Great commentary on Ephesians

There is a very good, detailed survey of commentaries, published Biblical Studies Bulletin (which is sent to subscribers to the Grove Biblical series) and available online here. We did a full survey of commentaries on Ephesians some time ago in 1999, and updated it in 2004. Since then Ben Witherington has contributed a volume (on his way to writing commentaries on all the books of the New Testament) and I would strongly recommend anyone adding it to their ‘must buy’ list. It combines comment on Philemon, Colossians and Ephesians as three ‘captivity’ epistles directed at an Asian audience.

Witherington is well known for his use of ‘socio-rhetorical’ criticism, and whilst not all are persuaded of its value, I think it is a very significant approach, particularly for those interested in the application of scholarship in a ministry context. Since this approach focuses on the original impact of the forms of language we have before us, it bridges the divide between ‘historical’ and ‘literary’ approaches to text, and potentially offers a disciplined way of engaging with the formational power of the text.

This is evident at two levels. Firstly, Witherington considers the significance of the context for assessing whether the language is truly Pauline; one of the main planks of the scholarly view that Ephesians is deutero-Pauline is the difference in language from the ‘core’ Pauline corpus. Witherington offers a powerful case for the specific distinctives of vocabulary arising from the author adopting an Asiatic style of ‘epideictic’ (‘showy’) rhetoric, which also accounts for other features such as the longer, more complex sentences at certain points. This, together with more traditional arguments about the actual amount of variation from the Pauline corpus and from Colossians, allows Witherington to argue that the author is Paul himself.
Secondly, Witherington draws on understandings of rhetoric in the body of the commentary. But he combines this with strong exegesis, and an impressively comprehensive survey of previous commentaries. On Ephesians 5 (which I have been reading in connection with my recent Grove booklet), he cites a range of views and is not afraid to critique and build on the different positions. Setting the haustafel (‘household code’) in the context of its relation with Colossians and against the background of first-century literature, he reads it as offering a powerful egalitarian trajectory.
Yet he does all this in a readable style, and one which is highly suggestive for the preacher, without having specific sections of application. As with his much more substantial commentary on Acts which I have also been enjoying, I expect to be making much use of this volume.

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