New Testament Commentary Reviews: Philippians

Books and sunflowers

Thousands of commentaries have been written about the Bible, and it’s easy to become confused because these resources are written to various audiences. Choosing the “best” will depend upon the kind of analysis you desire. Commentaries are often divided into three categories:

  • Devotional/Introductory–the primary focus is application of the Word and growing in Christ. Lots of “how to” questions are answered.

  • Pastoral/Intermediate–these commentaries also contain application but are more information oriented. Some go deep into the history or cultural background of the text, while others pay more attention to linguistics. Lots of “what does it mean” questions are answered. Useful for any Christ follower and especially helpful to those who teach.

  • Technical/Advanced–primary value is to teachers and advanced students. Some technical commentaries focus on textual criticism (the reliability of the text), while others address linguistics (the text itself). Lots of minutiae. These commentaries contain Greek text (sometimes transliterated, sometimes not) and require familiarity with Koine Greek to extract their full benefit, but even those with no knowledge of Greek will find these commentaries useful.

My recommendations identify which category each book falls into. Some commentaries overlap; when they do, both categories will be noted (e.g., Pastoral/Technical). The recommendations are listed in order of their helpfulness to Bible students, teachers, and pastors.

Philippians

We are blessed to have many good intermediate and devotional commentaries on this joyous letter, but the cupboard is bare when it comes to technical help.

  • The best all-around commentary on Philippians is by Gordon Fee in the New International Commentary on the New Testament (Eerdmans, 1995). Pastoral/Technical. Fee’s stated goal was to make his commentary “as uncluttered and readable as possible,” so he put all the technical comments in the footnotes and devoted the text to exposition and theology. The result is a passionate and occasionally dogmatic analysis that is easy to read and understand. I don’t always agree with Fee’s conclusions, but his writing is engaging, thought provoking, and highly recommended.

  • Another exceptional general commentary is by G. Walter Hansen in the Pillar New Testament Commentary (Baker, 2009). Pastoral. Hansen does a good job of presenting the various viewpoints on controversial passages and provides well-reasoned arguments for his own. Solid exegesis, but little time devoted to linguistics. Hansen makes up for that with his thoughtful analysis of the text.

  • The best technical commentary on Philippians is by Peter O’Brien in the New International Greek Testament Commentary, but it was withdrawn from publication by the publisher and is only available on the secondary market. The only other technical commentary I can recommend is by Moisés Silva in the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Baker, 2005). Technical/Pastoral. It is brief (272 pp.) but incisive. Silva has a good understanding of the Greek text and provides reliable counsel.

  • My fourth recommendation is Paul’s Letter to the Philippians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Eerdmans, 2011), by Ben Witherington. Pastoral. Witherington has written several socio-rhetorical commentaries; this is one of the best. One of my favorite features are his “closer looks” at key subjects (e.g., Paul’s relationship with Timothy; the concept of joy; why imitation is the highest form of education; honor and shame; the Christ Hymn in recent discussion; Paul among the ancient moralists; Caesar’s household and the household of faith). Lots of technical terms that will send you to the dictionary, and the Greek text is not transliterated, but don’t let that stop you from checking out this commentary. Pastors and teachers will find a wealth of background info to add depth and color.

  • A book I recommend to new and developing teachers is by Frank Thielman in the NIV Application Commentary (Zondervan, 1995). Pastoral/Devotional. This series is hit and miss, but Thielman’s lucid exposition of Philippians is exceptional. He doesn’t bombard the reader with technical details, but his perceptive comments demonstrate his understanding of the text. A great addition to your library if you are new to teaching or unfamiliar with this letter, but it should not be your only book on Philippians. Couple it with Fee or Hansen.

Did I miss a commentary you are interested in? Drop me a line. These are not the only resources I am familiar with–these are just my favorites.

Next: Recommended commentaries on Colossians and Philemon.

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