The Harper's Bible Commentary endeavors to provide in one volume a "clear, convenient guide to reading and studying the Bible."
In 1,344 pages, commentaries on the books of the Old Testament, New Testament and Apocrypha are presented by editor James L. Mays' group of 82 Jewish and Christian scholars of the Society of Biblical Literature.The book features 16 pages of full-color maps, 16 pages of color illustrations, as well as black and white illustrations, tables and diagrams in the text.
The articles are written to give the "consensus view of the topic, free of theological basis." And that is the problem I found in this book, five years in the making. The straightforward articles reach careful conclusions that, in not being theological, are almost not religious.
At the end of Genesis 11, a section on "myth" (page 92) questions whether the early chapters of Genesis can be designated as myth because of their dependence on ancient Near Eastern myth. After defining myth (the narrative language, supernatural agents, action of remoteness in time and space, providing vision of the underlying structure of reality and the goal of salvation) the writer (John S. Kselman, associate professor of Old Testament, Weston School of Theology, Cambridge, Mass.) concludes, "If these characteristics are an adequate description of myth, there need be little difficulty in describing the material in Genesis 1-11 as myth, especially when so much of it is the Israelite version of ancient Near Eastern myth."
This secular view may hinder the Bible reader who seeks clarification but doesn't consider the creation "myth."
Another example comes from the section "Reading and Interpreting the Bible," found in the introduction. John Barton, a lecturer in Old Testament theology at Oxford University, Oxford, England, writes: ". . . it is also necessary to understand what kind of book we are reading, and this is a literary, not just a linguistic, matter. To understand the Psalms, for example, we have to realize that they are poems and hymns, and that we should not read them as though they were statements of doctrine."
Indeed, though Psalm 22 is quoted 13 times by New Testament writers and contains the words Christ uttered on the cross, the commentary notes that Christ is associated with the "devastated psalmist" rather than the psalm being a prophecy regarding Christ's crucifixion.
I found many important Bible verses glossed over quickly or skipped entirely. The Shiloh prophecy of Genesis 49:10 is treated almost as an aside: "One of the most obscure passages in the poem is a promise to Judah of dominion and royal sovereignty among the tribes because of Judah's military prowess."
Regardless of the level of the reader's faith, the commentary does bring a wealth of sources for Bible study. Readings from the pseudepigrapha and early patristic books, the Dead Sea and related texts, Targumic material, Mishnaic and related literature, other rabbinic writings and Nag Hammadi tractates are utilized by the scholars.
In a review in the November/December 1988 Biblical Archaeology Review, Gerald Shepherd, associate professor of Old Testament literature and exegesis at Emmanuel College in the University of Toronto, says: "As a predominantly non-theological, very condensed commentary on the Bible, "Harper's Bible Commentary" is unexcelled by any other one-volume commentary."
Donald Juel, professor of New Testament at Luther Northwestern Seminary, St. Paul, Minn. notes in his BAR review of the New Testament segments, ". . . readers interested in solid historical and literary work, and in a broad survey of the New Testament, will find the "Harper's Bible Commentary," with the companion "Harper's Bible Dictionary," a useful resource."
A final word on commentaries puts any objections in perspective. John Barton closes his introductory remarks in Harper's Bible Commentary with this practical reminder: "Commentaries are never a substitute for the text itself; they are meant to send readers back to the text with clearer eyes, to explore its riches for themselves."