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Once in a while, I run across a thought-provoking book or commentary.  I think it’s helpful to share it with fellow preachers.  Prof. David Pao’s new commentary on Colossians and Philemon, published by Zondervan in 2012, is one such book.[1]

In case any of my readers do not know, Prof. David Pao is the New Testament department head at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, a graduate of Harvard and an expert of Luke-Acts.   His claim to fame comes from his innovative dissertation from Harvard on the Isaianic New Exodus reading of Acts.  Those who are looking for a good resource on Colossians, David’s book will not disappoint.  This commentary is part of a new series called the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament.  This series features discussion on the structure and the text along with the scholar’s own translation of the Greek text as the basis of the verse-by-verse commentary.  Its audience is the preacher and the seminary student.

Starting with the discussion on Pauline authorship, Pao accepts Pauline authorship.  Before he defends his position, he clearly lays out the arguments against Pauline authorship in four concise issues.[2]  Pao focuses on the theological distinction argument and the problem of not having a clear false teaching in Colossians (i.e. the logic goes something like this; since there’s no clear false teaching, then it must not have been written by Paul).  I must admit that having done work on Colossians, I struggle with the latter over the former.  The problem of not being able to identify the false teaching has plagued scholars as eminent as Morna Hooker of Cambridge fame.[3]  I do however wish that Pao dwells a bit more on the vocabulary problem of Colossians which has been used to argue against Pauline authorship.  I suspect that he was under the constraint of publication to shorten his discussion, knowing the ability of Pao to give full analysis on the vocabulary argument.

The argument against Pauline authorship has been aimed at the kind of unique vocabulary in Colossians (and also Ephesians) based on the “authentic Pauline letters” like Romans and the Corinthian correspondences.  The problem however is very complicated in that Galatians, commonly taken to be a Pauline letter, also has a large number of unique vocabulary that does not appear in Romans and Corinthian correspondences.[4]  In other words, in a small letters, the vocabulary-based authorship discussion is less objective than the way many have done.  Pao must have faced the problem of whether to dwell on vocabulary statistics for his audience or to move into a more fruitful discussion of the text.  He chose the latter.

One of the big debates regarding Colossians is the nature of the Colossian problem. Pao acknowledges the difficulty of pinpointing opponents based on the existing evidence.  Rather than pinpointing the options between pagan philosophy (i.e. middle Platonism), Jewish legalism and mysticism, Pao choses to see syncretism as the issue facing the Colossians and Paul.  The system he identifies very rightly is based on the reading of 2.18. Scholars have quite an even split between seeing the angels being the object of veneration (objective genitive) and angels are participants of heavenly worship (subjective genitive). At the end, Pao picks the former by showing first the possible pagan elements of demon worship as part of Asia Minor culture (argued by Clinton Arnold in his work Colossian Syncretism) and the lexical Greek evidence.[5]  Evidence of demon worship is no news for Asia Minor, but whether the angel’s worship can be connected to it remains a puzzle for many scholars.

Some theological issues associated with Pao’s exegesis will fascinate academic readers.  His understanding of “faith” (e.g. 1.4, 2.12) stays within the more traditional reading of the word instead of the more “in vogue” reading, spearheaded by Richard B. Hays and some New Perspective scholars, that often translates the word “faithfulness.”[6]  Lest anyone thinks that Pao is a rigid traditionalist, he does flexibly translate the word based on context. In 1.23, for instance, he allows for “the faith” to be translated as either the faith of the believer (quite tradition here) or the Christian faith (i.e. the Christian religion).[7]  By doing this, Pao demonstrates for traditionalists and New Perspective scholars alike that translation is a tricky business and that each case ought to be viewed individually rather than using a metanarrative to translate every instance.

The Christ hymn in 1.15-20 should be of interest to every student of Colossians.  Pao deals with the argument of whether the hymn was composed by Paul or by other origin.  Scholars have argued back and forth, and Pao’s conclusion is that Paul could have drawn from traditional material. Pao continues to demonstrate quite convincingly that this hymn had a wisdom tradition steep in Judaism.  The data presented here strongly implicates that Paul was attacking the syncretistic religion at Colossae with his own wisdom tradition.  The next question worth asking would be whether this hymn was a partial reflection of Colossian problem.  Pao answers this query in his final reflection on the theology of Colossians.  In his final reflection, he notes rightly that Christocentric theology should cover over every part of a believer’s lifestyle, evident in Paul’s usage of the household code. Christology then is not some abstract theology but at every point impacts the believer’s life.

When looking at each part of the letter, Pao is able to engage other parts of the letter to complete his investigation. Pao’s holistic reading of the letter is consistent.  Often such careful and close readings yield insights that cannot be gained otherwise.  A perfect example is the discussion of 1.24 where he talks about Paul’s suffering as a correction against the opponents’ wrong understanding of the body in 2.23.[8]  Normally, interpreters stop at answering the question of how Paul was able to fill up what was lacking in Christ’s affliction without moving towards the function of the entire verse.  Pao has done better here and everywhere than many scholars who attempt to read these verses.

Now that I have finished looking at Colossians, we should turn our attention to Pao’s treatment of Philemon.  In his interpretation, he attempts to dispel the popular neglect of the letter to Philemon in churches.  Philemon is a letter fraught with unclear conjectures and misunderstandings.  While many still view Onesimus as a runaway slave, the letter itself does not explicitly states that he ran away.  Some chose to see the problem as theft rather than runaway, but the letter does not provide enough data to ascertain whether this was so.  Having shown the problem of the runaway thesis, Pao gives the intriguing alternative of Onesimus as a sent slave by Philemon to help Paul with a certain chore and to learn more about the gospel.  Pao sees the offense not as running away, but perhaps a less serious crime, such as theft, which Onesimus had committed.

The hermeneutical choice is a matter of method rather than “right and wrong.”  The main question Pao has to face is how much of the text and how much of conjecture must the interpreter base his historical reconstruction of the situation in each letter.  The answer really depends on how much the interpreter feels the text to have given.  I for one still stick to the runaway slave situation on top of a possible theft.  To me, we are caught between the devil of conjecture and the deep blue sea of textual allusion.  Interpreters have to make a choice somewhere.  The difficulty not only presents once again the limitation of any kind of historical criticism but also the masterful subtlety with which Paul wrote this letter.

Pao’s reconstruction of ancient slavery also details some very important distinctions as well as continuities between ancient slavery and colonial slavery in the New World.  The relative freedom of ancient slavery is only complicated by the tie the slave had with the master even after manumission.[9]  In other words, the freedom was more illusion than reality.  The data he presents deserves more exploration for modern readers who might either overemphasize the difference or the similarities between ancient and colonial slavery.

This commentary is overall very helpful in the following ways.  First, Pao is able to draw from epigraphic evidence when looking at the background of Colossae.  A great example is his explanation for 2.14 where a certain decree and regulation has been nailed to the cross in Christ’s suffering.[10] Second, the biggest asset this commentary possesses is its clarity.  The outline and many graphs demonstrating the structure of Colossians will allow students to see how they may do their own studies.  Third, a highly beneficial feature of this commentary is its detailed discussion on application. Pao moves beyond the popular proof text approach to scripture.  Many preachers who have not gone back to take seminary refreshing course will be challenged by his applications (e.g. a Christocentric ecology).  If they are willing to lend Pao a listening ear, they will benefit immensely from reflecting on the way he applies each and every section.

One area the commentary can be fortified is regarding slavery.  I may not be too fair to Pao here because my own dissertation involves Roman slavery.  Authors such as Keith R. Bradley and Peter Garnsey, both being the academic fixtures in slave studies, deserve a place or even just a passing mention in the bibliography.  I am quite pleased however that he has made full use of some of the data from other luminaries of slave studies such as Orlando Patterson and Keith Hopkins.  I am also especially pleased with the abundant mention of the literature on principalities and powers engaging scholars old and new alike.  The reader cannot understand any new debate regarding the issue without understanding those who had raised the debate to begin with (e.g. Clinton Arnold; G. B. Caird, Hendrikus Berkhof, John Howard Yoder etc.).

Overall, I would highly recommend this commentary for students.  If I teach a class on this subject, I would use Pao’s book.  Even educated layperson can benefit from Pao’s precise and concise writing style.  For the busy pastor, this book will especially benefit because of its help to creating good sermons.  Any pastor seeking to preach Colossians and Philemon ought to go out and buy this book right now.  Besides being an academic, Pao himself is a preacher and a servant of the church.  His application in the “Theology in Application” section shows through the preacher Pao.  Many pastors will benefit from the guidance of a preacher-scholar like Pao.  His clarity will win the day.  Please get this book.


[1] Pao, Colossians and Philemon (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012).

[2] Pao, Colossians, 20.

[3] Hooker, “Were there false teachers in Colossae?” Barnabas Lindars, Stephen S. Smalley (eds.), In Christ and Spirit in the New Testament (FS C. F. D. Moule; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973): 315-331.

[4] He discusses briefly on Philippians in Colossians, 20n6.

[5] Pao, Colossians, 189; cf. Arnold, The Colossian Syncretism (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996).

[6] Hays, The Faith of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002).  R. Barry Matlock, “Detheologizing the Pistis Christou Debate,” NovT (2000): 1-23.

[7] Pao, Colossians, 109.

[8] Pao, Colossians, 124.

[9] Pao, Colossians, 350.

[10] Pao, Colossians, 171, demonstrates a successful case of combining epigraphic evidence of the IOU with Pauline theology of the Torah.

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