Book Reviews

Colossians and Philemon

Murray J. Harris Nashville, TN 2010-06-01

The first edition of Harris’s exegetical guide, Colossians and Philemon, was published in 1991. No other volumes followed in the series. But now the revival of the series is welcome. This tool will help students work with the Greek text of these books. The series is intended for people who have completed an introductory course in Greek. It is assumed that the reader has learned a vocabulary of words appearing 25 times or more in the New Testament and has had an introduction to textual criticism.

The four-page introduction to Colossians discusses authorship and concludes that Colossians is an authentic Pauline letter. Views on provenance and date are briefly mentioned, and Harris concludes that the book was written from Rome in AD 60–61. Also included in the introduction are sections on occasion and purpose, a brief outline, and recommended commentaries. In the three-page introduction to Philemon (pp. 207–9) Harris states that Paul wrote Philemon from Rome in AD 60–61. Harris’s discussion of the occasion and purpose of Philemon is rather detailed in light of his coverage of other introductory matters on these books. Almost the entire introduction is devoted to it. He holds to the traditional view that Onesimus was a runaway slave and stole something from his master Philemon. Onesimus met Paul in Rome and was sent back. However, Harris also mentions alternate views on this situation.

Colossians and Philemon are divided into literary units, and each unit is introduced by a section devoted to structural analysis. This organizes the English and Greek texts (separately) in order to show the structural relationships between clauses and phrases. The second section includes a verse-by-verse discussion of each Greek phrase in the passage. This discussion includes select parsing, grammatical comments, vocabulary, textual criticism, and explanations of important but often-disputed passages. In some cases Harris gives a number of views and he indicates his choice by an asterisk. A brief bibliography for each section includes references for further study organized by topics. Also Harris makes a number of brief statements pertaining to homiletical use of the passage.

Harris’s interpretations are helpful. For example in Colossians 1:24, where Paul wrote that his suffering is “filling up that which is lacking in Christ’s affliction,” Harris rejects the idea that Christ’s sacrifice was in some way insufficient for atonement (p. 59). He then gives two possible interpretations and concludes that Paul’s suffering was filling up what was lacking in a “divinely appointed quota of suffering” to be completed by believers in the last days (p. 60). Also the phrase “worship of angels” in 2:18 should be taken as an objective genitive, worship given to angels, not worship by angels (p. 107).

Treatment of each epistle concludes with a translation, extended paraphrase, and outline. The outline is called “exegetical,” but it is not as detailed as many would prefer. However, having both a translation and an expanded paraphrase is helpful. The former is rather literal, and the latter helps the reader see the result of the Greek translation. The book concludes with a glossary of grammatical and rhetorical terms.

Students will find the extensive phrase-by-phrase sections, which are the bulk of this volume, to be the most helpful in the book. The topical “further reading” section is also helpful, but annotations on the books would have been welcomed. The homiletical sections, though brief, can encourage readers to think in that direction.

This excellent volume will be useful for advanced study of the Greek of Colossians and Philemon. However, there are a few things worth noting that would have made it even more valuable. The omission of Douglas Moo’s commentary on Colossians and Philemon in the recommended commentaries can be explained only by its recent appearance. Moo’s work is probably the best evangelical commentary on these books at present. Also Daniel Wallace, Greek Grammar beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), is not included among the major grammars to which the book refers. Although Wallace’s book is an intermediate grammar, its wide use among students makes it likely that the average intended user of this book (at least those who have learned Greek in the last ten years) either learned Greek syntax from it or is very familiar with it. In light of the importance of slavery in these books (Col. 3:22–4:1; Philem.), some detailed discussion of this topic would have been appropriate.

Not a commentary in the normal sense, this work is primarily a guide to the Greek vocabulary, grammar, and text-critical portions of the exegetical process. Thus the label “exegetical guide” is misleading. This seems to suggest that the exegetical process is essentially Greek. However, there is more to exegesis than this.

This volume is highly recommended for all who have had at least one year of Greek.

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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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