New and Important (and some comments on some other stuff)

Dave Black pulls no punches in stating how he feels about the modern commentary enterprise (see Tuesday, April 24, 7:16 AM). He says in part, “If you’re going to say something, say something new and important.” I wonder how possible that really is at this stage of the game though. It’s not difficult to say something important, and that can be done even if saying something that’s been said before, but barring some major new discovery, what’s left to say that’s truly new?

And if something new can be said then what are the chances that it will be important? More times then not, when someone says something no one has said before them, it’s somewhat quacky. Whenever I hear someone allegedly offering something new and important about the Bible I always ask why no one has seen it or said it before them. Surely if whatever is said was so important someone would have noticed it before. Right?

And when folks do try to do something new and important, or at least different, it’s usually met with plenty of opposition anyway. Consider Barth’s Romans commentary. Now granted, it’s not my favorite commentary, but that’s because Barth confuses me, not because it’s not good in its own right. But Barth didn’t go the usual route. His commentary wasn’t the general historical/philological/grammatical commentary that one finds in abundance elsewhere. His commentary was extra-theological. And plenty of folks hate it for just that reason. They read it and ask where’s the reference to linguistics, or history, or whatever?

And now a word on Stanley Porter’s post, which prompted Dave’s comments on commentaries. I think Dr. Porter protests too much. He’s basically criticizing commentaries because they’re not as focused on what he considers important, namely Greek language and linguistics, as he believes they should be. On the one hand it’s understandable that he feels this way since this is his wheelhouse. But on the other hand, it’s kind of an unfair criticism since every commentator doesn’t sit in Porter’s wheelhouse. One has to assess any given commentary based on the aims of its author; not based on what we’d like to see.

Oh, and allow me one final word on saying something new vs. repeating what’s been said. Most commentaries I read these days begin with the author telling the reader that they’ve set out to write commentary on the text of Scripture, not on other commentaries. I’m not joking; the claim is ubiquitous. But commenting on other commentaries can be extremely useful, can’t it? I appreciate when commentators interact with those who came before them.

Also, repeating what’s been said before can be extremely helpful as well. A lot of people aren’t commentary collectors. Most folks I know don’t have many, if any, commentaries at all. If they pick some up then it’s likely to be something newer. But they won’t know that what they’re reading has been said by others in the past, and why should they? Or more importantly, why should it matter? Isn’t the goal of reading a commentary to learn more about the texts upon which it comments? Who cares then who said it first?

At the end of the day I thank God for the proliferation of commentaries on the Bible just like I thank him for the proliferation of translations. The more the merrier I say. Some are better than others but they all serve a purpose, and let’s face it, no one is forcing anyone to read them anyway.



4 thoughts on “New and Important (and some comments on some other stuff)

  1. You know this post made me think of Christian book publishing in general and how soooo much new stuff is constantly getting published and convincing readers that they need this new book because it has something new to say that hasn’t been said before that really important. How often do these books really live up to what they are implicitly promising? And seriously, how can so much be written about Christianity year after year???

  2. David Black is OK, wouldn’t waste a lot time with S. E. Porter. He is on a strange trip. His approach to linguistics is more or less ignored by the people who actually doe something with linguistics. Search the b-greek archives or Randall Buth’s comments on Porter’s framework. Pretty amazing stuff, Buth can be rather blunt. I think David Black has a very solid grasp on the realities of biblical studies. Most of it isn’t worth reading. I just can figure out why young guys (women too) get excited about secondary literature. It is extreamly repetitious. I am doing a study of Romans 9-11 and when I haul out all of the commentaries over period of 180 years (sans Calvin) I notice the quality of the work in the 20th century is a steep downgrade from the late 19th century. I read the a lot of the new stuff but all the serious philology was over with by the 1930s.

  3. Bryan: Is that how they’re convincing folks they need the newest and latest books? I thought they were doing it with fancy covers and blog tours. ;-)

    C. Stirling: Dave Black is aces in my book. I haven’t read a ton from Porter. I have a few books that he has edited and his Greek grammar (which I think is way too difficult to use as a first year grammar) but past some loose chapters and articles I’m not that familiar with him. I know he has some pretty peculiar views on verbal aspect theory that a lot of linguists don’t agree with. I think the reason you notice the drop in quality is because there has been a corresponding drop in the quality of education. They just ain’t building scholars like they used to.

    Chuck: Word.

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