Old Testament Commentary Survey (5th Ed.) – A Review

Longman Survey 5thNow in its fifth edition (the first published in 1991), Tremper Longman III (PhD Yale University) “Old Testament Commentary Survey” (Baker Academic, 2013) offers a helpful updated appraisal of commentaries on the OT. I am thankful for the review copy that Logos provided for me and am delighted to recommend this volume as an essential tool in discerning how best to select volumes to consider for building a commentary library of the Old Testament. The accessibility and search-ability of the Logos version made reading and reviewing a volume like this one far easier especially given the heavy use of abbreviations (which were all hyper-linked to pop-up when the cursor was placed over them).

Who has Longman written for: “This guide is for anyone, layperson or minister, who desires to buy a commentary. It lists a number of works available for each book of the Old Testament, briefly summarizes their emphases and viewpoints, and evaluates them. This guide will be especially helpful to seminary students beginning to build the reference library that will be crucial to their preaching and teaching ministries” (p.2). Arguably he meets this aim for his targeted Evangelical audience.

There are a number things worth mentioning about this volume. One, Longman’s own criteria for recommending a commentary or not recommending it. Two, its already being out of date once it is published because of the current proliferation of commentaries and the need to be concise.

First, his comments regard several specific criteria that loom large throughout:

  • Evangelical issues
  • critical perspectives in light of “Evangelical” tendencies
  • theology
  • ancient Near Eastern context
  • readability
  • insightfulness

I wonder if any future update might better clarify Longman’s own understanding of “Evangelical”? He uses the term throughout this volume but never offers even a cursory summation of just what he means by it. Perhaps a brief explanation would better orient future readers as to what he means. Otherwise it seems based upon a simple acceptance that if one has uttered the “shibboleth” of “Evangelical” somehow they are sharing common knowledge and therefore stand on common ground. But in this highly diverse contemporary milieu of “Evangelicalism” found in the U.S. context (which it is supposed Longman has primarily in mind) it would perhaps go further to clarify his sense of the term even in broad brush strokes (e.g., issues of inspiration and authority of Scripture, canonical appropriation of any given text of Scripture, etc). Some of these are latently implied. For instance, when Longman seems to propose that engagement with the NT plays into this. This is how I understand his appraisal of “critical” perspectives that he deems to differ with “Evangelical” tendencies.

His own expertise (ANE and theology) is paramount in his appraisal process and thus might best explain why he focuses on such as criteria worth mentioning throughout. On his comments pertaining to readability, one wonders if he has done any readability tests (there are many available) or is he simply commenting on what he regards as highly readable. How does this align with average readability among laypersons and ministers? Or is this just a highly subjective proposal based upon his own judgment of what constitutes being “readable”? Finally, it might be beneficial if there were a comment or two explaining what he deemed “insightful” in the volumes he states are such*. Perhaps this is asking a bit much of a book that covers a LOT of ground in making such recommendations already, but he has already offered some comments on particulars in certain volumes. Why not explain if it pertains to such issues as authorship, theology, genre-classification, exegesis, etc.?

This second issue (involving all such published reviews of other literature) is not against Longman who has done a fantastic job since the first printing of aiding the layman, pastor and scholar alike (within the broad tent of Evangelicalism) in trying to wade through the multiplicity of commentaries on the market. This critique is inherent to the form of literature. For instance, Daniel Block’s excellent commentary on Deuteronomy (NIVAC, 2012)–though I understand from conversations with him that he will be able to also publish a stand-alone with Eerdmans (?), the total absence of the Abingdon Old Testament Commentary series (fifteen of which have been published since 2001), or Paul Shalom’s highly regarded recent contribution “Isaiah 40-66” (ECC, 2012)–a series which shows great promise to the scholar and yet the series is not even mentioned for review despite volumes also published on Exodus and two on Psalms.

Longman offers a terrifically insightful study of commentaries by describing whom each volume (and set) might best be appropriated: L(ayperson), M(inister/seminarian), or S(cholar). He ranks each by half-star increments (from 1/2 to 5 stars) with five stars being his strongest endorsement. He bases it on the aforementioned criteria and specifies within the commentary how one might understand his rankings: “One or two stars indicate that the commentary is inferior or deficient, and I discourage its purchase. Four or five stars is a high mark. Three, obviously, means a commentary is good but not great. I also use half stars in order to refine the system of evaluation” (p.2). He does not rank his own publications, but does include brief discussions of them. Certainly he understands well the writing of commentaries as he himself has written many in different series on top of being an editor for several. His own commentaries are listed together in Appendix B on p.153:

  •   Job. BCOTWP. Baker Academic, 2012. 496 pp.
  •   Proverbs. BCOTWP. Baker Academic, 2006. 592 pp.
  •   “Ecclesiastes.” In Job, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs. A. Konkel and T. Longman III. CsBC. Tyndale, 2006. 400 pp.
  •   Ecclesiastes. NICOT. Eerdmans, 1998. xvi/306 pp.
  •   “Song of Songs.” In Job, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs. A. Konkel and T. Longman III. CsBC. Tyndale, 2006. 400 pp.
  •   Song of Songs. NICOT. Eerdmans, 2001. xvi/238 pp.
  •   Jeremiah, Lamentations. UBCS. Baker Books, 2008. xvi/412 pp.
  •   Daniel. NIVAC. Zondervan/Hodder & Stoughton, 1999. 313 pp.
  •   “Nahum.” In The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical and Expository Commentary. Ed. T. McComiskey. Vol. 2. Baker, 1993. Pp. 765–829.

Several humorous side comments are offered throughout, but here are several of note which speak to Longman’s own eschatological perspective (or at least away from those which he would self-identify):

  • For instance on Cooper’s commentary on Ezekiel in the NAC series, Longman writes: “This commentary is informative on a basic level but not too profound or thought-provoking. It adopts a dispensationalist and premillennial approach, which I personally find difficult to accept. So if that is your view, add a star. LM[two stars]” (p.108, bolding mine).
  • Or Baldwin’s commentary on Daniel (TOTC): “Baldwin is a balanced and sane exegete, which is important to note in a commentary on a book that attracts some wild ideas. ” (p.111, bolding mine–it would be interesting to hear some of the “wild ideas” he might have had in mind as he wrote this).

Anyone looking to gain free digital access to a number of other commentary reviews (including taking into account Longman’s own) should visit bestcommentaries.com.

________________

Longman was my second reader for my M.Div.Honours thesis and had commented in his formal review about my own “insightfulness”. Perhaps this is my own curiosity showing in that he did not comment on the specifics of what he found insightful in that work. FWIW, he gave me very high remarks and grade. 🙂

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