February 24, 2011

Choosing OT commentaries

I love owning commentaries. I have continually found that it is so worthwhile to have great commentaries on hand when I am studying a passage or a theme. It's the area of my own personal library that has been growing the fastest over the last few years, especially as my own interests have turned from systematic theology to biblical theology (though of course not eschewing the former). But, commentaries are expensive! So as I've been trying to choose, I've been combing the web for wisdom. And I've been especially digging for ideas on some Old Testament resources, the area where my own library is the most lacking. I'm particularly looking for good commentaries on Genesis and Daniel (two important but highly contested books in OT, which seems to complicate buying commentaries), so that has been driving my search. I feel like I've got a pretty good handle on NT commentary series, authors, etc. But the OT is somewhat different territory. So, I thought I'd share a few resources I've been digging through. Some are rather obvious, others less so, but for what it's worth, here they are.

John Walton, professor at Wheaton and prolific and respected OT scholar and author, has made a list of "go-to" commentaries available on the web. Obviously a great resource.

Denver Journal (from Denver Seminary) has a great annotated bibliography for both OT and NT resources authored and updated by their faculty. I've found this to be a great list (especially the NT version) for a number of years and have been pointed to some great resources. 

Tremper Longman, who has authored an OT commentary survey, as well as a number of top flight OT commentaries of his own, has a list of recommended commentaries that is available on BestCommentaries.com.

Which brings me to BestCommentaries.com. This great web site is a creative and increasingly useful resource for evaluating different commentary series and volumes, getting some hints about what is forthcoming and from whom, and seeing various reviewers' and recommenders' estimations of various volumes. It includes input from sources such as Tremper Longman (mentioned above) from his OT commentary survey, as well as D. A. Carson's corresponding NT input, info from Denver (Seminary) Journal's recommended resources (another great source mentioned above), input from R. C. Sproul and Ligonier Ministries, John Piper and Desiring God, John Glynn's commentary survey, as well as from numerous individuals. I'd say it has a distinctly conservative and reformed bent, and it seems (based on the age of many of the input lists) heavily weighted toward resources that are at least five or ten years old. But these weaknesses aside, it is a great source of reviews and rankings.

This list is certainly incomplete, and leaves off things like Amazon (where reviews are a mix of helpful and less-than-helpful). But it shows that there are some good and worthwhile resources out there. And I'd love to find more. I will try to update as more come my way.

Addition: I have come across a neat resource from Grove City Books (which is associated with Ridley Hall, Cambridge). They publish the Biblical Studies Bulletin, and they also have a book-by-book index of "Commentaries on Commentaries." I've only looked at a few so far, but they seem to be short synopses of important commentaries across the theological spectrum, dated between 1996 and 2006 (so they are slightly dated), and written by scholars (Genesis was written by Gordan Wenham, for example).

February 06, 2011

Nelson's Biblical Cyclopedic Index

Thanks to Thomas Nelson for the review copy.

I picked up this book to review because I was intrigued by the concept. Quite simply, it is a combination between a concordance, a topical index, and a Bible dictionary. It covers around 8,000 entries. Almost every entry has a brief descriptive phrase or short definition (for example, "Lute—musical instrument" or "Evil—that which is morally injurious"). Then the entry contains a list of descriptive phrases linked with a scripture reference or two to explore how a word is used, or to point to key uses of a word in the Bible. More extensive entries are broken down into groups to help orient the reader to various approaches the Bible takes concerning an idea or various ways the word is used (for example, the heading "difficulty" is broken down into four subgroups: "kinds of," "examples of," "negative attitudes toward," and "positive attitudes toward"). As an abbreviated concordance or subject index, this cyclopedic index does function quite well. I have obviously not looked at every entry in detail, and I have no doubt that one could squabble endlessly about the various passages chosen for various topics. But overall, it seems to be a great quick reference to get an overview of some of the key teachings about various people and subjects. Many of the entries could easily turn into outlines for a group study of a word, with the subgroupings giving some helpful direction about ideas to emphasize.

A second key feature of the cyclopedic index is that it serves as a miniature Bible dictionary, with around 300 brief word studies. These are short (one small to medium paragraph) definitions of important words that help to orient the reader as to their meaning. They usually include comments about the word in the original language and point to some of the range of meanings it has and how it is used in the Bible. In all, these short entries seem to be helpful, at least as a starting point. But herein lies one of the greatest difficulties. The authors are obviously making an attempt to bring original-language scholarship to a wider audience, but they rarely if ever specify if a word they're talking about is in Greek or Hebrew. A knowledgeable reader will find it obvious, because they go on to refer to how the word is used in either the OT or NT, making it clear which language they are talking about. But they never make this explicit. Nor to they differentiate in the entries between Greek and Hebrew words. I can imagine much difficulty and complexity that would come from trying to be thoroughgoing in differentiating between the two languages, and think that in the index proper, it's probably okay to mix the two languages by focusing on the English words. But in the word studies, when they are quite transparently looking at either the Greek or Hebrew word behind the English translation, they should have specified which language they were studying, to help readers understand which testament their insights apply to most directly. This is especially the case in the handful of cases where a word is defined twice, first with a view to its Hebrew origin and then with regard to its Greek, so people would know roughly how the definitions should fit with the entries that follow (key words such as "rest" or "judgment" get this more expansive treatment). It should be stated that the authors give the Strongs number for each entry they define in this broader way, so, again, more study will quickly make plain the language the word is based on, but this seems like it would have been a helpful, if not essential, addition, especially as it would help warn readers about some of the perils of word studies across the two testaments.

So, in all, I'd have to say this is a handy quick reference, an entry-level tool with some nice features for those beginning in Bible study, or a guide for quickly making sense of a more complex topic by putting references into helpful groups. So it clearly has value. But it also has some shortcomings, as do almost any reference works, and maybe this one more than some because of the number of functions it seeks to perform. It's an intriguing concept to put out a reference with this blend of information packed together, but I think particularly some additional information and guidance regarding OT and NT uses of words would further enhance its value.