Osborne, Grant R. Ephesians: Verse by Verse. Osborne New Testament Commentaries; Bellingham, Wash.: Lexham Press, 2017. 267 pp.; Pb. $19.99 Link to Lexham Press
Osborne, Grant R. Philippians: Verse by Verse. Osborne New Testament Commentaries; Bellingham, Wash.: Lexham Press, 2017. 243 pp.; Pb. $19.99 Link to Lexham Press
Osborne, Grant R. Colossians and Philemon: Verse by Verse. Osborne New Testament Commentaries; Bellingham, Wash.: Lexham Press, 2017. 222 pp.; Pb. $16.99 Link to Lexham Press
These three new commentaries on Paul’s Prison Epistles from Lexham Press target a general readership rather than a scholarly audience. Like the popular The Tyndale Commentary Series, these three volumes are brief yet scholarly, targeting a wide range of readers.
Commentaries on these four books often begin with a discussion of authorship. Scholarship has questioned whether Paul wrote Ephesians and occasionally Colossians. Osborne briefly summarizes these challenges in his introductions and concludes there is no reason to reject the claim of each book that Paul is the author. The theological themes of Ephesians are consistent with Paul’s other letters and there is really no problem with parallels between Ephesians and Colossians, especially if they were written about the same time.
Since Paul implies he is in prison in each of these four letters, the second issue commentaries on the Prison Epistles usually treat is “from which of Paul’s many imprisonments did he write these letters?” In the Ephesian commentary Osborne evaluates the two main alternatives, Caesarea (Acts 24:27, A.D. 59-60) and Rome (Acts 28:30-31, AD 61-62) and concludes the Roman imprisonment is better, primarily because there is little evidence of ministry while Paul is in Caesarea. He does not engage with the suggestion Paul wrote Philippians from an implied imprisonment during his lengthy stay in Ephesus. Osborne suggests all four Prison epistles were written over a three or four month period and delivered by Tychicus.
Each commentary suggests a few primary purposes for the letters. Ephesians was a circular letter to all the churches in the Roman province of Asia, likely including the seven churches mentioned in Revelation 2-3, Colossae and Hierapolis. As such, Ephesians is a general letter dealing with doctrine and practice with very little “Jew-Gentile tensions” which appear in Paul’s other letters. Philippians thanks the church for supporting Paul while he is in prison. Paul informs them of his situation in order to encourage them, but he also addresses some theological issues perhaps in response to an opponent in Philippi. Writing to a church Paul did not found, Colossians deals with a particular teaching threatening the church. Philemon’s purpose is clear: Paul writes a letter of recommendation for an escaped slave who has now become a Christian.
For Philippians and Colossians Paul engages an opponent, or perhaps as many as three opponents. In Philippians 1:18 Paul mentions those who “preach the gospel out of impure motives,” rival teachers from within the church. In Philippians 3:2 Paul surprises the reader with a warning to watch out for “those dogs, mutilators of the flesh.” Osborne suggests the opponents are similar to (or even the same as) the opponents in Galatia, the Judaizers (Philippians, 118). But there are also hints of a third group, pagan persecutors of the church (1:27-30).
For Colossians, commentaries usually devote significant space to the “Colossian Heresy.” This opponent is in some aspects Jewish (2: 16, 18 21; food laws and festivals), but in other ways they are Gentile, described as a philosophy (Col 2:4, 8) For Osborne, this is a “proto-Gnostic” teaching which devalued Christ (and perhaps over-valued angels).
Osborne also deals briefly with the literary features of the letters. It is currently fashionable to read Paul’s letters in the light of Greco-Roman rhetoric. Osborne recognizes some value in studying these features, but for Ephesians he concludes “this is not Hellenistic rhetoric, but a Jewish homily and letter” (Ephesians, 7). For Philippians, he discusses the genre of the letter (friendship letter, word of exhortation) as well as the common suggestion Philippians is a compilation of several short letters from Paul. The multiple-source theories are “artificial and unnecessary” (Philippians, 3).
For Philemon, commentaries often are bogged down with long background sections on slavery in the Roman word. Osborne’s entire section on Philemon is barely forty pages and only touches on this cultural background. He does engage in a discussion of four potential reconstructions of the situation behind the letter before offering his own view (which he works out in the short commentary).
Finally, each introduction concludes with a short summary of the theology of the book. Although there are some unique elements in each letter, Osborne observes the work of Christ in each of these four letters as well as what each letter contributes to our understanding of the church in Pauline theology. Reading these three volumes at the same time highlights the consistency of the theology of the Prison Epistles.
The body of each commentary moves through paragraphs based on the outline provided in his introductions. Occasionally Osborne will refer to a Greek word, but these only appear in transliteration and do not distract readers who have not studied Greek. Footnotes are rare in the commentary, occasionally pointing to another scholar for additional information or to a series of cross-references. The commentary concludes with a glossary of key terms (indicated by bold lettering in the text), a short bibliography, Subject/Author index and a Scripture index.
Conclusion. Like Osborne’s commentaries on Galatians and Romans in this series, these three volumes achieve the goal of providing ample resources for reading the text. Osborne intentionally writes to be understood by the layperson as well as to assist a busy pastor preparing to preach or teach the Prison Epistles. There are more technical exegetical commentaries available, but Osborne’s commentaries fill the need for a short, readable commentary accessible by all students of the Bible.
NB: Thanks to Lexham Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.