Official Blog of the Bishop of Durham

Can You Name a Single Non-Apologetic Bible Commentary?

Posted by NT Wrong on October 14, 2008

I was just trying to think of one. Just one.

Actually, there’s one on Jeremiah that springs to mind. But that’s as far as I got.

Is there any one that does not attempt to defend the biblical book’s ideology, wax lyrical about the mellifluous prose or poetry of the contents of its most thrown-together redactions, make vague parallels with the Amarna letters or somesort in order to defend it ancient pedigree or historicity, or include some other specious nonsense?

I mean to ask — of the thousands of ‘critical’ biblical commentaries written over recent centuries — how many, if any, are actually ‘critical’?

Critical shmitical!

Please offer your suggestions.

23 Responses to “Can You Name a Single Non-Apologetic Bible Commentary?”

  1. It depends what you mean. If the author has drawn a conclusion based on careful study of the evidence, is it still ideology?

    I’d say that Raymond Brown on John, which consistently surveys a range of interpretative options before making the case for the one he considered most in line with the evidence, deserves the title.

    The same could be said about Dunn’s commentary on Romans, and probably also Davies and Allison on Matthew.

    This isn’t to say that these commentators are uninfluenced by beliefs, convictions, upbringing, and who knows what else. But if that undermines their being critical, then no human being is critical!

  2. john shuck said

    Time for the Guild to write some commentaries!

  3. ntwrong said

    If the commentary author reiterates the ideology of the biblical book without considering criticisms of it, that’s an uncritical use of the evidence.

    Hmmmm… while I admire Raymond Brown’s work, I seem to recall at least one or two homiletic moments. Great resource, but completely non-apologetic?

    Dunn??? Word Commentary??? Surely not. Although, the longtime-ongoing Job Commentary might be in.

    Davies & Allison, like Brown, is a great resource. It’s still good, even if it regularly assumes the viewpoint of the biblical book. (e.g. was Pilate’s wife really “granted” a dream?)

  4. I would think that the Context Group’s “Social Science Commentary” Series would count as critical. Great post, though. Something that I’d never even thought about.

  5. ntwrong said

    You’re probably right – the Context Group’s commentaries are in. They’re not general commentaries, but their stated aim is non-apologetic. Are they non-apologetic in fact? I think so, but I don’t know.

  6. JC said

    While, as ever, I agree with you Wrong, I’d be even more cautious on the Context Group. Many still have confessional backgrounds and this comes out from time to time. Whether this affects the commentaries is of course another question. Then there’s the age old question of Orientalism…

  7. ntwrong said

    It’s been a while since I looked at commentaries by Malina and others. I have it in the back of my mind that they were using the old ‘the bible’s not wrong, but they just thought differently in those days’ apologetic. But I couldn’t find anything to back that up.

    Yeah – there’s no ‘Hebrew mind’. Malina needs a ba-ba-ba corrective (Barr and Bhabha). And funnily enough there was even the odd bit of individualism 2000 years ago. Malina’s way too wooden in his application of sociological ‘types’.

  8. Justin said

    What about the subaltern-apologetic Fernando F. Segovia and R. S. Sugirtharajah, eds. >A Postcolonial Commentary on the New Testament Writings< (RBL Review at http://www.bookreviews.org/pdf/6344_6827.pdf)?

  9. Luke said


    i use the Anchor Bible Commentary and the New Interpreters Bible Commentary. they use the modern criticisms and i have yet to see an appeal to tradition or doctrine in their books.

    is that what you’re looking for?

  10. Antonio Jerez said

    Yeh, I think the good bishop is absolutely wright about Malina. “To wooden in his application of sociological types”, is my verdict also after reading some of his works. His essay “Christ and time: Swiss or Mediterranean” is one of the worst pieces of nonsense I have ever read in exegetics. A piece of apologetics that tries to salvage the failed prophecies of the second coming in a more sophisticated way than bishop Wright.

  11. Jeremiah said

    Why would anyone want such a commentary?

  12. ntwrong said

    Antonio and James – after reading through the Context Group’s output some more, and your comments on them, they don’t get in the door.

    Luke – thanks, but no thanks!

    The Catholic Anchor Bible Commentary is founded on Albrightian principles of defending the historicity of the Bible. The rewrites and recent editions are even more questionable. Have a read of the commentaries by Luke Timothy Johnson, and then tell me if there’s no apologetics in the series.

    The New Interpreters Bible Commentary is eliminated not least on the grounds of its Romans commentary alone.

    Justin – that’s not a ‘commentary’, but a collection of academic papers. There’s some good papers there, but its not in the commentary genre. And an ‘interested’ specialist commentary, even if verse-by-verse, is a different genre from what I’m after. I regularly use the various feminist commentary series (Levine, etc), because they see things that others don’t. But they’re a different genre.

    Jeremy, you asked, “Why would anyone want such a commentary?”

    Well, the reason I would want such a commentary is that the commentary provides one of the basic secondary resources for understanding biblical texts. A commentry should have a primary interest in dealing with texual issues, contextual issues, meaning, form, exposing ideology, and other analytical tasks of the genre. If I have to spend my time trying to work out if the commentator is actually critically identifying the way the text works, or if she is rather more interested in defending the message and form of the text, then I lack a proper basic resource with which to do biblical studies. I don’t doubt that classical studies or hindu studies face various biases of their own, but in biblical studies one particular bias (apology for the bible and/or the religion) is not only a near-universal, but there is tacit acceptance of it within the discipline. Sure – we can’t stand on neutral ground, being situated interested beings, but that doesn’t mean that we have to wallow in the mud of bias. That is, I am a subjectivist, but I’m not a relativist.

    All I want is a commentary that is primarily interested in elucidating the text. It would be a useful tool in the field. Is this wanting too much?

  13. Jeremiah said

    You want a commentary to elucidate the text, but for what purpose? If you want a purely scientific examination of the text, isn’t that missing the point?

  14. ntwrong said


    My main purpose is to write journal articles in journals read by only a few other people.

    I don’t want a “purely scientific examination” of the Bible. That would be a category error. Neither the Bible nor any ancient literature, can be approached in a “purely scientific” way. So, as your protasis doesn’t hold, I wonder — do I not in fact miss the point?

  15. Jeremiah said

    To what end do you write journal articles? If not for the benefit of the church, then why bother?

  16. ntwrong said

    I write for its own end. I eschew the ‘production view’ of knowledge. There is instrinsic value in truth, if you are willing to be satisfied by that instrinsic value. There may well be collateral benefits for ‘the church’, for the unchurched, for anybody else, but that is up to them to decide whether they will be benefited or not.

    BTW: You’re not this Jeremiah, are you?

  17. Jeremiah said

    Sorry, I’m not BO’s pastor

  18. steph said

    He might be McCain’s though. I wonder if he’s the one who supports capital punishment on Jim’s blog (among other things).

  19. I see what you mean. There are very few commentaries critical enough to say “I think the Bible was wrong about this”. And even when trying to be “neutral”, they lapse into treating the narrative as though it were factual without discussion. Fair points about most commentaries, I imagine, although some may in fact be taking a literary approach and be justified in talking about the story as story – although I have often suspected that some such approaches are motivated by a desire to be accepted by uncritical readers.

    It isn’t a Bible commentary, but I’d recommend Keith Ward’s book What the Bible Really Teaches for a critical perspective of the sort you advocate – one that acknowledges that the Bible is wrong at times.

    I hope that if and when I publish a commentary it will live up to your standards! 🙂

  20. ntwrong said

    James McGrath wrote:
    There are very few commentaries critical enough to say “I think the Bible was wrong about this”. And even when trying to be “neutral”, they lapse into treating the narrative as though it were factual without discussion.

    I copied your words partly because I wished I’d said it that way. And although it goes without saying, I must say: I quite agree!

    James McGrath wrote:
    imagine, although some may in fact be taking a literary approach and be justified in talking about the story as story – although I have often suspected that some such approaches are motivated by a desire to be accepted by uncritical readers.

    There aren’t actually all that many literary commentaries, in the sense of providing the comprehensive textual coverage of the genre — many of them focus in on texts they are interested in. I frequently suspect a kind of ‘displacement’ in these works. It’s as though, knowing they can’t defend the Bible in a traditional fashion, they use modern literary criticism with which to do unreasonably extol its virtues. Mind you, there are probably exceptions that I’ve just ignored.

    I don’t think I’ve read that one by Keith Ward, but I’ll add it to my list.

    I’m sure your remotely forthcoming commentary on the passion and resurrection narratives in the four canonical Gospels and G. Peter will far surpass the vast majority of others. Although, in the meantime I may have to convince you that the resurrection is a legitimate area for historical criticism, and isn’t reserved for fath. 😉

  21. Antonio Jerez said

    Bishop wrong wrote:
    Although, in the meantime I may have to convince you that the resurrection is a legitimate area for historical criticism, and isn’t reserved for faith.

    EXACTLY! That is the point I was trying to make on Jim West´s blog a couple of weeks ago but Jim wasn´t interested in that kind of discussion. And as I said earlier on James Crossley´s blog I am quite fed up with this charade going on in exegetical circles that the resurrection of a jewish rabbi 2000 years ago isn´t really something a historian can say much about.



    “The genesis of this website was a conversation between Peter Kirby and I about a list of books he had compiled for study of the Gospels. They were all largely conservative commentaries, and I complained to him that there were no commentaries from skeptical scholars. Hardly had I sent the email before I realized that the reason he had not included any commentaries by skeptical scholars is that there are none. Apparently only believing scholars, largely conservatives, are motivated to write commentaries. Skeptical scholars tend to produce studies that take in the New Testament and related writings in the entire, but no skeptical scholar has produced a verse-by-verse study of a particular gospel. The closest thing is Gerd Ludemann’s Jesus After 2000 Years, but that work, in my view, suffers from serious flaws in methodology that undermine its historical reading, although it is an immense treasure trove of valuable and useful information. This website is the first step toward the goal of producing a skeptical commentary on the Gospel of Mark.”

  23. There are obvious reasons most commentaries are written by believers:

    1. They find the Bible important
    2. They take the Bible as in some sense “true”.
    3. They have 2000 years of others’ work to lean on.
    4. A lot of them have jobs requiring them to write such works, and gain plaudits and/or cash and/or spiritual benefits .

    Likewise, there are several reasons real skeptics don’t write indepth biblical commentaries:

    1. They typically don’t find the Bible important enough to devote the time and eneergy.
    2. There are usually reams of things in the Bible skeptics don’t believe true, up to dismissing entirely the traditional Author’s existence.
    3. There is nowhere near as large a body of skeptical works to lean upon.
    4. Writing indepth Biblical commentaries isn’t going to create either cash or kudos for most skeptics.

    Basically, there are more rewards for the believer than the skeptic in doing commentaries. Human nature being what it is, it’s much easier writing believing commentaries. If you simply say something is true, people agree or diagree. If you say something is wrong or untrue, with specifics, believers and non-believers alike will come out of the woodwork to argue your specifics.

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