Monday, August 19, 2013

How to write a commentary

What should a commentator comment on? A good commentary needs to include different kinds of information. And this isn't easily reducible to a single body of text. 
i) Commentaries, especially commentaries on the Greek and Hebrew text, need to define words and parse sentences. However, this level of analysis leads to a very choppy writing style. So it's best to put that in a separate section.
ii) Verse-by-verse analysis. Commentaries need to explain the meaning of every verse. However, that's ambiguous. For one thing, versification is a modern editorial addition or imposition on the text. It's basically for ease reference, since the Bible is a reference work in Protestant theology.
Versification may be arbitrary. It may artificially break up the text. Traditional versification may not correspond to the author's own units of thought–where the author's unit of thought begins and ends. So one of a commentator's responsibilities is to determine, as best he can, the author's minimal units of thought, and transitions from one unit to another. In that sense, a commentator should write a verse-by-verse commentary, but not necessarily in terms of the traditional versification of Scripture.
Also, many verses many be self-explanatory. The commentator is basically paraphrasing what the verse says. In that respect, a commentator could skip over verses which don't require explanation. 
However, that would lose the connection between one verse and another. So even if a verse doesn't demand interpretation, it's necessary for the commentator to say something about each verse to maintain continuity. 
This also applies to chapter divisions. These are sometimes arbitrary. So a commentator must determine, as best he can, how the author subdivides his own material. Where one section ends and another begins. A new argument, new episode, new scene, new pericope. 
iii) A problem with verse-by-verse commentaries is that this microscopic level of analysis breaks up the linearity of passage. The narrative flow or train of thought (depending on the genre). Therefore, a commentator ought to separate verse-by-verse analysis from another section that outlines the macroscopic flow of the text. 
iv) Commentators often compare and contrast their own interpretation with opposing views. They arrive at their own interpretation through process of elimination. This is necessary to justify their own interpretation. However, it means the reader has to wade through a lengthy digression before he finds out what the commentator thinks the text means. It would be more readable if a commentator began with his conclusion, then worked back through the competing views to explain how he arrived at his conclusion, by evaluating the interpretive options. 
Another way to handle this would be to give his own interpretation in a separate section that outlines the basic flow of the text (see above). In summarizing the text he'd be simultaneously summarizing his own interpretation.
v) Where possible, commentators should reconstruct the original setting. Who wrote it? To whom? When? From where? To where? What occasioned the document?
Depending on the genre, this may be a general question to be answered in the introduction. But it may recur at various points within the document. If it's a law code, a commentator needs to explain the purpose of each law. If it's an epistle, the commentator needs to explain why the author is leaving one point to address another. Where are we at what stage of the argument? How does this follow from what went before? Does this break new ground?
That might be a separate section, or that might be incorporated in the summary. 
vi) Exegesis isn't theologically neutral. A commentator must be clear at the outset on whether he submits to the viewpoint of Bible writer, or assumes a posture independent of the Bible writer. For instance, some commentators, especially in narrative criticism, treat the text as a self-contained story without an external referents. Like a mural rather than a window. Unlike a window, through which you can see the outside world, a mural doesn't point beyond itself. If, however, the narrator is situating his "story" in a real world setting, as the narrator views the world, then it's incumbent on the part of the commentator to try to identify the real world setting, from the narrator's standpoint. That may or may not correspond to what the commentator thinks the world is really like, but the objective of exegesis is to mirror the outlook of the Bible writer–regardless of the commentator's personal opinions. His duty, as an interpreter, is to assume the viewpoint of the author, for the sake of argument, even if he is personally at odds with the author's perspective. 
Of course, from a Christian standpoint, a commentator ought to share the worldview of Scripture. And, frankly, it's a waste of time to exegete the Bible if you don't believe the Bible. 
Some commentators deliberately reinterpret the text at variance with authorial intent. They offer a reading against the text because they have a political or ecclesiastical agenda to change social policy or church policy by reinterpreting the Bible. An obvious problem with this tactic is that if you reject the authority of Scripture, then it's silly to reinterpret Scripture. Just say Scripture is wrong and move on. At the same time, drop the pretense to be a Christian.  If theological liberals are really getting their views from John Rawls, Jerry Coyne, et al., why not drop the charade of using Scripture? 
vii) Traditionally, the aim of exegesis, especially Protestant exegesis, is to ascertain authorial intent. The text basically means what the author meant it to mean. 
This is sometimes dismissed as the "intentional fallacy." However, that label is prejudicial. Whether or not grounding the sense of the text in authorial intent is "fallacious" isn't something a critic is entitled to preemptive brand fallacious. That's a rhetorically clever first strike, but question-begging. 
It also depends on how we define "authorial intention." In terms of exegesis, this doesn't mean the commentator is trying to read the mind of the author. It's not about the author's private state of mind, but how he has objectified his intentions by what he wrote. We're not inferring the sense of the text from his state of mind, but inferring his state of mind from the sense of the text. 
viii) The primacy of authorial intent is qualified in a couple of respects:
a) The meaning of the text includes the logical implications of the propositions. These may go beyond what the author consciously intended. Indeed, it's unlikely that an author, even an inspired author, had in mind all the logical implications of his statements. But these would be consistent with authorial intent.
b) Since authors normally write to be understood by their target audience, making allowance for what the target audience was able to understand is also germane to interpretation. To a great extent, what the author meant is linked to what that ought to mean to the immediate audience. Of course, the audience is capable of misunderstanding the author. But our interpretation shouldn't be at variance with what the audience was capable of grasping. Taking the cultural preunderstanding of the original audience into account gives us a bead on original intent. 
c) In historical narratives, it's often important to distinguish between the narrative audience and the reader. For instance, the Bread of Life discourse was originally delivered to Jews during the public ministry of Christ. That's the narrative audience. The narrator records that discourse for the benefit of his Christian readers. When we ask what it means, the narrative audience supplies the proper frame of reference. 
d) Apropos (b-c), the relevant "interpretive community" isn't the modern church or medieval church or patristic church or Magisterium, but the target audience or narrative audience. Moreover, the interpretive community has no interpretive authority. It's role is evidentiary. 
e) Divine intent fuses with authorial intent. The Bible writer intends what God intends for him. 
In principle, God can override human intent. Sometimes speakers are quoted in Scripture (Balaam, Caiaphas) who speak the truth in spite of themselves. But that's different from Bible writers. 
ix) Apropos (viii), the aim of exegesis isn't theologically neutral. For instance, canonical criticism treats liberal Bible criticism as a given. It takes the position that books of the Bible passed through a long editorial process before arriving at the "final form." This basically erases the distinction between authorial intent and the reception history of the text–for on this view, there's a dialectical relationship between authorship and "interpretive communities," where the text is continuously rewritten. Interpretive communities contribute to the final form of the text. This also makes the finalization of the text an arbitrary cut-off point. That simply represents the end-stage of the last interpretive community to redact or canonize the text. To some extent, this is congenial to Roman Catholicism.  
There's nothing inherently wrong with saying the Bible, or books of the Bible, were edited. The problem is when an editorial process is postulated in the teeth of a canonical book's self-witness. 
x) Apropos (ix), source criticism and redaction criticism underwrite canonical criticism. Once again, there's nothing inherently wrong with saying Bible writers used sources. The problem is when speculative source criticism overrides the final form of the text by postulating hypothetical sources, often in defiance of the authorial viewpoint. 
Likewise, there's nothing inherently wrong with redaction criticism. For instance, there's a sense in which Chronicles is an intertextual commentary on Samuel and Kings. Although it doesn't directly redact Samuel and Kings, it editorializes on those prior canonical histories. Likewise, if the conventional solution to the Synoptic Problem is true, then there's a sense in which Matthew and Luke "redact" Mark by incorporating Mark into their own Gospels, and adapting Mark to their own theological agenda and target audience. Of course, Mark itself is left intact. And their very use of Mark shows their esteem for Mark. 
The problem is when Bible critics conjecture that books of the Bible underwent a lengthy redactional process before reaching the final form of the text. They try to take a book apart, reconstructing the process of composition. Their conjectures are very imaginative–based on dubious assumptions, lacking controls, and grossly underdetermined by the textual and historical evidence.
An extreme example is when a commentator disassembles a book of the Bible according to his source critical theories, rearranges the sections, then comments on his own creative edition of text. However, this radically changes the meaning of the text. 
Imagine if you took a Shakespeare play, like the Tempest, broke it down into Shakespeare's real or alleged sources, rearranged the sections, then commented on the play. Your interpretation would no longer be an interpretation of the Tempest. 
xi) From a Christian standpoint, the ultimate aim of exegesis isn't to yield information for information's sake, but to inform the reader on how to live according to God's word. Therefore, there ought to be a section on application.
Unfortunately, the application often has a tacked-on feel. Application ought to begin with what the text meant, under what circumstances it was written, for whose immediate benefit. The exegesis of the text should form the preliminary basis for application. Application then analogizes from the situation of the original author and the original audience to a comparable situation for the current reader. Their experience is exemplary for posterity. What things in our experience parallel things in the experience of the original author and his immediate audience? How does that set an example for you and me?
In sum, I think a commentary ought to be organized thusly:

i) A summary of the passage, which gives the reader an overview of the plot, argument–or whatever (depending on the genre).

This reflects the commentator's interpretation. At this preliminary stage, he doesn't argue for his interpretation. 

The commentator may also preface the summary by setting the stage. 

ii) Followed by verse-by-verse analysis.

iii) Followed by semantic and syntactical analysis.

iv) Followed by sifting through the major interpretive alternatives.

v) Followed by the application, which ought to grow out of the exegesis, as an argument from analogy.

These five sections should be color-coded, to let the reader go straight to whatever section he needs. 

Beyond the organization of the commentary, the commentator should:

i) Take the viewpoint of the Bible writer for granted. 

ii) By the same token, his interpretation should respect authorial intent. Taking the cultural understanding of the target audience into account will also help to hone in on original intent.

iii) A commentator shouldn't go behind the text to tell us what "really" happened, as if the text is an impediment to be excised. 

iv) By the same token, a commentator shouldn't shift attention away from the final text to hypothetical sources underlying the text. Of course, if the text contains literary allusions, it's proper to discuss those.

A commentator should never rearrange the text. 


  1. Just out of curiosity, have you written, are you writing, or do you plan to write any commentaries?

    1. I may do some mini commentaries. More like study guides. CliffsNotes style rather than full-length commentaries.