Book Reviews

The Letters to Philemon, the Colossians, and the Ephesians

A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Captivity Epistles

Ben Witherington III Grand Rapids 2007-12-01

Witherington continues to produce fine commentaries that provide context-sensitive interpretations of New Testament books that meet needs of both scholars and other motivated Bible students. This volume discusses three of the four Prison Epistles (the fourth is Philippians, on which he has already written). It is common to combine Colossians and Philemon or Ephesians and Colossians in one volume; however, it is rare to include Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon in a single volume. Witherington acknowledges the similarities of these three Bible books and feels it would be beneficial to study them together (p. 2). In addition to similarities in style and content, these epistles were also probably written from the same location. Handling them together provides an opportunity to avoid redundancy in both introductory and exegetical material. It gives the reader an appreciation for the relationship between these letters that can be lost if handled separately.

The ability to discuss shared introductory material in one place is helpful. For example one need discuss issues like slavery or Asia Minor only once. However, it sometimes seems out of place when unique material for a book is discussed in a general introduction. This problem is significant or not so significant depending on the issue. For example in discussing slavery Witherington considers the situation of Onesimus (pp. 27–29). This is helpful because although the information is most relevant for the Epistle of Philemon, it also helps put a “human” aspect to the discussion of slavery in Ephesians and Colossians. However, a discussion of Colossian philosophies (pp. 30–33) is not much help for those interested primarily in Ephesians. Although this can be remedied by selectively reading the introduction, one can hope that readers will read it in its entirety because it helps ground one in the context of Asia Minor.

Witherington’s commentaries are strong on rhetoric and contextual information. He discusses rhetorical styles and techniques such as Asiatic and epideictic styles and considers the three epistles in light of these. For example he explains the long sentences in Ephesians as Asiatic and epideictic, noting that these styles are known for long sentences of praise or blame (p. 7). Rhetoric is foundational for the entire commentary, influencing even the division of the books. Second, Witherington’s emphasis throughout his commentary on the context of first-century Asia Minor reveals his belief that this material is crucial for interpretation. Background sources and information are continually used to help understand the text. For example discussions of the household codes in Colossians 3:18–4:1 (pp. 181–96) and Ephesians 5:21–6:9 (pp. 313–43) are illuminating. He discusses household relationships in detail, and yet he does not suggest that Paul was simply repeating cultural values or that Paul was attempting to avoid social unrest. Rather Witherington highlights differences and suggests that Paul desired the members of households to live as Christians in their present roles (e.g., p. 187). This “socio-rhetorical” approach gives Witherington a sound methodological basis for his interpretation. The danger in such an approach is that if he is incorrect in the details of his methodological approach (classification of rhetorical forms and conclusions gleaned from the social context), his interpretation may be questionable. However, he can be commended for basing his approach on recent scholarship on the first century and making his presuppositions explicit.

The general introduction is thirty-six pages long, and in addition to the discussion of rhetoric it includes discussions of typical introductory matters such as provenance and date (prison in Rome, A.D. 61–62; pp. 22–25) and authorship. Pauline authorship is defended for all the letters (see esp. pp. 12–19; see also pp. 100–103 and 223–24 on the books specifically). In addition other topics including slavery and issues specifically relating to Colossians are developed (e.g., the philosophy opposed by Paul and the city’s social milieu; pp. 30–36). Further book-specific introductory material is found at the beginning of each book.

Witherington’s discussion of slavery distinguishes between household and other slaves (only household slaves are in view in Paul’s epistles), and he attempts to describe slavery in detail (pp. 26–30 and elsewhere). However, despite a nuanced and well-researched approach to the subject, he puts ancient slavery in too positive a light. He seems to focus on possible freedom and other aspects of ancient slavery and fails to emphasize the state of being owned, having a lack of honor, and so forth, which put all slaves into a similar (i.e., less than human) state despite possible positive treatment of some (which cannot be assumed for any slave). Nevertheless Witherington’s discussion will be of great benefit to readers, and his position that Paul would encourage slaves to be free if possible is welcome.

The first book discussed in the commentary is Philemon. Paul was attempting to use his letter not only to help master and slave be reconciled but also to persuade Philemon to release his slave. Witherington thinks that the preservation of the letter may suggest that Paul was successful in his request for freedom for Onesimus and that he went on to be the bishop of Ephesus, whom Ignatius mentioned in his letter to Ephesus (p. 92). Colossians was written by Paul to a church he did not found in order to confront a Colossian Jewish philosophy and also to instruct believers in proper behavior (pp. 113–14). Ephesians is considered a circular letter written to the province of Asia. Like many, Witherington views “in Ephesus” as a later addition (pp. 3, 215–24). To some extent the relationship between writer and addressee determined Paul’s rhetorical approach. Thus Paul could be more direct and forceful with Philemon, Paul’s own convert, than he was with the church at Colossae (pp. 10–11, 51).

For each letter Witherington has a concluding section entitled, “Bridging the Horizons,” in which he comments on contemporary applications of the book. The volume is further enhanced by an annotated bibliography (pp. 37–50), index of authors (pp. 366–69), and an index of Scripture and other ancient writings (pp. 370–82).

As mentioned above, the strengths of this commentary include its emphasis on the rhetorical and social contexts of these books. Thus it does not go into detail on other aspects of the exegetical process such as in-depth word studies and Greek grammar. However, Witherington’s discussions suggest that work in these areas lies behind them. His earlier commentary on the single book of Galatians (Grace in Galatia [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998]) is longer than the present volume. Thus this commentary will best serve to supplement more detailed traditional commentaries such as those by Hoehner, Lincoln, O’Brien, and Dunn, or more recently Moo on Colossians-Philemon. This should not minimize Witherington’s work. His approach fills a need in these more traditional commentaries.

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Joseph D. Fantin
Dr. Fantin believes an accurate understanding of God's Word will enable the believer to grow in his or her relationship with Christ, to love God and others, to bring Christ's love to a lost world, to build up the church, and most importantly, to glorify God. He is committed to teaching exegetical method in order to help students understand, apply, and teach the Bible in order to achieve these goals. His research interests include the prison epistles, the first-century world, Greek, linguistics, and relevance theory. He and his wife, Robin, have two children: Jillian and David.
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