I often refer to multiple study resources when I’m trying to understand a particularly difficult passage of scripture, and I occasionally find glaring contradictions between individual study bibles or commentaries. A great example of this arises with the parable of the dishonest steward in Luke 16:1-8. Here’s the NABRE’s translation:

Then he also said to his disciples, “A rich man had a steward who was reported to him for squandering his property. He summoned him and said, ‘What is this I hear about you? Prepare a full account of your stewardship, because you can no longer be my steward.’ The steward said to himself, ‘What shall I do, now that my master is taking the position of steward away from me? I am not strong enough to dig and I am ashamed to beg. I know what I shall do so that, when I am removed from the stewardship, they may welcome me into their homes.’ He called in his master’s debtors one by one. To the first he said, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He replied, ‘One hundred measures of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Here is your promissory note. Sit down and quickly write one for fifty.’ Then to another he said, ‘And you, how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘One hundred kors of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Here is your promissory note; write one for eighty.’ And the master commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently.

When I studied this passage a few years ago, I referred to the study notes in the New Jerusalem Bible (NJB). There, I found the following confident explanation:

It was the custom for a steward, or responsible servant, to take commission on all sales of his master’s goods; this was his only means of making a salary. In the present case the original loan was presumably fifty measures of oil and eighty measures of wheat. in reducing the debtors’ bills, he is not depriving his master of anything, but only sacrificing his own immediate interests by forgoing his legitimate commission. It is for this that he is praised as ‘astute’; any ‘dishonesty’ (v. 8) was in his earlier actions for which he is under notice.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I looked up the same passage in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary (NJBC) and read the following:

There is no evidence that the steward could pocket the interest as his commission; the steward’s job was to make money for his master.

And then, a few sentences later, when the NJBC comments on the explicit reference to the “dishonest steward” in verse 8, it says:

dishonest steward: This is not a simple repetition of what is implied in vv 1-2, but a reference to the dishonest conduct depicted in vv 5-7.

In other words, the dishonesty cannot be merely related to the steward’s former conduct, but also his most recent scheme to reduce the amounts owed by his master’s debtors. Thus, the New Jerome Biblical Commentary flatly contradicts everything stated in the study note from the New Jerusalem Bible. Both resources confidently assert their positions, not bothering to state that other experts disagree and not admitting that there is any uncertainty in these assertions. This strikes me as academically dubious.

Now, I realize that study notes need to be brief and concise. There is not enough room to flesh out all the disagreements in the scholarly literature in a brief note. But if a note is offering a speculative position, I would prefer that the authors explicitly say so. Consider how the New Oxford Annotated Bible, Fifth Edition (NOAB5) handles the same passage:

This enigmatic story ends at v. 8, with Jesus’s exposition in v. 9. The steward was dishonest in his squandering his master’s goods. His solution may not have been dishonest behavior if the manager was eliminating his own commission from the debtors’ bills. He shrewdly uses material goods to win their gratitude.

The note is concise, but it also manages to convey uncertainty about how to interpret the details. It doesn’t assert either the NJB or the NJBC’s interpretation as fact, but offers an open-ended suggestion. If only more study resources would do likewise!

3 thoughts on “Overconfidence in Study Bible Notes”

  1. Huh, I have never once heard the perspective that the New Jerusalem Bible represents. In fact, such an explanation seems to undercut what seems to be the most persuasive exegesis of this difficult parable: See the cutthroat urgency with which the dishonest steward is looking after his long-term interests? Why do we children of the light not take seriously the long-term interests of eternity? Just as a business man is cold and calculating and makes tough decisions that don’t please others, but are for the bottom line, we should be making decisions based on the reality of God’s Kingdom and God’s coming judgment without regard for appearances.

  2. I like the way you explained that, Bob. I suppose what trips up many readers (myself included) is the strange way in which a dishonest man is held up as an example for us to follow. The scholars writing the notes for the New Jerusalem Bible may have been trying to find a way around the awkward idea that Jesus is praising a conniving swindler. If the steward was foregoing his commission, then the awkwardness goes away somewhat. He’s sacrificing his own money for a greater reward.

    But then there’s the exceedingly strange explanation of the parable in Luke 16:8-13. In verse 9, Jesus makes the dumbfounding statement: “I tell you, make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.” It’s easy to wade into the thicket of details and become more and more confused.

    The first explanation of this parable that truly made sense to me came from N. T Wright in his book “Jesus and the Victory of God.” There, he lumps it together with other parables that relate to the coming of the kingdom. You can compare the parable of the dishonest steward to the parable of the wicked tenants in Mark 12:1-12. There, God leases the vineyard (the land, the covenant) to tenants (Israel and its rulers). In the same way, the dishonest steward (Israel and its rulers) was charged with managing his master’s property (the land and the covenant), but he squandered his stewardship. Now is the time of reckoning. The steward (Israel and its rulers) must act quickly, or he will perish. That’s the urgency of the coming of the kingdom and the new covenant that Jesus is announcing.

  3. Well, this particular parable is notorious for being perhaps the most difficult to understand parable on the entire New Testament. There are lots of different proposed interpretations, and I for one find none of them particularly convincing.

    I agree that even though a commentary cannot possibly exhaustively explain every nuance of the text nor give every possible interpretation, for a passage as difficult as this one it would probably be best if the authors at least acknowledged the difficulty, perhaps with a vague statement like ‘this is one of the more difficult passages of the New Testament and there is a lot of controversy over its proper interpretation, however, the authors of this commentary think that the most probable explanation is….’

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