25 March 2014

Book review — Philemon: Evangelical Exegetical Commentary, by Seth M. Ehorn

by Dan Phillips

(Logos Bible Software, 2011)

Logos' Evangelical Exegetical Commentary series continues to grow. I reviewed the first volume by Gary Derickson first, then the commentary on James by Will Varner, then the commentary on the Song of Songs by A. Boyd Luter. Refer to the first (Derickson) review to understand the well-designed aim and focus of this series, which Logos provides me for possible reviews such as this.

Though Logos is selling Colossians (by H. Wayne House) and Philemon (by Ehorn) together, only Philemon is currently available. A longtime lover (and teacher, and preacher) of Colossians, I'll likely review that volume for you when it is released. The author of this commentary is Seth Ehorn, who is in the doctoral
program for New Testament language, literature, and theology at the University of Edinburgh, New College. Before this, Ehorn distinguished himself in his Master's studies at Wheaton College Graduate School, and has been creating entries for journals and upcoming publications.

As to this commentary, the thoroughness and currency of documentation once again immediately makes an impression. Six of the three hundred and sixty-eight footnotes speckle the first paragraph alone, referring to lit from the 1920s to the 2000s.

Approaching Philemon, Ehorn notes the letter's the lack of explicit development of usual Pauline themes (resurrection, etc), and the fact that theologies seldom refer extensively to Philemon. Yet,
[d]espite these apparent lacunae, Philemon is not just a fine literary and rhetorical achievement. Nor is it just an interesting cultural artifact. ...Presumably, Paul himself imagined that this letter would instigate great change in his hearers and especially in the life of a slave named Onesimus. Further, the multiple addressees in the letter seem to invite a wider readership, perhaps not only for the accountability of Paul’s request in the letter, but also for the edification of all who were addressed. It is in this latter sense that Philemon is to be understood as Christian Scripture.
In keeping with the brevity of the epistle, I'll keep my review briefer than some previous. I appreciated Ehorn's detailed and up-to-date attention to every aspect of the Greek text from every angle. I also appreciated the breadth and thoroughness of his documentation, which itself opens the doors to a lot of great material.

However what often stood out to me was Ehorn's reluctance to commit himself. Now, obviously one would not want a scholar to pretend certainty unwarranted by the evidence. Yet one has to admit that one wondered why Ehorn was chosen to write this particular commentary, given that he did not appear to have many singular insights to bring to light or trumpet.

For instance, we read, the epistle might have been written from Rome. Or maybe it was Ephesus. The evidence is inconclusive — though Ehorn makes an extended case for an (undocumented!) Ephesian imprisonment. Ehorn then argued against too tightly joining Colossians and Philemon, as is commonly done; he thinks Philemon precedes Colossians. By how long? Unknown. Or maybe it should really be connected with Philippians, instead of Colossians? Don't know. Finally, he concludes, "In the light of Paul’s request for lodging, it is easier to think that Paul wrote to Philemon from Ephesus than from Rome, thus probably between A.D. 52 and 55." Oh, so Ephesus it is...maybe.

So, what is the letter about? Exactly who was Philemon? What was Onesimus’ relationship with him? Why was Onesimus absent from him? How did Onesimus come to encounter Paul? In response, Ehorn quotes C. S. Lewis: “Almost anything can be read into any book if you are determined enough,” adding:
These words—penned by C. S. Lewis—are acutely true of the letter to Philemon. All these questions are left unanswered by the letter that is both short in length and short on details. Of course, such information would have been unnecessary to include in the letter seeing as the recipients would have had intimate knowledge of such issues already. Thus, as modern interpreters we are operating at a deficit. We are reading only half of the conversation. Nevertheless, such historical distance (not to mention social, political, etc.) should not drive readers to despair. Rather, it should warrant caution against over interpretation and humility regarding conclusions.
I'll attest that Ehorn certainly heeds his own advice. For instance, what is the narrative frame to the epistle, the background? The traditional (fugitivus) hypothesis sees Onesimus as a runaway slave, converted by Paul's ministry, returned by Paul. But, Ehorn counters, this would be a legal offense, and no remorse is expressed by or for Onesimus. Ehorn floats other possibilities, then concludes that it is impossible to be sure. For his part, he is "tentatively inclined to follow the recent trend of interpreters who read the letter to Philemon as concerning a slave who intentionally sought Paul for intercession with his master." But who knows?

Ehorn then says that the subject of slavery, peripheral to the book itself, has come to overshadow the actual content of the book. So no great help on that issue, here.

Ehorn makes good theological observations. For instance, though  Philemon doesn't stress usual Pauline themes, Ehorn notes that God and Christ (not the Spirit) are mentioned numerous times directly, and 2 passages feature the "divine passive" in two passages:
In two instances Paul employed the divine passive to indicate God as agent (vv 15, 22).61 Taken thusly, Paul not only hinted at the providential outworking of God in the details of Onesimus’ separation and return (v 15), but indicated that it was God who could grant him freedom from his imprisoned status (v 22). If God’s hand were involved in the separation of Onesimus from Philemon, then Philemon’s response to his slave would have to be tempered by his own view of the reality of God’s presence and providence in his life. Much like the circumstances of Joseph with his conniving brothers (cf. Gen 45:5, 8; 50:20; cf. also Esth 4:14), Philemon was summoned to look upon his circumstances and see them as the outworking of God. Perhaps with the clarity of hindsight, Philemon saw that the return of a slave who was now “useful” (v 11) and “a beloved brother” (v 16) was an act of God, who works “all things for the good of those who love him” (Rom 8:28).
This is a good example of Ehorn's theological sensitivity, and the useful material he produces.

Back to the issue of slavery. Ehorn hasn't much to contribute on the issue:
The relationship of Paul to slavery will be discussed only briefly in this section because of the publication of a recent monograph surveying studies on Paul and slavery and another recent collection of specific studies on Philemon. There is hardly necessity for an in-depth rehearsal of the trends of research on Philemon in view of these works. Suffice it to say, the general impact of the letter vis-à-vis slavery is presently in flux.
So Ehorn footnotes two academic works which are not in general circulation to explain why he won't have much to offer on the subject. I rather think it is a major issue in how we approach this book. Will it really do to say "I won't write very much about this (—in a commentary on the letter to slave-owner Philemon!) because some books few people own have"?

This is not to say that Ehorn has nothing to say on the issue. He notes J. M. G. Barclay's verdict that Paul's silence is "disturbing," adding this:
One cannot help but agree with Barclay’s empathetic statement that, “one can only weep on behalf of those millions of slaves whose lives might have been immeasurably better had Paul been just a little less ‘poetic’ ” (125). This, however, is not so much a problem with Paul per se, as it is with the history of interpretation.
Then, without comment, Ehorn notes that Moo "concluded that Paul did not realize the full implications of the theology he explicated." What? That sounds disturbingly like Paul K. Jewett's (and others') view on the issue of Paul and women pastors — that Paul just hadn't worked out his own theology yet, so the apostle (!) wrote in error in some passages. Does Moo think that? Does Ehorn agree with Moo?

While Ehorn writes and documents further, he does not really come to a conclusion, other than the conclusion that we do not know enough to come to a conclusion.

In fact later, commenting on vv. 15-16, Ehorn says Paul's "request was opaque."
This [opaqueness] is demonstrated by the variegated readings of v 16 among commentators. For example, one commentator boldly opined that “Paul is telling Philemon that he surely must manumit Onesimus now that he and Onesimus are brothers in Christ” (Witherington, 80; cf. Bruce, 217; Wolter, 270–72; Fitzmyer, 114–15). Conversely, other scholars find no legal implications regarding the issue of slavery (Lohse, 206; O’Brien, 305–06). Still others find the statement ambiguous, permitting either reading (Stuhlmacher, 43–45; Dunn, 335–36). Or, perhaps as Barclay argues, Paul may have been purposefully ambiguous because he did not know specifically what to recommend.
Ehorn's conclusion? None, apart from affirming that slave and master are now brothers — which is important, to be sure. But is it really all that is warranted?

This is all introductory. Ehorn's commentary, proper, is very detailed, sensitive to nuances of word-choice and case. For instance, on Paul not using "apostle" in the opening words, Ehorn makes a valuable observation:
It is of no small significance that the title ἀπόστολος is not found in letter opening, nor in the document at all, for its absence was likely part of the rhetorical strategy of the letter. That is, Paul had no intention of appealing to his authority as an apostle (cf. vv 8–9). The use of the self-appellation δέσμιος Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ ["prisoner of Christ Jesus"] sets the tone for the letter.
Ehorn's thoroughness is on display in his handling of verse 6 (ἡ κοινωνία τῆς πίστεώς σου ἐνεργὴς γένηται ἐν ἐπιγνώσει παντὸς ἀγαθοῦ τοῦ ἐν ἡμῖν εἰς Χριστόν), which he notes contains "the most exegetical difficulties of the letter." Ehorn contributes more than 2000 words (not including footnotes) of exegesis. First, he opens with an array of divergent translations, noting that even the NIV84 and current NIV differ. Here is his own translation: "that the fellowship produced by your faithfulness might become effective in the knowledge of every good thing that is yours for the sake of Messiah."

Later, Ehorn makes the valuable "applicational and devotional implication" that Onesimus' return teaches that
Onesimus too was to act in a selfless manner when he returned to his master as a “new man” (cf. Eph 4:24). By this it may be seen that conversion was not an escape from the responsibilities of his past. What was wrong still needed to be set right (cf. vv 18–19). Nevertheless, Onesimus’ new status in Christ would shake the foundations of his former relationship with Philemon, perhaps allowing for the forging of a new one as “a beloved brother” (v 16). By his example, Paul demonstrated that one effective way to guide fellow Christians is by gentle shepherding rather than coercive commanding (Calvin, 396).
Again, on the meaning of v. 21, Ehorn says maybe Paul wanted Philemon to release Onesimus to do gospel ministry with Paul. Or maybe Paul wanted Philemon to manumit him. Ehorn explains the former option, is a bit dismissive of the perspicuity of the latter, and (non-)concludes, "Either way, Paul left the options open, expecting Philemon to discern the right decision for himself..."

Ehorn's own translation is sometimes unusual. For instance, in verse 23, we read "my fellow-prisoner in reference to Messiah Jesus." This seems an odd rendering of ὁ συναιχμάλωτός μου ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ. How "in reference to"? What does that even mean? Isn't "in Christ" a major Pauline theme? Ehorn doesn't really explain the phrase, except insofar as he debates whether the term "fellow-prisoner" is literal or metaphorical (—  here he is again noncommittal).

I did very much appreciate Ehorn's comment on the names in vv. 23-24:
“Epaphras, who is my fellow-prisoner in reference to Messiah Jesus, greets you. Likewise, Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke my fellow-workers greet you.” Just as Paul opened the letter by including not only Philemon (v 1), but also Apphia, Archippus, and a church that met in Philemon’s house (v 2), so also Paul concluded the letter by including an epistolary entourage of no less than five people (vv 23–24). This confirms that the issue between Philemon and Onesimus is not just a private affair. Not only does the matter appear in a broader sphere of discourse, but the pressure is on, seeing as Paul had effectively “carbon copied” several others into the conversation.
So it's like using the "CC" function in an email, both spreading the mail, and alerting the primary addressee that others are reading it. Excellent observation. When I teach this, I'm sure I'll use that.

The book ends with a single excursus: "Christ, The Messiah In Theology And Translation." You know how many times you and I have pointed out that "Christ" isn't Jesus' last name? It's a title? Not so fast, says Ehorn in effect; sometimes it does function as a name in the NT, and not a title.

As to OT use, Ehorn notes that
With the exception of Dan 9:25–26, the use of “Messiah” always referred to a present person, not a future one. Thus, the OT itself does not provide the impetus for expectation of an eschatological figure who would be designated “the Messiah.”
This argument is almost too precise to be helpful, overlooking the body of material pointing to an eschatological priest, king, prophet — all of which share the term "anointed."

Ehorn concludes:
Although the consensus of scholarly opinion is that Χριστός had lost its titular significance within Paul’s letters, we have seen strong textual and historical reasons to see Paul’s use of Χριστός as not less than, but certainly more than titular.
In other words, Ehorn wants to translate it (sometimes!) as a proper name, not as a title. So he adds,
While translating the word Χριστός differently in context may present something of a problem to English sensibilities, particularly those who are used to hearing the word “Christ” in certain constructions, this is part and parcel of the task of understanding what ancient texts mean.
Accordingly, Ehorn works at coming up with a rationale for sometimes translating Χριστός as "Christ," and sometimes translating it as "Messiah," as the HCSB maddeningly does. So δέσμιος Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ in vv. 1 and 9 is "prisoner of Messiah Jesus," but ἀπὸ … κυρίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ in v. 3 is "from...the Lord Jesus Christ." Also: εἰς Χριστόν  in v. 6 is “for the sake of Messiah,” and vv, 8 and 20 ἐν Χριστῷ are “in Messiah.”

As with all the EEC volumes, Ehorn concludes by providing a list of foreign and technical words (such as anaphoric, conative, dittography, enclitic, hendiadys, inclusio, etc.), and extended bibliographies.

In sum: Ehorn has provided a good survey of the issues in the text, with commentary on those issues worth considering. He offers a number of helpful observations on the text, and is sensitive to its theology. The book is a good education on the current state of Philemon studies. That Ehorn views so much of the evidence as inconclusive earns my respect for Ehorn's humility and candor as a scholar, but prevents me from seeing the commentary as significantly ground-breaking in its own right.

Dan Phillips's signature


Morris Brooks said...

Sounds like this was his first commentary.

Morris Brooks said...

Sounds like this was his first commentary.

SethMEhorn said...

A friend pointed me to this review and I thought it would be appropriate to provide a few short responses. First of all: thank you. It is always nice to have someone read your work closely and offer comments, critiques, and reflections. In the spirit of continued dialogue, I shall focus on three key issues you raise.

(1) I trust you will know that plenty of interpreters have filled in the gaps of Paul’s letter to Philemon more fully (or differently) than I felt comfortable doing. I'm certainly guilty of being conservative with the data as we have it. One point worth flagging up, especially because it has a bearing on one your key critiques, is found in the closing of the Introduction where I wrote: “Equipped with Paul’s guidance with regard to theological thinking, Philemon was then entrusted to do what he thought was right in the situation. This is, we think, a profoundly interesting and helpful model for discipleship.” In other words, I perceive Paul's opaqueness to be built into the rhetorical strategy of the letter. My aversion against over-interpreting certain aspects of the letter should be read within that framework. You seem to pick up on this within the review at one point, but I think this explanation goes further in explaining Paul’s silence on a number of questions that we would like to have clearly answered in the letter.

(2) You have misread my comments about Barclay and Moo. Both were listed as different views in order to show what I expressly state in the following sentence: “...no consensus presently exists regarding how the background of slavery should be understood within Paul’s letters.” On this topic (i.e., slavery) you also chide me for pointing readers to expensive, inaccessible books. Fair enough. I wish books were cheaper too. However, I also provided an accurate reflection of the content of those books in the commentary.

(2) As for the χριστός language, I note that in addition to the title/name discussion, I followed Hurtado's suggestion that χριστός works syntactically like an honorific. In a very recent monograph Novenson has argued that χριστός actually is an honorific (and not a name or a title). He further demonstrates that when Paul wrote χριστός he means what he says (i.e., messiah). This book advances the discussion beyond the name/title debate, which was the framework that I and most Pauline scholars were working from. All interested readers should get Novenson's book, read it, and adjust their thinking accordingly.

S M Ehorn

LanternBright said...

I read Moo on Colossians and Philemon in the PNTC series when it first came out, and that certainly doesn't sound like anything I remember him saying.

(To say nothing of the fact that it would be tremendously out of keeping with anything else I've ever read by Moo.)

DJP said...

Seth alludes, I take it, to Novenson's Christ Among the Messiahs.

SethMEhorn said...

@LanternBright: You rightly note that Moo does not interpret Paul here in the way that DJP teases out. I do not represent Moo in this way and I cannot presume to understand why DJP would infer such a negative reading.

@DJP: Yes, that is the book. Take up and read!

DJP said...

There's no mystery whatever to my citation of Moo. I said that you quoted him without comment. You did that. Here is the entire paragraph:

So, what can be said of Paul’s silence on the issue of slavery in Philemon? Barclay concluded that Paul’s silence on the issue was “disturbing.” Moo concluded that Paul did not realize the full implications of the theology he explicated. What the present state of research on ancient slavery demonstrates, however, is that no consensus presently exists regarding how the background of slavery should be understood within Paul’s letters. Paradigm shifts, which have taken place among interpreters, seem to regularly oscillate between viewing the institution in the bleakest of terms or in (generally) more positive terms. For example, NewDocs 8, §1 records the relationship between a master (Demetrius) and slave (unnamed) wherein the slave is clearly not happy with his situation. After Demetrius has a few too many drinks and goes to sleep it off, his slave kills him and sets the house on fire, presumably to cover up his murderous acts. Llewelyn rightly notes that “the document stands as a counter-balance to the numerous (and no doubt biased) epitaphs commemorating a good relationship between master and slave.” Seneca, sharing the sentiments of several others, wrote that one has “as many enemies as (you have) slaves” (Epist. 47.5; cf. Macrobius, Sat. 1.11.13; Festus, Gramm. 349.23).80 Athenaeus wrote that “[t]here is even evidence in Greece that a lawsuit could be filed against an unsavory master who mistreated his slave” (Deipn. 6.266).

I quoted your summary of Moo, and asked a question on the basis of your summary. My quotation of you was verbatim. I assumed your summary was accurate, and asked on that basis. Was the summary not accurate?

I noted that the summary sounded "disturbingly like Paul K. Jewett." I'm sure you're familiar with Jewett's argument. On the surface, do you not see the similarity between your summary and Jewett's form of argument? If you see no similarity, then we see something differently — but, once again, there is no mystery to my motivation.

I asked, "Does Moo think that?" You did not say whether he did, in your commentary. Now you say Moo doesn't think so. While I don't know how to square that statement with your other assertion that Moo "concluded" that "Paul did not realize the full implications of the theology he explicated," it is good to hear.

I then asked, "Does Ehorn agree with Moo?" You did not say in your commentary. Now you say you don't. Good to hear.

Shouldn't a book review focus on what an author wrote, not on what the reviewer guesses the author thought? So I did, endeavoring to be fair, accurate, and gracious. My points and questions were based on the commentary as it stands.

SethMEhorn said...

@DJP: I fully agree with your comment that a book review should focus on what an author actually wrote and not on what the reviewer guesses the author thought. That is precisely why I've taken issue with your digressive and negative comments about Moo in the vein of Jewett. The extensive paragraph of my words which you cite of juxtaposes Barclay’s and Moo’s views with my own. That should be clear for both you and other readers now that you have reproduced it in full. It is also worth pointing out that my clarifying comments about Moo were concerning your construal of Moo (in the vein of Jewett) and were not clarifying comments of my own summary in the commentary. [For clarity, I note that this last sentence is made in direct reference to my comment @LanternBright]. Perhaps I was not as clear as I believe I was or perhaps you read over it too quickly?

Stephen said...

For what it's worth (re: expensive, inaccessible books), I just did a quick search of a few evangelical seminaries/Christian colleges scattered among the US, and most of their libraries had the Novenson book available for reference or check-out. Those that don't live near such schools may be out of luck.

Jugulum said...

"Then, without comment, Ehorn notes that Moo "concluded that Paul did not realize the full implications of the theology he explicated." What? That sounds disturbingly like Paul K. Jewett's (and others') view on the issue of Paul and women pastors — that Paul just hadn't worked out his own theology yet, so the apostle (!) wrote in error in some passages. Does Moo think that?"

Ehorn's summary of Moo's conclusion sounds like, "Paul stopped short of applying/extending his teaching in ways that he could have legitimately done."

Basically, "Paul didn't say (or think) something he could have," as opposed to Jewett's "Paul did say (and think) something that was mistaken."