Elsa TAMEZ, Cynthia Briggs KITTREDGE, Claire Miller COLOMBO, Alicia J. BATTEN. Philippians, Colossians, Philemon.  Wisdom Commentary 51.  Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2017.  pp. 289.  $39.95 hb. ISBN 978-0-8146-8200-5. Reviewed by Alice L LAFFEY, Emerita, College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, MA 01590.


            This volume, part of the Wisdom Commentary Series, brings together commentary on three New Testament letters written by four authors.  Tamez wrote the commentary on Philippians, Kittredge and Columbo, the commentary on Colossians, and Bratten, the commentary on Philemon.  Each commentary contains an Introduction and additional authors’ “contributing voices.”  

When Tamez published Bible of the Oppressed in 2006, it was a major contribution to liberation exegesis.  There were few, if any, biblical scholars at the time whose interpretive lens combined feminism, economics, and Latin American sensibilities. Ten years later Tamez has produced a short but penetrating commentary on Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  It provides a deep analysis of the text within both ancient Roman and contemporary social contexts.  One example is the famous passage of Phil 2:5-11.  Her comments begin: “Paul was in prison because he lived and preached the gospel of the Crucified and Risen One” (p. 72).  She has dedicated the commentary itself in part “To women and men imprisoned because they dared to think differently from those in power.”  Not only should those in the Jesus movement in Philippi  “have the same attitude or mind that Jesus had” but the text invites them to “reject the cult of the emperor and see the Crucified and Risen One as the true Lord…. Without ceasing to be Divine this Exalted One manifested love for all and solidarity with the marginalized…. Followers of the Divine must be humble, concerned about the well-being of all vulnerable people ahead of caring for their own interests” (pp. 72-73).

Kittredge, a NT scholar trained by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza identifies her expertise as "feminist rhetorical biblical scholarship” (p, 127). She has teamed up with Columbo, whose area of expertise is theopoetics, and whose “work with the Romantic poets and the Christian contemplative tradition has shaped her understanding of language as an invitation into mystery rather than a resolution to it” (p. 127).  Given the challenge of Colossians for feminist commentary, summarized as “subordinates submit” (p. 123)—wives to husbands (3:18), children to parents (3:20), and slaves to earthly masters (3:22), commentators are hard- pressed to provide egalitarian commentary.  Rather, what Kittredge and Columbo have done together has been to “make visible…the ethical and theological commitments that guide [their] reading.”  Their interpretation privileges “democracy over tyranny, equality over subordination, and affirmation of the earth and the human body above anti-material perspectives” (p. 126).  The commentary on Col 3:18-4:1, for example, contains both a contributing voice from Annie Tinsley about “Living the Code in Antebellum America” and a theopoetic reflection on dwelling in tension. (pp. 190-92). Their interpretive lens allows the authors to “find echoes of alternative voices, traces of women’s activity and leadership within the ecclesia, countertraditions of equality and assertions of freedom, and ways to recover and discover resources for abundant life and thriving for women and men” (p. 125).

In Bratten’s introduction to her Philemon commentary, she sets the reader up with questions worth pondering: “Would the letter to Philemon have ever been written were Onesimus not a male but a female slave? [W]ould he [Paul] have intervened on behalf of a slave woman in these circumstances?  Did they [slave women] have any sort of voice (in ancient churches)?  If there were slave women in Philemon’s house, how might they have reacted to Paul’s letter?  Would they have resented such an intervention on behalf of Onesimus or rejoiced that Paul indicates concern for their fellow slave?” (pp. 223-24)   

But women’s story is not enough.  In addition, Bratten’s Introduction, through a contribution by Carolina Dionco, also provides a potential context for Paul’s letter that is nontraditional: a slave rebellion.  Dionco asks: “Could it be that the church in Philemon’s house was grappling with [a slave rebellion]? Could there be slaves who are members of the church and who had joined the rebellion? A community inspired by the words and action of a ‘rebel from Galilee’ and advocating various freedoms would not escape the watchful eyes of the Roman establishment.  Could Paul have written the letter to Philemon, which he intended to be read in public, in order to allay any suspicion or to restore harmony in an increasingly divided church?” (p. 225).  A contemporary context is provided by Demetrius K. Williams’ contribution, “An African American Pastor’s Reconciliation with Philemon” (pp. 209-12).

            Because of the density of this volume it is difficult to write a short review.  Much of the material complements traditional commentaries.  Tamez’s contribution is thoroughly feminist in the fullest possible sense; Kittredge and Columbo broaden biblical commentary beyond the traditional discipline, deliberately incorporating the imaginative; Bratten asks the unanswerable questions encouraging her readers to do the same.  The book is accessible and enjoyable; most people will learn a great deal from it. I heartily recommend it.