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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.

As Osborne says in his preface, the commentaries in the series should be used for devotional Scripture reading. Since the commentaries are based on the NIV translation a reader can use this commentary as a supplement to their daily Bible reading. A second related goal is for these commentaries to be used in Church Bible studies, perhaps in a small group or Sunday school context. But pastors and teachers will find the commentaries useful as they prepare sermons on the text of the Bible. Osborne says he wants “to help pastors faithfully exposit the text in a sermon.” Osborne attempts to balance a deep reading of the text with a practical application for the Bible student.

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.

 

The four letters in which Paul appears to be writing from prison are traditionally assigned to the Roman imprisonment in A. D. 60-62, referred to at the end of the book of Acts.  According to Acts Paul was under house arrest for about 2 years and had considerable freedom while awaiting trial. During this time, according to the traditional view, Paul wrote Philippians, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon.

However, there are at least two other possibilities for imprisonments during which Paul could have written these short letters.  There is no reason to take all four of the prison letters as a unit.  For example, it is possible that Philippians was written from Ephesus, while the other three prison letters came from Rome (this is Polhill’s position, for example.)   I will summarize the evidence for each of the imprisonments, there is more to be said than this, but this is enough to orient our thinking for now.

Rome, A.D. 60-62

  • The traditional view assigns the captivity Epistles to Rome.  We know from Acts that Paul was in fact placed under house arrest in Rome for two years (Acts 28:30).
  • “House arrest” means that he was free to proclaim the gospel (Acts 28:16, 17, 23, 31; Eph 6:18-20; Phil 1:12-18; Col 4:2-4).
  • Paul mentions the “palace guard” and the “emperor’s household” in Phil 1:13 and 4:22, implying he is in Rome.
  • Phil 1:19-26; 2:17, 23 imply that he is under the threat of death, which could very well be the outcome in Acts 28.
  • Paul greets Aristarchus in Col 4:10, in Acts 27:2 he accompanied Paul on the journey to Rome.
  • Col 4:14 states that Luke is with Paul, favoring a Roman imprisonment (Acts 28:14, 16).

Ephesus, A.D. 52-55

  • There is no mention in Acts of any imprisonment in Ephesus, though in 2 Cor 6:5 and 11:23 Paul does say that he has often been in prison. Acts records no imprisonment until Philippi (Acts 16:19-40). Where were the others?  One possibility is that these occur before Acts 13, another is that there was an imprisonment in Ephesus which is not recorded in Acts. As Moises Silva says, no one disputes the possibility that Paul was imprisoned during his three years at Ephesus, but that he wrote the letter of philippians from there is another matter (Silva, Philippians (BECNT, Second Edition; 2005, pg. 7)
  • In 1 Cor 15:32 the apostle speaks about fighting wild beasts at Ephesus. That may be a proverb or merely a metaphor. But if taken literally, it could mean that Paul was actually thrown to the lions in the arena.
  • In 2 Cor 1:8-10 Paul alludes to some serious trouble that overtook him in the province of Asia, and in Romans 16:3, 4 he tells us that Priscilla and Aquila risked their lives to save him. We know that the pair were with Paul in Ephesus, and this opens up the possibility that it was here that they protected him.
  • Ephesus is a natural location to send letters to the cities in the Lycus Valley.
  • Ephesus has a large Christian community which would assist Paul writing the letters (Col 4:10, 11).
  • Paul asked Philemon to have a guest room ready for him in Colossae (Philem 22) when he was released implying that he was nearby.
  • Onesimus is more likely to have fled to Ephesus than Rome.

Caesarea, A. D. 58-60

  • While this appears to be the weakest possibility, Paul was in prison in Caesarea under “open arrest” for more than two years.  Like Rome, he likely had enough freedom to produce short letters.
  • He was under house arrest in Herod’s palace (Acts 24:23) and his friends were allowed free access to him.
  • The best arguments for Caesarea require Ephesians, Colossians and Philemon to be written and delivered at the same time.  The runaway slave Onesimus escaped from Colossae to Caesarea (some five hundred miles, rather than to Rome), Paul sent him back to Philemon with that letter along with Tychicus, the bearer of Ephesians and Colossians. If Ephesians was written from Caesarea, Tychicus and Onesimus would have brought the letters of Colossians and Philemon to Colossae first, then he would move on alone to Ephesus.
  • With respect to Philippians, the distance from Caesarea to Philippi is less than to Rome, but not particularly conducive to several trips implied by the letter.

By way of conclusion, a location of Ephesus for Philippians is attractive, although the fact that there is no clear reference to imprisonment in Acts or the other letters  makes this a tentative suggestion at best.   There are are some exegetical reasons for accepting Ephesus as the geographical and chronological origin of the letter to Philippi.  For example, Philippians 3 seems to be an attack on a group of Judaizers, with interests not unlike Galatians.  An earlier date for Philippians helps to explain how the Judaizers can still be active after Acts 15.   What other elements of the letter to the Philippians would be effected by an earlier or later date?

I will come back to these possibilities for Ephesians and Colossians in the next few weeks.

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