Fortress Commentary on the Bible: REVIEW Part 1

I received my review copies of the Fortress Commentary on the Bible (New Testament and Old Testament with Apocrypha) last week and had pretty much completely written out part one of the review when lo and behold WordPress decided for the first time ever not to save my DRAFT.

Taking this as a sign to re-write the review here I am now tapping away at the local cafe hoping to do justice to what had been written before (it would have been the first non-fiction book review to make you weep – trust me).

Background: Fortress Press is an imprint of Fortress Augsburg. It came into existence in 1962 with the merger of Lutheran denominations into the Lutheran Church in America (LCA) as it’s publishing arm. A forerunner to Fortress was Henkel Press.

In 1988 the parent denominations of Augsberg and Fortress presses merged together to form the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and thus Augsberg Fortress was formed with Fortress focusing on the publishing of academic works.

Fortress has published work by and about some significant authors in the realm of western Christian theology including Martin Luther, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Karl Barth and more recently N.T. Wright among others.

Basics: The books are both hardcover and well bound (stitched, cloth bound) and together comprise a total of 1,888 pages (1,117 pages for the OT commentary and 771 pages for the NT).

The drawback of a two volume commentary is that is cannot delve very deeply into the text. You will not find verse by verse commentary or word studies. There is no detailed discussion of the subtleties of the Greek, Aramaic or Hebrew and so if you are looking for such detail this is not the set for you.

On the other hand the benefit of a two volume set is that very economy of content discussed above. A two volume set provides a distinct overview by a collection of Biblical scholars offering invaluable context and broad stroke directions the reader can go in. This is good in the sense that a very detailed 66 volume series on the Bible does not leave a lot of room for the reader to bring their own prayerful, contextually based interpretation to the text.

Clean white pages and a clear, black, easy to read Times New Roman font (with bold Arial headings) and a simple, uncomplicated layout characterize both volumes.

A thorough Table of Contents, list of contributors, and abbreviations section are also included as one would expect.

Notice anything missing?

There is no index.

Now maybe I am being a tad nit picky but a thorough index is a must for ease of research and reading from my perspective and the lack of one in FCOTB is annoying although certainly not a deal-breaker by any stretch of the imagination. If the editors were considering an addition in the future by all means I hope an index is considered.

Contributors: An interesting facet to the Fortress Commentary on the Bible (FCOTB) is the diversity of perspectives and genders represented in the contributors and editors list. It is the 21st century after all and such things matter.

That being said all of the contributors without exception represent western academic institutions (though they are not all necessarily western in origin themselves) and so the reader must expect the commentary to come to them through the filter of western Christianity.

Despite this (which I see as a limitation) it is clear the contributors and editors strove to create a commentary which is aware of the changing face of global Christianity and the great and increasing divide between western Christianity and that Christianity which can be said to represent the Global South (South and Central America, India, Africa, Asia and the Pacific nations).

The article at the beginning of the NT volume by Kwok Pui-lan entitled Reading the Christian New Testament in the Contemporary World is worth the entire purchase price of the series ($120 USD) as she deftly weaves a wondrous overview for the reader in consideration of varying perspectives, contexts and issues of ethnicity, gender and sexuality while being careful not to draw any absolute conclusions.

Content: Beyond Kwok Pui-lan there is actually quite a number of fantastic articles that preface the commentaries as well as sections within the commentaries. The articles are all focused on context, which is important; context of the testament, the books within, the impact of our varying and complex histories on how we read and receive the books and letters of the Bible and more.

A commendable attribute of the FCOTB is the inclusion of the apocrypha. These 17 books and one additional Psalm were and continue to be a significant part of Biblical history.

Those of us that sit on the Protestant side of the second great schism of Christianity known as the Reformation may have forgotten these texts but they remain a significant source of teaching for the larger portion of Christianity within Catholicism and other traditions and we should remember that, even as Protestants, they were a part of our history for the first 1,500 years of our tradition.

The books – each book starts with an introduction which discusses the overall content, context, and direction of the text. Following the intro significant sections have their own brief introductions followed by the expected in depth look at the chapters and verses. Each of these detailed sections are broken into the following categories:

– The Text In Its Ancient Context (How was it received by the original recipients)
– The Text In The Interpretive Tradition (How has history shaped our understanding)
– The Text In Contemporary Discussion (How is the text being understood/used today)

First Impressions: Very good.

The commentaries are structured and laid out in excellent fashion with content that suggests a clear desire to engage a contemporary audience where they are at.

There is a distinct sense that the editors are striving to avoid drawing conclusions and simply offering accessible, modern scholarship to the reader in hopes they will find meaning on their own.

In some ways it seems as though the FCOTB seeks to respect history and context while unshackling the Biblical text from the latter with a view perhaps to the idea the the unchanging, Biblical truths move through a very fluid collection of contexts and histories and one cannot appreciate its truth if one is locked into historical absolutes.

Next Steps: Part 2 of the review will focus on specific content. How do the authors present and explain specific parts of the Bible?

In order to review this I will be looking at certain verses, chapters and books that seem of particular relevance today in the church’s contemporary discussions and stresses.

We will look at traditional foundational verses such as John 3:16, the Beatitudes in Matthew, Psalm 23 and the creation narratives of Genesis for example.

We will also look at some more thorny verses in relation to the current discussions surrounding marriage, divorce, gender and sexuality. We will look into Leviticus, 1 Corinthians, Romans, Christ’s discourse on divorce and marriage, among other areas (feel free to message me suggestions).


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