WJK’s New Testament Library: Philippians and Philemon by Charles B. Cousar

Philippians and Philemon: A Commentary.  The New Testament Library.
Author: Charles B. Cousar
Publisher:  Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2009
ISBN-13: 9780664221225

First, I would like to thank for fine people at Presbyterian Publishing Corp for sending me this commentary to review.

When I first saw this commentary, the first thing I noticed was how brief the book was: 112 pages in length.  It is a compact introduction of Philippians covers the basic points of this epistle.  Well, given that fact that Philippians is not a long letter, I am amazed that some commentators can write 800 pages on this epistle.  However, given the nature of the NTL/OTL series of commentaries, it provides the necessary basics and does not aim to go too much into depth.  It is ideal for pastors and students who want a basic understanding of this epistle without too much detailed reading.  This is even shorter than the Pillar commentary.

For a detailed study, I would suggest the Anchor Bible (AB) by John Reumann, NICNT by Gordon Fee, or NIGTC by Peter O’Brien.  For an intermediate study, try Word (WBC) by Gerald Hawthrone, or Baker (BECNT) by Moises Silva.  If you have time to read and sift through all the details, then that’s fine.

Charles B. Cousar, Professor Emeritus of New Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary, provides readers with the traditional components expected of a commentary’s introduction—location, authorship and integrity, place and date of writing, character and structure of the writing, an outline, the opponents, its main message and theme.

The author starts off his introduction revealing the theme of Philippians as being joy.  This gives me a good impression about Paul’s Letter to the Philippians.  It tells the reader that the writer of this epistle was a person who will hope-filled rather than one who was burdened down with suffering.  Suffering in the midst of hope and joy is what the suffering church needs to hear—even today.

Cousar is not so much concerned about the literary structure of Philippians.  He seems more concerned about the theology and context of Philippians.  He believes the authorship is Pauline, which is the majority view.  The probable places of writing are Rome, Caesarea, and Ephesus; he leans toward Ephesus.

Cousar states: “Paul uses an inordinately high number of exhortations to encourage the Philippians in their task to remain faithful and steadfast” (p. 13).  This observation needs to be felt rather than seen.  It is a subjective opinion but I would agree with Cousar.  The epistle does have an exhortative feel to it.

The author also sites Robert Jewett’s proposal “that these preachers who compete with Paul were itinerants, who believe that valid apostles should exhibit extraordinary phenomena such as having ecstatic visions and working miracles” (p. 15).  This is only one of four traditional criteria of a genuine apostle.   Cousar lays out the basic characteristics of Paul’s opponents; however, he doesn’t go into the popular identities and philosophical details about them.  For this commentary series, it is enough.

I like the point that Cousar makes concerning the message of the Christ hymn.  He states:

The text does not ask that an extraordinary virtue, such as humility, be abstracted from the story and made a virtue to be emulated.  Rather the whole story, including the eschatological worship of Jesus as Lord, takes on a mind-shaping role.  To be sure, the Christ hymn serves a serves a parenetic function to exhort the readers to look not to their own interests but to the interests of others (p. 18, 19).

This is a good point.  It is easy to center on Paul’s obvious traits and point to them as if they were meant to be exemplary for us.  On the other hand, if humility is not held to be an exemplary model, it might, however, be one of many points for Christians to model after.  Paul’s point of being a model to imitate (3:17) may also refer to many other things, including his reliance on God’s grace.  However, I am tempted to include the trait of humility into the list to imitate anyway.

Regarding the subjective genitive phrase “through the faith of Christ,” as opposed to, the objective genitive “through faith in Christ” in 3:9, Cousar takes a safe neutral opinion and concludes that it is inconclusive.  For Christians of the Reformation, the tendency is to lean toward a reading of “through faith in Christ.”  Personally, this is my theological tendency.  However, after reading commentaries on Romans and Galatians regarding this same issue, I, too, remain inconclusive…maybe even more confused or uncertain, which can be a good thing sometimes.

The author briefly brings up the possibility of 3:20-21being a pre-Pauline hymn or creedal fragment.  Keeping this point brief is sufficient. Personally, I can’t see this being a hymn and would not even entertain this possibility.  Other commentaries cast doubt on 3:20-21 as being a hymn.

I have enjoyed using this compact commentary on Philippians because I get the important issues quickly without doing too much reading.  As a pastor with less time to spare than before, this commentary from the NTL series is perfect for pastors who want to save time.

A website with theological resources

Here is a resourceful website Theology on the Web maintained by Rob Bradshaw. I came across it (HT: Jeff), surfed around and found a host of many other biblical and theological resources that has links to articles by many theologians (e.g., Tillich, Schaeffer, Rahner, Bonhoeffer, Bultmann, etc. ).  Some link only to books on Amazon but some link to numerous PDF articles like F.F. Bruce. Check it out.

Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Mark by Robert H. Stein

Series: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament
Author: Robert H. Stein
Publisher: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008.
ISBN: 0-8010-2682-2
ISBN13: 978-0-8010-2682-9

I would like to thank the fine people at Baker Publishing for sending me a review copy of Mark from the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament.   The author, Professor Dr. Robert H. Stein, is Senior Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY.  He previously taught at Bethel Seminary and is a reknown scholar on the synoptic gospels.  He has authored other books including: An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus, The Method and Message of Jesus’ Teachings, Difficult Passages in the New Testament, Luke (New American Commentary), A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible, Studying the Synoptic Gospels: Origin and Interpretation and The Synoptic Problem: An Introduction. He was one of the N.T. consultants for the ESV Study Bible.

John Mark is traditionally known as the writer of the Gospel of Mark but Robert H. Stein is open to accrediting its authorship to another Mark.  Stein looks at the internal evidence, as well as, external evidence.  According to internal evidence, Stein says that “it fits well the tradition of the early church that it was written by John Mark.”  Stein also refers to external evidence: (Papias in Eusebius, Eusebius, the Anti-Marcionite Prologue, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Tertullian, Jerome).  However, he also raised arguments against Markan authorship in looking at an alleged geographical error (Mk. 12:25-13:4) and the author’s ignorance of Jewish laws and customs (Mk. 7:3-4).  However, for me personally, it doesn’t matter if it was the John Mark of Acts 12:12 or another Mark.  I still regard the Gospel of Mark as holy scripture: inspired by the Spirit of God and authoritative for the church of Christ.

Stein believes the second gospel was directed to an audience of Greek-speaking Christians, likely living in Rome, who were familiar with the gospel traditions and very knowledgeable about the Jewish religion.  The date of the writing of the Gospel of Mark is still debated.  It was likely written around (AD) 70 CE but Stein is open to the possibility of some time shortly after 62 CE.  Internal evidence pointing to allusions of the Jewish War in Mark 13 “abomination of desolation” also makes sense.  I think some time around 68/69 CE after Nero’s death was likely.

Stein also believes that Mark was the first canonical Gospel written, and along with Q, served as a source for both the gospels of Matthew and Luke.  He is of the opinion that:

…a cautious use of redaction criticism in Mark is both possible and profitable….Traditional redaction criticism is nevertheless not as holistic a discipline as it first seems, for it is primarily concerned not with the evangelist’s theology as a whole but rather with his unique theological contribution (p. 18).

Stein sees Mark as an historical narrative but not a narrative in the fictional sense because of the historicity of its accounts.    The historical events surrounding Jesus’ life controlled what Mark could write or not write.  Stein seems to feel more comfortable describing the Gospel of Mark as an historical biography.  As a result, he wrote this commentary for the purpose of explaining what Mark was trying to teach through his sayings and the events in the gospel. He did not write this commentary to show exactly what Jesus said or explain the life  of Jesus.  So perhaps a biography rather than a narrative would be more accurate but both terms accurately describe this gospel.

Steins view of Mark’s Christology is formed out of his miracles, words, actions and titles—typical things; but what intrigued me was his view of Jesus’ “messianic secret.”  I had never paid much attention to Mark’s Jesus who was reluctant to reveal his secret messianic identity, which was kept secret until the trial and crucifixion in Mark 14:61-64; 15:2-39.  He gives his reasons for this—for averting an immediate confrontation with Rome because Pilate would not tolerate a popular charismatic teacher who drew the attention of the masses.  This shows that Jesus was not killed as a political revolutionary.  Stein says he was killed because of the hostility of the religious leaders.  Second, Jesus’ messianic secrecy serves as a “literary device to highlight the greatness and glory of Jesus” (p. 25). Since Jesus is too great to be kept a secret, this inability to keep his messianic mission a secret, in itself, becomes the literary device.  This point is an interesting spin worth noting.

The commentary provides both Greek spellings and a transliteration of the original Greek.  Stein pays attention to the Greek.  Concerning Mark 9:31, he states:

The use of the iterative imperfect…indicates that the subject of Jesus’s future passion, death, and resurrection had been a constant theme of his teaching since 8:31…Thus the variation in the passion predictions could have a historical basis in Jesus’s having taught this “theme with variations.” The use of the futuristic present tense “will be delivered” … indicates the certainty of this future event” (p.439).

This is something that most readers and pastors do not pay attention to so I appreciate this attention.

Stein questions the authenticity of passages.  Regarding the disputed verse of Mark 10:45, he draws attention to its interpretation and authenticity.  He states:

The question of whether 10:45 is due to the theological reflection of the early church or came from Jesus himself tends ultimately to be answered according to one’s preconceptions concerning the historical Jesus.  If one assumes the historical Jesus was radically different from the Jesus of the Gospels, then one is predisposed, almost compelled, to deny the authenticity of this verse….It is much more likely that Jesus saw his mission along the lines of the suffering servant of Isaiah… (p. 487).

Given the approach of the BECNT series, Stein is allowed to challenge the status quo but he does not allow himself to get caught up in challenging the status quo for the sake of staking new ground in one’s research.   In liberal biblical theology, new discoveries for the sake of new research seems to be the ultimate goal, but it risks putting authenticity on the line which can actually lead to inauthentic scholarship.  Stein’s approach to theology is conservative but he takes into account the latest critical scholarship.  This gives me reason to remain confident in the new evangelical scholarship.

Stein also covers the important issues like historicity by mentioning various viewpoints.  Regarding the widow’s great gift in 12:41-44, Stein states:

The historicity of the account is often denied on the basis that Jesus could not have known how much the widow contributed to the treasury or that the widow had contributed all that she had (Haenchen 1966: 432-33).  In addition, some claim that the present account was originally a parable that has been transformed into a historical account (Dibelius 1934: 261; Nineham 1963: 334-35).  Yet Jesus might have known of the amount of the widow’s gift by overhearing the attending priest, who would have examined the widow’s offering and directed it to the appropriate receptacle.  All that transpired would have been spoken out loud (Gundry 1993: 731-34; J. Edwards 2002: 380-81).  The widow’s appearance may also have betrayed her situation (Evans 2001: 284) (p. 577).

The BECNT series doesn’t allow the reader to get lost in the forest of details (as some commentaries, e.g., WBC, ICC, may have a tendency to).  I like that because I can get the big picture and pick up on the pertinent issues of a text rather than wade through a sea of details.  Personally, I prefer a commentary that deals with the big picture of a pericope without getting bogged down with too many details.  Much of the details are useless to the heart and thrust of a sermon anyway.  What is the point of spending valuable time reading from commentaries and not be able to use the information one has learned?  Stein’s research is thorough and he references other scholars. He pays attention to existing scholarship, yet, he is able to keep the commentary in a succinct format that brings out the important points.

Robert H. Stein has written a fine commentary on the Gospel of Mark.  Stein leads the reader through the important points in detail while keeping the eye on the big picture.  I like this approach.  This is good for pastors who want to get the important and relevant information faster.  I am impressed with this commentary, and I am confident that as this series expands, BECNT will become established as one of the top premier commentary series in evangelical scholarship.  Another fine piece of work for Baker Academic!

Jeremiah: A Commentary. The Old Testament Library by WJK

Jeremiah: A Commentary. The Old Testament Library.

Author: Leslie C. Allen.
Publisher: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008. pp. xxix, 546.
ISBN: 0664222234, 9780664222239

I would like to offer a word of thanks to the people at Presbyterian Publishing Corporation for this review copy.

Westminster John Knox Press has newly released Jeremiah: A Commentary in late 2008. It is an addition to the Old Testament Library (OTL). The author, Professor Dr. Leslie C. Allen, is Sr. Professor of Old Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary. He has written commentaries on Ezekiel, Psalms, the minor prophets, Chronicles, and now Jeremiah. This replaces OTL’s 1986 edition by Robert R. Carroll.

In taking the form-critical approach to study the book, Allen typifies its genre as mainly oracles. He also points out various psalms of lament in Jeremiah. When we see the book of Jeremiah through the lens of redaction criticism, one can begin to notice components or units of texts sewn together. Allen says:
In chs. 2-6 units evidently reflecting Jeremiah’s early prophetic activity have been grouped together with the addition of some post-Jeremianic prose. A similar impression of quilting is given by the originally independent collection of chs. 30-31, where some of Jeremiah’s own oracles have been deliberately combined with later poetry and prose of a prophetic nature, and by the foreign oracles in chs. 46-51.” (p. 10).

With this quilting, the writings in Jeremiah are called into question of which can be attributable as the prophet’s own oracles. Many are his, but how many? His explanation of this redaction shows the skills of the redactors who have taken various compositions that are “centered on a single incident, which have been skilfully assembled into blocks with a coherent message,” says Allen. This explains why Jeremiah can be such a complex book to study.

Prior to reading this, I did not see this in Jeremiah but Allen has alerted me notice the various units that have been carefully woven together by the redactors. I am no scholar of Jeremiah but now that I’ve been made aware of this, I can see the literary system of compositions and blocks where they have been placed (e.g. Jer. 30-31). How does this look like?
This new literary block is ‘an anthology of poems and prose pieces that form a tapestry of hope’…; it consists of three compositions, 30:1-31:1; 31:2-26; 31:27-40. The oracle reception heading in 30:1 indicates that a fresh block consists of 30:1-31:40 since the heading next appears at 32:1….The short units in 30:1-31:40 represent an editorial collection of originally independent material. The block cites a series of oracles Jeremiah had delivered concerning the return of the exiles of the northern kingdom and crowns them with a number of post-Jeremianic oracles of hope.” (p. 333)

For example,it is interesting that Jeremiah 25 consists of various foreign oracles in the Septuagint have been slotted into this chapter. This makes Jeremiah kind of fascinating and more fun to analyze, well, at least for a person like me. I don’t think I could have seen this on my own. I love how Allen expressed his analogy of Jeremiah with a house:
The book of Jeremiah is like an old English country house, originally built and then added to in the Regency period, augmented with Victorian wings, and generally refurbished throughout the Edwardian years. It grew over a long period of time.” (p. 11)

Allen says the dating of Jeremiah takes into consideration 33:14-26 as being postexilic Judah. In addition, even though the oracles’ perspectives seem to take a Babylonian setting, the oracles looks forward to the downfall of the neo-Babylonian Empire and its later oracles align with Second Isaiah. Therefore, a reshaping of Jeremiah had to have taken place.

The purpose of Jeremiah is addressed by the author. Allen presents the possibility that one may read the prophecies in Jeremiah with the mindset of looking back into history to the fulfillment of the prophet’s oracles of disaster (rather than prophecy as looking into the future). By presenting a question and attempting to answer it, one may be able to get at the purpose of Jeremiah. One may ask why the disaster happened. Then provide an explanation which may be the pre-exilic pagan worship. Jeremiah is a prophet who warned of worship of other gods (9:12, 13; 16:11; 22:9). I think that is the nature of prophetic writing.

Allen has done a very good job at exegeting the Jeremianic text. This is an excellent commentary on the book and I would recommend getting this for your library to help you exegete and interpret the text for a sermon on Jeremiah. Very well done.

I, II, & III John: A Commentary. The New Testament Library by WJK

I, II, & III John: A Commentary. The New Testament Library.

Author: Judith M. Lieu.
Publisher: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008. pp. 336.
ISBN: 0664220983, 9780664220983

First, I’d like to thank the fine people at the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation for this review copy.

The New Testament Library published by Westminster John Knox Press has just newly released I, II, & III John: A Commentary. The author, Professor Dr. Judith M. Lieu, is a professor of Cambridge University’s Faculty of Divinity. She is also the editor of the journal New Testament Studies and is also the author of numerous books on early Christian identity.

Author Dr. Judith M. Lieu’s speaks about the historical aspect of these letters, as well as, the author, audience, and situation of the epistles’ setting. The introduction also covers the argument, style, and thought of the letters. The author’s question of the anonymity of the author leaves me wondering if it was written by the same person who wrote the Gospel of John; however, her analysis and comparison between the similarities of the Johannine corpus still leaves me leaning towards the corpus as being written by one and the same person, which is traditionally agreed upon.

Lieu’s introduction to the commentary makes use of the latest biblical scholarship. Her expertise on early Christian identity lends itself nicely in this commentary because she also looks at the early Christian church through the eyes of John and how its dynamics influenced John’s letters. Lieu states:
Although 1 John moves within a dualist worldview, it is a profoundly Jewish one; in many ways, like other early Christian literature, this is an apocalyptic interpretation of history and experience. The denigration of “the (or this) world” owes something to the contrast in apocalyptic thought with “the world (or age) to come,” although that concept is not used in the Johannine literature….1 John’s favorite term for the eruption into the world of the Son of God is the verb phaneroo, to “reveal” or “manifest”; it refers to the past but also to the anticipated future revelation (2:28; 3:2, 5, 8). The emergence of the antichrists is a spurious imitative manifestation (2:19), and, although probably experienced in terms of human schism and conflict, they are described in all the language of the eschatological denouement.” (p.22)

Her identification of a literary element of rhythmic style within the first letter of John opened my eyes to there being a possible hymn of love in chapter. I am not entire convinced of this but there is definitely is some repetition.

The letters have a dualistic worldview. Concerning this, Lieu states:
Most fundamentally this worldview is characterized by dualism between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, life and death, love and hatred; in the Gospel, but not in 1 John, there is a vertical dimension, above and below, and both writings set the (or this) world against that which is “not of the world.” (p.18)

The author agrees with the gender inclusive writing of the letters in using “brothers and sisters,” however, she realizes some difficulty in certain verses in stating:
While this may make the text more accessible to contemporary readers, it may also obscure the mindset of the earliest authors, who probably took for granted that priority of the masculine address….The associated image of strength and of victory over the evil one is apposite for the young male (neaniskos) but not for his coeval “sister.” Although it is unlikely that 1 John is addressed to an all-male community, such a reading would not be impossible.” (p.31).

Her scholarly assessment of the Epistles of John is quite in-depth and detailed. Going by a verse-by-verse exegetical format, she locates some of the difficult parts of the biblical text. For example, in 1 John 3:19-20, Lieu offers five alternative renderings based on the Greek text (p.155). In 1 John 4:9-10, the author also draws a parallel between this text and John 3:16-17. Lieu states:
Equally, while it is possible that the story of Abraham, the father who offered his only son, informed some other early Christian reflection on God’s giving of his Son (see Rom. 8:32), it is nowhere in view at this point in 1 John. These conclusions are reinforced by the verb “sent” (apostello). That Jesus is the Son sent by the Father, God, is axiomatic for the Fourth Gospel’s Christology…However, none of this can be read into 1 John; the three occurrences of the verb…are formulaic and do not invite further theological reflection.” (p.183)

This commentary’s exegesis of the biblical text is top notch. Overall, I would like to comment that the entire New Testament Library commentary series is not intended to provide much pastoral application because it is designed so that it leaves it up to the exegete to provide a pastoral application from the text. Other commentary series may provide much more pastoral application than the NTL. This series of commentaries provides a transliteration of the Greek so that it is accessible to those not familiar with Greek such as lay people; moreover, it is not so technical that only an academically trained person in the original languages can use it.

Lieu has written an excellent commentary on I, II, & III John. Her biblical exegesis of the text is thorough and very well done. This is definitely a commentary I would reference in my personal exegesis and interpretation of the letters of John.