On Reading and Studying Scripture: Lessons from Malherbe (Gupta)

malherbeAs 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.

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7 thoughts on “On Reading and Studying Scripture: Lessons from Malherbe (Gupta)

  1. thank you for this; you might be interested to know that Malherbe’s essay is included (as ch. 21) in his recent posthumously published collected essays: Malherbe, Abraham J. Light from the Gentiles: Hellenistic Philosophy and Early Christianity: Collected Essays, 1959–2012, by Abraham J. Malherbe. Edited by Carl R. Holladay, John T. Fitzgerald, James W. Thompson, and Gregory E. Sterling. BRILL, 2013. http://books.google.com/books?id=OAwtAgAAQBAJ.

  2. I both agree and disagree. I agree that grappling with the text is the most fundamental task. But I also think that there needs to be a dialectic between grappling with the primary texts and grappling with others’ interpretations of the text, since the latter often give us better frameworks for understanding the text that might not have emerged from our studying of the texts alone. Let me flesh this point out in relation to my interaction with Dale Allison and R.T. France’s Matthew commentaries this semester. One of the reasons that I always enjoy reading R.T. France’s commentaries is that the independence of his approach (which seems comparable to Malherbe in some ways) often leads to fresh insights, but I still prefer Dale Allison’s work, which combines fresh insights on the text with remarkably fruitful interaction with the history of interpretation, and I suspect that his mastery of the latter has contributed to the impressiveness of the former. In short, if one has to choose, then it is probably better to err on the side of focusing on the primary text, but one should not underestimate the value of constructive interaction with the secondary literature!

    1. Wayne -well said. I guess we are in about the same place, because I think Allison is on target as well. I simply want students to struggle through making some sense of texts themselves before being molded by modern scholarship, but I like introducing foreign angles of perspective which often come through secondary scholarship.

  3. This is great. When I spoke to N T Wright last year he emphasized the text as the primary thing. He said not to touch a commentary until you’ve been immersed in the text. That’s where all the good ideas come!

  4. The text is primary for generating the fundamentals of the question, but the secondary literature are essential for developing the question in fruitful directions. That’s my advice to students.

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