Biblical studies: July 2008 Archives

This is part of a larger project reviewing commentaries on each book of the Bible. Follow the links from that post for more information on the series, including explanations of what I mean by some of the terms and abbreviations in this post. This is not an exhaustive list, just the commentaries that I think are most worth paying attention to.

My first choice, hands down, is Darrell Bock's BECNT (1994, 1996). It's fairly comprehensive, well-reasoned, easy to read, aware of all the scholarship, and generally conservative. He handles theology more fully than most detailed commentaries (e.g. Marshall, Fitzmyer, Nolland below) and spends a little time on what Luke would have wanted us to take away from the text, which you won't get in very many academic commentaries. This commentary is strong on the flow of argument, taking larger blocks of text to comment on and explicitly thinking in terms of the larger flow at various points, although this usually stops short of what many think of as literary analysis (on which several commentaries below are very strong, sometimes at the expense of everything Bock does well). He does interact a little with Robert Tannehill's work in that area in volume 2, but it's still not a lot. Bock has also written the Acts commentary in this series, but his work on Luke is much more detailed, filling up two volumes, both bigger than the Acts volume. Bock is well-known for his work countering the claims of radicals and skeptics who write about the life of Jesus with the kind of scholarship liked by the History Channel. He's also been very influential in developing and defending progressive dispensationalism, a view that I think is still a little too far in the direction of dispensationalism but is really a different animal and is much more defensible than traditional dispensationalism. I place him solidly in the conservative evangelical camp, and he's taken some criticism for this in reviews, mainly from people who assume historicity and theological agendas are incompatible, something Bock spends a great deal of time arguing against. His scholarship is top-notch. If he's weak anywhere, it's in favoring commentaries over journal articles. Bock has also written the IVPNTC and NIVAC volumes on Luke, but I don't think there's any need to look at the shorter two if you have the BECNT, which you should.

Last Monday, while driving back from Pennsylvania, we were listening to a previously-recorded Diane Rehm Show episode with James Carse, an NYU professor emeritus of religion. You can listen to the show here.

Carse seemed to advocate a religion-without-God approach, or at least he didn't think we should be confident about the existence of God. This was the first time I've ever found Diane Rehm extending complete incredulity toward someone who was left of her on an issue, but she really gave the guy a hard time with some of his outlandish biblical interpretation and eventually his admission that he'd rather die ignorant than arrive at any knowledge about ultimate realities. After a while, he got frustrated with her and her callers continuing to call him on his pick-and-choose out-of-context methods of interpretation, and he decided to try a new tactic. He decided to call into question the idea of correct biblical interpretation to begin with, with the following argument.

He cited that at one point there were 15,000 members of the Society for Biblical Literature and claimed that they all have to have a Ph.D. and thus have to have argued for some new interpretation, because no one can get a Ph.D. in biblical studies without a novel interpretation. Such a large number of experts continue to produce novel interpretations, and so there's no reason to be confident of any interpretation (or perhaps he was suggesting something stronger, that there's no right interpretation to begin with; I'm not sure which, so I'll take the weaker claim as the more charitable one, since the argument is much more fallacious if it's the stronger one). He calls it very willful ignorance to claim that you understand something in the scriptures.

There are several problems with this argument:

1. The argument actually undermines itself, because it ignores the very fact it relies on. There's tremendous pressure in academia to come up with novel interpretations in order to have a career. So the multiplicity of interpretations tells you less about the subject matter than about the culture that produces those interpretations.

This is part of a larger project reviewing commentaries on each book of the Bible. Follow the links from that post for more information on the series, including explanations of what I mean by some of the terms and abbreviations in this post. This is not an exhaustive list, just the commentaries that I think are most worth paying attention to.

Pride of place goes to the NIGTC volume on I Corinthians by Anthony Thiselton (2000). This is now the most in-depth recent commentary on this book. It's based on the Greek text, and it includes a number of long excurses on difficult issues, so this isn't an easy read, but it's not mainly the Greek that's the issue. It's just a very dense, scholarly work, and it's hard to capture that in popular-level writing (although I think Thiselton is clearer most of the time than most academics are). Thiselton gives close attention to the Greek lexical and grammatical issues, the social background of the letter, Paul's rhetoric, and other elements commonly found in commentaries. Thiselton is also an expert in hermeneutics. One unsual thing about this commentary is that he also includes a lot more of the history of interpretation than is typical, since one of his strengths is the history of theology. I've read some lengthy enough sections of it to know that it's tough-going if you're not up on your Greek, and the excursus I read (on gender issues) was so detailed that it was difficult to get a clear sense of what Thiselton's conclusions amount to. The wealth of information and close attention to detail make it an excellent resource for consultation, even if it might be more difficult to read the whole book cover-to-cover the way I like to. I expect this to be an important scholarly standard for some time, even if Ellis has a good chance of eventually take that place (see forthcoming commentaries below). I also very much appreciate Thiselton's application of speech-act theory (from my own field of philosophy) in biblical studies. Thiselton's philosophical background also makes him more trustworthy on the moral philosophical background of the Greco-Roman world.

David Garland's BECNT (2003) is very good. I've looked at it less than I have some of the other volumes here, but it was enough to see that this is now the first place to look for a more readable treatment than Thiselton. Garland is widely respected by scholars across the spectrum. He left a Southern Baptist seminary because of his egalitarian stance, but on most other issues he's fairly conservative. He has ten years of additional scholarship to influence him and to respond to when compared with Fee below. Fee has such a high reputation that it was difficult to put Garland ahead, but I think I'd actually give up Fee if I were forced to choose. Garland's NAC on II Corinthians was very good, and I think this BECNT is even better. He's also done work on Matthew and the NIVAC volumes on Mark and Colossians/Philemon. He's currently contracted to write commentaries on Luke (ZEC) and Thessalonians (NCC).

Gordon Fee's NICNT (1987) was for a long time the commentary to buy on I Corinthians, but Garland and Thiselton have interacted with a lot of recent scholarship since Fee's commentary was published, and they are at least as good on enough issues that I recommend them slightly higher than Fee. I would prefer not to be without any of them, however. Fee is an excellent commentator in so many ways, including matters of language, historical and cultural background, flow of the argument, and textual criticism. But this very scholarly work doesn't come across as mere scholarship but as the work of someone with a vital relationship with God thinking through the scriptures in a way that will be profitable for his audience. He ends each section with contemporary application issues, but even throughout the commentary you'll frequently find him passionately engaging with Paul's thought or reflecting on the relevance for daily life of the principles he derives from Paul's letter. Fee is one of the most respected Pauline scholars of our time, having now written or planning to write commentaries on Galatians (PC), Philippians (NICNT), Thessalonians (NICNT), and the Pastoral Epistles (NIBC), along with a Pauline theology of the Holy Spirit and an excellent NT Christology. [He's planning Revelation for NCC, so he'll finally be verging into something outside the Pauline corpus.] Most people consider him a moderate Pentecostal. His views are actually not too far from some Reformed charismatics and non-cessationist non-charismatics. I wish most Pentecostals would read this commentary or God's Empowering Spirit to see how someone can be Pentecostal without flatly contradicting scripture in their practice of the so-called sign gifts. One of Fee's most controversial moves in this commentary is his rejection all of the egalitarian approaches toward I Cor 14 as exegetically impossible, leading him to conclude, against all evidence, that the short passage in question is an interpolation by another author despite its being in every manuscript.

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