Out of the Best Books- Talking about (Bible) Commentaries at Institute

I’ve been teaching a lightly-attended Institute class this summer, on scripture study. We’ve talked a lot about techniques and tools; last night we covered commentaries. The following comes from the handout and discussion.


What’s a commentary?
Generally speaking, a commentary is an extended analysis of some other text, whether the Bible, Book of Mormon, a Shakespeare play, the tax code, etc. A commentary’s purpose is to clarify, expound, explain or interpret the text. At right is a traditional Talmud page, one section of which (the gemara)  is a rabbinic commentary on the first part (the mishnah), and includes many other traditional commentaries as well. Image from here, which explains the various parts of the page.

What kinds of things do commentaries provide?
Commentaries are sourcebooks that can provide information of various kinds we don’t otherwise know, and the best ones are written by scholars who have studied that particular book for years. History, culture, patterns, connections, translations, bibliographies, etc.

A Very General Taxonomy of Commentaries

Depth: Study Bibles contain minimal commentary; Single Volume commentaries have more, but still must be selective due to space; Multi-volume commentaries go deepest into detail, omitting nothing. (The Anchor Bible volume on the Song of Songs is 743 pages. Really.)

Intended Audience: Lay, pastoral, academic. Sometimes one particular faith group is the audience (e.g. Jewish Study Bible, etc.) These aren’t always sharply-defined boundaries.

Approach and/or bias: Academic; Confessional (e.g. Jewish, Evangelical, Mormon, etc.); General; Specialized ( a commentary focus on one area, such as literary aspects.) Other (I read Orson Scott Card’s Homecoming series as a commentary of sorts on the Book of Mormon); These also aren’t always sharply-defined categories. A commentary is what it is, and if it’s not what you’re looking for, find another one.

Can LDS use commentaries?
Sure, chosen carefully and with an awareness of their limitations.

“Latter-day Saints know that learned or authoritative commentaries can help us with scriptural interpretation, but we maintain that they must be used with caution. Commentaries are not a substitute for the scriptures any more than a good cookbook is a substitute for food. (When I refer to “commentaries,” I refer to everything that interprets scripture, from the comprehensive book-length commentary to the brief interpretation embodied in a lesson or an article, such as this one.)”

- Elder Dallin H. Oaks, “Scripture Reading and Revelation,” Ensign, Jan. 1995, 7. It’s interesting how broadly Elder Oaks extends that caution against substituting material for the scriptures.

Elder McConkie (about to be quoted) is usually read as being very anti-commentary, which isn’t quite true. I think his general negativity towards modern commentaries was due to a clash of worldviews and expectations. Elder McConkie and I would agree that scriptures should be primary and commentaries secondary, but that commentaries should have a place in our study, but I think we would radically disagree about the relative value of any given commentary. I think we can learn from authors who don’t share our values or beliefs, who come to different conclusions than we do, but nevertheless have much knowledge and insight to share about a given text. In what follows, emphasis mine.

“It is far better for us to gain our answers from the scriptures than from something someone else says about them. It is true that we oftentimes need an inspired interpreter to help us understand what Apostles and prophets have written for us in the standard works. But it is also true that many explanations given by many people as to the meaning of scriptural passages are somewhat less than true and edifying. We are in a far better position if we are able to drink directly from the scriptural fountain without having the waters muddled by others whose insights are not as great as were those of the prophetic writers who first penned the passages found in the accepted canon of holy writ. I am not rejecting proper scriptural commentaries; I know and appreciate their value and have written volumes of them myself; I am simply saying that people with the ability to do it would be far better off to create their own commentaries. There is something sacred and solemn and saving about studying the scriptures themselves.”

-Elder Bruce R. McConkie, “Guidelines to Gospel Study,” in Sermons and Writings of Bruce R. McConkie (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1989), 229.

Why don’t LDS typically use commentaries?

I suspect four general reasons. First, because we have no mainstream tradition or model of using modern commentaries for anything.  That’s slowly changing, but very slowly and has some counter-balancing forces as well. Second, LDS don’t know where to look for commentaries, or have any basis for evaluating the value or reliability of a particular commentary.  The Anchor Bible series isn’t exactly advertised in the Deseret Book catalog.  Third, I suspect the low quality of the few existing LDS commentaries leads us to have a low opinion of commentaries in general. You simply have no idea how good they can be until you get a good one. And fourth, statements like Elder McConkie’s above easily mutate  into “LDS shouldn’t use commentaries at all.

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  • charlie

    Thanks Ben, Great post. I’m a big fan of George Horton’s “Keys to Successful Scripture Study” — not a commentary per se but an excellent general guide to reading and understanding scripture — inexpensive used copies available at Amazon:

    http://www.amazon.com/Successful-Scripture-Study-George-Horton/dp/0884946894/ref=sr_1_fkmr1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1280524484&sr=8-1-fkmr1

  • http://sites.google.com/site/hwsarc/ Mike Parker

    Terrific article. My impression is that Latter-day Saints are largely skeptical of modern Biblical academic study, which I think is a shame. Hopefully this will continue to change over time.

    I have to confess that I haven’t been impressed with the NIV Study Bible. Translation issues aside, the notes seem to go overboard to explain the most conservative position possible. For example, the introduction to Ephesians spends a lot of time explaining why it was written by Paul, rather than laying out both sides of the argument.

    My favorite study Bibles are The New Oxford Annotated Bible/NSRV, which has very good introductions to each book and a useful outline-style running commentary, and the NET Bible, with its copious footnotes on textual and other issues.

  • Mary Ann

    Thank you for your thoughtful post. I’d like to add my favorite Bible commentary to your list – that of Matthew Henry. Although he wrote about 300 years ago, his insights can be breath-taking and stunningly relevant. (Of course there is some pre-restoration doctrine to filter out, but well worth the effort!)
    His entire commentary can be found at this site:
    http://www.blueletterbible.org/commentaries/comm_author.cfm?AuthorID=4

  • Pingback: iCharlotte Sanders

  • Garrett

    Thanks for the great post.
    I just got Logos (libronix) there are literally 100’s resources that can be purchased with it.
    Which ones would you recommend?
    I got all the issues BAR which is awesome great! I enjoy reading anything by William Dever.

  • http://patheos.com Ben S

    Charlie- I’m only familiar with Horton’s book from this review [link fixed], which sounds like it would echo my concerns. I thought perhaps it was in Gospelink or the older FolioViews-based products, but didn’t find it anywhere.

    Mike- I’m not nearly as familiar with the NIV NT notes as I am with the OT notes, which probably isn’t a surprise. (I’m an OT kind of guy.) Given the Evangelical publisher, conservatism isn’t a surprise ;)

    Mary Ann- I’ve used Matthew Henry a little. Older commentaries tend to be more upfront about their faith, and look for inspiring and applicable interpretations, which is very useful. On the other hand, for difficult questions or history/culture, they are often much less useful because they don’t interact with the discoveries of the last 100 years, which have been massive and often rewritten our understanding.

    Garrett- I’ll be doing a separate post on recommended Logos resources. Last week at Institute we covered computer tools, and I demoed Logos and some other things.

  • Garrett

    Ben S – cool I look for forward to the post


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