Sometimes I think that Bible Commentaries were invented to obfuscate the Scriptures rather than illuminate them.
I have been studying Scripture for over 20 years, the last 15 of which have been from a more scholarly angle, and I’m constantly struck by how inadequate – and even awful – many commentaries are. It doesn’t seem to me that it should be so hard to have a good Bible commentary. I have just three qualifications as to what makes a quality commentary:
1) Faithful to the Church’s teaching. As the Holy Spirit both inspired the Scriptures and guides the Church, to think that the Scriptures teach something that contradicts Church teaching is faulty interpretation from the get-go.
2) Scholarly in nature. I want a commentary that takes into consideration the latest in scholarly research, while balancing it with traditional exegesis. A huge amount of information about the people and cultures of biblical times has been discovered in the past 100 years, and can help us to understand the Bible more deeply.
3) Open to the possibility of the supernatural. So many “scholars” reject a priori the possibility of the supernatural that much of their interpretation of the supernatural events of the Bible border on the comical. Every supernatural occurrence becomes an allegory, myth or just down-right editorial invention. If you reject the supernatural as even possible, you can’t understand the Bible.
(An aside: many scholars reject that you can have all three. To be “scholarly,” according to them, you cannot accept the supernatural or accept Church teaching as infallible. I would say that is a false dichotomy [trichotomy?]).
My own experience is that many Protestant commentaries are superior to Catholic ones because while they might not accept all of Catholic teaching, they are in line with (2) and (3) above, whereas most Catholic commentaries reject the supernatural and do all they can to undermine Church teaching.
The New International Commentary on the New Testament: This is a great Protestant commentary published by Eerdmans. It has serious scholarship but accepts that the Scriptures are the infallible Word of God. Of course, being the work of Protestant scholars, it does not see the Bible in the context of the life of the Church, so it does have its (at times serious) flaws.
New Jerome Biblical Commentary: This is considered the height of modern Catholic biblical scholarship, but frankly, I find it very lacking on many counts. It seems that the authors are embarrassed by any supernatural scenes and attempt to discount or even dismiss them without accepting the possibility that they might be true. And although this book has an Imprimatur, I find that it goes to great lengths to avoid or diminish the distinctively Catholic aspects of the Bible.
I do like both the Navarre Bible and the Ignatius Study Bible, but both are not completely adequate to real research. The Navarre Bible is more devotional in tone, and the Ignatius Study Bible is very good, but limited and mostly apologetical in nature.
With all this said, you can imagine my excitement about the new Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture. This is a new series which combines all three elements I mentioned above. I also have some personal connections to the series. The general editor is Dr. Mary Healy, who is a friend of mine and a faithful intelligent Catholic. She is also the author of the volume on Mark (to which I made a very minor contribution) and co-author of the volume on Hebrews. My former professor Dr. Scott Hahn is the other co-author of the volume on Hebrews and the author of the volume on Romans. The co-author of the volume on the Gospel of John is Fr. Francis Martin, who is a Professor of New Testament at the Dominican House of Studies in DC and who lives down the street from me. I often learn more from a daily Mass homily from him than dozens of books and I eagerly anticipate his work on John, which is such a “Catholic” Gospel.
All of the contributors look to be first-rate scholars and I have high expectations for the entire series – I just wish it would be released quickly!