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Monday, May 18, 2015

Finding decent commentaries

My actual retirement years (2010-present) have provided me with a lot more time to do research and writing of commentary materials on the New Testament. With a Logos digital library now approaching 19,000 volumes, the depth of secondary resources is gradually reaching a level where serious analysis of these resources becomes adequate.

But here is where the frustration sets in big time. When working through a scripture text, typically I have between 50 and 100 commentaries available to me on a text that reflect the full range of viewpoints in English, German, French, and Spanish. But repeatedly, I find the vast majority of them to be of little legitimate use. Commentary writers, even though having a scholarly reputation, are often just dumb! They often are ignorant of the fine points of ancient Koine Greek, and especially in comparison to the classical Attic Greek background. Add knowledge of Latin, Hebrew and Aramaic, except that the majority don't seem to know how to do that. Generally the European writers are better at their language skills.

Especially frustrating is the woeful ignorance of a first century Latin, Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic mindset! The world of Paul did not think like moderns. It didn't often think like the limited Aramaic/Hebrew world of Jesus in Palestine. I can't imagine a legitimate understanding of the NT without a thorough grasping of these very different first century mindsets. And the Latin mindset of the Romans needs to be included in this mixture. Language is a key to a culturally conditioned thought world, but thorough knowledge of the language is absolutely essential to penetrating into that ancient thought world. It cannot be done based on translations. One is delusional to think that he can do it without the language skills.

And what really ticks me off is the abysmal ignorance of literary writing strategies in these first century thought worlds. Skill here requires thorough mastery of not just how the writers of the first century put their ideas together, but an equal mastery of modern literary strategies in the languages of the modern western world. Interpretation is the building of connective bridges between these two worlds. You have to know both to build real bridges!

Closely linked to this ignorance is the deeply inadequate knowledge of the social history of the first century. I'm not talking about formal history, although especially among more conservative commentators I often run into a fantasy reconstruction of even the formal history of the first century. Or, else ignorance of how to properly use history in biblical interpretation. The most common blunder is the making of broad generalized statements completely overlooking the huge diversity  of thinking across the Mediterranean world of the first century. Most conservatives would be highly offended at the idea that the religious thinking of the American KKK typifies all conservative religious thought. But these kinds of statements often surface in commentaries about the first century world.

But the ignorance of social history is more appalling. By that, I mean the history of social interactions between groups, individuals, and groups to individuals etc. The pages of the NT are literary soaked with such social history reflecting Greco-Roman and Jewish values and customs. And the diversity among just ancient Jews is enormous as well, e.g., Hellenistic Jews over against Hebraistic Jews.

In spite of these frustrations, a few bright lights are present among the maze of commentary writers. And a goodly number of them are evangelical, although mostly British rather than American. Writers like Aune, Theisen etc. have paid the price linguistically, literary wise, and historically to be able to plow deeply into the text for the richer meanings that it contains. The one consistent problem is that these tend to come up short when attempting to interpret that meaning over into a contemporary world.  Modern agendas -- denominational, theological etc.-- all too often get in their way.

In teaching the PhD seminar on Critical Methodology at SWBTS years ago, the one theme that I sought to instill into the thinking of these students was to think holistically. No interpretive method is adequate if it becomes lopsided in over emphasizing one angle of the text to the neglect of the other. And all angles must be considered in legitimate interpretation.

To the young, aspiring theologs out there, my appeal is passionate: Pay the price to learn all these different, often difficult skills. And just as importantly, learn how to bundle them together in a holistic approach to the text. You can't imagine how much is actually present in the sacred scripture text for those willing to pay the price. And the folks in the pew are drying up spiritually from sermons with little true scriptural foundation under them.

Here is one critically important way to reverse the decline in American Christianity. A true "Back to the Bible" emphasis where studying it seriously becomes exciting and life changing.   

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