The Problem with Study Bibles

When I was in high school and college, I hated textbooks. I suppose I still do, but now that I’m no longer a student I have the luxury of never having to crack a textbook again. But my problem then with textbooks is very similar to my problem now with study Bibles. My biggest problem with textbooks and study Bibles alike is the voice they’re written in: usually an authoritative, anonymous, editorial voice, stating interpretations as fact and ignoring or dismissing conflicting interpretations. I recently went looking for a good study Bible – since as I mentioned in a previous post, the Word Biblical Commentary series that I have on my computer does not yet have a volume on Acts – and was disappointed with every single study Bible I looked at. Maybe there is a study Bible out there that would satisfy me, but I sort of doubt it – I never found a textbook that really made me happy, because there simply isn’t enough space within one volume to go into the kind of detail it would take to give me confidence that I’m getting the whole picture.

My test chapter for study Bibles is Romans 3. I do have a couple of good commentaries on Romans – James D.G. Dunn’s entry in the Word Biblical Commentary series, and C.E.B. Cranfield’s volume from the International Critical Commentary series. When I’m looking at study Bibles, I go to Romans 3:20, a key passage especially for Protestants: “For by works of the law shall no flesh be justified before Him, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.” From context, I’m convinced that “works of the law” here refers to the ceremonial parts of the Mosaic law, the markers of being Jewish. And this is a position supported by several of today’s foremost Bible scholars (e.g. James Dunn, N.T. Wright). The force of the passage is, “You’re not going to be saved just because you have Jewish heritage or have become a Jew by circumcision and the other requirements of the Jewish law.” Here’s James Dunn from his commentary on Romans, on “the works of the law”:

[Paul] adds [to the reference from Psalm 143:2], as again also in Gal 2:16, “by works of the law.” This is the first appearance of a key phrase whose importance for understanding Paul’s thought in this letter can hardly be overemphasized, but which has in fact frequently been misunderstood by successive generations of commentators. How did Paul intend his Roman readership to understand it? That must be the first question. And given that this verse is clearly the climax to the first main section, given also the emphasis put on the law in 2:12–29 and Paul’s polemic against Jewish over-confidence based on having the law, the answer is not difficult. “Works of the law” must refer to the attitude attacked in chap. 2; it must denote the “works” referred to there, particularly circumcision. That is to say, the first Roman listeners would most probably and rightly understand “works of the law” as referring to those actions which were performed at the behest of the law, in service of the Torah; that is, those actions which marked out those involved as the people of the law, those acts prescribed by the law by which a member of the covenant people identified himself as a Jew and maintained his status within the covenant. (emphasis added; from Romans 1-8, p. 158)

Up through this point, and then afterwards, Dunn thoroughly and meticulously lays out Paul’s argument, and shows why in context “works of the law” here almost certainly referred to those Jewish “markers,” rather than the moral work of the spirit of the law.

I agree with Dunn, and I think he argues his case convincingly. But more important to me is the fact that in his exegesis, he also cites and argues with studies that disagree with his interpretation, e.g. Gager in Origins, M. Barth in Ephesians, and Gaston in “Works” (all cited on p. 154 of Dunn’s commentary).

It’s this interaction with other scholars – and the admission that the commentator is not impartial or infallible – that I miss in most study Bibles. I don’t care if the commentary agrees with Dunn’s interpretation or disagrees. What I want is a clear presentation of these different interpretations, or at least the acknowledgment that they exist and may be valid. But looking at the popular study Bibles – the NKJV Study Bible, NIV Study Bible, HarperCollins Study Bible, and ESV Study Bible – most of them provide only the more traditional Protestant interpretation of the passage.

The ESV Bible does acknowledge that some scholars have argued that “works of the law” refers to the ceremonial Jewish laws – but then dismisses this reading, saying that there is no evidence for this perspective. And here’s my biggest problem with study Bibles in general: that authoritative, anonymous editorial voice saying “this other perspective is not credible” carries more weight than a careful, nuanced study. If someone relies on the ESV Study Bible and hears that James D.G. Dunn has argued that “works of the law” refers to specific markers of Jewish identity, the easiest thing to do is to say, “Oh, yes, I’ve heard of those scholars, but I know that they’ve been discredited.” The ESV commentator has prejudiced the reader against the kind of wrestling and study that could actually lead to a newer and richer way of reading the Bible.

Now to be fair, many of those study Bibles unabashedly present themselves as coming from an evangelical, Protestant viewpoint. But even the HarperCollins Study Bible, which presents itself as more ecumenical, glosses over the passage, saying “The tension between this verse and 2.13 [“For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified”] is more apparent than real, because the fact of universal sin means that no one has the righteousness required by the law.” Fine. That’s a fine perspective to have. But the way it is presented – as a bold fact – implies that all reasonable Christians will agree to this, and the intense debate that takes place between scholars over Romans 3:20, as well as 2:13-14, is just an exercise for intellectuals. The orthodoxy has been settled.

This drive me up the wall. And I get that they can’t include every perspective. I get that if I want an exhaustive, scholarly study it’s going to be a multi-volume study.  But at least a little bit more presentation of two sides – or even acknowledgment that the study Bible editors are not impartial authorities – would make the books a little easier to swallow, and a lot more useful.

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