Friday, November 12, 2010

Book Review: Colossians and Philemon


The NCCS series is off to a stellar start. I greatly enjoyed Keener's commentary on Romans (see my review) and I picked up Colossians and Philemon by Michael Bird with some anticipation. I have to say that I was very pleased on the whole.

The introduction of the commentary was very, very good, perhaps even the strength of the commentary. Bird deals with the question of authorship at some length, clearly exposing weaknesses in arguments against Pauline authorship. In particular, he notes that the language in Colossians is different than the undisputed Paulines because Paul quotes a lot of traditional material and the opponents he's facing are a bit different than the Judaizers (6-7). It is not fair to say, though, that Bird believes that Pauline authorship of Colossians is of the same nature as Pauline authorship of Galatians. He sees it as being co-authored by Paul, Timothy, and perhaps others. This accounts for some of the distinctiveness of Colossians when compared to the undisputed Pauline epistles. The most detailed and helpful portion of the introduction is the assessment of the Colossian philosophy (15-26). Bird surveys the scholarly landscape and eventually settles on a calling it a form of Jewish mysticism. Introductory matters related to Philemon are briefly but adequately addressed.

The commentary proper was very strong. Bird is an excellent writer and he presents his viewpoint in a compelling way. The most remarkable aspect of this commentary was its evenness. I never felt like there was a section where Bird didn't have much to say and hadn't thought deeply about the text. The main body of the commentary is a running explanation of the letter. Bird does an admirable job of keeping the big picture of what Paul is doing in the letter in full view, relating each section to the whole. This makes the commentary an enjoyable read and very helpful for someone looking to get a quick grasp on any particular passage or the book as a whole. Technical discussions related to Greek grammar and other matters are relegated to the footnotes (there's more detail on grammatical issues here than one might expect for a commentary of this nature). The sections on 'Fusing the Horizons' were top notch providing pastors with brief but rich ministry-shaping reflections on topics such as The Global Church (see a snippet here), Common Faith, and Ministerial Formation. Bird writes as one who writes for the church, and not just in the 'Fusing the Horizons' sections. Throughout the commentary he draws out ecclesial themes, especially how God's people should function; both at the local church setting and more widely (often by describing Paul's theology - one must have ears to hear).

There were a few sections of the Colossians commentary that I found particularly helpful. I'll highlight a couple. I was greatly aided by his organizing method for the Christ hymn of Col. 1:18-20. Bird claims that
...the coherence and unity of the poem is based around certain key motifs in both strophes that are activated by certain words.

He is... Divine Personhood: The identity of Jesus in relation to God.

Firstborn Divine Preeminence: The supremacy of Jesus over creation and new creation.

Because Divine Perspective: An explanation of how Jesus relates to the prerogatives and presence of God.

In him Divine Agency: What purposes the Father works out through the Son.

Whether... Divine Authority: Signals the extent of the Son's reign over creation and salvation. (50)
Another helpful section was on 3:5-11, which Bird titled, 'Living as the New Humanity of the New Age.' These are the portions of Paul's letters that often become a bit too familiar for me and I end up breezing through them and domesticating Paul's strong metaphors (like 'put to death'). Bird does the opposite. He also shows how Paul's understanding of us as being new creation is the linchpin of the entire section. It controls both ethics and identity.

The best adjective to describe the Philemon commentary is 'solid.' I didn't gain any new insights, but there also wasn't any spot where I really disagreed either.

All in all this is a commentary worth deep engagement. The more time spent dwelling on Bird's attempt to think Paul's thoughts after him, the more one will get out of it, particularly on Colossians. I think that Bird nails his audience right on. It will be a helpful addition to any pastor's or studious lay person's library. If you want a commentary that gets to the point while not being shallow or unsatisfying then you'll love this commentary. Overall, I'd place Colossians and Philemon right next to or just behind NT Wright's fine entry in the Tyndale series and give it 4.5 stars.

2 comments:

  1. I remember Bird commenting on his blog while he was writing this commentary that he was leaning toward an earlier date than most scholars give Colossians. Do you recall what he ended up with?

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  2. Marcus, thanks for a very generous review. I'm glad you liked the book. And Danny, I date Colossians/Philemon to the mid-50s or thereabouts.

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