Last year, the complete Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture (a 17-volume commentary on the New Testament) was available for 50% off the list price in late January. After debating with myself on such a large purchase and asking for advice from readers who have experience with it, I decided to go for it. I’ve been working my way through St. Paul’s letters over the last several months, reading the commentary volumes on First and Second Corinthians, Galatians, and now First and Second Thessalonians.

Overall, these books are a good resource. I’m learning a lot from them, but I am finding the reading to be tedious at times. I think their design is more suitable for classes and small-group bible studies than individual reading, and their verse-by-verse nature makes reading more arduous than a commentary that is more focused on broader themes like the Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible.

The style of commentary is very consistent from one volume to the next, in spite of the fact that most volumes were written by separate authors. Each volume begins with a brief overview of the history behind the New Testament book which will be examined. The rest of the volume is dedicated to dissecting the biblical writing a few verses at a time, delving into historical details, word studies of relevant Greek terms, information bars with quotes from the early Church fathers, and importantly, application and reflection sections for each segment of a few verses.

As I see it, there are a few basic strengths of this approach. The verse-by-verse commentary makes it possible to pull a volume off the shelf and quickly find commentary related to a daily Mass reading, for example, without having to read a thematic commentary on the entire biblical book. It also breaks each biblical book into bite-sized pieces that lend themselves to a parish Bible study. A lay leader could organize a study group to meet over a series of weeks and work through a book of the New Testament piece-by-piece with one of these volumes serving as the textbook. The application and reflection sections are perfect to spur discussion in study groups on how a passage is relevant to living the Christian life.

Another virtue of the commentary is its focus on integrating historical and grammatical insights with the theology and practice of the Church. Many study bibles focus on historical and grammatical information to the exclusion of later theology and practice, and the result is a jarring difference between the ways of thinking, speaking and acting of people who lived 2000+ years ago and our current lives. These commentaries actively bridge the gap between historical-critical study and theological and pastoral reflection. In that sense, they are working in the tradition of Pope Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth series, which actively focused on integrating the historical-critical insights about Jesus with the Christian faith.

The features I just outlined can simultaneously be drawbacks, though, depending on what a reader is looking for in a commentary. For personal study, I prefer thematic commentary that encourages me to read longer sections of a biblical book and then delve into the themes and history to understand the context and meaning better. As I’ve been reading the Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture, I often find myself “missing the forest for the trees.” I become disconnected from the flow of the letter I’m studying. Every so often, I put the commentary down and re-read a few chapters of the letter to re-familiarize myself with the flow of thought Paul is trying to convey. To their credit, the commentary authors make a strong attempt to remind readers of broader themes throughout the verse-by-verse analysis, but despite their best efforts, I still find myself losing Paul’s original train of thought and going back to the Bible to read longer sections uninterrupted.

The authors’ excellent efforts at bridging the gap between history and modern life also leave me conflicted at times. At its best, the commentary gives me a new insight about how a passage relates to later theological tradition and to modern Christian living. Other times, I find myself wanting more historical focus and feeling like the original import of Paul’s words is not as center-stage as I would like.

In closing, this commentary series is undoubtedly useful for the Church. It would be a great resource for parish Bible studies or formal classes in high school or college. For anyone who finds historical-critical study resources to be too dry, speculative, or skeptical, these commentaries strike a better balance between history, theology, and Christian living that might be more fruitful. On the other hand, if you prefer a commentary that encourages reading longer sections of the Bible at a time and focuses on broader themes, this commentary was not designed to fill that need.

33 thoughts on “Reflecting on the Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture”

  1. How does this compare to the WoF Bible, in regard to the style of the commentary? Is the WoF Bible commentary closer to the “thematic commentary” that you prefer for personal study?

    (Not trying to start a WoF flame war; just asking about the styles of the respective commentaries.)

    1. I’m “holding my tongue” to avoid “flaming” (regarding the Bishop Barron Bible…which, it seems, might not be completed until 2031).
      There is a marked difference between the BBB and the CCSS.
      The BBB is filled with brevity. Quotes from saints and Church people throughout the centuries are inserted. Some from works which regard the section of Scripture. Some not. Barron’s commentary is like a section of a homily. Morsels are given. There are, however, some wonderful brief commentaries on the images of Christian art included amidst the text.
      The CCSS offers more. Not the depth of many other commentaries, but more lengthy consideration of the scriptural text. Thus, the CCSS is far more aptly named a commentary than the snippets offered in the BBB (Gospels, only).
      Remember that the BBB is not touted as a “commentary” or “study” Bible (Gospels). It is intended for first-time Bible readers who have no (or very little) relationship with Jesus. It’s an evangelical tool. This is what Word on Fire touts it to be. A recent mailing requests donations for a further edition which is to include the remainder of the NT, (with the hope of a publication date in early to mid 2022).

    2. I agree with James’ comments. Much of the Word on Fire Bible’s commentary reads like a homily, which makes sense because a large percentage of the commentary consists of excerpts from Bishop Barron’s homilies. The WoF Bible is definitely more thematic than the Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture (CCSS), and it also leans heavily toward philosophical reflection on the text and applying the insight to modern life.

      Both styles provide a lot of useful information. I’d say that the Word on Fire Bible might be easier to read for a longer period, while the verse-by-verse analysis of the CCSS can become more tiring and cause me to “lose the forest for the trees” in spite of the best efforts of the commentary authors.

  2. “An important advance in Catholic biblical scholarship in the past 50 years has been the attitude of the Church toward Protestant scholars. In the 1953 English Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture a cautionary asterisk marked out the names of Protestant scholars. For the second edition Wansbrough persuaded the editors to remove this warning, arguing that Catholic readers were adult enough to make their own assessment in the joint enterprise of the search for biblical truth. “We can learn from one another,” he insists.”
    https://aleteia.org/2014/06/03/one-of-the-most-important-catholic-biblical-scholars-youve-never-heard-of/2/

  3. Steve, I’d say the Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture series operates more at an academic level, whereas the WoF Bible is more focused on mining the spiritual sense of the Scripture, utilizing commentary by the Church Fathers, various men and women throughout the centuries, and, of course, an abundance of Bishop Barron’s commentary. I find both the CCSS and the WoF useful for different purposes, but there is a certain complementarity to them, as well. The WoF bible is marketed as a great introduction to the newcomer, though I think it’s beneficial to even someone who has been reading the Bible for years. The CCSS series would probably be more appealing to someone who has spent a significant time in the scriptures, or even a newcomer who has a passion for study and wants to go deep. I think they’re both excellent resources with two different approaches.

    1. If so, perhaps they will other adaptions more fitting for a Catholic interpretation and publish those as well in a bible?

    2. Good grief. Wish they’d just leave the ESV-CE as is. It’s fine. No need to water it down with modernist “inclusive language.” Barf.

      1. They are changing the text for inclusive for mass only. The ESV CE won’t be becoming inclusive. They are using it in India without inclusive lang.

    3. Caveat: I’m no fan, admirer, proponent or desirer of “non-inclusive” texts.

      From the article noted by CatusDei: “The Archbishop of Cardiff, George Stack, chair of the Department of Christian Life and Worship, told The Tablet: “We can’t change the language of the Bible, but we can adapt it so that it speaks powerfully to people in this age.”

      It would appear the good archbishop might be a fanciful master of “doublespeak”.

  4. Regarding the ESV adaptions: I believe inclusive language adaptions are appropriate as long as they don’t obscure the text or are unfaithful to it, which is a tricky balance. As an example, the NRSV succeeds brilliantly in some places and fails miserably in others.

    The U.S. lectionary uses inclusive adaptions, such as turning “brothers” into “brothers and sisters” in the opening lines of epistles. To my mind, it’s perfectly acceptable in this context, because it acknowledges the author’s intended audience. To my mind, it makes the translation a more accurate rendering, in fact, than it would be if strictly translated literally.

    I must admit, however, that I found the archbishop’s words amusing and thought, too, that they came off as “doublespeak.”

    1. “Inclusive language” is premised on the idea that Scripture should “get with the times.” Neither Scripture, nor the Church, should have anything to do with that. It’s one reason why Mass attendance has plunged since 1970. In addition, the Lectionary, unfortunately, puts into “brackets,” for non-reading, particularly tough parts of the Gospels, the parts where Christ reminds us that not everyone earns salvation.

      For example, in the Second Sunday of Lent, Year C, in the reading of Philippians 3:17 to 4:1, this part is omitted: ” For many, as I have often told you and now tell you even in tears, conduct themselves as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction. Their God is their stomach; their glory is in their ‘shame.’ Their minds are occupied with earthly things.”

      For the reading on the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, in the reading of the Gospel of St. Matthew, 13:24-33, this part is bracketed out, so as not to offend anyone. It’s actually Jesus’ explanation of the Parable of Weeds!

      “‘He who sows good seed is the Son of Man, the field is the world, the good seed the children of the kingdom. The weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels. Just as weeds are collected and burned [up] with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all who cause others to sin and all evildoers. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears ought to hear.'”

      1. As I see it, inclusive language is not necessarily in the same category as the lectionary options you mentioned. Inclusive language is a legitimate translation choice when it is used to convey the meaning of an ancient text in the words that are familiar to modern English speakers. When Paul addresses his congregations as “Brothers” or refers to an individual member of a local church as “a brother,” it’s legitimate to translate those as “Brothers and sisters” and “a brother or a sister” respectively because Paul’s meaning does not imply males exclusively in the way the English “brother” currently does.

        On the other hand, the bracketed sections of lectionary readings give lectors the option to omit sections of scripture to avoid controversy. This strikes me as ill-advised, although it’s worth pointing out that the entire lectionary is an exercise in selecting some sections of scripture to the exclusion of others.

        1. No, inclusive language is NEVER appropriate in the Bible, in fact, it’s a lie. The use of inclusive language in other Bible suggests that people living 2000 and more years ago had the same egalitarian ideas that we have the day, they did not. The world of the Bible was a patriarchal, heteronormative society. It was not a modern, feminist. egalitarian, politically correct society. The world of the Bible is not ‘woke’.

          To use inclusive language in the Bible is ultimately an attempt to make the gospel conform to our beliefs rather than conform ourselves to it. It is an attempt to rewrite history.

          George Orwell warned us about this saying ‘who controls the past, controls the future, who controls the present, controls the past.’

          George Orwell warned us about inclusive language, except he called it ‘Newspeak’, what is the purpose of Newspeak? It is obvious, when you control the
          the language people use, you control the thoughts people can think.

          Inclusive language is inherently totalitarian, in it are the seeds for the complete destruction of the Gospel.

          1. I associate “newspeak” with an attempt to use language in a dishonest way that manipulates or reframes emotional or moral judgments. One example is when totalitarian dictators describe their own unprovoked aggression as “defense.” In my opinion, some types of inclusive language fit into that category, but other types do not. There are grammatical differences between English and ancient languages that require translators to choose an imperfect rendering that captures the gist of the passage the best. In some cases, grammatical gender conventions can lead to an inaccurate connotation if they aren’t translated into a more common English equivalent.

            The example I gave above of Paul’s use of “brothers” is in that category, in my opinion. Paul was addressing the entire congregation. I think it’s entirely appropriate for an English translation to use “brothers and sisters” or “friends” or something similar to capture Paul’s meaning better.

            I would also observe that the patriarchal nature of the ancient Hebrew and Christian people still comes across without any doubt in translations like the NRSV, despite wide use of inclusive language. I certainly quibble with some of the choices the NRSV committee made, but overall it is still a very useful translation.

          2. Part of the problem, in my humble opinion, is that the “inclusive language” debate is really about a larger issue with modern English conventions, specifically about gender-neutral singular pronoun usage and gender-neutral noun-reference. In other words, can you use “he” as an anaphoric pronoun for “a person”? For example: “If a person wants to cross the road without jaywalking, he needs to press the crosswalk button.”

            One solution is the “he or she.” This gets awkward rather quickly, especially in longer sentences with many uses of the same pronoun. Another solution is “they,” but this leads to grammatical issues, and can cause confusions and unnecessary ambiguities.

            As an academic I’m acutely aware of this issue. The academic solution has, for the most part, been to just change the gender-neutral singular pronoun to “she.” So far as I can tell, only academics do this, and to me it smacks of politicization and insularity, and is distracting.

            Now, I have definite opinions on this matter — in favor of the “traditionalist” position of using “he.” But my point is that it seems the whole Biblical inclusive language debate is really just a specific instance of this broader English language debate. Can “brethren” and “man” and “sons” be understood gender-neutrally in English? Arguably they can be and have been understood this way for centuries, along with the gender-neutral “he.” But I can see the other side arguing that, in our day, these phrasings are too uncommon and therefore confusing to the average reader, and so I don’t think disagreement with the “traditionalist” view on this matter is necessarily driven by a wicked ideology — though, of course, it can be, and lamentably sometimes has been. But it also can be motivated simply by a view of what is now, for better or worse, the reality in standard modern English.

            We also have to ask to what extent this war over the English language is already lost — or, to put it less dramatically, to what extent English conventions of proper grammar have inexorably changed. I fear it may be a done deal at this point. (Although let’s be honest — do you really think most people would have trouble understanding the ESV, as-is? If so, why does it sell so well? [Maybe the answer is that the people who buy the ESV, i.e., evangelical Protestants, already are more familiar with the Bible than the average Catholic in the pew, and are used to non-inclusive language and won’t get tripped up by it. Perhaps sad but true! Not sure if that means we need the inclusive language though, or instead that people in the pews simply should be pushed a bit more.])

            Anyway, even if this debate isn’t completely over in the broader culture, we should ask whether making Roman Catholic Bible translations the final battleground is necessary or prudent. For these reasons, I can understand where the “inclusive language” crowd is coming from, even though, again, I personally would identify as an “ESV/RSV Catholic” rather than an “NRSV Catholic.”

            I will say that barring a return to tradition, I am most okay with “they” or, when possible, “one” as the gender-neutral singular pronoun, as well as modest modifications of phrasings/sentence structure/nouns by prudent editors. Unfortunately, inclusive language is more of an art than a science. As someone elsewhere pointed out with an example from the RNJB, it doesn’t always work out. This is one reason I prefer the traditional position with translations — you can more closely approximate the grammar of the originals, which often contains a lot of meaning. But I’ll admit inclusive language can be done reasonably well.

          3. There’s a lot of food for thought in your comment, Alfredo. Thanks for chiming in! I think you’re spot-on in your assessment that choosing “they” or “one” instead of the generic “he” is not necessarily driven by a bad ideology, but it certainly can be. I would be interested to know more in-depth about how the generic “he” fell out of favor. My impression (which could be overly simplistic) is that it was originally driven by activists and feminist theorists and became mainstream over time.

            Even if that is correct, the origin of the change doesn’t mean that the words themselves are pernicious. Languages change over time, and many speakers aren’t subscribing to the ideology that led to the change by using words in a conventional way. When I was a boy in elementary school, I remember being confused by the expression “Son of Man” (in reference to Jesus). To my young mind, those words meant that Jesus was literally born from a man (male) instead of a woman, and I was confused because I knew that Jesus was born of Mary. Only later did I realize that “Son of Man” meant “Son of a Human” or in other words “human.” I wasn’t exposed to much political-correctness growing up, so I think my childish perception was based on the fact that using “man” to refer to a generic human was already uncommon when I was growing up. I knew about that usage, and even used words like “mankind” or “man” to refer to “humanity,” but “Son of Man” still tripped me up.

          4. Thank you for your loyalty to the Faith “that comes to us from the Apostles.” I humbly agree (entirely) with what you have said. I am an older Catholic (ab incunabulis) who survived the madness of the post Vat.II era, by doggedly holding on to the Faith. I am so very pleased to know there are believers like yourself to carry on the torch of Holy Mother Church.
            Anyway, thanks, again, for saying what desperately needs to be said.

        2. In regards to Alfredo’s comments, the use of “he” as gender neutral is an innovation that came about in the 18th century. Prior to that, using “they” and “their” as a singular pronouns was quite common. Even in the King James Bible there are examples of this.

          When in need of a gender neutral pronoun, words like “they”, “their”, “one” are perfectly sufficient. There’s no need to use the word “he” or “his”.

          This video from Marriam-Webster helps explain it further:
          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d7k-20y5WKU

  5. The gender language in the original languages of sacred Scripture is there for a purpose. In certain places, it is masculine, and also inclusive, most importantly the creation of mankind, “Adam” as male and female (Genesis 1:27.) The creation of the male first, and his name being the inclusive of “male and female” is intentional. It shows that we are all created in the image of God, who reveals himself as “Father.”

    It is this Biblical use of gender terminology that is odious to the heretics of today who push gender theory and all of the sexual perversions that accompany it. Masculinity and femininity are spiritual principals as well as biological realities. We all have a masculine nature spiritually as we are created in the image of God. It is this very nature that we need to muster to “man up” against Satan and all the perversities that are hailed as virtues in today’s society. These things are lusting after men and women, cosplaying as the other biological gender, and sexualizing children. We as Christians need to man up and give a hard “NO” to all of this. Male and female, we have no reason to be ashamed to be called “Sons of God.” It is our inheritance, our share in the Kingdom of the Father.

    1. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God” (Matt. 5:9, King James Version).

      1. Great example, Michael.

        Translators were even conscious of context and intention way back in 1611.

        Finding the right balance is a worthy task for translators. Sometimes they get it right, sometimes not. Thankfully, we have many translation options to choose from.

      2. A great example of the inconsistency of the KJV. It uses the neuter when the Greek is masculine in Matthew 5:9, but uses the masculine when the Greek is neuter in John 1:12.
        “But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name:” John 1:12, KJV. Both instances were corrected in the Revised Version of 1885, and those corrected readings were carried over to the Revised Standard Version.

    2. In a very real sense, though, St. Paul teaches that gender has been relegated to a lower place of importance in Christ’s new creation (Galatians 3:28). There are many aspects of modern gender theory that are philosophically incoherent, but much of the theological speculation about the spiritual significance of gender strikes me as tenuous and lacking a firm theological foundation. I’m concerned about the risk of enshrining a worldly conception of gender with theological significance.

      1. This is exactly my point regarding the spiritual aspect of man, Mark. We are “no longer male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” It is the same Holy Spirit (in both male and female) that should lead the flesh into good works and paths of holiness.

        Our biological gender has not been regulated to a lower place in the New Covenant. It’s importance has been elevated as we are able to participate in the very life of the Trinity through our vocation. We can do this through singleness, marriage, priesthood, or religious life. Our biological gender matters, here, it is of utmost importance. We should embrace who God created us to be, and live out that life to the fullness of God’s calling in his Kingdom.

        1. I fully agree with you there, Jonny. Maybe it would be accurate to say that natural human notions of gender and worldly opinions have been shown to be empty (along with the rest of worldly wisdom) in light of Christ’s resurrection and redeeming grace (1 Cor 1:26-29). But at the same time, Christ’s resurrection also shows us that our physical bodies are an integral part of God’s plan for us. Our bodies aren’t prisons for our spirits, as some of the ancient philosophers thought, but God intended them to be an integral part of us.

  6. I enjoy reading this blog and thank the contributors. However, purely an observation: It is rare, if ever, have I seen a woman participate in any discussion on this blog. Is anyone aware in other Bible study blogs (this is the only Catholic one that I am familiar with) regarding women’s participation level?

    1. That’s a good observation. In my experience, guys tend more to splurge on certain things, such as sports cars, golf clubs, alcohol, firearms, and tobacco. Women probably read more, and spend more money on books overall. But guys tend to be more inclined to buy multiple bible translations, or the “latest” premium edition, e.g., goatskin, three ribbons, LPUT, single-column, line-matched, center-column reference Smyth-sewn, with Bp. Barron’s commentary, and so forth.

    2. On average men tend to be only slightly more interested in ideas and discussion than women. But if you look at the population who is hyper engaged in discussion of intellectual ideas, these are overwhelming men. And it is the hyper engaged who write blogs and tend to comment on them. So this is a reflection of personality (and people can debate how much is nurture vs nature) and most bloggers are male.

      While not a blog, a podcast called the Lord of Spirits (an Orthodox discussion of the Second Temple Judaism context of the Scriptures) has a disproportionate amount of woman involved in discussion of the Facebook Discussion page. The majority are still men, but I would estimate may be greater than 40 percent of the posts are via women. I don’t know why that is.

  7. Obviously a great commentary series. And just as obviously, way-beyond affordability for most of us.

  8. I have all of the books in this series and find them very worthwhile. They are comprehensive commentaries by noted academics and scholars, and contain maps, tables, and graphics. The value of the commentaries varies by author as one would expect. I recommend this New Testament commentary series.

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