabbed my attention in the new books section of the library, so I decided to pick up a recent commentary that came out, that of Charles Cousar in the New Testament Library series. I've only extensively used one commentary in this series before, Jonah, so I wasn't completely sure what to expect, but I was, for the most part, pleased.

The introduction to the commentary on Philippians is fairly standard. He believes that Philippians was written from an Ephesian imprisonment and thus was one of Paul's earliest letters. Fee and Bockmuehl have both claimed that Philippians is a letter of friendship, but Cousar is a bit cool on that idea, while not outright rejecting it. He does believe that Philippians is a single letter and not a patchwork of three letters as some have claimed.

Overall I found the commentary proper to be solid. Technical issues were briefly discussed and Cousar would usually give a short explanation explaining his decisions. There was little discussion of other options (he devotes a little more space to different views at 2:5-11, but even there it was somewhat sparse), which is why the commentary is as brief as it is.

One of his stronger points was on 1:18-26, I was helped by his brief discussion of the rhetoric of Paul's argument. Cousar claims that Paul was using a technique known as 'feigned perplexity' as a means of strengthening his argument. On the Christ 'hymn' in 2:5-11 he goes against most recent commentators by following Kasemann's soteriological interpretation. He makes a decent case of it, but I found O'Brien to be much more persuasive.

By far Cousar's strongest point was on, perhaps the thorniest passage in Philippians, 3:1-4. Paul's sudden change of tone is so dramatic that many have questioned the integrity of Philippians largely on the basis of this section. Cousar, in my opinion, largely puts these questions to rest. He suggests that there was no actual group of opponents in or soon to come to Philippi. The 'dogs' were set up as a negative example, countering the positive examples of Timothy and Epaphroditus in ch. 2 and Paul in the following verses.

Overall, on Philippians Cousar does a good job. He doesn't use a lot of space but fits a lot into it. Even though its brief, I would not recommend it for the lay person, it's a little too technical and also assumes a fair amount of familiarity with New Testament (especially Pauline) studies. However, for the pastor I could see this commentary pairing up well with Thielman and one or more of Bockmuehl, Fee, and O'Brien. 4.5 stars out of 5.

Unfortunately, it seems as if Cousar did not put the same level of effort into the Philemon commentary as he did for Philippians. It's extremely sparse, with the commentary proper only being five and a half pages long. There wasn't much depth of insight, I felt that most points that he made could be gained from a careful slow read through the text. That said, he still didn't make any major mistakes, in my opinion and rightly saw the stress in the letter where it lied, in the transformation of relationships and identity in Christ. 3 stars out of 5.

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