June 27, 2009

Why I don’t like most study Bibles

I became interested in contemporary study Bibles because of my interest in pedagogy.  I wondered if a study Bible could be used as a self-study tool or as a resource used by a teacher.

Here, I make a distinction between a merely annotated Bible (e.g, the celebrated [RSV] New Oxford Annotated Bible – which explains difficult passages and includes summary of the pericopes, but makes for a reading text – not a teaching or study text) and a true “study Bible” intended to serve as a full teaching presentation of the Bible with commentary as well as annotations.

My conclusion is that all contemporary study Bibles I have seen are poor for teaching without substantial – often very substantial – additional materials.  They may or may not be useful as reference works, but by and large they are poor for pedagogy.

Most contemporary study Bibles suffer from the following pedagogic problems: 

(a) They attempt diversity in their selection of annotators and essayists, but if the Bible is read chapter-by-chapter, the reader has no chance to directly compare views on a single book (or even a single topic).  In this way, they are far weaker than a typical Norton Critical Edition volume which will typically include an anthology of essays which directly debate each other, providing a plurality of views that enriches the student.   In contrast, contemporary study Bibles are both wildly uneven (because of the different commentators) and also present opinions, often contentious opinions, as fact.

(b)  The physical dimensions of a study Bible necessarily limit the depth of commentary.  This is not necessarily a disadvantage for a lightly annotated Bible, but it makes for a reading text – not a teaching or study text.  (To be fair, the classic editions of the New Oxford Annotated Bible, as the title clearly indicates, claimed to be “annotated” and not “study” texts.)  In this way, I regard the Oxford Jewish Study Bible as slightly stronger than its Oxford cousins The Catholic Study Bible (2nd ed.) or the contemporary (ecumenical) New Oxford Annotated Bible (3rd Augmented ed.) – since it the JSB covers only the Hebrew Bible, it covers about 3/5ths of the material in roughly the same total dimensions (and, most promisingly, has room for much more essay material). But the JSB still suffers from the many of shortfalls of its cousins.

(c)  Evangelical study Bibles, in particular, are largely produced by a single company, the Livingstone Corporation, which has most recent apologetic study Bibles (including almost all of the recent study Bibles published by Zondervan, Tyndale, Broadman and Holman, and Thomas Nelson).  This has imposed a level of uniform mediocrity of these volumes (although they are often magnificent specimens of modern computer typesetting).

(d)  With a few significant exceptions (scholarly commentaries, most Orthodox Jewish study volumes, and the NET New Testament diglot), most study volumes include no or only superficial engagement with original language materials. 

(e)  Similarly, with a few significant exceptions, most text critical issues are avoided.  In this way, most study Bibles are significantly inferior to a typical single-volume annotated teaching text for Shakespeare.

(f)  Even “academic” study Bibles often include substantial apologetic material.  The New Interpreter’s Study Bible is, perhaps, among major “academic” study Bibles the worst offender, but it creeps into all of them.  While this is is not necessarily a bad thing, it should be noted and the student should be given a perspective of different views.

What I wish is that we could see a study Bible – in multiple volumes if necessary – where different commentators could directly engage with and debate each other, in the fashion of the Rabbinic Bible.  Such works are common in English literature (e.g., the Cambridge Companions, the Norton Critical Editions, Bloom’s Modern [or Classic] Critical Views, among many, many others).  Some of these are only mediocre, but the best of these are outstanding.

Moreover, anthologies of different opinions they can easily be found for classic interpretation of Scripture (e.g., the Rabbinic Bible, the Catena Aurea).  I fail to see why it is so difficult to produce a study Bible with contemporary opinion focused on pedagogical principles.

I have seen a (mostly successful) attempt to do this with a study edition of the Jewish prayer book; where ten different commentaries (from a full spectrum of opinions) are included with full engagement of the Hebrew.  A completely different style which also succeeds is the Norton Critical Edition Writings of Saint Paul (first edition, second edition) which includes a wide array of extra-Pauline materials as well as ancient, 19th century, and modern criticism.

For the time being, I am unable to recommend a self-study volume for serious engagement with the Bible.  This strikes me as odd given that many excellent examples exist for secular literature.

1 comment:

goulablogger said...

I have my share of study bibles, and I agree with you that they make better quick references than in-depth study volumes. Since beginning my practice of consulting several commentaries for each week's Sunday School lesson I've used my study bibles less and less, and tend to prefer text/reading bibles now, with the exception of my printed edition of the NET Bible, which usually makes a good head start on issues before diving into the commentaries. Study bibles cannot compete with commentaries in coverage, and even commentaries have their levels of coverage.

I think much of the problem is the marketing of study bibles. They are more aimed at John Q. Public than scholars, or even the "interested layman". More in-depth works tend to be published in smaller run specialist volumes, aimed at devoted ministers and seminary students.

There is also the difference between literary studies and biblical studies to consider. Most literary critics don't think the world turns around their interpretation of Shakespeare, Dickens or Austen (to name just English greats). Devoted followers of the Bible, on the othr hand, often do think the interpretation of the Bible is monumentally important, and do not want to deal with interpretations they think are wrong/heretical. Thus each religious tradition (esp. in Christianity, which hasn't so much the Jewish history of examining the text from multiple angles as a norm) ends up seeking its own reference books. This is not a bad thing to publishers.

Chuck Grantham