Book Review–The Letter of James (Douglas Moo)


Douglas Moo has a well-earned reputation for being one of the finest New Testament commentators, and this volume in the Pillar New Testament Commentary series is no exception to his usual high standard of work. It begins with a thorough introduction, which includes a defence of James the brother of Jesus as author. He dates it in the mid 40s, with the assumption that James was not yet familiar with what Paul meant by “justification by faith”, but had heard the phrase being used (or abused). He devotes several pages in the introduction to the topic of “faith, works and justification”, in which he compares James and Paul’s teaching. He does not see a fundamental contradiction, rather that they are bringing complementary teachings targeting different errors: “Paul strikes at legalism; James at quietism.”


The commentary itself is based on the NIV text and works through usually a verse at a time. He doesn’t assume the reader has knowledge of Greek, although some understanding will help. His interest as a Bible translator shines through as he often explores the semantic range of a word, and he likes to highlight good translations (and occasionally criticise – such as the use of “happy” instead of “blessed”).

He breaks the letter up into small chunks, while acknowledging that it is very hard to find a structure to James. He keeps the sermon-like feel to James by making his section headings read like sermon points.

Whilst the Pillar series is primarily focused on explaining the text, there is latitude to discuss the theological implications, which Moo often does, albeit succinctly. He is a cautious exegete, never making the text say more than it actually does. He is particularly helpful in the parts where James is accused of being at odds with Paul, by looking at the different ways they each use the words “faith”, “works”, and most importantly “justify”.

Moo believes that “the heart of the letter is a call to wholehearted commitment to Christ.” He is especially helpful in highlighting links to the teaching of Jesus, as well as how James understood the “law”. Having read a few commentaries on James now, I would say that Moo remains my favourite. Sometimes I wish he would be a bit more preachy, but it is an invaluable aid to any serious study of the book of James.

Book Review – Pillar Commentary on Colossians & Philemon

The Pillar New Testament Commentary series is often described as a mid-level commentary, falling somewhere between popular level expositions on the one hand and more academically minded exegetical commentaries on the other. However, weighing in at 450 pages, a more detailed exegesis than his previous Pillar offering on James, so don’t expect a light read.

Colossians Intro

In his introduction to Colossians, Moo deals with two major questions. First is the identity of the author, and second the identity of the false teachers. On the authorship question, he begins by surveying the case against Paul, before providing his own response to it. As with O’Brien’s commentary on Ephesians, he strongly rejects the pseudepigraphical hypothesis. Moo thinks it most likely that Paul wrote it from Rome in AD 60-61.

As for the identity of the false teachers, Moo settles on a syncretistic mixture of paganism, local folk Judaism and Christianity, following Clinton Arnold’s proposal. The best section of the introduction though, is his brief analysis of the theological themes in Colossians. Unsurprisingly the centrality and supremacy of Christ is picked out as the key theme, and there is some interesting material on demythologising the powers (which he returns to in his commentary on 1:16), as well as some helpful thoughts on the place of “rules” in the Christian life.

Colossians Commentary

The commentary itself as extensive and thorough with each verse having a few pages of comments. Moo gives a great deal of attention to structure, especially in introductions to sections. Unsurprisingly, given his involvement with the NIV, he also shows a lot of interest in English translation choices. The commentary itself is based on the TNIV, and Moo will often highlight which translations he feels give the best sense of a verse. In some places he chooses to provide his own paraphrase, which is a helpful way of summarizing, especially if multiple options have been considered.

Colossians is a densely packed epistle. Barely a verse goes by without some tricky concept requiring explanation. Moo sure-footedly guides us through the exegetical possibilities, outlining the major interpretive options before giving us his judgment. He is rarely dogmatic, usually indicating with words like “perhaps”, “probably”, or “tentatively” the degree of certainty he feels about his conclusions. Paul’s statements are often illuminated by considering them in light of the false teaching, in light of his other writings, and detecting many echoes of OT language.

I won’t go into details on his exegesis, but I’ll mention a few highlights. I found him very helpful on circumcision and baptism in 2:11 and on the meaning of the “elements” (στοιχεῖα) in 2:8. I also gained a new perspective on 3:9-10 where he argues that the concept of the “old self/man” does not refer to a nature or part of the individual human being, but rather that the “new self” is a corporate entity (c.f. Eph 2:15 – one new man / humanity).

Philemon Introduction

The introduction to Philemon addresses two main issues. The first, more briefly, he considers a recently proposed alternative to the "traditional" view that Onesimus was a runaway slave. That is, the idea that Onesimus had deliberately gone to Paul in order that he might act as mediator in a dispute. Moo slightly prefers the traditional view.

The other major issue he addresses is that of the New Testament attitude to slavery. He outlines the usual reasons why the NT lacks the explicit condemnation of the institution of slavery that many modern Bible readers would like to find, but does go a little further by tentatively suggesting that the NT writers themselves had not necessarily reached a place where all the implications of their views were fully worked out. Although this sounds like it could be an uncontrolled hermeneutical framework, allowing justification of almost anything, Moo does at least attempt to constrain it by affirming that the NT writers were prevented from writing anything that contradicted the implications of the gospel.

Philemon Commentary

Again, the commentary is thorough. Whenever there is a phrase that could be taken in more than one way (several examples are found in Philemon 6), Moo will carefully outline the possible options, together with supporting evidence, before opting for his favourite. Sometimes I felt that he considered the merits of options that did not seem substantial enough to warrant the space devoted to them (e.g. on verse 9).

Moo considers “fellowship” to be one of the key themes of the letter of Philemon. Whilst he acknowledges that we cannot be sure, he does think that v16 and 21 do hint that Paul is hoping that Onesimus would be set free.


No one who has read any of his previous commentaries will be surprised to learn that this is another excellent offering from Moo. The attention to detail will be a blessing to anyone wanting to home in on a particular word or phrase, but at the same time may make for slow progress for those who like me are working through the entire book.

For my purposes, I would have gladly sacrificed a little detail on structure and allowed Moo to elaborate on some of his interesting ideas such as that of biblically oriented environmentalism mentioned in his comments on Col 1:20. But it would appear that Moo has decided to leave the preaching mainly to Paul and only give pointers towards how he would preach the passage himself.

It is not hard to imagine that Moo will take over the baton from O’Brien of having written the premier evangelical commentary on Colossians & Philemon (which I confess to not having read yet). That is not to disparage O’Brien’s highly regarded work in any way, but Moo’s is more up to date (O’Brien’s was published in 1982), slightly longer, and the Pillar series layout is significantly more reader-friendly than the Word Biblical Commentary series.

Book Review – The Gospel According to John (D A Carson)

The Pillar New Testament Commentary Series

I have already blogged about the Pillar New Testament Commentary series, which is itself edited by Don Carson, so you can read my general thoughts on the layout and goals of this series there.

The Introduction

The introduction is fairly lengthy (80 pages), and dives straight in with a look at the distinctives of the gospel of John as compared to the Synoptics. Carson has of course also authored a commentary on Matthew that paid special attention to the relationship between the Synoptics, so this enables him to complete the picture.

He devotes several pages to the historical interpretation of John’s gospel, before embarking on a lengthy defence of the authenticity of the fourth Gospel. In particular, he addresses Bultmann’s antisupernaturalism and ‘demythologizing’ of the text. He points out that the Dead Sea scrolls find has removed the need to postulate a hellenistic background to the thought of John’s gospel.

Another sizable section is devoted to authorship, in which he casts doubt on the validity of efforts to detect several sources in the text. He concludes that a working assumption of Johannine authorship is the best way to approach the text. He very tentatively dates it at around AD 80.

Carson even includes some advice for those preaching from the book of John. Overall the introduction is a great read, and almost a book in its own right.

The Commentary

The commentary itself is densely packed in with little whitespace, and no inclusion of the biblical text. There are surprisingly few footnotes, since Carson prefers to do most of his interaction with other commentators in the main text. As with his Matthew commentary, he loves to take the time to defend the text against accusations of fabrication, and offers explanations for supposed problems. He is also quite happy to spend several pages digging deeper into a particular theological concern that is raised by the text.

The commentary itself is far too massive for me to attempt to summarise all the useful points. To list all the sections of John in which I found Carson’s comments particularly helpful I would be to list the entire contents.

Carson’s strengths as a biblical commentator are the comprehensive way he tackles the types of concern that an expositor will have. He incisively gets to the bottom of what the sayings mean, some of which are hard to unpack. He has a good eye for Old Testament allusions. He is willing to take on and reject other possible interpretations, both from skeptics and other Christian traditions (such as Roman Catholicism). He is also prepared to reject “sentimental” conclusions popular amongst evangelicals if the exegesis does not bear it out.


I cannot recommend this commentary on John highly enough. It is a magnificent work, and one that would greatly benefit any serious student or teacher of the Bible. Yes, it is quite long, but it is always interesting. It has actually taken me about five years to work my way through it, but I am glad I have done so, and this will almost certainly be one of the first commentaries I consult every time I am doing study on John.

Commentary Series Review – Pillar New Testament Commentary

The Pillar commentary series has been slowly but surely growing for well around 20 years now, with thirteen published volumes, and authors assigned for all the remaining ones. In fact, it would appear that some of the earliest volumes are already in line for replacement. The target audience seems to be pastors and undergraduate level students of the Bible. The way that the exegetical options are discussed and current academic theories are interacted with will put it out of reach of the casual Christian reader, but they are not designed to compete with the technical and exhaustive commentaries. The series falls firmly within the conservative evangelical tradition, but draws commentators from a variety of church backgrounds.

The series editor is Don Carson, who supplied the Gospel of John and is also rumoured to be working on Revelation and Galatians in this series. He seems an ideal candidate for the editorship. Not only is he known for his exegetical prowess and engaging style of writing, but he is something of a commentary connoisseur, having written a review of New Testament commentaries that is now in its fifth edition. It comes as no surprise then, that he is assembling his very own “dream team” of commentators (notably O’Brien and Moo who have written two each) and apparently making an effort to plug some significant gaps in the evangelical commentary market.

The commentary itself is based on the NIV text (TNIV in some of the newer volumes), but the writers show no particular loyalty to its wording, often preferring to offer a completely different translation on which to comment. The biblical text is included in most, but not all the commentaries. Greek vocabulary and verb tenses are regularly discussed, but the Greek is always transliterated and translated (though sometimes in Greek script in the footnotes).

Recent volumes in particular have shown a greater interest in quoting ancient sources than interacting with multiple modern commentators, although there is a willingness to take on major proponents of opposing views where necessary. Footnotes direct the reader to further reading where appropriate and are sometimes used for more detailed grammatical analysis. The commentators are prepared to discuss variant readings, and even reject traditional interpretations but will not criticise the meaning of the text itself, treating it as God’s revealed word.

The introductions are usually fairly lengthy (50-100 pages) and it is here that the liberal tendency to reject traditional authorship, historicity and typical reformed interpretation is called into question. However, the authors are usually content to simply show the plausibility of traditional options rather than considering themselves to have ‘proved’ anything about dating, authorship, and structure.

To keep the comments on any particular verse from becoming unmanageably long, extended discussions are often moved into excursuses. The length and frequency of these varies with author, but they usually add significant value to the commentary and allow greater theological reflection.

The main focus of the commentaries is exegetical but with a view to aiding expositors. The meaning of each sentence is determined, and then it is shown how it fits in with the overall argument of the section and book. If there is an apparent discord with other New Testament passages, this will usually be discussed. The authors are free to make comments on the theological and practical implications of the verses for contemporary Christian life, but are never preachy. In most cases they prefer to let the text speak for itself. Where a verse has been used as a “proof-text” for a particular doctrinal position, the commentators will often mention whether they feel this to be justified or not, without entering wholesale into the debate.

At least two volumes in the series (Carson on John and O’Brien on Ephesians) are widely acknowledged as the premier evangelical commentary on their respective books, and I expect more equally highly-acclaimed volumes will follow. The prices are unfortunately not as competitive as some other similar series (e.g. Baker Exegetical), but your money will not be wasted, and they are worthy additions to any Bible teacher’s library.

I have reviewed a number from this series here on my site, and have so enjoyed the ones I have read that you can expect more to follow. Here’s the current list of volumes, with links to my reviews for the ones I have read.


Book Review – The Letters of John (Colin Kruse)

As I have studied through 1 John recently, I have noticed that while the author manages to make his main points abundantly clear (e.g. the importance of loving one another), he uses lots of sentences along the way that are somewhat cryptic. In his Pillar commentary, Colin Kruse has managed to shed considerable light on the meaning of these difficult phrases without losing the overall message of the book. With each statement he provides brief but compelling arguments for how each phrase or word is to be understood, without always being entirely dogmatic. The meaning of a word or phrase in the gospel of John is often decisive in deciding between alternatives.

There is a generous helping of helpful excursuses (called “notes”) that deal with some of the more difficult issues at greater length, allowing the commentary to simply refer to the excursus wherever the issue crops up. For example there are excursuses on the antichrist, on sinless perfectionism, and on the bases of assurance, as well as many on the meanings of various words. These notes typically review all the Johannine (or biblical) usage of a particular term, before coming to a brief conclusion about what is meant.

Another useful feature of this commentary is that the Scriptural text commented on is highlighted in bold, so that you can easily follow where he is up to in his comments. Like the rest of the Pillar series, it comments on the NIV text, but is quite willing to completely disagree with the translation in places.

The introduction deals with all three letters and argues for common authorship, who probably is also the author of the fourth gospel (which he considers to be the apostle John). There is also considerable discussion of the “secessionists”, a splinter group whose teaching the first letter is designed to combat. Kruse shows how John’s argument is directed in many places throughout the letter at these people, and sees this group as the likely background to the second and third Johannine epistles as well.

The apparent contradiction between 1:8-9 and 3:6-9, concerning whether Christians do or do not continue to sin is not resolved in the traditional fashion (occasional vs habitual sin), but appeals to Kruse’s analysis of the meaning of anomia, which is in his view not to be interpreted etymologically (i.e. lawlessness), but simply as the type of sinful rebellion that typified the secessionists (also the “sin that leads to death”).

The poem of 2:12-14 is not thought to refer to three distinct groups (children, young men, adults), but to two, with the ‘children’ referring to everyone, while the latter two refer to younger and older Christians respectively (in human age). The “water and blood” of chapter 5:6-8 are interpreted as Jesus’ ministries of baptism and atonement.

In 2 John the secessionists are still very much in view, and the “chosen lady” is understood to be the church, who is urged not to receive these false teachers. By contrast, 3 John encourages Gaius to welcome itinerant teachers who were not secessionists but were loyal to the truth.

The commentary closes with an appendix of biblical and extra-biblical material that refers to Cain. This seems a little out of place, as Cain only gets one brief mention in 1 John.

This commentary will prove very useful to those wanting to grapple with the meaning of individual sentences in the Johannine epistles, perhaps in preparation for sermons or group study. It does not focus so much on contemporary application, although the author will often briefly indicate the pastoral significance. Those simply wanting a devotional aid as they read through these letters would be better off choosing a more homiletical commentary such as the Bible Speaks Today commentary on John’s Letters by David Jackman. Having said that, Colin Kruse’s volume is a worthy addition to the excellent Pillar series which combines careful exegesis with a devout evangelical commitment to the authority of Scripture as God’s word.

Book Review – The Pillar Commentary on Thessalonians (Gene Green)

This latest addition to the Pillar series of commentaries is reminiscent of O’Brien’s Pillar Commentary on Ephesians in that it has a long introduction (75 pages), which includes a critique of the rhetorical analysis approach to the epistles and defends Pauline authorship. He also explains why he is not convinced by arguments placing 2 Thessalonians before 1 (contra Wanamaker).

However, the bulk of the introduction is spent providing historical background on the city of Thessalonica and tying in the Acts accounts of how the gospel came to that city. Green goes right back to tell the story of how the Romans came to take the region of Macedonia from the Greeks and lists the various uprisings that the Romans crushed. There is also a good deal of information about the religious beliefs and practices of the time.

While it is all interesting, I couldn’t help feeling that some of this material would have been more suited to a New Testament background reference book, or at least interspersed in the commentary as excursuses. However, Green believes that the historical background is key to interpreting the letter, and he does particularly well at highlighting the reasons why the gospel was so badly received when it first arrived in Thessalonica.

The opening chapters of 1 Thessalonians in particular are closely tied in to both Paul and the Thessalonians’ historical and geographical situation. Green fills in the details from Acts, as well as making regular quotations from ancient documents to illustrate his points. Like Edward’s Pillar commentary on Mark, quotes from first century documents are regularly found, while interaction with other commentators is generally left to the footnotes.

The section on the second coming is handled in a level-headed manner, careful not to draw out more than the text says (as is the section on the man of lawlessness in 2 Thess 2). He does not particularly attempt to synthesize with prophetic passages from Revelation, the Gospels or the Old Testament, and only makes the briefest of comments to dismiss some fanciful interpretations of the rapture.

The historical background established in the introduction proves helpful as he seeks to interpret the commands concerning idleness in terms of the patron-client system that was operating in those days. The idle are understood as those who are “disorderly” and are remaining as clients. They are counselled to get out of local politics and live a quiet life, which contrasts with the more common understanding of this passage as being simply a critique of laziness.

I found this to be a worthy addition to the excellent Pillar series, which will serve evangelicals who want to dig deeper into the meaning of the text, but don’t necessarily require great elaboration on contemporary application. As with the other volumes in the Pillar series, the comments are based on the NIV text, while feeling free to question some of the translators decisions, but maintaining a reverent attitude to Scripture throughout.

Book Review – The Pillar New Testament Commentary on Ephesians (Peter T O’Brien)

Peter O’Brien has earned himself the reputation of being a fine scholar and commentary writer, specialising in the Prison epistles, having written highly acclaimed volumes on Philippians for the New International Greek Testament Commentary and Colossians and Philemon for the Word Biblical Commentary. This work on Ephesians thus completes the set, and although the Pillar Series isn’t as technical as the other series he has written for, this is by no means a basic level commentary.

It weighs in at 500 pages of commentary, 80 of which are devoted to the introduction. This is perhaps longer than might be expected for this series, but a good deal of this is given to providing a robust defence of Pauline authorship. Andrew Lincoln (author of the Word Biblical Commentary on Ephesians) is his main sparring partner, and he sets out Lincoln’s argument in detail before responding point by point. His thorough argument firmly puts the burden of proof back onto the doubters. He also takes some time to express serious misgivings about the validity of the rhetorical approach of interpretation taken by some commentators.

The commentary proper follows broadly the same format as the other Pillar volumes, and includes the text of Ephesians in the NIV. I would have preferred his own translation though, as in a number of places he favours significantly different sentence constructions. Each section and subsection of the book has a summary introduction outlining the flow of argument that will follow. Comments are then provided on one or occasionally two verses at a time. Sections are usually ended with another summary of the flow of argument often highlighting how the themes in the section under consideration fit with the rest of the book. There are six chapters of commentary – one for each of the chapters of Ephesians.

The long sentences of Ephesians 1 mean that fairly technical discussions of Greek grammar are inevitable, but O’Brien manages well to keep it from becoming inaccessible to the non-specialist. Any Greek is both transliterated and translated, although the footnotes contain Greek font but still provide a translation. Where a phrase has been interpreted in many different ways, O’Brien takes time to enumerate the main options before revealing his own preference.

O’Brien writes from a conservative evangelical perspective, and while he rarely preaches (preferring to let Paul do the preaching), he shows concern for contemporary application. The contentious section on wives in chapter 5 is given extra space to allow him to defend a traditional complimentarian position, but attempting to address some concerns that egalitarians may have with this approach. He believes Grudem’s paper rejecting the translation of kephale as ‘source’ rather than ‘head’ is decisive, and so this part of the debate is largely left to the footnotes.

Having said this, he does not feel the need to weigh in on every modern theological debate. For example the reader will only find hints of what he believes about “apostles for today” or “spiritual warfare techniques”, without explicitly mentioning the views he rejects.

Although the main discussion of Pauline authorship is confined to the introduction, where relevant O’Brien does make additional points, particularly with regards to the supposed “over-realised eschatology” of the author. O’Brien’s contention is that the theology of the letter fits well with Paul’s other writings and he demonstrates this wherever possible.

Ephesians is a book that is rich in both theologically and practical application. In this commentary O’Brien does a fine job of revealing Paul’s meaning as well as his flow of thought. The section on the familiar 2:8-10 is outstanding, and his careful exegesis sheds much light on some of the difficult to understand passages (e.g. 3:14-19 and 5:13,14). This is a commentary best suited to those who want to do some research for teaching of their own, and seems set to be the standard evangelical Ephesians commentary for some time to come. I highly recommend it to all Bible students or teachers.

Book Review – The Pillar New Testament Commentary on Mark (James R. Edwards)

The Pillar commentary series sits in between the devotional and academic styles of commentary. It is evangelical, and designed primarily for preachers and serious students of the Bible. This volume is the third gospel to be covered in this slowly growing series, under the editorship of Don Carson. It weighs in at over 500 pages of commentary (not counting indexes), which translates to a few paragraphs on each verse or group of verses, with room for a few excursuses and brief introductions to each pericope or section. Despite this reasonably generous size, there are a number of typical commentary features not found in this volume.

The biblical text is not included, and Edwards rarely interacts directly with other commentators (when he does, it is normally in a footnote). He only occasionally provides refutations to scholars who doubt the historicity of some of the accounts. Also, he does not often attempt to harmonise with parallel passages in the other gospels, prefering to simply note how the other accounts differ. This is no doubt in part due to his acceptance of the theory that Mark was the first gospel to be written, probably around AD65, and most likely by John-Mark, with the Christians in Rome in mind as the original intended readership. Finally, don’t expect exhaustive details of the Greek grammar and translation issues here. Where the Greek is discussed, it is usually to explain the meaning of one word, and is transliterated.

So what does Edwards fill the space with? His commentary emphasises the historical setting, the literary devices and the theological purposes of Mark. There are also a number of useful excursuses on key themes in Mark (for example, the Messiah and the transfiguration). An appendix rejects the “secret gospel of Mark” as a forgery. As with other Pillar volumes, key words are highlighted in bold at the start of a paragraph that defines them.

The historical aspect is served by Edward’s regular appeals to ancient literature, which he uses to help give a good picture of the historical context and meaning of the verses in question. The key word definitions are very useful for explaining terms, customs and places in a succinct way, but without intruding into the flow of the commentary. In addition, Edwards seeks to keep us alert to some of the literary techniques Mark uses, such as the “sandwich technique” (whereby Mark interleaves two mutually interpretive passages), as well as the irony and the insider / outsider motif. He gathers evidence for the theory that Peter was John-Mark’s primary source as he moves through the book.

On the theological side, Edward’s brings a number of Mark’s themes to light, particularly those of what true faith and discipleship is, of who the Christ is and the command to silence. But its not just about “Mark’s theology”, as he often makes brief yet profound statements of the theological and practical implications for believers.

Whilst Edwards rarely brings a highly controversial or obscure interpretation to a passage in Mark, he is not simply restating other people’s conclusions, and regularly brings fresh insights. Jesus’ prophetic teaching in Mark 13 is understood as referring alternately to the destruction of Jerusalem and the parousia, with the phrases “these things” and “those days” serving as delimiters between the near and far focuses. He argues that the women of chapter 16 are used by Mark as negative examples (in contrast the the normally positive role of women in the gospel) of fear rather than faith in contrast to Joseph’s boldness in approaching Pilate to ask for Jesus’ body. He sees the climax of the gospel as the centurion’s declaration at the cross in Mark 15:39.

Although unsurprisingly Edwards does not consider Mark 16:9-20 to be part of the original gospel, he does provide commentary on it in a chapter devoted to questions of the ending. While he notes that an ending at Mark 16:8 may “work” for some people, he strongly doubts that Mark did in fact stop so abruptly, again drawing on his thorough knowledge of ancient literature to argue that this type of literary technique was virtually unknown. He believes that the writer of Matthew had access to Mark’s original ending, as the end of Matthew provides the types of things required to conclude the themes Mark has been developing.

In conclusion, I highly recommend this as an excellent commentary on the book of Mark. I have been reading it over the last 18 months as I have been studying my way through Mark. It does not address every issue that could possibly be raised, but this prevents the commentary from becoming bloated and allows Edwards to give space to his areas of expertise. Those who read this will see Mark’s gospel come alive when viewed through the historical, literary and theological perspective that Edwards has brought in his commentary.