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Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 2003. 309 S. gr.8 = Papyrologische Kommentare zum Neuen Testament, 1. Lw. Euro 49,90. ISBN 3-525-51000-4.
Our knowledge of daily life in antiquity has significantly increased in recent years as a result of the abundant papyri, ostraca and wooden tablets which have come to light mainly in Greco-Roman Egypt. Albert Deissmann was the pioneer in comparing the language of the New Testament with the language of papyri. Subsequently, the works of Bauer, Moulton and Milligan, White, Betz, and Horsley, among others, have contributed to the enhancing of our understanding of the New Testament by contrasting it with documents that have been preserved by archaeological good fortune rather than literary tradition. The commentary which is reviewed here takes the same line. It is the first volume of a project which aims to offer a complete commentary on the New Testament in the light of contemporary everyday texts which have reached us through documentary tradition.
The book opens (37-56) with a general introduction which deals with the intentions and purpose of the project. Because this is the first volume in the series, the author offers a general view of the significance of papyrology for New Testament studies, the working methodology adopted, the relevance and comparative value of documentary texts, and the comparability of texts found in Egypt and elsewhere. In this last respect the author's position is clear: Paul's readers in Asia Minor would most likely have understood his letters as they would have understood the documents from Egypt or other places.
The information given on papyrology and the New Testament shows an extraordinary command by the author in both fields. The utility of this kind of commentary for a better understanding of the New Testament is also justified extensively and convincingly. The intention that underlies the work is to elucidate how an average reader of Paul's time would have understood a writing of the New Testament, in the light of what he or she would have been capable of writing according to his or her personal way of speaking, thinking or feeling. It may be objected that it is not easy to determine who an average reader might be, but studying documentary texts is surely the best approach to answering this question.
In the specific introduction to Philemon (57-108) the author compares the letter with other private letters of the period to reveal a striking formal similarity. Several hundred papyri are also discussed to shed light on the circumstances which prompted the letter, the characters mentioned in it and the conditions in which they might have found themselves. The author's conclusion is that Onesimus had not exactly run away from Philemon, but, as had probably happened before, he was roaming from one place to another. He would have left his master without permission and was thus afraid of returning to his place. In these circumstances he must have visited Paul in prison, probably in Ephesus, and the Apostle then sent him back to his master with a letter of recommendation.
A verse-by-verse commentary occupies the main part (109- 274) of the book. It is divided into three main sections, following the classical partition of a letter-opening (v. 1-6), body of the letter (v. 7-22) and closing (v. 23-25). Each section is subdivided into minor sections according to a more detailed structure. The beginning of each subsection presents first the German translation of the text and an introduction to it. Next comes a catena-like commentary on a single Greek word or several words. The comments on the opening of the letter are particularly extensive, as is the comprehensive, and extraordinarily useful, commentary on adelphós.
The book closes with a brief chapter (275-277) on the aim of the letter, in which it is stated that the centre of Paul's missive is his request that Philemon receive Onesimus as if he were the Apostle himself (v. 17). The key to understanding the letter would be the word koinonós, as it occurs in papyrological sources. Paul would have invited Philemon to receive his slave as a partner, meaning one with an equal status for business matters and for the guidance of the Christian community.
Comparison with papyri sheds much light on the background to Paul's letter. The apprenticeship-contracts of weavers found in Egypt, as well as many documents related to Paul's trade, provide us with abundant parallels for the letter. The author thinks that Paul's father may have made a written contract with a tent-maker or weaver in Tarsus to apprentice his son to the craft, and that Paul planned the structure and guidance of Philemon's domestic church (and the Christian mission as a whole) following the legal regulations of master and apprentice that are stated in such contracts. Other issues, including slavery, trade, and the duties of slaves (especially domestic slaves) are here thoroughly illuminated through documentary parallels. The papyri have much to say in this regard and the author, as with any question he discusses, offers us a vast amount of information about the subject. As a result, we have a better perception of the situation of Philemon as owner of a group of slaves, and the condition of Onesimus as one of them. Nevertheless, some of this writer's conclusions, on issues which are too bound up with other theological sources and exegetical assumptions to allow for such dependence on comparative lexical evidence, may still be questioned.
The papyrological commentary is not conceived as an alternative to ordinary exegetical commentaries, but rather as a supplement. In this sense it achieves its goal well beyond expectation. The number of parallels it provides is massive, supplying precious information not only for a better understanding of Paul's letter to Philemon but also for our knowledge of many other related aspects, such as ancient letters and specific Christian formulae, social practices, the role of the slaves in the Church, the Christian use of specific words, etc. Future commentators on Philemon will necessarily turn to this work, while New Testament interpreters, as well as editors and commentators of papyri, will also greatly benefit from it. The commentary contains a mine of information, which will increase as the series progresses. In this respect, an index of Greek words (at least of the most important ones) and subject matters would be of greater help than the single list of cited papyri, ostraca, and other documents, provided at the end of the book. This, however, should not be taken as a criticism but rather as a desideratum for future volumes.
The beginning of the Papyrologische Kommentare zum Neuen Testament could not have been more promising. This commentary will surely become a new classic for understanding the New Testament in its day-to-day context, much as the Strack-Billerbeck commentary has helped to illuminate New Testament writings from Rabbinic literature.