Book Review: Scot McKnight, Colossians (NICNT)

McKnight, Scot. Colossians. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2018. lx+442 pp.; Hb.; $55.00. Link to Eerdmans   

McKnight begins this major commentary on Colossians with the observation that the letter is Paul’s “apostolic vision that sought to redesign the Roman Empire” (1). That “redesign” is based on Paul’s gospel of Jesus Christ and Paul’s gospel, McKnight says, can be reduced to the term “mystery,” Paul’s “term in this letter for God’s plan to reconcile Gentiles with Jews, slaves with free, and all manner of social identities into one large family called the church” (4). According to the letter to the Colossians, this new family challenges the dark powers of the present age, whether they are Greco-Roman gods and emperors or the nationalism and imperialism of the modern age.

Scot McKnight, Colossians, CommentaryWith respect to the authorship and date of Colossians, McKnight begins with a critique of the method usually used in Pauline authorship discussions. He questions the validity of comparing Colossians to the other letters which are known to be authentically from Paul. The problem, says McKnight, is we really do not have proof Galatians (for example) was written by Paul. In fact, all ancient letters were mediated through a secretary, or perhaps even a series of scribes. Paul’s letters were often written along with others who worked with him, Timothy for example.

Although there are differences in vocabulary and style, McKnight lists several clear similarities between Colossians and the other so-called authentic letters: the authority of Paul, Christology, ecclesiology, and eschatology. In each case there are some unique elements and distinctive nuances, but each theological area does not contrast with the “pure Paul” of Romans and Galatians (16). The doctrine of justification and an emphasis on the Holy Spirit are missing from Colossians, but this is not part of the themes of the letter. He concludes his discussion of authorship with the curmudgeonly conclusion Paul did not write any of his letters, but Paul is behind all his letters (18).

McKnight favors the view Paul was in Ephesus when he wrote Colossians (and Philemon) in the mid-50s, perhaps as late as 57. The traditional view Paul wrote from Rome sometime in the early 60s is problematic because of the travel notes in Colossians and Philemon. Of course the main weakness of an Ephesian origin for the letter is there is no explicit reference to an Ephesian imprisonment. Yet an origin in Ephesus allows the interpreter to hear echoes of the culture of Ephesus in the letter, especially the presence of exorcists and magicians from Acts 19:13-20 and (I would add), the “powers” from the letter to the Ephesians (39).

The other introductory issue unique to Colossians is the nature of the opponents against whom Paul writes. McKnight calls them “the Halakic Mystics of Colossae.” The matter is complicated by the fact we know very little about Colossae compared to other Greco-Roman cities such as Ephesus. McKnight interacts at length with Jerry Sumney’s Identifying Paul’s Opponents (Bloomsbury, 2015) and agrees with Sumney’s call for caution in the case of the opponents at Colossae, but he would allow for more evidence to be drawn from the ethical section of the book. McKnight agrees with Ian Smith’s Heavenly Perspective: A Study of the Apostle Paul’s Response to a Jewish Mystical Movement at Colossae (T&T Clark, 2006) and “riffs” on Smith’s major points (29). The opponents were operating with a Jewish set of ideas allied with the kind of dualism found both in Judaism and Hellenism. This dualism led to a “world-denying asceticism.” Although they tended to “entangle themselves” with the elemental powers of this world, it is doubtful they actually worshiped angels.

The final section of the introduction to the commentary is a sketch of Paul’s theology in the letter. In reviewing recent scholarly discussion of Paul’s theology, McKnight concludes it is necessary to construct a Pauline theology which “transcends the soteriological schemes of Western theology” (51). He has three recent theological contributions in mind when he makes this statement. First, he acknowledges the contributions of James Dunn’s Pauline Theology (Eerdmans, 1998) and N. T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Fortress, 2013), but also sees recent contributions by Louis Martyn and Douglas Campbell and the “apocalyptic Paul” to be on the right track and renders the old perspective versus the new perspective passé (46).

The second recent contribution to Pauline studies which bears on Pauline theology in Colossians in John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift (Eerdmans, 2015). Barclay’s rich description of Paul’s understanding of grace in the literature of the Second Temple Judaism ought to be required reading before any scholar attempts to sketch out Paul’s theology (or write a commentary on a Pauline letter). Third, McKnight considers recent series of monographs by of Michael Gorman “some of the finest articulations of a Pauline theology” (49). Gorman is sometimes cited as an example of participationist theology and balances all the emphases of modern Pauline studies (50). He does suggest a modification to Gorman’s term cruciformity, with a suggestion of missional-Christoformity (a phrase appearing often in the commentary itself.

In his own fourteen page sketch of Pauline theology, McKnight attempts to “slightly reorient Dunn and Wright and Gorman” building on where “Wright ends his Paul and the Faithfulness of God and where Gorman lands: reconciliation and mission” (51). Perhaps it is time for McKnight to turn his attention to a fully developed Pauline theology textbook.

The body of the commentary proceeds through the outline of Colossians in smaller units. Each section begins a short orientation and translation of the text with numerous notes comparing the NIV and CEB. The commentary itself moves from phrase to phrase with technical details and Greek grammatical comments relegated to copious footnotes. When Greek words appear in the main body of the commentary they are transliterated so readers without Greek training will be able to follow the argument. Most interaction with scholarship appears primarily in the footnotes, making for a remarkably readable commentary. On occasion he must deal with technical details or theological problems (such as the meaning of baptism in 2:11). In these cases he provides material in the footnotes to point interested readers to more detailed articles and monographs.

Conclusion. McKnight’s prose is engaging and there are occasionally rhetorical flourishes intended to amuse the reader. Rarely does a technical commentary entertain as well as educate. But McKnight also demonstrates his pastoral heart, never straying from Paul’s pastoral purposes in the letter. This commentary will be useful for scholars, pastors, teachers, and interested laypersons who want to dig deep into the text of Colossians.

Usually commentaries on Colossians also include a section on Philemon. Scot McKnight’s commentary on Philemon in the New International Commentary on the New Testament series was originally intended to be included with this forthcoming Colossians commentary, However, Eerdmans decided to publish Philemon separately (see my review of his Philemon commentary here). McKnight also contributed a commentary on James in this series (Eerdmans, 2011).

 

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Colossians 1:15-20 – The Supremacy of Christ

Galatia struggled with Gentiles who wanted to keep the Law and Corinth struggled with Gentiles who did not sufficient “depaganize” and allow Christ to transform their moral behavior.  In Colossae, it appears that the problem was a Jewish mystic, possibly exorcist who advocated “secret knowledge” which only the spiritual, insiders could obtain.  Possibly this esoteric, secret knowledge was the true nature of Jesus Christ, or perhaps how to use Jesus’ name as a powerful tool for dealing with other spiritual beings.  This is a very pragmatic Christianity which attempts to hide knowledge of the real facts until the believer is sufficiently “prepare” to receive it.  While I am not sure that the Colossian heresy was a “mystery cult” in the true sense of the word, there seem to have been some initiation for the believer before he was “let in” on the true state of things.

For Paul, Christianity is not at all an exclusive religion which hides doctrine from the outsiders.  In fact, everyone is welcome and the whole gospel is preached from the very beginning.  There are some deeper, more difficult doctrines, but there is nothing which is a secret.  This is one of the real differences between Christianity and many of the other “mystery cults”popular in the first century (and today!)  It really is easy to understand the basics of Christian claims and beliefs, whether you like them or not.

Paul therefore goes to the root of the problem and lays out in the introduction to the letter exactly who Jesus is.  All the “secrets” are laid out before the reader and there is no question who Jesus is by the end of 1:20.

  • Christ as the image of the invisible God.  By saying that Christ is in the image of God, he affirms that he is an accurate picture of what God is, and in fact, he is God.   Bruce once said “To call Christ the image of God is to say that in Him the being and nature of God have been perfectly manifested—that in Him the invisible has become visible.”
  • Christ as the firstborn of creation.  This title for has been a very troublesome exegetical point since it appears that Jesus is a created thing, the first thing that God created.  But if this phrase is read against the background of the Hebrew Bible, the word “first born” is actually an expression of position – the son chosen to the the heir as opposed to the naturally born first son.  A bit later Paul calls Jesus the“firstborn from among the dead,” an obvious non-literal use of the word “firstborn.”

The point that Paul is getting at is that Christ has made things, so it is pointless to give honor and worship to those things.  All honor and worship is due Christ, not anything created.  The command is therefore to worship Christ as God, something that would be idolatrous if Christ is a created thing himself. The centrality of Jesus is therefore the starting point for theology in Colossians, but also for ethical and moral teaching and proper worship.

Bibliography: F. F. Bruce, “Colossian Problems: Part 2: The “Christ Hymn” of Colossians 1:15–20″ BibSac 141 (1984): 99-111

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