Colossians and Philemon

Written by Murray J. Harris Reviewed By Robert W. Yarbrough

This substantially revises a work first published in 1991. For nearly a generation now students and pastors have benefited from Harris’s distinctive analysis of these two Pauline prison letters. His “exegetical guide” consists primarily of a phrase-by-phrase explication of the Greek text. The author targets three groups of readers: “students preparing for examinations in New Testament studies, ministers and pastors who are hard-pressed for time yet eager to maintain the momentum in the study of Greek that they gained in their theological training …, and teachers seeking to help students gain confidence in reading” their Greek NT (p. xiii).

As a teacher who has often assigned the first edition in second-year exegesis classes, I can attest to the high usefulness of the old version. Yet this new edition is not a cosmetic update. In some ways it is a thoroughly new work. (1) It cites updated editions of the Greek NT. (2) It interacts with important new commentaries that had not appeared in 1991 (e.g., those by O’Brien, Barth-Blanke, Fitzmyer, Dunn, and Wilson). (3) It appeals to newer reference works, notably the Anchor Bible Dictionary and the four IVP dictionaries on Jesus and the Gospels, Paul, the later NT, and NT backgrounds. (4) It normally cites BDAG (2000) rather than the older BAGD. (5) It updates the bibliographies of the fifty (!) separate “For Further Study” sections.

The “For Further Study” segments are huge timesavers and encouragements to efficient research. They come at the end of treatment of the grammatical, syntactical, and translational issues in each subsection. For example, after Harris deals with Col 2:9–15 under the heading “Christ, the Remedy against Error” (pp. 87–100), there are four “For Further Study” listings: “The Deity of Christ (2:9),” “Principalities and Powers in Paul (2:10, 15),” “Christian Baptism (2:12),” and “Resurrection with Christ (2:12–13).” In each of these four listings students are given important commentary, book, or article references. The lists are not exhaustive, of course. But they direct readers’ attention to major discussions, eliminating that maddening moment when a student has discerned the basic meaning of the Greek but now needs to move to the next level of analysis. Where does one even begin given the bewildering variety and volume of resources that are out there? “For Further Study” points in the right direction by giving a substantial bibliographical foundation.

Harris prefaces each section by breaking down the structure (though not with formal diagramming). Corresponding to this, he gives “Homiletical Suggestions” at the end of each section. For example, in dealing with Col 1:15, 18, Harris offers an outline called “Five Titles of Christ.” A homiletician might see these as more exegetical than homiletical in nature. Still, with a little coaxing this material can easily be massaged into sermonic substance.

Harris points out that since the first edition, some eleven major English translations of the NT have been published. Among these are the CEV, NLT, HCSB, ESV, TNIV, and NET. Harris interacts with these at appropriate junctures. It is gratifying to see his recognition of Cassirer’s translation as well (p. xxxii). A notable feature of the book is Harris’s own translation, expanded paraphrase, and exegetical outline of both Colossians and Philemon (pp. 187–204, 245–250). As students do their own best work line by line, they can check it against the interpretive decisions of an accomplished master. Harris’s translation often answers the question of which option he favors in the detailed and sometimes atomistic discussion of individual words and phrases along the way.

The book concludes with “Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms” (pp. 251–272). This explains words or technical expressions used in the book that might stump beginning students, like protasis, stative, telic, transitive, and voice. It is no replacement for fuller treatments of such terms (like M. S. DeMoss, Pocket Dictionary for the Study of New Testament Greek, 2001), but it cements the utility of Harris’s volume as basically a free-standing reference work in its own right. There is usually no need to keep another stack of books at the ready to make effective use of Harris.

The didactic aim of the book and its attention to grammar and syntax mark it as something different from a commentary. But commentaries often frustrate because they may reveal more about a commentator’s opinion than about the scriptural text. Harris’s focus is the text in its detail, richness, and often complexity. He lays out options for understanding and puts tools in the interpreter’s hands to make the best decisions possible on meaning and translation. There is constant recognition of the need for going deeper (“For Further Study”) and the call to proclaim exegetical results (“Homiletical Suggestions”).

In a peculiar way, Harris encourages readers to slow down and smell the roses. Those who take the time will come to regard Harris’s careful, initially dense discussion with relish and eventually even fondness, like the words of a wizened and trusted counselor. That would not be fantasy but recognition of the true nature of Harris’s ability and stature as a scholar who has long pored over this material and now as a humble pedagogue puts the fruit of his observation on display for the benefit of those who are learning to share his passion for getting at the fullest and most accurate possible apprehension of Paul’s words in these two priceless epistles. Tolle, lege!


Robert W. Yarbrough

Bob Yarbrough is professor of New Testament at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, an editorial board member of Themelios, co-editor of the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament as well as the Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament (Broadman & Holman), and past president of the Evangelical Theological Society.

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