Bible Commentaries and Dictionaries, a word of advice from Logos and myself

Kyle Anderson from Logos software just published a fine article on how to use Bible dictionaries. He warns against simply reaching for a commentary when we are studying the Bible.

I heartily applaud this basic sentiment. As Christians, we are supposed to be enjoying the Bible, not reading the tale of how some other person enjoyed it. It is refreshing to read the following from Gordon Fee, in his NICNT commentary on First and Second Thessalonians (p. x): “…as has been my lifelong habit, I write the commentary first and then consult the secondary literature, making any necessary adjustments and adding the proper footnotes.” Of course, this is Gordon Fee, who is able to write a basic commentary on the text without any secondary literature, a feat far beyond what most of us can handle. Still, the ideal is the same.

How sad to realize that many commentary writers are spending much more time in the secondary literature than they are in the text of Scripture. This is one of the side effects of the multiplication of commentaries in the last few decades. Apart from the danger of intellectual inbreeding, we are running the danger of making the Bible a dry book, one which is not blessing, changing and surprising the  commentators and through them the readers.

Anderson’s other point was that the Bible student might profit greatly from dictionaries and lexicons, on the assumption that they will provide useful linguistic and historical data for Bible study without robbing the student of the joy of his or her own exploration. On this point too I’m in full agreement, and in fact I typically follow that same practice.

On the other hand, the student should qualify Anderson’s blog with this caveat: dictionaries do not supply “objective” information as contrasted with the supposedly “subjective” commentaries. I regularly use the IVP dictionaries and access the Anchor Bible Dictionary almost daily; I have also written articles for both series. The author of these tools do not simply supply information; rather they supply information which they then interpret. In fact, sometimes the articles are written by people who have already published their opinions in commentaries.

While their purpose is to be as neutral as possible, full neutrality is a goal, not a reality. This is true for dictionaries, certainly in word study series such as TDNT, and to some extent even in basic Hebrew and Greek lexicons. In fact, in an odd twist, some Bible dictionaries quote from commentaries. The Bible student needs so discernment with all the available tools.

“Bible Commentaries and Dictionaries, a word of advice from Logos and myself,” by Gary S. Shogren, PhD en New Testament Exegesis, Professor at Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I’ve noticed Fee’s description of his process too (he talks about it in Pauline Christology), but as you allude, it’s not really the same thing as a lay person or a pastor. After all, Fee is already steeped in all the major issues of New Testament interpretation when he comes to the text. He has an enormous amount of background. Personally, I look at it this way: be reading your Bible no matter what. That’s basic. But when you go to study a particular passage I don’t see a problem with starting with a commentary. It will help get you oriented. Now, if you have trouble with reading a resource critically and weighing different opinions in your own process, that it another question. It won’t be solved by reading those resource after studying the “naked” text. My favorite set is WBC. It orients you very well to all the important exegetical, hermeneutical, and historical issues.

    • Interesting points, as always, Rob, thanks!

      1. I could not recommend that a person should read a commentary first and then the biblical text. I don’t think I’m being naive, knowing well that this is what many people do. But on what level would that be the best approach? For the new believer? For the informed layperson? For the SS teacher? The preacher? The theologian? The commentator? Speaking for myself, I’ve been all of these at one moment or another, and it always seemed best to read the Bible first and repeatedly before reading other resources.

      2. The problem with reading the Bible first and then commentaries is that, as the man said, “the first opinion seems right”. People tend to stick with the first interpretation that occurs to them, and then it’s a struggle to convince them otherwise. By the same token, people will tend to privilege the first commentary they read as well.

      3. The benefit of dictionaries or other like resources is that they remind us that we live in a very different world from the apostolic age, or for goodness’ sake, the Bronze Age. Too often we read the Bible and presume that we understand, say, slavery and conclude as so many preachers do that the slave-master relationship is pretty much the same as the employee-employer one. Part of the benefit of these resources is their insistence that we recognize the “otherness” of ancient cultures. This benefit is hard to get without extra-Biblical help. In a long-ago hermeneutics class, I played an episode of “The Honeymooners” for them; it was about 35 years old at the time. My point: there are two dangers – 1. You might miss what is going on because you are from a different culture, even 35 years later; 2. You might not realize that you are missing what is going on, because you’ve presumed that your understanding is correct when it is not. The second danger is the worse.


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