Commentaries can contribute contextually

Some years ago, over a period of time, I learned to look askance at commentaries.  That was after my college years—which had involved a rather limited use of them.  The commentaries I used as textbooks in Bible classes were not particularly slanted, but they were too shallow and too brief.  For one thing, they didn’t expend much effort “getting into the cracks” of the text, as one respected scripture scholar has put it.  I grew increasingly involved in Bible study as an adult and rarely spent time in commentaries, choosing rather to learn Greek vocabulary and use other methods (sometimes good, sometimes not as good).  Although I retained—and packed and moved and re-shelved—certain commentaries many times, I eventually divested myself of some of them.  No more Matthew Henry or Adam Clarke for me!  (Books by narrow-minded commentators with less thoroughgoing capabilities were also jettisoned.)

While I have tended generally to avoid commentaries (in favor of lexicons and direct work in the text itself), I acknowledge that there are some really worthwhile commentaries.¹  The Logos/Faithlife company, in the course of advertising for its products (which it does with vigor and annoying regularity), recently shared this post that discusses the use of commentaries.  The current Logos software can access millions of indexed commentary entries on Greek and Hebrew words and phrases, all linked to specific scripture texts.  That is an impressive capability!  And the blog author’s point is well taken:  commentaries, as compared to lexicons, aim to analyze meaning of a word or phrase in biblical context.  Contextual considerations do appear in lexicons, but not as explicitly, or at least not in the same way.

Since I am currently wrestling with Galatians 2-4 (viz. word-concepts of faith, hearing, and justification; the Law, works, promise, etc.), an example in this Logos post about justification/righteousness caught my eye:

The other main disagreement concerns the question whether in the phrase dikaiosune theou in 1:17; 3:21, 22 (Cf. 10:3) theou is to be understood as a subjective genitive or as a genitive of origin, or—to put it differently—whether dikaiosune refers to an activity of God or to a status of man resulting from God’s action, righteousness as a gift from God.

[I have transliterated the Greek above for the sake of the majority of readers.  -bc]

The question of which type of genitive is not merely a grammarian’s diversion but is quite key in coming to understand the passages.  Is the genitive form of the word “God” (theou, often simply a possessive form) better understood as primarily indicative of God’s prior action or of human standing that results from the action?  A third option could be to read this as “God’s righteousness,” i.e., a righteousness that is in a sense owned by God.  A fourth possibility (that has to my knowledge not been suggested by scholars) is taking the genitive form as objective—for instance, “the righteousness shown toward God.”

A second commentary quoted in the Logos post makes reference to similar verbal constructions in Romans (similar to “righteousness of God,” that is)—namely, power of God and gospel of God.  Comparing what Paul is saying about power and gospel could be an important consideration in interpreting “dikaiosune theou” (righteousness of’ God) in Romans 1:17—but perhaps not in Galatians 2 and 3, where the other phrases do not appear.


¹ Some of the better ones I’ve used were written by Abraham Malherbe, Raymond Brown, and Ben Witherington.

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