One of the most fascinating aspects of Orthodox life is coming to know the Scriptures according to the Fathers. The patristic interpretation, handed down by the apostles, is a never-ending source of wonder, combining simplicity and depth in surprising ways.
While the prayers of the church services provide a great wealth of Scriptural exegesis, patristic commentaries are indispensable for home Bible reading. Four readily-available New Testament commentary sets in English are those of St. John Chrysostom (+ 407), Blessed Theophylact of Ochrid (+ 1085), and Blessed Theodoret of Cyrus (+ 458), and the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series published by InterVarsity Press.
St. John’s, detailed commentaries were written first and contain much that is foundational. Later commentators universally drew on his works. The fact that his homilies have been in print for 1600 years is an indication that they touch on eternal truths in a way that Christian bestsellers and academic marvels do not. His commentaries are found in the Ante-Nicene, Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers series from Hendrickson Press and originally published more than a century ago.
Most of St. John’s commentaries are in the form of homilies he preached. He usually addresses one topic from the passage at length and comments on others more briefly”some quite briefly. Finding his analysis of a particular verse may take a bit of time as the Scripture verses are not placed in italics or bold print in the available translations. The translators of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (PNF) edition uses archaic language, which may present difficulties for some readers. Some of his commentaries have been published more recently by the Catholic University Press in the Fathers of the Church series, and these do not use archaic language.
St. John Chrysostom’s sermons are eloquent, pointed and edifying. One simply can’t read them without being uplifted and touched by grace; it is all too easy to become addicted to them (as I myself have). Their appeal extends to non-Orthodox; some of the NPNF homilies were edited by the president of a Southern Baptist seminary in the late 1800′s, who praises them to the heavens.
The picture St. John paints of life in 5th century Constantinople and Antioch is fascinating. Wealthy people had fish tanks and pampered pets; theatrical productions preyed on the passions; irreverent people conversed in line at the Hagia Sophia, and everyone was into sports and music. Chariot-fans could describe the strengths and weaknesses of horses on a chariot team the way we might be able to describe the strengths and weaknesses of a football team’s offensive linemen.
Â One of of St. John’s great contributions is his careful definition of Biblical terms, which are so often misanalyzed in modern study aids. With the original Greek texts easily obtainable online, these homilies are a goldmine for those learning Biblical/patristic Greek. This habit (followed by later Orthodox commentators) preserved the NT terminology for succeeding generations. It’s all too unfortunate that the Latin church lost these definitions!
Chrysostom (literally “Golden Mouth”) was so called appropriately; he was the greatest student of the greatest Greek orator of the age (Libanius), and his eloquence even comes through in translation. Ironically, academicians, being what they are, tend to criticize both his theology, and his Greek! One is well-advised to spurn footnotes when reading him.
Â St. John did not comment, on the Gospels of Luke or Mark. The epistles of James, Peter, the epistles of Jude and Revelation were not yet accepted as canonical in the school of Antioch, and so they are absent from his works.
St. John’s commentaries are available for free online (along with the Greek version); and hardcover volumes of the NPNF are inexpensive; St. Seraphim Bookstore often has various volumes for $10!
The Explanations of Blessed Theophylact are written verse by verse–not sermons–and are much more concise than St. John’s. Unfortunately, only the four Gospels have been translated to date. Theophylact drew heavily on St. John Chrysostom, but he incorporated the teaching of later fathers as well. This is particularly notable in his inclusion of allegorical analyses of passages, which are absent in Chrysostom. (Antiochian exegesis did not make us of allegory at that time.)
These volumes are laid out quite nicely; the verses from Scripture are in bold print, so it is easy to find a given verse.
It should be noted that Theophylact continues St. John’s practice of defining Biblical terms. The footnotes in the English editions, unlike those of Chrysostom and Theodoret, preserve the spirit of the text, are quite nicely done and informative. These slender volumes cannot be praised too highly.
St. Theodoret of Cyrus wrote Commentaries on the Letters of Paul, which have been translated and published in a two-volume set by Holy Cross Press. One of Theodoret”s aims was to write concise commentaries; he refers to himself in relation to other commentators as a “mosquito among the bees.”
These works are quite profound, however, in spite of their brevity.
Â Theodoret summarizes many of Chrysostom’s comments; but he also presents other views.(Scripture, we must recall, are infinite in depth, filled with the divine energies, and analysis of it can never be exhausted or completed by any Father or Fathers.) He occasionally defines terms, as St. John does; but his definitions, given his aim of brevity, are more infrequent and less detailed than those of Chrysostom. Theodoret belonged to the exegetical school of Antioch, as did St. John, and does not include allegorical interpretations. The layout of this edition is user-friendly. The Bible verses are set off in italics and numbered clearly. The big drawback is that the translator is prone to introducing politically-correct novelties, un-Orthodox views and private interpretations in his footnotes. His criticisms of Theodoret, written in the ostensibly-objective-omniscient voice of the modern academician, could skew the views of an unwary reader.Â Skip the footnotes! Given that caveat, Blessed Theodoret’s commentaries complement those of Chrysostom nicely, and will be of incalculable aid to those struggling to grasp the ineffable holiness of the apostolic writings. The cost of two paper-bound volumes is modest, under $40.
InterVarsity Press’s Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture is a bit different from the commentaries above in that it is a collection of early commentaries on Biblical texts. The point that cannot be made too emphatically is that this set, glamorous as it may be, published by a quintessentially Protestant publisher in an attractive hardcover format, presents the commentaries of heretics alongside those of the Fathers, without clearly distinguishing them! Its title Ancient Christian Commentary is a misnomer, unless one lumps the likes of Arius, Pelagius and Marcion in with Christianity. Also, the Old Testament books outside the Hebrew canon are labeled Apocryphal and only allotted one volume. For those possessing the ability to identify heretical texts, the series has significant value. The excerpts are brief –not every verse is dealt with–and the books do not include Fathers past the 8th century; but each book of Scripture is covered. Passages from Fathers that are not readily available (or scattered thoughout various writings) can be found here. The series is a real boon for those engaged in serious in-depth study. The set is also available on CD, which saves space.
I might add that reading a commentary-collection like this one isn’t really the same as walking through a book of the Bible with a Father. One misses the sort of spiritual bond that develops with the author; and the main points and shape of the commentary are lost.
I would recommend Chrysostom, Theophylact and Theodoret to everyone interested in learning the Scriptures; though with Chrysostom online now, it isn’t necessary to actually have him on the shelf. For those interested in in-depth devotional commentary St. John can’t be beat; for a more rapid pace the latter are worth their weight in gold.
The Ancient Christian Commentary set is a nice aid for those who are already acquainted with patristic exegesis and have a specific area of interest. I would not recommend it as a starter commentary.