Tuesday, December 28, 2021

On Some Commentaries in 2021

A correspondent recently mentioned appreciation for those occasions when I mentioned commentaries, so, in the penultimate post for 2021, here are a few thoughts, mostly relating to the several commentaries I purchased this year.

I have never had as many commentaries on OT books as on NT books so this year - I can't recall exactly what prompted me - I purchased only OT commentaries.


Looking for something both deep and different on Ruth I ordered The JPS Bible Commentary: Ruth : The Traditional Hebrew Text with the New JPS Translation Commentary by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Tikva Frymer-Kensky (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2011). 

This has an excellent and wideranging introduction (75 pages including notes). The commentary itself consists of Hebrew text and English translation in parallel at the head of each page and commentary below that. Typically there is one verse per page or even two pages so this is a commentary which leaves no stone unturned.


Naturally another JPS commentary is in order for Exodus. This is The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus: The Traditional Hebrew Text with the New JPS Translation Commentary by Nahum M. Sarna (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1991). The Introduction is briefer - just a few pages and then into the text itself. Exodus is longer than Ruth so the text (Hebrew and English in parallel) at the head of each page has a varying number of verses, from 1 to many. The commentary is thorough in its attention to the details of the text and the theology of the text.

I have long known that Brevard S. Childs' commentary on Exodus is a tour de force, so I also purchased The Book of Exodus: A Commentary by Brevard S. Childs (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1974). Later I had a facepalm moment when I realised I already had a copy (which I had obtained for free) - I now keep my all my commentaries in one room!

This commentary is ambitious in scope - it offers, first, a translation of the Hebrew text (but does not offer the Hebrew text as well) then:

1. Textual and Philological notes

2. Literary and History Problems of the Tradition

3. Old Testament Context

4. New Testament Context

5. History of Exegesis

6. Theological Reflection.

NB: not all these sections are offered on all passages - some passages create no issues, questions or interests for, say, "New Testament Context."

Thus the commentary is comprehensive in degrees many commentaries (focused on original text, translation, textual problems which the translation seeks to resolve, and discussion of the meaning of the text) do not.

Naturally, compared to the JPS and its overtly Jewish perspective on the text, this is an overtly Christian perspective on a text of ancient Israel. Nevertheless the "History of Exegesis" section (in particular) demonstrates Childs' wide reading of Jewish commentary on the text.

At the beginning of the commentary, Childs makes a couple of statements which brilliantly and simply sum up the task of the biblical commentator.

First, noting that within the commentary, Childs is developing the then relatively new discipline of "canonical commentary" and his personal, lifelong development of his take on "biblical theology," he talks about the purpose of this particular commentary:

"The purpose of this commentary is unabashedly theological. Its concern is to understand Exodus as scripture of the church. The exegesis arises as a theological discipline within the context of the canon and is directed toward the community of faith which lives by its confession of Jesus Christ." (p. ix)

In similar vein, but expanded to also discuss the authority of Scripture, Childs begins the Introduction to the commentary with a discussion of "The Goal of the Exegesis."

"The aim of this commentary is to seek to interpret the book of Exodus as canonical scripture within the theological discipline of the Christian church. As scripture its authoritative role within the life of the community is assumed, but how this authority functions must be continually explored. Therefore, although the book in its canonical form belongs to the sacred inheritance of the church, it is incumbent upon each new generation to study its meaning afresh, to have the contemporayrr situation of the church addressed by its word, and to anticipate a fresh appropriation of its message through the work of God's Spirit." (p. xiii)

To which I say AMEN.


On any reckoning, Judges is among the most challenging, if not the most challenging, books of the Bible, because it attributes actions to God or godly people which strain moral credulity. There is also the modest question of how the victorious conquest of Joshua gives way to the intermittent strife of Judges - is Judges the more reliable guide to the history of Israel between Moses and David? Archbishop Justin Welby, in his Foreword to the commentary refered to below, says,

"Judges is notoriously the darkest place of the Old Testament" (p. v).

Almost needless to say, I haven't had much in the way of commentaries on this book, not racing to preach on it. So when I saw some good promotion for a new commentary, I ordered it. 

Isabelle Hamley is Secretary for Theology and Ecumenical relations and Theological Advisor to the House of Bishops, and a Visiting Research Fellow at Kings College London. She has written God of Justice and Mercy: a theological commentary on Judges (London: SCM, 2021).

This commentary is quite different to the JPS/Childs ones listed above. It offers no translation of the original text and notes are light in comparison. In part, that is in keeping with the intention to write a "theological commentary". In another part, there is an intention to write a readable commentary of a reasonable length, able to be appreciated by a larger readership than the respective hefts of the JPS series and of Childs' particular in-depth approach. But, if the potential buyer is wondering about value for money, this readable commentary of a reasonable length is the tip of an iceberg of deep scholarship which Hamley has mastered and delivers in summary form.

Does Hamley make a success of explaining the darkest and most difficult parts of Judges? The answer to that question, in my view, begins by denying that some simple solution is at hand, if only the commentator would find out. So Hamley doesn't succeed where others have failed. But (to the extent that we get to know her through her words), she does understand that she can aim to do the best she can, and that best seems to me to be very good - sensitive, discerning, probing - as she offers as much sense as she can for the darkest place of the Old Testament.

Further Thoughts

The great thing about blogging is that the blogger is both writer and editor, so I can undulge myself a little and bring in two further books, one not strictly a commentary and one a commentary but not one I bought this year.

Walter Moberley, who has featured in ADU previously, has written, The God of the Old Testament: Encountering the Divine in Christian Scripture (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker, 2020). Across six chapters, Moberley comments on the following significant passages from the OT:

Proverbs 8; Exodus 3; Psalm 82; Genesis 4; 2 Kings 5; Psalm 46, Jeremiah 7 and Micah 3.

Moberley always engages deeply with Scripture and his insights illuminate brightly.

Finally, looking at a few commentaries recently, I realise that in a world of many, many commentaries per book of the Bible, there are commentaries worth having and commentaries not worth having. By that evaluative remark I mean that some commentaries kind of talk their way through the scriptural text (and, as far as that goes, offer explanations and so forth of use, especially if that commentary is the only one available to you) but fail to dig deep into issues present in the text, providing the bits and bobs of information about the issues which enable you and me the readers to think carefully through the matters at hand.

I do not feel any need to talk about commentaries I have which I would not buy if I did not have them already. But, as an example of the commentary I would definitely buy again, I would like to share one commentary to which I consistently return again and again when I am working on something from Luke's Gospel. That commentary is C. F. Evans Saint Luke (TPI New Testament Commentaries) (London: SCM; Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990). It is a mine of information and a treasure trove of scholarship which is both deep and wide. It is a great commentary (as others have recognised through the past three decades) and a model for all commentaries.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

"Of the making of books there is no end, and much study is a weariness to the flesh."

To be clear, the Preacher himself was probably comparing copying to reading, not composition to research. But the Spirit moves in mysterious ways.

Whither the biblical commentary?

Some kinds of books are so pleasurable to write that we will always have more of them than any market could possibly bear. Few mathematicians do not at some point sketch out what a truly magisterial yet teacherly text for calculus or linear algebra should look like. Those lucky enough to teach music theory, either as classical composition or else as jazz improvisation, write primers more often than the field advances. If publishers let every ambitious Shakespearean edit the Bard's works, forests would be in peril.

Like many biblical commentaries, these books are retrospective, capstones to years of notes and articles. But they are not always the joy to read that they were to write. If librarians bestowed blue ribbons, gold medals, French doctorates, knighthoods, Oscars, or crowns on these authors at a sort of Indian durbar, their rites of passage need not be books. Years, trees, shipping containers, money, and shelf space could all be spared.

Anyway, if commentaries have facts for reference, why are they not uploaded in real time to free online databases and wikis? The codex is a good technology-- Christians were early adopters; Jews improved it with hypertexts-- but it is not the best for every information purpose.

Why can't a scholar or preacher in New Zealand or Newfoundland compare manuscripts, texts, construals, and interpretations of the strange *metsora* chapters in Leviticus without first sawing boards for shelves and then spending too much to fill them? Let everyone post to the world every afternoon. But cut down trees only for glosses that attract serious readers.

+ Peter's choices above hint at what codices still do best: Childs, Hamley, Moberley, and Evans each have points of view that coordinate their reading, not only across the span of many passages, but sometimes down the layers from interpretation to manuscript. We read them, not just for their facts about books, but for the way a particular mind has pulled them all into wholes with emergent properties. Wonderful books.

Are they still commentaries? Or are they groping toward another form?