Colossians and Philemon: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament
K. Beale, Colossians and Philemon. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapid: Baker, 2019. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2019. $54.99. xxv + 513 pp. ISBN 978-0-8919-2667-6.
Greg Beale is a veteran, virtuoso American evangelical scholar who has written a large New Testament theology and the equally sizable NIGTC volume on Revelation, along with the much shorter and more accessible commentary on 1-2 Thessalonians in the IVPNTC series and a handbook on the New Testament use of the Old Testament, among other works. He currently teaches at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia after a long and distinguished career at Gordon-Conwell.
Here he puts his critical acumen to work on Colossians and Philemon, books he acknowledges are blessed with an overabundance of good, recent commentaries on them. But he thinks that his work has two particular distinctives that justify another commentary: a thorough consideration of Old Testament allusions throughout Colossians and a study of the Second Temple Jewish usages of the OT allusions he discovers.
Beale takes traditional introductory views on both letters, with one important exception. In a very brief consideration of authorship, Beale opts for Paul. He finds the Colossian heresy to have been real and to combine Old Testament legalism and apocalyptic Judaism with influences from the pagan backgrounds of most in the church. Philemon was a runaway slave and, while Paul would like Onesimus manumitted so that he could have him back to help with Paul’s needs in prison, he never asks in so many terms, simply hoping that Philemon will acquiesce.
The non-traditional item of introduction is the defense of an Ephesian imprisonment as the provenance of the letter, which would then lead to an an early 50s date. As with others who opt for this approach, it is the ease of everyone else’s comings from and goings to Paul during his imprisonment that turns the tables for him.
Whereas many find the Colossian hymn in 1:15-20 divisible into two perfectly balanced strophes (vv. 15-17; 18-20), Beale makes the tipping point occur in v. 17b with “in him all things hold together,” which is also the center of a broad, largely conceptual chiasmus that unifies the hymn. But the first half is for Beale conceptually subordinate to the second half, which reverses common conviction that the Christology here is at least as important as the ecclesiology. Verse 15 does not make Christ the first created being; the genitive of subordination here suggests the translation, “the firstborn over all creation” (p. 91). Verse 20 does not teach universal salvation, “but that at the consummation, Christ will bring about a harmony of all things in the new, eternal creation, after decisively judging evil and putting it in its judicial place” (p. 111).
When Paul fills up what is lacking. . .in Christ’s afflictions (1:24), he is not completing Christ’s atonement but recognizing that unity with Christ included unity in his suffering. But Beale does think Paul had a special responsibility for an unusual amount of suffering that was allotted to him, which most other believers would not have to endure.
Despite Beale’s Reformed perspective, he recognizes that 2:11-12 don’t teach as much about infant baptism as they are alleged to. In fact, he is unconvinced that they refer to water baptism at all, thinking that they refer to baptism in the Spirit, corresponding to the circumcision not made with hands. Chapter 2:14 most likely refers to an IOU that has been canceled, while verse 15 does not refer just to part of the Law or a misuse of the Law but reflects the full salvation-historical shift of the ages, to which verse 17 attests even more clearly. The troublesome embateuÅ in verse 18 is best rendered “lead in triumphal procession.”
Of all the places where Beale sees temple imagery in the background, perhaps the most important (and persuasive) is with the rituals of 2:16-19, viewed as prerequisites for entering the temple and in hopes of experiencing spiritual visions. The vexed genitive with “the worship of angels” on balance is more likely objective, but that doesn’t mean the angels were directly worshipped more than their experiences venerated and desired, so that an element of the subjective genitive may be present anyway.
Chapter 3 begins with the contrast to which Paul has been building. “The false teachers are contending that their approach to get to the heavenly temple is something that can be added to their faith in order to enhance the fullness of God’s presence. But Paul says that if you are in Christ, you have already ascended to heaven’s temple in him” (p. 267). The subsequent virtues and vices focus particularly on that which promotes or destroys unity among God’s people.
Beale appears to adopt a soft complementarian view on Colossians’ teaching for husbands and wives. In many respects, however, it is the third way that I have advocated, in which “the husband expresses his authority through sacrificially giving himself for his wife, especially by considering her needs before his own (5:25-30)” (p. 319).
Far more so than any other volume in the Baker Exegetical Commentary series thus far, the endnotes after the commentary on each pericope prove exhaustive. They take up virtually every kind of topic that Beale wants to go into further depth on than he can in the text itself without becoming distracting. Notwithstanding this division, parts of the commentary proper still go into enough technical detail (e.g., on key word studies) that all but the most scholarly and patient readers will get somewhat bogged down.
Beale cautiously opts for an Ephesian provenance, and thus an early 50s date, for these two letters, particularly due to the perceived difficulty of the amount and distances of travel that would otherwise be involved, even though these have been shown not to be prohibitive and even though the New Testament contains no unambiguous reference to an imprisonment there and it is the distinct minority view in early church tradition. Indeed, given what he does go into detail on, it is remarkable that this whole conversation occupies merely two-thirds of a page.
Beale’s appeal to grammatical categories in discussing difficult-to-translate expressions is both helpful and frustrating. It is helpful in that he is abreast of all of Wallace’s many nuances and subdivisions in his Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, and is not afraid to use disputed labels (e.g., the attributed genitive) even when standard options could suffice (e.g., the attributive genitive). It is frustrating because he makes these very precise distinctions, including with verb forms (normally without reference to aspect), without letting on whether he does so despite having considered the trend to move away from those distinctions and disagreeing with it, or simply due to ignoring the trend.
For most preachers and teachers, the commentaries of McKnight (NICNT), Pao (ZECNT) and Moo (PNTC) will provide more than adequate detail for their needs. But for scholars or researchers interested in a thoroughly evangelical technical alternative to Wilson (ICC), Beale’s is the volume. Plus, his summaries of the main meaning of each unit of thought, along with the flow of thought and connections between sections makes his volume very much worth consulting. Those familiar with and appreciative of his propensity to see Old Testament allusions where few others have will love this commentary for that reason alone.
Craig L. Blomberg, Ph.D.
Distinguished Professor of New Testament