JETS 47/3 (September 2004)
Romans. By Charles H. Talbert. Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary. Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2002, 360 pp., $50.00.
The intention of this commentary is to bring the insights of a reputable biblical scholar to lifelong students of God’s Word. A multimedia approach is used, bringing together art, photographs, maps, and drawings, all of which are helpful for a visually oriented generation of believers. The commentary seeks to avoid the problem of being so technical on the one hand that the general reader cannot grasp the meaning or on the other hand being so on the surface that the reader is not helped. The basic focus is the biblical text itself and on the wording and structure of texts. The cultural context is considered along with other information from archaeology, ancient history, geography, comparative literature, history of religions, politics, and sociology. A CD-ROM is included with the commentary and provides a very helpful tool for searching the text. This feature could be utilized in preparing a class or in personal research.
An introduction to Romans provides information about the historical setting, literary design of the epistle, and theological emphases. Each chaptero lflows the logical divisions of the book, without relying on chapter and verse headings. The different divisions reflect the literary structure of each chapter, while discussion of each chapter in Romans centers around two basic sections: Commentary and Connections. Sidebars are a valuable feature of the commentary, providing additional insights on history, literary structure, definitions of technical words, notes on the history of interpretation, and other helpful information. The commentary is user-friendly with a basic bibliography,
an index of the sidebars, a Scripture index, an index of topics, and an index of modern authors. The pictures, maps, and drawings are in black and white, while the sidebars are red, which sets them off from the regular font.
Talbert follows the generally accepted view that after the expulsion of the Jewish Christians in 49 ce by the edict of Claudius the church became primarily Gentile in orientation and make-up. After those who had been expelled returned early in the reign of Nero they found a dominant Gentile Christianity in place. This new situation helped create some of the tensions within the church that Paul hoped to diffuse by writing his epistle. In the forefront of Romans, therefore, is the unity of Christian Jews and Gentiles in Rome. No discussion, however, is given in the introduction as to how the general situation of the letter connects with Paul’s proposed trip to Spain.
The author agrees that Romans displays rhetorical features. Although describing Romans as “a rhetorical act,” he is, however, cautious about forcing Romans into one or the other rhetorical approaches. It is hard, he suggests, to figure out how various sections of Romans fit into the ancient rhetorical categories, and in taking this position he finds good company with Stanley Porter and others who advise caution in trying to fit Paul’s epistles into certain species of ancient rhetoric.
Talbert follows the general consensus that Rom 1:16–17 furnishes the theme of the epistle. He, however, deviates from many commentators on Romans in his messianic interpretation of the phrase “but the righteous will live by faith.” This phrase is usually taken to be the believer in general who is made righteous by his own faith. Tied in with Talbert’s interpretation here is the translation in Rom 3:22 and 26 of pistis Christou (or related phrase) as a subjective genitive, “faith of Christ.” Although this understanding is debated by many scholars, Talbert’s analysis makes sense in that the believer’s faith is made possible by the “faith” or “faithfulness” of Christ. In line with this argument, believers participate in the faith that Jesus not only makes possible but also models in his own life.
Talbert’s discussion of baptism differs from the North American mainline Baptist interpretative tradition of which he is a part. He, much like British Baptists, connects baptism, at least in some ways, with conversion saying in Romans 6 that it is “synonymous with conversion.” Talbert understands baptism as something having a manifold effect on the Christian and not as merely a symbol of conversion or simply an act that puts one into the church without connection to Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. This commentary has many obvious strengths including a helpful layout, fair treatment of most subjects, sections relating to contemporary application, and the accompanying CD-ROM. As excellent as it is, however, it has a few weaknesses. Since the commentary revolves around a discussion format rather than a verse-by-verse detailing of Romans, it is difficult to find the comments on a particular verse. A listing of the verses covered could perhaps be added to the side of the page or in a subheading at the top to make scriptural searches more user-friendly.
Another strength of the commentary is also one of its potential weaknesses. Talbert has masterfully marshaled reams of extra-biblical material and background details into his analysis. While this is very helpful and informative, I wonder if the target audience will not become lost in some of the longer discussions. Many will, howev,e arppreciate the rigor of his discussion. At several points Talbert’s work would be helped by interaction with current discussion of the Paul’s anti-imperial rhetoric such as Richard Horsley highlights in Paul and Empire (Harrisburg: Trinity Press International,1997).
Talbert’s commentary favorably compares with other recent commentaries on Romans (e.g. Thomas R. Schreiner’s) in terms of scholarly acuity and obvious knowledge of the text. Visually, however, this work far outstrips most commentaries, and the publishers are to be congratulated on a production that gives so much insightful and helpful
information but at the same time touches the eye. The mature student will appreciate the detail of this work and the attempt to make Romans relevant to the contemporary age. This is a commentary that I enthusiastically recommend for anyone interested in learning more about Romans. Overall, the goal of providing solid scholarly insights in a well-written format has been achieved.
Harding University, Searcy, AR