Letters and Homilies for Hellenized Christians. Volume 1. A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on Titus, 1-2 Timothy and 1-3 John. By Ben Witherington III


Pp. 623 , Downers Grove, IL : IVP Academic & Nottingham: Apollos , 2006 , £21.99 .

This is the first of a projected three volume project which will cover Hebrews, the Pastorals, and the General Epistles. Six of those eleven NT books get Witherington's customary full and fair treatment here. The rationale offered for the series seems mainly to be that it will allow W to finish his ‘long-term project of exegeting the entire New Testament’ (p. 12), though some of the other volumes he has written are at present still forthcoming. Given that even Calvin never wrote a commentary on Revelation this is an extraordinary achievement, and certainly at this level nobody springs to mind in the intervening 400 years who has achieved anything comparable. All praise to W that the commentaries never let up in their serious two-pronged attention to social and theological factors. Whether his judgement that these six documents deserve attention together because they are written to congregations in the same ‘socioreligious milieu and even the same regional context’ is justified, it probably matters little in the end compared to the value of the treatment herein.

There is a general introduction, presumably to the series rather than this one book, though this is not clear. Two issues are raised. Firstly W discusses the ‘old chestnut’ of epistolary pseudepigrapha'. His bracing survey shows up the increasingly evident faultlines in the old view that pseudepigrapha in the canon was a harmless literary convention. This view has attained such widespread status in NT scholarship that it is doubtful that the brief 15-page analysis will shift it, though W is abreast of the current discussion and faithfully reports that the tide is turning. The concept of harmless convention seems increasingly unlikely. Deliberate deception is not of course ruled out, but the personal details that suffuse the pastorals must have been added in with intent to deceive. The burden of proof, at least, has shifted, as W concludes. In the wake of the work of Luke Timothy Johnson and works like the edited volume The Canon Debate (eds. Sanders & MacDonald, Hendrickson, 2002, not noted herein), this judgements seems correct. (With regard to the two main subdivisions of the commentary that follow, W argues that the ‘pastorals’ are Pauline with the possible help of Luke as amanuensis, and that the Johannine epistles are by the Beloved Disciple, who was also the source of the material for the Fourth Gospel, which was however edited by a different John, possibly John of Patmos.) The second introductory issue discussed is a brief defence of the suitability of rhetorical categories in analysing sermons and homilies in NT times, given that by the second century a rhetorical emphasis was being seen as suspect in some (significant) quarters. W sees no grounds for thinking that there was first century suspicion of rhetoric; rather that the missionary situation of the early church more or less required some kind of rhetoric of persuasion in communicative documents such as these.

The style of the commentary that follows will be familiar to those who have used W's previous socio-rhetorical commentary. One stand-out example: W approaches 1 Timothy 2:8–15 convinced that once read on its own socio-religious terms the text will make a fair amount of sense. He notes the text's concern with men and women ‘of relatively high social status’. In brief, he argues that women accustomed to allying themselves with the new philosophies and teaching which occasionally breezed through Ephesus had done the same with Christianity, but had thereby omitted what was for Paul the key step of learning what they were talking about first. Hence: let (these) women learn, so that as they go on to teach they will understand the gospel of which they are trying to speak. The story of Adam and Eve likewise highlights Eve's lack of proper instruction (not, of course, her fault), while the ‘saved through childbearing’ reference indicates that while it was through women that the fall came, so through a woman comes redemption as well, with the messianic reference to Mary's bearing Jesus being applicable to all women. If ever a reading of 1 Timothy 2 will manage to find socio-cultural reasons for its problematic surface-level content then this will be it, though one may confidently predict that not all will be convinced. A personal opinion: W has found the right balance of contextual and historically plausible reasons to account for what is being said, without requiring men and women today to read the NT text as requiring women not to teach.

Overall this is a well-written and comprehensive commentary, to which I shall refer often, at least as often as I refer to these relatively less central documents of scripture.