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Bible Commentary: “Theological Booby Traps & Road Blocks”

Part two on the Bible Commentary, excerpted from Raymond Cottrell’s 1985 Spectrum article, “The Untold Story of the Bible Commentary.” You can read the intro to learn more. Comments will be open on the final post.

From beginning to end the editorial process seemed to be loaded with booby traps of various kinds which, if carelessly handled, could have been the source of real problems for the editors. The very first words of the Bible — “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” — held us up at an editorial roadblock for three weeks, and Elder Nichol began to wonder out loud when, if ever, we would reach our destination of Revelation 22:20. Comment was written and rewritten, edited and re-edited, typeset and reset. An entirely different exegetical ambush awaited us at Genesis 30:37 to 31:12, where Jacob informs Laban that God devised the procedure by which he had been able to acquire most of Laban’s flocks and herds. As described, however, the strategy was based on two genetic impossibilities — prenatal influence of the kind here described and the transmission of acquired characteristics. The former qualifies as superstition, the latter as science fiction (see Genesis 30:37, cf. 31:4-12). Did God overrule the laws of genetics and let Jacob believe that the procedure produced the result he claimed for it, or was it a ploy Jacob invented to awe Laban into believing that God had directed him to perform? The result was clear, but it is obvious to us to day that the conception of spotted and speckled cattle was not the result of the procedure to which Jacob attributed it. In addition to the genetic problems involved is the ethical question: Would God deceive Jacob into thinking that the procedure produced the result, and would he connive with Jacob to the disadvantage of Laban as the Bible implies?

Another type of problem lurked in Leviticus 11. The identity of a third of the Hebrew names of animals listed as unclean is unknown today, and any attempt at identifying them with known animals is guesswork. How can we comment intelligently (see Leviticus 11:2)? Again, how was the Commentary to reconcile the instruction of Deuteronomy 14:33-36 — about spending one’s tithe for wine, strong drink, and whatever a person might lust for — with the Bible admonition that the tithe is sacred and that intoxicating substances are evil?

The so-called “wisdom literature” presented a number of perplexing problems. The book of Ecclesiastes confronted us with the need to determine whether some statements should be considered as inspired or as a reflection of the cynical, perverted reasoning of the writer’s wayward, apostate years (see Vol. 3, p. 1060). Also, how did the amorous, erotic Song of Solomon get into the sacred canon? Is it historical or allegorical? Made into a motion picture it would earn an “X” rating, and if offered for sale on 42nd Street in New York City we would consider it pornographic (see Vol. 3, pp. 1110, 1111).

The Old Testament prophets are loaded with booby traps for the inexperienced and unwary. While we were editing Volume 4, I suggested to Elder Nichol that a discussion of principles for interpreting Old Testament predictive prophecy would be desirable. With his blessing, I wrote the article, “The Role of Israel in Old Testament Prophecy” (Vol. 4, pp. 25-38), which affirms that the predictive prophecies of the Old Testament were originally addressed to literal Israel under the covenant and were to have been fulfilled to them had they remained faithful to their covenant obligations and accepted the Messiah when he came.

Prior to editing the comment on Daniel, both Don and I thought of the book of Daniel as an exception to this otherwise universal rule, but editing the comment on Daniel convinced both of us — contrary to our previous opinion — that this principle applies to the book of Daniel as well. Elder Nichol’s overriding pastoral concern, however, led him to insert the parenthetical caveat on page 38 exempting “the book of Daniel that the prophet was bidden to ‘shut up’ and ‘seal,’ or to other passages whose application Inspiration may have limited exclusively to our time.” This was one of only two or three occasions when Elder Nichol exercised his prerogative as editor-in-chief to override our editorial judgment.

Aware of the problems associated with the traditional interpretation of passages in Daniel and the Revelation, and of the experience of the church in attempting to dealt with them, Don and I repeatedly spoke to each other of being, like Daniel, “astonied by the space of half an hour” and like Paul of spending “a day and a night in the deep.” But we did not think the Commentary was the right place to make an issue of matters not essential to salvation, and our own pastoral concern led us to do the best we could with the traditional interpretation. Upon one occasion when certain questions were addressed to Elder Nichol in a public meeting, he replied that the Commentary would not deal with these matters, and he did not expect to be around when the church was ready to tackle them.

The synoptic problem — the literary relationship of Matthew, Mark and Luke — has never been resolved to everyone’s complete satisfaction. If modern literary documents made use of each other as the synoptic Gospels do we would consider it a clear case of gross plagiarism and a valid basis for indicting two of them as infringements of copyright. Ninety percent of Mark is reproduced in Matthew and Luke, often word for word, and both Matthew and Luke make extensive use of still another, unknown source. A more practical aspect of the problem is whether to comment at length on the same incident wherever it occurs in all three, or in only one of them, and if so which one (see Vol. 5, p. 194)?

It is not possible to determine the precise sequence of events in the ministry of Jesus. What principles should we follow in constructing a harmony of the Gospels, which inevitably involves arranging the events of Christ’s life on earth in a particular sequence? Furthermore, there is no clear evidence in the Gospels to indicate the length of Christ’s ministry; commentators vary all the way from three and half years to one year (see Vol. 5, pp. 190-201). Despite all statements to the contrary, there is no unambiguous evidence for the date of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, nor has anyone been able to harmonize the information the four Gospels provide as to when the Last Supper took place. Lurking in the background of this dilemma is the fact that the date of the crucifixion is the anchor point that led to selection of 457 B.C. as the beginning date for 2300 days of Daniel 8:14, yet any suggested date for the crucifixion is arbitrary guesswork (see Vol. 5, pp. 247-266).

Often Don and I would spend an hour or two, or sometimes — on an important point — a day or more, exploring the problem together in order to arrive at a considered decision as to what the Commentary should say on a particular passage of Scripture. Upon one occasion we proposed to Elder Nichol that a weekend retreat for the Commentary editors should be devoted to the subject of prophetic fulfillment, the relation of Old Testament prophecy to the New Testament, the “little apocalypse” of Matthew 24 (including “this generation”), and the imminence of the parousia(“presence” or “coming”) of Christ clearly expressed throughout the New Testament. Meeting at the large Milesburn cabin beside the Appalachian Trail in Micheaux Forest about 30 miles west of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, we devoted several hours to a discussion of the various issues and found our way through to the position to be taken on these matters.

Aware of the periodic theological hurricanes that brew in Australia and eventually reach North America, I suggested to Elder Nichol that we might do well to give our Australian brethren an opportunity to read galleys on the book of Hebrews. I suspected that some of them would take vigorous exception to some of the comments we as editors had already agreed on, and that it would be preferable to obtain their responses before publication rather than after. He agreed, and a few days later we met with some of the Australian leaders who were in Washington for meetings.

Members of the editorial team were familiar with the principles of textual criticism, as it is called, and in writing and editing the New Testament commentaries we examined several thousand variant readings and selected those we considered deserving of attention. Periodically we would confer in the capacity of a textual criticism seminar and reach a consensus on the weight to be given each variant to be mentioned in the Commentary. (See Vol. 5, pp. 146, 147, for an explanation of the system we devised for expressing the weight of evidence for a particular reading. Interestingly, the system later adopted by the editors of the Bible Society Greek New Testament was very similar to ours. See their introduction, pp. x and xi.)

What should an editor do with “proof texts” that inherently do not prove what is traditionally attributed to them — as for example, Numbers 14:34 and Ezekiel 4:6; Revelation 12:17 and 19:10; Daniel 12:4, Isaiah 2:4 and Micah 4:1,2; and most of the texts usually cited with respect to “the law”? In most of these and number of other passages, pastoral concern led us to conclude that the Commentary was not the place to make an issue of the Bible versus the traditional interpretation, much as this disappointed us as Bible scholars and would be a disappointment to our scholarly friends who know better.

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