|What is a commentary?||Single Volume Commentaries||Commentary
on the OT
The formal title of the series will be listed, along with a hyperlink to the publisher's URL to the series if available.
1. The type of commentary according to level of technicality:Coveragea) Devotional Commentary2. The theological orientation of the commentary
The series covers
(1) entire Christian Bible,
(2) just the Hebrew Bible,
(3) Deutero-Canonical OT documents,
(4) just the New Testament,
(5) early Christian writings beginning with Apostolic Fathers,
(6) special themes etc.
Types of Commentaries.
The classification of commentaries entails viewing them from several different
perspectives. First, how inclusive are they? Second, what level of scholarly
expertise do they presuppose? Third, what interpretative methology or methodologies
are utilized in their writing? Fourth, what is included in their layout?
Fifth, what theological assumptions are presupposed?
On a scale, (1) the Bible in either the original languages or in translation represents the starting point. (2) A Study Bible is the next step of detail in providing basic study guides and scripture comments. (3) The single volume commentary of the entire Bible represents the third step of detail, while (4) the single volume commentary on either the Old Testament or the New Testament is the fourth level of detail. (5) The most detailed treatments of scripture are the commentary series or, possibly, separate commentaries on individual books of the Bible. At each level the Bible student gains access to increasingly more detailed information regarding individual passages (= pericopes) of specific scripture books.
Each of the above questions will be explored now in greater detail.
how inclusive are they? This includes whether the
commentary is (1) a single
volume that covers either (1) the entire Bible, or (2) the entire New
Testament or the entire Old Testament. Excellent commentaries exist at
both the above levels. As would be assumed, a single volume that coveres
the entire Bible is not going to provide detailed comments on specific
passages; space will just not allow such. Often, more detail is presented
in the introductory section to individual books of the Bible. This is then
followed by summations of paragraphs or larger sections of the content
of individual biblical books. Important to note here is that this type
of single volume commentary differs from a Study Bible mostly at the point
of the extent of treatment of individual books of the Bible; more information
is provided, as well as often different information.
(2) A commentary series includes commentaries on either (1) every book of the entire Bible, or (2) every book of either the Old Testament or the New Testament. Depending on the depth of coverage, the series can contain from as few as three or four volumes to upwards of a hundred volumes. In the categorization listed below indication about the inclusiveness of coverage is provided. The writing of a commentary in a series of volumes goes back to the beginning of commentary writing in the modern era.
One positive quality of a commentary series is that a uniform format appears throughout the volumes in each series. The publisher, along with the editoral board for the series, makes basic decisions regarding the layout of the series, and in the vast majority of cases, each commentator who writes in the series must adhere to this format.
Additionally, a fairly well defined exegetical methodology is usually a part of the guidelines for each series. This has increasingly become the case with commentary series produced in the last few decades. Just a quick examination of the exploding number of commentary series will illustrate this pattern.
(3) The third type of commentary is the individual volume written by an author. Over a career, various scholars develop high level expertise in specific subject areas of biblical studies. Often, as a product of several decades of intensive study on individual books of the Bible or on sections of biblical books, like the wisdom books of the Old Testament, they will then produce a detailed commentary in a biblical book reflecting their years of scholarly research. This frequently provides the reader with exceptional insight into the meaning of a book of the Bible.
Of course, the reader encounters huge diversity of layout and perspective with the individual commentaries. Everything depends upon the commentary author and the agreement negotiated with the publisher. Consequently, one needs to exercise extra caution when using this type of commentary. Not all individual commentaries meet the pattern described in the previous paragraph, and can become a very shallow interpretation of the biblical text.
what level of scholarly expertise do they presuppose?
The next apect of a commentary has to do with how technical
the approach is.
The simplest approach is usually labeled a devotional commentary, and can be produced in any of the three levels of inclusiveness described above. This approach focuses exclusively, or almost exclusively, on the now meaning of the text with emphasis on possible applications to various contemporary situations. The intent of this type of commentary is more to inspire, than to inform, the modern reader.
A major caution with this type of commentary is the interpretative methodology often employed. Unfortunately, many devotional commentaries do not take seriously a historical approach to exegesis, and thus the meaning of the biblical text in its original historical setting is neglected or overlooked completely! If some attention to historical meaning is alluded to in the commentary, no basis for it is provided, and no information about interpretative alternatives is given. This category of commentary contains the largest amount of absolute printed trash that one finds in commentary writing! Isogesis (reading preconceived ideas back into the biblical text) abounds; very little authentic exegesis (reading the genuine ideas in the biblical text out of the Bible) is found.
To be sure, worthwhile devotional commentaries exist. One of the finest ever to be produced is unfortunately available only in German. Adolf von Schlatter's ten volume Erläuterungen zum Neuen Testament is an outstanding illustration of devotional commentaries at their finest. It is based on solid historical exegesis of the text and provides insightful applications to central European life in the first half of the twentieth century. Prof. von Schlatter taught mostly at the university of Tübingen during the early decades of the twentieth century and was one of Germany's finest conservative Protestant scholars during that period before the Nazi era. His son, Theodor von Schlatter, edited and revised his father's work to make it more readable to the late twentieth century reader, and Calwer Verlag published the series in 1961.
next level of complexity I have labeled an expositional
commentary. The label is somewhat
arbitrary, but is meaningful. This type of commentary emphasizes the historical
meaning of the biblical text, and is usually based on a careful reading
of either the Hebrew text of the Old Testament or the Greek text of the
New Testament. But the expertise assumed in the reader is not a knowledge
of either of the biblical languages. Simplified explanations of complex
issues is normally provided. Sometimes, not only the historical meaning
of the text is included but efforts are made at modern applications as
well. Both individual commentaries and commentary series will be written
at this level.
A good example of this type of commentary is the Tyndale Commentaries series on both the Old and New Testaments, both the original series and the new series. The General Preface in the new series states, "The original Tyndale Commentaries aimed at providing help for the general reader of the Bible. They concentrated on the meaning of the text without going into scholarly technicalities. They sought to avoid 'the extremes of being unduly technical or unhelpfully brief. Most who have used the books agree tat there has been a fair measure of success in reaching that aim.... The new commentaries are neither minuscule nor unduly long. They are exegticial rather than homiletic. They do not discuss all the critical questions, but none is written without an awareness of the problems that engage the attention of New Testaments scholars.... These books are written to help the non-technical reader understand his Bible better." [Leon Morris, "General Preface," in Matthew by R.T. France. Volume 1 in the Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1985), 5-6].
A distinct type of expositional commentary places emphasis upon summarizing the interpretative alternatives that exist in paragraph units of biblical texts. As such it becomes very helpful quick summary of how the scripture passage has been interpretated. A good example of this is eleven volume Das Neue Testament Deutsch series, published by Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht in Göttingen Germany. Each volume is well written and the series includes a wide variety of German NT scholars. In English, the evangelical Bible Speaks Today Series provides helpful interpretative summary from a conservative Protestant perspective.
For the serious lay person who desires to gain greatly insight into the scripture, this type of commentary provides very helpful information.
The third level of commentary
will be the exegetical commentary.
Here the emphasis is more on the historical meaning of the biblical text,
and the more technical, critical issues of text interpretation will be
treated. Both individual commentaries and commentary series are written
at this level. Usually these volumes are quite lengthy, sometimes approaching
a thousand pages per volume. The layout of this type of commentary can
vary greatly, depending mostly upon the presupposed exegetical methodology
and the commentary series aim.
One of the finest examples of an evangelical commentary in this category is the Word Biblical Commentary series on both the Old and New Testaments. The layout of these commentaries is unusually helpful and is explained in the Editorial Preface as, "The layout, in clearly defined sections, has been consciously devised to assist readers at different levels. Those wishing to learn about the textual witnesses on which the translation is offered are invited to consult the section headed Notes. If the readers' concern is with the state of modern scholarship on any given portion of Scripture, they should turn to the sections on Bibliography and Form and Structure. For a clear exposition of the passage's meaning and its relevance to the ongoing biblical revelation, the Comment and concluding Explanation are designed expressly to meet that need. There is therfore something for everyone who may pick up and use these volumes." [David A. Hubbard, "Editorial Preface," Mark 1-8:26, by Robert A. Guelich, volume 34a of The Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word Books, Publisher, 1989), viii.]
Perhaps, the finest new commentary series to begin appearing in the last decades of the twentieth century is the Roman Catholic Sacra Pagina. Each biblical text pericope is treated under the headings of (1) Translation, (2) Notes, (3) Interpretation, and (4) For Reference and Further Study. The Greek/Hebrew texts are transliterated into English letters, thus making it easier for non-biblical language students to use the commentary. As explained in the Editor's Preface, "This series presents fresh translations and modern expositions of all the books of the New Testament. Written by an international team of Catholic biblical scholars, it is intended for biblical professionals, graduate students, theologians, clergy, and religious educators. The volumes present basic introductory information and close exposition, with each author adopting a specific methodology while maintaining a focus on the issues raised by the New Testament compositions themselves. The goal of Sacra Pagina is to provide sound, critical analysis without any loss of sensitivity to religious meaning. This series is therefore catholic in two senses of the word: inclusive in its methods and perspectives, and shaped by the context of the Catholic tradition. The Second Vatican Council described the study of "the sacred page" as the "very soul of sacred theology" (Dei Verbum 24). The volumes in this series illustrate how Catholic scholars contribute to the council's call to provide access to Sacred Scripture for all the Christian faithful. Rather than pretending to say the final word on any text, these volumes seek to open up the riches of the New Testament and to invite as many people as possible to study seriously the "sacred page."
Distinctive perspectives may also be adopted. Of particular interest is the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series by InterVarsity Press. The series is a compendium of the comments of the ancient Church Fathers on the various books of the Bible. This is quite helpful in understanding how the biblical texts were understood during the first six centuries of the Christian era. Another interesting approach is the single volume Hellenistic Commentary to the New Testament, which "is the most complete collection of Hellenistic texts correlated to the New Testament available in English." Thus, parallel texts in the non-Christian ancient world are linked up to their counterpart in the Bible. For Jewish rabbinical parallels to the New Testament texts the Strack-Billerbeck Kommentar zum NT aus Talmud und Midrasch provides helpful insight, although it is now somewhat outdated.
The fourth level is commonly referred to as a homiletical commentary, since these commentaries are geared toward helping pastors and priests develop sermons/homilies for worship services.
Third, what interpretative methology or methodologies are utilized in their writing?In more recent times, some commentary series in this category have begun appearing that highlight a particular exegetical method of interpreting the scriptures. Especially prevalent are commentaries from one of the new literary approaches and the Social Science methodology. One can usually tell these types of commentaries by the inclusion of an exegetical method in the commentary title. For example, John H. Elliott's A Home for the Homeless: A Social-Scientific Criticism of I Peter, Its Situation and Strategy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990) is obviously using the Social Science approach to interpreting the text of 1 Peter. These types of commentaries are particularly useful in that they emphasize the reading of a scripture text from a distinctive exegetical methodology. No single biblical scholar can ever achieve top level expertise in a wide range of interpretative procedures; there are just too many methodologies with too many highly specialized, technical skills required. Of course, the Bible student does need to understand something about the distinctive approach of each interpretative methodology.
Fourth, what is included in their layout? The value of a commentary can easily depend on what is included in the comments on the scripture text. For example, the Sacra Pagina series includes the following:
what theological assumptions are presupposed? Every
commentary writer approaches the scripture text with a theological heritage
and background that colors his/her understanding of the meaning of the
biblical text. Knowing more about this can help the Bible student avoid
taking what is said at face value without critical appraisal. Often the
commentary series will reflect a unified theological perspective. For example
the Sacra Pagina series reflects contemporary Roman Catholic
Biblical scholarship views, while the Word Biblical Commentary
reflects an evangelical Protestant viewpoint.
The Bible student should spend enough time learning this background before using the commentaries. This helps prevent surprises with the interpretative conclusions that may be reached by the commentary writer. With commentary series, one should check as a beginning step the list below under Type of Commentary 3. where this is listed for the series. With individual commentaries, one should read the jacket cover -- if available -- regarding the background of the author, as well as the Preface to the commentary. Occasionally, the publisher of the commentary will signal a general theological stance. For example, Baker Book House is always going to represent a very conservative Protestant theological stance. Broadman Press since the middle 90s will represent the fundamentalist Southern Baptist perspective, while publications before the middle 80s will represent a wide spectrum of Southern Baptist views.
In seeking to gain a indepth understanding of the scripture passage, the Bible student should intentionally examine commentaries representing a wide range of theological perspectives, especially those that may be different from his/her own heritage. To read only commentaries that come from the same theological perspective as yours is to put your mind in neutral and fail to learn for yourself what the passage is attempting to say. The cross-fertilization of one's thinking coming from a diversity of perspectives more effectively pushes the Bible student to formulate his/her own personal understanding of the scripture passage.
History of Commentary Writing.
In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, written interpretations of sacred writings have their beginnings actually in the Bible itself. The prophets of the Old Testament frequently reflected their interpretation of the divine Torah in the Pentateuch, for example. During the intertestamental period Jewish scribal interpretation of the Old Testament, especially the Pentateuch, began flourishing and ultimately reached its height in the fourth Christian century with the Talmud. For early NT writers, their interpretation of the Old Testament was a major aspect of setting forth their understanding of the Christian gospel in written expression. Thus 'commentaries' in the broadest sense of the term have been around for a long time.
Thus a brief synopsis of the history of commentary writing will of necessity have to be confined to some narrowly defined parameters. One helpful online article on the history of commentary writing is the Catholic Encyclopedia article "Commentaries on the Bible" at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04157a.htm. Some of the parameters arbitrarily adopted here include the following. (1) Although the history of commentary writing and the history of exegesis are closely intertwined, this study will seek to focus only on the former. (2) The main emphasis will be on the modern era, rather than an exhaustive sweep of history. (3) The overview nature of the study will be primary, rather than an indepth study. The "Commentaries on the Bible" article provides more detail and a broader sweep of history, although you do have to work beyond the rigid Roman Catholic traditionalist viewpoint of C. Aherne, the article writer. (3) Some discussion of the free online commentaries will be inserted at the end.
Christian commentary writing prior to the modern era followed patterns distinct from the modern period. They tended to be more in the form of a running commentary on the New Testament scripture text. The interpretative presuppositions were generally very similar, and assumed by the commentators without discussion. Typically, allegorical interpretative methodology provided the foundation for the comments. The Church Father, Augustine of Hippo (354-430 C.E.), would be a typical example; for a summation of his writings see the online article "Works of St. Augustine of Hippo" in the Catholic Encyclopedia at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02089a.htm. The section "Scriptural Exegesis" is particularly relevant here. One sample of his commentary style is the work De Sermone Dei in Monte containing his interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7.
The beginning reformers, Calvin, Luther, Zwingli etc., typically followed the inherited pattern from the patristic era through the middle ages in their written commentaries on the New Testament text. Some advances in interpretative methodology did take place but their 'commentaries' were mostly in the form of running comments on scripture text. John Calvin stands out among this group in making some real advances in commentary writing. His commentaries on the New Testament help lay a foundation for the modern era of commentary production. As Prof. Richard Hines at Washington State University observes, "Calvin's commentaries are almost endless, but within these commentaries he developed all the central principles of Calvinism in his strict readings of the Old and New Testaments. The purpose of commentaries in Western literary tradition was to explain both the literary technique and the difficult passages in literary and historical works. Calvin wrote commentaries to ostensibly explain scriptural writings, but in reality he, like theologians before him, used the commentaries to argue for his own theology as he believed was present in scriptural writings. They are less an explanation of the Bible than a piece by piece construction of his theological, social, and political philosophy." For some background information, see his article on John Calvin at http://www.wsu.edu/~dee/REFORM/CALVIN.HTM.
One of the first critical commentaries in the modern era was the multi-volume Meyers Kritisches Kommentar zum Neuen Testament. The first volume was released in 1832 and fifteen others would follow. The Lutheran pastor W. A. W. Meyer, who was a trained classicist, followed a grammatico-historical principle of interpretation and dialogued extensively with works written in Greek, Latin, English, French, Dutch and other languages as well. In the midst of pastoral responsibilities he produced these voluminous works on the documents of the New Testament. The commentary series was in its sixth edition at his passing in 1873. The hand written notes were then incorporated into the sixth edition by Prof. Dr. Albert Ritschl and published in 1875. In 1877, the first English language edition, Meyer's Commentary on the New Testament, based on the German sixth edition, was published in Great Britain. Each successive edition sought to consider new advances in biblical studies and the ever widening field of literature related to the interpretation of the New Testament. This commentary series established a model for commentary writing for decades. In typical German fashion each NT document begins with bibliography listing relevant literature related to that scripture text. Then follows the standard introductory materials formed around the emerging science of New Testament Introduction, the present day reporter type questions regarding the origin of the document. These can be quite lengthy; for example, the introduction to Matthew in the English translation is thirty one pages, after following fourteen pages of bibliography on Matthew. Each pericope is then treated in the exegesis section in great detail. Some literary structural comments justify the verses grouped together as a unit of text. Following this proceeds a copious notes on the individual sentences of the Greek text reinforced by extensive footnotes. At the end of the pericope discussion is a section simply entitled Remarks. The verse-by-verse exegesis focuses on the grammatical analysis; the Remarks section gives emphasis to the historical and theological aspects of the pericope. Some eleven pages of fine print in the English translation version comprise the discussion of Matt. 1:1-17. To be sure the interpretative methodology of Dr. Meyer is a reflection of emerging critical European, especially German, scholarship of the middle 1800s. Contemporary NT scholarship has since advanced to more refined procedures than the one in the commentary. But the fact remains that this commentary series established the mold for commentary writing until well into the twentieth century and still exerts substantial influence.
(to be continued)
Guidelines for Using Commentaries.
Most every well-written commentary has a worthwhile use. Thus one cannot legitimately issue blanket evaluations of commentaries apart from a critical assessment of the worthiness of their composition. The variable factor is not primarily the type of commentary, but rather the specific use intended for the commentary both by the writer/publisher and perhaps, more importantly, the specific use needed by the reader for understanding the content of scripture texts. Therefore, a variety of specific use situations in Bible study will be explored below as the basis for deciding which commentary or commentaries to select. The correct selection of a commentary means matching the intended use by the writer/publisher and the specific use needed by the reader. When a good match here is achieved, the commentary becomes a very useful tool in Bible study; when a mismatch occurs the Bible student is frustrated by the attempted use of a particular commentary, since it doesn't provide help with what is being sought.
When beginning a Bible study, the most important initial step is to read the scripture text being studied either in the initial biblical languages and/or in a variety of translations representating different translation methodologies. See the page, English Translations, for more details at this point; also topic 1.7 in the Study of the New Testament section of Cranfordville.com, which has a series of hyperlinks to various treatments of translations and translation principles; for a more detailed treatment see the page (in PDF format), Translating the Greek New Testament, which is a part of the fourth semester Greek study.
After several readings of the particular passage, questions about meaning etc. will emerge. These questions arise at different aspects of the scripture text. The role of the commentary is to provide answers to questions naturally arising from the scripture text itself. To be sure, the scholars who write commentaries may have raised and treated questions that you the Bible student didn't think to ask. But your questions, based on your reading of the scripture text, are important and need answers -- answers that commentaries are designed to supply. Typically, consulting several commentaries will be necessary in order to find answers to all of your questions. Understanding which type of commentary is more likely to answer specific questions will save you much time in your Bible study.
Questions about the composition of the passage are foundational. In seeking to understanding the passage in its original setting, the Bible student needs to know as much as possible about who wrote the text, when was it written, where was it written, to whom was it written, and why was it written -- the so-called reporter questions. For more details see the page, Interpreting the New Testament documents, at Cranfordville.com. For basic answers to these questions, one can consult sources ranging from a Study Bible to a Single Volume Commentary. Usually one to five pages are devoted to these questions at the beginning of the Bible book in these sources. However, these sources seldom provide detailed explanation and basis for the conclusions drawn, nor the range of possible viewpoints. For answers to these more complex issues the Bible student should consult either a Bible dictionary or Bible encyclopedia, or the Introduction section in a commentary series volume on the Bible book in which the passage is located. The most detailed treatment of these questions will be found in articles published in technical theological journals, such as that by the Society of Biblical Literature called the Journal of Biblical Literature.
Questions about historical references contained inside the scripture passage will normally be answered more directly in a commentary series, than in the single volume commentaries. Such time/place markers inside a scripture passage often become crucial to correct understanding of a passage. Once again Bible Dictionaries and Bible Encyclopedias will contain the most detailed discussion of the names of people (Proper Names) and places (Geographical Names) that are present in the passage under study. But the section in the commentary discussing the scripture passage should have some explanation of these terms as well. The commentaries that emphasize historical approaches to exegesis will likely contain more detailed discussion of these terms. The older, more technical commentary series will typically place greater stress on the historical analysis of the scripture text. The International Critical Commentary is a good example, as well as the Hermeneia series.
Questions about perceived theological meaning(s) of the passage are going to find answers in commentaries containing a section along the lines of Theological Reflections. Usually, this is found at the end of the comments on the passage. Sometimes, a helpful overview of the theological message of a given scripture document will be discussed in the Introduction section of the commentary volume on a scripture document. This provides you, the reader, with the commentator's perspective on the spiritual meaning of the passage. Any commentary with a theological orientation to it will provide more detailed exploration of this aspect of the scripture text. The new series Reading the New Testament edited by Charles Talbot and published by Symth & Helwys is a good series for this emphasis with a Baptist orientation.
Questions about the organization of the thoughts contained in the scripture text are going to be treated. In the better commentaries this will include both the internal literary structure and also the external literary context of the passage. The internal literary analysis can be invaluable for trying to determine how to preach or teach from the passage. Commentary series particularly stressing literary approaches to interpretation will be most helpful, especially if the emphasis is upon rhetorical analysis. The new series Reading the New Testament edited by Charles Talbot and published by Symth & Helwys is a good series for this emphasis with a Baptist orientation.
Questions about the connection of the religious ideas of the passage to today's world will often be discussed. The quality devotional commentary will focus on application to daily Christian living, while the homilectical commentary will provide ideas for teaching and preaching the passage. The series, The Bible Speaks Today, is a good evangelical devotional commentary.
Some commentary series will seek to provide in their layout design, sections under each pericope that address most if not all the above questions. One of the better evangelical oriented commentaries like this is the Word Biblical Commentary. From a Roman Catholic but with strongly ecumenical perspectives is the Sacra Pagina series. More mainstream Protestant orientation with a variety of sections will be found in the Interpreter's Bible series.
As the Commentary Series page is completed, the critique of each series will provide helpful information along these lines.
From this overview you have
hopefully become more aware of the legitimate role of commentaries and
how to approach using them. Of course, the key is to become familiar with
the layout and orientation of multiple commentary series etc. This will
enable you to use these sources more efficiently.
C. Aherne, Catholic Encyclopedia, "Commentaries on the Bible" at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04157a.htm.
Information About Commentaries at http://www.livingweb.com/library/220_72.htm
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