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!