The Letter to Philemon: A New Translation with Notes and Commentary

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The Letter to Philemon: A New Translation with Notes and Commentary. By Markus Barth and Helmut Blanke. Eerdmans Critical Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000, xviii + 561 pp., $40.00.

Eerdmans has added a new acronym to everyone's list of abbreviations with the publication of the first volumes of ECC-the Eerdmans Critical Commentary. Written by Markus Barth and Helmut Blanke, Philemon is the second volume in this series. Barth is well known for having authored in the Anchor Bible series the two-volume commentary on Ephesians and with Blanke the commentary on Colossians.

This impressive new commentary had an interesting publication journey. In the translator's preface in the Colossians commentary, Astrid B. Beck notes that Barth was failing in health while writing the Colossians and Philemon commentaries. Her last correspondence with Barth was in 1992 concerning Philemon. After Barth's death in 1994, the editors in the Anchor Bible series dropped Barth's unfinished Philemon commentary and contracted with Joseph A. Fitzmyer to write the volume. Beck became the associate editor of the Eerdmans Critical Commentary and, upon completion of the final 75 pages by Blanke, persuaded Eerdmans to include the finished commentary in the new series. It is remarkable that both the inaugural volume on First and Second Timothy (reviewed above) and the second volume on Philemon were originally contracted to be in the Anchor Bible series, were authored by scholars who had died while writing the commentaries, and were completed by their former students!

While the majority of French and German commentators on Philemon have treated this letter in single volumes, the majority of English commentators have included Philemon with a commentary on Colossians or with one on all the Captivity Epistles. Consequently, Philemon has taken a back seat to its canonical big brothers. Having looked at almost every English commentary on Philemon published in the last century, I can find only four in which Philemon is treated in a single volume. Barth and Blanke have remedied this disservice to Philemon in a magisterial way.

This commentary is divided into three parts. Part 1, "The Social Background: Slavery at Paul's Time," is a 102-page survey of the conditions of slavery and of manumission at Paul's time. Barth and Blanke acknowledge that this sketch is not based on newly discovered or unused sources. It goes into more detail than some of the skimpy treatments of this subject in other commentaries. In fact, it treats this subject better and more objectively than do most Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias. The authors rightly point out that "ideological presuppositions can influence the selection and interpretation of ancient texts" (p. 3), and they warn that the humanitarian, the abolitionist, and the Marxist need to control their emotional aversion against slavery and to weigh duly every fact about slavery in the ancient world. The preacher will find much material to illustrate various points about slavery in the OT as well as the NT; the student will acquire that broad understanding of slavery so necessary to place the Bible in its context; and the scholar will work through the primary literary, philosophical, and biblical sources with profit. …