Why a Commentary?

By Tom Finley Sep. 24, 2013 8:31 a.m. Biblical Exposition, Old Testament

A Bible reader might justifiably ask, “Why would I need a commentary?” Some prefer to read the Bible for themselves so that they won’t be influenced by the opinions of others. They want to learn solely through what the Holy Spirit teaches them, and perhaps they even think to support their desire through Scriptures such as John 16:13 or Jeremiah 31:33–34. Besides the fact that the context won’t support such an interpretation from those passages, there are some good reasons why a commentary can be not only helpful for understanding the Bible but even highly beneficial.

For the majority of readers the Bible is accessible only through translations. Most translations of the Bible are well done and convey the meaning of the original in a way that readers can understand. And the great number of translations available in English, for example, make it possible for the reader to select from a variety of translation experiences. He or she can find a translation that is easy to read and understand like the NIV or the NLT. Or if a strongly traditional translation framed in stately but archaic English is preferred, the KJV will do. The NASB or the NRSV convey the original language in a way that helps the reader to sense the ancient cadences and vocabulary connections. Such variety is helpful, but there are some drawbacks to translations. Most notably they tend to obscure or hide from view issues that become transparent to the person who can work with the original languages.

Here are some examples:

1.Some terms are obscure and the translator struggles to find a suitable equivalent. This is most evident with terms for things like precious stones, plants, or musical instruments. In Daniel 3 the long list of instruments used at the dedication of the image that Nebuchadnezzar erected come out in various ways in the modern versions. The third instrument in verse 5, for example, is rendered by “lyre” (NASB, “harp” (KJV), or “zither” (NIV and NLT).

2.Some terms are given “cultural” translations. That is, something from the ancient culture has some but not complete overlap with the term used for the translation in the modern culture. “Book” is normally used to translate the Hebrew term sepher, but while both terms convey something with writing, the Hebrew word does not indicate something with pages between covers. “Books” in the strict sense of the term were not invented until after the completion of the New Testament. Sepher has a more general sense of written document, and that document might take the form of a scroll or even of something written on broken pieces of pottery. “Book” is a reasonable translation for sepher, but it also imports some cultural baggage that the Hebrew term doesn’t carry, including the connotations that books are plentiful, easy to carry, and a primary means of social communication.

3.Translations tend to gloss over difficult grammatical structures. The translation of Daniel 9:25 is a case in point. There are two major ways that the translations render it. One interpretation is that an “anointed one” will come at the end of the first period of sevens (“week”). This translation can be found in the NRSV and the Tanakh (a Jewish version).[1] The other interpretation places the coming of the Messiah at the end of 69 weeks, taking the seven weeks together with the 62 weeks. The NASB, NIV, and NLT follow this path. Unless the reader uses a version from each of these two groups he or she will not be aware that there is any controversy about how to translate this important verse. Sometimes a note might alert the reader to an alternative, but that is not always the case.

4.Translations can obscure textual differences arising from the process of scribal transmission. Daniel 2:40 has an interesting example. One of the Hebrew/Aramaic scrolls of Daniel from Qumran (main site of the Dead Sea Scrolls) reads at the end of the verse: “It will crush all these and break all the earth.”[2] The phrase “all the earth” is not contained in the standard Hebrew text and hence is not found in any of the English versions, but it is found in the oldest Greek translation of Daniel. Also the Syriac (Peshitta) adds the word for “all” at the end of the verse (“and it will crush all”). Such variants seldom affect the meaning significantly, but the point is that unless noted in the margin textual variants go undetected in a translation.

In all of the above cases a good commentary will give the reader information to clarify the meaning of a biblical passage or to suggest alternative interpretations. A commentary should shed light on obscure terms or grammatical structures and uncover and evaluate any important textual variations in the ancient manuscripts.

What are some other elements that a good commentary should provide? For one a commentary should provide the reader with the requisite cultural and historical background necessary to understand the passage. A major debate rages over the historical background to the book of Daniel. Was it written from the perspective of a real person named Daniel living in the sixth century b.c.? Or was it the product of an unknown author living in the second century b.c. who wrote as if he were a legendary hero known as Daniel? Choosing between these two very different scenarios for the book makes a difference in how to interpret the book in nearly every verse. The historical and cultural background is quite disparate in either case.[3] A commentator would be remiss if he or she failed to include enough information about the cultural and historical background for the reader to interpret the text in a proper manner.

Literary background is also significant information that a commentary should convey to a reader. Does the text contain poetry? If so, how should the poetry be understood and read as poetry? Are there other genre issues that are significant? Daniel is often classified as apocalyptic literature. Is that a valid classification? If that is the case, what does that mean for interpreting the book? Are there other issues about the literary structure of the book that would help the reader to see what is happening in the book? Daniel 2–6 appears to have a chiastic structure: chapters 2 and 7 parallel each other in their visions; chapters 3 and 6 parallel each other in the topic of God’s faithful servant or servants risking their lives for their faith and experiencing salvation from certain death; and chapters 4 and 5 have parallel accounts of a king whose pride brought about a downfall albeit with differing final outcomes. That structure focuses attention on the center—these kings in their pride think that they are in charge, but in reality “heaven rules” (Dan 4:26). Some readers may notice literary issues like these for themselves, but many readers will need some guidance to detect literary matters that not only make the text more interesting to read but that also point to important aspects of the message of the book.

A commentary can give the reader a sense of the history of the interpretation of a biblical passage. Christians have been interpreting the Bible for some two millennia now, and pre-Christian interpretation extends back to at least the third century b.c. and even into the Old Testament itself.[4] Even if some of the explanations of the past seem quaint or misguided to moderns, it is still important to know about them. If nothing else such knowledge gives perspective to how to interpret and apply the book. The same holds true for more recent interpretations. Readers of the book need to know that commentators who have a strong view of the inspiration and authority of Scripture differ among themselves in significant ways about how to interpret Nebuchadnezzar’s first dream (Daniel 2) and Daniel’s first vision (Daniel 7).

Will it confuse believers to encounter a bewildering variety of interpretations? Perhaps, but the greater danger is that a reader will fail to consider options that many fine scholars have presented after much wrestling with the text. A reader consults a commentary that presents various options along with evidence for each side and some evaluation. That reader can then make an informed decision about what she will believe and allow the Holy Spirit to guide her to apply the text to her life. Another reader consults no commentary and thinks he has the last word on the passage, only to discover later that he missed some important factors about the book.

There are other ways that a commentary can help someone interpret a biblical passage; these have been presented here to help readers of the Bible see why commentaries are important tools. To ignore the fruits of the labors of interpreters through the ages shows ignorance, not wisdom.

[1] The Geneva Bible  (a predecessor to the KJV) rendered this way as well.

[2] [ותר]ע כל ארעא (4QDana). 

[3] I have simplified the historical critical issue by referring to only two choices. It is actually more complicated in that some see chapters 2–6 as originating much earlier than the second century but then incorporated into the book by a second century author (e.g., Collins).

[4] Daniel says that he was studying the prophecies of Jeremiah (9:2) when he received a message concerning the prophesied seventy years of captivity in Babylon (9:20–27), and he refers to the “law of Moses” (9:11, 13) as he confesses the sins of his people.



  • Laura Johnson Oct. 9, 2013 at 8:08 AM

    Thank you for this. Would you please recommend a good Bible commentary?

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