Thursday, 23 April 2009

Why do we need commentaries?

I recently posted some criteria for judging excellence in a commentary. But why do we need the things in the first place?

From the earliest period, first in Judaism and later in Christianity, the commentary provided the classic form by which Scripture was both studied and interpreted. According to Childs, the choice of the form of a commentary as a means of studying and interpreting the Bible was not accidental. He goes on to say:

Of course, the study of the Bible has called forth other forms as well, such as the paraphrase, historical tractate, and philological treatise. Nevertheless, the commentary has remained dominant, both in periods of interpretative stability and of change.

Childs gives the following reasons that explain, in part, the choice:

  1. Very early in the history of literary stabilization, the biblical text was assigned a privileged status. Even though the form of a targum was sanctioned and assigned a role within a specific historical context, basically text and interpretation were sharply distinguished.

  2. The concern to follow the sequence of the biblical story was though important rather than rearranging the text into more orderly topics. The commentary form best lent itself to this approach.

  3. Because the Bible was traditionally understood as containing the very oracles of God, no word was regarded as superfluous. It was, therefore, thoroughly rational to argue that if Genesis needed only one chapter for the creation of the heavens and the earth but Exodus needed thirteen to describe the tabernacle, the Exodus chapters must contain multitudes of hidden mysteries calling for the most detailed commentary.

  4. Finally, because the Bible, which was to regulate the life of the nation, often contained problems of unclear interpretation, the need of help from learned scholars was often expressed. These difficulties involved linguistic, historical, and literary issues. The fact that each generation asked new questions also accounts for the continuing demand for commentaries and even super-commentaries.

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