Some Advice on Books and Commentaries

tolle-legeThough dated, Arthur Samuel Peake’s A Guide to Biblical Study (New York: Dodd Mead and Co, 1897) yields sound advice and is worth acquiring on the used-book market.  He has an entire chapter on books and reference works, excerpts of which I reproduce here:

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For the sake of convenience, I desert the natural order and speak first of the literature of Exegesis before I pass to that of Introduction.  The reason is, that in many cases the best introduction to a book [of the Bible] is to be found in one of the commentaries on it.  Accordingly I shall now refer to the subject of commentaries.  The choice of these is largely determined by common-sense principles.  And if my advice seems to smack too strongly of platitude, my defence must be that these considerations of common-sense are frequently, so far as my observation goes, allowed too little weight.  It is clearly important to secure the best as far as possible.  The time has gone by for commentaries on the whole Bible by a single hand.  Such works have served a useful purpose in the past; but for a young student to buy Adam Clarke’s Commentary at this time of day is for him to spend his money very foolishly.   For one thing, Adama Clarke lived before the dawn of the critical movement, though he was not unvisited by gleams of critical insight.  For another, it is plain that no one man can write a tolerable commentary on the whole Bible.  The great commentaries of to-day are, in most cases, the result of many years’ labour on a few book at most; though to this there are exceptions.  It does not all within the province of this book to speak of a commentary like that of Matthew Henry, for I am dealing only with those works which are useful to the student, not with those which are meant primarily for the preacher.  Unless a commentary is modern, it should not, as a rule, be bought.  Some of the patristic commentaries are still useful, especially, perhaps, those of Chrysostom and Augustine, but even these it is not worth while to buy.  The same applies to Calvin, whose exegetical works have a permanent value.  But Bengel’s “Gnomon” should be bought, and constantly used, in the original Latin, if that can be read, but if not, in an English translation.  In his own special excellences Bengel is unrivalled, and likely to remain so.  We have in him a writer whose work extended over the whole of the New Testament, and which yet must remain in the first rank.  A convenient and cheap edition is the “Critical English New Testament.”  A more elaborate edition is published by Messrs. T. & T. Clark.  Neither of these is Bengel quite pure and simple, but will probably be found satisfactory.  As to commentaries in a series, it may be said that they have their advantages and disadvantages.  They meet the two conditions that a commentary should be modern, and that it should not be the work of one man.  But there is a point that must not be overlooked.  It does not follow because one or two volumes of a series are good that the whole series should be bought.  Probably no series could be named in which the volumes were not of very unequal merit.  This is natural, as an editor has to call in inferior as well as highly competent writers.  In making a selection, it is often safe to be guided by the name of the writer.  It is pretty certain that it would be right to buy any commentaries by Davidson or Cheyne, Westcott or Godet.  Their names are a gurantee of high-class work.  On the other hand, there are writers whose names should act as warnings to those who may think of buying their books.  With new writers it is well not to be in too great a hurry, since their work is sure to be appraised by competent critics, and for their verdict it is best to wait.  One more caution may be given.  There is a common misonception that the latest commentary on a book is likely to be the best.  It is true that the author has had the advantage of reading the best work already done in that field.  But about the best commentaries there is an incommunicable quality imparted by the personality of the writer, which is to be found only in his work, and which it would be vain for another to attempt to transfer to his.  And a commentary which is a mere compilation can never compete with one which is the outcome of years of patient investigation and labour at the text itself.

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There is more, but this is enough for now.  Peake spends the remainder of the chapter discussing specific titles and authors.  By and by I shall reproduce his suggestions.  I find them helpful in my own scouting for good older books.  As always, tolle lege!

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