I’m currently writing a book review (really a book notice: only 300 words) on a new commentary on Hebrews. I’ve not reviewed a commentary before, so I’ve been thinking about what goes into a good review of a commentary. Writing a review of a monograph is fairly straightforward; a collection of essays can be more difficult if space is really limited and there is no clear unifying theme. But, I think, a commentary presents different challenges. For one thing, most commentaries are now quite long. The one I’m reviewing is over 700 pages of commentary and introduction. I’ve heard that some people enjoy reading commentaries from cover to cover, but I’m not one of those. Plus, I’m not sure that a complete reading is what is needed for a good review of a commentary. Here are some questions that I’ve been thinking about:
- What is unique about the commentary? Uniqueness can be good or bad, but the question here is primarily about what justifies another commentary to occupy space on my shelf. Does this commentary have a different approach to the text? Does it concentrate on parallels in ancient literature better than other commentaries? Is the commentary focused primarily on historical or theological issues, or is there a balance between them? Does it come from a particular theological stance, and how does it handles texts that seem problematic for that view?
- How does the commentary position itself in relation to key current debates? Every generation has its own particularities, and the commentaries should reflect that. Basically, this is a key reason why there is the need for fresh commentaries. The commentator is forced to do two things: be aware of the past and present discussions, well also looking forward. No one wants to write a commentary that is outdated as soon as it hits the shelves, nor do I want to read one that simply repeats what a dozen other commentaries have already said.
- A follow-up question to this one is: how well does the commentary engage with other positions? I’m not a big fan of commentaries that merely present the author’s take without any real engagement with alternative views. A commentary is not the place for a literature review, but I would suggest that a commentary should also have some good dialogue partners that run throughout.
- What does the commentary say about key passages? I think this is crucial to getting a good feel for what a commentary is doing.
- How useful will this commentary be for my students? Since I spend most of my time teaching and addressing students, I find myself thinking more about what can benefit them. This is particularly the case when I’m reviewing a book that relates to a class I teach. Because I do English and Greek based classes, I have two sets of criteria to watch for. For example, does the commentary engage the Greek enough to challenge the students who have Greek, but without overwhelming them? Does it explain things simply enough that the English-only students can still use it?
- How well is it written? Let’s face it: a well-written commentary is more likely to be used when one encounters an issue than a poorly written one, however good the latter is.