Book Review: Philippians [NCBC]

Reviewing commentaries is a tricky business – particularly for me as a generalist, and an in-publisher editor of commentaries! I tend to offer my review based on the format and content of the volume, and it’s utility or otherwise to preachers and pastors. Occasionally I’ll digress into particularly theological or stylistic quirks.

Philippians NCBC

Michael Bird and Nijay Gupta are two scholars I respect – and also two people I enjoy following on Twitter. The ‘New Cambridge Bible Commentary’ is a series I’ve not dipped into before – partly because of the cost, which can seem excessive for some volumes – and partly because I’m not quite sure (yet) who it is for. For example, this volume is on Amazon at £69.99 in hardback (!) which is astronomical for a ~200 page commentary that appears to be aimed quite broadly. The publisher makes a PDF available for £23.99, which also seems to be the paperback price (which appears to be a POD title). For an ‘accessible jargon-free commentary’ (As the series description has it), these prices are quite surprising, to put it mildly.

The series is not the fault of the authors, though, who are to be commended from writing a generally jargon-free commentary on Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi. Of the 203+xiv printed pages, the first 27 are taken up with an introduction which is very readable, helpful on contextual/geographic/historic and cultural issues, and has a useful section on the use of the Book of Acts in the study of Philippians (especially Paul’s ministry in Philippi from Acts 16:12-40). This is followed by five pages of ‘Suggested Reading’ (stylistically echoing the Tyndale series, though unlike the Tyndale it isn’t obvious whether or not this is a bibliography) which cover ‘The Genre of Paul’s Letter to the Philippians’, ‘Background and Social Context’, ‘The Christ Hymn’, ‘Theological Studies on Philippians’ and ‘Commentaries’. Each is introduced with a short comment from the authors, and this is a useful feature for those thinking about preaching a series through Philippians, or using it in a more academic teaching context. With the two authors both having an interest in Paul more widely, this introduction has some interesting ideas about the location of Paul’s imprisonment, among other things. The authors also have a theological interest – though this is an exegetical commentary – and identify several theological themes that flow throughout the letter, which did serve well to provide an alternative backbone to the commentary: ‘Resilient Joy’, ‘Deferential Love’, ‘Friendship, Partnership and Unity’ (p. 24-27), all three are relevant – though on the latter, Bird and Gupta note that “We believe it is going too far to argue that Philippians is a ‘letter of friendship’ in any technical or formal way” (p. 66).

Bird and Gupta do a good job of reading the text on it’s own terms, and showing the modern reader what it actually says – even when this might be uncomfortable. For example, commenting on the opening, we read “However unpalatable the notion of slavery is, to ancient and modern audiences, it hints at a serious theological truth: all people are leaves to either God or to non-gods (1 Thess 1:9; Gal 4:8; Rom 6:16-22) and all people serve either the kingdom of the beloved Son or the domain of darkness (Col 1:13)” (p. 34). This brief quotation demonstrates a strength of this commentary – Philippians is not read in isolation from the rest of the New Testament, and indeed the whole Bible. However, the commentary as a book is quite often interrupted by grey boxes containing variously sections called ‘Closer Look’ or ‘Bridging the Horizons’ – some of which felt like they could have been better integrated (For example the very useful ‘Closer Look: Paul, the Gospel, and the Philippians’ on p. 47-8 felt like something that should have been in the introduction) into the rest of the book.

The authors discussion of the Christ hymn is fascinating, and in my view helpful in that they cut through the weight of opinion and say something useful: “in reality what the variety of these ostensible resonances tell us is that the Christ hymn has an open quality that makes it relatable not only to various elements of Jewish tradition, but also to Greco-Roman cultures as well. It cannot be tethered to any one background or framework, but has become one of the most treasured parts of Scripture for its ability to inspire the imagination and identify with multiple biblical and non-biblical legends, themes, and types” (p. 73-4). This is one example of the two authors working together to read and see widely – perhaps a strength of this co-authored commentary – with another coming in how they describe Torah: “Torah at its best prophetically points to Christ and pedagogically leads Israel to Christ; but Torah at its worst brings covenantly curses and condemnation and is conscripted into the service of Sin and Death… Christ brings the Torah to its intended climax, Israel redeemed and Gentiles made obedient to God” (p.146).

One criticism that could be levelled at this commentary – though in my view it is probably that the series as a whole is not aimed specifically at any one group of readers – is that it doesn’t have a huge level of practical application. That said, the authors’ personal faith means that when I read it as a person of the same faith, I can see utility that would make this a useful tool for preachers. For example, “the Apostle calls the Philippians to celebration and hope even in the midst of difficulty and disagreement…” (p. 175) which resonated for me with, for example, Psalm 66. Towards the close of the commentary the authors draw together a number of themes as the write of Paul choosing to highlight “their missional union, colaborers for the gospel, fellow sufferers in Christ” (p. 191) – the Pauline themes of gospel partnership, union with Christ, mission and suffering in Christ oooze off the page, ultimately I agree with the authors that “Paul’s purposes here were to direct their attention to God as the true recipient of their gift” (p. 191).

Overall, then, this is a helpful commentary on Philippians, with it’s shortcomings coming from a slightly unclear series readership, and some stranger editorial choices. It left me wanting to dig deeper into the context and questions that Bird and Gupta examine, as well as wanting to think through how the epistle applies to my local church, and other situations. Paired with perhaps a longer, technical commentary (like Hansen’s Pillar or Fee’s NICNT) and another shorter commentary (such as Brown’s new TNTC, or Motyer’s classic BST) this NCBC volume is a useful tool for the pastor thinking about Philippians in wider context, of both Scripture and Paul’s life and work.


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