Reviewed by Lloyd Pietersen
The latest commentary in the Believers Church series follows the familiar format. For each section discussed there is a preview, outline, explanatory notes, consideration of the passage in its biblical context and finally, a short overview of the reception of the passage in the life of the church. The series is not designed to provide a scholarly, technical commentary but rather to aid ordinary church members in their Bible study.
Zehr, rightly in my view, accepts the destination of the letters to Timothy and Titus as Ephesus and Crete respectively and sees these letters as missionary documents. The letters spell out what it means for the gospel of Jesus to engage with the cultures of Ephesus and Crete. In terms of authorship he thinks that much of the content comes from Paul with Luke as the most likely writer. In this he follows Ben Witherington III.
In a short review such as this it is impossible to comment in detail on the whole book so I will focus on the treatment of a couple of passages. First, as regards the notorious 1 Timothy 2:9-15, Zehr carefully places this passage in its cultural context and rightly interprets it against the background of the false teaching countered by 1 Timothy thus arguing that the prohibition on women teaching is restricted to the context and should not be seen as a binding requirement for all time. Second, the injunction to slaves in 1 Timothy 6:1-2, which is seen by many commentators as a retreat from the radical egalitarianism of Paul’s gospel into social conservatism, receives judicious treatment. Zehr correctly notices that the phrase, ‘yoke of slavery’ implies some negative judgment on slavery and also that in describing the masters as ‘those who benefit’ from the service of their slaves, the author is subverting traditional notions of honour, shame and benefaction.
The observation concerning slavery highlights what I consider to be one of the great strengths of this commentary. In the second half of the twentieth century much scholarship, particularly in Germany, considered these letters to be a betrayal of the Pauline vision of community and suggested that they advocated a way of life for the Christian communities addressed which was basically in conformity to the surrounding culture. By way of contrast Zehr sees clearly that these letters are mission oriented and that they seek to promote the church as the household of God—a radically alternative community. Throughout the commentary Zehr is sensitive to the struggle of mission in terms of how much to accommodate to the surrounding culture in order to engage meaningfully with it and how much to remain distinctive. He suggests that these letters skilfully navigate this dilemma.
One final strength of this commentary is the way the author regularly relates the text under discussion to Anabaptist history and practice. Despite a few quibbles (for example, in my opinion, Zehr overplays the relevance of the imperial cult at Ephesus at the time to which he dates the letters and correspondingly underplays the influence of the Artemis cult), this is a worthy addition to the Believers Church Bible Commentary series.