The dominant need is to understand meanings accurately.  Post-modern sensibilities notwithstanding, the issue at stake is that of sheer faithfulness to the biblical message rather than smuggling one’s own ideas into the interpretation under the cover of the authoritative text.  Even so, commentaries in this category can be subdivided further.  Some commentaries seek to establish the text and provide basic help in translation, choosing among variant readings and offering elementary help at the level of Greek syntax and semantics.  Grammatical and linguistic commentaries help to ensure faithfulness to the meanings of words and phrases in their literary setting.  Theological commentaries set words and phrases in the wider context of chapters, books, corpora, and even the canon.  Of course, these three subcategories often overlap – indeed, they should do so, for it can be seriously misleading to try to understand a word or concept in isolation from its linguistic and theological context.

To understand a passage (let alone to expound it forcefully) often requires a faithful and imaginative historical reconstruction of events.  Actions and sayings cannot accurately be cashed into today’s currency until the preacher (although not necessarily the congregation) has seen what these presuppose and involve in their original setting in the ancient world.  The best response to those who argue that history, archaeology, and other related disciplines are irrelevant to the interpretive enterprise is to give them a copy of, say, Colin J. Hemer, The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia (Eerdmans, 2000), and suggest that they revise their theory.  Rightly done, this kind of study contributes toward a vivid, colorful, and honest reconstruction for the congregation or classroom.  Admittedly, it is disastrous when historical information becomes an end in itself (cf. the warning, “Divinity was easy, for ‘divinity’ meant Noah’s Ark”).  But even purely historical commentaries can do a useful job if they project readers faithfully into the ancient world.

From: New Testament Commentary Survey by D. A. Carson; 7th edition (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), pp. 1-2.


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