Linda Belleville, Jon C. Laansma, and J. Ramsay Michaels. 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Hebrews. Vol. 17. Cornerstone Biblical Commentary. Carol Stream, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers, 2009. Hardback, xiv + 478 pages.
First, I want to thank Christy Wong and Tyndale House Publishers for sending me a copy to review for my blog. Since this blog is primarily focused upon Hebrews, my main interest is in the Hebrews portion of the commentary, but since Tyndale has graciously given me this copy, I feel it is only fair to address the commentary on the Pastoral Epistles as well.
This commentary is volume 17 of a projected 18 volumes on the entire Old and New Testaments. Thus it stands in the tradition of other commentary series such as The Broadman Bible Commentary, The Beacon Bible Commentary, and The Expositor’s Bible Commentary in treating multiple books of the Bible in each volume. One should not expect, then, to get a comprehensive treatment of each book of the Bible. Persons looking for a more exhaustive treatment should turn to the more technical commentaries of other series (e.g., Anchor Bible, Hermeneia, New International Commentary, Word Biblical Commmentary). At the same time, though, the commentary gives a remarkably thorough overview for each passage.
The commentary series is based on Tyndale’s second edition of the New Living Translation, and like its translation seeks to be accessible to the average English reader. The commentary series is geared towards helping “teachers, pastors, students, and laypeople” understand the words and “theological truths” of Scripture (preface). The series is overtly evangelical, drawing from scholars from a wide variety of theological traditions. On a personal note, I notice three of my former professors at Asbury Theological Seminary are authoring commentaries in this series: Lawson Stone on Judges; David L. Thompson on Ezekiel; and M. Robert Mulholland on Revelation. But scholars from other traditions are well represented.
The format for each book of the Bible is the same. The commentary begins with a modest introduction which deals with the typical introductory issues (author, date, genre, audience etc.) and an outline of the book (the Pastoral Epistles are treated together). Of particular note is its attention to the major theological themes of each book. The commentary proper is divided into passages. Each section begins with the New Living Translation of each passage followed by notes and commentary. The notes deal with the Greek (or Hebrew in the case of the Old Testament) text underlying the English translation, or with textual or contextual matters. The Greek (or Hebrew) is transliterated and is cross-referenced with the Strong’s and Goodrick-Kohlenberger numbering systems. Thus a profitable use of the commentary does not require technical skills in the original languages. The commentary is not so much a verse-by-verse treatment, as it is a running exposition.
The commentary on 1 Timothy is authored by Linda Belleville, Professor of New Testament at Bethel College in Mishawaka, Indiana. Jon Laansma, Associate Professor of Ancient Languages and New Testament at Wheaton College wrote the commentary for 2 Timothy and Titus. Laansma, incidentally, published a major monograph largely dealing with Hebrews (“I Will Give You Rest”: The Rest Motif in the New Testament with Special Reference to Mt 11 and Heb 3-4) as well as a number of articles on Hebrews, so I was a little surprised to discover that he is not doing the commentary for Hebrews. Instead, that honor is given to J. Ramsey Michaels, Professor of Religious Studies Emeritus at Missouri State University in Springfield.
In the introduction to the Pastoral Epistles, the authors advocate for Pauline authorship. They are impressed by the external (the Patristic witnesses), as well as the internal support (the autobiographical comments) for Pauline authorship (3-5). They address several objections to Pauline authorship and refute each one in turn (4-9). For example, difference in vocabulary and style from other Pauline letters is attributed to the use of an amanuensis (6). Some of the distinctive ideas of the epistles which are usually deemed to be indicative of a second-century situation (i.e., a more-developed ecclesiology, emphasis on orthodoxy, opposition to false teaching similar to Gnosticism) are regarded as insufficiently advanced to posit such a late date for the epistles. Consequently, the authors place the writing of the epistles sometime in the mid-60s (9). The authors regard the epistles as genuine letters written by Paul to two younger colleagues to address a variety of pastoral issues such as opposition to false teaching and matters of church order.
The introduction addresses a number of major theological themes (God, Christ, Holy Spirit, salvation, righteousness, piety and wholesome teaching, heresy) in the Pastorals. The authors detect a “full-orbed Trinitarian understanding” in these epistles (18). Salvation is something that believers can obtain by God’s grace through faith in Christ Jesus (18-19). Righteousness has both a forensic meaning of declaring one “not guilty” and an ethical connotation of uprightness of character (19). The themes of godliness and wholesome teaching are distinctive emphases in the Pastorals (19-20). The Pastorals also have a particular concern for opposing false teachings which were syncretistic, ascetic, dualistic, and Jewish in character (20-21).
It will be impossible to treat the commentary in full, so I will highlight particular passages to give the reader a flavor of the commentators’ hermeneutical propensities. Regarding 1 Tim 1:10, Belleville states that arsenokoites refers to homosexuality. The word echoes the language of the LXX version of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 (33). Homosexuality was abhorred in Judaism, and was generally regarded unfavorably even among Greeks and Romans (34).
Perhaps the most controversial passage in 1 Timothy is the instructions directed towards women in 2:9-15. Belleville points out that verse 9 does not deal with the question of women wearing sexually provocative clothing, but of the ostentatious display of wealth, which tended to draw attention away from the worship of God during public prayer (52-53). Verse 11 does not deal with the silencing of women or the command for them to submit to male authority. Rather, it speaks about the manner in which women were to learn. Paul was in fact allowing women to learn and be instructed, something that was not commonplace at that time (56-57). Verse 12, furthermore, does not prohibit women from teaching men, but addresses the manner in which some women were teaching. The infinitive authentein does not simply mean “to have authority over” but should rather be translated “to domineer” or “to have dominance over” men. Paul was forbidding women from teaching men in an overbearing or domineering way. Verses 13-14 are probably used as a corrective against the cult of Artemis which thrived at Ephesus. This cult believed that Artemis originated first out of her mother’s womb before helping her mother Leto give birth to her twin brother Apollo (61-62). Perhaps prompted by this cult, the women of Ephesus were probably trying to assert dominance over the men, and the men were reacting in an angry and disputatious manner; hence Paul was also trying to correct the behavior of the men in verse 8. The problematic verse 15 does not refer to childbearing in general. Instead, the subject of the sentence is the same as the previous two verses: Eve. The verse, alluding to Gen 3:15, should be rendered “she will be saved through the birth of the Child,” that is, Jesus Christ (62-63). Belleville explains, that “Even though Eve was created from partnership (Gen 2:23-24) and then botched it through nonpartnership (Gen 3:6-7), ultimately she fulfilled her creative purpose through the bearing of the Christ child (Gen 3:15)” (63).
In chapter 3 Paul turns to the subject of leadership in the church. The term episkopos is better rendered as “overseer” rather than “bishop” which connotes a more developed ecclesiology (66). The term diakonos was variously translated as “minister,” “deacon,” or “servant,” thus indicating that the ancient Christians did not make the kinds of distinctions between these roles as we do today (73). Belleville contends that gunaikas in 3:11 refers to “women deacons” and not to wives. The feminine form of “deacon” did not exist in the first century, so Paul had to resort to another term. These women shared the same qualifications as their male counterparts (75). In chapter 5 Paul makes reference to “elders,” presbuteroi, which possibly includes both both “overseers” and “deacons” (104). Belleville notes that the “diverse nomenclature cautions against dogmatism regarding a uniform church polity” (104-105).
Belleville’s commentary is sprinkled with numerous cross-references to other scriptures, particularly other Pauline writings, and she does a good job of situating the book within the historical and cultural context of the first-century world. One weakness, in my estimation (and this may be due to the page constraints of the commentary), is that she rarely explores the different interpretive options for any given passage, so that the inexperienced reader might think that the biblical text is more straightforward than it really is. Other interpreters have interpreted certain passages in different ways, but she rarely interacts with these other interpretations.
When we turn to Jon Laansma’s commentary, the reader may notice some immediate differences. First, Laansma provides more subheadings in his commentary which makes it easier for the reader to locate comments on specific verses. Second, Laansma tends to elaborate more at length in his commentary—each section is considerably longer. His style appears more verbose compared to Belleville’s more compact style (To illustrate: Belleville takes 99 pages to explicate 113 verses in 1 Timothy, while Laansma takes 95 pages to expound upon 83 verses in 2 Timothy and 76 pages for the 46 verses of Titus!). Laansma more often attempts to apply the biblical text to our current, contemporary situation.
On 2 Tim 3:1, Laansma explains that the expression “last days” is taken from the OT and “signals the breaking in of God’s hoped-for salvation in history” (184). This idea would take on a new perspective in Christianity. What is new is that there arose the belief in a two-fold coming of the Messiah. The “age to come” is ushered in at the first coming, but it continues to overlap with “the present age.” This period of history then is characterized by continual conflict between God and Satan. This passage is thus an anticipation of a future time but also a description of the present situation in which Paul and Timothy find themselves (184). The vice list that follows describes the kinds of people they inevitably would encounter.
In the famous passage on scripture (2 Tim 3:16-17), Laansma notes that Paul is referring to the OT here, but he may or may not have had some of the NT writings in mind. Nevertheless, “from the vantage point of broader theological understandings, his statement applies in principle to all canonical Scripture, including for us the New Testament” (197). To say that scripture is inspired or “God-breathed” is not to deny the role of human authors, but it is to affirm that God is responsible for all scripture and “it is therefore as true, reliable, authoritative, permanent, and powerful as is God himself” (198). Scripture is elevated above all other human literature. Laansma finds it highly ironic that modern interpreters have denied Pauline authorship of this letter and thus have largely marginalized and ignored it, and with it goes “this powerful statement on Scripture as a whole!” (198) When Paul tells Timothy to preach the “word of God” (4:2), he is telling him not only to preach the OT, but the good news of the gospel. Preaching the OT meant preaching Christ (202).
In Titus 2:3 women are instructed to “teach others what is good.” Laansma remarks that “the fact that Paul views them as able and qualified to teach places in doubt the assumption that he would have agreed that women are inherently more gullible and easily deceived . . . than men, as has been inferred by some from 1 Timothy 2:14” (263). When Paul commands that women were “to be submissive to their husbands” (2:5), Laansma acknowledges that patriarchy was the norm in the Greco-Roman world and for Christians to flagrantly violate this would have put them in a bad light (265). Paul may have been simply holding in regard the prevailing cultural norms. However, we live in an age in which egalitarianism is held in high regard and there is no reason for Christians to revert to living within a Greco-Roman patriarchal structure (265-266). The expressions found in the household codes may actually “allow us to come closer to the Christian ideal than was possible within Paul’s Roman world” (266).
In the introduction to Hebrews, Michaels notes that Hebrews’ position at the beginning of the Catholic letters have often led to a neglect of the study of this book, but a study of the book can be most rewarding (305). The early manuscript tradition has attributed the authorship of the book to no one other than Paul (305). The ending of Hebrews evokes the image of Paul as the author, and indeed he was widely regarded as the author for many centuries (306). Nevertheless, the writing style is so radically different from other Pauline letters, and its placement after the Pauline corpus raises serious doubts about Pauline authorship (306). The author never identifies himself as Paul does in his other letters, and the book begins more like a homily than a letter (307). It is likely that the author is a man, due to the masculine participle in 11:32, but otherwise we have no clue as to his identity. The reference to Timothy in chapter 13 makes it likely that it was an associate of Paul’s (308). Numerous candidates for authorship have been proposed (Luke, Barnabas, Silas, Apollos, Priscilla and/or Aquila, Titus etc.), but none have been decisively proven (308-309). Michaels says that no one knows enough to rule out Pauline authorship, and in light of the ending, Paul may be the “implied author.” Hence, he believes that the description “Deutero-Pauline” is fitting for the book of Hebrews (310).
Michaels proposes that Timothy himself may be the author of the book. The author expresses his desire to be restored to his audience, but he is currently hindered, suggesting that he may have been in prison at the time when he wrote this sermon (13:19). Paul may have had the responsibility of sending this sermon and he added the ending (13:22-25) only after Timothy had been released from prison. Michaels admits this is a speculative scenario, but he believes that it best explains the evidence of the ending (310-311). While I am not persuaded by this reconstruction, I suppose anything is possible.
Michaels is basically noncommittal about the date of Hebrews. If Paul was indeed the sender, then the date would have to be sometime in the early 60s. The lack of reference to the temple is not decisive for a pre- or post-70s date (311-312). As for genre, Hebrews is a sermon in letter form. It was meant to be communicated orally to a specific congregation. It evinces a strong emphasis on oral communication. Scripture is seen as still speaking today (312-314). As for audience, 13:24 is ambiguous; Hebrews could be written from or to Rome. The situation reflected in the book is consistent with the experience of Jewish Christians in Rome in the time of Claudius or Nero. Other writings of Roman origin (1 Clement and Shepherd of Hermas) show familiarity with Hebrews, thus suggesting a Roman destination. But early subscriptions added to the book indicate a Roman origin. One could imagine that Timothy was imprisoned in Rome and writing to fellow Christians in another destination (315). Familiarity with the OT and the Jewish cultus suggests an audience of Jewish Christians. While we cannot have complete certainty about the occasion of the book, Michaels surmises that the audience may have consisted of Gentile converts to Judaism or proselytes, who later expressed faith in Christ, but now were in danger of lapsing (316-317).
Michaels highlights two major themes in Hebrews. The first two chapters center around the theme of the Son’s superiority to the angels. The remainder of the book is dominated by the theme of Jesus being a merciful and faithful High Priest. The author interweaves exposition and exhortation throughout the book (318-320). Michaels points out some of the theological contributions of Hebrews to NT theology: 1) Jesus as Active Redeemer – Jesus was not a helpless victim, but took the initiative to make an offering of himself for sin (321); 2) Jesus and the End of Priestly Liturgy – Jesus’ work as High Priest has made the Jewish cultus of temple, priesthood, and sacrifice obsolete. Jesus inaugurates a new covenant (321); 3) The Divinity and Humanity of Jesus – Hebrews wrestles with Jesus’ dual nature more than any other book. Jesus’ experience of divinity and humanity qualifies him as the perfect High Priest; 4) The Christian Life as Pilgrimage – The Christian life is described as a journey to a heavenly destination. Our ultimate salvation does not come until the journey is completed (323-325).
Again, we will look at how Michaels deals with particular passages. I will highlight key or controversial passages so that the reader can get an idea of the kinds of exegetical decisions that Michaels makes.
In 1:3 the word apaugasma can be construed actively, “effulgence, radiance” or passively, “reflection, mirror image.” However, both in the notes and in the commentary Michaels only mentions the passive meaning, keeping the uninformed reader in the dark regarding other possible renderings of the passage. Michaels rejects the idea that Hebrews is associating Jesus with Divine Wisdom (329).
At 1:6, Michaels does deal with some of the interpretive options for oikoumene. Michaels does not believe that it refers to Jesus’ first coming into the world, nor does it refer to the future when Jesus is exalted to the right hand of God. Rather, it refers to a future time when Jesus will return at his second coming (333, 336).
Commenting on the quotation of Psalm 8 in chapter 2, Michaels believes that it refers to human beings (and not to Jesus, as some commentators do). The psalm is read as a promise that human beings will have dominion over the created order in “the future world” (2:5). This promise is fulfilled in Jesus, who is humanity’s representative (347-348). Compelled by the wording of 2:9, Michaels takes the phrase, “crowned with glory and honor,” to refer to Jesus’ incarnation and not to his exaltation—a thought, he believes, that is in accord with Psalm 8 (348). In a note, Michaels remarks that brachu ti (2:7, 9) can be construed as “a little” (as of degree) or “for a little while” (as of time). Michaels rejects the latter interpretation in favor of the former, believing that it is more in line with the biblical psalm. Michaels remarks that the “accent is on his full identification with those who are ‘a little lower than the angels,’ not on how long that identification might have lasted” (345). I myself prefer the temporal interpretation, but certainly Michaels interpretation cannot be ruled out.
In Hebrews 3-4 the author urges his readers to strive to enter God’s rest. Michaels explains that this rest “is not an earthly rest or place of refuge but a heavenly rest in the sense of eternal salvation or life with God after death” (360). Heb 4:10 actually refers to Jesus, the forerunner who enters into heaven before us. Entering God’s rest is the equivalent of entering heaven (4:14) or entering into God’s inner sanctuary (6:19-20), or into the most Holy Place (9:12; 10:20) (360). The rest that Hebrews speaks about is not a passive existence, but a Sabbath observance which is characterized as a joyful gathering towards the end of the book in chapter 12 (360-361).
Heb 5:7 speaks about Jesus offering prayers to God with loud cries and tears. This passage seems to refer to a specific occasion, but certainty cannot be ascertained. It may possibly allude to Gethsemane, or even Jesus’ cry of abandonment on the cross. If Jesus’ prayer was deliverance from death, it was not answered in the way he expected it. It likely does not mean that Jesus was delivered from the fear of death. Rather, it seems to indicate that Jesus was delivered from death via the resurrection. Michaels rejects the notion that Hebrews was unaware of Jesus’ resurrection. Resurrection language seems to be present in passages such as 13:20; 2:14-15; and 11:19 (367-368).
Regarding 6:1-2, Michaels comments that none of the six things listed are specifically distinctive of Christianity. He states that “All six are things Judaism and Christianity had in common, not things dividing Jew from Christian. Taken together, they suggest that at least some of the original readers of Hebrews were converts, whether directly from Greco-Roman paganism to Christianity, or first as proselytes to Judaism and then to a new kind of Judaism more receptive to such converts—the movement centered on Jesus as Messiah and Son of God” (373). Turning to the controversial passage of 6:4-6, Michaels states that verses 4-5 refer to those who have experienced Christianity in its fullness. In verse 6 Michaels rejects both the idea that is impossible for believers to fall away and the idea that those who “fall from grace” can return. He explains that “Neither sides’ optimism finds much support in Hebrews. If someone’s ‘enlightenment’ is ‘once for all’ . . . it is ‘impossible’ to go back and experience it again because that would be like asking Jesus to be crucified again . . . Conversion, like death—Jesus’ death or anyone else’s—is by definition ‘once’ (see 9:27). There is no second chance” (374). According to Michaels, salvation is not a “state of being” but a “one-way journey or pilgrimage”; there is no “stopping or turning back.” No one can absolutely say with any certainty whether someone is truly saved or lost; only the end will reveal who will be numbered among the saved (375-376).
In chapter 7 Michaels claims that Hebrews argues from silence to assert that Melchizedek “was no mortal man but an eternal being” (383). Michaels interestingly concludes that Hebrews views Melchizedek as a “ministering spirit or angel,” like the ones mentioned in 1:14; he is not to be identified as the preexistent Christ (384). I found this interpretation to be one of the most provocative claims in the commentary. Melchizedek is modeled after Christ and not vice versa. While Christ did have an earthly genealogy, Hebrews’ point is that “his identity as Son is not dependent on his physical birth or human ancestry (385).
At Heb 8:5 Michaels surmises that the reason why Hebrews chose to speak about the tabernacle, rather than the temple, was because the tabernacle was explicitly stated in Exod 25:40 to be modeled according to a heavenly archetype. He opines that “Quite possibly this one verse of Scripture (Exod 25:40) is the main reason the author of Hebrews fastens his attention on the Tabernacle in the desert rather than on the Temple in Jerusalem. No one ever claimed that God told Solomon, ‘Be sure that you make everything according to the pattern I have shown you,’ when he built the first Temple in Jerusalem” (391).
At 9:16-17 Michaels does not try to resolve the problem about the translation of diatheke, which could mean “covenant” or “testament, will.” Michaels seems to think it refers to a will, but even if the author did not have wills in mind, “he could easily have reached the same conclusion without it—that the ‘first covenant’ was a covenant of blood (9:18)” (406). The inaugural covenant ceremony of Exod 24 utilized blood.
Heb 9:23 includes the puzzling statement that the things in heaven must be purified. Michaels regards this purification of things in heaven as propitiation or the alleviating of God’s wrath: “Here the purification of ‘the real things in heaven’ by the blood of Christ signals the removal of whatever it is on God’s side that separates the sinner from God—specifically God’s wrath against sin” (411). Michaels does not explore other interpretive options for this passage.
Another perplexing passage is Heb 10:20 which appears to equate the veil with Jesus’ flesh. Michaels explains that there is a wordplay on the preposition dia: “The reader is invited to enter the Most Holy Place ‘through’ the curtain as through a door, as Jesus opened the way to the Most Holy Place ‘through’ (that is, ‘by means of’) the sacrificial offering of his flesh (see 10:10) on the cross” (420). He sees a parallel of this passage with Mark 15:37-39 in which the rending of the temple veil follows immediately upon Jesus’ death.
In the warning passage beginning at 10:26, Michaels interprets the deliberate sin as the “rejection of the sacrifice itself” (422). He explains that “Since God provided an offering and that offering is disdained or repudiated, there is nothing more that God can, or will, do. The very finality which guarantees assurance to those who trust in Christ’s sacrifice seals forever the fate of those who reject it” (422). Michaels reiterates what he stated earlier regarding chapter 6: salvation is not assured to the believer until the very end (423).
Esau, in 12:16-17, is an example of unbelief, not apostasy. Rather than exhibiting the signs of a Christian life, Esau was simply an “immoral” and “godless” person in giving away his birthright (12:16). Esau’s repentance failed to obtain his father’s blessing. It was not a second repentance of one who had been enlightened and then fell away, but a first repentance. However, the point of the illustration is not so much Esau’s repentance as it was his choosing the “seen” things over the “unseen” things, the temporary over the eternal. Esau is not an example to be followed (453-454).
Michaels does a better job of exploring different interpretive options and then explaining why he chose the option he does, but at certain key passages, as noted above, he neglects to explore differing interpretations. He also glosses over the fact that many of the quotations in Hebrews differ from the Hebrew OT. To be fair, the page constraints of the commentary probably prevented him from addressing these issues.
In summary, I think the commentary is well-suited for its targeted audience. Pastors, Sunday school teachers, students, laypersons will find the commentary useful for getting a basic introduction to the books of the Bible and a thorough overview of each passage. Scholars will find that the commentary comes up short in adequately dealing with critical issues or exploring interpretive options for various passages. Scholars will also find the bibliographies highly inadequate. The commentary will be more amenable to “conservative” readers than for more “liberal” readers who might reject Pauline authorship for the Pastoral Epistles, for example. On a final note the book is a nicely bound hardcover book. After working my way through most of the commentary, the binding is still very much intact. Although I am one who takes great care in the handling of my books, this has not prevented other books that I use from having bindings that separate from the book. This has not been the case with this book. So, the purchaser can be assured that he or she will be acquiring a quality product for a relatively inexpensive price.