Matthew B. Tabke’s Review of 1 & 2 THESSALONIANS, 2ND EDITION (WORD BIBLICAL COMMENTARY), by Seyoon Kim and F. F. Bruce

Published on July 8, 2024 by Eugene Ho

Zondervan Academic, 2023 | 736 pages

A Book Review from Books At a Glance

by Matthew B. Tabke


One classic trope sometimes adopted when a book is to be critiqued says, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” We might increase specificity of this saying when judging a Biblical commentary and suggest that “not every commentary has the same goal.” If true, this second comment can make the evaluation of a commentary on Scripture a bit difficult, for how are we then to judge the commentary? If the book is part of a series, are we to review the stated purpose of the series and use this as our bar for judgment? If there are unique goals the author intended in his or her penmanship, are we to determine whether these goals were met? Perhaps there are some who believe all commentaries should generally be of a similar sort and that the comments should be moved by a sort of “pure” exegesis, but then, what exactly is “pure” exegesis? We are all products of our time.

The uniqueness of every Biblical commentary lends itself to at least a few ideas that can help formulate a path to evaluation. First, we need to know what this book is. In the case of Dr. Kim’s commentary on the Thessalonian epistles, we are dealing with an updated version of an older commentary written by his mentor, the renowned F. F. Bruce. Second, we need to know what series the commentary is part of (or if it is part of a series) and what the goals of the series are. 1-2 Thessalonians 2nd Edition (and I do intentionally write 2nd edition to the title, for F. F. Bruce did not take part in this project because he is now with the Lord) is part of the “Word Biblical Commentary Series” (WBC) which organizes itself into six distinct parts for every passage of Scripture reviewed; this series required that the authors be employed in a university setting as well as actively engaged in their local church’s ministry. Third, we must delve into the realm of subjectivity, and ask what the various readers of this type of book look for in a commentary. This is a difficult task, for the standard that the text will be pushed through is a matter of personal preference and perceived usefulness. 

Before considering the contents of the book, I must return to the first sentence of this review. We are told not to judge a book by its cover, but I live as a conservative, disillusioned (though strikingly Christian), millennial in the United States surrounded by cheap products mass produced at rapid speed. Simultaneously I am one of numerous Christians who long for a slower life and desire a greater connection to the products I consume; beauty and presentation to those like me are nearly as important as functionality at times. I personally also happen to have a unique affinity for beautifully bound books. All of this is precursor simply to say, this is a cheaply made book and my wife and I think it is ugly. The paper is coarse and does not connect to the tip of a pen well when making annotations. The book has glued binding which severely lacks integrity rather than being smyth-sewn which would greatly increase longevity. In contrast to the older WBC volumes, the book has little weight to it demonstrating its shoddy construction, and the cover design is printed directly onto the cover rather than a dustjacket. It may seem trivial since a man such as myself is likely to own several thousand books by the end of his life, but I believe it is important to showcase in the modern age of materialism that the materials from which a book has been constructed influence the way in which the book is read and thus contribute in vast (even if unspoken) ways to the receptivity of the material within the volume. 

From here we may move to the content of this commentary. First, this book is a commentary written by F. F. Bruce that has been updated by Seyoon Kim. A better reviewer than myself would have taken the time to make comparison with F. F. Bruce’s original work to determine whether the updates were needed and useful or if they were simply a second round of commentaries generated by Zondervan for the sake of revenue. It has been 41 years since the initial publication and 468 pages have been added to this work. I question this from the outset, wondering how drastically the scholarship on 1-2 Thessalonians has changed in this short time. Kim states, “I have ended up rewriting most of the commentary (except the Translation and Notes sections…)…I regret that I have not preserved more of Bruce’s original in the sections of Form/Structure/Setting, Comments, and Explanation. I try to comfort myself with the thought that, still, throughout the commentary I wrote in his spirit” (15). Bibliography may be placed first among the italicized words in the previous quote to fully list the contents of the commentary in their respective order, but as the quote indicates, this is essentially a new commentary by Seyoon Kim rather than an updated commentary written by F. F. Bruce. To be honest, this strikes me as a bit deceptive primarily because I requested a review copy of this book because F. F. Bruce’s name appeared on the title. I am a Ph.D. student, so I am slowly becoming more familiar with the realm of theological studies, but I still have no idea who Seyoon Kim is. I was hoping for much more of Bruce’s work than I feel like I received. This couples with the fact that upon looking up the new editors I was displeased to find Nancy L. deClaissé-Walford is researching “a broadly feminist commentary on the Psalter.” I truly don’t desire this simple book review to become an essay of cautious suspicion about the purity of theology in a modern age of diversity, equity, and inclusion (which is some type of religious system other than Christianity). At the same time, I feel the weighty burden to evaluate this commentary as a complete product by no other standard than sacred Scripture – from authors, to motives, to comments, to materials, all must be evaluated rather than just the updates made by a new author. Therefore, the suspicions about the totality of the product which have to do with factors other than the actual exegesis of the text of 1-2 Thessalonians need to be voiced and have been so above. We don’t just read books, we read books written by human beings in contexts who are all to be evaluated by the standard of Scripture and will, in the end, stand before the God of reality. 

Moving forward, we begin with a few observations from the “Author’s Preface.” Kim has written this commentary with a keen eye toward defending the traditional protestant doctrine of justification. This is a refreshing contrast to the skepticism expressed above as it leans towards Christian orthodoxy in a way that so many modern Protestants trend away from in the modern world. A second major focus of the commentary will be the apostle Paul’s life and conduct during his time as missionary in Thessalonica, especially in contrast to the traveling philosophers of the day. The third aspect Kim stresses in this commentary is the unity of Pauline theology; Paul preached the same Gospel at the beginning of his ministry as the end. These observations help serve the reader as they move through the various passages in the two epistles which have been pushed through the six sections mentioned above (bibliography, translation, notes, form/structure/setting, comment, evaluation). 

The book begins with two major elements: a general bibliography and an introduction. To clarify here, there is a general bibliography at the beginning of the commentary, then each passage also includes a specific bibliography that adds additional monographs or essays written with more acuity concerning certain elements in each passage; I will review both bibliographies here. Many of the sources offered appear to be from the critical school of scholarship which Kim has purposed to answer and is at least part of the goal of the WBC series. This means, however, that nearly all sources used in this commentary are later than the 19th century, most from the 20th or earlier. I cannot complain here, especially regarding technicality, except for personal preference. While I must refrain from an exclusive era from which to choose commentaries, my inclination regarding books generally is to gravitate towards what is older rather than what is recent. Kim’s bibliographies, both the general and the passage specific, reflect a well-analyzed survey of modern critical scholarship. Though many of these works will be inaccessible to the average pastor, a scholar studying the Thessalonian epistles will find great use in the data here.

Following the bibliography is an introductory section. I found this section to be one of the most balanced in terms of content and length. Kim does solid work establishing the contextual scenario in which the Thessalonian epistles were written. He overviews concepts related to various important introductory matters such as the historical background of Macedonia and Thessalonica, pagan and imperial cultic worship, the length of time Paul spent in Thessalonica, and how the Gospel was received by the citizens of the city. Overall, the author establishes a useful picture in a reader’s mind while answering challenges raised by critical scholarship throughout. 

Having laid the background to the Thessalonian epistles, Kim is able to begin moving through each passage. As mentioned already, the translation and notes sections are apparently largely unchanged from Bruce’s original work. It was unclear to me why the translation was provided for readers as the editorial preface simply states that, “authors were to use their own Translations of the texts as the basis of their comments and exegesis…” (11). This was apparently to cater the commentary to a wider audience, but I am unsure exactly how that was accomplished. Still, for those who are looking at the Greek text of Thessalonians and working through the issues apparent in the text, one may find some use in the translation, but will certainly find use in the notes sections. This is because major variant and textual issues are addressed here. I believe these two sections have a solid purpose for being here at the very least because they pressed the author to chew through the text. Still, they lean towards a more scholarly dimension and thus anyone who is unfamiliar with Greek will find the translation unnecessary and the notes inaccessible. These sections are for the scholar.

The last three sections that each of the passages are pushed through (form/structure/setting, comment, explanation) share considerable overlap. In fact, I had difficulty sifting out how each section offered anything less than a modified or elongated version of the other two. The form of the passages plays such an instrumental role in how the language and grammar work that the two seem to some degree, inseparable. I understand there is a marked difference between form criticism and exegesis, but I feel the previous sentence is beginning to become more relevant as linguistics works to pull the Biblical text together in modern scholarship. Perhaps the greatest difference here is that the form/structure/setting is meant to provide an overarching view of the passage without getting into the weeds of each individual word or clause as the comment section does. 

I have found that academicians tend to be parallelism or chiasm crazy at times, finding some unique structural feature under every rock and tree. This is the case with Kim as well and while I agree that the divine Author of Scripture is creative beyond human capacity, I have doubts about whether these features (especially the ones that are weakly argued or that modify the definitions of these various features) are truly part of God’s grand design of Scripture or are imposed by the modern literary analytical training of the academy and the push to discover something “new” in the text. To be clear, I do believe we are meant to dissect the text in the ways Kim has done so in his commentary and I do believe there are some unique literary structures, just not as frequently as often proposed. Unlike the average pastor, however, Kim performs his exegesis in the comment section as a response to critical scholarship with some evangelical presuppositions (though it is not certain what these are all the time). This causes the commentary to tend toward a scholarly analysis of the text answering the writings of authors that only scholars will ever read or even have access to. 

The nature of the commentary is further revealed in the explanation section which felt in large part like an additional summary exegesis. At times there are some theological conclusions and practical advice for ministry leaders, but these are few and far between. What this means then is that the commentary is once again, going to appeal to those engaged in academic ministry over those engaged in pastoral ministry. 

In sum, this is a solid academic commentary with drawn out analysis (perhaps too drawn out at times) on the text of the Thessalonian epistles. A pastor will find this commentary useful, but much more academic. The layperson will find it nigh inaccessible as it boasts numerous authors that most churchgoers have never read and will never read. While the commentary did not intend to be for laypeople, the explanation section was meant to discuss, “relevance to the ongoing life of faith communities today” (11). In this respect, I think the author has failed, for nearly all controversial interpretive aspects among evangelicals of Paul’s Thessalonian epistles (those regarding women in leadership, the end times, etc.) are nuanced with a scholarly flavor in their conclusions thus lacking solidity and any sort of practical action. This commentary is an academic commentary which will largely be of use in academic writing. A pastor will find use in this book if he has obtained a master’s degree, but even then, he will likely skip several sections of the commentary where Kim spends pages answering scholars most Christians will never think about. There is a place for a commentary like Kim’s, but not necessarily for Sunday morning preaching. I was disappointed because I have generally enjoyed WBC series. If you are an academic specifically studying the Thessalonian epistles, you will likely need this commentary. If you are a pastor, I suggest thumbing through Bruce’s original commentary at a seminary library to see if it has more utility; if you like it you can pick it up for less than $10 used on the internet.


Matthew B. Tabke

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Zondervan Academic, 2023 | 736 pages

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