Philippians and Philemon

Bonnie B. Thurston, Judith M. Ryan Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN January 1, 2003

Thurston, the author of the Philippians commentary, is an ordained Disciples of Christ minister, and Ryan, the author of the Philemon commentary, has served on the faculty of a number of Catholic institutions.

Thurston’s work on Philippians begins with an introduction (pp. 7–43) covering all the basic issues such as authorship, date, provenance, unity, background, and literary considerations. She says Paul wrote the book probably from Ephesus in the early to mid 50s. However, she provides dates for other provenances as well and acknowledges that this issue is not essential to the argument of the book. Though her description of the historical background is brief, Thurston discusses in detail the information from Acts on the founding of the church in Philippi. A section on form and structure provides a good overview of this aspect of the book. A helpful section on the Greco-Roman letter is included (pp. 24–27), and a section is devoted to the place of women in the Philippian church (pp. 19–22). Two additions would have improved the introduction. First, a discussion of Roman imprisonment might have provided further insight into the letter. Second, given the setting of this book during the middle of the first century in the Roman Empire, a discussion of Roman imperial ideology and how this may be reflected in Philippians would have been helpful (see p. 17).

The commentary itself is brief (pp. 45–163). It includes an English translation (her own), selected critical notes usually on the Greek text, an interpretation, and a bibliography.

Thurston views the “Christ hymn” (Phil. 2:5–11) as “probably the oldest piece of Christian literature we have” (p. 3). She summarizes the various critical issues in the passage and discusses it as a hymn. This hymn, she says, was used by Paul because it was familiar to his readers and is an important passage for the entire book. Thurston does not identify the opponents of Paul mentioned in 1:15 and 3:2 (pp. 3–4, 61, 112–15). Rather she suggests there is not enough evidence for a firm identification. She does, however, believe that more than one group may be involved. She also emphasizes the role of justification by faith in 3:8–11. “The latter part of verse 9 [‘not having my own righteousness from law’] is a concise statement of the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith” (p. 124). This is of interest since justification by faith is not often discussed in books on Philippians.

Thurston suggests that most people are not drawn to this book because of the various matters discussed above. Rather, Philippians is read because Paul seems very “approachable” (p. 4). The same thing may be said about this commentary. One will not find exhaustive treatments of important critical matters here. Other longer, more detailed commentaries will be needed for this. However, this commentary is a nice companion to the Book of Philippians.

Ryan’s material on Philemon is just under one hundred pages (pp. 167–261), of which almost forty are introductory (pp. 169–207). The introduction includes a helpful discussion of Greco-Roman slavery, noting its negative aspects. Ryan wisely makes no firm commitment on the occasion of the letter. She notes that the traditional view that Onesimus had run away from Philemon still enjoys significant support (p. 181), but she notes other possibilities, including a friendly appeal on behalf of a runaway (ibid.). She also suggests that there is no conclusive evidence that Onesimus was a thief or a criminal.

The commentary follows the same format as Thurston’s work (translation, notes, interpretation, bibliography). The translation is more polished, and most sections include more detail than the section on Philippians. Ryan traces Paul’s argument throughout the book in a clear and detailed manner. The volume concludes with separate indexes for the two books on ancient references (including Scripture) and authors.

—Joseph D. Fantin

July 1, 2007

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Jul-Sep 2007 vol. 164 no. 3 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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