Considering the Commentary
By Beth M. Sheppard
Duke University Divinity School, Durham, NC
It is easy to have a love/hate relationship with the academic improvement and assessment movement. Oddly enough, when it comes to thinking about the value of assigning biblical commentaries for exegesis courses, it is possible to be equally conflicted. Yet, class assessments have the potential to help a lecturer gage how students are interacting with reading material and also assist in solidifying at least some of a professor’s thinking about commentaries.
Before looking at how course feedback can clarify what might be going on with commentaries in any given classroom setting, let’s think a minute about assessment in general. To be sure, assessment has its upside. I personally love the idea that by analyzing feedback we can all become better instructors who, by marshalling various techniques, philosophies, and even technologies, can transform our classrooms into environments where 1) every student is jazzed about biblical interpretation, 2) feels empowered (not to mention prepared) to think critically and independently about the text, and 3) is ready to interpret a biblical pericope for his or her respective context or contexts. At least, those are some of the goals that seem to pop up in the literature on pedagogy in Bible courses.1 There are many others and your own list may differ depending on whether you are teaching in a faith-based context or a secular one—or perhaps due to some other factor.
Assessment, however, may also have pitfalls. As much as I love the idea of improving, I am skeptical about “end of semester” (summative is the technical name) course evaluations that either never seem to provide quite the right feedback for the unique classroom dynamics related to students’ academic and faith based engagement with biblical texts or do not provide enough detail to get at evaluating the nitty-gritty secondary outcomes and skills unique to our field. Take the matter of commentaries in class, for instance. While end of term evaluations sometimes include questions about the amount of reading required in a course, explore whether assigned textbooks adequately represented inclusivity (however that might be defined in a particular institution) or inquire whether the assigned books were “appropriate” or “liked” by the students, the fact that most questionnaires only provide a single question or two to generate feedback regarding students’ encounters with commentaries may allow professors to scratch only the surface of the complex issues surrounding use of works in that genre in Bible courses.
Essentially, one of the larger concerns surrounding the genre boils down to how we balance the fact that while commentaries may indeed serve as tools to inform belief, they are also instruments used to assist with the mechanics of completing assignments and preparing homilies. The first point puts the commentary squarely in the realm of the ineffable processes of faith development. Maturation in faith is, to some extent, a subjective element and whether or not it is even assessable is not entirely clear. Nonetheless, this is an issue that deserves to be considered in some classroom contexts. The second issue is one about objective content rather than a dispositional quality and is certainly the realm in which we may start to do a little digging.
For instance, commentaries selected for use in courses may play a part in furthering all sorts of measurable classroom goals—from serving as models for various methods of interpretation, to demonstrating the countless spins and flavors that contexts add to readings of texts, to providing summaries of key aspects of the literature/social phenomenon/economics/politics that are vital for the broad contexts in which the biblical texts are written, but which we cannot reasonably expect students to master on their own during a twelve week course (or, following graduation, in ministry settings where erstwhile exegetes may not have access to a research level library). By the same token, though, commentaries in a classroom setting can be stumbling blocks to these very objectives. A favorite or very accessible commentary, for instance, may swamp equally valuable, though less user-friendly offerings. Further, students who are just learning to spread their exegetical wings may foreswear their own solid insights in favor of the authority inherent in the comments of an author that appear in a well-respected series from a top-drawer press.
The perils and glories of using commentaries in courses have long been debated in our field, even serving at the focus of panel discussions during meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature. Indeed, recently a session was held in which Gary Phillips, of Wabash College, asked the framing question “…what value does modern commentary and the genre of commentary more broadly have for our work teaching the Bible to students inside and outside the classroom in a range of teaching settings, and what do we imagine we are accomplishing with it?”2
I don’t have solid answers myself to some of these questions, which is why I’m taking the liberty of raising them in this forum. What I have been able to do, however, is create my own series of mini-assessment instruments and informal questions about commentaries that can be deployed in a class at key junctures during the semester (in the world of assessment, this is called formative evaluation). In effect, a few minutes here and there while the weeks of the class are rolling along can really help pin-point what students are thinking and allow rapid response on my part long before the course winds to a close.3 For example, one simple technique involves requesting students to take a minute in the middle of a lecture to write down the name/author of the commentary from the recommended reading lists that they find is serving as their “go to” resource and write a sentence about what makes it the number one choice.
Much to my surprise, one thing I have learned from student feedback is that many of those seated in the lecture hall find the whole idea of biblical commentaries to be baffling. Which only goes to show that either my own ambivalence about the value of assigned commentaries in courses infects my classes, or more likely (I hope) that the commentary genre itself is extraordinarily perplexing to students who may have backgrounds in the sciences, business, history, and other disciplines before entering a class on Bible. Indeed, the difficulty that students have with the genre is a hypothesis that seems to be borne out by the nature of the questions students sometimes raise in my mini-assessments about these basic and ubiquitous volumes in our field. These are a few of the things that students typically have on their minds:
- How does one use a commentary?
- When should one use a commentary?
- Why are there so many commentaries and how does one pick the best one?
- Why are some commentaries in the library reference room and some in the library stacks?
- Is it wise to buy a full set of X, Y, or Z commentary series?
- Can one disagree with a commentary?
- Will reading this book harm one’s faith?
- Hasn’t anyone from P, D, or Q denomination (usually that of the student respondent) written a commentary on this book of the Bible?
Many of these questions have been tackled by others, so answering them for one’s own students may not involve reinventing the wheel. For example, in a recent blog, Chris Green cautions against occasionally “dipping” into a commentaries to find information on a single pericope given that sometimes a commentator will offer a quixotic take on an early passage that may color interpretations of subsequent verses.4 Going into more detail, David Murray, a faculty member at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, provides his own list of twenty tips on how to use Bible commentaries in which he includes the wise observation that commentaries come in many varieties and are designed for many different tasks, from analysis of the text to aiding in personal devotions.5 For his part, Brevard Charles has compiled a list of five criteria for evaluating a commentary’s excellence in which he urges readers to inquire whether or not an author has a private agenda that is overshadowing the interpretation or notes.6 And, when it comes to figuring out which commentaries to buy? Well, the Foundation for Theological Education has an online publication in which a variety of commentaries for building personal Old Testament and New Testament resource libraries are reviewed on a regular basis.7
Some of the questions students raise, however, get at different concerns than those related to the mere mechanics of general commentary use, the genre’s value for conveying objective content, or the ability of verse by verse expositions to stimulate (or inhibit) independent critical thinking about Biblical texts. For at least some students, it seems that questions about commentaries are, at heart, faith questions, as short assessment exercises may reveal.
So what does this mean for those of us in the classroom? Clearly there are very complicated issues that surround the use of commentaries in exegesis courses and much for us to keep in mind when considering the commentary genre.
1 Recent literature includes Dale B. Martin Pedagogy of the Bible: An Analysis and Proposal (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008); and Ross Cochran “Teaching Scripture for Scholarship and Discipleship: Uniting Academic and Pastoral Concerns in Christian College Pedagogy,” Christian Education Journal 3rd ser, 9 supp. (March 1, 2012): 124—37.
2 Gary Phillips, David Patte, et al., “Using Bible Commentaries in the Classroom,” Teaching Theology and Religion 16.1 (2013): 52-65, 53.
3 Often termed “formative” assessment, or “CATs” (course assessment techniques), they include exercises that became popular several decades ago. Some are discussed by Dawn Marie-Walker, “Classroom Assessment Techniques: An Assessment and Student Evaluation Method,” Creative Education 3 (2012): 903—07.
4 Chris Green, “2013 Top Posts, #10—How to read a commentary and avoid my four rookie errors,” Ministry Nuts and Bolts (December 16, 2013) http://ministrynutsand
5 David Murray, “20 Tips on How to Use Bible Commentaries,” HeadHeartHand Blog, March 7, 2012 (http://headhearthand.org/blog/2012/03/07/how-to-use-bible-
6 Brevard S. Childs, “The Genre of the Biblical Commentary as Problem and Challenge,” in Tehillah le-Moshe: Biblical and Judaic Studies in Honor of Moshe Greenberg, ed. Mordechai Cogan, Barry L. Eichler, and Jeffrey Tigay (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1997), 192.