COMMENTARY ON THE BIBLE. Edited by James D. G. Dunn and John W. Rogerson.
COMMENTARY ON THE BIBLE. Edited by James D. G. Dunn and John W. Rogerson. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003. 1639 pages. Hardcover. $75.00.
Reviewed by Thomas H. Trapp, St. Paul, Minnesota
Why agree to review such a long book? My first inclination was to get new insights and explanations and to review the current state of affairs in biblical studies for myself as a teacher of the Scriptures. How would the book benefit the busy pastor in preparation for sermons and Bible studies? Is it appropriate for church libraries and younger students of the Bible?
It takes time to read such a massive work carefully. Sixty-seven contributors are listed. What should one look for? What is the current state of research? What are the main theories about each book? How does the author resolve thorny issues and present the purpose of the book and its usefulness in the church. I expect that both Testaments will be treated as word of God and as part of one whole story of salvation.
A scholar who reviewed this work for another journal included a favorable review in said journal. I strongly disagree. Eerdmans provides wonderful resources for theological study. I just finished a translation on Luther’s theology for them and am now translating a book about Peter. But this book disappoints with respect to the audiences I consider above. The treatment of the epistles is stimulating and helpful, but the treatment of many other books is eclectic and at times even infuriating. Treatment of Scripture as the revealed word of God is lacking in too many sections.
The Torah: The Torah is treated as the repository of societal norms and customs with which one must frequently express dissatisfaction. The low status of women is particularly highlighted. Observations about what is repugnant can certainly be made. But the texts do not claim that every story is morally normative and must thus be dismissed instead of understood within its context.
G. J. Wenham (Genesis) suggests that “[t]he essence of sin is rejecting God’s commands, preferring human wisdom to his” (41). But sin is much deeper than moral behavior; it is enmity against God in the heart. Noah’s “fall” is not on a par with Adam’s (so, 45). Wenham does note the many promises that give shape to Genesis. He sticks with the documentary hypothesis, though often suggesting multiple sources for each story in its present form. A nice insight is that Jacob, who used clothes and a goat to trick his father, is tricked by his sons with clothes stained by the blood of a goat. The same theme of clothes and a goat is seen in the Judah-Tamar story as well (65).
W. D. Johnstone (Exodus) pays less attention to the documentary strata but plays Deuteronomy (“Israel ‘in exile’”) off against Exodus (“Israel ‘in return from exile’”), suggesting that Deuteronomy is composed earlier (e.g., 84, 89). “As both an ‘exilic’ and ‘postexilic text, [the Decalogue] presents an ideal of Israelite society in terms of an idyllic past of rural self-sufficiency.” “[T]he irony is that the ‘ten words’ achieve currency in an exilic context of dispossession” (92).
W. J. Houston (Leviticus) suggests that people engaged in sacrifice “in order to approach God and set up communication with him, whether to seek his aid or rejoice in his goodness,” much as one would bring a gift to approach a king (104). He ignores the previous relationship God had first established, though he notes that God had made atonement possible (106). He does observe that it is in connection within the setting of the sin offering that one speaks of blood and Jesus’ death. When discussing laws against homosexuality, he points out that “the Bible as a whole does not take into account variations in sexual orientation” and Leviticus 18 ought not be used to “determine sexual ethics in the present day” (116). “Why lesbianism is not mentioned is uncertain; perhaps the men who compiled the chapter simply had no knowledge of it” (117).
P. J. Budd (Numbers) arranges his comments thematically, not chapter by chapter. With respect to condemnation of other religions, he suggests “the texts ought to function as a stimulus, not to authoritarianism and the abuse of power, but to an informed critique of both power and religion, a critique from which faith itself might benefit” (140). He suggests that the narrative about Eldad and Medad prophesying (chap. 11) is told to authenticate prophecy at large, not just at shrines, and is especially to suggest to those who lived in Hezekiah’s Jerusalem that the northern prophets who predicted the fall of Samaria were to be affirmed (142). He suggests that Israel’s experience of oppression by Egypt and Canaan calls for a “clean break” and a “new order,” though the texts speak little about how to translate such a desire into action. “[T]he canonical process, whereby testimony and texts become sacred, needs to be treated with critical caution, even if a commitment to the Scriptures is finally deemed appropriate” (147). “For many readers the exclusivity inherent in [texts that forbid intermarriage] will be distasteful and deeply problematic.” “[S]uch boundaries can begin to stifle interaction and communication, to engender isolation, and even to foster oppression and cruelty to others” (147; cf. 150).
J. Rogerson (Deuteronomy), the editor of the OT portion of this volume, suggests that the latter chapters of Deuteronomy “presuppose that Israel is in exile and promise that God will restore the people to the promised land if they return to God and obey him (Dt 30:1–5).” “The reality of a people about to return to the promised land is addressed by a narrative about a people initially entering the promised land” (154). The curses and blessings are denigrated as “an apparent attempt to coerce Israel’s obedience by the threat of dire punishment” (170). I disagree. Talking to the people within a relationship, but showing them where veering off by themselves will lead, is not the primary focus of the Torah. God’s promises and love encircle these people, who are reminded not to forget what blessings surround them and will continue to do so.
Some brief observations on Joshua-Esther: Is the killing of Eglon, king of Moab, really a “male rape scene” and the “double-edged sword” a phallic symbol? Is Sisera delayed in returning from battle because he is “raping his female victims” (192)? One helpful observation is that the judges start out as good (Othniel “delivers Israel from the foreigner”) but end up bad (Samson is “is handed over to the foreigner … and delivers through his own suicide”) (200). P. Deryn Guest suggests that Judges is written in the Persian period (206). Graeme Auld dates the story of Saul to the Persian or Greek periods (219). Narrative links are accentuated. Any deeper theological theme or meaning of 1 and 2 Samuel goes unstated because “[t]hey contain very little probing of the Deity” (245). Do they not offer much evidence of the guiding hand of God within Israel’s history? Roger Tomes (1, 2 Kings) questions the severity of the consequences for sin in many of the stories and uses the Naaman narrative and Elisha’s permission to go into his king’s temple to show that “Israel’s attitude to other religions” demonstrates “no polemic against the worship of Rimmon . . . and no mockery of it” (267). He does point out parallel passages elsewhere in Scripture that interact with the stories in Kings. Richard J. Coggins (1, 2 Chronicles) helpfully points out that the prophets were very involved in their role to “interpret past events” (302). I have my doubts that the people fed and clothed in 2 Chronicles 28:1–15 form the basis for the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke (307). Lester Graabe dates Ezra to the Ptolemaic period (314).
Job-Song of Solomon: Katherine J. Dell (Job) offers many helpful insights into tensions within the book, but I do not see a need to eliminate the Satan from the story (p. 341) and certainly cannot agree that “it is right to question God’s ways and put God in the wrong as Job did rather than utter platitudes as his friends. Job has at least learned something from his experience of suffering—he has grown as a person, while his friends were locked in their stock positions” (363). I did not find Willem S. Prinsloo’s decision to lump all the psalms of lament together (366–73) to be helpful. He repeatedly suggests that the psalms are “to convince the reader to trust in the Lord” (e.g., – 388, 394, 396, 398, 404, et al.), not that they articulate beliefs already held. Many insights concerning details are provided by John W. Rogerson (Song of Songs) but one wonders if the meaning of the book is that “this better world will come only when people treat each other as individuals, to be respected, to be treated tenderly, to be allowed to retain their mystery” (– 481). Sociological observations dominate; theological observations are weak or non-existent.
The Writing Prophets: The treatments of Isaiah and Jeremiah were among the most disappointing aspects of this book. Margaret Barker (Isaiah) suggests that the land was corrupted by fallen angels, not sinful Judahites, and suggests that 1 Enoch is the best source of help to understand the book (– 500). The “young woman” of Isaiah 7 was “a heavenly figure who was the divine mother in the same way that the Lord was the father of the king” (– 505). So many intertestamental writings are mentioned in this material that I wondered what it really was a commentary about. Evil angelic beings are mentioned frequently, though not appearing in the Hebrew text anywhere. She comments with reference to Isaiah 42: “Those who retained a belief in sons of God, for example the later Christians, continued to distinguish between El and the Lord, as the Father and the Son” (– 528). The coastlands of Isaiah 49 “probably means a hostile supernatural being” (– 532). “‘Daughter of Zion’ was probably yet another name for the female deity of the city, the mother and the spouse of her kings” (ibid.). This type of interpretation is repeatedly used. A. R. P. Diamond (Jeremiah) writes one of the most defensive, angry commentaries on a biblical book that I have ever read (–614), using modern literary theory, semiotics, and aesthetics, along with “social theories of literary symbols labeled vaguely with the rubric of postmodernity.” “What do the performances of Jeremiah—prophetic figure and prophetic scroll—do with and to the myth of Israel and its patron deity, Yahweh? I use the term ‘myth’ in its loosely defined anthropological sense of a culture’s sacred narrative” (– 545). Just one more citation will suffice here: “In the process it anachronizes new religious moves that rewrite the myth of Yahweh toward cultic exclusivity and Yahweh-alone as mediated by the colonial elite who now perform the Jeremianic scroll” (– 561). Why is this in such a commentary? He is not in love with Jeremiah. He spends more time guessing about the implied reader than hearing the text. It is certainly not an inspired prophet speaking. Many of his speculations border on the obscene, delving into Yahweh’s personality. John Goldingay (Ezekiel) provides the first breath of fresh air in a long time. He does note the male and female tensions that are brought out by reading Ezekiel (– 636) but also works with the texts that are presented and gives insight into the background of what Ezekiel refers to (– 636). He writes in a lively tone and addresses pastors and people. He knows his audience (– 654). “Knowing about God’s gracious act of restoration enables people to own their previous failure (43:10) and owning failure opens them to God’s act of restoration” (– 660). Space will permit me to say little more than that the Minor Prophets are dealt with much more from a societal perspective and with a view toward application to such issues for today, not primarily as theological documents.
Intertestamental Writings and 1 Enoch: In the interest of completeness, these books are all discussed in this commentary. The comments provide helpful historical background. The treatment of 1 Enoch in such a volume may be unique. It proved timely when I recently had a female Ethiopian student, who considers it inspired, in a general education Bible course.
The Gospels and Acts: Introductory essays delve into the history of interpretation and a variety of approaches. These furnish good background to what is “out there,” even though much of it is antithetical to viewing the Scriptures as the word of God and to describing salvation.
Anthony J. Saldarini (Matthew) concentrates on larger units without trying “to determine which teachings may go back to the historical Jesus” (– 1001). He suggests that “Jesus’ failure to reform Galilean society in his lifetime as well as the failures of his early followers and of the late-first-century Matthean community to win over a majority of their fellow Jews” occasioned the comments about Chorazin, et al. (– 1027). The cross serves in 16:24 as a “metaphor for self-denial” (p. 1038). Fruitful investing as discussed in the parable of the talents “probably symbolizes the obligation to convince people to follow Jesus” (– 1054). “The narrative only hints at the theological interpretation of Jesus’ death as sacrifice, atonement, redemption, and so on, which were developed so extensively in later Christian literature. It emphasizes the sinful human injustice and hostility which led to his execution by censuring the Jewish leaders and more indirectly the Roman government for their malice and blindness to God’s will and purpose” (– 1055). Jesus is interpreted in terms of standing up for the poor and oppressed against the powers that be.
Craig Evans (Mark) helpfully employs rabbinic notes to explicate texts, though “having” faith is needed for miracles to work (e.g., – 1079). One helpful comment connects Jesus’s transfiguration and white appearance with the Ancient of Days in Daniel 7 (– 1085). This treatment is good in terms of Roman, Targumic, and OT background to set the stage but still does not answer the question about the purpose of Jesus’ death.
David L. Balch (Luke) concentrates on how Luke addresses issues of life in the Greco-Roman world (e.g., 1116); he engages in much speculation and reduces Jesus to one who teaches “the successors a way of life” (1121, 1157). “For Jesus the way to life is by losing it, by experiencing the cross (9:24)” (1122). Once again, this is most dissatisfying. Balch goes after the Christians who have too much money and do not understand the poor (e.g., 1140, 1144) and also speaks against those who do not accept people of differing sexual orientations (1143). My marginal notes increased as I found Balch using Luke to blame complacent Christians. “Do we Christians in the twenty-first century believe that God is with us as we experience suffering in our bodies and as we act out the will of God in conflict with others in our society, or do we primarily want to save our individual souls from this evil chaos, as did Lucius in Apuleius’s tale? The literary question is whether Luke-Acts is religious and political history or individualistic biography or novel?” (1156). Luke’s Jesus on the cross is the “philosopher calmly commending his spirit to God” (p. 1157).
J. Martin C. Scott (John) disappoints as well. He advocates reading John through the eyes of Sophia (wisdom) from Proverbs 1–9 and intertestamental literature. “She is the model for understanding the Johannine Jesus’ mission in the world” (1161). John presents a “decisively female image of God’s presence in the world.” Logos and Sophia are both presented according to this interpretation of John. “Jesus Christ [is] the very embodiment of Sophia.” (1163). I quickly tired of references to “Sophia” or “Jesus Sophia,” as a model of the love relationship between God and humans (e.g., 1197). A gnostic interpretation of the gospel is simply out of place.
John T. Squires (Acts) helpfully points out that the disciples on Pentecost do not practice “glossolalia” but rather “xenoglossy” as they speak known foreign languages, fulfilling the prediction that the Gospel would be spoken to all nations. But why say that “Luke never envisages any ontological unity of Jesus and God” and that “Jesus [is] an agent of God’s sovereignty, as one member among many (Peter, Philip, Stephen, Saul, Barnabas, and so on)” (1233)?
The presentations of the Gospels are not satisfying in terms of explicating salvation and Jesus as true God and man. Those dealing with Luke and John were painful to read, with everything reduced to the level of human teaching about life and minimizing the role of Jesus as Savior who brings believers to eternal life.
The Epistles: Though not completely satisfying, this was the best part of the commentary and finally gave some theological support and insight to life and salvation. Romans, Galatians, Hebrews, and Revelation stand out as good presentations.
John Reumann (Romans) does a nice job of looking at a community of Gentile Christians along with Jewish Christians who return to Rome and to that community after having been expelled for a time, seeing that as the background for the problems that arise. He makes reference to the work of others and draws it together to express the message of the letter. He works with the text instead of overlaying it with some remote theory. He makes helpful use of various modern translations. He lets the text speak. Stephen Barton (1 Corinthians) sees the letter as written to a group of fledgling house churches. They need help in seeing the depth of their new identity “in Christ” (1317). He points out how the Gospel goes against both Jewish eschatological expectations and the Gentile quest for Sophia (contra Balch above). What a breath of fresh air to read “Paul is not concerned to offer sociological information but to engage in theological persuasion scripturally informed” (1319). Wisdom is redefined. John Barclay (2 Corinthians) argued in vain with his editor to rearrange the textual notes to follow the sequence 8—9; 10—13; 1—7 and counsels the reader to begin reading his comments in this order, as he would have arranged it. [The OT editor did allow such alterations, in Numbers and Psalms.] He also sees a new world unfolding, instead of an old one continuing (1363). Beverly R. Gaventa (Galatians) points out that the “union with Christ means that believers have no other identity and nowhere else to be” and that “the gospel of Jesus Christ brings about not mere renewal or even rebirth of the individual but nothing less than Christ’s complete invasion of the individual as of the entire creation” (1380f.). Why does the entire commentary not speak with this tone, with God in the center of restoration of his creation, culminating in Christ? I will forego comments on the rest of the Pauline literature. There are points where one can agree or disagree, mainly about whether or not the texts merely present ethical teachings, with Jesus as friend (e.g., 1399). Many comments are helpful and insightful.
Anthony C. Thiselton (Hebrews) points out that Hebrews is probably the “highest” Christology and yet Hebrews presents a “more realistic portrayal of the genuine humanness of Jesus” (1453). “Much of the poverty of some preaching today derives from exclusive attention either to ‘teaching,’ ‘exhortation,’ or personal anecdote, in contrast to the richly multilayered, multilevel model of preaching, teaching, and praise seen here” (1454). The treatment of James (Richard Bauckham) slides back into wisdom from Jesus (instead of sanctification!), with the goal of “living in faith toward perfection” (1485). The General Epistles are treated in a balanced and satisfying way. Loren T. Stuckenbruck (Revelation) does a nice job of providing detail and balance and stimulating insights.
On balance, this last section is the only satisfying portion of the entire commentary. The Epistles are treated primarily as theological and not sociological documents. It was exhausting to plow through so much where that was not the case. I did not find the commentary as a whole to be satisfying in helping me to solve thorny issues. Too many presentations were eclectic and defensive or merely moralizing. That ought not be part of such a work. Many of these treatments would be more appropriately addressed to the scholarly world as monographs. I would not recommend it as a whole for Lutheran pastors. I would certainly not recommend it to a church library. I have counseled students not to purchase it for their own library.