Book Review: Ephesians and Colossians by Talbert

11zYENssgPL._SL110_Talbert, Charles H. Ephesians and Colossians Paideia: Commentaries on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2007.
ISBN: 0801031281
Amazon Link

Thank you Baker Academic for providing me with the opportunity to write this review.

Charles H. Talbert’s introductory volume to the Paideia (ΠΑΙΔΕΙΑ) commentary series has been a challenging book for me to review and hopefully it will challenge the way its readers think theologically – especially in moving from the world of the first century to the modern world. But more on that later as we come to it. It has been a pleasure to read and I do want to thank Baker Academic for giving me the chance to write this review.

This review will be in three parts. The first and shortest of this sections will deal with the introduction. The second examines Talbert’s discussion of Ephesians. This is the longest section for two reasons: 1) My personal focus is Ephesians, but also 2), Ephesians constitutes the larger part of Talbert’s commentary as well. The final section will deal with Talbert’s exposition/exegesis of Colossians in a similar manner to that of Ephesians.


The introduction is divided into several sections, all of which are for the most part helpful. For example from the first page, those students who have always wondered why in the world two letters that are as similar to each other as Ephesians and Colossians are separated by Philippians will find an answer. This first section consists of an examination of the relationship between Ephesians and Colossians. For the most part, the discussion is merely a description of the various options that have been put forth over the years and that is not a bad thing for a commentary series that is focused primarily upon introducing the letters to students.

But what is problematic is the following discussion of authorship. That is, the discussion is partly problematic. Talbert actually gives an excellent summary of first century views of authorship and what constituted authorship. Nor is it necessarily problematic that Talbert concludes that Paul did not write the letters (His conclusion is based upon the letter’s theology, which is one of the better reasons). Rather the issue is that for a series that claims to be presenting “consensus scholarship” (see back cover), Talbert gives not recognition to his readers that there is no consensus to the authorship question. Harold Hoehner proved that fact in his 1000 page tome (cf. Ephesians, 19-20). In fact does he even mention Peter O’Brien or Harold Hoehner who argued strongly for Pauline authorship until after the authorship section is completed.

The other frustration is that it is very difficult to determine exactly which of his five views of authorship is the one that he holds to. The outright conclusion that Ephesians is deutero-Pauline doesn’t appear until the section “Approach” where Talbert explains his attempt to read the letters in like of how the original audience might respond (15). But as far as I could see, there is no clear statement about Colossians, though deutero-Pauline is most likely considering Talbert’s language and his continued use of Paul’s name in quotation marks through the commentary on Colossians (see, for example, 225).

But beyond this frustration, the introduction is very good. His summary of first century authorship is generally helpful. He also does well in placing high importance upon the use of parallel sources in order to place both these letters into a first century literary context. His goal is to read the letter in light of how the original audience, which “involves a close reading of the text of Ephesians in dialogue with aspects of the culture that have been signaled by the letter’s argument” (16).

The rest of the introduction deals with several themes in the two letters. These include excellent discussions of unity, the function of the “powers” in Ephesians, benefaction, life and worship, and Greco-Roman households. Each of these five quick essay sections seek to orient the reader to the the culture that surrounds the text of these two letters. Thus, the discussion of unity provides parallels with Alexander the Great as a unifier of the Ancient Near East. The discussion of “powers” is a discussion of ancient cosmology. And the examination of households discussions the structure and order of the first century Greco-Roman family (including slaves and extended family). Each of these shorter discussions are picked up at keys point in the commentary for expansion and discussion.

Exegesis and Exposition of Ephesians:

This portion and the following on Colossians, instead of examining each chapter/section of the commentary itself, which would be a excessively long and laborious task, will note and discuss some of the highlights of the commentary.

Each section of text contains several very helpful elements, especially for the student. The first section Talbert entitles, “Introductory Matters.” Within this section Talbert focuses on issues such as the history of interpretation, sometimes historical questions and the structure/outline of the passage in question. There is always an outline noted in a helpfully separate shaded box. Structural issues consist of possible chiasms and the like that Talbert recognizes as being important to the flow of the letter. Often times he will point out some important parallels in content with other ancient literature. This is generally Colossians, but also literature such as The Rules of the Qumran Community (cf. 121).

The following section, “Tracing the Train of Thought,” provides the author’s translation of the respective passage and his parenthetical comments on the passage. Talbert (and I assume the series as a whole) places the translation and comments together so that they flow from one to another in a similar manner to that of the New International Biblical Commentary. But what separates Talbert (and Paideia) from NIBC is the a translation of the entire book is available in the comments, while NIBC is selective in providing translation. Here, any comments on particular words or explanations of how Talbert view a particular syntactical construction will appear. Talbert is quite emphatic about how he view the genitive phrase, “ἐν Χριστῷ,” but more on that in a moment.

The final section deals with “Theological Issues.” Within this part, Talbert digs in to the biblical theology of the author of Ephesians and generally spells out some potential implications for the reader today. Talbert deserves much praise for working hard to provide theological discussion that is both grounded in the text and the cultural context as well before seeking to apply the text to today. Other times, Talbert discusses significant phrases and their theological implications and to that we shall now turn.

Particularly insightful is Talbert’s discussion of the phrase, “in Christ,” which appears as early as verse one. What makes the discussion unique is the way Talbert brings in evidences for many sources not previously used. Talbert argues that the locative meaning of the phrase “in Christ” does not occur at all in Ephesians. Rather, he considers the instrumental usage of the phrase to be the most likely usage for the majority of occurrences in the letter (and also in Colossians as well). For the new student of the letter, Talbert provides a helpful chart that surveys both the interpretive options for the phrase and the three usages which he considers to be most likely – “in Christ” meaning Christian, “in Christ” referring to one object of hope or faith, or “in Christ” being understood instrumentally so that God the Father’s work is done through Christ the son (38).

For example in Ephesians 1.1, “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To God’s holy people in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus” (TNIV), Talbert considers the phrase here to be synonymous with calling the recipients Christians or believers. In Ephesians 1.3, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ,” and the vast majority of occurrences following, the author of Ephesians is using the phrase to refer to Christ’s work. Thus according to Talbert, God “has blessed us with every spiritual blessing by means of or through Christ.” This usage, according to Talbert is quite common and he draws significantly on parallel sources from the Koine period (35-36).

A few objections could be made. For one, considering how often Paul uses the phrase “in Christ” and how often it occurs in this letter, one would expect that there would be a more technical definition for the phrase. To this objection, it could quickly be said in response that the instrumental usage fits extremely well into the context of a large number of occurrence, especially in Ephesians. On the other hand, one could easily ask if not the pervasive theme of unity throughout the book could point more to the locative concept of “union with Christ.” Such a meaning is very comfortable in 2.19-22 where it seems a stretch for Talbert to say that Christ is both a part of the building and also built by him (83-84). I would suggest that the context for the instrumental usage cannot be pressed as firmly and confidently as one might want.

Finally, it must be pointed out that when Talbert says that “in Christ” is used as short hand to refer to Christians/believers in general, I find it difficult to understand how exactly this is different from saying that the believer is “in union with Christ,” though perhaps not in quite as mystical of a sense as or perhaps the concept of “sphere” would fit that same description.

Regardless of the conclusion, Talbert has definitely advanced the discussion of one of most debated crux interpretum of the letter. It wise for future scholars to examine Talbert’s arguments.

Probably my favorite discussion is that of household code of Ephesians 5.22-6.9. For once someone has actually taken history and culture into account in for the contemporary application of household codes. The typical discussion attempts to discussion Paul’s perspective of marriage and its implications for the modern world with little discussion of the function of the first century household. Talbert argues the the closer parallel between the Greco-Roman household is not the modern nuclear family relationships, but rather the parallel is found in comparing the Greco-Roman household with the modern family business – for that is exactly how the ancient family functioned. This comparison is a welcome change from previous discussion, recognizing the discontinuity between the modern family and the ancient one (149-153).

“If these observations about the ancient household and its codes are correct, then it becomes obvious that the material in Eph 5.22-6.9 and other early Christian sources is not appropriately used in definition what a modern Christian marriage should look like” (152).

With that said, Talbert continues on in the more typical egalitarian fashion with his discussion of women in the earliest churches with his emphasis on reading the NT household codes in light of Galatians 3.27-28 (153).

Also helpful is Talbert’s response to Best’s criticism of the household codes as unfitting and pastorally defective. He argues, rightly, that the household code of Ephesians functions as exhortation. Paul’s goal is identity formation and the passage represents one half of the two ways described by Paul in chapter four (156-157).

One disappointment, (which I noted in a previous post HERE) is Talbert’s discussion of Greek, for example in Ephesians 6.14-16, he seems to believe that aorist participles express past action. Based on the continuing debate concerning regarding the function of the Greek “tenses,” it seems unwise to make such statements in commentaries without clarification. Even those, such as Daniel Wallace who rejects Stanley Porter’s thesis regarding verbal aspect and temporal reference, refer to the time of participles as being relative, not absolute (cf. GGBB, 614). But this is minor and I only noticed such a reference on one page (165).

Exegesis and Exposition of Colossians:

The commentary on Colossians is about half the length of his discussion of Ephesians. Colossians in general seems to get the short end of the stick from Talbert, since also in the introduction he seems to spend significantly more time referencing Ephesians than he does Colossians. From the introduction its difficult to determine exactly whether Talbert accepts Pauline authorship of Colossians. He never states his view directly – though he continues to place Paul’s name in quotes through his exegesis of the letter.

The format of Ephesians with its introduction, tracing of the argument and theological issues continues in Colossians. Thus, in theology section of verses 1-2, we are pointed back to the discussion of the phrase “in Christ” from Ephesians and Talbert charts his understanding of the phrase through the letter.

In the theology discussion of verses 1.3-23, Talbert pulls together a number of sources, Charles Moule’s study on Christology, James Dunn, and even the Nicene Creed and the Definition of Chalcedon. He concludes with Dunn that its unfair to expect the precision of later definitions to be found within the earliest statements about Christ, though his personal belief regarding Christ’s preexistence is left somewhat unclear (195).

The discussion of Colossians 2 provides an excellent summary of the debates regarding the opponents of the letter. From mystery religions to philosophical schools, to syncretism, Talbert surveys the options. He concludes that none of the present suggestions adequately explain the opponents of Colossians. Many questions remain (208-209). His reading of the flow of though through the chapter leads him to make the following conclusions: Verses 2.8-15 could either connect to Judaism or philosophical schools (211). The following verses make it clear that the opponents have been judgmental and critical of the Colossian church (215). Based on verse 16 (the references to food, drink and the Sabbath), Talbert considers either Judaism or syncretism as highly probable options. Both Judaism and the early second century Elchasaite form of Judaism valued food and drink, and the Sabbath. The latter, “held a magical or astrological interpretation of special days [i.e. the Sabbath]” (216, referencing Clinton Arnold, The Colossians Syncretism [WUNT, 2/77; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1995], 218).

But it is verses 17 that casts the deciding vote for Talbert.

So here in Col 2.17 the food and days are the shadow of things to come, the reality of which is Christ. This statement inclines the reader to see the problems as Jewish. . . . It is difficult to believe that “Paul” would have referred to pagan practices as the foreshadowing of the reality to be found in Christ (217).

This is an excellent point, one which definitely affirm my own reading of the letter as dealing with Jewish opponents. As one who believes Paul is the author, this is a strong argument. But those such as James Dunn, who rejects Pauline authorship, might quickly ask, “How can we know whether the author of Colossians would not refer to pagan practices when we do not know who he is?” I can only speculate on Talbert’s response to such a question, but it would likely involve noting that the author seeks to stay in line with Paul’s own thought as much as possible in the letter.

Finally, Talbert’s last discussion of 4.7ff. provides a helpful discussion of the list of greetings that bring Colossians to a close with regard to both history and theology. He notes that Romans is the other letter with such extensive greetings and also the another letter addressed to a church Paul did not plant himself.

With this comes a discussion of the relationship between Colossians and Philemon. Talbert holds that even if Paul did not write Colossians, there is a clear and definite narrative shared between the two letters. Talbert argues that there are too many dissimilarities between them to have actually been delivered at the same time. He believes, for one example, that the theology of Philemon is earlier than that of Colossians, though I am not entirely sure what that means since he gives no elaboration. The next question is more beneficial and thought provoking. Why is Epaphras Paul’s fellow prisoner in Philemon while it is Archippus is the prisoner in Colossians?

The final conclusion is that the “best narrative” suggests that Philemon was written earlier and then at a later date Timothy and Paul wrote Colossians together. “Whether this part of the narrative is historical fact or a deutero-Pauline fiction, it seems to be the story assumed when both the closing connections and the series of discontinuities between the letters . . . are taken into account” (246). With this statement, from the commentary introduction to the final pages, Talbert successfully maintains a safe distance from the question of Colossians authorship while appearing to prefer the letter to be deutero-Pauline. But he also warns that a large distinction between the authentic and the deutero-Pauline letters should not be made on the basis of the participation of his co-workers (247).


This first volume in the Paideia series is an impressive text. The amount of parallel material in the text provides significant help in pointing to the student to important cultural sources for the first century and show the value of looking at other writers from the time period in elucidating the meaning of these two letters. The majority of Talbert’s discussions are well argued and meticulously defended. He is fair in representing other perspectives on various passages, though he would have done well to provide a broader examination of arguments for and against Paul’s authorship of Ephesians. With his emphasis on history and culture in terms of doing theology, I am very impressed by this commentary. Talbert is a welcome dialoging partner for students of these two letters. He has provided a welcome intoductory commentary on these two letters and plenty of food for thought for those who have already spent time digging into Ephesians and Colossians.

4 thoughts on “Book Review: Ephesians and Colossians by Talbert

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s