As I was looking up some of Abraham Malherbe’s work, I stumbled across a nice little essay called “On the Writing of Commentaries.” Malherbe (who passed away a couple of years ago) was a seasoned commentator and biblical scholar, perhaps most well-known for his work on 1-2 Thessalonians and Paul in the Greco-Roman world.
In his essay he talks about how different people do biblical research. Some, he notes, compile a bibliography and trudge through the secondary sources as of first importance (Doug Moo recently made a nod about this being his approach). Malherbe resists this move methodologically. He writes this:
Focus on the text! If something worthwhile has been written, it will bubble up as the commentator pursues more basic work…The way to begin is to develop a close relationship to the text. Unburden yourself of the preconceptions you have of the text, acquired from your reading of interpreters and your previous research. To spend time with them at this stage is like washing your feet with your socks on. When confronted by the phalanxes of commentators, I am reminded of J. Frank Dobie, the father of Southwestern literature. When someone asked him why he never got his PhD, he retorted that the dissertation held him off, for writing one was like digging up bones from one hole and putting them into another.
I have always been taught (by my own mentors) to take Malherbe’s approach. And when I assign coursework in Scripture to my students, I try, as best I can, to get them deeply involved in the text as a first-contact priority. I like inductive exercises on most occasions better than deductive ones. At least initially, I want my students well-trained in exegetical method and historical context, rather than up on which modern scholar has this or that opinion about this or that issue.
Two models: Francis Watson and J. Ramsey-Michaels. As for the former, he rarely seems dependent on other previous interpreters (which is why he is always so difficult to categorize!). As for the latter, his NICNT commentary is fresh because he doesn’t feel bogged down by commenting on all the commentaries. In many ways, his volume is an exercise in plain reading, but profoundly so!
Preaching: I think that, because our seminaries in the US tend to promote “safe preaching” (tethered to popular opinions ‘in the commentaries’), I find most preaching very dull. This is, in part, I think, because preachers weren’t trained to really read the text carefully for themselves. They were trained how to look up what the text means in a variety of handy reference resources. Conversely, I love it when sermons show freshness of thought because the preacher said, “I was filled with gratitude and awe as I spent the last two weeks reading [X book of Scripture] over and over again, night and day. Here is what struck me…” Preachers, I think, used to see themselves as theologians once upon a time. Now they are all-too-often deliverymen and women.
A Plea to Remember the Biblical Languages: My heart breaks because seminaries are finding study of biblical languages optional, but not necessary. I know languages are hard, but so much of the freshness and inspiration, for me, comes from trying to sort out what in the world these Greek (or Hebrew) words mean and how we should translate them (formally and functionally). Malherbe, in his essay, gives some attention to this matter as well.
See Malherbe’s essay, “On the Writing of Commentaries,” Restoration Quarterly 53.3 (2011): 129-140.