Comments on Jeremiah Commentaries by Graham Davies (Biblical Studies Bulletin, 2003)

Comments on Commentaries

An assessment of commentaries on a book of the Old & New Testament to keep you up to date with what will help in preaching and teaching in the local church.

OT: Jeremiah

Jeremiah is at the same time the prophet whose spiritual experience and biography seem to be most accessible to us and the one whose book has been, according to much modern scholarship, most transformed by a different editorial theology and the needs of a later (exilic) readership. These distinct characteristics place a heavy demand on commentators and most lean more to one direction or the other. There is no shortage of choice!

The late Robert Carroll‘s ‘OT Guide’ (Sheffield, 1989) is a good way into the modern discussion, even if one rejects his sceptical conclusions. His own approach, more fully set out in his commentary (OTL, 1986), is to focus on the first readers of the book in the Babylonian exile and ask what they in their situation of crisis would have made of it rather than what it can tell us about Jeremiah himself (not very much according to Carroll!). At the other end of the scale is the old book (not strictly a commentary) of John Skinner, Prophecy and Religion (Cambridge, 1926), which treats the whole book as the spiritual biography of Jeremiah. More recent commentaries which also take a strongly historical approach, though with more attention to the political context, are John Bright (Anchor Bible, 1965), J A Thompson (NICOT, 1980), P C Craigie and others (Word, 2 vols, 1991, 1995), and on a smaller scale R K Harrison (TOTC, 1973). William Holladay‘s very large Hermeneia commentary (2 vols, 1986, 1989) is similar and full of useful detail, but the overall approach is somewhat skewed by his theories about the coherent structure (‘architecture’) of the book and the chronology of Jeremiah’s utterances.

In between are those which acknowledge the poetry of the book (or most of it) as giving us direct access to Jeremiah’s own words but see the prose sermons and narratives as in varying degrees refracting his teachings and experiences through a ‘deuteronomistic’ lens. Here belong Ernest Nicholson‘s succinct commentary on the NEB (CUP, 2 vols, 1973, 1975), Ronald Clements‘s very readable and theological exposition in the Interpretation series (John Knox, 1988) and William McKane‘s ICC (T. & T. Clark, 2 vols, 1986, 1996) which, if too dense for most readers, provides the fullest analysis of the Hebrew text and its problems that is available. Douglas Jones‘s NCB (Harper Collins, 1992) also belongs here and comes closest to my idea of the best medium-sized commentary for general use, with its detailed explanation of particular words and phrases and its sensible treatment of larger issues.

The ‘rhetorical criticism’ of Jack Lundbom (Anchor Bible, so far only ch. 1-20, 1999) and the ‘synchronic’ focus on the final form of the text of Kathleen O’Connor in the one-volume Oxford Bible Commentary (ed. John Barton and John Muddiman, 2001) offer examples of different kinds of ‘literary’ approach to the book.

The preacher who is looking for immediately usable material that is based on sound scholarship will find it in Robert Davidson‘s Daily Study Bible (Saint Andrew Press, 2 vols, 1983, 1985) and in Walter Brueggemann‘s attractively titled volumes in the ITC (Eerdmans),’To Pluck Up, To Tear Down (1988) and To Build, To Plant (1991). Of special interest, though again not strictly a commentary, is Philip Kings Jeremiah: An Archaeological Companion (Westminster/JKP, 1993), which provides many vivid illustrations of the themes and images of Jeremiah’s message.

Graham Davies, Professor of Old Testament Studies, Cambridge University

From Biblical Studies Bulletin 28 (June 2003)

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