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Thanks to Zondervan Academic for the review copy!
David Pao is professor of New Testament and Chair of the New Testament Department at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He has authored several books, notably, Thanksgiving: An Investigation of a Pauline Theme in one of my favorite series (NSBT).
Here, he has contributed the volume on Colossians and Philemon to Zondervan’s Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament series. While there is no shortage of good commentaries for Colossians (see my list here), Pao’s is a useful addition, particularly if you are teaching or preaching through the book (a refrain I keep coming back to with this series).
Pao gives a concise introduction to the book, though not without a foray into the background issues (the so-called Colossian heresy, and what it might be, if it existed). Then, he settles into the format that is distinctive of this series:
- Literary Context
- Main Idea
- Translation and Graphical Layout
- Exegetical Outline
- Explanation of the Text
- Theology in Application
Pao sticks to the general style throughout. He doesn’t present an innovative approach to the “Theology in Application” sections the way Shogren did, but his sections are more meaty in the different topics that they cover.
As far as specific issues Pao covers in more explanatory detail, the following items come up:
- The Colossian Hymn (89-93)
- Vice and Virtue Lists (216-218)
- Household Codes (263-266)
As you can see, none of these arise in connection with Philemon. However, proportionally, in a commentary that is over 450 pages, almost 100 pages are devoted to the single chapter of Philemon. Though no sidebars appear, Pao is very detailed in his comments, and particularly interesting to me was his discussion of the background circumstances surrounding Paul’s letter.
After surveying the interpretations, Pao puts forward his argument that “Onesimus was sent by Philemon to help Paul,” and so was not a runaway slave (345). This sees “useless” (v. 11) as a wordplay on “Onesimus” and not a statement concerning his value (346). In this way, what is possibly happening is that Onesimus has been sent to help Paul, later confesses his stealing after coming to faith, and Paul is writing on his behalf to mitigate punishment in his return (347). Also insightful in connection with the background are Pao’s thoughts on slavery in the first century world, which he summarizes in the introduction (348-351). This also helps with understanding why Paul didn’t ask for Onesimus to be manumitted upon his return.
Accordingly, the “Theology of Philemon” is more focused on the new reality that is part of implications of the gospel of Christ. He unpacks the nature of redemption and reconciliation as expounded in Philemon, as well as directives for our mission work and how we relate to authority. In contrast, the “Theology of Colossians” section is essentially an extended Christology, rather than a walk through the categories of systematic theology that are discussed in Colossians. Pao still covers some systematic topics, but they are presented in relation to the Lordship of Christ. When this is coupled with his meatier “Theology in Application” sections, this becomes one of the more robustly theological commentaries in this series so far. Some of that might be because it is Colossians after all, but it gives the volume a good balance between insights into exegetical structuring and theological ruminations.
On the whole then, this is a stellar volume on Colossians and Philemon. It is very theological, but it also has a healthy focus on significant background issues in both books. It is probably not a significant enough volume to dethrone Moo’s Pillar entry, but is definitely on par with it and worth adding to your library if you’re teaching/preaching Colossians, or Christology is an specific research interest of yours.