Colossians and Ephesians

Margaret Y. MacDonald Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN April 1, 2008
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This commentary is essentially a reprint of a 2000 edition. There appears not to be any change besides the addition of a supplemental bibliography (pp. 391–94). This is unfortunate because the book does not include interaction with recent commentaries such as Harold Hoehner’s extensive volume Ephesians (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002) nor even interaction with her own excellent study on Colossians 3:18–4:1 (“Slavery, Sexuality and House Churches: A Reassessment of Colossians 3:18–4:1 in Light of New Research on the Roman Family,” New Testament Studies 53 [January 2007]: 94–113).

Nevertheless this commentary is still of value for a number of reasons. First, MacDonald uses “a social-scientific approach” to these books. This method has been used now for some years with mixed reviews. It attempts to discover and utilize social aspects of cultures such as honor-shame. This helps inform readers of values often not shared with the New Testament writers and their audiences. Often information is gleaned from modern cultures that are seen as similar to the ancients in certain ways (e.g., nomads, remote people groups, etc.). The use of modern data has led to criticism. However, a careful use of this material can be helpful, especially when similarities between the ancients and certain modern cultures can be demonstrated. Also MacDonald is aware that not all agree with this theory; therefore she does not go beyond what has already been used by other New Testament scholars (p. 3). This approach has led her to research areas such as ritual and rites of initiation (p. 3). These are important areas, but she perhaps overemphasizes things like water baptism (e.g., she says the believer’s “dying with Christ” in Col. 2:20 refers to baptism). The social-scientific approach does not demand this emphasis. Aspects of overemphasis may be due in part to viewing these letters as post-Pauline and/or because of her own Roman Catholic tradition.

Although a social-scientific approach does not demand it, MacDonald says that Ephesians “reveals a stronger introversionist sectarian response than the other Pauline epistles” (p. 21). This conviction is evident in the commentary (see the discussion on Eph. 2:1–10; pp. 236–38). Thus whether one agrees with the social-scientific approach as a method, this commentary is valuable because it is an example of the method being used in a thoroughgoing interpretive endeavor. Second, this volume is also helpful because it is strongly influenced by Clinton Arnold’s two books, Ephesians, Power and Magic (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1989) and Colossians Syncretism (Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 1995). Some may not agree with all of Arnold’s conclusions, but it is helpful to see his insights incorporated into a commentary on both Colossians and Ephesians in a significant way.

MacDonald suggests that Colossians was written not by Paul, but possibly by Timothy (p. 10). Nor did Paul write Ephesians. Instead, it was written by a Jewish Christian of the Pauline school to churches probably in Asia Minor (pp. 17–18). The commentary includes a fair amount of detail. Each section begins with the author’s own translation. This is followed by a section called “Notes,” a detailed verse-by-verse discussion of interpretive issues. Then in a section called “Interpretation” MacDonald covers various issues, including background information, issues on structure, and modern interpretation and use of the passage. The section concludes with a bibliography of references and works suggested for further study. This is a nice format and helps balance the detailed issues with the more thematic interpretive work. The book includes a general bibliography (pp. 23–29) and concludes with a number of indexes (selected scriptural citations, selected references to other literature, authors, subjects, and the supplemental bibliography mentioned above).

The discussion of the text is clear and helpful. For example MacDonald includes a nice discussion of “firstborn” (Col. 1:15) in which she concludes that Christ is first in rank (He has the “preeminent place” in creation) and this has nothing to do with Christ actually being born or created (pp. 58–59). In 2:1–10, “ ‘Faith versus works’ becomes a general means of speaking about the giftedness of salvation as opposed to human accomplishment” (p. 240). This however, is the language passed down to a new generation, that is, Paul’s ideas in a new context (p. 239). The “gift” from God in Ephesians 2:8 is “faith” (p. 233). MacDonald’s discussion of the household codes in Colossians 3:18–4:1 and Ephesians 5:22–6:9 (pp. 152–70, 324–42) includes helpful information on the ancient context. However, she fails to see (or take seriously) the Christian innovations in these passages. She suggests that the primary purpose of Ephesians 5:21–6:9 is to provide theological justification and motivation “for the subordination of wives, children, and slaves to the head of the household” (p. 341; see also her assessment of Col. 3:18–4:1 on p. 166). Nevertheless she sees value in the passage for today if the ancient context is made clear and problems are addressed. Her discussion of slavery is helpful and raises issues often neglected by others (e.g., the sexual use of slaves, p. 165).

Overall this is a helpful commentary that will benefit students of these two letters. The Sacra Pagina series is a Roman Catholic commentary series. However, its format and its focus on the interpretation of the text make it useful for a much broader readership.

—Joseph D. Fantin

July 1, 2010
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Jul-Sep 2010 vol. 167 no. 3 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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