Letter from the Editor



Michael D. Coogan, Editor in Chief

Michael D. Coogan

From the desk of Michael Coogan

In the coming months, we will be adding new editions of two annotated Bibles to Oxford Biblical Studies Online: the second editions of the Jewish Study Bible and the Catholic Study Bible. That has got me thinking about the genre of annotated Bibles, also often called "study Bibles." These are Bibles that provide commentary alongside the biblical text, usually including notes on different versions of the text, brief interpretive comments, and often maps, charts, and essays.

Perhaps the earliest example of the genre is found in some of the Dead Sea Scrolls from Qumran in commentaries on biblical books, called pesharim. Mostly fragmentary, these commentaries usually consist of a quotation of a verse from the book in question followed by a brief interpretation. The best preserved is the pesher on the first two chapters of Habakkuk, which dates to second half of the first century BCE (you can see it at http://dss.collections.imj.org.il/habakkuk). So, in Column 4, the first line has the opening words of 1:10 (continued from the now-missing end of the previous column) "[At kings] they scoff, and nobles they ridicule." This is followed by a space, so as to set off the biblical text from what follows. Then comes the commentary: "Its interpretation: They deride the mighty, and they despise those who are honored; kings and princes they mock and they ridicule the mighty people." This is essentially a paraphrase, and adds little. (I cannot resist noting that this is not an infrequent experience: when I go to a commentary for help with a difficult word or verse, often I find just a paraphrase and sometimes nothing at all! If a commentator is expected to say something about every verse, sometimes there is little to be said.) The pesher continues with the rest of 1:10 and commentary on it: "'At every fortress they scoff, and they pile up earth to capture it.' Its interpretation: Concerning the rulers of the Kittim, who despise the fortresses of the peoples and with derision scoff at them, and with a great army they surround them to seize them."

In Column 9, we find Habakkuk 2:8b along with commentary on it: "'Because of human blood and violence to the earth and to the city and to all those who dwell in it.' Its interpretation: Concerning the Wicked Priest, whom God gave into the hand of his enemies to humble him, because of wrong done to the Teacher of Righteousness and the men of his council."

In these excerpts we can easily see the sectarian nature of the commentary. For the author of the pesher, the book of Habakkuk repeatedly refers to the Qumran sect's own history in the commentary. The Kittim mentioned within are the Romans (as in Dan 11:29–30), who had begun to make their presence felt in Judea in the second century BCE and who took over Jerusalem in 63 BCE. The interpretation of Habakkuk 1:13 refers to the leader of the Qumran sect, the Teacher of Righteousness, and his enemy, the Wicked Priest, both mentioned often in this and in other scrolls.

This early commentary is a prototype of annotated Bibles that would develop over many centuries. One major example is rabbinic Bibles, both manuscripts and later printed books, whose format has been described as an island of text in a sea of commentary. In the center is generally the Hebrew text, often accompanied by an ancient translation into Aramaic; these are surrounded by commentaries by such scholars as Nahmanides, Rashi, and Ibn Ezra (for a sample, see http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/images/Loc105a.jpg).

Such collation of commentaries was not restricted to biblical texts. The earliest commentaries on Homer date to the fourth century BCE, and in late antiquity and in medieval manuscripts, other Greek and Roman classical texts were similarly presented. An eleventh century CE manuscript of the Iliad in the British Museum looks very much like the rabbinic Bible (see http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/.a/6a00d8341c464853ef01901e98800c970b-pi). So biblical scribes and scholars were doing what their learned secular colleagues were doing, and in similar formats, and they have continued to do so.

In the modern era, annotated editions of the Bible for students and other readers have proliferated. Oxford University Press alone publishes eight study Bibles using six different translations; five of these study Bibles are on this website, coming from somewhat different scholarly perspectives. The contributors to The New Oxford Annotated Bible and The Oxford Study Bible are mostly American scholars of different (or no) religious backgrounds, representing what I would call the mainstream of biblical studies; The HarperCollins Study Bible is like it. The Catholic Study Bible, as its title suggests, is aimed mainly at a Roman Catholic audience, and most of its contributors are Catholics, but they too represent the mainstream of scholarship. The Access Bible is directed principally at a mainline Protestant audience, although its contributors also come from a variety of religious backgrounds; The CEB Study Bible and The New Interpreter's Study Bible are comparable. The contributors to The Jewish Study Bible are all Jewish, but they too are mainstream scholars. More conservative Protestant examples are The NIV Study Bible and The NKJV Study Bible. What these capsule summaries imply is that scholars of every background are committed to interpreting the Bible, although they inevitably also bring their own perspectives and presuppositions to their work.

The annotated Bible that has probably sold more copies than any other is The Scofield Reference Bible, first published in 1909 and republished in several editions and revisions. Using the King James Version, it gives biblical cross-references in the center column between two columns of text. (Some recent editions have used other translations.) When appropriate, it also gives dates when the editors thought the events described occurred; thus, it dates the events described in Genesis 1–3 to B.C. 4004. Below the text is the commentary, which often promotes a specific interpretation known as dispensationalism. In this fundamentalist understanding of scripture, the Bible presents a detailed chronological framework of seven distinct "dispensations" of divine action. According the commentary on Genesis 1:28, those dispensations are Innocency (Gen 1:28), Conscience (Gen 3:23), Human Government (Gen 8:20), Promise (Gen 12:1), Law (Exod 19:8), Grace (John 1:17), and Kingdom (Eph 1:10). We are now in the sixth dispensation or "era," perhaps even near its end.

Like the Habakkuk Pesher, The Scofield Reference Bible is distinctly sectarian. But apart from its dispensationalist perspective, it is a mine of information, especially in its cross-references. These are based on a reading of the Bible as a single, divinely inspired work, a presupposition not shared by all mainstream scholars, although reading the Bible as one book significantly overlaps with canonical criticism (see "Canonical Criticism").

Many Bibles, many approaches: How is a reader to choose? I recommend to my students that when they are studying a biblical passage, they should compare different translations to get insight into the passage's meanings. Another useful exercise is to look at different study Bibles: we can learn much from ancient, medieval, and modern scholars—especially perhaps those outside our own intellectual comfort zone—all of whom strived for a fuller understanding of the Bible.

For a full, hyperlinked list of all the commentaries available on OBSO, please visit our Tools and Resources section here.

Michael D. Coogan
Editor in Chief, Oxford Biblical Studies Online
November 2014


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