Sunday, April 1, 2007

Commentary Recommendations: Romans, Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians

My commentary suggestions for several of Paul's epistles appeared in the February, 2007 issue of Catalyst On-line, a web journal for United Methodist Seminarians.


Call me old-fashioned but I still think C. E. B. Cranfield’s 2-volume ICC commentary on Romans (T. & T. Clark, 1975) sets the bar, not because Cranfield always gets it right but because of his sheer mastery of the exegetical craft. For every word or phrase, Cranfield wends through the interpretive maze, lists options, weighs support and defends his own view, combining the technical precision of a master craftsman with the relentless consistency of a trial lawyer. Granted, important questions (e.g., from E. P. Sanders) and new disciplines (e.g., social-scientific and literary criticisms) have emerged in the three decades since this set appeared, such that fresh appraisals are called for, but Cranfield’s work remains foundational. Even though it assumes familiarity with the original languages (only Hebrew is transliterated), one can often “read around” the Greek and still follow the argument.

Taking up Cranfield’s mantle and continuing Durham’s rich tradition of Romans scholarship, James Dunn’s WBC commentary (2 volumes; Word, 1988) built carefully on Sanders’ insights to argue that Paul’s critique of Judaism concerns not legalism but ethnic nationalism or cultural imperialism. A third milestone in Romans scholarship is Douglas Moo’s NICNT volume (Eerdmans, 1996), a 1000-page model of clarity and judicious scholarship that, while affirming certain elements of the “new perspective,” defends a modified Lutheran approach to Paul. Honorable mention goes to Thomas Schreiner’s BECNT volume (Baker, 1998) for its accessibility, comprehensiveness and thoughtful interaction with the secondary literature, and to Charles Talbert’s Smyth and Helwys tome (2002) for its aesthetic appeal and CD-ROM, and for its interest in the rhetoric of Paul’s argument and the social location of the letter.

1 Corinthians

The 1987 publication of Gordon Fee’s NICNT volume was another commentary milestone. Fee’s honed skills as text critic and exegete serve, but never overwhelm, his larger goal of illuminating Paul’s argument and celebrating the abiding relevance of Paul’s theology. Pastoral reflections at the end of each thought unit remain relevant 20 years after they went to press.

Subsequent studies of 1 Corinthians, including Richard Hays’ contribution to the Interpretation series (Westminster/John Knox, 1997), stand on Fee’s shoulders. Hays’ volume is an elegant blend of exegesis, imagination and Biblical theology. In keeping with the pastoral tone of the series, Hays invites preachers to watch and learn as Paul responds to urgent pastoral problems, reshapes pagan imaginations, forms Christian community and reasserts the centrality of the cross. Hays’ reading of 1 Corinthians highlights the Scriptural foundations of Paul’s theology and the ecclesiological, communal nature of his ethics: the desperate need for unity, love and selflessness within the Corinthian community cannot be separated from the community’s New Covenant identity as the people of God. This will preach.

David Garland’s volume in the BECNT series (Baker, 2003) is up to date, heavily indexed with a stellar bibliography. If it does not exhaust every last technical question—for that consult Anthony Thiselton’s 1446-page NIGTC volume (Eerdmans, 2000), it is eminently readable and fair-minded, and moves seamlessly between high-level exegetical debates and practical, pastoral concerns. Greek words are both transliterated and translated so no one is excluded from the conversation.

2 Corinthians

Among commentaries on 2nd Corinthians, Victor Furnish’s Anchor Bible volume (Doubleday, 1984) remains seminal. The puzzle of Paul’s complex historical relationship to the Corinthians, along with the striking shifts in the letter’s tone prompt Furnish to argue that the canonical epistle originally existed as two separate letters, with 1-9 earlier than 10-13. (This partition theory is tame compared to, e.g., W. Schmithals’.) Whether or not one finds such theories persuasive, the strength of Furnish’s exegetical insights remains. A nice feature of this series is how it separates technical “notes” from general and detailed “comments.”

Also aging well is Ralph Martin’s Word commentary (Word, 1986). Martin, who affirms a temporal gap between the composition of 1-9 and 10-13, attends carefully to Paul’s use of scripture, to early Jewish hermeneutics and to the urgent messianic eschatology that drives Paul’s argument. As with all Word commentaries, each unit includes an extensive bibliography.

Murray Harris’ NIGTC opus (Eerdmans, 2005) is to 2 Corinthians what Cranfield’s is to Romans. Harris has inhabited this epistle for over 30 years (cf. Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 10 [Zondervan, 1976]) and it shows: no grammatical detail or exegetical debate escapes his attention. Analysis is crystal clear and conclusions are well-reasoned, but readers will need to read closely and pull their weight. The introduction includes all the usual issues plus a summary of the letter’s theology. Perhaps the only omission concerns recent archaeological finds at Corinth. One might hope that the author’s “expanded paraphrase,” creatively inscribing the conclusions of his exegesis, will catch on.

Honorable mention goes to Scott J. Hafemann’s NIVAC volume (Zondervan, 2000), a sound and practical guide to the letter by another long-term scholar of this epistle.


Several recent commentaries on Galatians have shifted the spotlight away from the letter’s rhetorical-epistolary framework—central to Hans Dieter Betz’s seminal work (Hermeneia, 1979; cf. Richard Longenecker’s [Word, 1990] and B. Witherington [T. & T. Clark, 1998])—to its homiletical and theological agenda. In my view, this is good news, and not just for preachers.

J. Louis Martyn’s acclaimed Anchor Bible commentary (Doubleday, 1997) is theologically penetrating, artful and ground-breaking. With 4:3-5 as the letter’s center, Martyn finds the polarity with which Paul struggles to be, not Christianity versus Judaism, but “God’s apocalyptic act in Christ versus religion” (37). Even if Martyn poses too stark a contrast between Paul’s Jewish heritage and his Christian convictions, every page demonstrates Martyn’s passion to think Paul’s thoughts after him, and to dismantle the contemporary wall between theology and exegesis.

Richard B. Hays’ Galatians (New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. IX; Abingdon, 2000), though a modest 165 pages, takes up all the pressing issues of the letter with elegance and passion. As with Martyn, Hays takes Paul’s principal beef to be with those who require Gentile followers of Jesus to submit to circumcision and keep the Law of Moses. Martyn calls Paul’s opponents “the Teachers;” Hays, following Dunn, calls them “Missionaries.” Both terms avoid the confusion and pejorative tone of older terms (e.g., “Judaizers,” “agitators”).

Hays is well known for his defense of the “subjective genitive” in the pistis Christou wars. Thus, Hays would say (with Martyn) that we are justified (or “rectified”) through “the faithfulness of Jesus,” as demonstrated in his death (cf. Gal 2:16, 20; 3:22). Although this volume includes practical, often moving “Reflections” at the end of each unit, rich resources for preachers and teachers may be found on every page.


My three choices for Ephesians all hail from the nineties. Andrew T. Lincoln (WBC; Word, 1990) is a faithful guide to the argument of the letter, its predominantly “realized” eschatology and its “universal” ecclesiology. Though Lincoln defends pseudonymous authorship—one of Paul’s students expanded and adapted Colossians, offering us “an updating of Paul’s Gospel” (lviii)—he is eager to affirm the authority of the letter within the NT canon.

Ernest Best’s 1998 contribution to T. & T. Clark’s ICC series replaces the century-old volume on Ephesians and Colossians by T. K. Abbott. Best defends at length the pseudonymous authorship of Ephesians but, unlike Lincoln, finds Ephesians and Colossians to be independent compositions from the same Pauline school. Complementing the detailed, often technical but always clear, running commentary are six “detached notes”: The Heavenlies; In Christ; The Powers; The Body of Christ; Israel, and the Church; The Haustafel; and two essays: The Church; Moral Teaching.

Peter T. O’Brien begins his excellent Ephesians volume in the Pillar series (Eerdmans, 1999) with a lengthy defense of Pauline authorship. Intended for pastors and teachers, O’Brien’s commentary is the easiest of the three to use. It is scholarly but not scholastic (Greek is confined to the notes) and moves easily from exegesis to biblical theology and contemporary relevance. The epistle’s central message, we learn, is “cosmic reconciliation and unity in Christ” (58).

1 comment:

Moderator Mike said...

Sitting here at my computer on a cold, rainy day before Easter and was musing on some things. Visited your blog and read through the posts. Was glad I did...I needed the perspective. Thanks.