Nothing New Under the Sun

I just read a post in which James Pate defends his use of older Bible commentaries and in it he said a couple of things that got me thinking.  He said:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Now to be sure he said other interesting things but these few statements jumped out at me for various reasons. 

For instance, in the first quote he said that these older resources “lack up-to-date knowledge of the ancient Near East and biblical languages.”  Now from one angle this is true, they certainly knew less about these languages than scholarship knows presently.  But from another angle the up-to-date knowledge is actually lacking as compared to the original culture in which these languages were set.  In other words, for as much as we’ve learned since those commentaries were written, we’re still at a disadvantage. 

In the second quote he mentions that a lot of modern commentaries really don’t differ that much from these older ones and I believe the reason for this is because the text says what it says and people of all stripes have understood it for what it says from the beginning.  The old saying that history repeats itself comes to mind, but in light of Ecclesiastes 1:9: “the thing that has been is that which shall be, and that which has been done is that which shall be done, there is no new thing under the sun.”  Trends tend to move in cycles.  There was a time when bell-bottom jeans were in fashion and then they fell out of fashion, then they came back into fashion, and now they’re out again.  Is Biblical studies really so different?

The last statement about older resources having their limitations because much has been discovered since their time jumped out at me because we haven’t really “discovered” anything (in the sense of making something known for the first time).  We’ve recovered or uncovered this information.  Again, all of this information was common knowledge to a certain people at a certain point in history.  We’re only moving in cycles.  Perhaps one day we’ll come to a point where we know and understand as much as the original audience.  God I hope so!

In any event, these things just popped into my head and I thought I’d blog about it.  Check out James’ post when you have a moment.  Oh, and just let me say that any friend of e-Sword is a friend of mine. :)


6 thoughts on “Nothing New Under the Sun

  1. Dean Alford’s Greek Testament, Lightfoot’s commentaries, Westcott’s, and a few others are scholar’s whose knowledge of the languages has not necessarily been surpassed. For an OT example, Briggs, Brown & Driver’s work could be in this category as well.

  2. The real reason for older commentaries becoming popular again is that they are out of copyright and so can be distributed free by people like e-sword. Don’t take that as an endorsement of their quality.

  3. What Peter said. Plus, I think the newer commentaries are newer not in the sense that they are better as much as they are directed at a more recent generation and address some issues this recent generation is dealing with. That said, however, not a few commentaries note things past scholars have talked about and build upon them – develop the thoughts more, etc.

    I have read through parts of MH’s commentary and is seems to me to read more like a sermon, which isn’t a commentary.

  4. Mike: You may well be right.

    Peter: I don’t know that these commentaries really ever stopped being popular. But of course them being in the public domain and accessible to anyone with a computer hasn’t hurt their popularity.

    Brian: I hate MH’s commentary, but couldn’t we consider expository preaching (which I believe it to be) a commentary?

  5. The scholars I listed fit into the category of commentaries such as WBC or ICC. They are way beyond the content found in Barnes, Clarke, etc. They are brilliant men of their day – like what Mozart is to Classical music. Collectively out knowledge today is beyond them, but very few people individually – if any – could match the amount of knowledge each one of them had.

    That’s why Alford’s work alone, which is out of print, regularly sells on ebay for in upwards of $60+ before shipping prices are added in.

  6. A commentary is a tool. You need different tools for different jobs. Even today we tend to divide commentaries into different categories: devotional, critical, expository, etc. Bemoaning older commentaries for not being modern critical works is like complaining a screwdriver doesn’t hammer nails well. That was never their intention.

    It is also a form of historical bigotry to dismiss older works “because they don’t know what we know”. It is entirely possible they knew some things we don’t know now, and it is a sure thing our successors will laugh at how ill-informed we were in our day. Perfect knowledge is reserved for God; the rest of us have to say, “This is the best I can do right now.”

    One of the best things about bible software programs with multiple commentaries and tools is that they can make you look at something from an angle you never would have on your own. They can also fill in areas of knowledge where we are lacking. If we later find we have to unlearn something that is wrong, that is simply part of the learning process. Being mistaken is not the unforgivable sin; being SURE we are right just may be.

    Finally, one should be able to appreciate older books the way one appreciates his older relatives: they have their strengths and weaknesses, but they trod the same path you do, and they are part of what got you where you are. Dismissing them is dismissing a part of yourself.

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