The Letter to Philemon

By Markus Barth and Helmut Blanke
Grand Rapids : Eerdmans (2000). 561 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. James Rosscup
12.2 (Fall 2001) : 252-253

This work deserves a place as one the best of all time in contributing information on background issues and exegesis of the epistle. Barth (1915–1994) was Professor of New Testament Studies at the University of Basel, Switzerland, and son of the famous Karl Barth. Blanke was his student and now pastors in Germany. The present volume is in the Eerdmans Critical Commentary.

Pages 1-103 discuss rather exhaustively what is known about facets of slavery in NT times; 104-242 deal with literary, biographical, and contextual subjects; then 243-498 provide commentary. After this is a bibliography of 19 pages and indexes of modern authors, subjects, and ancient literature. The book draws upon much journal literature. The second section adds many thoughts about slavery to those of the first section. Among thirty-seven sections or sub-sections in Part One on slavery is one on “Fugitive Slaves” (26-31), citing top specialized sources. The authors discuss such matters as reasons for slaves’ flight, dangers, pursuits to which they might turn, attitudes toward runaways, and rewards for returning them. An interesting section looks at possibilities for Onesimus as a fugitive returning. One wishes in all of this for one clear-cut section on a Christian attitude toward slavery, but has to draw that from voluminous readings throughout to piece this together.

The commentary is lengthy, but the information is much of value. Verse 1 receives eleven pages; verse 2 gets nearly eleven, verse 3 only three pages, verse 12 nearly twelve, verse 13 nearly fifteen, and verse 16b (“a brother who is loved”) twenty-eight and a half. Within the commentary are twenty-three excurses on topics such as “Timothy,” “House Churches,” and “Legal Options for Onesimus’s Future.”

These writers are usually clear, but not always. Their comments favor Paul’s claiming in verse 9 to be Christ’s “ambassador,” not Paul “the aged” (321- 24). They have a good discussion of what Paul means by verse 18, “If he has wronged you.” The authors favor viewing Onesimus not as having stolen and fled with valuables, or cheated Philemon of work time, but as having a servant’s debt he has not paid off (480-82). Against many commentators, their hard-to-follow discussion of verse 22 sees Paul as writing from Ephesus, not Rome.

Extensive discussions of the work form a major contribution to professors and students in deep NT scholarly study. Others who are patient to read and reflect, such as pastors who do in-depth study, will derive much profit, agreeing at times and disagreeing at others.