Commentaries on I Corinthians

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This is part of a larger project reviewing commentaries on each book of the Bible. Follow the links from that post for more information on the series, including explanations of what I mean by some of the terms and abbreviations in this post. This is not an exhaustive list, just the commentaries that I think are most worth paying attention to.

Pride of place goes to the NIGTC volume on I Corinthians by Anthony Thiselton (2000). This is now the most in-depth recent commentary on this book. It's based on the Greek text, and it includes a number of long excurses on difficult issues, so this isn't an easy read, but it's not mainly the Greek that's the issue. It's just a very dense, scholarly work, and it's hard to capture that in popular-level writing (although I think Thiselton is clearer most of the time than most academics are). Thiselton gives close attention to the Greek lexical and grammatical issues, the social background of the letter, Paul's rhetoric, and other elements commonly found in commentaries. Thiselton is also an expert in hermeneutics. One unsual thing about this commentary is that he also includes a lot more of the history of interpretation than is typical, since one of his strengths is the history of theology. I've read some lengthy enough sections of it to know that it's tough-going if you're not up on your Greek, and the excursus I read (on gender issues) was so detailed that it was difficult to get a clear sense of what Thiselton's conclusions amount to. The wealth of information and close attention to detail make it an excellent resource for consultation, even if it might be more difficult to read the whole book cover-to-cover the way I like to. I expect this to be an important scholarly standard for some time, even if Ellis has a good chance of eventually take that place (see forthcoming commentaries below). I also very much appreciate Thiselton's application of speech-act theory (from my own field of philosophy) in biblical studies. Thiselton's philosophical background also makes him more trustworthy on the moral philosophical background of the Greco-Roman world.

David Garland's BECNT (2003) is very good. I've looked at it less than I have some of the other volumes here, but it was enough to see that this is now the first place to look for a more readable treatment than Thiselton. Garland is widely respected by scholars across the spectrum. He left a Southern Baptist seminary because of his egalitarian stance, but on most other issues he's fairly conservative. He has ten years of additional scholarship to influence him and to respond to when compared with Fee below. Fee has such a high reputation that it was difficult to put Garland ahead, but I think I'd actually give up Fee if I were forced to choose. Garland's NAC on II Corinthians was very good, and I think this BECNT is even better. He's also done work on Matthew and the NIVAC volumes on Mark and Colossians/Philemon. He's currently contracted to write commentaries on Luke (ZEC) and Thessalonians (NCC).

Gordon Fee's NICNT (1987) was for a long time the commentary to buy on I Corinthians, but Garland and Thiselton have interacted with a lot of recent scholarship since Fee's commentary was published, and they are at least as good on enough issues that I recommend them slightly higher than Fee. I would prefer not to be without any of them, however. Fee is an excellent commentator in so many ways, including matters of language, historical and cultural background, flow of the argument, and textual criticism. But this very scholarly work doesn't come across as mere scholarship but as the work of someone with a vital relationship with God thinking through the scriptures in a way that will be profitable for his audience. He ends each section with contemporary application issues, but even throughout the commentary you'll frequently find him passionately engaging with Paul's thought or reflecting on the relevance for daily life of the principles he derives from Paul's letter. Fee is one of the most respected Pauline scholars of our time, having now written or planning to write commentaries on Galatians (PC), Philippians (NICNT), Thessalonians (NICNT), and the Pastoral Epistles (NIBC), along with a Pauline theology of the Holy Spirit and an excellent NT Christology. [He's planning Revelation for NCC, so he'll finally be verging into something outside the Pauline corpus.] Most people consider him a moderate Pentecostal. His views are actually not too far from some Reformed charismatics and non-cessationist non-charismatics. I wish most Pentecostals would read this commentary or God's Empowering Spirit to see how someone can be Pentecostal without flatly contradicting scripture in their practice of the so-called sign gifts. One of Fee's most controversial moves in this commentary is his rejection all of the egalitarian approaches toward I Cor 14 as exegetically impossible, leading him to conclude, against all evidence, that the short passage in question is an interpolation by another author despite its being in every manuscript.

I really enjoyed Craig Blomberg's NIVAC (1994). As one of the earlier volumes in the series, this is much less detailed on the Original Meaning section than some of the later volumes, especially the Old Testament ones. However, Blomberg is one of the few contributors to use the format in its ideal way. He actually discusses Bridging Contexts issues and Contemporary Application issues in those sections rather than just talking about whatever next thing he thinks of in each new section. You come away with a sense of the difficulties facing the contemporary interpreter and how the principles behind Paul's writing can be transferred into our time, and in the application sections Blomberg is willing to face hard questions and give controversial opinions, usually not without some argument for his views. I like Blomberg a lot. Even when I disagree with him (which isn't all that often), I think he usually has good arguments that need serious work to overcome. It's too bad he wasn't given as much space as later authors in this series were given. Blomberg is a moderate complementarian whose approach to charismatic issues is also moderate in avoiding cessationism and the extremes of the charismatic movement. He studied with Carson (see below) before he did his Ph.D., and you can see the influence.

C.K. Barrett's BNTC (1968) was widely regarded as the best thing on this book until Fee appeared. I think it's almost been superseded now, but Barrett's writing is usually clear, and his reasoning isn't always represented well in later commentators, so it's nice to have it to refer to. This work is much shorter and much less expensive than most of the above commentaries, but it isn't light in terms of content. Barrett is concise enough to pack much into a smaller size. He does discuss theology, but his focus is more on the original meaning of the text in its historical context. He is less inclined to bring the discussion to contemporary issues (and contemporary for him would be four decades ago anyway). He adopts standard critical perspectives in several of his commentaries (e.g. on historicity in John and Acts, on the unity of II Corinthians), but he tends to be more conservative on this book. I consider him a moderate conservative on theological issues.

Richard Hays has written a very popular Interpretation volume on I Corinthians (1997). Hays is known for New Testament ethics and Paul's use of the Old Testament, and he's especially popular in mainline denominations as a non-traditional thinker when compared both with conservative evangelicals and liberal theologians. Hays spends more time than is typical in this series on the original text. He spends more time tracing out principles from the text that can then be applied in contemporary life than he does applying them. One major theme is questioning the cultural norms we inherit from our social and economic position. He sees Paul's use of the Old Testament as a key to understanding this letter, and he considers Paul's OT use to be fairly innovative, which in some respects I think is right, but I think Hays takes the thesis further than I would like. In general, I found that I agreed with Blomberg most of the time when Blomberg cited him as an opposing view, and I'm not a real fan of Hays's approach to ethics in his other publications, so I haven't made this purchase myself (it's in the library at the school I teach at, so I have had a chance to look at it). I'm a lot less excited about this commentary than some people are. A lot of people recommend it in their top three.

Craig Keener has written the NCBC on both Corinthian letters (2005). Keener is very well known for his erudition on social and historical background behind the New Testament. This volume is much thinner than some of his works (e.g. on Matthew and John), where he is rightly criticized for spending much time on ultimately-irrelevant parallels. I think the brevity here makes up for that weakness of some of his other work, but I wonder if it's too thin to do the kind of work he's really good at with respect to background. His other notable specialty is on careful thinking about contemporary application and what amounts to New Testament ethics (although it's rarely called that if it's done the way he does it). His books on divorce and remarriage are among the best around. His treatment of gender issues is probably the best egalitarian work on the topic (even if I ultimately think he goes too far with his egalitarianism). His NIVAC on Revelation is so good that I couldn't put it down when flipping through it in the library, and I'd say he's also one of the few to use the format of the series as well as Blomberg. This commentary is short. It includes both Corinthian letters in a relatively short space. [But see the forthcoming commentaries section below for his current project to do for this letter what he did for Matthew and John.]

Ben Witherington also treats both letters in a socio-rhetorical commentary (1995). Like Keener, Witherington has a strong focus on social and historical background, but Witherington is given more space to do it. His other specialty is rhetorical analysis, where he applies Greco-Roman categories to this very Hebraic thinker in ways that I find a little too much of an imposition. A lot of people think this innovative approach reveals a lot, and they'll probably love Witherington's commentary. I think it's largely a rabbit trail that doesn't lead to much, so it doesn't give it high points in my book. Witherington does offer novel interpretations, but some of them are a little idiosyncratic. Witherington is generally friendly when he disagrees with others, except when his opponent is a Calvinist or a complementarian. I have often taken him to task for misrepresenting both those views on his blog. It's a little more muted in his published work, but I don't find his criticisms of those two views in particular to be very fair. Witherington is often criticized for his haste in trying to get through a commentary on every book of the New Testament (a project now nearly complete). His commentaries are usually very poorly edited, with lots of typographical errors, wrong citations, and other errors that good editing will easily catch.

I haven't seen Alan Johnson's IVPNTC (2004). I like several volumes in the series for beginning-level discussion at a somewhat scholarly level (i.e. not just devotional or expository). This series puts details in footnotes that don't track easily with the main text. There are no numbers to tell you which to read first or to place the comments in the notes alongside a particular part of the main text. It makes it difficult to read, since you have to try to read both at once or keep going back and forth without any guide as to how to do that. More recent volumes in this series have generally been better, and this is one of the later ones. I've seen favorable comparisons between Johnson and Blomberg, with some people preferring Johnson because he's more up-to-date. My feeling is that Blomberg would probably be easily preferred if he'd had more space and if they'd been written at the same time, but both of those factors do count for something.

Raymond Collins wrote the Sacra Pagina volume (1999). This is a Catholic series that is usually very much in the mainstream of biblical scholarship on critical issues but is sometimes more conservative theologically because of the Catholic focus. This is an important work for scholars, and Catholic readers will appreciate its theological perspective (but there's less theology than most of the commentaries in the top half of this review). Collins treats rhetorical issues and cultural background as well as more traditional issues, but it doesn't add much for me given the works above. It is well-respected among scholars, even conservative Protestant ones.

I can't finish this review without mentioning D.A. Carson's Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of I Corinthians 12-14 (1996). It's the best treatment of those issues I've come across. Its tone is both scholarly and pastoral, as Carson often manages to be. Carson dealt with this issue as a young pastor in a congregation with cessationist and charismatic factions, and he told them to hold off for a bit while he studied the issue and then did a sermon series on it. He ended up rejecting both cessationism and the kind of charismatic view that expected non-charismatics to become charismatics (or at least to publicly display certain charismatic-associated gifts), and I think he ended up at a view that very closely fits the scriptural teaching on these issues. Carson is well-known among evangelicals for excellent commentaries on Matthew (EBC) and John (PNTC), and he's contracted to write I-III John (NIGTC), Galatians (PNTC), Hebrews (BECNT), and Revelation (PNTC), along with a revision of his Matthew EBC. One of his strengths is connecting exegesis and biblical theology in expository form, and this book is both an important work of scholarship and an expository guide to these chapters.

Forthcoming commentaries
:

There's a lot on the way on I Corinthians. At the scholarly level, Linda Belleville's WBC will be outstanding in many ways. Unfortunately, we'll get yet another egalitarian author in an evangelical series, and thus complementarianism will still not be well-represented in the scholarly works on this book (as it now is with Ephesians, Colossians, I Timothy, and I Peter, the other main books that deal most closely with these issues). Last I'd heard, Thomas Nelson was hoping to have this out by 2009, but they've pushed this date back many times already, so I'm not getting my hopes up.

E. Earle Ellis is doing the new ICC. It will be very detailed, very expensive (in hardcover, anyway), and very important for scholars. It will be overkill for anyone else. Ellis has a very strong reputation, and this might become the academic standard over even Thiselton just because of the series' allowance for much more detail than even Thiselton gives. It's hard to be sure of that, though, and itt might be awhile before it's out. It takes a long time to produce the kind of work this series publishes, and I have no idea how long he's been working on it.

Joseph Fitzmyer's AYB will be like his other works in that series (Luke, Acts, Romans, Philemon). He is a meticulous scholar. As is typical of many Roman Catholic scholars, his theology is often much more conservative than his attitude toward critical issues, but in I Corinthians the latter issues may not be so important, since everyone thinks Paul wrote the letter, most agree that it's a single letter, and no one I know of thinks Paul is an unreliable guide to what was going on in the Corinthian church. Fitmyer is much more Protestant-friendly than one would expect, although again that will be less important for this book than it was with his Romans commentary in the same series.

Other scholarly works include Alexandra Brown for NTL, Paul Gardner for ZEC, Craig Keener (not in a series). Keener will be a more in-depth work just on I Corinthians, like his Matthew and John commentaries (probably more like his John commentary by my guess). The ZEC hasn't had any volumes released yet, but it's supposed to be a close exegesis of the Greek text. Gardner has not published anything like that to my knowledge. He's a scholarly-trained pastor who has written a nice popular commentary on II Peter and Jude and a book on I Cor 8-10 that I don't know much about. I know nothing about Brown (which doesn't mean she does bad work or isn't well-known among biblical scholars; I just happen not to have anything to say about her as an outsider to the field who happens to read a lot of commentaries and commentary reviews).

Brian Rosner and Roy Ciampa are working on the PNTC. This series has produced very good works at the mid-level so far, with an excellent track record for all the volumes commissioned since Carson became editor. I expect this to be good, even though I don't know anything about the authors.

These are only the ones I expect to be most important. You can see a longer list of forthcoming commentaries here.

15 Comments

"One of Fee's most controversial moves in this commentary is his rejection all of the egalitarian approaches toward I Cor 14 as exegetically impossible, leading him to conclude, against all evidence, that the short passage in question is an interpolation by another author despite its being in every manuscript."

That's a pretty big accusation, and yes, I know you're not the first one to make it. Regardless of whether its true or not (which is not the point), I think you're unfair to Fee here in that you don't give him the benefit of the doubt. He claims this is definitely, through and through, a TC issue and that his conclusions are based on egalitarian exegesis, but on textual evidence (his lengthy excursus in God's Empowering Presence makes that clear. I don't care whether he's right or wrong. But your words are unfair since you don't mention that. If he believes that this is a textual issue, then you should definitely state that in your review.

He does dismiss all the egalitarian approaches available when he wrote. He does conclude that it's an interpolation. There is no evidence of any manuscript without it. There are manuscripts that have the chapter arranged in a different order, but there are no manuscripts without it. Those are all indisputable facts, as far as I've been able to tell.

What you do with that is up to you. Fee concludes that the most likely explanation is that someone added it and that someone else presumably added it somewhere else. I don't think that's likely at all. I also don't think a textual critic of Fee's caliber is likely to conclude such a thing without it being a part of an involuntary lapse of wishful thinking. I'm actually giving his textual criticism the benefit of the doubt here.

Whichever way I go, it reflects badly on him in some way, either on his ability to let his preferred views control the exegesis or on his ability to do sound textual criticism. I think the more likely explanation is that he thinks it's sound textual criticism and that his views on that are subconsciously affected by his egalitarianism. I suppose you could go the other way and think his textual critical lapse is not because of a subconscious preference but just because he's not a very good textual critic, but I think the evidence is strongly against that. He's an excellent textual critic. I'm not sure I want to debate which one is more charitable than the other. They each lack charity with respect to a different thing in order to show charity with respect to the other thing.

Thanks for this post, Jeremy.

I agree with you regarding the commentaries I've had something to do with (Thiselton, Fee, Blomberg) and Carson's book.

Regarding Witherington, I've moved from appreciation to suspicion. Like you say, his reactions to complementarianism and Calvinism are quite something, and I've found even his recent review of Pagan Christianity (a book I'm not particularly taken with myself) to appear more motivated by a pre-formed opinion of the book and subject matter than an honest attempt at understanding and interaction. The editorial errors just add to my suspicion that he is just not careful in his work.

Still, Blomberg recognises some of Witherington's weaknesses and still finds his contributions valuable (as do you above) so I guess I'll have to just dive in and see what I find.

Again, thanks for these posts. They are appreciated.

One thing I appreciate about Witherington is that he often defends unpopular conservative views in novel ways. His Acts commentary has an excellent discussion of the kinds of historical and historiographical literature in the ancient world, and it responds to claims against the historicity of Acts by looking at the kind of writing Luke was imitating as opposed to the kind of writing other commentators have wrongly assumed he was imitating. In his work on the gospels he does similar things, and he often defends traditional authorship of epistles when there's much resistance to that among scholars. On such issues, his approach that brings in historical and social background can contribute a lot.

What I'm most resistant is the attempt to find Greco-Roman parallels when the more obvious background is Hebraic, and this is particularly problematic when dealing with rhetorical categories. You have to recognize that logic is simply logic, and so many argument forms will appear in any social context, including among Rabbinically-trained former Pharisees who follow Christ in the first century, without necessarily deriving from the Greco-Roman rhetorical categories. I'm much more interested in Paul's logic than I am in trying to find Aristotelian rhetorical categories to match his logic.

The same goes for finding Greco-Roman social patterns that match some phenomenon in Paul or in the church he's writing to. Sometimes it sheds light on a situation. Other times it's a speculative reconstruction that needs at best a hesitant endorsement. Still other times there's no reason to apply it when we already have a biblical antecedent that's much more likely than some Greek philosophical source. Witherington isn't as far along this path as some, but I have some hesitation about how far the approach can be taken.

I posted a comment on this yesterday, but it didn't go through, for whatever reason.

I still rank Fee's commentary as my favorite, even over Thiselton's (who is excellent, by the way). I haven't used Garland enough to comment on its place among these, however. I consider Thiselton like a good buffet, whereas Fee is like a good steak dinner. Sometimes you want options, sometimes you just want the good stuff.

I actually agree with your assessment of Fee's handling of the passage in 1 Cor 14, and I'm about as big a Fee fan as there is. He drops the ball on this one, I much prefer Thiselton.

You can count me as someone who loves Hays' commentary. Love it. It's easily in my top 3, along with Fee and Thiselton.

I studied under Roy Ciampa in seminary, and Rosner was his PhD supervisor at Aberdeen (if I remember correctly). One of Ciampa's strengths is in OT backgrounds. One thing I appreciate about him is his ability to glean insights from various approaches (Hays', for instance) without taking on all the baggage that sometimes comes with them. Rosner has written a bit in Pauline ethics, you ought to look up his stuff at some point. I would guess it will be a good, solid commentary, though honestly, there are so many good commentaries on 1 Corinthians that I can't imagine it will offer much new. If only we could say the same thing about 2 Corinthians commentaries.

The comment never saved, so I don't know what happened. I never saw it.

What is it you like about Hays? My experience with it didn't consist of actually reading it but rather simply referring to it to see what he said on certain issues where I wanted more than what Blomberg offered, and it was usually after looking at Fee and Thiselton if I still wanted another perspective. I was usually disappointed. Maybe I would have liked it more if I'd just read through some larger sections. I do have serious reservations about his approach on the NT ethics and the use of the OT in the NT, though, and those are his specialties.

II Corinthians commentaries really are nowhere near as strong as I Corinthians ones. Harris and Garland are both good, and the more lightweight Hafemann and Belleville are great, but the offerings on I Corinthians are stellar.

I don't like steak very much, so I can accept your analogy and still prefer Thiselton.

I'm interested in what it is that you don't like about Hays' approach to ethics and the OT in the NT. Maybe you could throw up a post someday about it. As far as his commentary, I do think it's helpful to read through larger sections (it's one of the most readable commentaries I've ever read), and his comments for teachers and preachers are good.

I know this sounds like a cheap answer, but frankly, I think he explains things in the letter very well. You get a great sense of the flow of 1 Corinthians in his commentary, something I don't think you get with Thiselton. Not that I always agree with Hays- in fact, when I recommend his commentary, I always do so with a disclaimer and recommendation of Fee or Thiselton (Hays sides with Fee on that 1 Cor passage, which causes me to deduct points). I wish I had my copy with me, but I have friends who are teaching on 1 Corinthians right now and they are borrowing it (for the record, they like it too).

I like his thoughts on Paul's use of the OT, so I wonder what you don't like about it. Maybe we're focusing on different things. I appreciate his insistence that Paul's Gentile audience was now included in the story of Israel. I find it a strong corrective against many dispensationalist readings of the NT church.

His treatment of 1 Corinthians 15 is outstanding. Since that's my favorite chapter in the Bible, I suppose that factors into my feelings of the commentary.

About 6 years ago I bought what I thought were the 5 commentaries on 1 Corinthians: Fee, Thiselton, Barrett, Hays and Witherington. Since I have all those, I can't justify spending the money on Garland, unfortunately.

I'm fuzzy on the details, but I remember something like having the sense that he thought the NT's use of the OT was revisionist in a way that I don't think is compatible with inerrancy. I had been led to believe that he had a pretty conservative approach that challenged the critical orthodoxy that NT authors misused the OT, but I wasn't sure he'd really departed from that sufficiently. He didn't disapprove of it, so his approach was a step away from critical orthodoxy, but what he described the NT authors as doing was something I wasn't sure the NT authors really would have approved of, never mind done.

As for ethics, I didn't think he's really thought everything through all that well. His full-blown pacifism seems awfully simplistic to me. I don't think he gives due credit to the argument from holy war in the OT. The NT sources he uses to undermine this don't seem to me to go nearly as far as he takes them. I don't remember the details, but this may also have been another instance of his view of the relation between the OT and NT that I didn't like. I can't remember the details of his views on the intersection of issues like gender roles, homosexuality, and so on (not his comments on homosexuality proper but on what's similar and different about these other issues ). But I remember thinking his approach to that had serious problems. It's not just that I disagree with his egalitarianism. There was something more significant than that. I just can't remember what it was. I thought I'd written a blog post on it, but I can't find it.

I also find his "faith of Christ" approach to pistis Christou to be thoroughly implausible. There are places where it might mean Christ's faithfulness, but his main controversial contention is that it means Jesus' trust in God in one place in Galatians that's prettu much in the same breath that Paul uses to speak of our trust in Christ by using the verb for believing. I don't see how that view can be seriously maintained given the immediate context.

Fee told me a few years ago that he's revising his commentary on 1 Cor.

I wouldn't quite say that Fitzmyer's theology is more conservative that his position on critical issues. What I'd say, rather, is that he doesn't feel bound by submit to the results of his own exegesis. As a result, he allows the text to speak for itself even when he disagrees with it.

Ah, I suppose that might be a more accurate way to put it.

I think this is the first I've heard of Fee revising the I Corinthians commentary. I'm a little surprised at that, especially if it's been in the works for several years. I've had some pretty good sources.

That’s what I remember him telling me. You could try to contact him directly. This is my old email address for Fee. I don’t know if it’s still current:

gdfee@shaw.ca

Hi Jeremy,

I have used Thisleton's commentary a bit, and like you have liked it. I found his use Speech Act Theory illuminating. Since you said this was from your area of study, could you recommend a good introduction to Speech Act Theory? I'm interested in learning more about it and how to apply it to biblical texts.

Thanks!

The classic book is J.L. Austin's How to Do Things With Words, but you can get a nice overview at the Stanford Encylcopedia of Philosophy's article on speech acts.

Hi,

I am choosing between ben witherington and Keener for cultural background of Corinth. Whcih would be better for sermon material?
Also what do you think of Rosners new commentary on 1 corinthians - how does it compare with garland and fee. Thanks in advance.

Cheers

Steve.

I haven't compared Keener with Witherington, so I can't help you there. From what I've seen of Keener's work elsewhere, he seems to like to inundate you with background, not all of with is relevant. His John commentary is especially that way. But I think the Corinthians commentary is much shorter, so I don't know. He's really good on a lot of practical matters, and though I'm not an egalitarian I think he's much more fair-minded on such issues than Witherington, who often misrepresents his opponents in morally-loaded ways. But I'm mostly familiar with that from his blog.

I'm not a big fan of applying Greco-Roman rhetorical categories to NT epistles, given that (1) there's often more of a Hebraic background, especially with Paul, who had rabbinic training, and some of the other Jewish writers and (2) these are epistles, not public speeches. But that criticism would apply to both.

As for Rosner/Ciampa, I haven't looked much at it. I haven't even done much with I Corinthians since I've had Garland, so I haven't used that as much as I'd like. I don't at this point have a ranking for Rosner/Ciampa, Fee, and Garland. I've heard a lot of good things about Rosner/Ciampa, from people who really liked Fee. There are some who see it as the standard evangelical commentary now, surpassing both Fee and Garland. But there are some who put them all on roughly the same level, which (to me) would make me go with the most recent (since it's able to respond to the most recent scholarship). And there are Fee loyalists who don't think the more recent ones quite outclass it.

But I think any one of the three would be enough for anyone wanting to teach through the book carefully without the budget for more than one in-depth commentary. They are certainly all preferable to Thiselton for that purpose, since his is so much harder to read straight through. But to the scholar Thiselton may well be the most important. It's certainly not less important than than any of the other three.

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