Notes on Ephesians commentaries

Notes on Ephesians commentaries June 24, 2009

In the last couple of months I have been doing some research in Ephesians.  This is an exciting letter to study, not only for its robust theology, but also because of its history of scholarship.  There are still so many mysteries (!) in this letter – its purpose, setting, authorship, thesis statement, etc…  I am still awaiting a convincing argument for what this letter is really all about!

Nevertheless, there are many good resources and I will briefly share my thoughts on them.  Rather than ‘rank’ them, I will discuss the strengths (and weaknessess sometimes) of each.  When a commentary is consulted, usually it has a particular hermeneutical or methodological angle (social, historical, literary, reader-response, rhetorical, theological, etc…).

Markus Barth (Anchor): This is one of the best commentaries on Ephesians out there, first for its detail and theological depth; also, Barth is engaged in the discussion of politics and how the message of Ephesians relates to modern social issues.  Also, because he endorses Pauline authorship, there is a kind of coherence in his commentary that is not often found among those who argue of pseudonymity.

Peter O’Brien (Pillar): I would say that this commentary is excellent for its overall approach to Ephesians and the cogency of his argumentation in his exegetical analysis.  I would say this commentary is marked by a deep grammatical/discourse interest and literary issues.  There is attention to parallel ancient sources.  Also, this series is marked by theological interest and pastoral insights.  This is a commentary I always turn to for sound advice, but I don’t always agree with him.

Lincoln, A. (WBC): If there is a kind-of trinity of Ephesians commentaries, Lincoln completes the set (along with O’Brien and Barth).  Again, he argues that Ephesians is pseudonymous, but his knowledge of ancient cosmology (also protology, eschatology) brings to the discussion a better understanding of the theological worldview of the author.  Also, for as much as people complain about the format of the WBC, the section-by-section bibliographies are priceless.

MacDonald, M. (Sacra Pagina): This commentary is often overlooked, but M.M. offers an impressive sociological reading of Ephesians.  Though I disagree with her on authorship (she is pro pseudonymity), she argues that Ephesians seems like it promotes an introversionist (sectarian) worldview (similar to the DSS), but practically urges believers to maintain their life in the world (as in the household codes).  Here I think she is spot on.  Her socio-rhetorical kind of engagement with the text often answers the kinds of questions I am asking, but, again, I don’t always agree with her answers.  I am happy to see her questions being asked!

Ben Witherington (Eerdmans): Again, a socio-rhetorical approach.  He is more conservative than MacDonald, and also is more interested in theology and application.  In recent years he has become more and more convinced that rhetorical criticism should play a central role in interpreting Paul’s letters.  Thus, he focuses on Ephesians as epideictic rhetoric.  This, in some ways, sets aside the life-setting of the epistle and focuses on the theology.  I am not entirely satisfied with this, but I recognize my own tendency to read too much behind Paul’s words (opponents, reactions to problems, etc…).

I happily consult Schnackenburg, Snodgrass, and the excellent work of Thorsten Mortiz on Ephesians.

Concerns: I think the ‘identity formation’ view of Ephesians, where it is addressing no problems and is simply generalizing the message of Colossians for a wider audience does not account for some serious aspects of the letter such as the strong militaristic/combatitive language in chapter 6.  If Ephesians bears significant resemblences to the DSS and apocalyptic literature, it is worth keeping in mind that many of these texts (but not all) are crisis-driven (here I am agreeing with David Hellholm).  That is not to say that the level of persecution is as serious as in Revelation, but there is enough reason, I think, to press further than ‘identity formation’ as the purpose, unless we can recognize that this objective meets the need of a confused, frustrated, new people of God trying to live in the world and not be of the world.  Here, again, I think MacDonald is closer than most.  Incidentally, she draws from John Elliott’s approach to 1 Peter (contra Balch).  I think this comparative analysis is very useful and we do not need to reinvent the wheel by going through the issues in Ephesians that overlap with 1 Peter.

For my further thoughts…well, I may post more on Ephesians.

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