For my daily quiet times, I use at least four sources: The HarperCollins Study Bible, The Jewish Study Bible, E-Sword, and Rashi. The first two have modern historical-critical commentaries, but they don’t always help me that much. They don’t really address each and every verse and phrase, and they tend to speak in generalities. Unfortunately, I don’t have other modern commentaries at my home. The Word Commentary Series on CD-Rom is too costly for me at this point, and the Anchor Bible series is more expensive now that Yale publishes it. Plus, scholarly books in general can be really expensive. Consequently, I read E-Sword and Rashi, which you can access on the Internet.
E-Sword contains a number of commentaries that the scholarly community generally scorns: Albert Barnes, Adam Clarke, Matthew Henry, John Gill, and Jamiesson, Faussett, and Brown. These are old works, and they do not approach the Bible in a critical manner. They lack up-to-date knowledge of the ancient Near East and biblical languages. At the same time, E-Sword does have a condensed version of a commentary that many modern scholars actually do like: the nineteenth century commentary of Karl Keil and Franz Delitzsch. Keil-Delitzsch is old and Christian, but it is critical, at least for its time: it looks seriously at the language of the Hebrew Bible and its historical contexts. And, as I said, I also use Rashi, the eleventh century Jewish exegete who lived in France (and, unfortunately, tried to understand biblical Hebrew in light of his native French tongue).
I remember that Jim West scorned the use of these commentaries for biblical study (along with the works of certain modern conservative scholars). But even some evangelicals have turned down their noses on them. I go to Hebrew Union College, which has a lot of evangelical Christians in the graduate school. And I have heard some of them speak rather dismissively about Matthew Henry.
So why do I as a wannabe scholar use these commentaries, besides the fact that I cannot afford any modern ones at the present time? I have a few reasons:
1. I think that they are helpful in understanding the peshat of the biblical text. Peshat is the plain sense meaning that a biblical verse has within its immediate context. It looks at the verse in light of its section, the verses that come before and after it, the overall theme of the book, and the historical context that the book may specify. A question that a peshat exegete may ask is, “How does this verse speak to the people who originally heard it?” But peshat differs from the modern historical-critical method in that peshat does not really consider such factors as biblical diversity and the development of language. For most peshat exegetes, the Bible has one author, God, meaning that it is not a compilation of diverse human works from a variety of historical periods.
Indeed, these commentators do not always use peshat. They may tie a biblical verse to Jesus Christ rather restricting their interpretation to its immediate context. Sometimes, they make sections of the Bible into allegories about spiritual living, rather than taking them at face value. But there are many times when they do use the peshat approach, and, when they do so, their interpretations make a lot of sense.
There are many times when I read the Bible and come across a phrase that I do not understand. “What does this verse mean? How’s it relate to its context? What point is it trying to make? And why does the author phrase his point in that particular way?” I ask myself and God. I look at my HarperCollins Study Bible and Jewish Study Bible, and, in many cases, they do not help me, since they don’t try to explain every single verse and phrase. But my friends at E-Sword and Rashi do make such an attempt. And they often make a lot of sense.
And there have been times when I’ve also looked at modern commentaries, such as the Word Commentary (which is practically an encyclopedia of modern scholarship), the Anchor Bible commentaries, NICOT, and others. Maybe I’d be at the HUC library doing pieces of my daily quiet time during my study breaks. And, to be honest, those modern commentaries often say the same things as my E-Sword luminaries and Rashi. Or they may offer another interpretation that seems just as plausible, but their methodology is not radically different from that of the older exegetes. Like the older commentators, they try to figure out the point that the biblical passage is making in light of its immediate context. In some cases, they may mention an ancient Near Eastern custom or a detail about Ugaritic that the older commentators would not have known, but there are many times when they don’t do that. As far as I’m concerned, in terms of peshat interpretation, the opinions of older commentators are just as valid as what they have to say.
2. I study the History of Biblical Interpretation, which addresses how Jewish and Christian exegetes have interpreted the Hebrew Bible. In terms of the time period of my field, I look at writings from at least the third century B.C.E. to the end of the medieval period. Rashi, of course, fits my field of study, since he was a major medieval Jewish commentator who included the views of the rabbis in his own exegesis. But, interestingly, my E-Sword friends are also helpful, even though they lived later than the historical periods that my field covers. John Gill was a Calvinist Baptist who lived in the eighteenth century, but he considers the views of the rabbis and medieval Jewish thinkers in his own interpretation of biblical verses. Perhaps he thought that the Jewish exegetes were automatically right because they had access to sources going back to Bible times. His approach is not correct from a scholarly perspective, since scholars aren’t supposed to project later ideas onto earlier texts. But he is still an encyclopedia of Jewish exegesis, and that helps me as a student of the History of Biblical Interpretation.
A significant aspect of my field is the Greco-Roman period, and my E-Sword friends can help me there. Because they didn’t really have access to the historical sources of the ancient Near East, they used what they had: Herodotus, Josephus, and other Greco-Roman sources. That is useful to me as a wannabe scholar who studies the Greco-Roman period. And, while biblical scholars certainly should prioritize ancient Near Eastern sources such as the Babylonian Chronicle and the accounts of Sennacherib in their consideration of biblical history, who is to say that Herodotus and Josephus have nothing to offer? After all, they claim in some cases to use ancient sources. Maybe they actually did so.
So I tend not to throw out books just because they are old. Granted, I try to remember that older books have their limitations because much has been discovered since their times. But I also think that they can offer valid opinions on what the biblical text means, and they can also be helpful to students of biblical interpretation.