A Dutch Historian Reviews “The Commentary”

Read it here.  Or enjoy the English version below:

The humanities are, essentially, a pedagogical program. The study of history and foreign cultures serves to help us understand our own civilization and age a bit better, helps us recognize our own prejudices, and puts our own ideas in a different perspective. Besides, the humanities can be great fun.

Because it would be unfair if only academics benefit from the humanities, academics are supposed to transfer their insights to society, but – pace authors like Eric Cline – this duty is seriously neglected. Stripped of their pedagogical essence, the humanities have become sterile activities. The government can stop financing them and no one would really notice, because we lost the humanities a long time ago. For various reasons, other disciplines have suffered from a similar loss of significance. In religious studies, however, there are some interesting initiatives, initiatives that may also be useful among the humanities.

One of these initiatives is the commentary on the Bible by Jim West, a theologian who is lecturer in Biblical and Reformation Studies at Ming Hua Theological College in Hong Kong and is also Pastor of a Baptist Church in Petros, Tennessee.

In his commentary, West explains every chapter from Genesis to Revelation to “the person in the pew”: the ordinary member of a church, who, when reading the Bible, encounters a desperately foreign culture and therefore needs some guidance to understand it. This fact applies to every ancient text and therefore, the success of West’s commentary shows me, a historian of the ancient world, a road to take to give the humanities back their lost pedagogical essence.

West’s approach is straightforward: he offers the Bible in a translation (American Standard Version) and interrupts the narrative every now and then to explain a couple of verses. His comments are aimed “at English speaking and reading members of the community of faith”: in other words, he makes the ancient texts accessible for believers. His approach can be applied to other ancient authors as well, such as the Epic of Gilgameš, the Iliad, Herodotus, Caesar, Suetonius, or Augustine.

That would even be quite easy. If I were to write a West-like commentary on Caesar’s Gallic War, I would have to make sure that a modern reader receives some background knowledge so that he may understand what Caesar takes for granted and can understand and enjoy the dictator’s writing. Such a commentary would not be easy to write, but it is a straightforward job. As a pastor, West has an additional task: he needs to present the text in such a way that the faithful can use the Bible as a guideline. As I said, West’s approach is straightforward. The fact that he succeeds is encouraging for everyone who thinks that the study of ancient texts is meaningful.

Back to West’s commentary, which was not written to show ancient historians how to regain purpose, but is intended as a means of pastoral care. I am no theologian and cannot judge the theological merits, but I can say that it is a pleasant read. I am currently reading a text I know quite well, Daniel, and West has pointed out many aspects I had not recognized before. The PDFs of West’s Commentary for the Person in the Pew are on my tablet, allowing me to go through the entire Bible when my train is delayed or has been cancelled. Given the quality of Dutch public transport I expect to have renewed my encounter with the Bible within a few months.

Jona Lendering
Historian