Top Five Philemon Commentaries

I included a few Philemon commentaries with my Colossians post a few weeks ago, but I thought it would be interesting to find commentaries on just Philemon. This is a bit of a challenge, since there are very few commentaries written on just this letter.  I only have two additional “Philemon only” commentaries which I will include in this post.  Yes, I know the title says five…

Markus Barth and Helmut Blanke, The Letter to Philemon (ECC; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2000). This commentary likely holds the record for the largest commentary on the smallest book in the modern era. Barth and Blanke wrote the Anchor Bible commentary on Colossians and Markus Barth is responsible for the idiosyncratic two-volume Anchor commentary on Ephesians. Philemon has 330 words, this commentary has just under 500 pages, or about a page and a half for every word in the letter.

Actually, the commentary has 242 pages of introduction. Barth and Blanke begin with about 100 pages on slavery in the first century. This is practically a book in and of itself, but understanding this material is essential for properly understanding the letter, and more importantly, understanding why Paul does not request that Philemon give Onesimus his freedom. I have commented several times that one of the problems understanding slavery is that most people in the Western world have American slave trade in mind, but that is not at all what Roman slavery was like.

The second half of the introduction treats the more typical topics one expects to find in a commentary. A major concern in the type of letter and the rhetoric Paul uses to achieve his goal. In fact, Paul’s goal in the letter is not obvious unless we read the letter as an example of a Greco-Roman letter. Barth and Blanke provide a number of parallel letters from the Greco-Roman world which help illuminate Philemon. The main concern of the introduction is the situation behind the letter to Philemon. Much is assumed about Onesimus, his flight and theft, his conversion and the reasons for his return.

The actual commentary on Philemon proceeds phrase-by-phrase, treating the English text. All Greek appears in transliteration and all sources are cited in-text. This commentary is less interested in lexical issues, but that may be a result of the fairly straight-forward Greek found in the letter.  The commentary also includes twenty-two excursuses on a variety of topics from house churches to providence and free will. Most of these run only a few pages and can be skipped if desired. The excursus on brotherhood (p. 423-46) is the longest. Barth and Blanke survey the Old Testament background for this term and compare Paul’s use of brother language for fellow believers to other “brotherhoods” in the ancient and modern world.

Something I find strange with this commentary is that it does not have an introduction or forward. I was interested to know how Blanke completed the work of his teacher Barth (who died in 1994).

Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Letter to Philemon (AB; New York: Doubleday, 2000). Unlike Barth and Blanke, Fitzmyer’s commentary on Philemon is more or less the length that one would expect. At only 138 pages (78 of which are introduction), the commentary is tiny in comparison to Barth and Blanke’s girth. Fitzmyer was chosen to replace Barth who died before completing the commentary on Philemon. Fitzmyer had written the article on Philemon for both the Jerome Bible Commentary in 1968 and the revised New Jerome Bible Commentary in 1990, so he was prepared to expand his work for the Anchor volume.

His introduction has a mere 8 pages on slavery, but it is enough to set the context of the letter. More important is Fitzmyer’s survey of the occasion and purpose of the letter. Fitzmyer argues that Paul is serving as a friendly intermediary (amicus domini), attempting to exert some influence over Philemon and reconciling him with Onesimus. As evidence, he includes several letters from Pliny which serve a similar purpose. This explanation of the letter has been widely accepted.

The body of the commentary begins with a fresh translation, followed by comments and notes. He treats the Greek through transliteration, commenting on lexical and syntactical matters, as well as text-critical issues. As with Fiztmyer’s other commentaries for the Anchor series, he concludes each section with a bibliography which includes English and international scholars.

Conclusion. Are there any other “solo” Philemon Commentaries?  Perhaps there is a brief tract which has been helpful in your studies – let me know what you have found useful for reading Philemon!


Index for the Top Five Commentary Series


Introduction to Series on Commentaries

On Using Commentaries 

Matthew        Mark        Luke        John        Acts
Romans        1 Corinthians         2 Corinthians
Galatians         Ephesians        Philippians        Colossians
1-2 Thessalonians        Pastoral Epistles         Philemon
Hebrews        James         1 Peter         2 Peter & Jude 
Letters of John         Revelation

Conclusion:  Last Thoughts on New Testament Commentaries

9 thoughts on “Top Five Philemon Commentaries

  1. Phil,

    You might find these helpful.

    Although I am not aware of anyone who holds to Knox’s theory, his work did cast a long shadow over NT scholarship of the letter.

    Knox, John. Philemon among the Letters of Paul: A New View of its Place and Importance. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1935; rev. edn, New York: Abingdon Press, 1959.

    Peterson is not a commentary, but it does mark a departure from the traditional approach to Philemon and a move to a social scientific approach.

    Peterson, N. R. Rediscovering Paul: Philemon and the Sociology of Paul’s Narrative World (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985).

    As far as Barth and Blanke, I have found it to be wanting in many aspects. The commentary was published several years after Barth had died. Blanke finished it, but there is quite a gap in scholarship between Barth’s death and the publication. I have always been surprised that Eerdmans published it that way. And as you note, the introduction on slavery is quite long, but I suspect many would question that picture of slavery that is painted there and the way the sources were used to create it.

    In general, Fitzmyer does not provide any particularly new or unique insights. His treatment is even handed and reflects a concern to integrate interpretive issues with his own conclusions. This does not mean that the commentary should be undervalued, however. Such an approach provides an opportunity for the reader to navigate through many if not all of the important issues of consideration. A student unfamiliar with the long history of Philemon interpretation will find the volume informative yet unburdensome for a beginner.

    By far the greatest contribution Fitzmyer has made in his volume is the bibliography. With its length of 35 pages it represents a full one third of the commentary. Add to this the specific bibliographies at the end of each pericope and the result is a treasure trove of sources and information for Philemon and wider Pauline studies.

    Thanks for your posts on commentaries, I have enjoyed them.


    • Great comment John. I should have run the Philemon post past you to begin with. I did not include Knox partially because it is one of those books everyone cites just to disagree with (I also do not have a copy, nor does our library for some reason). I simply overlooked Peterson, it is certainly an excellent resource for Philemon.

      I appreciate the insight into the Barth and Blanke commentary. The thing reads like it was only lightly edited with respect to format. Even in comparison to other ECC volumes, it is odd.

  2. Hi
    A good recient commentary on Philemon comes from john nordling in the concordia commentary series.

  3. Sorry I should have also pointed to a cupple of shorter works worth a scan.

    Arthur Rupprecht in the rebc is known for his work on slavery.
    Jacob Abshire has small reformed work on Philemon.
    Bradley Cobb mabye helpful but I have not read?
    Grahame Scroggie may count as a small classic if you can find it.
    Robert Chilton has written “A Study in Leadership Style” hard to quantify.

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