This review appeared in the Jan-Mar 2011 vol. 168 no. 1 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.Subscribe Today
Colossians: A CommentaryWestminster John Knox Press, Louisville October 1, 2008
Following a thirteen-page bibliography (pp. xv–xxvii), Sumney provides an introduction to Colossians. He spends minimal time on authorship and date, in which he essentially argues that the letter was written shortly after Paul’s death in A.D. 62–64 (pp. 1–9). Much of Sumney’s argument against Pauline authorship focuses on perceived differences between the book and other Pauline letters. He says Colossians was probably not written to a church at Colossae, since the city was hit by an earthquake between A.D. 60 and 62 (pp. 9–10). This earthquake did significant damage to cities around Colossae but a direct statement about Colossae’s damage does not appear until later (by Eusebius in the fourth century). Nevertheless, since the city seems to have been in decline, it is not unreasonable to think it sustained serious damage or was destroyed without extant ancient comment.
Sumney thinks Colossians was written to churches in the region because of the mention of Laodicea and Hierapolis or possibly more generally to churches in Asia Minor (p. 10). Of course if Paul wrote the letter, as many still maintain, it could have been written to the city before the earthquake.
Next Sumney discusses the false teachers that seem to be attacked in the letter. He does not specifically label them, but he describes them based on the descriptions in Colossians (pp. 10–12). A brief section is then included about the reception and textual witness of the book (p. 12). The largest section of the introduction is devoted to theological themes: soteriology, Christology, eschatology, and spirituality (pp. 12–21). Some may feel Sumney does not spend enough time on introductory matters (except for themes). He certainly does little more than defend the positions he takes. However, there are many good introductions available. He has not introduced anything new; thus a more detailed introduction is not necessary. See, for example, the introduction in Douglas Moo’s recent commentary The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon, Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008). Thus for the Bible student with another good commentary on Colossians, Sumney’s introduction is sufficient.
Sumney’s interpretation is generally clear. He discusses Greek in some places but not so much that those who do not know the language will be hindered in their use of this volume. “Firstborn” in Colossians 1:15 refers to status or rank, not chronology or literal birth (p. 65). Sumney rejects any notion that Paul’s sufferings in 1:24 (“I fill up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ in my flesh”) means that Christ’s death was insufficient (p. 96–101). Instead he provides an informative discussion of the Greco-Roman concept of “noble death.” He sees Paul’s sufferings as vicarious in the sense that he is an example. Christ’s death is also vicarious but in the sense of expiation. Only Christ’s sufferings are expiatory (pp. 100–101). Sumney suggests that stoicei'a (“elementary principles”) refers to either “parts of a word” (i.e., letters or sounds) or natural elements (earth, air, fire, water) rather than ruling spiritual powers in 2:8. Sumney believes the phrase “worship of angels” in 2:18 is understood as worship with angels, in part because he takes the genitive “of angels” as modifying both “worship” and “humility” (p. 154). Thus “Do not let anyone willfully disqualify you through the humility and worship of angels” means “angelic humility and worship” (p. 149).
Sumney devotes much space to the household code in Colossians 3:18–4:1. Prior to commenting on the text he includes a small-print excursus of over eight pages (pp. 230–38), followed by more than three pages of introduction (pp. 238–41) before commenting on the text (pp. 241–55). The excursus is excellent. It is one of the best this reviewer has seen in a commentary on the background of the household codes. Sumney explains the roles of the members in the family structure and in society generally and then gives a detailed discussion of women and children (pp. 232–33; see also pp. 241–46). Some scholars attempt to minimize the ancient form of slavery in light of more modern forms of the practice. But Sumney notes important aspects of ancient slavery such as ownership, lack of honor, and sexual use (pp. 233–34; see also pp. 246–55). These are important issues that are often overlooked in discussions focusing on the physical aspects of slavery. Sumney suggests that the author may have been using “hidden codes” in this passage that would have been understood by the readers but missed by the authorities and other outsiders who would not have been comfortable with anything that seemed different from the normal structure of society. Thus to outsiders this looks like instruction to maintain the status quo, but to the readers in light of the context of the book and phrases like “as is fitting in the Lord” (3:18) right after the instruction for the wife to submit (3:18), a more countercultural expression is understood (pp. 236–38).
Sumney includes two other excursuses, one on “Metaphors for the Work of Christ in Colossians 1:12–23” (pp. 90–91) and another on the Scythians (pp. 208–9). These are both very helpful. The book concludes with three indexes (ancient sources, authors, and subject; pp. 285–305). Sumney has written a helpful volume on Colossians. It is clearly written and the format is easy to follow. This commentary should be useful to expositors for years to come.
—Joseph D. Fantin