Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Bible Commentaries 3

This is the third part in a series on series of Bible commentaries. This time, I'm aiming to look at longer and heavier commentaries. There's some overlap with part 2, but the series this time often seem to go into multiple volumes on a single Bible book or need knowledge of the original language. These are roughly in my order of preference.

Baker Exegetical Commentary

Baker seem to cover the Bible sporadically in mini-series (e.g. they have a series on Widsom Literature), but very well. The commentaries on the Minor Prophets, on Proverbs and on Luke are excellent, and I haven't seen any that aren't. Knowledge of the original language is useful but not essential for using them. If there's one in print, it's always worth at least a look and will probably be among the best commentaries on that book.

New International Greek Testament Commentary

Slightly oddly named series, only on the New Testament. Whereas most commentaries either use a common translation (NIV/NRSV/ESV) or the author translates it themselves, the NIGTC doesn't - it just leaves it in Greek and discusses the text in Greek. Hence some knowledge of Greek is very much required. The standard is pretty high - France on Mark is excellent, Thistleton on 1 Corinthians is meant to be excellent as well. Generally doctrinally conservative, though that can sometimes be a problem, depending on the author (e.g. in 1 Timothy 2, there is no real discussion of alternative interpretations to the traditional one).

New International Commentary

These seem to vary in weight and depth of coverage. Some, especially the older ones, are lighter - about the level of a NAC, and these are fairly mixed with some good and some less so. Generally the newer ones are both more detailed and better. Block on Ezekiel and Moo on Romans both seem to be among the best and most detailed things in print on those books. The people writing them are generally evangelicals, though coming from a range of positions within that. For example, 1 Corinthians by Fee is generally considered to be excellent and takes a significantly more charismatic view of the book than Thistleton in the NIGTC.

"Critical Commentaries"

I should confess to being immediately suspicious of any commentary that describes itself as "critical". "Critical" comes from a Greek word meaning "to judge", and we are meant to be judged by Scripture, not judge it. Some critical stuff is actually ok - trying to understand how one passage fits into the book as a whole. Some of it is rubbish - like spending almost all the space constructing elaborate pre-histories of the book which actually assume that it's not really true, and ignoring how it might apply to us.

Word Commentary

If you just looked at the advertising for them (and they're about the only series I've seen advertise), you'd think they were the last word in undetrstanding the Bible. They aren't. There are some excellent books in the series (Genesis, Job, John, Colossians spring to mind), but there are some which are horrible. The scholars are meant to be evangelical, but too often spend much of their time doing all the rubbish prehistory of text stuff and not enough on what the passage means and how it applies. In addition, comments on each passage are split into notes, form/structure/setting, comment, notes, explanation which makes them difficult to read, a problem not helped by using a less clear typeface and being badly printed.

Hermeneia

This series is big. They're aimed to be written "without arbitrary limits in size or scope", for which read "not easily portable". They're critical, but the primary aim is to "lay bare the ancient meaning of a Biblical work". And they actually often do a good job of it. Don't expect them to explain how an Old Testament passage is all about Jesus, but they're often very good on explaining what it meant for Israel. For example, it's the best commentary I've found on Jeremiah.

Anchor Bible

This is another critical series that aims to go into as much depth as possible. But they don't even expect their authors to be Christians, and often end up spending lots of time doing critical stuff. Three examples - Hosea in the Anchor series is one of the most (excessively) detailed commentaries on any book. Leviticus (3 volumes) is incredibly good and detailed on the significance of the OT ceremonial law, but I don't think it mentions Jesus (well, it is by a Jewish scholar...). The commentary on Jeremiah decides that the book of Jeremiah is in the wrong order, so re-orders it, then does the commentary, which kind of misses the point. Sometimes Anchor is better, sometimes Hermeneia is better. In general Anchor is more critical though. And if Hermeneia commentaries are difficult to carry, Anchor ones are difficult to afford. But it's usually not worth it.

International Critical Commentary

The name prejudices me against them. They're generally critical, liberal but often well-thought through. One of the problems with the series is that some of the books in it are 80 years old (but in modern bindings), which means that they don't just come out with critical rubbish, they come out with outdated, disproved critical rubbish. Another is the cost - they're fairly useful if doing study of the book in a non-Christian academic environment, as they tend to tell you lots of different opinions, but if I only had one commentary on a book, I can't think of a single example where I'd want it to be an ICC.

Series I've forgotten about

There are series I haven't mentioned here - the Interpretation Series, which seems to be a kind of liberal equivalent to the BST, the Sacra Pagina which might be a Roman Catholic equivalent of the NIC, and so on. That's because I haven't really comes across them much, though I know some evangelicals who like them.

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