In Defense of Older Commentaries

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.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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15 Responses to In Defense of Older Commentaries

  1. Anonymous says:

    James:

    I found it interesting that you mentioned that most of the students at HUC are evangelical Christians. Why do you think this is so, and does it stiffle discussion of critical subjects (e.g. nearly all the evidence points to no “Exodus”, no historical Moses, patriarchs)–do people tend to follow the evidence (as we have it) or do people tend hold to a belief in inerrancy (whether cloaked under the penumbra “the evidence is inconclusive”)?

    -Jake

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  2. James Pate says:

    One explanation I’ve heard is that evangelicals like HUC because of its emphasis on languages. And I’ve also heard that HUC goes out of its way to accept Christians–probably to create an atmosphere of diversity–so Christians who want to study the Hebrew Bible and ANE can find a home here.

    As far as your question on a critical look at the Bible goes, that is a hard question, so my response will be a bumpy ride. My experience is that a critical approach mostly is not stifled. A lot of evangelical students take one professor who says that the Exodus story refers to the Israelites breaking free from oppressive Canaanite structures, for example. And they let her have her say. They also seem to like her because she is a moderate in terms of the maximalist-minimalist debate, plus she’s open-minded. You can take her classes and get evidence for the historicity, or historical plausibility, of biblical histories. But a lot of evangelical students seem to avoid classes taught by another professor who is deemed to be a radical minimalist. A few take him, but many do not seem to do so.

    There are evangelical students who are open to critical scholarship, and inerrancy does not bind them to rejecting it. There are many who prefer a conservative approach, and they use critical arguments to justify it. And some can probably bypass the whole issue all together by focusing primarily on languages.

    I think that one way HUC has helped me is that it has undermined some of my stereotypes. I always viewed all evangelicals as crypto-fundamentalists who would use any mental or exegetical gymnastics they could find to bolster inerrancy. I assumed that they didn’t know much about, say, source criticism because many of the evangelicals I knew did not. But they do know about these things, often more than I do. And they learned about them in their conservative seminaries, which is also a shock to me.

    You went to Dallas Theological Seminary, right? I may be confusing you with another Jake, so please pardon me if that’s the case. But, if you did, how did you find the approach to critical issues there?

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  3. Anonymous says:

    I’m one of the few who went to a very conservative school.

    I know that some of my classmates were concerned about about applying to HUC because they were worried about the students being too conservative. (Since we do ancient really stuff it doesn’t apply to your field of study).

    Radical minimalist. Who is that? We actually had your own D. Ilan at our school and I would say that he too is very mainstream (along with N. Fox). I liked him a lot.

    HUC does do a lot of language work, just like most NELC programs. And they do it well. I wonder if high ratio of conservative students has something to do with the fact that many professors at Evangelical and fundamentalist schools have degrees from there and encourage their students to go. Some applicants know that they’ll be around like-minded students. Lastly, I wonder if it is more of a pragmatic issue. Coming from a conservative environment can make it harder to get into some programs. Speaking as a DTS grad, I can say that I didn’t get as much exposure to scholarship because some of my time was spent taking pastoral classes, theology, apologetics, many of my classmates wanted to be pastors, etc… and thus I had an uphill battle against a “Yale grad” who could take more rigorous classes with more motivated students. My wife’s program, CUA, seems to be similar to HUC.

    “There are evangelical students who are open to critical scholarship, and inerrancy does not bind them to rejecting it. There are many who prefer a conservative approach, and they use critical arguments to justify it. And some can probably bypass the whole issue all together by focusing primarily on languages.”

    This statement seems strange to me, and definitely not the way to describe my program or other NELC programs in which I have friends. You seem to describe 3 camps: 1 moderate evangelicals (like a Fuller approach) who embrace historical criticism (reject the Exodus, etc…) and 2 conservative evangelical/fundamentalist approaches (reject or avoid). What would you say the ratio is between conservative evangelicals and moderate evangelicals?

    HUC is a great school with of great students and great faculty. You should be proud to study there. Kinda makes me think of the old Dropsie college.

    I love your blog James, though I miss your political write-ups. And I’m still waiting for a health care solution that doesn’t simply point out problems! 🙂

    And, you call yourself a TV fan–but where are the Lost writeups? That’s the best show on TV.

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  4. Anonymous says:

    I wanted to temper what I said about pragmatics. I didn’t mean to sound like the school was easier to get into but more “inclusive” as you said.

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  6. jason says:

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  7. James Pate says:

    Wow! A lot to respond to.

    1. I’m not sure I can really give you a ratio between moderate evangelicals and hard-core ones. A big reason is that I can sometimes hear moderate and hard-core comments coming from the mouth of the same person. Plus, there are some people I see more than others, so I don’t have a nuanced idea of how all of them view Scripture. I will say this: I don’t really feel that I am in a closed-minded atmosphere when I am around the HUC evangelicals.

    2. I tried in my response to avoid names, since I can never know who will be reading this. But Dr. Fox was the one I meant when I referred to the professor who is moderate. I guess I’ll take the risk and say who is considered a hyper-minimalist: David Aaron. He says that the maximalist/minimalist debate focuses on the wrong issues, but he himself seems to date most of the Hebrew Bible to the exilic and post-exilic periods. There are evangelicals who do study under him, but there are many who do not. Personally, I like him because he always gives me a new way of looking at texts. Even though I may have taken a previous class that covered, say, the akeda and the history of interpretation, I still like to sit in on his class because I know that I’ll get something new and interesting.

    3. Yeah, I’ll some day write about health care. I need to understand the solutions that are being offered first. It’s something I’ve thought about recently because of my interactions with my own insurance company. When I was at Harvard and JTS, the insurance was always given to me. I didn’t even have to pay premiums. Now, I do. And I’m also having to use it. So, for the time being, I’ll toss out the answer that seems to appease a lot of people (all over the political spectrum): we need tort reform!

    4. I would like to get into Lost sometime. The problem is that I never saw the first season, and it doesn’t seem to be the type of show where I can just jump in anywhere. I’m somewhat of a Johnny-come-lately to a lot of shows. I watch 7th Heaven nowadays, though that was 90s fare. I started getting into Smallville. One night, the first episode of Desperate Housewives happened to be on, so I go into that. But, yeah, everyone says that Lost is good. And I kind of like these mysterious, suspenseful, thrillers that deal with the supernatural (though I don’t watch Medium for religious reasons).

    Anyway, I appreciate your comments, as always, Jake.

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  8. Anonymous says:

    ” I guess I’ll take the risk and say who is considered a hyper-minimalist: David Aaron. He says that the maximalist/minimalist debate focuses on the wrong issues, but he himself seems to date most of the Hebrew Bible to the exilic and post-exilic periods.”

    I would say that his view is pretty mainstream. Of course I haven’t read anything by him, but this is pretty standard. If fellow classmates of your are wary of mainline scholarship–whoa: prepare yourself for some conservative seminary professors who once again do what they are famous for! I guess one way to think of the issue is how many people are part of ETS organizations. They are on the far end of evangelical conservativism (I think).

    -Jake

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  9. James Pate says:

    Yeah, he wrote a recent book called Etched in Stone, which is about the 10 Commandments.

    Is maximalism not mainstream? Or is it usually reconciled with the mainstream view by saying that most of the Hebrew Bible is exilic or post-exilic, but contains older (and historical) traditions from before the exile?

    Yes, ETS is pretty popular here. I’ve heard of more students presenting at the ETS than at the SBL. I don’t have a count, but I’ve often heard “I’m presenting a paper at the ETS.” I don’t hear “I’m presenting a paper at SBL” as much. But I’ve not been at the campus much lately, either. I should probably join ETS, just to get my CV off the ground, but I don’t have too many ideas for papers at the present time.

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  10. James Pate says:

    BTW, I reread your post above, and you said you took apologetics at DTS. What did that entail? Was it anything different from what I might read in a Josh MacDowell book?

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  11. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for the response. By apologetics, arguments for Christianity, defending the Bible, etc… in Hebrew Bible classes there was also a lot of apologetics against scholarship (e.g. source criticism, Exodus, etc…). We would use more sophisticated arguments than something in J. McDowell, but the essential framework was similiar. Since the Bible was inerrant, it could be proved. Different textbooks, but essentially similar.

    Maximalism is mainstream within conservative evangelicalism. Most of ETS would hold to it out of the presupposition of inerrancy, but I would definitely say that it is not mainstream. No one really takes the Exodus or Patriachs seriously. Except maximalists, which by and large, are almost always very conservative evangelicals. Maximalism, it seems to me, is more of a theological movement that uses disparate pieces of evidence to defend the Bible. Some maximalists are great (general) historians–but in the end, I think it is theology.

    -Jake

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  12. Anonymous says:

    Moderate evangelicalism still reads the Bible theologically, but I think that they are more willing to point out historical inconsistencies and errors. A place like Fuller seminary is a good example of moderate evangelicalism. People won’t defend the Exodus, the Conquest, etc… yet they still are conservative and evangelical.

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  13. James Pate says:

    Yeah, I know people here who do take the Exodus and patriarchs seriously. One student studied under Professor Hoffmeier, who wrote books defending the Exodus and the wilderness traditions. Others argue that there were camels during the patriarchal period, and they point to evidence that Kenneth Kitchen compiled. And there is another student I know who is looking into revisionism–a different method of chronology that omits the dark ages that many scholars accept–as a way to say that there was a Conquest, but most scholars have not found it because they are using the wrong chronology. I’m not sure if I’d go so far as to say that they are rigid fundamentalists, but I know many who would like to demonstrate the Bible’s historicity, hopefully from a critical standpoint.

    I want to point out–and I know you already know this, but this is in preparation for another question–that there are many maximalists who reject the historicity of the Exodus and Patriarchs. Dever is the biggest one. And he’s a maximalist because he believes in David and Solomon. So I wonder if the majority opinion is that most of the Bible is exilic or post-exilic. If that is the majority opinion, then it must admit that the Bible still has pre-exilic material, right?

    One final point: I admit that maximalism has been used to bolster inerrancy, but I’m not sure what exactly it proves. I mean, one can show that the Bible reflects a lot of historical reality, but that doesn’t automatically mean that everything it says is correct. We have history books today that have a lot of facts, yet their interpretation may be off-base. Any, interestingly, at times, maximalists can undermine the supernatural in their attempts to present the Bible as historically plausible. I think of Kenneth Kitchen’s article on the Exodus in the Anchor Bible Dictionary, in which he tries to find a natural explanation for the crossing of the Red Sea.

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  14. Anonymous says:

    I see what you mean, though I don’t think Dever is a maximalist. The only people I could imagine loosely using that title would be people of the Copenhagen/Sheffield ilk. In any case, the views of Dever are fairly representative and moderate.

    I find it interesting that so many students are doing apologetics. I have one friend at Notre Dame who is very conservative, but no other programs have quite the spread of conservative evangelicals, expect perhaps for Trinity Divinity School. The culture war rages on.

    I wouldn’t (generally) describe conservative evangelicals as rigid fundamentalists. The difference between the two is subtle and I don’t know how to distinguish the two (or if they are separate), but I separate them nonetheless. I’m a product of schools that tread this line and go back and forth about definitions.

    If we accept my definition of maximalists (e.g. Dever is not), I still think that my suggestion that maximalism is primarily a theological construct stands. This doesn’t prove anything, but I find it misleading when some maximalists argue that they are only basing their assertions on evidence when we all know there’s a pink elephant in the room. K. Kitchen is a thoroughgoing church man–and that is fine. Honesty and forthrightness are probably better apologetics in the long run.

    One of professors (Egyptologist) remarked several times how he felt that Kitchen was one of the best in the world, and that we should not form a negative opinion of his great scholarship even though his apologetics put his historical thinking into question. A recent graduate from our department now has his position at Liverpool.

    I’m interested in chronology, but not as an apologist. Especially the end of EB and LB. I was wondering how your friend tried to adjust dates. Some people have been trying to use Ram. VI as a touchstone to show that Egypt had control of Palestine until 1130, some have pointed out that Philistine and Egyptian material ware don’t occur together (which I find interesting), while others have tried to argue that the linchpin of Egyptian dating (expect Sais), Shoshenq, did not happen ever or when it was purported. The other Mesopotamian chronology is of less importance. None of these would support a Conquest in the 13th or 15 century.

    Camels during the Patriarchs? I’ve got to reread Kitchen because that sounds so crazy that I might as well argue for automobiles! I’m sure there’s some argument, however thin.

    I hope this all makes sense. And, I might add, you should join CBQ. I think you’d fit in well. Or look at SBL or Society of Christian Ethics. I’d suggest all of them over ETS, given what I’ve been able to learn about you while reading your blog these past few months.

    Jake

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  15. James Pate says:

    Thanks for the recommendations! I may give those societies a try.

    I have a few more points to add to this interesting discussion:

    1. Yeah, I admit that a lot of maximalists have religious motivations. Kitchen, as you said, is an avid churchgoer. And I once read Hoffmeier explicitly say that the Christian faith depends on the historicity of the Exodus. I guess my point was that maximalism really doesn’t prove the faith. Even if one can show that certain biblical events are plausible, that doesn’t prove that the Bible’s interpretation of the events are absolutely right. I mean, Sennacherib probably said some factual things too, but that doesn’t prove his account is inerrant. Incidentally, this is a problem I have with evangelical apologetics, period.

    2. I think it’s important to remember that evangelicals are not the only people with bias. Some of the minimalists may have had their bad experiences with religion, and that may color how they see the evidence. I’m just saying this because a lot of my education has been saying that we should be distrustful of evangelical sources because we know that they have bias. Others have bias as well.

    3. At the same time, I get tired of some of my evangelical colleagues acting like everything is a matter of presupposition. What do I mean by this? Well, I just get the impression at times that some think anyone who offers a non-conservative view is giving a mere opinion based on presuppositions. But there is evidence that we have to look at. The tensions within the biblical text are there–they’re not just something people may observe because they have certain presuppositions that can go away if they put on a different pair of glasses. It’s late, so I hope that made some sense.

    4. The chronology my colleague is studying is this: You know that time of darkness that fell over the world, and then that time passes and everything is different? Well, my colleague is reading books that say this time is built on sand. One such book is Peter James’ Centuries of Darkness. The result is that the Conquest is pushed back to the Middle Bronze Age (I think), and also that Shishak is not really Sheshonq.

    Have you heard much about this particular revisionism?

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