Lecture 13: Commentaries
Course: Greek Tools for Bible Study
Week 6: How Do We Describe Things?
Chapter 29: How To Read A Commentary
Almost everything we have learned has been keyed toward this. There is very little that we have talked about that in one way or another will not impact the kind of things you find in the commentaries. The book pulls bits and pieces together, but there are a few other things that I want to stress. Points 1 and 2 are are two different sides of the same coin.
1. Do your own work first (joy of independent exegesis)
2. Check yourself with commentaries (humility; confidence; unasked questions)
Do your own work first - Please do not read the commentaries first. It is no fun! (Maybe, if it is very late at night and you have a Bible study the next morning and you need some help right away). But, I really want to encourage people to just do your work. Do your phrasing. The joy of having the Holy Spirit open up the passage to you is beyond anything you are going to get from any commentary. Do not cheat yourself of that joy.
Check yourself with commentaries - Do your own work but always check yourself, (the other side of the coin). I encourage you to never go into any kind of Bible study without having checked your exegesis against the commentary. The trick is the find the right commentaries to help you.
If you come up with an interpretation and you can not find a single commentary that even lists it as a possibility, there is a really good chance that you are wrong. Humility is important. Even someone like Luther who disagreed with everybody, at least had historical precedent. He could go back to the early church fathers. Even he was out on a limb all by himself. It is hard. Many times you will look at your thoughts, at an illustration or application. The more you study the verse, the more you realize that they may not come out of it. That is where humility and integrity apply. You might fight it. We tell students that when you learn Greek and Hebrew, you will loose most of your good illustrations because you find out what the text really says. You will find out that it might not say what you thought it said. I encourage you; you have got to check yourself. If it is not listed, then you need to drop it. It is God's word, after all, and it is better to be safe than sorry.
Many times I will be reading and I will come up with an interpretation, especially one that I am not very familiar with. I will have done my work and I will be convinced that what I believe the text says, it has said. Then, I will check it in a couple of commentaries. When I see them saying the same thing, that means that when I stand up to preach I do not have to apologize for anything. It is very important to me that if I am going to get up as a prophet, in the non-technical sense of the word, and proclaim the word of God, and say, “Thus saith the Lord...”, I want to be sure that I have got the text right. Now, I may always make mistakes, it is always going to be a possibility. But, if I come to my own exegesis, and I go get the two best commentaries in the field and they agree with me, then I can preach without apology. I do not have to be worried whether I am right or wrong. The same thing will apply for you, whether you are preaching or teaching. The commentaries will give you a great deal of confidence.
The commentaries might also ask questions that you probably will not think of asking. They may show you things that might cause you to say, “I had not even noticed that.” Or, they may give you background information and so on, that just did not occur to you.
What are commentaries going to be doing? Commentaries are doing what I call hermeneutics. People have different ways of using the word, hermeneutics. I use hermeneutics as a term to explain the whole process of studying your Bible.
“Science and Art of Biblical Interpretation” - Bernard Ram defines hermeneutics as the science and art of interpretation. It is still the best definition I have ever seen. Hermeneutics is a science. There are very specific rules that commentary writers are supposed to be following. Words have meaning. But, hermeneutics is an art. It takes a long time to learn how to apply the rules in the right way.
Look at how you read your Bible when you were younger as opposed to now. If you listen to my sermons from a year ago and listen to them now, you would hear something significantly different because I am in the process of learning the art “stage” of hermeneutics. I am real comfortable with hermeneutics in an academic setting. Learning to apply the science and the art to a wider spectrum that involves exegesis and application is different when you preach than when you teach. (I changed this slightly to consider Bill's all-around history in teaching both academically & in the church). There is an art involved. You learn the science and the rules, but it takes a while to develop the art. The only way you are going to do it, is by doing it. By having your Bible studies and your quiet times. Stretch your experience. Maybe from very young children to older children. (Again, I changed this a bit.) That is what is happening, science and art.
Basically, what hermeneutics does is it break the process down into two steps. The words that I use are “meant” and “means”.
Analogy of Faith
Culture (comes through or reapply principle)
Application (be concrete)
It is really common in commentaries to completely ignore the second stage and only try to see what the passage “meant” to it's original audience. In the church it is really common to ignore the “meant” stage, and say, “who cares what Paul “meant” when he wrote to the Romans. I just want to know what it “means” to me today.” You can find both excesses and both are wrong. I often talk about a teeter-totter, and they only work if you have someone at both ends. You can be sitting on the “meant” side or the “mean” side and it does not work unless you have both. Depending upon where you are, some of what I say will have more application than others.
Here is what I mean. When you are going to do hermeneutics, when you study your Bible, the first step has to be, “What did the passage mean to it's original audience?” It has to start there. Yet, it is amazing how many times it never happens, unfortunately. You have to know first century New Testament, first century culture. You have to have an understanding of Greek. You have to understand the historical context, the theological context, the political context. These are all things that are necessary to understand what the original “hearer” would understand. One of the illustrations that I have used in the past is, if you picked up a newspaper and it said, “Missiles in Cuba Pointed at America”, how would you understand that headline? You might automatically say, “This newspaper is over 40 years old.” If you pick up a Victorian novel and started reading it, you do not think that the author is speaking to you. You understand that everything in the novel is going to be two to three hundred years old in a strongly English culture and context. We automatically do this with everything except the Bible. So many times, people pick up the Bible and say, “this is what it means to me”, with no awareness at all.
Parables are great examples of this: “There once was a man who was going to have a wedding banquet. He invited the people and they agreed to come. He got ready. It came time for the wedding banquet. He sent out his servant to pick them up and they all had really stupid excuses.” What is the parable about? Weddings? No. It does not have anything to do with weddings. It has to do with the rejection of the Jewish nation because they rejected the Messiah when he came. Just as the man turned to the people in the streets, so also Jesus turned to the Gentiles to offer the kingdom to them. Again, the parable has nothing to do with weddings. We have got to understand it within it's historical meaning.
This is what we have been doing with phrasing. Phrasing belongs in the “meant” stage.
The “word by word”, “phrase by phrase”, “what is the flow of thought?”, “what are the main thoughts?”. That all is “meant”. The technical word for what you are looking for is “authorial intent”. What did the author intend for you to understand? That is what we are trying to get at.
A lot of “meant” is just common sense. We need to just take a step back and treat the Bible as literature, which it is. (It is a divine book, but it is also a human book). Normal rules of genre analysis, and so on, still apply to the Bible.
An example: I was at a funeral this morning, and the speaker said, “Blessed are those who mourn.” I was not going to correct him. But I thought, “Blessed are those who mourn? Really? Salvation belongs to the sad people? That is not at all what the beatitude is saying. We are talking about people who understand their spiritual depravity, those who are “poor in spirit”. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Those who's mourning is connected with sin in their lives and sin in the world and their desire is to see God's kingdom come. That is mourning in the beatitudes. It is not being sad. If you would stop to think about it, you would say, 'it can not mean that.' God's blessing does not automatically come on you if you are sad.” We do this with the Bible.
Another example: Have you been in Bible studies where a person comes up with an interpretation and you are sitting there wanting to say, “that is the most stupid thing I have ever heard of, but I affirm you as a person”? Remember to use common sense.
Analogy of Faith
This Reformation doctrine basically says that the Bible does not contradict itself. If you are trying to understand what one passage means, you will look at where the same topic is discussed somewhere else. That is why, in the commentaries, whether we are dealing with the meaning of words or if we are trying to figure out if something is an objective or subjective genitive, they are going to go to other places that the author has the same kind of construction. The assumption is that he is consistent, that there is an analogy.
These are all things that are connected with the “meant” stage. Hermeneutics' first step is to ask, “what does this mean in it's original context?”
However, there are two stages to this process. Almost every commentary stops between step one and step two. In one sense, that is ok, if that is the philosophy of the commentary series or if there is another reason. If they want to say that they are only concerned with the “meant” stage, that is ok. I actually heard of an editor once who told the people in the series that, not only could they not make any applications, but they could not even come to a conclusion. It was only “meant”, in that they only gave facts and they were going to let people just make up their own minds.
“Means” - What the “means” stage asks is, “Now that I know what it “meant” to the original audience, what does it “mean” to me today?” For Christians, Jesus has some pretty strong words at the end of the Sermon on the Mount for people who hear the word of God, but do not put it into practice. He compares them to a fool, a house built on sand with big storms. I know this is where you all want to go, But, the commentaries will not go here.
Culture (comes through or re-apply principle)
There are two things that go on at the “means” stage. Once you know what the Gentile in Rome heard when he heard the “righteousness of faith” issue, you have to, as Christians, pastors and Bible study leaders, bring it into the modern culture. You have to bring it into your context, your historical context, your social context, your political context, and so on. What you will find is that you and I are just as bound by our culture as the first century audience was bound by their culture. That can be pretty difficult.
When you try to bring something into the current culture, a lot of it comes straight, “Jesus went to Jericho.” There is no culture involved in that, is there? Or, even if there were a verse that said something like, “give alms to the poor”, we instinctively know what to do with a statement like that. Do we give alms to the poor? No, we do not have “alms”. We might have a dollar bill. We do not have alms, but we have dollars and we understand that we are not supposed to give alms, but that we are supposed to give financial support. What did I just do when I said that? I said that alms is a culturally limited concept. I went to the “principle” that lies behind that cultural statement, and then I brought the principle into my culture, and re-stated it in my culture. If this were a class on hermeneutics, I would be talking about this for several weeks, but I needed to just mention it in passing.
For example, I heard someone say, “Oh, that is cultural. It does not apply.” It is still the word of God. It still means something. It is still an expression of some principle in God's mind. Just because it is cultural, it does not mean that you can ignore it. It means that you have to work that much harder. You have to find the principle that lies behind it.
Another example: I remember a verse that talked about not allowing a woman's external adorning only be of braided hair and gold and jewels. Is that saying a woman can not put gold and silver in her hair? No, but we do the same thing now. We say, “If someone takes all of their efforts on their appearances and put three carat diamonds in their earlobes and they only drive one hundred thousand dollar cars. If they have an excessive emphasis on the external to the exclusion of the internal...”, (referred to in I Timothy 2). That is the principle re-applied in this culture.
All of that to say that, when we pull things out into our culture, we can not dismiss it because it is cultural. If there are cultural elements, find the principle and re-apply. That is very hard to do. When we are pulling it into the “current” we have to be careful of culture, but then we have to apply it.
Application (be concrete)
My encouragement for your Bible studies and for yourself is, in your application be concrete. As I have watched students over many years I say, “Now, apply this (verse/passage).” They say, “It means I have to be good.” I would say, “That is not an application.” Or, I might say, “It is Friday night and you have a date tonight. How will this change your conduct at the movie?” Make sure to make your applications are concrete, (especially to young people, who think in concrete terms. They are going to be thinking of specific things they can or can not do on that date, or when mom and dad are gone and the TV is not protected, and so on).
Commentaries tend to deal with the “meant”. We have to go with the “means”. I do not want to be called a fool who builds my house on sand. I want to hear the words of God and do something with them. That is the “mean” stage.
Saying Scripture says something when it does not.
Saying Scripture says something when we read between the lines.
Let me say one more thing about Bible study. When I am dealing in Bible studies and in hermeneutics, I talk a lot about integrity. People are not used to hearing the issue of integrity raised when it comes to Biblical interpretation, but I think it is an extremely important point to raise at both the “meant” and the “means” stage.
For example: If I went out of the room and had a talk with our friend Ed, and I came back into the room and said, “Ed said that adoption is wrong,” would I be acting with integrity by doing that? No, of course not. If you look at Ed's life, you know that is not the case. He does not think that adoption is wrong. He has adopted two children from another Brazil. We know not to do that because we have personal integrity. We are honest and upright and we try to faithfully represent another person's position.
I think of that kind of illustration a lot when I hear people say, “well, the Bible says...”, and I know very well that the Bible does not say what they say it says. And, sometimes I think that some people have more integrity with what their friends say than with what God says.
I would never go out and say that Ed said something or that Ed believes something if he did not. We need to have the same integrity when it comes to Scripture. No matter how badly we want to believe it, no matter how much we think it is still true, if it does not say it we can not say that it says it. Let's say, (this would never happen), that Ed told me a racial joke, and I thought, “That was a dirty, racial joke, and that was a slur.” Would I go out and say, “Ed is a bigot? He says he does not like people of this color or of that color.” In other words, would I read between the lines in what Ed said and then out and pronounce that he said it? No, but yet, we are getting into interpretive issues, there are people who say, “The Bible says that you can be a Christian and live any way that you want and you can still go to heaven.”? Now, the Bible does not say that once you become a Christian that you can live any way that you want, it does not matter, you still go to heaven. You may think that is what it says. Your theology may support that kind of position, but the Bible does not say that.
That is my final plea on hermeneutics. When we say that the Bible says something, let's be really sure that it does say it. We need to have integrity with Scripture. Unfortunately that does not happens sometimes.
How to Choose a Commentary
1. Read a few commentaries on the same biblical passage
2. Talk about the biblical text?
3. Task of the commentary (“hermeneutics”)
4. Application come from the text?
5. Single vs. series (and my suggestions)
This is a very, very hard process. Which commentaries are the better ones? There are three survey books listed in the textbook that list commentaries; their pros and their cons. Later, in my chapter, I list my favorite ones. (The problem with this is that as soon as you do this it is outdated and several more good commentaries have come along). But, as of November 6, 2002, the ones on the list are my favorite ones.
How do you choose a commentary? There are all these listings, and these can help. Here are the five suggestions, (as listed above):
1. Read a few commentaries on the same biblical passage
Get a hold of a couple commentaries and read them. You are not going to find any decent commentaries in many Christian bookstores. The best thing that you can do is, if you are starting out a Bible study in Matthew, for example, look at the list, talk to your pastor, find the top two, and then read the same paragraph in the Bible in each of the commentaries. Just get a feel for it.
2. Talk about the biblical text?
Does the commentary talk about the Bible? I have so many commentaries that talk about everything except the text. I have a two volume commentary about the book of Mark. The first volume is probably on the first eight chapters on Mark. It is about seven hundred pages long and it never really talks about the text. The author is spending the whole time comparing Mark to Matthew and Luke, and trying to figure out why they are the same or why they are different. There is a lot of scholarly content and he never gets to the text!
My doctoral supervisor wrote a commentary on Luke. Let's say, for example, that he is going to take three pages to talk about a verse. Everything except the last two sentences is irrelevant for you. Now, the last two sentences are worth buying the book, but you have to get through two and a half pages first. There are a lot of things that the commentary writers like to talk about. There are a lot of things that I talk about in mine that has no real direct connection with the text. If you are going to be involved in scholarship, you have to deal with issues of scholarship. It is amazing how much time you can spend talking about things other than the text.
So, if you pick up a commentary, go to your favorite passage and start reading it. If they are not talking about the text in the first paragraph, do not buy it. Be prepared because there are going to be a lot of commentaries that will hardly even discuss the text.
3. Task of the commentary (“hermeneutics”)
Figure out what the commentary's task is. In other words, where in the hermeneutical cycle do they fit? Commentaries, again, like translations, have philosophies. They are either just going to do just the “meant”, or they are going to do “meant” and half of “means” Or, they will do “meant” and all of “means”, or they will do all of “means” and no “meant'. It takes you a while to figure out where the commentary is, where you are, and if it is really going to help. That takes some the time to pick it up and read it.
4. Application come from text?
Does the application really come from the text? Please watch this. There are some commentaries that we would class as “devotional commentaries”. They are not interested so much in the real historical meaning, but they want to apply it in your life. In a good number of commentaries, when you are done reading the application, you need to stop and ask, “is that what the text said? Really?” Just make sure that there is a “connect” going on.
5. Single vs. series (and my suggestions)
Most commentaries come out in series and they have a philosophy statement. So, if you get to know one of them, you know most of what the other volumes are going to be like. In the word series, (not sure if this is actually the name, not sure if I should have capitalized it) it breaks the rule. In the early going, the books were all one way and then the whole series, especially in the Old Testament, shifted radically in some situations. So, the volumes in the word commentary series are really different. Volumes in other series' will tend to be pretty consistent. How deep they go, how much Greek and Hebrew are they going to require you to know, and other concerns. Once you get a feel for a series, that helps a lot.
One volume: Evangelical Commentary on the Bible (Baker)
This includes the New and Old Testaments, edited by Walter Elwell. This is the same gentleman that did “The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology”. It is very detailed. The trick on one volume commentaries is that there is a tendency for them to spend time on the obvious and skip difficult. This volume was careful not to do that. The writers spent time on the difficult things to understand, and the obvious was let go. Everybody needs a good one or a two volume commentary on the whole Bible. A good study Bible is helpful as well, such as the NIV study Bible, (and the ESV Study Bible, not mentioned ?).
Two volume: Zondervan NIV Bible Commentary's
Zondervan has a two volume commentary series on the New and Old Testaments. Volume One is on the Old Testament and Volume Two is on the New Testament. It is not necessarily NIV, as you can read any translation and use this commentary. This is really a good book. Each volume is about twelve hundred pages. They are not very expensive. I actually use Volume Two for my New Testament Survey class in Seminary. I wanted the students to read through the New Testament and to read a commentary on the whole New Testament. At a seminary level, Elwell's Commentary was a little too brief. These two volumes are an abridgment by Kohlenberger of the twelve volume Expositor's Bible Commentary series.
The Expositor's Bible Commentary (Zondervan)
Twelve volumes, New and Old Testament, edited by Gaebelein, written by excellent evangelical scholars. It is also available on software.
Preaching the Word (Crossway)
Edited by Kent Hughes. These are his sermons. There are several well-known expository preachers that contributed to this. This is an expository series (expository sermons) on the whole Bible.
New International Biblical Commentary (Hendrickson)
This has gone through several changes, with different publishers, translations, and a few other things. You may see this in a few different forms. This is the New Testament. It is done by first class scholars. The Greek and Hebrew are transliterated. It is “meant” only and does not include “means”.
New American Commentary (Broadman/Holman)
All of the authors are Baptists. This is a very good book including the whole Bible. Written by good scholars so that most people can understand. You will be using what you have learned in “Greek For the Rest of Us” when you read this. They are a little more exegetical method.
NIV Application Commentary (Zondervan)
I think that this is the best because this is the only commentary series written by really good writers who were forced to go the full hermeneutical circle and do “means”. It is fascinating to read these people. Each section is broken into three parts. They talk about original meaning, phrasing, word studies and anything that is necessary. They do a good job of not re-stating the obvious. They are not interacting with scholarship. They also have something that is called “bridging context” which is the “means” stage. There is application in it, but that is where they deal with issues of culture and how it comes into today's context. They also have contemporary significance. This series is worth buying.