Book Reviews

Colossians (Smyth and Helwys Bible Commentary)

Nijay K. Gupta Macon, GA July 5, 2013

The Smyth and Helwys Commentary series is intended for a wide variety of serious Bible students (p. xix). Nijay Gupta’s contribution on Colossians is a nice addition to this series.

Gupta includes a thirty-one-page introduction covering many traditional introductory matters. After a helpful discussion of the major issues, Gupta concludes that Paul wrote Colossians (pp. 3–10) while under house arrest in Rome during the time that is reflected at the end of Acts (pp. 10–12). Next Gupta discusses the city of Colossae and the occasion for writing (pp. 12–19), finding that Paul was confronting a false teaching with moral implications (p. 15). Specifically, it is a “transcendent-ascetic philosophy” that “seeks heavenly wisdom and spiritual perfection that transcends the supposed limitations of the body” and that “seeks the subjugation of the weak body in order to be free from the domination of troublesome spirits and powers” (p. 19). The relationship between Colossians and Ephesians briefly is explored, but the commentary does not assume any dependence (p. 19). The introduction concludes with sections on reading Colossians (pp. 20–23), theological themes emphasizing Christology (pp. 23–27), and ethics (pp. 27–28). A phrase outline follows the introduction (pp. 33–34).

The commentary divides Colossians into five major sections (1:1–2:3; 2:4–23; 3:1–17; 3:18–4:1; 4:2–18). Each of these sections has two parts: commentary and connections. The editors state that “the primary concern of the Commentary section is to explore the theological issues presented by the Scripture passage” (p. xx [italics original]). For this particular book, however, there is much on interpretation in this section as well. Here is where the basic interpretation of the passage is presented. The “connections” section is intended to apply the text in some way to contemporary life (p. xx). Among other things here, issues of interest are raised for teaching and sermon preparation (p. xx).

The commentary is fairly traditional in its interpretive approach. It does not delve very deeply into issues or give many interpretive options and support; however, Gupta presents his interpretation clearly, providing enough exegetical detail to defend his positions. Colossians 1:15–20 is acknowledged as a central passage for Christology, though Gupta reminds readers that it is an essential part of the message of Colossians as well (p. 51). Christ as “firstborn” refers to his “rank and status,” not that he was part of creation “born into the world” (1:15; p. 55; two sidebars, p. 56). There is no hint that “what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ” (1:24) is in anyway soteriological (p. 66). The passage does not refer to salvation, but there may be readers troubled by this verse, and it would have been helpful to see this addressed in some detail. The “elementary principles of the world” (2:8) are “elemental spirits of the world/universe” (p. 91; sidebar, p. 92). The statement against “festival, new moon and Sabbaths” (2:16) is not against these observances themselves but rather clarifying that they are not spiritually beneficial (p. 98; sidebar, p. 99). The discussion of slavery is informative and generally well done (3:22–4:1) but may be too simplistic (pp. 170–75). It discusses some of the difficulties that slaves experienced but also highlights the variance among slave experiences (p. 171). One wonders what percentage of slaves actually experienced any sort of acceptable existence as developed in part here. It is difficult for anyone who lives at a distance from it to grasp how horrible the simple fact of human ownership actually is. Also, Gupta does not address issues related to slave treatment such as sexual abuse and beatings. How were a Christian slave and the church to respond to this?

In the “connections” section for 3:18–4:1, Gupta discusses applying the ancient text today as related to women in marriage (pp. 176–80). He asks, “Is Paul making a case for all women of all time to submit to their husbands?” (p. 177; italics his). Gupta provides three options. First, it should be applied directly and universally (pp. 176–77). This is a common evangelical approach. The second focuses on the radical nature of Christianity and maintains that passages such as 3:18–19 are purely contextual. The emphasis should be on the radical nature of what Paul was doing in society; thus, the command is of little significance today (pp. 177–78). Gupta rejects both of these and prefers William Webb’s redemptive-progressive approach (pp. 178–80). Gupta sees statements such as Galatians 3:28 and examples such as Deborah and Priscilla as pointing toward shared leadership (p. 179). Gupta concludes, “I am not convinced that the demand from Scripture is that women in all times and places should submit to their husbands’ higher authority” (p. 180). A critique of this hermeneutic is beyond the scope of this review, but Gupta is on the right track in sensing the need for a context-sensitive approach to the New Testament.

This commentary has a user-friendly layout. The main text is surrounded by wide margins. Each major section has a descriptive title (e.g., “New life in Christ: Household relationships reoriented under the Lordship of Christ” [Col. 3:18–4:1]). Shorter subsections have brief titles such as “the priority and supremacy of Christ, 1:15–20” (p. 51) and “destroying and setting aside earthly ways, 3:5–11” (p. 131). Additionally, there are over 100 sidebars and 26 illustrations throughout. The sidebars include important supplementary information and a diverse array of topics such as “the Roman cross” (p. 60), “God’s fullness in Jesus” (p. 59), “C. S. Lewis on healthy belief in spirits” (p. 110), “the letter to the Laodiceans” (p. 194), “election and salvation in Paul” (p. 143), and “Dietrich Bonhoeffer” (p. 1). A symbol identifies which of four categories of additional information a particular sidebar provides (language related, culture/context, interpretation, or additional resources, pp. xx–xxii). The illustrations are paintings, photos, or other visual art whose subject illustrates something in the commentary or a sidebar.

Overall this format is very appealing. However, three format issues hinder its usefulness. First, there is no comprehensive translation given anywhere in the volume. The NRSV (and other translations) (p. xx) is used for small quotations within the commentary, but the inclusion of the biblical text at the beginning of each commentary section would have been useful. Second, within the larger sections, it is not always easy to find a specific passage or verse. Individual verses are usually discussed within the context of a larger section. Thus, when the larger section is long, the commentary is difficult to use for quick reference on a particular verse. Third, the placement of notes at the conclusions of the major sections make the notes difficult to reference. Since there are not many of these, they easily could have been made into footnotes. Nevertheless, the overall visual appeal and usefulness of the volume does not hinge on these matters.

The book concludes with a selective bibliography (pp. 207–10) and four indexes: modern authors (pp. 211–13), Scripture (pp. 215–19), sidebars and illustrations (pp. 221–22), and topics (pp. 223–27). The volume also includes a CD with a pdf file of the commentary. This addition provides search capabilities and portability. Finally, the publisher provides a web link for updates (www.helwys.com/commentary). As of March 28, 2016, there were no updates for Colossians.

Gupta’s commentary is not strong on detailed exegesis; however, it is a good resource. It does not provide significant new or controversial interpretations. For the average serious Bible student, this is a strength. Readers will receive a solid, time-tested interpretation of the book. It will not be the first choice for scholars. Nevertheless, for its intended audience, its readability and enhanced features make it very attractive.

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