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Good for some; not as helpful for pastors, students.
on May 26, 2012
Having written a two-volume New Testament Theology, a commentary on every book in New Testament, and a previous commentary on Philippians (Friendship and Finances in Philippi, 1994), Ben Witherington now brings his skill and experience to a socio-rhetorical commentary on Philippians. He mildly regrets the previous work's title, as he did not then nor does he now consider Philippians a friendship letter. With time he has found the analysis of Philippians as a friendship letter less and less persuasive (14). Philippians is not simply a revision of the earlier work but "a whole new study from scratch including a fresh translation" (x).
The work includes an index of subjects, authors, and ancient sources. After 13 pages of bibliography and a 37-page introduction, Witherington comes to the commentary proper.
The format is as follows:
1. Section Introduction: The introduction surveys the section, sets it in context, and opens discussion of key topics. Introductions are helpful without being overly redundant.
a. "Here, as in previous socio-rhetorical commentaries, the translation is not in fluid English prose but seeks, rather, to give as clear a sense in English as possible of the vocabulary and syntax of the Greek" (41 n.1).
b. At times Witherington's translation clarifies issues and opens up fresh possibilities. At times it gives odd renderings (e.g., the translation of 1:16-17, p 74).
c. Forms of adelphoi(brothers) are translated as "brothers and sisters" at 1:12 and 14, but only as "brothers" in the rest of the letter (3:1, 13, 17, 4:1, 8 and 21). Given Witherington's egalitarian concerns, this is surprising.
d. It would have been helpful if verse numbers were given in the translation.
3. Verse-by-verse comment: Clearly marked sections would be helpful. If one wants to drop in to the comments on a particular verse, it is sometimes hard to find the place where he starts and finishes coverage of it.
4. Bridging the Horizons: Bridging sections bring the issues of the text to bear on modern life and are valuable for sparking thoughts of application. Surprisingly, there is no bridging section for 4.2-3. That for 4.10-20 is found after 4.21-23.
5. Interspersed are valuable digressions, called "Closer Look" sections. Here Witherington does some of his best and most helpful work. These include:
a. Paul's Right-Hand Man Timothy
b. Joy, the Elixir of Faith and Effervescence of Hope
c. Imitation, the Highest Form of Education
d. Honor, Shame, and Apostolic Life
e. E. A. Judge and the Social World of Early Christianity
f. The Christ Hymn in Recent Discussion
g. Synkrisis When There Is No Crisis
h. Social-Scientific Criticism--Will Meeks Inherit the Earth
i. Paul among the Ancient Moralists
j. Caesar's Household and the Household of Faith
Strengths of the Commentary:
a. Some commentaries miss the forest for the trees. Witherington does a very good job helping the reader see the flow of the text.
b. As with all his works, Witherington writes clearly, with enthusiasm and appropriate humor, and always with an eye to relevance.
c. Paul's Letter to the Philippians makes a valuable contribution to helping the reader set the letter in its Greek and Roman cultural context.
Particular Positions of the Commentary:
1. Those familiar with Witherington's work know that he writes from a Wesleyan and generally Egalitarian perspective. Reflecting these concerns, treatment of 2:19-30 (Epaphroditus and Timothy) uses one page/verse; that on 4:2-3 (Euodia and Syntyche) uses 4.5 pages/verse (not including a bridging portion). Despite this disproportion, regarding 4:2-3 Witherington comments, "It is important, however, not to overexegete this passage" (234). Further he digresses on the book of life (4:3) asserting that Paul believed "in the possibility of genuine Christians committing apostasy..." (240).
2. With P. T. O'Brien and against G. D. Fee and most translations (e.g., CSB, ESV, KJV, NASB, NIV, and NLT), Witherington translates 1:3 with "I give thanks to God, for your every remembrance of me..." The rendering is preferable and it is time that translations start offering readers at least a marginal note to that effect.
3. For Witherington the righteousness of 3:9 is eschatological (not imputed) and comes through the faithfulness of Christ. Thus he translates vv. 9-10a: "...and may be found in him, not having my own righteousness that comes from the Law, but rather the sort that comes through the faithfulness of Christ, the righteousness from God bestowed upon the faithful [pistei]..." (185). Oddly, this takes the abstract noun pistis''''''' (faith, faithfulness) as if it were the equivalent of the substantival participle pisteuousin''''''''''' (the believers).
Areas of Concern:
1. Portions of the commentary might be difficult for pastors not familiar with rhetorical terms (e.g., exordium, narratio, propositio, probatio, peroratio, deliberative rhetoric, insinuatio), especially when a term appears repeatedly in short space (e.g., peroration appears six times on p. 242). A glossary of rhetorical terms would have been helpful.
Similarly, one might think that a paperback commentary using Greek transliteration would be at best semi-technical or even non-technical. But the vocabulary says otherwise: diminuendo, Saturnalia, epideitic, apotheosis, adfectus, onomatopoetic, agonistic, polysendeton, leitmotif, and ratiocination. Witherington's preface asserts that the socio-rhetorical commentary series is in wide use by "students, pastors, and educated laypersons" (x-xi). Nevertheless, it is probable that many of these will find the terminology difficult.
2. Witherington has an odd use of "technical term." I take a "technical term" to be a word or phrase that has a specific meaning within a specific field of discourse or expertise. Witherington repeated asserts that Paul uses "accounting," "business" or "mercantile" language and that this language is "technical" (2, 199, 202-03, 266-67, 278). So kerdos and z'emian (3:7-8) are accounting language of profit and loss (202-03). But by definition technical mercantile language appears in a mercantile context; and this is not the context of Philippians. It is as if when one hears the phrase "My emotions are a roller coaster," one needs to know that this is the technical language of the amusement park. A search for kerdos and zemia in Josephus reveals extensive nontechnical usage (e.g., AJ 3.267, 4.211, 15.417, 18.58; JW 4.102, 7.87).
3. As with the rest of Witherington's voluminous output, we have come to expect that he will be insightful, careful, and precise. That is the case often in Paul's Letter to the Philippians. Unfortunately, at other times, it is not. So, for example, Witherington says that "...the language of friendship [philos and philia]is singularly missing in Philippians..." (20) and that "Paul deliberately avoids the language of friendship in Philippians because" the Philippians are family (125; cf. 278). These comments are misleading. Philippians is not unique. Paul never uses philos or philia in any of his letters.
4. Similarly, Witherington takes a subjectivist position regarding pistis Christou (3:9). The text reads ten dia pisteos Christou. He says the reference is to Christ's faithfulness not to faith in Christ, asserting that "the most natural rendering of dia here is 'through' not 'in'" (205). The comment is baffling since no objectivist asserts that the sense "in Christ" comes from the preposition dia.
5. Further, according to Witherington the working out of salvation (2:12) is not about individual effort but rather group effort since the pronoun "is plural" (120; cf. 159). This is a common error. On this see G. W. Peterman, "Plural You: On the Use and Abuse of the Second Person," Bulletin for Biblical Research 20 (2010): 183-196.
6. Witherington asserts that English has an impoverished vocabulary for love. For him it is significant that at 1:9 Paul speaks of apape love; such love is self-sacrificial and other-regarding (68). Later, without giving specifics, he reasserts that English is impoverished, adding that "there are five or six different words in Greek for what we can only call 'love.' There's one word for brotherly or sisterly love, another for family love, another for erotic love, and so on" (226). Since he does not say, I assume that Witherington means philia, storge, and eros respectively. This older view of the distinctions between the words has now been corrected by B. B. Warfield, "The Terminology of Love in the New Testament," Princeton Theological Review 16 (1918) 153-203.
Because of his stature as a New Testament scholar, scholars of Paul must have a copy of Witherington's new commentary. For students and pastors, however, I suggest the work by G. Walter Hansen (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009). Although costlier (retail $44), one gets more pages/dollar and it is available in hardcover.