`The New Interpreter's Bible' is a 10-volume commentary on the Christian Bible, including the books of the Apocrypha. This review concentrates on Volume X, particularly on the commentary on Paul's letter to the Romans, easily one of most important books of the New Testament. The 375-page commentary on Romans in this volume is longer than many standalone `Romans' commentaries.
I am especially happy that it is possible to buy individual volumes from this set, as I suspect there are many potential readers who may be interested only in the Old Testament or only in the Gospels or, like me at the moment, only in the commentary on Romans.
While the set is edited and published by Methodist organizations, I am certain that the work as a whole is not colored by those things which distinguish Methodist theology from, for example, Lutheran, Baptist or Episcopal thought. I do, however, sense a stronger influence of Protestant over Catholic points of view. The `Romans' commentary is written by N. T. Wright, who wears the hats for both preacher and theologian for Westminster Abby, the ultimate center of The Church of England and, by extension, the godfather center for the Episcopal Church in America.
My understanding of this work as a whole is that professional Biblical scholars for a professional, but not scholarly audience who wishes to interpret the Bible for others write it. Thus, the audience is primarily pastors, Sunday school class teachers, and Bible Study group participants. This last may be something of a stretch, as my experience with many Bible Study participants is that they are quite happy to stay with an unassisted reading of the scriptures. And, as I have spend the last several months exploring some of the more arcane corners of Pauline scholarship, I confess this is quite a good choice for many readers. The problem is that Paul's letters are DIFFICULT reading, at least as difficult as, for example, Plato's `Republic', and may be even more difficult than the more obscure `Timaeus'. This is due to the fact that while Paul's thinking is deep, his rhetorical skills may be a bit unpolished. I have read that his texts show far less erudition in technique than his Alexandrine Jewish contemporary, Philo, in spite of the fact that both write in the same Hellenistic Greek.
Wright, just like many other recent popular writers on Paul, stress that it is important to understand Paul's overall argument before trying to pry lessons for life out of the kind of sound bite we get from the readings during our Sunday morning service. The organization of the `Interpreter's Bible' is eminently suited for those who want to see the forest and not just the trees. Each Book has a longish general introduction, followed by a Bibliography of major works on the subject. Reading the Bibliography on `Romans' is revealing in that it is limited to works that have been published in the last quarter of the 20th century. From that period, I believe Wright has pointed us to the cream of the crop, especially with his references to books by C. E. B. Cranfield, James Dunn, Ernst Kasemann, E. P. Sanders, and Wright himself. One small problem with this is that it leaves out almost 1600 years of commentary from everyone between St. Augustine to John Barth and Albert Schweitzer, most especially glossing over Martin Luther and John Calvin. But Luther's point of view is eminently represented by the `Commentary on Romans' from Ernst Kasemann.
The next item is a very detailed outline of the subjects and the argument(s) in the letter. It is important that Wright's outline is not universally accepted. Kasemann has a different outline that several other writers, including F. F. Bruce in his exegesis on Paul's Epistle to the Romans have adapted. Fortunately, there are not huge differences between the two, so I feel comfortable following Wright's outline. And, in the course of my guiding the study of `Romans' for a Bible study class, I have found the outline illuminating.
The main body of the commentary uses this outline to break up the discussion into four great sections (I through IV), with each major section being broken up into three (3) to eleven (11) sub-sections (A through K), which may or may not be broken into further subdivisions. Each major section begins with its own overview and ends with `Reflections' which are personal observations on the relevance of the section to Christian belief. All general sections are far more useful for the illumination of faith than for the comparative study of theologies.
Between these two bookends is the text of the scripture from both the NIV and theNRSV translations, followed by a verse by verse commentary on both the translation(s) and Paul's meaning within the context of his arguments. The commentary is liberally laced with references to both Old Testament texts explicitly and implicitly cited by Paul and New Testament texts from both Paul's other letters and the Gospels.
It is with the scriptural references where I start to find some problems. First, misprints or author errors I believe, corrupt a small number of the references. Fortunately, there are very few of these, and they are not too important. Other problems are with relevance. I am hard pressed to see the relevance of a minority of the citations. This brings us to my biggest problem with Wright's commentary, where he frames the new covenant, living in the body of Christ who dies in the law and rises to replace the law as a reference to a `new Exodus'. Not only do I not see allusions to this in `Romans', but I see a distinctly different Paul where Christians move from a slavery to the flesh to a slavery to the Spirit of Christ. This is part of Luther's using Paul as the foundation for his predestination theology.
Paul may not have been a `Lutheran', but he does offer more support to Luther's important arguments than the Wright lets on.