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The Interpreter's Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes

by George Arthur Buttrick

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This is a 1952 edition and the scholarship is dated, however the depth and detail of the commentary is unmatched. I open this often when I want more detail or background than I get from The Oxford Annotated Bible, my normal reference.

This was written by and for believers, so this is not for those seeking pure, unbiased scholarship. ( )
  steve.clason | Sep 3, 2011 |
This is a 12 volume set that covers the Old and New Testaments.
  DLUC | Jun 7, 2010 |
Excelent! However, the new version is now out and will take the place of this older version. ( )
  mwdefore | Aug 6, 2007 |
Who would have the chutzpa to review a massive reference work like this one? How do I dare give voice to viewpoints on these twelve heavy tomes? I can only speak personally.

I was raised a fundamentalist, and for most of my three-score-and-ten-plus years I have considered myself an evangelical Christian. But that was before evangelicals became politicians rather than pastors, and before I read the wise words of Philip Yancey and Jim Wallis from the evangelical camp, or Marcus Borg from the Jesus Seminar, and such writers as Karen Armstrong, Elaine Pagels and Garry Wills.

As an undergraduate in college, I was a pre-ministerial student. For the first two years I substituted from time to time, preaching in small country churches in Middle Tennessee; for the next two years I was appointed to speak every Sunday at a small ridgetop church in Jack Daniels country. How beautiful that wooded ridge was in all seasons of the year. How warm and generous were those Christians. What a heightening experience that was for me. How I wish that now, with the experience of that three-score-and-ten I could be with those good folk once again.

Of course, I had years of the sermons of godly men ringing in my ears. I had mentors, and there were fellows among my pre-ministerial peers who recommended sermon outline books to me. I took a few courses in homiletics and hermeneutics, and collected copies of sermons from those professors. But, no, even then, I was one who had to choose his own topics, who had to develop them in his own (inadequate and uninspired) way.

On those weeks when I was wiser, I began not with a topic but with a text. I tried to let the text speak to me (in a three-level outline, of course) and I tried to let it speak to these worshippers through me (in three main points, of course). I spent many hours in the reference section of the college library, exploring, then devouring pages and pages of text in the Interpreter's Bible (IB). What did I learn? More than I could enact in my messages, I assure you. More than I could convey to my hearers. More than I understood myself. Much that has influenced my reading and thinking, my analysis and interpretation of profound texts, well beyond those pre-ministerial years.

Circumstances, and uncharacteristic humility, led me to decide upon another profession, to trade the pulpit for the professor’s podium. It was the approach of the Interpreters Bible, not its specific content, that shaped my thinking. The lessons may seem simple now, but for me they were profound.

First, I learned that no one translation of a text, no one commentator, is sufficient. OK, maybe the Christian bible might be the inspired and infallible word of God, but no one person, I realized even then, fundamentalist though I was, could be accepted as always an inspired and infallible interpreter, the last word on the Word. The IB always gave the text in two translations (King James and the Revised Standard Version). Furthermore, there were original translations and explanations of the Hebrew and Greek texts. There were always at least two commentaries (more on these later) and frequent references to others, often diverse ones. Meaning cannot be; it must be made. Meaning-makers may mentor meaning-makers—they cannot transpose their ideas into the minds of others.

Second, there were always two kinds of commentaries: exegeses and expositions. The former provided close textual analysis—chapter by chapter, verse by verse, almost word by word. The so-called New Critics of literature, springing from among the agrarians and Fugitives at Vanderbilt University, had also grown up in the Bible Belt, among practitioners of this same kind of exegesis. Let the text speak for itself.

Third, however, there were also those expositions. Let the text speak to and for the reader. To and for the hearers. To and for those parishioners for whom a minister is explicating the text. To their lives, their communities, their families, their very heart and soul. Exegesis attempts to answer the question, What does this text mean? Exposition attempts to answer another question, What does this text mean for you? Already the prospective English teacher in me was moving beyond the New Critics to reader-response criticism, from rhetorical analysis to archetypal interpretation, from neo-Aristotelianism to new historicism and post-structuralism, from genre to gender and ethnicity and from national identity to global diversity, from the literal to the spiritual.

Let me admit some limitations here and now. As the Wikipedia article on the Interpreters Bible says, “Non-Christians and non-Protestants are not catered to or acknowledged in the Exegesis and Exposition of the texts, especially in the Old Testament volumes. The commentators' assumption throughout is that the Jewish scriptures must be understood as pre-figuring the Christian revelation and ‘Christian values,’ a concept that must have had a greater level of undoubted coherence in 1952 than it has now.... The Exegesis and Expositions vary from book to book in terms of their scholarly depth, separation of fact from conjecture, and degree of mawkishness.”

Eventually I would turn to the Anchor Bible and other, more modern references for a wider point of view. But, amateur deconstructionist that I am, I would insist that even in its insularity the IB broke down its own interpretive walls. By their very nature, translation and commentary, exegesis and exposition, are latitudinarian. Many different voices are never one voice, though they may be joined in a choral union.

How pleased I was several years ago to find a set of the Interpreter's Bible that I could afford. Of course, by this time it was being issued in a new series, this time using the New International Version (for the evangelicals, I suppose) and the New Revised Standard Version (for the mainstream). If one but add the Jerusalem Bible for an obligato and Eugene Peterson’s Message as a counter-tenor, one might have the makings of that choral union, after all.

My IB still sits on the bottom shelf of my library, weighting down the bookcase with its heavy tomes. How often I find myself sitting on the floor before it (and its companion, the four-volume Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible) to check up on a scripture that I find intriguing, to compare what a modernist from the Jesus Seminar says with what the old-timers in the original IB said, or simply to browse among their ideas and insights.

Now if only I had a ridgetop church out among the beautiful hills of Tennessee with whom to share the spheres I’ve been admitted to.
3 vote bfrank | Jun 14, 2007 |
Bible, N.T. Commentary
  CPI | Jun 30, 2016 |
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