7 Questions on Colossians in the New Testament Library Commentary Series
Jerry L. Sumney (Ph.D., Southern Methodist University, 1987) is the Professor of Biblical Studies at Lexington Theological Seminary.
Dr. Sumney is a member of the Society of Biblical Literature and is past president for the Southeastern Region of the Society. At the national level, he also served as the chair of the steering committee for the Theology of the Disputed Paulines Group from 1996-2001 and as the chair of the steering committee for the Disputed Paulines Section from 2004-2012. He also chaired the Pauline Epistles and Literature Section of the International Meeting of the SBL 2003-2008. He was elected to membership in the Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas (SNTS) in 2005.
He has written seven books: Paul: Apostle and Fellow Traveler (2014); The Bible: An Introduction (2010; 2nd edition, 2014); Colossians; A Commentary, New Testament Library Series (2008, link below); Philippians, A Handbook for Second-Year Greek Students (2007); Servants of Satan, False Brothers, and Other Pauline Opponents (1999); Preaching Apocalyptic Texts (co-authored with Larry Paul Jones; 1999) and Identifying Paul’s Opponents (1990). He is editor of Reading Paul’s Letter to Romans (2012); The Order of the Ministry; Equipping the Saints (2002) and co-editor of Theology and Ethics in Paul and His Interpreters (1996) and Paul and Pathos (2001). He also has written over 30 articles in journals and books.
1. What previous research and/or personal interests led you to this project and helped prepare you to write this commentary on Colossians?
I first became interested in Colossians through working on the identity of the teachers it opposes. Unlike many other interpreters, I came to the conclusion that they were urging people to worship like the angels they saw in their visions rather than calling people to worship angels. As I looked around, there were no commentaries written from this perspective. That led me to want to write one and the editors of the New Testament Library gave me the opportunity.
2. Who is the intended audience for this commentary? Would it benefit pastors? professors? students? lay Christians in the local church?
This commentary is intended to be accessible to seminary students and pastors. I interact with the various ways that scholars interpret each part of the text, but not in a way that expects readers to be familiar with the issues or arguments. But the focus remains on the text rather than on the arguments about it. I take opportunity to reflect on the theological significance of the text, but do not make direct applications to current issues. Since I do interact with various viewpoints and give reasons for the positions I take, I think that other professors can also benefit from this commentary.
3. What is unique about this commentary? What contribution does it make to studies of Colossians?
Every commentary in the NTL series has the author’s own translation of the text with an explanation of why the author translated it the ways he or she did. So readers get to see why I translated the text as I did. I also work to show how the argument works in Colossians. That is, I try to show how the writer supports the theological and ethics statements he wants the readers to adopt. This means that I see the poetic material of 1:15-20 as a supporting argument rather than as the main point. The readers already know and believe the Christology of this passage, so the writer uses it to convince them that he is right about how people are rightly related to God. The passage has still clearly important for the church as it has discussed Christology, but Colossians does not include it to convince the original readers to adopt its Christology because they already believed it. As I mentioned above, this is also the only full commentary that works from the understanding of the false teaching I bring to the text. Other interpreters hold this view, but none had written a commentary. This perspective opens some new possibilities for understanding some important texts in Colossians. Finally, this is the first commentary to give a post-colonial reading to the household of Colossians. As I read it, it acknowledges that the readers must conform to certain socio-cultural expectations, but also helps them remember that those demands sometimes violate their real identity in Christ.
4. What section or passage of this commentary was particularly memorable to research and write? Why?
The section on the household code stands out because I was not only learning how to read from a new interpretive lens, but also seeing how this text has been misunderstood. The household codes in New Testament texts are often seen among scholars as a sign that the church was backing away from an earlier more egalitarian outlook. My reading of the Colossians code shows that Colossians continues to reject the hierarchical structure of the first century household. This makes this code consistent with broader assertions in the church about the oneness of all believers (Gal 3:26-28) and the descriptions of virtues that are for both men and women in Colossians. So this earliest of the household codes is not rejecting the church’s egalitarian teaching.
5. What personally edified you in writing this commentary, increasing your affections for Christ?
One of the most edifying things was the constant insistence on the certainty of forgiveness and relationship with God that we have in Christ. The poetic material in 1:15-20 gives its vision of the exalted place of Christ as assurance that we have forgiveness and that any decree against us is removed because of the work of Christ. Just as the Colossians were being taught that they needed other experiences for that full relationship with God, so we sometimes feel that we need something more. One of the central themes of Colossians is that we fully have life with God, beginning now, because of and in Christ.
6. Besides your commentary, what are your top recommended books (commentaries or otherwise) on Colossians?
For those interested in very detailed study of the Greek text, the New International Greek Testament Commentary by James Dunn, and the International Critical Commentary volume by R. McL. Wilson are helpful. Still quite detailed is the Anchor Bible commentary by Markus Barth and Helmut Blanke. Also good and more accessible is the Sacra Pagina series commentary by Margaret MacDonald. Still more accessible is Marrianne Meye Thompson’s contribution to the Two Horizons series. Bryan Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat’s Colossians Remixed, is not a typical commentary, but in a dialogical format they work through the implications of the book for the present.
7. What is next for you? What project are you currently working on? How can people follow your work and ministry?
I have just finished a book on the ways Paul uses traditions that the church formulated before he was a leader and outside his influence. Just as Colossians uses the Christological liturgy, there are many places where Paul does similar things. It is entitled, Steward of God’s Mysteries (Eerdmans). I am currently writing a commentary on 2 Corinthians for the Readings series (Smyth and Helwys). Then I am committed to a commentary on 1 Corinthians for the Illuminations series (Eerdmans).
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