Building a New Testament Library: Hebrews – Revelation

Richard E. Cornell

The Gospels and Paul’s letters rightly deserve the vast attention paid to them, yet the final third of the NT has its own truth to tell. Fortunately for us, faithful interpretive guides for the final third of the NT abound.

Hebrews is well served by numerous superb commentaries. David deSilva’s Perseverance in Gratitude (Eerdmans, 2000) is a standout in Eerdmans’ Socio-Rhetorical series. His approach is multi-disciplinary, blending rhetorical analysis, socio-scientific criticism, cultural-anthropological perspectives, and ideological criticism, and he pulls it all together in a commentary that is extremely accessible. In a book that requires a lot of cultural sensitivity, deSilva provides it, showing how concepts such as patronage and honor and shame inform the reading of Hebrews (the difficult passage of Heb 6:4-6 is a great example of a text that becomes clearer in light of deSilva’s approach). The “Bridging the Horizons” sections that conclude each major division of the commentary are replete with helpful application points for pastors and teachers.

Craig Koester’s Anchor Bible commentary (Doubleday, 2001) is my go-to commentary for Hebrews. Koester begins with a substantial history of interpretation that situates his reading of Hebrews within the larger tradition, but then proceeds to offer a fresh reading of the text that focuses on God’s intentions for humanity as a pervading and integrating theme in Hebrews. Koester is a superb exegete who is also theologically sensitive. His commentary has something for both the scholar and the layperson, especially given the format of the Anchor Bible with its “Comment” (a reading of the text focusing on major interpretive and theological question) and “Notes” (more detailed notes underlying the main reading) sections.

Gareth Cockerill’s recent offering in the New International Commentary on the New Testament series (Eerdmans, 2012) replaces the solid volume by F.F. Bruce and is a substantial work that imagines the author of Hebrews as “Pastor” (introduction headings read “The Pastor’s Sermon,” “The Pastor’s Congregation,” etc.). A helpful feature of the work is that each section of exposition begins with an introductory paragraph that situates the section within the larger rhetorical strategy. Cockerill is chary of overly specific reconstructions of the background of Hebrews (author, location, identity of recipients, and the situation) and places more emphasis on structure, rhetoric, and the writer’s use of the OT. With regard to the last point, Cockerill stresses that Hebrews is more about continuity and fulfillment rather than the more typical contrast of continuity and discontinuity.

Pride of place among James commentaries belongs to Luke Timothy Johnson’s contribution to the Anchor Bible (1995). Johnson believes that the book was written by James the Just. His introductory section is excellent, detailing the history of interpretation and also offering insightful comments about James’ relationship to the rest of the NT and especially Paul. Johnson concludes that James and Paul have a lot more in common than is often thought, especially if the whole of James is considered rather than an isolated set of verses. The commentary is sophisticated in terms of its linguistic analysis and pays significant attention to the theological themes of the book. Ralph P. Martin’s Word Biblical Commentary (WBC) on James (Word, 1998) is a solid offering for both the scholar and the teacher. Martin believes that James the Just’s sayings were arranged in the form of a letter by his disciples after his death. Martin combines careful verse-by-verse analysis with an eye towards the theological meaning of the text as a whole, and he does it all with an admirable brevity. It is a commentary that will serve both scholar and pastor well. Douglass Moo’s Pillar commentary (Eerdmans, 2000) is shorter than the first two, but those familiar with Moo’s work will find his typical careful exegesis on display. Moo finds the right balance between exegesis, theological analysis, and application, making it a helpful and accessible commentary for the busy pastor. Moo’s expertise in Romans comes in handy in this commentary as he is able to make astute judgments about the relationship between James and Paul.

Often considered second class citizens of the canon, the Petrine Letters and Jude have much to offer and, thankfully, are increasingly well served by solid commentaries. Joel B. Green’s commentary on 1 Peter in the Two Horizons New Testament Commentary (Eerdmans, 2007) is an excellent commentary that brings together keen passage-by-passage commentary with broader theological reflections. As the introductory book in the unique series, Green’s opening discussion of the nature of biblical studies and theology sets the stage for what the series as a whole is trying to do and repays careful consideration. One of the most important contributions of Green’s commentary is the way he shows how 1 Peter does not just contain theology but is theological reflection. A more traditional commentary is J. Ramsey Michael’s contribution to the WBC (1988). More detailed than Green’s in its verse-by-verse commentary, it focuses less on practical application. Especially helpful are Michael’s reflections on the “Theological Contributions” of 1 Peter, where he compares the book’s theology, Christology, and pneumatology with the rest of the Scripture.

In her Two Horizon New Testament Commentary on 2 Peter and Jude (Eerdmans, 2007), Ruth Anne Reese seeks to create a “dance pavilion” where exegesis, theology, and the community of believers come together. An explicitly theological commentary, Reese takes Jude and 2 Peter section by section rather than verse by verse. The second section of the commentary focuses on theological themes, connections between the target texts and the rest of Scripture, and contemporary considerations. Long considered the gold standard on 2 Peter and Jude, Richard Bauckham’s study in the WBC (1983) still wears the mantel well. Judicious in its judgments and careful in its interpretation, it will be a reference point for years to come. Bauckham masterfully handles the literature of Second Temple Judaism and thoroughly engages with the scholarship of his day. Though dated, the great historian J.N.D. Kelly’s commentary on 1-2 Peter and Jude (Hendrickson, 1969) has aged well, as is evidenced by the frequency with which modern commentaries still cite it. Kelly’s commentary does less with ancient literature and modern scholarship than does Bauckham, but plays close and careful attention to the text itself. In a day when there are few solid commentaries on all three books, Kelly’s careful work gives a lot of bang (and coverage) for the buck.

Concerning the Johannine Letters, Raymond Brown’s work in the Anchor Bible (1982) is a massive work of high-end scholarship that still impresses after thirty years. Though some of the particulars of Brown’s reconstruction of the Johannine community have been questioned by later scholars, the dean of NT Scholars is superb in his verse-by-verse analysis and his notes on the text are thorough. On the other end of the spectrum is Karen Jobes’s volume in the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament series (Zondervan, 2014). Eschewing hypothetical reconstructions behind the text, Jobes focuses on the text itself and offers a careful exposition of it. The format of the series offers a nice blend of in-depth textual analysis (including structural outlines of each section), theological reflection, and helpful summaries. Stephen Smalley’s work in the WBC (1984) is another older commentary that remains serviceable. Smalley believes that the three letters postdate the Gospel of John and were written by a different author. Yet these letters stand in close relation to the Gospel of John and seek to explicate the teaching of the Gospel for those members of the church who have drawn the wrong conclusions from it. He argues that the Johannine letters present a “balanced Christology” aimed at correcting those with either a too low or a too high understanding of Christ. Smalley’s interpretation is often insightful, though he is a bit lighter on application than Jobes.

No NT book requires more help from the experts than Revelation. Fortunately, there are many excellent commentaries to aid the fearful. I start with the recently released Anchor Bible entry by Craig Koester (2014), a superb and massive (881 pages) piece of scholarship that will take its place among the greats in the field. As with his Hebrews commentary in the same series, Koester begins with a thorough survey of interpretation, and such a survey is even more important in Revelation than in Hebrews, given the widely divergent ways the books has been read throughout history. Koester sees Revelation unfolding in a series of six forward moving cycles and he consistently shows how the author suspends judgment with offers of redemption and messages of hope (an important theme to highlight, given the rather gloomy estimation most have of Revelation). I’ve also found his shorter work, Revelation and the End of All Things (Eerdmans, 2001), helpful in my Revelation classes.

Replacing the brilliant, if a bit eccentric, commentary by George Caird, Ian Boxall’s 2006 work on Revelation in the Black’s New Testament Commentary Series (Hendrickson, 2006) is a fresh offering in a full field. Lean, but substantial, Boxall is judicious in his interpretations, striking the right balance between laying out the options and arguing for the best one. Despite its modest size, Boxall’s commentary accents some aspects of Revelation that are not always discussed, including the importance of the setting of Patmos and the nature and importance of John’s revelatory experience. He is also conversant with the history of interpretation. In the “an oldie, but a goodie” category, I commend John Sweet’s 1979 commentary (Pelican, 1979; Trinity Press International, 1990). Sweet’s concise commentary wastes no words and contains wisdom disproportionate to its size. A unique feature of this commentary is Sweet’s eight-page “Synopsis” of Revelation at the beginning of the book that provides a wonderful overview of the argument as a whole. Scour the used book stores and find a copy of this little gem.

Finally, a brief mention of Michael Gorman’s Reading Revelation Responsibly (Wipf & Stock, 2011) is in order. Though not a full size commentary, it does offer significant readings of critical parts of the book and raises interesting (and perhaps uncomfortable) questions about Revelation’s current relevance, especially for those living in the West in the 21st century (the subtitle – Uncivil Worship and Witness – hints at where his argument goes). His brief introduction to interpretive approaches is clear and concise and is useful for those teaching this topic to the uninitiated.

Posted Apr 13, 2016