Two aspects of this book triggered my initial curiosity: The size of the volume, and the profession of the author. First, despite the fact that Philemon is the shortest among the letters of the Apostle Paul, it has received a lot of attention in recent research, and has been the object for several large commentaries in the last decade. The present commentary has 379 large pages, indexes included, while the Letter to Philemon comprises only ca. 325 words. How then does this commentary try to solve the riddles of Philemon? Second, the author is an assistant professor of classics at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. We don’t, alas, have many commentaries on books of the Bible, written by classical scholars.
The second half of the commentary volume concerned here is in the form of a rather traditional verse by verse commentary. The first half, however, is a comprehensive introduction to the letter and especially to the phenomenon of slavery in the antique world. After an introductory section on the ‘traditional’ interpretation of Philemon (pp. 3-19), Nordling deals with Philemon in the context of Paul’s travels (pp. 20-38). Then he provides a rather lengthy exposition of ‘Slavery in Ancient Society’ (pp. 39-108), a section on Theological Implications of slavery in the New Testament (pp. 109-139), followed by 10 pages of discussions of ‘What circumstances may have caused Onesimus to run away from Philemon?’ (pp. 140-148). The main section, then (pp. 151-350), is the commentary proper. The volume has indexes of subjects, passages cited, a list of figures, and a bibliography.
The author of this volume turns out to be almost as a much a theologian as a classical scholar. He has a BA in history and Greek from Valpariso University, and a Master of Divinity from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, a MA in Classics from Washington University, St. Louis. Finally, and he earned a PhD in Classics in 1991 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In addition, he served as a pastor in a parish in Chicago 1990-1994, but has been in his present position since 1999. Hence he is both a theologian and a classical scholar.
When a commentary like this is included in a series, the series most often lay down some rules concerning the format and special focus of the individual commentaries. This is especially obvious in the present volume. The Series Concordia Commentary has an explicit theological agenda; A Theological Exposition of Sacred Scripture. This agenda influences both the layout and the expositions in the book.
The purpose of the series is stated by the editor in his preface (pp. viii-xi) as “to assist pastors, missionaries, and teachers of the Scriptures to convey God’s Word with greater clarity, understanding, and faithfulness to the divine intent of the text.” It is to the credit of the series and its editor that it is so explicitly stated what are the purpose, and the characteristics of its agenda. The volumes are supposed to be Christ-centered, Christological commentaries; as belonging to the Lutheran confession, the volumes are supposed to focus on the issues of Gospel and Law, and a high view of the inspiration and inerrancy of the volumes of the Series is expected. Hence this volume on Philemon might well be one of the most theological ones reviewed in BMCR for a long time.
The pastoral and theological agenda of the series are also evident in some aspects of the layout of the texts, especially in the use of 15 different icons in the margins throughout the book. These icons are intended to indicate where the text deals with theological and pastoral issues as, e.g., the Trinity, Incarnation, Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, the Church, Worship or Justification, and others.
There are at least three, partly conflicting, theories in recent research as to why Onesimus came to Paul, and the concomitant purpose of Paul’s letter to Philemon.
1. The traditional view is that Onesimus was a slave of Philemon who had wronged his master so severely that he ran away. Why he ended up with Paul is obscure, but Paul, according to this theory, wrote Philemon this letter asking him to forgive and receive Onesimus back as a Christian brother, even though still as his slave.
2. In another more recent theory, especially set forth by P. Lampe,1 it is argued that Onesimus was not a runaway, a fugitive slave, but one who turned to Paul as a friend of his master, in order to beg Paul to act as a broker between Onesimus and his master Philemon.
3. Another theory, mainly favoured by Callahan,2 is that Onesimus was not a slave at all, but a brother of Philemon (v.16) who Paul tries to appease in his relation to Onesimus, a relationship that for some reason had been broken.
The author of this volume adheres strongly to the first option; Onesimus is a runaway slave, suggesting that Onesimus’ flight not only bothered his owner Philemon, but also was disturbing to his church. Hence one of the reasons Paul’s letter may seem open to various interpretations is the fact that Paul had to phrase himself carefully, downplaying Onesimus’ crimes so that Philemon, together with the church that met at his house, might forgive and welcome Onesimus back into the congregation.
A main feature of the present volume, setting it somewhat apart from other New Testament commentaries, is the lengthy treatment of Slavery in Ancient Society. In this section the author discusses the nature of ancient slavery in relation to more modern conceptions. His conclusions are that there were some well trained and educated slaves in antiquity who invite comparison to today’s medical doctors, teachers and other professionals; they could be highly trusted by their owners, and they could often have property of their own. Many apparently enjoyed many of the same privileges as freeborn citizens (p.82). Nordling especially emphasizes that race had little or nothing to do with slavery in the first century C.E. and that slaves in antiquity could have a high education and social standing. Furthermore, this commentary is the first commentary on Philemon that that I have seen discussing the view of slavery as social death as set forth by Orlando Patterson.3 Nordling strongly disagrees with Patterson’s understanding of ancient slavery as ‘social death’ and of being ‘natally alienated’; rather, he emphasizes that slavery at that time was not necessarily permanent, nor was natal alienation intrinsic to slavery; it might be violent, but not necessarily so. Such characterizations as Patterson’s are in danger of being more influenced by modern conceptions of social life than of the life that is ‘visible’ in our ancient sources. Finally, the theological character of Nordling’s discussions are summed up in his sections on Theological Implications of Slavery in the New Testament, including a discussion of the significance of slavery in the New Testament household codes.
The commentary proper is a very thorough verse for verse exposition, based upon the Greek text. The exposition is divided into Translation, Textual Notes and extensive Commentary. Here the author is able to draw upon his scholarly profession as a classicist to a greater extent than is common in New Testament commentaries, but he still remains a theologian. His extended comments both in the introduction and in the Commentary sections are often presented with a view to preachers, and in his references he even draws upon such older Lutheran dogmaticians as C.F.W. Walther and F. Pieper.
My own expectations of a commentary enlightened by the special insights of a professor in classical studies were not quite fulfilled in this volume. That may be partly due to the fact that many New Testament scholars and commentaries are familiar with and draw upon relevant classical studies, but in this case probably more to the fact that this commentary is from beginning to end a theological commentary. Pastors in Lutheran settings will probably find it very useful for their sermon preparations; others may find the Lutheran emphasis somewhat disturbing. But as a whole, this commentary certainly deserves a place among the other recent commentary volumes dealing with this enigmatic letter of Paul the Apostle.
1. Peter Lampe, ‘Keine “Sklavenflucht” des Onesimus.’ ZNW 76 (1985): 135-37.
2. A.D. Callahan, Embassy of Onesimus. The Letter of Paul to Philemon (Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, Trinity Press International, 1997).
3. Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1982).