How to write a commentary when your library is 2000 miles away

in November 2012, Zondervan published my commentary on 1-2 Thessalonians, a volume I’ve been working on since 2005 (click HERE). When I saw it on display at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, I heaved a sigh of relief, and not just because finishing a book, any book, lightens the spirit. (My 1 Corinthians commentary is available on Logos or from Amazon.)

I was pleased because the whole production seemed like a gamble from the outset. I had to figure out how to write a commentary without a library. I felt like the first person to invent the flourless cake.

I teach at a Bible college and seminary located in Costa Rica. Most Americans know it as a land of natural wonders, with beaches, rafting, rainforests, volcanoes and of course, gold-standard coffee. We are located in San José, a city of a million: not exactly the “bush,” but I might as well be when I sit down to do my writing.

One writer gave advice along these lines:

What you should do is this, you should have your research assistant spend time in the library, collating bibliography and making photocopies. Do most of your composing when you are on a research sabbatical. As you write, send your assistant out for further information. When you edit, have your assistant check for typos. When you’re almost done and you have to produce indices (subject, author, ancient texts), have your assistant do the work under your supervision.

Sigh. Every point is problematic. We have no research assistants; usually, no study sabbaticals. Every professor who is not a dean teaches a full load, 24 semester hours a year, 50% more than I taught in a US seminary; no teaching assistants lessen our load. We have no library of research caliber. Our graduate-level students can read English, but cannot edit it. This means that, anything that needs to get done, will got done through the direct, hands-on work of the writer – there is no “farming out.” Thus, writing is part of the week-to-week work of a busy professor.

Boomer, my research assistant
Boomer, my research assistant

I say this with no rancor; after all, when you volunteer to teach overseas, you do so cheerfully accepting of the new rules of the game. And my colleagues are wonderfully supportive.

Our library in Costa Rica is relatively small (10 thousand volumes) and much of it is in Spanish. Occasionally it has a useful commentary or monograph which I don’t own. They also have some German Catholic works which were translated and published in Spain: I’ll opt to skim through a Spanish version over the original German any day.

My main challenge is that my primary research library – Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia – is 2000 miles to the north as the crow flies or, 3855 miles if you prefer to drive. Sometimes people ask me, “Isn’t everything on the internet now? Do you really need to be physically in a library?” O! that everything were on the net, but that’s still years away. Nor did I graduate from a university that allows alumni to access its electronic book collection.

When my book was published, a few people asked me how I had managed to do it. “Jury-rigging” is the answer:

Once-a-year visits to Philadelphia. When I pack to fly to the States, I make sure to pop my library cards into my travel pouch along with my passport. The library of Westminster Seminary has a glorious collection of 140+ thousand volumes and 685 periodicals. The staff there is great: every year I breeze past the desk with “Hi, it’s me, I’m back.” I go with a Wish List. I make a lot of photocopies. Some trips I spend an afternoon there, sometimes it’s a week or so. When I’m done I chat with the librarians a little and bid them farewell with a “See you next year!”

I take very good care of the photocopies. Last month we had torrential rains in San José (we have them almost daily) and it blew in and blurred many pages that I needed.

It’s also considered a courtesy to circulate an email to grad students and to faculty colleagues: “Guys, when I’m up north I’ll be going to the library; does anyone need anything?”

Bible Software. I have used Logos Software for many years, and have a large second monitor that’s Logos-dedicated. About 75% of my research can be done directly from the books that I’ve bought, in particular lexical works, the church fathers and some commentaries. In addition, Logos added the Perseus collection of classical works (Greek, Latin and English) – Perseus is also available online (

Online Databases. I have access to many articles through EBSCO, by virtue of being an alumnus of my college. I subscribe to Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, for $100 a year, meaning I can tap into any Greek text from antiquity. I also access Greek inscriptions for free on the Packard Humanities Index ( and papyri from Papyri Info ( Tyndale Fellowship always has interesting material on their site.

Key Purchases. If I’m going to be in the States, Amazon delivers books to my US address that I will later pick up. When I was writing on 1 Corinthians, I bought two of the four volumes of Wolfgang Schrage’s majestic commentary. Otherwise, we are able to receive books via the Aerocasillas courier service, meaning that a package will go from the publisher, to Miami, by jet to Costa Rica, and then to our college – and they charge by the ounce!

Friends near a library. If I need just that one article and EBSCO doesn’t provide it – it’s often something from the important journal, New Testament Studies, or perhaps a few pages from a certain book – then I may ask someone to scan it and send it to me.

Online books, Google and Amazon. Ah, the elusive promise that one day all books will be published online! Still, it’s possible in some cases to pick up those few pages that I need through their “browsing” features.


An author of a reference book depends on current secondary literature, which one hopes will flow unimpeded. Writing under my circumstances is like a shower I once took in the house of a friend, whose water pressure was almost nil; I informed my hosts, channeling Oscar Wilde: “I came perilously close to getting wet up there.” I do dream of a day with geographical distance is truly nullified as a factor for doing research.

I must make a virtue out of necessity.

Some commentaries (Malherbe on 1-2 Thessalonians, Thiselton on 1 Corinthians) are treasure-houses of information. They take into account all the secondary literature and also do a great deal with primary sources. I cannot think of writing a commentary of that nature, nor should I; but what can I contribute that’s worthwhile?

First: I write my own commentary on the Greek text, and only later interact with secondary literature as a second stage. I was pleased to see that Gordon Fee does this (see the preface to his Thessalonians commentary). While I cannot compare myself to Fee, I can learn from his approach – my job as a commentator is not, first and foremost, to read about the epistles, but to study the epistles within the context of other texts of its period. I must say that, studying the Bible itself is much more interesting than studying commentaries. After I wrote a commentary of 100-200 pages, I then went to WTS and began to interact with other thinkers. The reader will notice that I have a full bibliography in my books. I also spent time evaluating the various versions of the Bible in English and Spanish; I also produced my own translation of 1-2 Thessalonians.

Second: I can take advantage of the free access I do have to many primary data – ancient texts in the original and in translation, search engines, and lexical resources. So instead of accessing an ancient text third- or fourth-hand (“Malherbe says in a footnote that Smith says that Dio Chrysostom said”) I can study Dio for myself. The Latin has a phrase for it: Ad fontes, or “To the [original] sources!”

In my Corinthians commentary, I did a great deal of reading in the early church fathers, since there is a particularly useful amount of cultural and theological illumination that they shed on the epistle.

In the case of Thessalonians, I have come up with what seems to be an original interpretation of 2 Thess 3:11, based on my own study of the verb periergazomai (“to be a busy-body” or colloquially, “to mess around”). At the Evangelical Theological Society meeting in November 2012, I presented my interpretation that perhaps these Thessalonians were “dabbling in divine matters that were not their affair.” I hope to work this into a journal article. In other words, by paying less attention to secondary literature and more to the primary sources, I came up with an idea that is present in no modern book.

Right now I’m sketching out the outline for a non-technical book, based on my Thessalonians commentary. I don’t know that I’ll write another commentary – there are just so many good ones already out there – but I do know how to do so.

Related posts:

Studies in Thessalonians series

“How to write a commentary when your library is 2000 miles away,” by Gary Shogren, Ph.D., Professor of New Testament, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

8 thoughts on “How to write a commentary when your library is 2000 miles away

  1. I appreciate this article Dr. Shogren. I too have found Perseus invaluable. It helped me confirm that agape means, most of the time, “to value” rather than “Godly love” or “unconditional love”. I also like and and the new LXX translation website –

  2. I appreciate your article on writing a commentary when 2000 miles away from your library. Thanks for the links and for the free commentary on 1 Corinthians. God bless.

Comments are closed.

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: