Colossians and Philemon: An Introduction and Commentary

Written by Alan J. Thompson Reviewed By Adam Copenhaver

Few would envy the scholar tasked with writing a replacement volume for N. T. Wright’s 1986 commentary on Colossians and Philemon in the Tyndale New Testament Commentary Series. Wright’s commentary is exemplary in insight and brevity, and it has been a starting point for all who want to learn about these biblical texts. Happily, Alan J. Thompson (senior lecturer in New Testament at Sydney Missionary and Bible College, Croydon, New South Wales, Australia) has not only undertaken this endeavor, but he has also done a fine job.

Thompson does not set out to correct Wright’s work but neither does he constrain himself to Wright’s views. Instead, Thompson’s primary contribution is to update the commentary by interacting primarily—and sometimes seemingly exclusively—with scholarly works published since Wright’s volume in 1986. He does, therefore, offer a contemporary commentary that stands on its own merits as a contribution to the field. Like Wright’s before him, Thompson’s work should be seen as a reliable introduction or “first commentary” for the student of Colossians and Philemon.

For both letters, Thompson sees Paul as the genuine author and Rome as the place of provenance. For Colossians, he identifies responding to false teachers as Paul’s purpose in writing. Thompson “tentatively” concludes that this false teaching was a “localized form” of legalism derived from the Old Testament that included “elements of asceticism” and was propagated by teachers who boasted of their superior “spiritual status” (p. 20). Though these teachers are present in Colossae, Thompson suggests they have not infiltrated the church. Thus, Paul writes preventatively rather than correctively (p. 21), lest the Colossians should be deceived rather than because they already have been, and Thompson mirror-reads many of Paul’s positive statements in Colossians against this false teaching (e.g., pp. 41, 42, 76, 77, 96, 109, 131, 161, 185).

Regarding Philemon, Thompson takes the traditional view that Onesimus was a runaway slave who has providentially met Paul and been converted, and Paul is now sending Onesimus back to his master, Philemon. In his commentary on the text of both Colossians and Philemon, Thompson fairly represents multiple views on key issues and offers his own conclusions with sound reasoning. He generally follows well-established lines of interpretation rather than embarking on novel theories—a proper approach for a commentary intended as an introduction for new students of the text.

Perhaps the most interesting part of his entire commentary is his one-page reflection on how Colossians helps interpret Philemon (p. 210). Most commentaries only mention in passing, if at all, the evidence that these two letters were simultaneously composed by Paul, carried to Colossae, and read aloud to the gathered church in Philemon’s house. For example, Wright calls Philemon “the companion piece” to Colossians, with both letters being carried by Tychicus on the same journey alongside Onesimus (Colossians and Philemon, TNTC 12 [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986], 39, 165–66). But Wright, like most other commentators, does not reflect substantively on the relationship between the two letters. Even when he calls the letter to Philemon the high point of Paul’s theology and assumes Philemon had access to Paul’s theological substructure and worldview, Wright looks to the entire corpus of Paul’s writings for that substructure without considering that Paul may have presented it more succinctly in his companion letter to the Colossians (Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God [Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013], 1:16–74).

Thompson, on the other hand, muses that if indeed the two letters were written together, then “it is also worth reflecting on how the letter to the Colossians might help interpret the letter to Philemon” (p. 210). Yes, indeed! Thompson then suggests various themes in Colossians that have broad relevance to Philemon, such as reconciliation, forgiveness, love, and slavery. He also notes throughout his commentary on Philemon various instances where the theology of Colossians directly undergirds the message in Philemon. As one example, Thompson observes (pp. 244–45) that when Paul offers to repay Onesimus’s debt in order that he might be forgiven (Phlm 18), Paul is likely thinking of his theological principles from Colossians, where Paul said not only that believers have forgiveness in Christ (Col 1:14; 2:13) and must forgive one another (Col 3:13), but also that all wrongs will ultimately be repaid in the judgment (Col 3:25). Paul’s offer in Philemon seems to be a practical application of his theology in Colossians.

Thus, Thompson is right to suggest that Colossians helps interpret the letter to Philemon, and he provides some intriguing examples of how this might work. I find myself wondering whether Thompson has gone far enough—it seems there is much terrain left to be explored, if Paul’s letter to Philemon really is the apex and practical application of the theological substructure of his letter to the Colossians. What if we read Philemon through the lens of Colossians—where else might we find the theology of Colossians imprinted on Paul’s words to Philemon? This may lead to fresh readings of Philemon abounding with new insights.

Further, what if we were not only to read Philemon backward in light of Colossians, as Thompson does, but also to read Colossians forward in light of Philemon? In other words, what if Paul wrote Colossians with the Philemon situation in mind? How might viewing Colossians through the lens of Philemon bring new insight into what Paul says and why in Colossians? Could we reverse-engineer the book of Colossians, presuming that Paul intended for Colossians to be the theological substructure for the superstructure he knew he would then construct upon it in his letter to Philemon? Articles and dissertations are begging to be written on such questions!

In the end, Thompson has written a reliable introductory commentary and I commend it as such. And in so doing, Thompson has perhaps given us the greatest gift of all, an insight that sparks further reflection on the text. Hopefully future scholars will follow his cue and explore the mutually-interpreting relationship between these two letters.

Adam Copenhaver

Adam Copenhaver
Grace Church of Mabton
Mabton, Washington, USA

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