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Book Reviews > New Testament > The Letter to the Ephesians: The Pillar New Testament Commentary

Ray VanNeste

Ray VanNeste
Director of the RC Ryan Center for Biblical Studies and Assistant Professor of Christian Studies

The Letter to the Ephesians: The Pillar New Testament Commentary
Peter T. O’Brien
Details: 1999, Eerdmans, Amazon.comISBN: 0802837360
Posted: August 14, 2002


This is another fine commentary from a leading evangelical New Testament scholar. Dr. O’Brien has already written well-received commentaries on the other two prison epistles (Philippians [New International Greek Testament Commentary] and Colossians [Word]), and this commentary lives up to the high standard set by those works. He engages with the best and most recent scholarship and writes from a solidly evangelical point of view. In keeping with the aims of the Pillar series O’Brien not only provides rigorous exegesis, but also points to ways in which the issue at hand impacts the church (individually and collectively) today. The layout, in keeping with the series, enhances the readability of the text using footnotes well, thus avoiding the interruptions of cumbersome parentheses, and avoiding the unhelpful division between notes and comments seen in some series.

The introduction alone is a mine of useful information. The opening paragraphs of the introduction mention several ways the letter addresses the modern church from challenging superficial understandings of the gospel to affirming the centrality of God’s truth in a postmodern world. Then, O’Brien, in what may be one of the key contributions of the commentary, provides a strong and thorough defense of the Pauline authorship of Ephesians. O’Brien’s previous work on Colossians serves him well in this discussion since one of the key issues is the literary relationship between Colossians and Ephesians. O’Brien concludes that the literary relationship is more nuanced than Lincoln and others have suggested and that there is no reason Paul could not have written both letters. O’Brien also provides a good analysis of the style of the letter as well as its theological emphases and picture of Paul, in each case suggesting that Pauline authorship provides the best explanation. O’Brien concludes the authorship section by countering the arguments of Meade and others on the acceptability of pseudonymity in the ancient world. O’Brien rejects the view of those who say that pseudonymity does not detract from the validity of the letter since it is still within the canon and therefore authoritative. Indeed, O’Brien points out that the argument for the early church went the other way: Ephesians, and other documents, were recognized as apostolic and authoritative and as a result were accepted into the canon.

Also included in the introduction was a helpful section on the genre of the letter, in which it was particularly clear to this reviewer that O’Brien was abreast of the most recent scholarship. O’Brien takes issue with those who suggest Ephesians is some other type of writing merely dressed up as a letter, and argues persuasively that Ephesians meets the criteria of letters in the ancient world. Following this, O’Brien considers the propriety of analyzing New Testament letters according to the canons of classical rhetoric. As this is a growing tendency in research with significant impact on many commentaries, O’Brien devotes 10 pages to the issue. In the mind of this reviewer, O’Brien is rightly skeptical of the rhetorical approach, following the work of S. E. Porter, J. T. Reed and P. H. Kern.

The actual handling of the text is marked by clear and careful exegesis. Each paragraph is introduced as a whole before the individual phrases are examined, followed by a summary. Once again O’Brien demonstrates his awareness of more recent scholarship (this time, verbal aspect theory) by being more judicious than several other recent commentaries about basing too much on the tense of any given verb. Yet the commentary is not overly technical but has a keen interest in the theology expressed in the letter and how this relates to the other of Pauline letters. This exegetical and theological concern is especially helpful in this theologically rich letter. The discussion of theology also leads naturally to brief statements which point to the application of the passage at hand. For example, in his discussion of election in 1:4, O’Brien writes: ‘To affirm this [God electing before creation] is to give to Christians the assurance that God’s purposes for them are of the highest good, and the appropriate response …is to praise him who has so richly blessed us’ (100). Also, after discussing the wrath of God in 2:3, O’Brien notes, ‘only the person who understands something of the greatness of his wrath will be mastered by the greatness of his mercy’ (163).

In summary, this commentary admirably meets the aim of the Pillar series to combine rigorous exegesis with biblical theology and contemporary relevance. As such it should indeed be useful to scholars, students and preachers and is highly recommended.

Ray Van Neste

University of Aberdeen

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