Sometimes regarded as trivial because of its brevity, the letter to Philemon remains valuable both for its insight into the social setting of the New Testament and for its reiteration of a central component of the gospel—brotherly love. Barth and Blanke’s commentary is unique for its exhaustive study of the ancient world at the time Philemon was written. They examine the institution of slavery in Paul’s day, drawing on secular sources from Greece and Rome and from Christian writers of the time. The references to slavery found in Ephesians, Colossians, and 1Timothy are also compared and contrasted with Paul’s words in Philemon.
The verse-by-verse commentary focuses on important themes in Pauline theology, including love, faith and faithfulness, church unity, providence, free will, and human responsibility. Barth makes his exposition even more useful by surveying the history of the interpretation of Philemon, from the patristic age to modern liberation theologians. The product of Barth’s lifelong research, which was completed by Helmut Blanke after Barth’s death, will surely become the standard work on Philemon.
“F. Nietzsche,6 agree that in many aspects an ancient slave’s treatment was better and his life conditions more secure than those of a nineteenth-century factory worker.” (Page 4)
“Therefore it must not be assumed that Paul’s arguments in his Letter to Philemon are totally or primarily based on his acquaintance with Roman law and practice.” (Page 19)
“‘There is no subject of ancient history more difficult to study and more beset with controversy and dispute.’2” (Page 3)
“Roman law conceded that in this case the slave was not guilty of flight (fuga) in the full legal sense—if only the private asylum giver carefully examined the complaints of this slave and sent him back to his master, usually with a written request or recommendation how the prodigal should be received and treated.” (Page 28)
“Before the law and the courts a slave occupied a middle position between the owner’s children and his cattle.” (Page 19)
Markus Barth provides us with an exceptional treasure trove of relevant ancient and modern material to enrich our understanding of ancient slavery and the interpretation of Philemon. A remarkable repository of learning, this volume brings Paul’s world and thought to life as a seasoned guide takes readers on a fascinating tour of every nook and cranny of the apostle’s most personal letter. This book will hardly be surpassed.
—David E. Garland, George W. Truett Theological Seminary, Baylor University
Markus Barth (1915–1994) was professor of New Testament studies at the University of Basel in Switzerland. The son of the great theologian Karl Barth, he is also the author of The People of God, Rediscovering the Lord’s Supper, and (with Helmut Blanke) the volume on Colossians in the Anchor Yale Bible Commentary.
Helmut Blanke earned a Th.D. from the University of Basel in Switzerland and was a student of Markus Barth’s and serves as a pastor in Germany. He is co-author (with Markus Barth) of the volume on Colossians in the Anchor Yale Bible Commentary.