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 sons 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.