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THE CATHOLIC REVIEW: Biblical Commentaries

A Guide for the Perplexed on a Budget

11/16/2018 | Comments

“The study of the sacred page . . . should be the very soul of sacred theology” (Vatican II, Dei Verbum, 24). In a time of testing for the church’s beliefs and practices, it will be those steeped in the scriptures, in the magisterial teaching and traditions of the church, and in the long-running dialogue of her scholars and teachers on the precise meaning and application of these sources of her authority, who will convince others and lead by their understanding, knowledge, and wisdom.

Led by pioneers like Father Raymond Brown and others, a second generation of post-Vatican II scholars is producing some of the finest biblical commentaries in the Christian (as well as Catholic) world today.

Scholars like John Bergsma, Tim Gray, Scott Hahn, Mary Healy, Father Francis Maloney, and Brant Pitre (to name just a few good writers we treasure) are writing sound, accurate, thoughtful texts on the scriptures and important theological questions. After hundreds of years of allowing so-called “independent” scholars (few of whom turned out to be very objective, as Benedict XVI revealed) who had little engagement with the church (or the synagogue) to set the agenda for understanding these texts, men and women of deep faith and religious example are coming to the fore, showing that 2000 years of study that is committed to faithful obedience and moral example can produce research and scholarship worth following. I want to give just a sense, a grasp of the garment, as it were, of the resources out there for students wanting to go deeper into the scriptures.

One-Volume Commentaries

The beauty of a one-volume commentary on the Bible (or either the Old or New Testament) is that at one sitting and source the reader can grasp entire books and their sequencing and collective meaning. Usually more expensive and better constructed (like a faithful tool in the toolbox, built for years of help), these commentaries can have tremendous value. Recently, the church has been blessed with “A Catholic Introduction to the Bible: The Old Testament,” by Brant Pitre and John Bergsma. Although many Catholics are familiar with the four Gospels and other writings of the New Testament, for most, reading the Old Testament can feel like walking into a foreign land. Who wrote these 46 books? When were they written? Why were they written? What are we to make of their laws, stories, histories, and prophecies? Should the Old Testament be read by itself or in light of the New Testament? It can be a daunting process, leaving us discouraged and uninformed. Thankfully, we have a great solution in this book.

Bergsma and Pitre, who recently became a professor at the Augustine Institute, offer readable, in-depth answers to these questions as they introduce each book of the Old Testament. They not only examine the literature from a historical and cultural perspective but also interpret it theologically, drawing on the New Testament and Catholic doctrine. Unique among introductions, this volume places the Old Testament in its liturgical context, showing how its passages are employed in the current Lectionary used at Mass. They are sound, in sync with the church’s historic teachings, and offer what heretofore has been an elusive combination: good writing, excellent scholarship, faithful sons of the church. For a deacon, seminarian, priest, or catechists wanting to understand the Old Testament, this is an excellent resource worth the investment. I could not wait for this text to be released, and plan to use it as a textbook for deacon candidates in the future.

Commentaries on Single Books

For a study of a particular biblical book (perhaps in an adult class or in a personal study), it’s hard to beat an excellent single-volume commentary. Publishers often produce an entire series of commentaries, each written by a particular scholar known for his/her erudition and scholarship in that biblical book. Notable in this format are the “Sacra Pagina” (New Testament) and “Berit Olam” (Old Testament) series published by the Liturgical Press; the Navarre Bible series of commentaries by Four Courts Press, available as individual paperback volumes or a single-bound set; and “The Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture,” published by Baker Academic. All are worthwhile choices and generally less expensive, as you purchase only the resource for the book you may be studying. We recently welcomed the release of Scott Hahn’s commentary, “Romans,” in the Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture series, and are eagerly awaiting this growing collection of commentaries. Other titles in the series include: “The Gospel of Matthew” by Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri; “The Gospel of Mark” by Mary Healy; “Ephesians” by Peter Williamson; and “The Gospel of Luke” by Pablo Gadenz.

Scott Hahn’s verse-by-verse interpretation and commentary on St. Paul’s most comprehensive statement of Christian faith written to the church at Rome, which is often intimidating to Catholics and a breeding ground for misunderstanding in the Protestant world, is an excellent place to start.

Before we leave this single-volume genre for commentaries, we have to mention the Ignatius Catholic Bible Study commentary series. Available in handy and inexpensive paperback editions, each volume contains the biblical text, a full commentary with additional notes, and also includes study and discussion questions for use in a class setting. The individual book studies have been assembled into a full study bible from Ignatius Press as well.

For those seeking to dive even more deeply into the text, what better way to learn than to have a historical record of the way the Church has looked at a particular text all in one place? In the past, this required an expensive collection of writings, spreading sets of ancient commentaries by the Fathers and doctors of the church out on the table. Thankfully, we are in a better place.

Using computer technologies to search and assemble these varied insights for thousands of years, with the assistance of scholars of both church history and the biblical texts, we have a modern version of compilations like St. Thomas Aquinas’ “Catena Aurea,” a masterpiece of theology on the four gospels that includes the work of over 80 early Church Fathers. I find that the work of preparing a homily is greatly aided by having all of these saints “joining me,” sitting at my table, sharing their insights — gems of knowledge and experience that will bless the lives of others. They are a perfect group to join my study.  Along with an open Bible and a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, you can be truly inspired to inspire others (and at holiday time, what a great gift idea for that favorite priest or deacon in your parish!).

A word of caution in the midst of these recommendations: biblical commentaries can blow up your budget and disappoint in other ways. It’s best to get some helpful recommendations from a trusted friend, catechist, or cleric whose teachings, homilies, and overall Catholic life you respect. There are commentaries that require knowledge of original languages like Greek and Hebrew, but they can be pretty turgid — and expensive — for an introductory reader. God bless you in your reading.

One last helpful hint (it works in my home): Maybe you simply need to highlight this review in the Herald, circle the books you want, and leave it conveniently discoverable by the loved ones in your life! Next month we’ll look at books we all want for Christmas. God bless you!

(Comments, reactions, or suggestions about a book or resource that might be helpful can be sent to Deacon Rick at

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