Is there a real future for publishing new biblical commentaries???

I am currently reviewing two new commentaries (one on 1 Corinthians and one on Colossians).  Though some new insights are interesting on one verse or another, most of the time the comments are similar to conclusions and discussions previously reached in similar commentaries.  For instance, a commentary on any of Paul’s letters has to treat his ‘grace and peace to you…’ intro comment.  All modern commentaries will say the same thing.  What choice do they have?  They can’t just skip verses.  After all, each commentary has to try and stand on its own, right?  Well, that is what I find a bit tedious.  I think what may make the future of biblical commentating more palatable is a new genre.  Instead of commentaries being written that go verse-by-verse and make many or most of the same conclusions as previous ones, we perhaps should evolve the next generation of ‘commentaries’ into ‘Commentary Supplements’.

A ‘Commentary Supplement’ would not need to comment on each and every verse, since some verses are either quite easy to interpret as they stand, or the ground of interpretation has been well-worked by others.  This Supplement would only comment where the author feels that he or she is making a new contribution, or is reflecting on the state of scholarly discussion is a helpful way that moves interpretation forward.  Such Supplements could still have lengthy introductions, because some of the best information is given in such places where the author says: ‘Ok, this letter or gospel is written for this reason and reacts against these issues…now let’s see it unfold’.  The difference is, we only read about verses and sections that are really worth commenting on.  The interesting thing is, scholars who write these will disagree on what is important to add more input on, and what is already pretty well covered.  This will be advantageous to all involved for the following reasons:

1. It will be cheaper for the purchasers (because it will be shorter)

2. It will be a bit easier to read – in that you don’t have to struggle so hard to skip sections with perfunctory discussions.

3. It could be easier to write – though the researcher will not be able to just go into the project already knowing which sections need more attention.  But, when it comes to ‘writing up’, the shortness of the supplement style will make for less work (hopefully).

Now, having said all this, I think there is still room for some verse-by-verse commentaries.  These, I think, are known as ‘niche’ commentaries which approach the book from a special angle which has not yet been done (e.g. Social-science, rhetoric, feminism, etc…).

Finally, I think there needs to be a bit more openness to the stand-alone commentary – one that is not in a series (like Keener’s on Matthew and John).  That is because for some NT books we have a serious need for good commentaries, while other books are really well covered.  For instance, 2 Corinthians needs a good commentary.  I like Harris and Matera, but we need more (someone like Lou Martyn or Richard Hays would be good on this in a stand-alone large volume).  Also, I think Acts needs more attention – perhaps a 3 volume commentary (which shouldn’t seem so strange since 3 volumes were allotted to David Aune for Revelation in the WBC).


13 thoughts on “Is there a real future for publishing new biblical commentaries???

  1. I appreciate your proposals/suggestions, but I wonder if what you are envisioning isn’t already being done in a way through monographs. Also, I am not sure that such supplements would really be all that cheaper, at least for the end user since such supplements would appeal mostly to the specialists who are fewer in number. That being said, I do like your suggestion concerning stand alone commentaries on some of the less-covered books.

  2. Duke Ph.D. grad Craig Keener has a three volume Acts commentary coming out from Hendrickson.

    He has other commentaries on John, Revelation, Matthew and 1-2 Corinthians.

    He has been working on the Acts book for years and is hard-charging worker 10 hours of writing per day six days a week kind a guy.

    Douglas Campbell here at Duke is teaching a course on 2 Cor next semester but I don’t know that he is planning to write on 2 Cor.

    This discussion also reminds me of the interesting resource:
    Commentary and Reference Survey: A Comprehensive Guide to Biblical and Theological Resources (Paperback)
    by John Glynn (Author)
    Kregel Academic & Professional (February 15, 2007)

  3. Thanks for this. I think (1) monographs are too specific and too narrow so the Supplements would be broader than monographs and more focused than traditional commentaries. (2) the issue of cheapness is about number of pages and amount of work (the R & D cost); if a normally commentary on, let’s say Ephesians, would be 500 pages and cost $45, then a supplement (only covering some passages) would be maybe 300 pages and cost $40 – the difference is mentionable.

    Thirdly, I highly doubt that it is true that commentaries are for ‘specialists’. Having worked for a major publishing company, I can tell you that lots of seminaries (and there are a lot of seminaries!) buy commentaries – many of them would not claim to be specialists! In fact, real ‘specialists’ (working researchers?) don’t tend to like commentaries for the very reason they are so repetitive!

  4. Nijay, I like the idea of cheaper commentaries! But although skipping the perfunctory sections for people that are already up to speed on the scholarly conversation, what about the neophytes that have never heard the details of “grace and peace to you”? Should we expect them to start from scratch and read every commentary since ICC (an exaggeration), just like we did? It coulud be very daunting for a undergrad to figure out which commentaries had everything and which didn’t.

  5. Good question. I imagined that the COmmentary Supplement would endorse another full-length commentary. So, let’s say we have someone like Susan Eastman writing a supplement commentary on Galatians, she might (overall) endorse Lou Martyn’s Achor Commentary (proposing that the passages she doesn’t cover can be looked up in his commentary). This does presuppose others have access to this, but it really just takes a peek on googlebooks or Amazon search for many of them.

    Perhaps these Supplements could have indices in the back which list passages of the book under discussion and each section points to the commentary (already in existence) which has the best discussions.

    In a sense, this does mean that newer commentaries will not contain full discussions, but many new commentaries are very selective anyway and none of them have all the best information – it is patchwork any way you work. This Supplement form does favor the reader who already owns or has access to other commentaries. But now that we have so many commentaries, it is hard to justify getting more. And, buying used commentaries online is getting cheaper and cheaper so you can pick up Lou Martyn’s at the request of Susan Eastman’s (in my hypothetical Galatians scenario).

  6. Nijay,

    Thanks for mentioning my Matthew and John commentaries. A friend brought this to my attention. For the sake of time, I have never blogged nor responded to blogs, so this is my first-ever exception (smile)! I agree with you that new commentaries ought to fill new niches–otherwise the writers are wasting valuable time when we could simply recommend a work already in print. But I should mention that many publishers prefer shorter works because it is easier to sell them. I DID write a three-volume commentary on Acts (actually three times the word count of my 1600-page John commentary–the number of volumes don’t always tell the same story), figuring that Acts ought to receive the same detailed treatment commentators might give to a shorter work, say, Colossians. My first contracted publisher balked at the length. Hendrickson has picked it up, despite the cost involved. But after learning something about publishers, I do think that this is the last three-volume commentary on Acts I will ever write!
    –Craig Keener

  7. Craig,
    I feel privileged to have you visit my humble blog-home! Welcome. Thanks for your comments. I look forward to seeing your Acts commentary in due time! Also, Hendrickson will be doing Loveday Alexander’s Black’s commentary on Acts – also due out soon, but quite short in page numbers!

    I know about your commentaries because I used to work for Hendrickson and your John commentary is quite popular. Thanks for your hard work and keep it up.

    God’s blessings


  8. I think this is a great idea. Dunn did this in a small way in his WBC Romans. He often forgoes discussion on a topic that is well covered in another work and simply refers the reader to that volume.

  9. I think that you have misunderstood my comment regarding specialists. I did not say that the buyers of commentaries were specialists. I said that the supplements that you are advocating would appeal primarily to specialists. As such, they would probably be expensive since there would likely be fewer potential buyers.
    I also am also not sure the potential $5 difference you noted would mean much. I imagine that if you gave most users of commentaries the choice of a complete commentary as opposed to a partial commentary, with only $5 difference between the two, most would choose the complete commentary. Furthermore, if you have to supplement the partial commentary with another one, then you also have to factor in the cost of the additional commentary.
    Ultimately, I think that there is a greater problem with your proposed partial commentaries. Namely, books of the Bible are a whole as well as its constituent parts. The better commentaries trace the flow of thought in a book, not just microscopically examine its parts. A comparison of the outlines in commentaries reveal differences in how commentators perceive the structure/flow of thought/argument of a given book. One example would be Romans and the so-called Romans debate and the issues of purpose and audience. I suspect that many commentators will find it difficult to find another commentary that states what they want to say in the way they want it said. Hence the problem.

  10. Thanks Charles. You offer some points to consider. Here are my last thoughts on this: I don’t think the Supplements would appeal to ‘specialists’ as such. This, again, relates to the idea that only specialists collect commentaries. That’s not true. If you wanted just one commentary on Romans, you wouldn’t want the Supplement. But, if you were a pastor who had a handful of commentaries, and you find that Don Carson has written a Supplement commentary on Romans, you might be relieved to see that it need not be 1500 pages!
    On your last point about structure and flow, I generally agree with you. But to get this kind of continuity, do you need a commentary that comments on every verse in Romans? I mean, every single verse in every chapter??? Also, I disagree that one commentator is not going to be in general agreement with another on purpose and audience. I think Moo and Schreiner would agree on a great deal in Romans.

    Again, thank you for your thoughts.

  11. Steve Walton is doing the 2 vol. WBC commentary on Acts. At BNTC, he said that even with two volumes, after you fill in the required categories – biblio, form-structure, etc. – you find yourself running out of pages.

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