Ephesians and Colossians
Dr. Craig Blomberg's review of, "Ephesians and Colossians," by Charles H. Talbert.
Charles H. Talbert, Ephesians and Colossians. Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker: Academic, 2007. $24.99 pap. xix + 296 pp. ISBN 978-0-8010-3128-1
Not another new commentary series! What could possibly justify still more New Testament commentaries with numerous series already available at almost every level and several of them still incomplete? The editors, Mikeal Parsons and Charles Talbert, colleagues at Baylor University, explain that these will be treatments of the final form of the text, with focus on cultural, literary and theological issues with upper-division undergraduate and masters’ level students primarily in view. The contents of this first volume, from Talbert himself, closely resemble the volumes he authored for the Reading the New Testament Series, originally published by Crossroad and then picked up by Smyth & Helwys. Is this Talbert’s latest outlet for writing the kinds of commentaries he likes to produce, worked up into a series in order to sell better?
Whether or not such volumes are needed for all the New Testament books, this offering on Ephesians and Colossians does fill a gap for these two epistles, since the Reading the New Testament offering deals with these letters, plus 2 Thessalonians, in a single volume shorter than this one and is fairly mediocre in its treatment. Unfortunately, Talbert merely adopts the majority opinion that Ephesians and Colossians are deutero-Pauline without serious interaction with the numerous recent proposals (e.g., Hoehner or O’Brien on Ephesians, Dunn or Blanke on Colossians, or Arnold on both) that suggest otherwise. He suggests that the letters are literarily independent on each other and can be dated to anywhere from the late 50s to the end of the first century. Still, throughout the commentary proper, he frequently refers to the author as “Paul” (i.e., in quotation marks) and shows so many points of continuity with the Pauline tradition that one wonders what is gained by still insisting on a form of pseudonymity that can be shown to have been acceptable only in pagan, not Jewish or Christian circles, at the relevant time period.
As in all of his commentaries, Talbert’s strengths are in a close reading of the text, careful attention to structure, and his catalogues of relevant background texts, in this volume primarily from Greco-Roman contexts. He rejects attempts to identify an epistolary subgenre for either letter or to tie either too closely to the specific circumstances of individual communities, preferring instead to see Ephesians as focusing on Christian identity formation more generally and Colossians as adapting typical philosophical approaches to instruct believers in growing in their Christian walk.
One of the intriguing features of Talbert’s outline of Ephesians, which brings it closer in line with the encomium or honorific form of address than he acknowledges, is seeing all of chapters 1-3 as one giant prayer, interrupted by two main digressions in 1:20-2:22 and 3:1-13. Talbert pays special attention to the “in Christ” phrase throughout this letter, arguing against the locative or mystical use at any point. Instead, the term virtually always means either just Christian or directing one’s faith or hope toward Christ or doing something by means of him. He rejects corporate election in 1:5 apparently because he finds the concept incoherent: “Individuals are chosen and predestined, but these individuals make up a group” (46). The twin emphases in Paul’s prayers, and in the second half of the book, on power and unity suggest an overriding theme of overcoming “hostility and divisions in the universe by bringing all things together under the headship of Christ” (47).
Thanks to Christ’s triumphing over the powers, believers may do so too, beginning already in this life (Eph. 2). But Ephesians’ emphasis on realized eschatology does not thereby jettison a remaining futurist dimension. The reconciliation made possible between Jews and Gentiles in Christ creates what came to be called “the third way,” neither Jew nor Gentile but Christian, transcending both identities. This creates what Ephesians calls the “mystery” (3:6), best understood as “the divine will for the unification of the cosmos through Christ” (p. 98).
In Ephesians 4-6, Paul’s ethical material begins with the unity in diversity created by the Spirit’s gifting his people (4:1-16). 4:17-5:21 belongs to the Two Ways genre of contrasting wrong and right manners of living. Talbert’s most creative contribution to the exegesis of both volumes comes in this section as he argues that the household code represents an economic or business community with its injunctions to the extended family members, including slaves. Thus it has no implications for worship and who may or may not lead or perform various roles there. Thus, the apparent egalitarianism of Galatians 3:28 is restricted to worship, the apparent complementarianism of the domestic codes is restricted to business, and Paul simply doesn’t address marriage in the framework of either of these categories. The elaborate metaphor on spiritual warfare in Ephesians 6:10-20 brings the theme of God’s re-uniting everything in the cosmos (whether by others’ choice or by God’s force as in Col. 1:20) to a climax.
Turning to Colossians, Talbert sees the introductory section continuing all the way through the famous hymn or confession of 1:15-20 and the appended praise and application of verses 21-23. 1:24-2:5 forms a second foundational section that turns from lessons learned in worship to establishing “Paul’s” authority. The enigmatic opening verse of this section is best translated as “I fill up that which is lacking of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh” so that “the lack is not in Christ’s afflictions but in Paul’s” (p. 201).
The real heart of the letter, or at least the two main sections that treat the behavior “Paul” desires from the Colossians, follow in the rest of chapter 2 and in 3:1-4:6. After thoroughly surveying the options for the false teaching infiltrating Colossae, and after working through 2:6-23, Talbert opts, plausibly, for “syncretistic Judaism.” The references to not eating certain foods may or may not refer to the Jewish dietary laws but the festivals and Sabbaths almost certainly must be the Jewish ones. The stoicheia of 2:8 must include demonic as well as earthly powers. The counterpart to circumcision in 2:11-12 is not baptism but new birth. And 2:18, at least in its last clause, is rendered in a quite different manner from most English translations as “Let no one disqualify you willfully about matters of humility and worship of angels which things he saw on entering” (p. 217, italics mine).
The parenetic section that spans 3:1-4:6 may be understood then as defining a proper Christian asceticism-not refraining from food or drink, or celebrating certain holy days, or any other ritual practices but adhering to fundamentally moral living. The letter closing in 4:7-18 closely resembles that of Romans (chap. 16) in both form and contents, and this fact correlates with the observation that Paul did not found the church in either Rome or Colossae. But Talbert doesn’t take the next step and suggest that it might also be an argument for the authenticity of Colossians.
There is a wealth of helpful insights in this volume and, unlike many commentaries, one doesn’t have to wade through voluminous amounts of less necessary information to find them. The commentary is a model of brevity and clarity, yet with sufficient detail to fulfill the editors’ stated purposes of the series. The few places where Talbert takes an unconventional interpretation or offers a novel translation are seldom convincing but they are comparatively few and far between. Sidebars that address select issues in greater detail are scattered throughout the book and generally well chosen. Additional commentary on key theological issues ends each main chapter and often suggests applicational directions as well. The commentary on Ephesians begins with regular charts setting forth the structure of the passage under consideration in some detail and showing its relationship to its larger literary context. These become more intermittent in the second half of Ephesians and the beginning of Colossians and then, for some unknown reason, disappear altogether. Otherwise the layout of the volume is well conceived, visually pleasing, and almost entirely free from typographical errors.
It will be interesting to see if the Paideia series becomes one that makes it to completion. I can’t yet envisage its being needed on a majority of the New Testament books, but on underserved letters like Ephesians and Colossians, this work is a welcome addition to an otherwise glutted field.
Craig L. Blomberg, Ph.D.
Distinguished Professor of New Testament