Monday, February 08, 2010

Review of Orthodox Catholic Bible Commentaries (David W. Emery)

The wonderful Bernard Orchard commentary, recently reformatted and reprinted by my friend Daniel Egan.

David W. Emery is my co-worker on the Coming Home Network Forum.

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Catholic biblical commentaries seem to be burgeoning everywhere these days, and since a forum member recently asked for information about what was available and recommendable, I have compiled the following list.

The king of Catholic scripture commentaries these days seems to be the Navarre Bible, based on the Revised Standard Version – Catholic Edition and published in the US by Scepter Publishers. It comes in three sizes: small, medium and large. These are entirely separate works designed for different purposes and different levels of readership. The small (Compact) and medium (Expanded) New Testament commentaries are a single volume each, the latter being rather hefty. The large size edition, covering the entire bible, comes in multiple volumes, which can be purchased separately. The New Testament is available in 12 paperback volumes or three hardback volumes. The Old Testament comes in seven hardback volumes. Beginning in March 2010, a paperback series of the Old Testament will also be published. Pre-orders are already available for Genesis and Exodus.

Small (relatively speaking — at over 700 pages it’s not thin!) and inexpensive, but adequate for casual personal use: Navarre Compact New Testament. I don't know the exact pedigree of this text, but it appears to be a freely adapted and condensed version of the Expanded New Testament.

For most Catholics interested in penetrating the meaning of scripture, I can recommend the 1066 page, oversized and hefty Navarre Expanded New Testament as a good balance between brevity and completeness. Coincidentally, an electronic text which I purchased several years ago included a Spanish edition of the entire work, both Old and New Testaments, so I am already familiar with the work. I can recommend it as tightly written, proceeding section by section rather than verse by verse, and relating the biblical text directly to Catholic doctrine and practice wherever possible, with generous use of authoritative quotes given the compactness of the text.

There remains the big multi-volume set, suitable for the serious student. Without being technical, this version is thorough, including longish quotes from the fathers and doctors of the Church, the saints and the Church’s magisterial texts to illustrate and explain the meaning of scripture topic by topic, passage by passage, verse by verse, and sometimes even word by word. It also includes essays on the various books of the bible and general biblical themes.

The Navarre multi-volume series standard presentation is a 10 volume hardbound set covering the entire bible. But the New Testament portion remains available in paperback volumes (I bought mine a decade ago, when this was the only version offered) with the full commentary spread across in 12 individual books (under $20 each). Beginning in March 2010, paperback editions of the Navarre Old Testament volumes will begin to appear. Pre-orders for Genesis and Exodus are already being taken by the publisher. This paperback series puts at least portions of the multi-volume commentary within reach of most Catholics in the US.

Meanwhile, over in California, Ignatius Press is at long last going to release its one volume edition of the Ignatius Study Bible New Testament in April 2010. This work is based on the Revised Standard Version – Second Catholic Edition, and its price will be very reasonable, about $30. Pre-orders are $20 on Amazon. This will be much more popular than their current pamphlets, which are reasonable for study groups but nickel and dime you to death if you want to delve into more than a few individual books of the bible.

Scott Hahn is the general editor and one of the authors of this amply annotated bible from Ignatius. It is somewhat more scholarly in tone than the Navarre offerings, but still not all that technical. Good brain fodder, although not a full-blown commentary. At this point, only one question remains: Given that it took eight years to bring the single volume New Testament to press, will they ever publish a complementary Old Testament commentary?

By contrast, an interesting niche product is the commentary by Cornelius a’Lapide, an extraordinary 17th century Catholic scholar from the Netherlands. The first four volumes of a projected 30+ volume publishing venture, on the four Gospels, have already been published. They are evidently not available as separate volumes, and the set of four is frightfully expensive for what is envisioned as a initial outlay. Fortunately, it is also possible to purchase online access to an e-book version of the work for a small fraction of that cost.

a’Lapide’s voluminous writings investigate many curious details of ancient, medieval and renaissance biblical interpretation, including arguments from science, history, philology and other disciplines. He also cites the Fathers of the Church at nearly every turn, allowing a broad view of the ancient wisdom.

There is one last recently initiated work that has some merit, although it is based on ICEL’s New American Bible. The NAB's virtues and weaknesses have been discussed thoroughly in other forum threads. Here, I will only point the reader to what one well-known Catholic scholar, author and apologist, Fr. Peter Stravinskas, recently had to say about his experience working for ICEL in one of their liturgical translation projects back in the day when the NAB was also being engendered.

This new NAB-based series is called Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture. It is a new publication still in formation, with only a few volumes out so far. Its forte is that it includes solid Catholic scholars such as Mary Healy and George Montague. Authors for forthcoming volumes include Edward Sri, Curtis Mitch, Scott Hahn and Peter Williamson. With such a line-up, this may turn out to be a worthwhile project in spite of its foundation text.

An online resource that I find of considerable value, even though it is a rather old (19th century) translation, is the Catena Aurea, a compendium of pertinent passages from the Fathers of the Church on the Gospels edited by St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. (The listing is on the right side, under Biblical Commentaries. Note that this website lists a wide variety of works by St. Thomas, including a number of his own scriptural commentaries, which are in themselves a valuable resource.) The Catena Aurea is also available in newly re-typeset book form for those who prefer it.

Also online is the old (17th century English) Haydock commentary, available online here. It’s also available in book form (unfortunately from a schismatic traditionalist source) for about $125 for those who think it worth the price. Some people swear by it, others swear at it; I suppose ecclesiastical politics have something to do with that. If the Douay-Rheims version, Counterreformation and archaic language are not your thing, you can pass. I use the free electronic text as a secondary resource.

For sheer scholarship (rather more like the typical Protestant commentaries that many of us are familiar with), you can’t beat A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, edited by Bernard Orchard — commonly known as the “Orchard Commentary.” This is a single hefty volume (unabridged dictionary size) of rather small type which covers the entire bible, following the Douay-Rheims version. It was published in 1950, and all known copies are from the early to mid-50s. It is a collector’s item, running between $100 and $200 a copy, depending on condition.

[My additional note: The New Testament portion of this commentary was recently reprinted at Lulu by a friend of mine, Daniel Egan. It costs $39.95 for 451 large pages. The print is larger, too: 11 pt. instead of 8 pt.]

Another collector’s item — this time aimed at the layman — is the original Jerusalem Bible of 1970, with its extensive notes. I have my personal copy of this, which I actually bought back in 1970 when it was hot off the press. It’s a two volume edition. I’ve heard that, depending on condition, this set brings about $50 to $100 from used booksellers these days. These notes are more like the Navarre Compact Edition in size, but are completely different and one of the few post-Vatican II biblical scholarship resources that remained orthodox. A few years ago, the publisher re-issued a Reader’s Edition of the Jerusalem Bible (to be distinguished from the New Jerusalem Bible, which is a separate work), but sadly, this edition does not contain the notes.

Speaking of post-Vatican II commentaries and lack of orthodoxy, I recommend staying away from the Jerome Biblical Commentary (featuring Raymond Brown, Joseph Fitzmyer, Roland Murphy and several other notorious personages of the period), the Collegeville Bible Commentary (Daniel Durken, Barbara Reid, Terrence Keegan, Daniel Harrington, et al) and practically anything else that was published between 1970 and 1995.

There is a wealth of scholarship and wisdom in most of the works listed above, and there seems to be something for just about anyone who has a need for a deeper understanding of scripture, no matter what his current level of knowledge. But let us keep in mind that we will be judged, not on what we know, but on what we do. So if someone has to make a choice, it is more important to be a Christian than to study about being a Christian. The Church is the one who teaches; listening is, therefore, far more important than reading.

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Further Catholic Bible resources recommended in my combox below:

Biblia Clerus of the Holy See's Congregation for the Clergy offers the option, "Search a biblical text and its Commentary". Commenter Johannes describes it:

You choose a Bible book on the right pane, then a chapter, and then click on the blue "comment" rectangular button associated with a division of the chapter. Then you see on the left pane the patristical, magisterial and liturgical works that quote that division.

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As an adjunct to this thread on the various scriptural commentaries, I believe it will be profitable to provide some samples of what one can expect in each work. For the biblical text, I have chosen today’s Gospel Reading from the Mass (Latin Rite, Ordinary Form, Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C), Luke 5:1–11, regarding the miraculous catch of fish.

As will become evident, there are two different approaches to the explanations given. One is traditional, explaining the meaning of the passage first according to the literal sense, then according to the spiritual sense, highlighting the doctrine of the Church; the other is scientific, informing as to cross references, the words being used and their definitions, explanations of how the narrative fits into the chronology given elsewhere, etc.

It should be noted that, according to Catholic tradition, there are four senses of scripture: the literal, the allegorical, the moral, and the anagogical. See Catechism of the Catholic Church §115–119 for an explanation.

One may say that both kinds of information — the scientific and the doctrinal/spiritual — are helpful, but the really needful one is the traditional understanding of the text, because it is this one which correlates everything to what the divine revelation — the raison d’etre of the bible — is proposing for our belief and commitment. It is also the doctrinal and spiritual meaning of the text which will ultimately be useful to the follower of Christ, and it is for this reason that the Catholic Church requires its pastors to preach from the scriptural readings of the liturgy: to increase and confirm the faith, and to lead Christians forward on the path of life and salvation.

Where possible, I have chosen passages in each work which seem to me to stand out as both characteristic of the work and providing some striking insight.

From the Catena Aurea:

Augustine: Now the circumstance of the nets breaking, and the ships being so filled with the multitude of fishes that they began to sink, signifies that there will be in the Church so great a multitude of carnal men, that unity will be broken up, and it will be split into heresies and schisms.…

Theophylactus: The other ship [of the two originally on the shore, the first being that of Simon Peter, representing the Church of the Jews,] is the Church of the Gentiles, which itself also (one ship being not sufficient) is filled with chosen fishes. For the Lord knows who are His, and with Him the number of His elect is sure. And when He finds not in Judea so many believers as He knows are destined to eternal life, He seeks as it were another ship to receive His fishes, and fills the hearts of the Gentiles also with the grace of faith. And well, when the net broke, did they call to their assistance the ship of their companions, since the traitor Judas, Simon Magus [cf. Acts 8], Ananias and Sapphira [cf. Acts 5], and many of the disciples, went back. And then Barnabas and Paul were separated for the Apostleship of the Gentiles [cf. Acts 13:2].…

Cyril: But Peter beckons to his companions to help them. For many follow the labors of the Apostles, and first those who published the writings of the Gospels, next to whom are the other heads and shepherds of the Gospel, and those skilled in the teaching of the truth.

Theophylactus: But the filling of these ships goes on until the end of the world. But the fact that the ships, when filled, begin to sink, i.e., become weighed low down in the water (for they are not sunk, but are in great danger), the Apostle explains when he says, In the last days perilous times shall come; men shall be lovers of their own selves, etc. (2 Timothy 3:1–2) For the sinking of the ships is when men, by vicious habits, fall back into that world from which they have been elected by faith.

From the Haydock Commentary:

Ver. 3. Why is it mentioned that there were two ships; that one of them was Simon Peter’s, that Christ went into that one, and sat down in it, and sitting he taught out of that ship? No doubt, answer many of the ancient commentators, to shew that the Church was figured by the bark of Peter, and that in it is the chair of Christ, a permanent authority, prefigured by Christ’s sitting down, and the true word of God.…

Ver. 6. When Christ commanded Peter to let go the net, as great a quantity of fishes were taken as this Lord of the land and sea wished. For the voice of the Lord is the voice of power, at the command of which, in the beginning of the world, light and every created thing sprang into existence. This it was that so much astonished Peter. (St. Gregory of Nazianzus, chap. xxxi.)

The net is broken, but the fishes are not lost, because the Lord preserves his servants among the scandals (schisms and heresies) of his enemies. (Ven. Bede)

From the Navarre Bible Expanded New Testament (translated from the Spanish version I have on hand):

The four Gospels testify that the call [of the Apostles] took place at the beginning of [Jesus’] public life, and all four recall the compelling voice of Christ and the immediate response of the disciples. However, Matthew and Mark posit that call as the initial act of Jesus’ ministry, thus emphasizing the identification of the disciples with their master; Luke, on the other hand, has it as part of Jesus’ brief ministry in Capharnaum and tied to a certain incident between the Lord and these particular Apostles.…

As the narrative plays out, it brings to light what is to be the mission of the Church: in their own name the disciples will wear themselves out and obtain no fruit (v. 5); on the other hand, under the banner of Christ’s mission, the fruit will actually exceed expectations (vv. 6–10). “Duc in altum! This word re-echoes for us today as well and invites us to remember the past with gratitude, to live the present passionately and to open ourselves up to the future with confidence: ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and always’” (John Paul II, Novo millennio ineunte, n. 1).

From the Navarre Bible multi-volume commentary:

5:3. The Fathers saw in Simon’s boat a symbol of the pilgrim Church on earth. “This is the boat which according to St. Matthew was in danger of sinking and according to St. Luke was filled with fish. Here we can see the difficult beginnings of the Church and its later fruitfulness” (St. Ambrose, Expositio Evangelii sec. Lucam, in loc.). Christ gets into the boat in order to teach the crowds — and from the barque of Peter, the Church, he continues to teach the whole world.…

This whole passage refers in some way to the life of the Church. In the Church the bishop of Rome, Peter’s successor, “is the vicar of Jesus Christ because he represents him on earth and acts for him in the government of the Church” (St. Pius X Catechism, 195). Christ is also addressing each one of us, urging us to be daring in apostolate.…

From the Ignatius Study Bible:

5:5 at your word: Though exhausted from a night of unsuccessful fishing, Peter places his faith in Christ, despite the apparent odds against catching anything.

5:8 I am a sinful man: Peter’s imperfections seem magnified to him in the presence of divine holiness (Gen 18:27; Is 6:5; CCC 208).

5:10 James and John: Zebedee’s sons enjoy a close relationship with Jesus (8:51; 9:28). you will be catching men: Peter’s occupation points to his future mission, when Christ will send him and the other apostles to preach the gospel (Mt 28:18–20; Jn 21:15–17). Peter himself will play a leading role among the Twelve (22:31, 32; Acts 1:15–20; 2:14–40; 15:7–11).

From A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture (Orchard):

The thought of the Spirit of God dominating the primeval waters, the Creation, the subjection of creatures to man (cf. Ps 8), man’s loss of this power through sin (cf. Rom 8:18–23), Peter’s failure and our Lord’s success: all this leads up to the conclusion that Jesus stands in very special relationship to God. It is worth noting that the first disciple called by our Lord begins with an avowal of sinfulness; though Jesus has cured the sick and reigned over the lower nature, his true mission is to cast out sin and make God reign in the souls of men. Despite Peter’s declaration he is called to be assocated with the work of Christ. But the force of the incident is this: that Peter and his fellow-disciples are to remember that the plan and method of that work are of God’s design.

From the original 1970 Jerusalem Bible:

5.1–11. In this narrative, Lk has combined: 1. A topographical note and an incident about Christ’s preaching, vv. 1–3; this section resembles Mk 4:1–2 and 1:16, 19; 2. The episode of the miraculous catch, vv. 4–10a, which is like that of Jn 21:1–6; 3. The call of Simon, vv. 10b–11, which is related to Mk 1:17, 20. Luke’s purpose in placing a period of teaching and miracle before the call of the first disciples was to make their unhesitating response less surprising.

5:3. In Lk, Simon does not receive the name Peter until 6:14.

5:10. Partners: The “companions” of v. 7 [and v. 9]. Andrew is not mentioned because he is in Simon’s boat (note the plural pronouns in vv. 5, 6, 7) which is the central piece in Luke’s picture.

By way of comparison, I will append here some of the notes from the New American Bible, 1998 edition (this is the second revision; the liturgical version used in the Ordinary Form Mass in the US being the third revision), to point out the difference in the kind and level of scholarship. Note that the NAB Notes are based strictly on textual considerations and wander far afield in their speculations, taking no heed of historical evidence or Catholic doctrine and tradition. This reduces the notes to, at best, something less than useful, and at worst, misleading the reader into trackless wastes.

From the New American Bible Notes:

This incident has been transposed from his source, Mk 1:16-20…. By this transposition Luke uses this example of Simon’s acceptance of Jesus to counter the earlier rejection of him by his hometown people, and… Luke creates a plausible context for the acceptance of Jesus by Simon and his partners. Many commentators have noted the similarity between [this incident] and the post-resurrectional appearance of Jesus in Jn 21:1-11. There are traces in Luke’s story that the post-resurrectional context is the original one: in v 8 Simon addresses Jesus as Lord (a post-resurrectional title for Jesus — see Lk 24:34; Acts 2:36 — that has been read back into the historical ministry of Jesus).…


Martin said...

Thanks DA. Nice review. I have the Navarre paperback on luke that i'm not trying very hard to finish. Maybe your note will help to get me back on track.

One off topic question. you said,
"It should be noted that, according to Catholic tradition, there are four senses of scripture: the literal, the allegorical, the moral, and the anagogical. "

Over at "The Supplement" RdP and another commentor discussed how most SS Protestants see there being only one interpretation of each passage thus complicating biblical discussions. do you think many/most Protestants only see one way to read any passage?

I will try to pull up the link for context.

Martin said...

Sorrry if you have to cut n paste the http

Reginald de Piperno said...

Here, let me help Martin with a working link :-)

My post, along with a brief conversation with Nick, may be found here.



Johannes said...

Good review Dave. Let me mention an online resource: "Biblia Clerus" of the Holy See's Congregation for the Clergy.

Specifically the option "Search a biblical text and its commentary"

You choose a Bible book on the right pane, then a chapter, and then click on the blue "comment" rectangular button associated with a division of the chapter. Then you see on the left pane the patristical, magisterial and liturgical works that quote that division.

Dave Armstrong said...

Thanks very much for that reference, Johannes.


I think it is true that Protestants often neglect the four different senses, and so they overlook multiple meanings that can be had.

The Dude said...

People may also be interested in the Sacra Pagina series

Tiber Jumper said...

Dave, delete the comment above, dont click on it. yikes spammed by porn. Happened to me too

Dave Armstrong said...

Done. Thanks for pointing that out. I'm always slow to delete comments. I should have known something was fishy, though, with that goofy name (weird symbols) used.

Marcy K. said...

Dave, this was fantastic. I am in the midst of writing a blog post about commentaries and I'll add this as a link for more info. I have loved the Navarre for years and years, but just was looking at the Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture and it is pretty good (for NAB). Thanks so much for all this great info.

Dave Armstrong said...

Glad you like it. Remember (if you missed it), it was written by my friend, David W. Emery, not me.

Dave Armstrong said...

Hi "Dude",

I'm not sure if the Sacra Pagina series is totally orthodox, and so cannot recommend it alongside the others.

James Rinkevich said...

What about Farmer's international bible commentary?

Dave Armstrong said...

I don't know anything about it, myself.

James Rinkevich said...

Well Dave Farmer was a Mattean priority scholar and I do have a copy of it and a New Catholic Commentary and the New Jerome Commentary. The New Catholic was a minor update to the Catholic Commentary (About 1950) and is a tight and slightly defensive commentary, the IBC is a bit looser as it was intended for ecumenical reading without offending Protestants but it always adheres to a Catholic POV. The New Jerome is full of itself taking what ever point the scholars thought could be maintained like Markan Priority which the editors/friends of the IBC wrote the books that now show Markan priority is a mere illusion.

James Rinkevich said...

Well Dave Farmer was a Mattean priority scholar and I do have a copy of it and a New Catholic Commentary and the New Jerome Commentary. The New Catholic was a minor update to the Catholic Commentary (About 1950) and is a tight and slightly defensive commentary, the IBC is a bit looser as it was intended for ecumenical reading without offending Protestants but it always adheres to a Catholic POV. The New Jerome is full of itself taking what ever point the scholars thought could be maintained like Markan Priority which the editors/friends of the IBC wrote the books that now show Markan priority is a mere illusion.