On Reading Old Commentaries and Romans
To the writing of commentaries there is not end.
There are so many commentaries on almost any book of the Bible today that one might as well give up trying to keep up with the field. It gets even worse if you pay more than lip service to working in several languages. For example, not counting commentaries in English, three pretty hefty commentaries came out recently on Luke: Bovon’s last volume of his four volume commentary; Michael Wolter’s volume published by Mohr-Siebeck; Heins Klein’s commentary published by Vandenhoeck, to name only these three.
One could of course wonder whether all this is really necessary. Personnally, I think quite a few volumes, especially in English, can be quite safely ignored (without any relationship to the number of pages of these commentaries. Even in the world of commentaries sometimes Small is beautiful). This said, there is definitely a shortage of commentaries for some books of the Bible in languages other than English.
The Case of Romans
New is not always better. True enough, sometimes one must read recent works just to get a paper or a dissertation approved or an article published. But it is sometimes surprising how even in the world of commentaries there is nothing new or how what passes for “new” only indicates a lack of familiarity with older commentaries. A case in point is the expression “works of the Law” in Romans 3.20. Many commentators seem to ignore that Calvin mentions that already in his days some interpreted it as referring to the Jewish ceremonials (and he mentions Chrysostome, Origen, and Jerome)! See also Ambrosiaster’s interpretation of the works of the Law as circumcision, new moons, sabbath, choice of foods in Rom 1.9; 3.20–21, 28; 4.15 (here and there he adds to the list).
I was recently reminded of the usefulness of looking at older commentaries when reading an article by Campbell on the fact that in Romans 1.17 Paul might be referring to Ps 98 (97LXX, see now in his Deliverance, p. 688–704). I have defended in my writings on Romans that Paul does indeed refer to it, as well as the importance of the Psalms attributed to David for reading Romans. Campbell mentions that he had first heard about the reference to Ps 98 from Richard Hays but was at first unconvinced. He later changed his mind. What is surprising is that the reference to Ps. 98 had been suggested or defended a while ago by no less than Leenhardt (for whom one must have the Ps in mind to capture the meaning of Rom 1.16), Lagrange, Sanday-Headlam, and Gifford. For Gifford the use of the Ps is obvious by Paul’s use of the Psalmist’s key words of salvation, righteousness, and revelation and the parallelism of salvation and justice.
Of these commentaries, Gifford, originally pubished in The Speaker’s Commentary (1881), is probably the least well-known, if only because it is hard to find. Yet it is the commentary about which Sanday-Headlam said that “Our obligations to this commentary are probably higher than to any other” (cviii). Not a small compliment given what SH used. If you can find Gifford, get it … or send it to me for Christmas.
(Update May 2010). Gifford’s commentary is available again!
The value of reading old commentaries was also made clear to me when writing on Rom 1.20 and defending that there Paul is not evoking natural theology primarily but the fact that God’s power is made clear by his acts in history. Though this interpretation is rarely mentionned (you won’t find it in Cranfield, Dunn, Jewett, Wilckens, etc.), it has been suggested or proposed—though, to my knowledge, never defended in any detail—for over two centuries. The challenge, one could say the quandary, then is to read older commentaries (I would definitely start with Chrysostome and Origen on Romans) and sort through what is worth reading in the new ones. That should keep us all busy for a while. But then, how will I ever find time to write my own epoch-making commentary on Romans?