Note: In November 2012 I published a commentary of 1-2 Thessalonians for Zondervan (click HERE). The advice given below is applicable to all preaching and writing projects.
I used to do business at a local office building. On the wall was an engraved map of the New World from the 1600s. It was a real work of art, but of course it was also grossly inaccurate. Florida was too stubby. Much of the area north and west of the Mississippi was missing. Many of the lands were out of proportion. Antarctica and Greenland were freakish. A modern sailor would love to have a map like this on his wall, but who today would attempt to navigate Tierra del Fuego or the Hudson Bay with that information?
To take another example: a principal of a poorly-funded elementary school wished he had the funds to buy better history textbooks, ones that would tell how the Korean War turned out.
In life, we usually want data that are up-to-date; yet when we study the Bible, we imagine that older books are the best, since they are “classics.” We venerate the piety or learning of scholars of an earlier generation, and so we deduce that their works outstrip that which is available today. Here I am not referring to the sermons of a John Chrysostom or a John Wesley or the commentaries of a John Calvin, works that are perennial favorites. Rather, we are thinking of commentaries and reference tools that are supposed to give us the very best, up-to-date information in our field and fall badly short.
But how can the New Testament or the Greek language change? Of course, they don’t – but our appreciation of them grows sharper every year. For example, it should be unthinkable that someone write a commentary on John without a knowledge of the Nag Hammadi or Qumran literature; or a lexicon without using the papyrus finds of the last century or so; or a study of the household ethics of Paul without working through the newer finds on Greco-Roman social structures. Most of this information comes from the last 50 years.
Yet this is precisely what pastors and students of the Word do day after day when they rely on outdated word studies, outdated reference tools (the original ISBE) or commentaries that are rightly celebrated for their devotional fire but not their current scholarship (the unabridged Matthew Henry). The problem is exacerbated because no-one likes to put aside old favorites and replace them with expensive new works; and besides, the free offerings from internet and CD are available to hand (Adam Clarke, Easton Bible Dictionary). Remember that there is an important economic factor at play here: if the internet or a CD offers a work cheaply, it’s not because it’s the best, it’s because the copyright has long expired, and no-one has to pay royalties to the author!
And presumably, students a century from now will have considerably more resources at hand.
For my study of 1-2 Thessalonians, I focussed on excellent tools, most of which are readily available in English. Many can be bought secondhand; many are available in digital form, sometimes free or at discount prices.
We must insist first of all on having the best reference tools:
1. The latest edition of the critical text of the Greek New Testament, either the 4th edition from United Bible Societies or Nestlé-Aland 27th edition.
2. An up-to-date lexicon: if you are using BAG 2nd edition, why not bite the bullet and invest in the 3rd (BDAG)? It’s now available on CD. It is simply irresponsible to rely on Thayer in this day, it being so badly out of date; it still contains some positive insights, but how will the typical reader be able to critique it without being expert in papyri, inscriptions, and ancient texts? (I’ve written on Thayer elsewhere on this blog).
3. In addition, Louw and Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains.
4. Available free on the Perseus website: Liddell, Scott and Jones, Greek-English Lexicon
5. Word Study – forget Wuest. Robertson and Vincent are somewhat better, but Balz and Schneider or NIDNTT are much better. TDNT is indispensable if used with great care.
Other Ancient Resources
With the internet and other digital resources, there can be no excuse for not accessing the basic documents of the Church Fathers, Gnosticism, Josephus and others. Besides this, a copy of the Septuagint and a bilingual edition of the Apostolic Fathers is of tremendous help for the NT student, particularly when using the Baur lexicon. In particular, the apocalyptic literature is relevant for the student of these letters. If used with great restraint, Strack and Billerbeck’s Kommentar is still a valuable treasury of Second Temple and (later) rabbinic material.
If a preacher is going through the letters, a good package of commentaries might include 2-4 of the following.
- Bruce, F. F. 1 & 2 Thessalonians. Word Biblical Commentary 45. Waco, TX: Word, 1982.
- Fee, Gordon, The First and Second Letters to the Thessalonians. NICNT. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009.
- Gaventa, Beverly Roberts. First and Second Thessalonians. Interpretation. Nashville: Westminster John Knox, 1998.
- Gorday, Peter. Colossians, 1-2 Thessalonians, 1-2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. New Testament, 9. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2000.
- Green, Gene L. The Letters to the Thessalonians. Pillar New Testament Commentary.
- Malherbe, Abraham J. The Letters to the Thessalonians: a New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Anchor Bible 32B New York: Doubleday, 2000.
- Wanamaker, Charles A. The Epistles to the Thessalonians: a Commentary on the Greek Text. New International Greek Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990.
I’m sorry to have to add a caveat concerning Ernest Best’s commentary on Thessalonians. Although he has some fine insights, his handling of the Greek verb falls far short. Examples: P 124 On 1 Thess 2:17 – “The aorist tense made orphans implies a single action and not a continued state, and suggests that the short period…is over.” P 275 On 2 Thess 2:2 – “shaken (aorist) suggests the sudden onslaught of a storm that is quickly past…; continue anxious (present tense)…they are now in a continuous state of nervous excitement and anxiety.”
As always – before all else, open up your Bible and study it! I make it a practice when doing any kind of research, whether preaching or writing a commentary, to do my own exegesis first and only then turn to the secondary resources. Gordon Fee, I was pleased to notice, described this as his own practice in his Thessalonians commentary (Preface, p. x).
Related Posts: “How to write a commentary when your library is 2000 miles away” (HERE) captures my experiences while writing a commentary while on the mission field in Latin America.
Studies in Thessalonians series
Download a free copy of my 1 Corinthians commentary, English version (HERE)
“What books have I used to write a commentary on 1-2 Thessalonians?” by Gary Shogren, PhD in New Testament Exegesis, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica