Book Review: Frank Thielman, Romans (ZECNT)

Thielman, Frank. Romans. ZECNT; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2018. 812 pp. Hb. $59.99   Link to Zondervan  

Frank Thielman’s new contribution to the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament series enters an already crowded field of recent major Romans commentaries. Thielman serves as Presbyterian Chair of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School. His previous work includes From Plight to Solution: A Jewish Framework for Understanding Paul’s View of the Law in Galatians and Romans (Brill, 1989), Paul and the Law: A Contextual Approach (Inter-Varsity, 1994) and Theology of the New Testament: A Canonical and Synthetic Approach (Zondervan, 2005).

Thielman, RomansThe thirty-one page introduction is quite different than the average exegetical commentary on Romans. Thielman begins with a brief synopsis of state of the Roman Empire in A.D. 57 followed by an account of how Christian first reached Rome. The purpose of both sections is to place the reader into the world of Rome in the mid-first century. He draws attention to the social problems of slavery, infanticide, and the despair of people living in abject poverty. Thielman paints a picture of “Rome’s Christians as relatively poor, hardworking people with roots in the East and speaking Greek as well as or better than Latin” (p. 32).

With respect to traditional introductory questions, the Letter to the Romans was written from Corinth about A.D. 57 and delivered by Phoebe to ethnically diverse but mostly Gentile churches in Rome. Phoebe may have been a woman of wealth and high social status based the word προστάτις in Romans 16:2, and Thielman thinks she holds the position of deacon. The role of deacon, however, “involved a lot of running around” as was considered lowly service by Greco-Roman standards (p. 712).

As for the purpose of the letter, Thielman observes there are several reasons Paul wrote to a congregation he did not yet know. Paul says his desire is to visit them in order to preach the Gospel (1:13). The rest of Romans describes Paul’s gospel and its implications for Christian living. Since the Roman churches were predominately Gentile, Thielman suggests Paul may have considered the Roman Christians part of his apostolic responsibility (p. 37). But Paul also needed the support of the Roman congregations if he was to continue his mission by preaching the Gospel in Spain (Rom 15:28-29).

Each chapter in the body of the commentary begins with the literary context of the section of Romans under examination. This is more than a summary of the pericope since Thielman connects the smaller unit with the larger aims of the letter. Following this is a snippet of the detailed outline of Romans in a faux computer window graphic. Thielman then offers a concise main idea for the section to be studied in the chapter.

Like other volumes in this series, the English translation of the pericope is presented in a graphical layout marked with interpretive labels for each clause. The series introduction indicates these labels are “informed by discourse analysis and narrative criticism, but the editors have also attempted to avoid technical jargon. In order to help the reader follow the flow of Paul’s argument, main clauses appear in bold print, subordinate clauses are indented.

Following this graphical display of the text, Thielman makes a series of observations on the structure of the pericope followed by an exegetical outline. Since these are slightly more detailed than the outline provided under the literary context, it makes little sense to me to include both; the faux window under literary context could be deleted without any loss in clarity. In fact, the structure section could easily be combined with the literary context since it is a slightly more detailed version of the same material. This is a problem for the commentary series and not the fault of Thielman.

After setting the context in several different ways, Thielman moves on to the commentary proper under the heading “Explanation of the Text.” Here the style of the commentary breaks up into two columns. The commentary proceeds phrase-by-phrase, with the English text in bold followed by the Greek text in parenthesis. Since key Greek words are repeated in the commentary, printing the full Greek text may not be necessary. Thielman does not often comment on the syntax in the body of the commentary, but there are ample footnotes directing readers to Wallace, Zerwick, Moule and other advanced koine Greek grammars. The same is true for lexical issues. He often comments on the use of a word elsewhere in the LXX or Greek New Testament and uses the footnotes to point readers to lexicons and theological dictionaries. This makes the body of the commentary uncluttered and easy to read. Thielman interacts with secondary literature in the footnotes, pointing interested readers to a wide range of literature on Romans, both classic and modern.

The final unit in each chapter is labeled “Theology in Application.” Here Thielman offers two or three points of contact with Pauline theology or contemporary church issues which arise from his exegesis. For example, commenting on honor and shame in Romans 12:1-8, Thielman says “competition and seeking honor for one’s self are no less a part of modern human societies than they were of ancient Roman society. Paul’s call upon believers to be vigilant against allowing this spirit to infect the church is as relevant now as it was in his own time” (p. 581).

Thielman covers technical details excurses scattered throughout the commentary. These sidebars are labeled “In Depth” and are printed in a sans-serf font and a grey background. Like most excurses, the reader may skip over them thinking they are not very important. This is not the case, Thielman uses these sidebars to deal with a few important issues for the study of Romans. Several deal with textual criticism such as the doxology at the end of Roman 16 or the difficult problem of ἔχομεν or ἔχωμεν in Romans 5:1. Other sidebars focus on the background to special vocabulary, such as ἱλαστήριον in Romans 3:25 or “height” and “depth” in Romans 8:39 (are these astrological terms? Thielman says no). Sometimes the excursus covers a difficult problem in Romans studies such as the identity of “I” in 7:7-25 or the nature of the house church which met in the home of Prisca and Aquila in 16:3. I expected a sidebar on Junia (16:7), Thielman quickly covers the identity Junia in the commentary (she is an apostle, Thielman includes more than two pages on Paul’s understanding of Israel’s stumbling in Romans 9-11 and another two pages on his use of Deuteronomy 30:12-14 in Romans 10:6-8.

Conclusion. Frank Thielman’s contribution to the study of Romans is not a massive exegetical commentary like Richard Longenecker or Douglas Moo, but it is far more detailed than other light commentaries like Grant Osborne or Craig Keener. This commentary falls between those two extremes and should provide pastors and teachers with the exegetical details they need to present this important book to their students.

NB: The original publication of this commentary (ISBN: 9780310243687) contained errors in the footnotes. It was replaced in December 2018 with a new ISBN (9780310104032). Be sure to purchase the new edition by checking the ISBN. Thanks to Zondervan for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

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