Bible Commentaries: What for?

Walter Brueggemann has some sharp comments about Bible commentaries in his article “Recent Scholarship: Intense Criticism, Thin Interpretation,” in Like Fire in the Bones: Listening for the Prophetic Word in Jeremiah, Augsburg Fortress, 2006. (The article is from 1988.)

But he mentions Bernhard Anderson’s criteria for a good commentary, which I found extremely helpful in terms of planning my own writing about the Bible and in evaluating the writing of others.

According to Anderson, a good commentary should:
1. Be reflective of and responsive to the history of interpretation.
2. Be reflective of a “double loyalty” to the scholarly community and the community of faith.
3. Provide necessary information “without becoming tediously detailed or burdensomely lengthy.”
4. Take a firm stand on current hermeneutical debate.
5. Draw the reader into the world of the text without being didactic or moralistic. (Brueggemann, Recent Scholarship, 33)

I think these criteria deserve discussion and adherence!

Later in his essay, Brueggemann offers his own “prophetic word” in reference to his generation of Bible scholars he says, “In the very long run, one wonders if a verdict will be given about us, that we let the text have its powerful say in ways that mediated faithful human options in our time; or if we will be judged to have kept the text at such a distance that the larger questions from these texts were not permitted and the daring hints of resolution were not made available.” (40)

His musing touches the nerve of literary criticism in general. Do people who spend their lives studying and writing books about books magnify the power of the original literature or dampen its effect? Do Bible scholars help the Bible speak to people or inhibit its message? I think the temptation to many scholars is to see the vastness of the Bible–the most important book in history–and despair that no one can really get the message of the Bible unless he is an expert. While there is something to be said for expertise, the Bible has a transformative power that transcends human expertise. The Bible is not just a book, it is God’s Word and it changes people’s lives.

I think scholars can assist the Bible’s voice by providing fresh translations, readable commentaries and critical insight on tough questions. But it is very easy for scholars to slide into cataloging scholarly opinions, amassing data, getting lost in minute details and totally missing the fact that the Bible has a powerful message which people urgently need to hear.

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