In this volume, the Sacra Pagina series has appropriately combined two separate commentaries by two separate authors. Although Philippians is four times as long as Philemon, the two commentaries are almost equal in length—a tribute to the very thorough treatment by Judith Ryan of Paul’s brief but important letter to the community leader, Philemon. Both commentaries are excellent in providing a summary of modern scholarship that includes sensitivity to the religious meaning of the text as “sacred page” (the goal of the series). Both follow Sacra Pagina’s format: an introduction with historical and literary background, followed by the text divided into structural units, then “notes” with detailed comments, then “interpretation” that summarizes major literary and religious issues—including their significance for today. This review treats the two successively
First, Bonnie Thurston’s commentary on Philippians: the first thing I looked at was how she treated the critical problem of the unity of this letter. Along with many modern scholars, she regards it as a unity, but what is enlightening (and, for me, convincing) were her reasons—since they point to two important emphases of her commentary: namely, Paul’s rhetoric and its relation to the Greco-Roman letter, and the structural divisions of the letter. She accepts an overall chiastic arrangement (although she questions recent “chiasmus” madness) since it overcomes the problems that led many scholars to posit two or three letter fragments. Her reasoning includes the fact that scholars who use Greco-Roman letter structures to analyze this letter all conclude that it is one letter—using “deliberative rhetoric for a hortatory purpose” (p.35). Her rhetorical analysis of the letter as a friendship and family letter includes a convincing demonstration of the rhetorical roles of Timothy and Epaphroditus. They are “clear, personal examples of what Paul wants the Philippians to do.” (p.150) Here the role of Epaphroditus in particular is important, since Paul’s confusing references to him (in 2:25, 4:18) have been used by advocates of the fragment theory to piece together the supposed editing of disparate parts of the overall letter. As example of the friendship Paul advocates, he becomes part of Paul’s overall plea to the Philippians.
Judith Ryan’s commentary on Philemon is almost half of the volume largely because, to contextualize Paul’s request to Philemon, she provides a very thorough summary of the social world of slavery (see Introduction: “Slavery in the Greco-Roman World"… ”Slavery in Israel”... “Early Christianity and Its Response to Slavery”). Other important discussions that explain the length of this commentary of a short, twenty-three verse letter are: an extensive summary of the theological significance of Paul’s appeal to Philemon, and a discussion of the rhetoric Paul is using—since he is not using his apostolic authority (no reference to himself as “apostle”)—but rather persuasive rhetoric to “elicit his friend’s support” (p.238).