All Commentaries are Not Created Equal, Part 1

Posted By on September 25, 2011

In my experience, most students who venture beyond just reading the Bible have heard of Bible commentaries. But in case someone reading this hasn’t heard the term before, I should explain. A Bible commentary is just what it sounds like — a book that provides comments on the Bible. Commentaries are most commonly written one a particular book of the Bible (e.g., Genesis), but they can actually span several books (e.g., a commentary on the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament) or the entire Bible. Commentaries that cover the entire Bible (all 66 books) are usually multi-volume sets that collectively run thousands of pages. However, there are actually one-volume commentaries on the Bible. Covering all 66 books in one volume, though, means you aren’t saying much about the Bible’s contents. The more detailed the analysis, the more pages and higher word count.

Aside from page count, there are many other differences between commentaries. All commentaries are not created equal. Not even close. I have had hundreds of students that simply don’t realize that. They presume that since the commentary exists and has lots of pages, it must be something that really digs into the biblical text. That’s a myth. The only thing it means for sure is that whoever wrote it used lots of words and spent a good bit of time on the task. It says nothing about the quality of analysis. To get an idea on how many different commentaries are available, you could peruse the results of this search on the Logos website. Keep in mind these are only the volumes and sets we have in our digital format. We have a lot, but there are many more that exist only in print (at least right now — we’re working on that).

In this post I aim to briefly sketch what makes commentaries different and, even better, to illustrate the chasm that exists between them when it comes to depth of analysis.

Commentaries basically break down into three categories (these are generalized categorizations; sometimes the lines blur):

1. Popular commentaries

* focused on the English text
* surface-level observations made on the basis of the English translation
* usually not verse-by-verse; tend to offer summary thoughts on sections
* comments not aimed at deep interpretation, but practical application of the biblical content to one’s spiritual life
* comments guide the reader toward an intended interpretation
* offers brief, general interpretations without analysis of other views
* no analysis of original languages or background context
* moderate cross-referencing
* little or no space devoted to introducing the book (date, author, occasion, structure, etc.)

2. Expositional commentaries

* focused on the English text, but will include comments related to the original languages
* original languages will be presented in transliteration
* original language content usually focused on word studies / meanings; little discussion of grammatical or literary issues, though that can be present (often in footnotes, not the running commentary)
* usually verse-by-verse exposition starting with a well-known English translation; can be word-by-word
* makes an attempt to take the reader through interpretive options
* offers non-technical introduction material
* will periodically include discussion of ancient cognate literature (e.g., rabbinic writings, Josephus, a word from another Semitic language) and background material
* periodic discussion of variant manuscript readings
* periodic discussion of literary features (e.g., parallelism, genre)

3. Scholarly commentaries

* the writer includes his or her own translation in the commentary
* verse-by-verse, word-by-word comments
* original language word presented in either transliteration or the actual Greek/Hebrew/Aramaic characters; English translations of phrases in the flow of the commentary usually translated, but not always (some don’t bother at all)
* detailed discussion of grammatical and syntactical observations in the text; original language competence is assumed (1-2 year level)
* detailed discussion of extra-biblical literature relevant to interpretation
* detailed analysis of relevant literary features and structures
* concerted effort at informing the reader of all interpretive options that have been published, with assessment of strengths and weaknesses
* discussion of critical issues relating to date, authorship, redaction (editing history of transmission), text-critical variants in other manuscripts
* used by scholars, graduate students, and pastors who have facility with biblical languages (and care to use them for sermon prep)
* SHOULD be used by seminary students who have facility with the biblical languages (at least a year)

I don’t want to make it a fourth category, but I ought to mention the church fathers. IVP has been publishing something called the Ancient Christian Commentary series for several years now. It’s interesting (though every time I look at it I get the feeling it’s only a curiosity). Sometimes the stuff the church fathers come up with in the way of interpretation is downright bizarre. More often it is just way off the mark as they spend their time allegorizing nearly every passage so that it spells Jesus. Many of them didn’t have Greek, and you could count the ones who knew Hebrew on one hand. Augustine is illustrative. He didn’t know Hebrew at all and confessed he hated Greek (he was a Latinist). They also had little or no access to ancient Near Eastern comparative material (they couldn’t read the languages – Egyptian, Akkadian, Ugaritic, etc., and most of what we know today was buried anyway). Their worldview was Greco-Roman and that of Late Antiquity.

Now for an illustration. This file contains several selections from commentaries in each of these categories on a fascinating passage — and one that gets theologically prickly: Exod 4:24-26:

24 At a lodging place on the way the Lord met him and sought to put him to death. 25 Then Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it and said, “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me!” 26 So he let him alone. It was then that she said, “A bridegroom of blood,” because of the circumcision.

As you read through the samples at the link above, I think the differences in resources will be dramatically clear. I also think that many of you will be able to get a lot more out of the higher-end commentaries than you might think. One hint: part of the problem with this passage is the ambiguity of just who is not circumcised. Keep a look out for that.

Again, the purpose of this is merely to expose you to the different types of commentaries. For even better treatments of the passage above (and many other subjects), you need to go beyond even scholarly commentaries to where the real exegetical meat is often found: journal articles. For next time.

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15 Responses to “All Commentaries are Not Created Equal, Part 1”

  1. Greg Smith says:

    I think it would be helpful if you could, at some point, compile a list of the top two or three scholarly commentaries you would recommend for each book in the Hebrew Bible. That would be an excellent resource.

  2. Shaun Swanson says:

    In the last commentary I found this fascinating.

    “These various obscurities arise primarily because the account here is only a truncated version of a larger, popular story that circulated orally in Israel. Its details were well known and were expected to be supplied by the audience. There are several such fragmentary narratives in the Book of Genesis”

    How does he know this?

    • MSH says:

      He means there are narratives like this one — that seem to be parts of a whole since they seem intrusive where they are. Another example is something I blogged about a while back:

      To reiterate, there are a number of such instances where a chapter or large section will make complete sense in terms of its content and structure and then something feels like it’s been “tossed in” or appended. While there is usually a discernible reason as to why a writer might do that, the fact that it happens leads some scholars to suspect / conclude that the writer (or editor) drew something from a larger piece for use. As an illustration of “other sources” consider the “book of Jasher” (Josh 10:13). There were Israelite histories and accounts floating around in the biblical period that are sometimes sourced, and so scholars at times wonder if something that has an intrusive feel may have come from such a source (which usually began as oral history — common in the ancient world for genealogies and stories that pre-date the earliest evidence of writing). The oldest Hebrew known to date is from the tenth century BC (an inscription that uses the old ["paleo"] script, not the block Hebrew lettering we know from the OT and Dead Sea Scrolls. Since that date is two to five centuries LATER than the lifetime of Moses (the two dates are indicative of the debate over biblical chronology), it stands to reason that a lot of material that preserves the history of Israel as a people (e.g., the stories of the patriarchs) began as oral history. This technique is still known in pre-writing cultures today (the most familiar modern example may be the account in Alex Haley’s ROOTS where he was trying to find his own African ancestors, and found one of the native elders who had it all memorized — thousands of lines’ worth). We know that there were rabbis and scribes who had this kind of memory and retention because of notes in the Masorah …. but I’m getting a bit windy here.

  3. Shaun Swanson says:

    II fully understand what he means. Our church bulletin has the service fully drawn out except for things like the Lord’s Prayer where it only lists the first line and the congregation fills in from memory. I get that, and I get references to books we obviously don’t have like Jasher. (However I think that case is a little different because the text explicitly tells us what the missing part is.)

    What I wonder is how he can be so sure. I would have said, “These various obscurities PROBABLY arise because…” In other words, he seems to be passing this off as something everyone agrees on where it is actually his own idea. Many scholars may indeed agree, but then it should at least have a foot note.

    I think this is a cool theory, but couldn’t it be abused? In some passages you can clearly see a rhythm or something that would indicate oral transmission. But beyond that, any passage you don’t understand you could claim there is a missing, pre-literate, piece to the puzzle. Couldn’t you?

    Thanks again.

    • MSH says:

      sure; it’s something that someone can run wild with. (As I like to say, affirming something obvious and extrapolating to the unnecessary).

  4. Doug O says:

    I can’t believe you didn’t include the commentary by the favorite of many evangelicals (probably because it’s available for free online), John Gill, who never met a run-on sentence he didn’t like.

    I was always intrigued by his obscure and oddly-referenced sources (but at least it helped me understand why I had to agonize through Turabian, MLA, and APA while in grad school).

  5. Nelson Chung says:

    Logos doesn’t carry mainstream commentaries like Oxford and Harper Collins?

    • MSH says:

      Harper Collins isn’t known for its academic publishing, though they recently acquired Zondervan, so now they are in the game. We do license titles from Zondervan, though they publish none of the major commentary series (they just came out with the ZOndervan Bible Background set that I blogged about a couple years ago – nice to have, but the coverage is not verse-by-verse). Oxford won’t license anything to us. Logos has all the major commentary sets: Anchor Bible, Expositors, New International, New American, Hermeneia, Tyndale, etc. (see the link in my earlier post).

  6. Jonnathan Molina says:

    I was fascinated by the ‘Scholarly Commentaries’ (and dismayed by the others), especially the two different conclusions arrived at by them (if I’m reading them right) of Zipporah circumcising Gershom and touching him in ‘the feet’ for his own sake vs. Zipporah circumcising Gershom and touching Moses in ‘the feet’ for Moses’ sake. Seems like a great illustration as to the nature of the problem, here: 2 great sources, 2 great (&valid) points…how do you choose?

    I also would like to throw in my vote for a list of scholarly commentaries you would recommend, Dr. Heiser, but for both OT and NT.

  7. Areadymind says:

    I would have to third the vote for a recommended commentary list. I have been not a fan of popular commentaries for a long time for the exact reasons you put forth here.

  8. [...] original text), we’ll look at a New Testament example this time. For newcomers, please see my first example, as well as the post that started this trajectory about ending Bible study as most think of [...]

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