Book Reviews

The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon

Douglas J. Moo Grand Rapids 2008-08-25

Moo begins his commentary on Colossians by acknowledging the impact the letter has had on Christian theology and practice. Then he states, “Our concern will be to discern what this portion of God’s Word has to say to Christians today” (p. 25). He suggests that this can be done only after an in-depth study of what the letter said to its first-century audience. Thus this commentary aims to meet the need of Christians today by developing the meaning and significance of these letters in their original context. The series is written with serious pastors and Bible teachers in mind. It will serve this audience well.

The text used for comment is the TNIV, but this reviewer would have preferred to have Moo’s own translation. Yet Moo is not constrained by the TNIV in his comments (see, e.g., pp. 233–34).

After discussing the city of Colossae and its surrounding area (pp. 26–28), Moo provides an excellent discussion of authorship (pp. 29–40), concluding that Paul is the author. However, this conclusion is not simply based on tradition. Moo critically interacts with arguments against Pauline authorship, especially relating to language and theology. He concludes that the subject matter and the likelihood of an amanuensis (possibly Timothy) solves the language problem. He demonstrates that pseudepigraphy is not a good solution (pp. 37–40). In fact it may present more problems than it can solve.

Next Moo discusses date and provenance. He argues that both Ephesus and Rome are strong candidates, but thinks that the evidence slightly favors Rome in A.D. 60–61 (pp. 41–46). In discussing the reason for the letter he says it was written to confront false teachers (pp. 46–60). In this section Moo lists descriptions of the teaching from Colossians and considers various options. He favors a mixture of influences, and although not without difficulties, he finds Clinton Arnold’s combination of local folk belief, both Phrygian and Jewish, and Christianity to be the best solution. However, since not enough information is available, he suggests a general identification based on the descriptions in the letter itself (pp. 57–60). He discusses the theology of the letter under six headings: Christ, cosmology and powers, the church, the gospel, eschatology, and the Christian life (pp. 60–71). Although the introduction is already long, more background issues would have been welcomed. Nevertheless on the traditional issues (i.e., authorship, date, occasion, theology), this may be one of the most helpful introductions to Colossians available in a commentary.

Moo’s interpretation is insightful and helpful. He has an excellent introductory discussion of the hymn in 1:15–20 (pp. 107–10). He includes discussions of phrases and words such as “image of God” and “firstborn” in 1:15 (pp. 112–20). On the latter he argues against a chronological interpretation and suggests that “firstborn” should be understood as “status” or “rank.” Particularly in light of the background of the passage and the genitive (“of creation”) as “over creation” (with the TNIV), he concludes “supreme over” (pp. 119–20). In 1:24, concerning Paul’s sufferings as filling up what was lacking in Christ’s afflictions, Moo suggests that Paul’s sufferings were an extension of Christ’s ministry. Thus his suffering was “on behalf of” believers (pp. 152–53). For the phrase “worship of angels,” the false teachers were accused of angel worship, not of worshipping with angels (pp. 226–29). In all cases where there is controversy Moo thoroughly discusses options before competently arguing for his conclusion. These detailed treatments give the reader a fair assessment of the issue at hand.

Moo rightly argues against relativizing the household code in 3:18–4:1 (pp. 296–97). However, he is not insensitive to difficulties raised by this passage. Although he has a solution, he seems to struggle with the lack of explicit instruction against slavery in the New Testament (p. 297). Moo also notes the “countercultural” nature of Paul’s household codes, suggesting they “reflect a distinctly Christian ethos” (p. 297). A detailed discussion of slavery is postponed until the introduction to Philemon.

Moo’s introduction to Philemon is also very good (pp. 357–78). It begins with a four-page bibliography (pp. 357–60). Since there is no debate over authorship, he focuses on other issues. Moo defends Philemon as the recipient (pp. 361–63). As with Colossians, he feels the weight of evidence slightly favors the option that it was written from Rome in A.D. 60–61 (pp. 363–64). Next, Moo discusses the situation the letter is intended to address. This is another good section that informs readers of various options (pp. 364–68). Moo ultimately sides with the traditional view that Onesimus was a runaway slave who met Paul and became a believer. Paul was sending him back to his master with this letter (pp. 368–69).

This conclusion leads to a discussion of Paul’s purpose for the letter. Did he want Philemon to make Onesimus available for ministry? Or did he want Philemon to free his slave (pp. 369–78)? Moo finds the former unconvincing (p. 370). Here Moo discusses ancient slavery (pp. 371–78), pointing out characteristics of Roman slavery and wrestling with what seems to be silence on the part of the New Testament on this issue. He correctly points out that issues of freedom were different in the Roman context than in modern times. This is a complex issue and Moo handles it well. He concludes that the New Testament ultimately teaches that Christians should not own slaves; however, the authors themselves may not have known all the implications of their own teaching (p. 377; see also p. 297). Importantly Moo notes that slavery and freedom are not the central theme of this letter; rather, the theme is fellowship (p. 378).

Despite the value of Moo’s slavery section, it fails to incorporate insights into what life would have been like for a slave and how the commands in the household code of Colossians (3:18–4:1) might affect someone in that state. This omission is significant. In the discussion of Colossians Moo mentions characteristics of ownership (p. 308). However, such observations should have made more impact on his exegesis than they do. Moo carefully discusses the application of this passage to employees, noting major differences between slaves and employees. Of course application can be made here. However, this comparison minimizes the low status and potentially harsh experience of slaves. A more developed section on the social status and experience of slavery would have helped remedy this criticism.

If there is a weakness in this commentary, it is in the area of background and contextual information. Much more could be said about the local Jewish and Roman contexts of these books. Nevertheless there is helpful background material here (see especially the discussion of Col. 1:15–20). Moo discusses contributions from Greek. Occasionally he goes into detail, but Greek grammar and word studies are not extensive. This commentary will be helpful for all students of these books. For evangelicals it may be the best available. There are other good recent commentaries, but none deal so specifically with issues of interest for evangelicals. For the recent treatment of traditional matters, this commentary is unparalleled.

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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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