Monday, December 17, 2007

Ten signs you have a bad Bible commentary

In the past few weeks I have been reading several Bible commentaries (well, not really reading them, but browsing theough them) to see what is going on in the world of Catholic biblical scholarship these days. The two I examined most recently were Inside the Bible by Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ (Ignatius Press, 1998) and another one called A Catholic Guide to the Bible by Fr. Oscar Lukefahr, a Lazarist (Ligouri, 1998). Needless to say, the Ignatius Press one was a little bit more orthodox than the one by Ligouri, but both commentaries suffered from what I considered deplorable deficits in their scirptural scholarship. This led to wonder, what exactly is a good Bible commentary? The answer to that is multifold, and it may be easier to list several warning signs that you have a bad commentary (sadly, because these are so much more common). If you pick up a commentary and some of these positions are espoused, you might do well to get another one.

So, let me present to you my Top Ten Signs You Have a Bad Bible Commentary. I have tried to list these in order from least to most aggregious errors, and some (though not all) of these were found in both of the commentaries listed above. I'm interested on your feedback as to whether these are as serious as I claim them to be, and whether or not there may have been others that I have missed.

One more note: these signs have to do with Bible scholarship specifically (i.e., exegetical and hermeneutical practices in the interpretation of the Scriptures), not with ways that we approach Revelation in general. Thus, you will not find on this list the notion that the Bible is only inspired in areas pertaining to salvation, though this is certainly a huge and common error. Rather, this list treats of more specific errors that pertain to certain biblical books.

Now, on with the list.

10) The Dating for the Book of Daniel: Daniel, for 2,000 years of Jewish and Christian history, has been dated as being written during the time of the Babylonian exile. Modernist scholarship, however, attempts to date it after the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes (c. 163 BC). Why? As Fr. Baker says in his commentary, there are too many prophecies in Daniel that have way too much accurate information about the time of Antiochus. The implication is that real prophecy can't happen, and if any prophecy looks too accurate, it must have been written after the fact.

9) The "Reed Sea": When you get to the commentary on the Exodus, does it say that the Israelites didn't really cross the Red Sea, but a very shallow ( 3 inches) marsh called the Reed Sea? The motivation here is an arrogant disbelief in the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea, since the crossing of a marshland of three inches of water requires no miraculous explanation. Again, the modernist interjection is a denial of the miraculous intervention of God on behalf of His people.

8) There are Two Contradictory Genesis Accounts of Creation: Does the commentary attempt to force a dichotomy between the Creation account of Genesis 1 and Genesis 2? This is often suggested by appealing to the so-called "Documentary Hypothesis," a popular belief that several authors with different theologies all contributed to the Old Testament (they are often referred to as the Elohist, the Jahwist, the Priestly, and the Deuteronomic writers). The implication is that there is no clear and consistent theology in the Old Testament, but that it is a pluralistic compilation of several varying and often contradictory theologies. The Pontifical Biblical Commission during the time of Pius X condemned this belief).

7) Second Isaiah: The book of the prophet Isaiah was actually written by two men. Why, well, it is obvious that Isaiah lived in the 8th century BC, but he seems to make prophecies that relate to the restoration of Israel after the Exile (5th century). Therefore, he could not have written them. Again, like with #10, the implication is a disbelief in the reality of prophecy.

6) Jonah is a Parable: Read the commentary on Jonah; does it say the story is probably a parable only? This is another result of a disbelief in supernatural occurences and Divine Providence. The Jews, Church Fathers and Jesus Himself all referred to Jonah as a historical book. Who are we to say any differently?

5) Most Books are Dated as After the Exile: If you check the dates that the commentator says each book was written in, do most of them fall after the Exile, even the Pentateuch? By placing most books as being compiled after the Exile (c. 497 BC), the commentators are attempting to insert doubt into the Biblical texts by removing them further and further from the events described in them, by making them the work of scribes instead of inspired prophets and by casting doubt on Tradition as a whole, since Tradition says that the Pentateuch was written during the time of the Exodus (c. 1400 BC), not during the Exile.

4) Advocates the "Q" Theory in the NT: Does it deny the traditional assertion, going back to St. Irenaeus, that Matthew's Gospel was the first to be written and instead assert the existence of a primitive common "source" for all the Gospels, which it calls "Q"? This is a modernist theory and the corner of liberal biblical scholarship. It is an attempt to solve what is called (arrogantly), the "Synoptic Problem," which is the fact that all of the Gospels use similar language and agree with each other. Admitting that this is due to their historical veracity and divine inspiration is not even brought up. Instead, a purely historical reason is looked for. To the extent that this "Q" theory is advocated, the reliability of the NT is often questioned.

3) The Genesis Account is Taken From Babylonian Folklore: This assertion makes a joke of the unique Creation of the world by God, casts doubt on the historicity of Genesis, insults inspiration and mythologizes the Creation. For this reason, it is a most grievous error.

2) A Late Date for John's Gospel: John's Gospel contains some of the most profound and important sayings of Jesus, sayings on which much Catholic doctrine finds its source. Thus, it is in the interest of those who hate the Church to try to claim that this Gospel was not written by John (and therefore, that the words are not really those of Jesus), but was composed sometime between 120 and 200 AD by a "Johannine community" whose writings represent their specific theology and not the authentic words of Christ. This claims dares to put forth the notion that the words fo Christ as recorded in the Fourth Gospel are not His own but those of men put into the mouth of Christ.

And now, the number one sign that you have a bad Bible commentary (drumroll)...

1) Matthew 16:18-20 is A Later Addition: Yes, the biblical foundation of the papacy in Matthew 16 is often claimed to be a later addition by partisans of St. Peter. Why? Because this verse gives such clear authority to Peter that it cannot have possibly come from Jesus! Therefore, it must be an addition. This position rejects out of hand the inspiration of the Scriptures, the power ans authority of the Church and Christ's willed institution of the hierarchy. No one can advocate this position in any way and still be a good Catholic. For this reason, I list it as number one on my list.

Please feel free to add your own if I have omitted any. Please state the reasons why you believe it to be an error.


Anonymous said...

Matt 15:11-14 11 Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man: but what cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man. 12 Then came his disciples, and said to him: Dost thou know that the Pharisees, when they heard this word, were scandalized? 13 But he answering them, said: Every plant which my heavenly Father hath not planted, shall be rooted up. 14 Let them alone: they are blind, and leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into the pit.

Apoc 13:6-10 6 And he opened his mouth unto blasphemies against God, to blaspheme his name, and his tabernacle, and them that dwell in heaven. 7 And it was given unto him to make war with the saints, and to overcome them. And power was given him over every tribe, and people, and tongue, and nation. 8 And all that dwell upon the earth adored him, whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb, which was slain from the beginning of the world. 9 If any man have an ear, let him hear. 10 He that shall lead into captivity, shall go into captivity: he that shall kill by the sword, must be killed by the sword. Here is the patience and the faith of the saints.

2 Cor 11:13-14 13 For such false apostles are deceitful workmen, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ. 14 And no wonder: for Satan himself transformeth himself into an angel of light. 15 Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers be transformed as the ministers of justice, whose end shall be according to their works.

Just a few. There are many more in the Scripture. Sorry if you don't get all of the abbreviations. I like the TRUE Bible of the Church.

Anonymous said...

If the commentary does not quote often from the Fathers and the Saints, and of course from councils, I find it suspect.

Give me Haydock, don't give me Robert Brown.

318@Nicea said...

You pretty much summarized the New American Bible, Jerusalem and New Jerusalem Bible.
That's why I stick with the Douay-Rheims, actually, I use the original 1582 NT and 1610 OT, with the original commentary and notes in it.


Anonymous said...


I have a general comment and example.
I looked at a little Advent booklet the other day (provided by my parish) and randomly opened to a page talking about the genealogy of Christ. Of course, it used the old nominalist distinction that the genealogy found in the gospels are not to be thought of in terms of DNA (i.e. despite what scripture says, they aren't talking about being a *real* descendant), but as a "theological" relationship. Contrast this opinion with the Catholic Encyclopedia, which says, "It is granted on all sides that the Biblical genealogy of Christ implies a number of exegetical difficulties; but rationalists have no solid reason for refusing to admit any of the attempted solutions, nor can we agree with those recent writers who have given up all hope of harmonizing the genealogies of Christ found in the First and Third Gospels."

I suppose this minimalism, fright at the slightest difficulty, and a cowering behind the mask of "theological" as opposed to "real" relationships comprise one of the primary characteristics of modern biblical scholarship.

Of course, there *are* theological relationships and lofty spiritual connections between things, but the scope of this viewpoint seems to have encroached upon and suffocated virtually every other.

I'm no expert, though. Perhaps you could add to this.

Anonymous said...

If the hermeneutic of suspicion is so productive then it should apply to the work of the hermenauts of suspicion.

Anonymous said...

9) The "Reed Sea": When you get to the commentary on the Exodus, does it say that the Israelites didn't really cross the Red Sea, but a very shallow ( 3 inches) marsh called the Reed Sea? The motivation here is an arrogant disbelief in the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea, since the crossing of a marshland of three inches of water requires no miraculous explanation.

So... the answer might be that the "real" miracle must have been how God drowned the whole blooming Egyptian army in only 3 inches of water......... awesome, God, awesome .. :)

Tawser said...

So which commentaries would you recommend? Among modern commentaries, I am thinking that perhaps the Navarre might pass, but are there others?

David Contra Mundum said...

You're right on in your critiques! These things bother me greatly, too.

Oddly, if Jonah was a parable, then OLJC was grossly mistaken for referring to "Jonah the prophet" in the NT.

These ideas spring from a whole presuppositional system of atheology.

Anonymous said...

Am I mistaken in recalling that John Paul II seemed to take for granted the truth of the "documentary hypothesis" in his "Theology of the Body" account of creation?

Also, Pope Benedict XVI refers to "Deutero-Isaiah" in his latest book, "Jesus of Nazareth" without even a "so-called" attached to it!

Anonymous said...

Just a point of order regarding the distinction between historical truth and spiritual truth in the Bible: It's important to recognize that problematic historical and textual issue do not necessarily compromise the Bible's spiritual truths. In other words, it doesn't particularly matter how many people wrote and/or edited the book of Isaiah or whatnot so long as we read it through the eyes of the church in order to discern the voice of God.

Likewise with the issue of miracles and prophecies, the point isn't so much the literal accuracy of the account, but rather that we recognize God's hand at work in history. I want to be completely clear, however, that I do not wish to call into question the reality of miracles or the possibility of prophecy. Rather, I'd like to point out that a belief in miracles and prophecies does not require one to belief that they occurred in the specific manner described in the text.

IN any event, my motive is to avoid the elevation of the text in and of itself to the point where it becomes possible to treat it as something of an unquestionable monolith, since this obscures the eisegetic role of reader, which leads to all sorts of obvious problems.

Just to put that all in perspective, I'm approaching this all from a deep background of engagement with conservative evangelical Protestants, and one of the most difficult things to overcome in such dialogues is the mindset that the Bible is 100% true. Now, it's all well and good to say that, but it's never very clear what that means and how one is supposed to arrive at the "true" meaning of disputed passages and apparent contradictions and historical dificulties. And usually those are just papered over either as insignificant or as problematic only to those who approach them without the spirit of truth (i.e., under some sort of nefarious influence). I'm just worried about such a mindset creeping into the Catholic world in defense of Tradition, esp. as regards the idea of "the earlier, the better", as though scribal redactions centuries after the recorded events were somehow less open to inspiration than the "original" accounts. Maybe I'm just hypersensitive to these matters, but it seems to me that such notions come quite close to arguments that condemn the development of the Catholic church as a falling away from the supposed gold standard of the apostolic church as described in Acts.

Boniface said...


I agree with you in theory I is of course true that the Bible is in fact 100% true, but not that it is 100% literal. We don't have to believe that Song of Songs, for example, is historical; it is not a historical book. But if you tell me that we are free to doubt the historicity of, say, II Kings, there I will take issue, because it is an historic book.

Regarding authorship, I agree with you, except in those cases where the Church has stated otherwise. It has been taught by the highest authority of the Church that there is no reason to posit several authors of Isaiah. This was stated in the PBC replies of 1908 in a Q & A format:

IV: Should the philological argument drawn from language and style to impugn identity of authorship throughout the Book of Isaias be deemed of such force as to compel a man of sound judgement with competent knowledge of Hebrew and of the art of criticism to recognize several authors in the same book?

Answer: In the negative.

V: Do there exist arguments which even when taken together avail to demonstrate that the Book of Isaias must be attributed not to Isaias himself alone, but to two or even several authors?

Answer: In the negative.

You can find the whole text of these replies here:

Pius X invested these replies with the highest authoritym stating in his motu proprio Praestantia Scripturae:

We now declare and expressly enjoin that all Without exception are bound by an obligation of conscience to submit to the decisions of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, whether already issued or to be issued hereafter, exactly as to the decrees of the Sacred Congregations which are on matters of doctrine and approved by the Pope; nor can anyone who by word or writing attacks the said decrees avoid the note both of disobedience and of rashness or be therefore without grave fault.”

So, yes, sometimes impugning authorship is an attack against the Faith where the Church has said otherwise.

Richard said...


I was the aforementioned anonymous.

First of all, thank you for the link to the PBC document. Upon reading it in conjunction with your statements, I think we're in more agreement than it initially seemed.

In particular, regarding theories of multiple authorship of any book I find myself in complete agreement with what is said about Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch(item II) and Pauline authorship of Hebrews(item III), namely, that while the specific verbal forms in which we possess those documents may not have originated with the individual authors in question, the content of those documents nevertheless faithfully corresponds to the message revealed to those individuals. The same seems to hold for the book of Isaiah, even though the PBC does not explicitly mention that point.

In any event, for the layman things seem to boil down largely to a semantic quibble over what is meant by the term "author"--is it the person who conceived of the content or the person who wrote down the actual words? And for all intents and purposes, according to colloquial usage this amounts to a false dichotomy.

Then again, I don't want to minimize what is potentially at stake in the conservation of unique "authorship". For instance, I do agree that the concept of "multiple authorship" may lend itself to a watering down of the authority of Scripture or to rationalizing away "supernatural" events.

But I'm concerned that too much not be read into terms such as "second Isaiah" or references to various "recensions" of Daniel, with the result that one comes to suspect the orthodoxy of anyone who uses those scholarly terms which exist primarily to denote the shape of current academic arguments. Here I might draw a parallel with professional geologists who publish according to models that say the Earth is howsoever many billions of years old, but who nevertheless are privately Young Earth Creationists.

But there seems to be a very, er...non-Catholic flavor about holding such a professional/personal double consciousness. In particular, regarding the Genesis account I'd want to highlight that while in item III of the section "Concerning the historical character of the first three books of Genesis" the PBC declares that the "literal historical sense" of various details may not "be called into doubt", in item V it nonetheless retains the provision that the "literal sense" may be superseded in the case that "reason forbids the retention or necessity imposes the abandonment of the literal sense". Cf. also items VII and VIII.

Richard said...

In other words, the PBC document time and again speaks in terms of the prudence or the rashness, rather than of the ultimate veracity, of various conclusions or ways of thinking about controversial aspects of Scripture. And as I think the few examples I've cited here demonstrate, the strong affirmative statements about literal truth are always balanced by a contextualizing statement that allows for further development in both the scientific elucidation of history and the precise understanding of the mechanics of the transmission of Revelation. I recognize that one wants to avoid hemming in Scriptural Revelation or making it dependent upon empirical methods (didn't Cardinal Schoenborn write a book about this recently?), but at some level we are obliged to take those into account and not see them as antagonistic, since Christianity is a historical faith that sees the hand of God active in history.

As a result, even though I agree with the idea that such scholarly concepts as the Documentary Hypothesis or multiple authorship of Isaiah are potentially detrimental to the idea of a consistent and unitary Revelation, I still don't think that there's a necessary link between the two. In other words, it's hard for me to see what difference it makes how many people over however long a period of time wrote the book of Isaiah, so long as we are guaranteed that the ultimate author of its content is God and that He will guide the Church to the true meaning of the text.

That, of course, doesn't mean that I reject the PBC.

In that sense, I must confess to feeling a bit like St. Jerome may have upon submitting to Pope Damasus regarding the legitimacy of the Apocrypha, or perhaps an Inopportunist on the definition of Papal Infallibility.

Richard said...

I'll also note that the other side of the coin of the argument that exposure to, or promotion of, such scholarly concepts in biblical introductions/commentaries may undermine faith the supernatural or in the consistency of Catholicism, is that the suppression of, or inattention to, such arguments may equally undermine faith in a different manner, in that if the lay public comes to feel that certain aspects of the broader discussion are being withheld from them, they may react negatively. I know several intelligent former conservative Protestants who have left their churches upon the realization that certain historical processes fundamental to their religious identity were actually far more complex than they were initially taught (e.g., process of canonization of Scripture, etc.). So when you object to doubts over the historicity of, say, the book of Kings, I think it's important to recognize that not all doubts are created equal, as it were. Again, the point the PBC makes in the section "On Narratives Historical only in Appearance in Books of Holy Scripture Historical in Form" is that historicity may be called into question "neither easily nor rashly", etc. In other words, the PBC is setting up a largely prudential judgment, and I think it's important to recognize that the circumstances of public access and exposure to information are such these days that one risks creating an insular mindset among the faithful by not exposing them to the broader discussions.

Now, one may of course take issue with the quality or particular manner in which that exposure is effected, and whether and to what degree it undermines the Faith--and in this sense I certainly agree with many of the 10 signs you mention in your original post--but I think that in implementing the conclusions of the PBC in the present day, it's important to emphasize its prudential and contextualizing aspects, since not only has so much progress been made in academia in terms of the precision of the interpretive tools and language of historical criticism, but also much water has gone under the bridge since the time of the Modernist crisis. I agree that we still do have to weed out a fair amount of Post-WWII tendencies towards demythologizing and the like, and I recognize that this post and much of the commentary is aimed specifically at that, but given the complexity of the issues in play I'd rather we not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

And of course, one's conclusions on this will be necessarily related to one's views on the education of the faithful, which I happen to think is in a rather abysmal state...but that's another topic for another day.

Boniface said...


These are all good points, and on the whoel I agree with you, though with clarifications. I will discuss this in my next post. Keep your eyes open.


Anonymous said...

As bad as all these are, it is the "Reed Sea" that offends me the most. This argument must be aimed at only the most illiterate and ignorant, or, perhaps it comes from the massive arrogance and self-adoration on the part of the modernists.

Can someone explain to me how the words red and reed relate to each other in ancient Hebrew? Ancient Aramaic? Ancient Greek? Or even modern Italian, Spanish, or Yiddish? Are we supposed to be so abysmally stupid as to imagine a monk in the 5th century, writing in Latin, accidentally omitted an "e" from the word Reed (in English)?

C'mon, at least don't insult us! Make up something about how the sea was in a different area, it was low tide, or Pharoah's chariots had two wheel drive, while the Hebrew carts had four wheel drive. Tell us that the ancient Egyptian word for drowned is the same as the word for stuck in the mud. Something that at least can be entertained as plausible before being tossed aside in favor of Tradition. With all the success the devil is having these days, you'd think he'd get better exegetes to destroy God's word.